“Life is what happens to you, while you’re making plans”. That was John Lennon, shortly before being shot at close range by a random stranger. Life, in less dramatic form, has been happening around here quite a lot, and one word explains it: teenagers. The consequences vary dramatically between samples. Sample 1 now insists that all anecdotes have to be run past battalions of libel lawyers, and some events of the past two years totally redacted. Sample 2 insists that every mention be accompanied by at least twelve Instagram photos, professionally filtered, hot-linked to her YouTube channel. It’s all very well to say “Everything is Copy”, but that only works if you can replace your entire family and friendship network, every time you write about them.
We also have two sets of exams looming, a ninety-one year old grandpa absolutely unwilling to use any form of technology more advanced than shouting who recently returned to his own home after an absence of six years, and a new cat; once you get teenagers, you need a pet too, so at least somebody is glad when you walk through the door. Even if glad is expressed as earsplitting yowls of relief, fourteen times a day.
As for the drama, it’s all about food. The kitchen is the one room in the house I’ve dared to stake out as my own, so of course it’s also the seat of rebellion. If you had told me a year ago that I would be serving up veggan shepherd’s pie made with ersatz soy protein chunks and non-dairy spread, I’d probably have turned you into a pie as well. But that’s the randomness of Life, again. We now have one veggan – glossed below – and one mostly vegetarian with an aversion to anything uncooked, plus Mr Fixit, who though tolerant in many admirable ways, has drawn a mysterious but vivid red line between his beloved boiled potatoes and every other form of starch, specially those one might naturally deploy to enhance the nutritional value of a Veggan diet: spelt pasta, rice, chickpeas, lentils, dhal, freekeh, kasha, and those many other nutritious grains that have lain dormant for centuries, awaiting the arrival of the Celebrity Chef.
So, this is how the morning now goes:
06.10 Mr Fixit gets up, cheerful but unarguably flat-footed. Spock the Cat hears him, and realises that nobody has noticed he exists for nearly eight hours. Maybe we’ve forgotten all about him? Maybe we’re never coming into the kitchen again? Maybe the door has sealed itself shut, and he’ll have to grow opposable thumbs and a new frontal lobe in order to eat his next meal? Help! Time to sound the alarm call!
06.20 All hope of further sleep has vanished, and the choice is between lying in bed fretting about the state of the world, and getting up to do something about it. That something being breakfast, or to be precise, four breakfasts. I once made a list of all the steps required to get this on the table; not as a wise precaution against the day of my inevitable collapse, but just out of curiosity. There were 104, and that was before soy milk entered the frame. However, because it’s the one thing that’s more or less the same every day, it can all be done before I’m clinically awake, apart from the bit where the hand-made spelt bread varies minutely in texture from one loaf to the next, the toast burns, the smoke alarm goes off, and the entire neighbourhood bursts into tears, because it’s still only 7.04 am.
As Dolly now goes to Animal College, and anywhere with free roaming cattle is, by definition, some way from Camden Town, it has fallen to Mr Fixit to fill the time between his duet with the lark and the emergence of other life forms, by toasting the bagel I have removed from the freezer the night before, putting it on a tray with her soy milk tea and packed lunch, and carrying it into her room to save her wasting time that could otherwise be dedicated to achieving perfectly matched angles on the inside corner of her eyebrows, by climbing the stairs to the kitchen.
At some point during this process I arrive to take over, so by about 7.20 Mr Fixit has his toast (cold, thin and well done, buttered to the edges, Marmite) with a small dish of fruit, yoghurt and wheatgerm, and black coffee. I just have tea (semiskimmed milk) and – incredibly – the same yoghurt, fruit and wheatgerm, because there’s a limit to how much you can tackle in your sleep. Magnus (note to lawyers: this is a mutually agreed pseudonym, and nothing to do with the size of his head or feet) has five bananas, baked with butter and lemon, a bowl of porridge and a big pot of yoghurt.
The incredulous Martian watching all of this from a spaceship hovering noiselessly above Normal Towers might wonder whether there could not be scope for a teeny amount of compromise here. Ha! That just shows how little Martians understand about principle. Dolly’s not going to eat any animal products because she’s dedicated her life to keeping them alive, but she doesn’t care much about the planet, which is why she’s happy to eat out-of-season pomegranates from far flung places, as long as I disinter the seeds for her.I’m publicly and ideologically committed to being Local, Seasonal, Fairly Traded and Organic, to the point where I’ve recently allowed myself to be coerced into spending the annual equivalent of a nice week in Cornwall on raw milk from a distant but clearly bucolic dairy, where the cows keep their calves till they’re old enough to have a clear understanding of exactly what’s happening on the day the farmer comes into the field and suggests an enjoyable one-way outing in the truck.
Mr Fixit’s not going to change the habit of a lifetime just because there are a couple of spawn temporarily occupying the rooms he’s earmarked for a garage and a workshop.
And Magnus? Let us say that his principles are continually evolving, which is how poking my head round his door with the rhetorical, ‘Eggs for supper, okay?’ turns into a twenty minute metaphysical examination of the potential for an egg to become a life.
‘Okay, so according to you, they’re happy eggs, right?’ he begins. ‘The hens have happy lives and don’t miss their eggs at all.’
‘Being so happy, yes, in their lovely field of grass and seeds and little beetles, with occasional visits from Marjorie the Other Quaker Jew’.
‘But that doesn’t mean the eggs aren’t alive, does it?’
‘They’re not fertile eggs, darling. No rooster has been anywhere near them, I promise.’
‘But they still have the potential to be a life, right? I mean, they have in themselves, being eggs, the potential, if they were fertilised – d’you see where I’m going with this?’
What I see is that it’s now two hours since I got out of bed, and I’m pretty much ready to crawl back into it.
At this moment the phone rings. Who calls the house phone at 7.54 in the morning? Of course! It’s my father, wanting to know if Ive got any more jam jars. Sure, I respond, I’ll bring some over next week.
‘Leeks? Why would I need leeks? I told you, I’m making marmalade!’
Did I mention that he’s rather deaf, and sometimes holds the phone to the wrong ear?
‘I left you a message about it, didn’t you get it?’
‘Message? What message? Nobody’s here when I’m out, how could I get a message?’
This is how it emerges that although we arranged voicemail on his line when he moved in, he has forgotten all about it, and every message from utility suppliers, doctor’s surgeries, Social Services, and the nice people delivering his Liebfraumilch from Waitrose.com has gone unheard and unanswered.
I find myself touched that he’s making marmalade. My Mum was definitely the only one of his three wives to have done that, and it seems like some sort of recognition of her privileged status that, in his widowed state, it’s her domestic habits he’s now copying (as opposed to importing a fridge full of Halal chicken into the Heathrow Sheraton, or training a succession of bewildered carers to make Hunter’s Beef, in the traditions of the other two).
But, in retrospect, their differences always cracked open at meal times too, and for the last ten years of their marriage, she had fish and peas while he had goose and asparagus.
So maybe it’s not surprising that we’ve all staked our identities on what we eat.
There is one thing to be said for this lifestyle: if it doesn’t kill me, it will postpone indefinitely any risk of dementia through lack of intellectual challenges. Who needs Sodoku when every foray into the kitchen requires the tactical thinking, forward planning and lightning reactions of the Battle of Trafalgar?
But I don’t think Nelson would have gone down fighting for the dream of a cheese souffle…