My wig and other stories

This morning, I read Julia Harrison’s piece “Story telling” from her always-thoughtful Silver Locket blog.  It immediately brought to mind some stories my son and I shared when he was little.

He was four years old when I lost my hair as a result of chemotherapy.  Someone had advised me early on to get a wig sorted out while I still had my real hair, so it would be the best possible match.  I called a friend I hadn’t seen for ages and we had a bizarre but hilarious day in Notting Hill, choosing me a wig then heading off for a late lunch.  I can’t recall the name of the restaurant but its distinguishing feature was that when we ordered house wine, it came in an already-opened bottle, marked to show how much it still contained.  We were charged for what we drank, presumably in centimetres, although it was all a little bit fuzzy by that point in the afternoon.

My wig really was an excellent match for my real hair but my son was disconcerted by my new appearance.  As far as he was concerned, there was little to choose between my bald head and my wig.  Both were repellent.  I felt pretty much the same but I wanted to make him feel more comfortable.  I tried to make him laugh by imagining what would happen if I was walking along one day and my wig blew away.  Very soon, we had made up a story which culminated in my wig blowing into a lift as we chased it.  Inevitably, the doors closed and we were left scrambling up the stairs to keep up with it.  There was no obvious conclusion in which the wig and I lived happily ever after, or my hair grew back and the wig retired (although both are currently the case) but that wasn’t important.  The story had served its purpose in making the wig something we could joke about and a part of our family story.  My son got used to my new appearance, telling me that my head looked like a boiled egg.  I never really got used to it but I came to terms with it and now, my hair looks just as it did before.

The other tale that we all still remember is the story of Horace the Rook.  I invented it while we were staying with my parents in Devon.  Just beyond the boundary of their garden is a tall tree, which we could see from our bedroom window.  I noticed that there were often rooks perched there, sometimes in groups but more often, just one, and I made up a story.  The hero was a rook called Horace, who lived in the tree with Mrs Rook and all the baby rooks.  Every day, Horace would fly off to the beach (in reality, just 10 minutes’ walk for us) to forage for food.  One day, he found something wonderful and brought it back as a gift for my son, who, of course, also featured in the story.  I had to tell it every evening at bedtime, not just while we were in Devon but often also back at home, for many years.  Despite regular “nudges” from my husband, I have never written it down, although it is still clear in my mind.  If you want to know what happens, you will have to wait and see….

Painted eggs

Some time in the last forty years, my family started a new tradition.  Every Easter, we hard-boil and decorate eggs, then roll them down a steep hill, heading towards the sea.  We didn’t invent it; people have been decorating eggs and chasing them down hills at Easter for a very long time.  It was new, though, in the village to which we had recently moved.  It hasn’t caught on.  Local dog-walkers and holiday-makers are still amused (and sometimes puzzled) to see three young cousins, their parents and their grandparents hurling eggs down the hill and running after them.

We roll the eggs in a field that slopes down towards a Norman church, beyond which is the beach and the sea.  It is steep enough for the eggs (and those chasing them) to build up a bit of momentum but not enough to be dangerous.  If you want a really hazardous food-rolling tradition, look up the annual cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire.  So far, no-one has been injured during our annual egg rolling.

That doesn’t mean it is free from tension.  First comes the anxiety over how many of the eggs will crack as they are boiled.  Then the search for inspiration and sometimes the tyranny of the unpainted egg.  The children add their own layer of volatility, occasionally frustrated at the gap between their imaginative visions and their ability to translate them into ink or paint on an egg.  I am well acquainted with that feeling but have reached an accommodation with it, usually sticking to geometric patterns or cartoonish images.  Even once the decorating is done, dangers remain.  Paint can be smudged and eggs can be dropped.  It often feels as though we are “walking on egg-shells”.

My 2019 egg – stained glass

Once we get our eggs safely to the field, none of that matters.  They are thrown, rolled and bounced down the hill until they break, at which point they are usually eaten.  I don’t have many pictures of eggs from the past, although I intend to ask around the family and collect some more for next year. Occasionally, an egg survives several trips down the hill and is kept as a trophy.  I accidentally broke my 2018 egg a day or so ago.  I had planned to photograph it but it had somehow stuck in the egg-cup and shattered as I tried to pull it out.  I still have my 2017 egg, slightly grubby from its three years in our dusty old cottage.  The design reflects a slightly dark time in my life.  A cartoon sea monster swims under a stormy sky.  But just behind it, the sun peeps out from behind a cloud, as it did in real life.

