This morning marked the beginning of this year’s high school exam scrutineering. It’s my third year, and probably my last for a while.
Every year I go into it with good intentions - the work basically being a three-hour leisurely stroll, I figure I can use the time profitably in plotting a novel, composing a sonnet, praying for the nations, revising my times tables or otherwise redeeming each golden minute. But between the heat and monotony and gradually increasing stench rising from the serried ranks of teenage boyhood, I invariably fall into a hypnotic torpor, shuffling mindlessly up and down like a zombie.
The most intellectually stimulating thing I did today, for example, was read the graffiti on the desks. Most of it was genitalia or genitalia-related discourse, but there were a few which showed evidence of original thought. “RIP draw a fish if you’re bored”, followed by a fish, pleased me greatly. “[Illegible name] Your Black” gave me pause for thought. “Kick Back” was intriguing, as it could be variously interpreted as “chill out, dude, life is short” or “resist The Man’s oppressive regime”. But my favourite was one desk which contained not only a number of swastikas, but “JESUS ISNT REAL” and, somewhat obliquely, “TEXAS”. A perfect axis of teenage rebellion, penned no doubt by an atheist Democrat with genocidal tendencies… y’know, that trope of Kiwi high schools.
Other than this, the amusements were few and far between. We had a moment of excitement when a boy claimed his schoolbag had been stolen, but then he found it. I had to frown down a youth who asked me if he’d spelled something right (he had, but we’re not allowed to tell them that. It was ‘thrust’. How would you even misspell that?) A boy finished his exam and wandered out without permission, leaving his paper unattended on his desk, which necessitated a Special Report. Another boy’s pen ran out and I gave him mine; he kept it, which would have been upsetting, only I’d filched it from the supply room and the clicky bit kept falling off. (Rule 1 of scrutineering: do not bring your good pens from home.) I got called “Miss” a lot. There was cake in the break room. And so the morning passed.
1. I am once again With Pig. Yay, I say in bleak and bitter tones which make it sound like I’m anti-pigs. This is not at all the case. Very pro-pigs. Go pigs, I say. Go this pig, even, specifically. I’m just anti-pregnancy; at any rate for myself.
Because I kinda suck at it. Do I glow? I do not. Do I thrill with the wonder of feeling a tiny being kicking in my stomach? No, I poke it grumpily and tell it to hush up because I’m trying to sleep. Do I wear cute maternity tunics and ballet flats? No; I think “This time, I shall sew myself an awesome maternity wardrobe!” and then I get bedridden for months with mysterious fatigue and end up wearing unzipped jeans and Helpdesk Man’s shirts, which is even less appealing than it sounds. Plus, heartburn. And pelvic girdle pain. And food aversions. And nausea. And dizziness. And so forth. Every time I have waxed with pig I have told myself soberly that I know I don’t like pregnancy, and that I’m not going into this with rose-tinted glasses, and that I’ll just grit my teeth and get through it; and then every time it’s significantly more miserable and dragging and unpleasant than I had remembered. Have I mentioned that I dislike pregnancy?
But I do like babies, so there it is. I suffer in silence… as you see. And actually, it hasn’t been all bad. As long as I’m horizontal and eat with the monotonous regularity of a cow, I feel fine. So I’ve gotten through a lot of books. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, LM Montgomery, an award-winning book called ‘Never Let Me Go’ which is basically The Island, only good; Sugar, a Bittersweet History, which gives a view of slavery intriguingly different from the America-and-cotton narrative - I’d never read much about England’s abolitionist movement before; and a novel by Muriel Sparks, who I always thought was contemporary - it sounds modern, dunnit? - but was actually born in 1918 and wrote a thoroughly weird book in which the main character figures out halfway through that she’s fictional. Heady stuff. Also a bit of Terry Pratchett, because one can’t be literary all the time.
