Over on our companion site WROB, old friend and fellow traveler DJ Unknown has dropped us a gift. Mixed from original vinyl at one of his many secret bases, DJU takes a deep dive into the world of Bob Dylan. Expect rareties, surprises and an all-round mellow vibe that’s just the ticket for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The day always starts this way. I wake before my alarm buzzes on my wrist, and stumble half-blind to the bathroom. Sleepy as I am, I know to watch for a blurring shift in the darkness–a low, sleek shape that leaps out of the spare room and flings itself across the sill of the door. I click on the bathroom light and there she is, legs and belly in the air, paddling the air. I reach down to tickle the warm white fur on her tummy. This is the one time of the day when such liberties are permitted.
I have yet to tread or trip over her but it’s been a close-run thing sometimes, especially on dark winter mornings.
I often wonder if she’s trying to kill me. After my shower she’ll run in front of me as I head downstairs, either winding round my ankles or parking herself full-length on a step just below me. It’s all part of the process of hurrying me downstairs so she can get fed. Come on hooman, Millie wants grub. Keep up, don’t trip up.
You’d think she was half-starved. As I walk into the kitchen she’s already parked at the fridge, giving it a hard stare. If things are really desperate, she’ll resort to the dry food we always leave out for her. But as soon as the bowl of wet food goes down that’s forgotten about. She’ll actually let dry morsels drop out of her mouth as she head-butts the bowl.
Millicent Wickings. AKA Millie Moomin, Moomintroll, Trollface, Squirrel Pants, Squiggy-moo, Floofball, Fatbits and OH YOU HORROR. Provenance unknown, although I suspect there’s a fat chunk of Norwegian Forest Cat somewhere in her DNA. In the winter she develops a ruff that a Dutch merchant of the 1500s would be jealous of. In the spring she sheds it in knotted clumps and dreadlocks. She’s not a big unit by any means, but in cold weather her winter coat means she bulks up very pleasingly. I can never keep my hands off her, and I bear the scars as consequence.
Millie’s a tortie, with all the behavioural quirks that come with the multi-colours. Cute and sweet-natured one minute, a bug-eyed pouncing horror the next. She’s a hunter, regularly bringing in mice and occasional birds, which she’ll happily dismember in front of us. It’s a rare week where there isn’t a blob of half-chewed rodent at the bottom of the stairs or outside the bedroom door for when we wake. Yes, we get it, she’s just making sure we’re getting enough to eat, but couldn’t she bring in a pizza every once in a while?
I said provenance unknown. She’s a rescue, found on the pages of the Oxfordshire RSPCA. She was discovered in the Wendy house of a nursery school, along with a litter of kittens. The kits, wee scraps of ginger and black, were snapped up in moments. Poor mum, who had taken herself to scrag and bone to keep them alive, was ignored. She was, to be fair, a spiky presence, still wary, a survivor. A fighter.
We fell in love with her from first sight. It had been eighteen months since we’d put our beloved Bilbo in the ground, one of the more dreadful days of my life. It had taken us a while to recover. Eighteen quiet months. We tried to kid ourselves about how easy it was to go away without having to worry about how the resident would be fed. Neither of us believed it for a moment. A house without a cat is an empty place.
TLC took the lead, quietly starting to browse the rescue sites when she felt ready, showing me her favourites. Once she found Millie, staring with bold attitude from the screen, we both knew. One visit to the cattery sealed the deal. She’d already bulked up a bit in care, but the attitude was there in spades. Head rubs accepted one minute, punished with a murder-mitten swipe the next. Didn’t matter. She had us. We loaded her into the car and brought her home.
The vet recommended keeping her in one room for a few days to acclimatise. Millie was unimpressed with this. Within two hours she’d shunted the back room door open and gone for an explore. Incurably curious, sure of herself, ready for adventure and a little trouble. From day one we knew what we were getting.
She has mellowed over time. A bit. Millie does laps now, to the point where it can be a struggle to budge her if you need the loo. She has a way of stretching out full length then somehow twisting in the middle so her feet are the wrong way round. It gets me every time she does it.
She is the mistress of her domain, but surprisingly tolerant to other cats, as long as they don’t take the piss. Hers is hers, but she’ll share to an extent. She does, however, take great pleasure in winding up next door’s psychotic collie. If he’s locked in she will prance around by their front window, making damn sure he’s clocked her. He will howl and bellow as if the world is ending. If he could break through that window he would, I’m certain.
She remains herself, however much she’s changed. Equal parts lovable and infuriating, our little sweetheart monster. She will wake us up by nibbling on our toes, or spoil a romantic night in by dragging in a mouse at just the wrong moment. And then she will curl up on your lap, fix those big eyes on you and rev up her purr-motor, and we’re lost. It’s Millie’s world, and we’re lucky to be a part of it.
I’m not really awake, but drifting in and out of consciousness. I’ve been in this state since probably half-four, perhaps a little earlier if old-man bladder hasn’t already forced me into a stumble to the loo. The alarm is set for 05:30, and as ever, I promise that I’ll stay in bed until it goes off.
Inevitably, I break that promise. I’m too awake to stay put now, so I zombie-walk into the shower. Thirty seconds after leaving the sweet embrace of the duvet, I’m upright and wet.
The alarm goes off. It’s a cheap Chinese activity tracker with a vibrate built in. It’s showerproof, but the touch-sensitive surface doesn’t react well to the pummelling of the shower head, and I can’t switch it off. Doesn’t matter, I’m awake now. I let the device burr at me and get soapy.
Dryish, dressed-ish. I’m often accused of looking like I dressed in the dark and well, that ain’t so far off the truth. I work in a place where contact with clients is minimal. Frankly as long as I turn up with a pair of jeans and a top on, no-one could care less.