This year has been different.  We are all in our own homes.  We have decorated our eggs but since they are now rather scarce, they will all be eaten.  For the first time, my husband blew our eggs and scrambled the contents, so we decorated empty shells and I felt I was decorating something even more fragile than usual.  I used paint to evoke the colours I have been enjoying in my garden this month and experimented by sticking forget-me-not flowers to the shell with egg-white.  This morning, we all displayed our eggs on our first ever family Zoom call.  Next year, by the sea again.

My husband’s picture of our house….
…with the house behind it.

As I was photographing this year’s eggs, I brought out some interesting egg cups.  The blue and white Cornishware ones are my husband’s favourite.  The Number 15 bus belongs to my son.  My husband found the lion at his mum’s house and the delightful rabbit whistle in a charity shop.  The whistle works well, although I can’t help wondering how many eggs have been tipped out of it by its young owners.  It also has an amusingly blunt “FOREIGN” stamp on its base, presumably from a time when anywhere not England was simply “foreign”.  From a similar period is my Robertson’s egg cup.  I love its proportions and the picture of the shop but it is so much “of its time” that I don’t feel able to display all of it.  The modern Smarties egg cup holds a ceramic decoy egg.  My dad once used a similar one to catch me with an April Fool.

Many words for egg

The jewelled egg-cosies came from the 2003 Gothic exhibition at the V&A.  They seemed an extravagant purchase at the time but have been in regular use ever since.  My son and my husband often round off breakfast with a puppet-show exchange between The King and The Bishop.

Grandma cake

This is the cake that sustains me in times of adversity.  It isn’t fancy and it doesn’t demand artistry.  It is easy to make.  You rub together butter and flour, stir in sugar and dried fruit, then bind together with eggs and a little milk.  Scoop it into a buttered tin, bake in a medium oven and your kitchen will be filled with the comforting aroma of sugar and love.

I have been eating this cake in one form or another most of my life.  I first tasted it as rock-cakes, made by my maternal grandmother, Maggie.  Before I started school, my mum would take me on two buses every Wednesday, to visit my Grandma and Grandad.  In my memory, we always ate the same meal: meat pie from Marks & Spencer, soft, sweet tinned peas and carrots (a sort of treat, because we only had fresh carrots and frozen peas at home) and Grandma’s rock-cakes.

When Maggie died, my grandad Jim started making rock-cakes.  Looking back, I find that quite surprising.  He never seemed to be the sort of man to think of providing treats or luxuries.  I did often hear him mutter “Oh dear, Maggie…” under his breath, so perhaps the rock-cakes were a way of keeping her around.  Whatever the reason, we all enjoyed eating them.

At the end of the 1970s, my parents, my brother and I moved 250 miles away, so we saw Jim much less frequently.  My mum must have started making this cake round about then.  During the “high fibre” 1980s, she experimented with a wholemeal version.  It was nice in its way and made us feel virtuous but it couldn’t match the soft, sweet comfort of the original.

During my university years and my early adult life, the cake faded into the background.  It came back to me in 2001.  When my husband was in hospital with leukaemia, my mum regularly made it and sent it me.  When I got home at midnight, after sitting with him, nothing was more comforting than a large slice of this delicious cake.  My husband had practically no immune system, so on one occasion, my mum made a cake with scrupulously sterilised equipment and the freshest ingredients and sent it, double-wrapped, so he could enjoy at the least the first piece with me. 

When my son was born in 2007, my parents visited often, always bringing this cake.  My mum was now “Grandma” and the cake became “Grandma cake”.  This cake was my son’s first taste of real sugar.

Our lives were turned upside down in 2011.  In the same week that we left London and moved to a rural village, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Throughout my 9 months of treatment and recovery, my parents were there with support and, of course, Grandma cake. 

In difficult times, this cake gives us love, energy and emotional scaffolding.  This week, even with flour, eggs and butter in short supply, I felt the need to make it myself and we have all been very glad of it.

The recipe comes from the Be-Ro cookbook.  It was first published in 1923, three years before Maggie and Jim were married.  My mum still has her 1960s copy and I have my own copy, now in its 40th edition.  I would have loved to include a picture of my mum’s copy, which is well-used and now lacks its front cover.  Sadly, it is 260 miles away and while my dad has both a digital camera and access to email, he lacks the ability to put the two together.

Four generations of my family have made this cake: my grandparents, my mum, me and now, my 12 year old son.  This week, I found a series of images of pages from the 1923 edition.  In the editions my mum and I have, this cake is simply “fruit cake”.  To my delight, I discovered that in the 1923 edition, it is called “Family cake”.  Whoever wrote that recipe knew what they were talking about.