The pigs are very pleased about the impending mini-pig. Miles keeps hopping onto the bed while I’m asleep and demanding I uncover the baby so he can give it kisses and hongis, drive toy cars on it, tickle it and, somewhat worryingly, eat it and spit back out again. Repeatedly. He’s an odd wee chap. Rowan is a sweetie, but has gradually abandoned her “I’ll love it whatever it is” policy in favour of “Make sure it’s a girl!”, which might cause problems…
2. Did you know there’s a conspiracy theory that the Titanic never actually sank, because she was switched at the last minute for her sister ship the Olympic and sunk deliberately for insurance purposes? I had no idea, and I’m very fond of conspiracy theories. I discovered this one last night while I was idly watching YouTube documentaries about the Titanic - something I have only been able to do of recent years, now that antidepressants have blunted the edge of my underwater-looming-objects phobia. And a good thing too, because it’s fascinating. There was this awesome interview from the 1950s with a bunch of survivors, and a recentish - 2001, maybe? - interview with a very old woman who’d been seven when the ship sank. She insisted the band had indeed played ‘Nearer My God To Thee”, and mentioned that several months after the sinking she was in a church service, heard the opening bars of the hymn and ran out in a panic having flashbacks. That has the ring of truth to it, don’t you think? And she said she’d always insisted the ship broke in two before it sank, which was at least partly confirmed in 1985, so she seems to have had her wits about her. (She said the Californian came jolly close, too: far closer than nineteen miles. Very strange, that whole thing.)
3. A few nights ago I was feeling bleugh (see Point 1) and Helpdesk Man was out with the car, so I ordered in pizza. This was harder than it sounds: there are three pizza-delivery places in town and two of them refused to deliver to us because of our remote country location, which is ridiculous: we’re only seven minutes away from one of the outlets! Also, how come pizza delivery became a thing but not, say, burger delivery or kebab delivery? Seems arbitrary. Anyhoo, I finally found a place which was willing to cross Bat Country in order to succour a starving pregnant female, and an impressively short time later, up rocked the pizza in arms of a sturdy maiden who was, and I stress this, Kiwi. Not from a high-rise in Tokyo or a remote Inuit outpost, as far as accents go, anyway.
I opened the door and she was staring agog at Carol. Carol is our White Orpington, and she is pretty sizeable. People have been known to comment. But this girl looked like she’d just seen the ghost of John Lennon, and as I said “Hi” she blurted out “Is that a chicken? That’s HUGE! I’ve never seen a chicken before!”
Suppressing the urge to say “Dude, really?” I smiled and explained that Carol was in fact an unusually large specimen, and that most chickens were of a more temperate size; and to prove my point, Calibri and Zapfino wandered round the side of the house in search of food. (We name our chickens after obscure fonts; long story. It made more sense when we had Wingdings and Arial and Lucida, but the dog et ‘em.)
The girl, who had other pizzas to deliver in her insulated bag, seemed disinclined to leave and kept staring and exclaiming. She wanted to know if they were tame; they’re not, exactly, but they are greedy, so I gave her a corn nugget to feed Carol. She stooped down cautiously and held it out; Carol attached it with the crazed bloodlust of a ravening wolverine, pecking the nugget out of the girl’s hand and causing her to whoop and skip backwards in delighted fright. Even then she wouldn’t leave, but asked in a hushed whisper “Do they lay eggs?” I told her that they did, but that it was sometimes hard to find them because the hens free-ranged and hid clutches of eggs in funny places. Her eyes were like saucers. In the end I politely said goodbye, partly out of pity for the customers whose pizza was rapidly cooling, and partly because I wanted to eat dinner. She walked back to the car with the air of one who has discovered a unicorn in a shopping mall. I’m not sure if the encounter was heartwarming or just kinda sad. How can you not have seen a chicken? In New Zealand?? Still, she was kind of a sweetie.