Downstairs, harried all the way by Millie the cat, who has been dogging my heels since I hit the shower. In the dark it’s sometimes hard to see her and she has a habit of flinging herself full-length at the bathroom door, or twining around my ankles while I’m trying to negotiate the stairs. I swear, one of us will end up dead because of her antics.
Kettle on. Now for tea. I’m a coffee fiend at work, but the world doesn’t look right if I don’t start things off with a cuppa. Nothing fancy. PG in a mug, splash of cow-juice. While the brew stews I dole some wet food into Millie’s bowl. She goes in headfirst, slurping at the moggy-chow like she’s half-starved. Which, I can assure you, she is not.
A bit of quiet time. If I’m feeling virtuous, I’ll get a bit of writing done. This is a good time to work–with brain half-engaged some interesting things usually hit the page. In the depths of winter, though, inspiration can be tough to dredge up. It’s more likely that the newsfeeds and Twitter get a once-over while the tea gradually gets my cogs spinning.
The kettle goes back on. Tea for TLC. If I time it right, delivery of said hot beverage coincides with her phone alarm going off. I swipe it to snooze for her, and plant a kiss. She mumbles a sweetness back at me. She’ll be in the shower by the time I leave, so this is the only contact we have until the evening. We never skip this bit of the morning ritual. It would be honestly unthinkable.
A little more reading, perhaps give Millie a fuss if she’s in the mood. My eyes keep drifting back to the clock. My brain is beginning to turn over now, filling with the cruft of the work day ahead. Tasks to do, excuses and apologies to make. Crisis avoidance strategies. You know, the usual.
Boots on. The inevitable patting of pockets. Wallet, work-pass, phone, keys. Check checky check-check. Over time, my everyday carry has been stripped back to these essentials. Potentially, everything I need for a working day could go in a single pocket of my jeans. Less to think about means less to worry about.
I crack the airlock and step outside. It’s cold, dark and quiet. I wake the car with a click of the fob and slide into the driver’s seat. I slot the key and turn the car to power. My OnePlus gets plugged into a flying charge lead, and music starts. Either a Spotify playlist streamed from the phone (modern psychedelia, classic funk, maybe some Americana or rockabilly. No podcasts, no radio, no voices that aren’t singing) or a random pick from the USB stick hooked into the stereo. I sit, just for a second, and let the tunes wash over me. I breathe in, deeply, hold it for a count of five, let it out again. Then I turn the key one last click.
Six years in the making. The agony of deciding on a cover, on running order, on typography. What to put in. What to leave out. Over the past fortnight I’ve held a trembling cursor over the publishing button on more than one occasion, only to withdraw at the last moment.
I am blessed to be within walking distance of two of Britain’s Greatest Food Retailers, at the brow and foot of Donkin Hill in Caversham, which I refer to as Top and Bottom Coop. They’re very good on local and seasonal produce. Which is why, for the last few weeks, I have been coming home from the weekend top-up shop with bags of peas. Actual unshelled peas in pods.
Now. The humble frozen pea is, of course, a thing of simple delight that has a place in any time-conscious, thrift-aware chef’s repertoire. Simply presented alongside a shepherd’s pie. Folded into a pea and paneer curry. As part of a prawn-heavy paella (oh the pink against the green, I swoon into a Nigel Slater-style wafting fit at the joy of it all).
HOWEVS. Peas that you have podded yourself are a different prospect. The simple, mindful meditative state that comes from eviscerating the crisp crysalids is not an activity conducive to the mid-week supper grind. This is weekend activity. Ideally, it needs a big kitchen table, small children and a grandma to hand, sunlight streaming in through high kitchen windows.
I have none of those. Well, no, I have a grandma. She’s in her nineties, knotted with arthritis. If I showed her a pea pod, she’d spit in my eye. So I pod my peas in the front room, where the light is better. Up until this year, I can’t remember the last time I unzipped a pea pod. A simple process. Two bowls needed. Tug from the root end, taking off the stringy bit. The pod pops open with a pleasingly juicy snap. One skilful swipe with the thumb sends a spoonful of peas into one bowl. Another flick and the pods go into the other. Continue as required. The odd escapee will ping away under the sofa. Oh well.
A glass of wine and some loud rock and roll help the process along no end.
There’s a lot of waste with fresh peas. The pods take up twice as much volume as the precious legumes. These are, of course, eminently compostable, or you can simmer and blitz them to make a peapod purée that works remarkably well as a simple, delicate pasta sauce. Sieve well. No stringy bits needed here.
Growing peas always felt like a ball ache to me, but I’m very happy to give up a quiet portion of my weekend to the separation of a fresh bagful of English peas, and the contemplation of what to do with them afterwards.
If nothing else, my hands smell delicious afterwards. That’s a scent some enterprising perfumery should bottle.
Allendale is a pretty little village in the heart of the North Pennines, barely a spit and a whistle from the Scottish border. There’s history here–it was once a key centre of Northumbria’s lead-mining industry, and workings are scattered across the wildly lovely landscape. Continue reading The Allendalek
This morning, I went for a swim. TLC and I were on a weekend away at a posh hotel, and she urged me to give the spa facilities a go. Twenty leisurely lengths of the pool and a dose of sauna heat and steam room sweat opened up my pores and left me achy but glowing.
At one point I shared the steam room with a Spanish guy in budgie-smugglers. We exchanged a friendly nod, and that was it. A simple, normal moment of small luxury.
It had been at least fifteen years since I had been able to walk into a pool or spa area with any hint of confidence. Even a year ago, the Spanish gentleman would have looked at me with a mix of horror and disgust, and probably walked right back out of the steam room.
(TW: The following contains graphic descriptions of medical symptoms).