4. Did you know that the term ‘drawing room’ comes from ‘withdrawing room’? It was the room to which ladies withdrew after dinner while the man had their brandy and cigars or belched or discussed politics too racy for womanly ears. One of the many things I have learned while reading books in bed. Also, ‘living room’ is a term invented in opposition to ‘dying’. The parlour used to be a formal, seldom-used room which was strongly associated with having one’s loved ones laid out in it. When funeral homes became a thing and people got the bright idea of actually inhabiting their parlours and making them casual places of relaxation, the term ‘living room’ was invented to emphasise the shift - the room was now for the living, not the dead. Nifty, no?
Also, if you’re ever bored, look up secret locking-boxes, aka puzzle-boxes, on YouTube. Great fun. I’d buy one for Helpdesk Man for Christmas, but they’re heinously expensive, as are codexes; plus, whatever you put inside them is bound to be a letdown, innit? If he were a woman I could put some fabulously expensive piece of jewelry inside, at least I could if I hadn’t spent all my money on the box; but for a chap? A bit of choccie? A cigar? A Swiss Army Knife? A sonnet on the glories of his manly chin?
My word, I’m glad I don’t have a food blog. I just tried out a recipe for one of those magic self-layering custard cakes, and she had seventeen comments. A couple were of the inane but harmless “Ooooh that looks so yummy I just gained 5 pounds!” kind, which annoy me simply because they clutter up the screen when I’m hunting for actual reviews which might tell me something useful, like ‘not enough cocoa’ or ‘despite the purple prose, this is actually a limp, pallid run-of-the-mill biscuit which looks awful without a 70s amber filter’. Incidentally, it’s amazing how few people, even on popular food blogs, actually seem to make the recipes. Look at Pioneer Woman’s comment section sometime - literally thousands of comments, and you can scroll until your finger turns blue past masses of gushing comments without finding a single person who says it tastes, rather than looks, divine. (Or ‘devine’, which is a whole ‘nother aneurysm.)
But it wasn’t those comments which bugged me today. It was the demanding ones which presumed that this poor woman, running a very minor Turkish food blog which was clearly not her day job, was a) equipped and b) willing to cover every possible eventuality and permutation of the recipe, as well as answering basic questions that could be resolved with a three-second trip to Google.
You know the kind. “Would this recipe work with GF flour?” How should she know? It’s not a gluten-free blog. She doesn’t have gluten-free recipes. Even if she did, “GF flour” is a virtually meaningless term; and even if she knew what kind the commenter meant, is it really likely that she’d say “Gosh, dunno!”, dash out and buy some, and whip up a few batches in the kitchen just to see? Come on, people.
Ditto “would this recipe work at high altitude?” Dude, if you live on the Himalayas, figuring out the vagaries of stratospheric cooking is on you. How would she know? If the principles are simple, you should be able to apply them to most recipes. If they’re tricky and recipe-dependent, she’s not gonna be able to answer the question without voyaging to a mountain peak, and expecting her to do that is just nuts.
Or “What kind of sugar do you mean by ’sugar’?” I’ve seen this one a lot, and while it staggers me a little that people don’t know ’sugar’ refers to plain old white granulated sugar (or ‘flour’ to plain white flour, if it comes to that), at least I guess it might be somewhat tricky to Google, phrasing-wise. Not so with ‘What’s 110 grams butter???’ which was asked by two people out of the seventeen in panicky, aggrieved tones. Good grief. How is it more efficient to wait for a long-suffering part-time blogger to respond to that, than simply googling ‘convert 110 grams butter into ounces’ (or cups, or sticks, or poods, or whatever the cool kids are using these days)? How?
And I’ve seen worse. People complaining that the recipe didn’t work out and in the next breath proudly admitting that they cut the sugar down to a teaspoon, replaced the butter with applesauce, swapped the chocolate chips for craisins and used egg-replacer. (Actually, it’s almost more aggrieving when they do that and claim it did work. It didn’t. They’ve just acclimatised themselves to believing compost is a dessert.) People piously demanding to change the teaspoon of whiskey in a recipe to orange juice for the sake of their immortal souls, while splashing vanilla essence about without a hint of irony. People demanding that recipes be converted into Imperial, metric, GF, DF, GAPS, sugar-free, nut-free, soy-free and vegan versions as a matter of course. People freaking out because the recipe says to use a 30 cm by 20 cm tin and theirs is 18 cm by 23 cm. People complaining… on baking blogs… about the shocking fact that recipes contain fat and sugar.
I mean, get a grip, people. Putting up a recipe online is a kindness. A free kindness. It does not obligate the author to spend the rest of her natural life hand-holding morons who want to know if using the wrong brand of butter will make their cake explode. Nor to coach them on the basics of metric-to-Imperial, Celsius-to-Fahrenheit or weight-to-volume conversions. Nor to acquire a vast set of arcane culinary knowledge in order to accommodate those who wish to bake in space, on a wood fire, or in a transdimensional rift where the Maillard reaction causes fatal temporal hernias. Still less does it require her to endlessly re-test and tweak the recipe according to her readers’ infinite dietary, religious, ethical and ingredient-availability preferences.
I certainly agree that it’s nice, if you have a food blog, to have a few helpful features - an ingredient conversion feature (or one format bracketed in the ingredients list itself) and a ‘print this recipe’ feature which eliminates the photos and preamble, say. And there are a few excellent bloggers who turn random questions into thoughtful and illuminating posts about food science - Joe Pastry, for instance. And for those looking to made a buck on their blog and become the next Smitten Kitchen, I suppose they can’t afford to wound their precious clientele by telling them to figure it out for themselves. But still. It must annoy them. I know it annoys David Lebovitz - he’s talked about getting frustrated after working very hard to develop a recipe just-so, only to be inundated with “But what if I used X instead of Y?” requests. (And there was that woman who rang him up late at night to tell him that his cookies took a minute longer to cook than his recipe book suggested. Fun.)
I got a taste of it once when I wrote an article for a blog about drafting a dirndl skirt. Everything from people wanting to give me basic sewing lessons to people wanting me to draft a personalised pattern for them. And of course I lost the will to care ten minutes after posting it, and could only stare slack-jawed at the screen wondering why people thought I was their personal unpaid seamstress/designer/tutor.
On the other hand I once had three hundred comments on an article I did about henna, and thoroughly enjoyed answering innumerable questions. But that was some years ago, before I was soured on humanity. Virtual humanity, at any rate; I was soured on actual humanity long before that, thanks to years of making milkshakes for high school girls. (”Can I have a large mega-choc shake, but can you make it with skim milk? Because I’m getting SO fat. You guys, I so am! I’m getting so fat!”) So perhaps it is just curmudgeonliness talking.
On a brighter note, then: Rowan has invented a poem, or chant. It goes like this: “Knock knock! Who’s there? Unofficial Little Bear!” I don’t get it, but I like it.
Just read a biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery. My goodness. I had no idea. No mother, useless absentee father who also died young, brought up by unsympathetic relatives, engaged to a rotter while in love with another rotter, broke it off and got stalked, couldn’t marry her second fiance because she had to take care of her ailing grandmother for years, went off him by the time the grandmother died but felt obliged to marry him anyway, whereupon he went periodically insane for the rest of his life and once pointed a gun at a guest. First son turned out to be a deviant criminal philandering money-wasting scumbag who ruined the family reputation, second son died at birth, third son wasn’t a girl. Publisher cheated her out of a ton of money and dragged her through court for ten years; husband was partly at fault for a car crash and got sued by the other chaps for allegedly causing their prostate trouble and diabetes, which even at the time medical science could see was obviously bunk; but the judge was deaf and they lost the case anyway. One of their maids was a malicious gossip who spread rumours that Maud was having an affair with a family friend. Maud herself suffered from periodic bouts of extreme depression and ended her life in possible suicide, after having been addicted to barbiturates and bromides for some time, as was her husband. And towards the end of her life, despite her immense popularity, modernist critics started panning her books as Everything Wrong with Canadian Literature because of their romance and sentimentality. Plus she spent several years being pursued by a deranged lesbian stalker-fan who kept threatening suicide.
Altogether thoroughly dispiriting - and long - 600 pages plus endnotes. Knowing ahead of time about the suicide I kept waiting for her to die every time something tragic happened, and she kept not doing it. Which is laudable, I suppose, but it did make the last few hundred pages drag on rather drearily with calamity after calamity. So it is with great relief that I am now reading PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, which is smashing. He writes just like you’d expect, was genuinely fond of his wife and adored his stepdaughter Leonora, aka ‘Snorkles’. Thus far in the book nothing tragic has happened at all - I haven’t got up to WWII yet - his career is meteoric, he is delightfully frank and gleeful about the tons of money he’s making, he tells everyone earnestly and invariably how good his latest story is, and he hits up all his friends (and Leonora) for plot ideas in the most charming way. It’s a great relief to the spirit. And I was thoroughly chuffed when he wrote a friend who knew Dorothy Sayers that Five Red Herrings was ‘lousy’ and that he ought to tell her to skip the dreary bus-timetable stuff and go back to her usual style. Couldn’t agree more. I love Dorothy Sayers, but a murder-mystery shouldn’t require maths and a chart in order to keep up with (neither of which I used, so I got thoroughly confused and ended up having to take the solution on faith. For all I know there’s a missing half-hour in the plot that makes the whole thing the greatest gaffe in the history of crime fiction, though I’m sure having gone that far she was careful to make it all work out.) I can just about cope with Agatha Christie’s occasional floor-plan showing how the window in the library is adjacent to the dumbwaiter, but that’s as much STEM-work as I’m willing (or indeed able) to put into light fiction. Authors take note.
Spring is as usual bringing a plethora of wildlife to the orchard. Discounting the slugs, which are Nasty, it is great fun. Every day is spent with our ears cocked for Dennis the Quail-Bird, Gus the tui, some unnamed but snobby pheasants, and the peacocks across the gulley. Then in the evening we’re liable to see Twitchy the Elusive, an extremely good-looking rabbit who has taken up residence in the garden; or, somewhat less pleasingly, our two rats Rubbish and Shortly. Shortly is a baby and thus moderately cute, but Rubbish - unlike his predecessor, Bouncy the Pizza Rat - is not at all prepossessing. Later still at night, we get possums galore and the occasional feral cat. They kept the pigs awake last night and Helpdesk Man had to go out and defend the household with his air rifle. He shot one possum, scared everything else away and accidentally put a bunch of leftover lead pellets through the washing machine. It killed them. Weird, no?
We no longer cosleep, but every morning we are awoken by the arrival of two pesky piglets. It should also be noted that we are currently experiencing a slugfestation, and also that I’m giving up calling Rowan the snortlepig. We don’t call her that any more, and I keep typing Rowan by mistake. So Rowan she is. Hi, Rowan!
Excerpts from this morning:
Miles, staring at the floor: “Mummy, I found a snail!”
Me: “Whoa. Are you sure? Is it a snail or a slug?”
Miles: “No, it’s a snail.”
Me: “Does it have a shell?”
Miles: “Nah, it’s just by itself.”
Me: “That’s a slug.”
Short pause. Miles, delighted: “It IS a slug!”
* * * * *
Miles: “Mummy, dere’s a cockroach! I’m gonna take care of it!”
[He uses the phrase in the Mafia sense, not the nurturing one. I'm OK with that.]
[Miles bustles about]
Miles: “I got a tiny container and put it on top so it can’t escape!”
Rowan, waking up a bit and stretching: “I think it’s dead.”
Miles, enthused: “Yeah, it is! And it can’t walk!”
Me: “Uh, Miles, if it’s dead, do you really need a container over it to stop it escaping?”
Miles, offended: “I do!”
* * * * * * * *
Rowan: “Mummy, what’s your favourite colour?”
Me, sleepily: “Blue.”
Rowan: “Miles, what’s your favourite colour?”
Miles: “Red… and white… and blue…”
Me: “That’s patriotic.”
Miles: “…And red… I like ALL da colours!”
Rowan: “Yes, but you have to pick your one favourite one.”
Miles: “I like ALL da colours are my favourite! Red… and blue…. and white… and green… and brown… and…” [runs out of colours and stares in perplexity at the wall]
Rowan: “Daddy, what’s your favourite colour?’
[Daddy slumbers peacefully]
Rowan: “Well, last time he said red. Red. Do you know what my favourite colour is?”
Miles: “*I* like pink! And purple… and red… and blue…”
Rowan, viciously: “Miles, that’s enough!”
Miles: “An’ green! Haha!”
* * * * * * * *
[Miles has temporarily disappeared back to his bed to snooze. He comes running back in a panic.]
Miles: “Mummy, something’s pesking da ceiling!”
Rowan: “It’s probably just a possum or a rat. Don’t worry about it.”
Miles, dramatically: “I’m skeeeeeered of it!”
Rowan: “Oh Miles, there’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just a beast.”
Miles, climbing up onto the bed and wagging his tail: “Do you see my tiny bottoms?”
Yesterday Helpdesk Man had gone out mountain-biking. He does this now, though with mixed success. He has lost weight, which is the point; but he has also fallen off enough times to warrant the purchase of arm-guards, at which his fellow mountain-biking friends smirked a little before politely saying that they had never felt the need for them. (Helpdesk Man: “But I ride more aggressively than they do! I push myself further!” Me: “Pushing yourself so far that you fall off ISN’T A VIRTUE!” Helpdesk Man: [radiating manly smugness.])
It was heading towards lunchtime and I was wondering if he were about to return, but decided instead of waiting around like a computer-bound Penelope for his return I would take the children on a short trot round the orchard to filch a lemon from a lemon tree at the other end. So we did. And it was lovely. We found two eggs lying out in the middle of the apple trees, which indicated worrying slatternliness on the part of the hens but was still a minor triumph. We took a small, scenic detour down a hill and past a rusting pile of freezers in order to climb on some logs. We braved the slightly scary dog who guards the lemon tree - entrepreneurially, I hasten to add. We’re allowed to filch the lemons. The dog just happens to be tied up near the lemon tree and goes ballistic whenever we approach it.
So anyway, bearing our lemons and eggs and the occasional stick for poking puddles, we wended out way home. To my disappointment, Helpdesk Man had not arrived home, which would have allowed me to be all “I was out for a walk with the children” so he could have been all “What a wholesome and excellent family outing, good wife”.
And then I went to the computer and found this message:
Helpdesk Man: Are you there?BeepBeepHalpI’m not sure I can driveI think I may have broken my collarboneI crashed my bike
Sent at 12:50 PM on FridayCome to the computerHelpdesk Man: Haaaaalp
I have always wanted to live in a house with secret passageways. As a kidlet my house had a small door which led under the house, and if you didn’t mind getting covered in dirt and spiders you could crawl through and emerge on a shelf in the underground garage. It wasn’t exactly a secret lair hidden behind a bookcase, but I convinced myself it was glamorous and spent a good deal of time there, going so far as to furnish the place with old carpet and op-shop dishes.
Our current house does not have secret passages. An esoteric wiring system, yes. A laundry that converts to a sauna by operating the dryer, yes. Secret passages, no. Or so I thought.
But a few days ago I was outside photographing a birthday cake where the light was good, and the snortlepig was pesking about by the rosemary bush by the deck. Next thing I knew there was a squeak and a wail and the pig had disappeared up to her armpits.
Apparently there’s a secret subterranean world next to the deck. With a hole in it. The hole had been concealed with a large flat rock and a pot-plant, at least until we removed the latter on the grounds of deadness and the pig stood on the edge of the former, flipping it over and neatly tipping her in.
She was OK, just a tad scraped around the legs and extremely surprised. We had to go out, so we merely put the rock back and warned the pigs sternly away from it. But perhaps later on today I will investigate. I hope to find at least a cache of Prohibition-era whiskey, if not gold ingots and a Batman-themed media den.