It's Christmas Eve, and I want to bake. I want floury smudges on myself and cinnamon filtering under the door to my bedroom and sugary, buttery blobs of batter between my fingers. I choose some spiced Christmas biscuits from Nigella's domestic goddess cookbook. I grind pepper into a little bowl and rattle and clatter among the spice bottles for the mixed spice and soon a honey-fragranced dough is turning in the red KitchenAid.
Cutting out shapes in dough is a fabulous, time-travellingly Christmas thing to do. I never did it at Christmas when I was a kid -- mine was not a baking family -- but it makes no difference. It's a direct line to being four years old, like the smell of paste, cutting things out of the newspaper, making a sandcastle. In the brand-new chi-chi kitchenware shop that's just opened in Cambridge I chose the moon shape because I love the moon. And also they were completely sold out of stars.
The house smells evocatively of cloves and cinnamon and Bing and Harry Connick compete for crooning laurels in the living room. The bird loves the big band accompaniments and dances around looking like a tiny green Christmas decoration, with his festive red tail and burnished tummy feathers. There's a fantastically garish Christmas stocking from my Dad, sporting gilt-threaded appliqué snowman and Santa, under the enormous poinsettia that Pluvialis got for me before she left for Maine. A strand of soft blue yarn is peeping out of the box that my old friend Crinkly-Eyed Smile l sent me from Australia. A green-and-white bag all the way from China, from International Woman of Mystery, with exotic unknowns inside.
Later, I'll call my mother, whose timezone dances the sugarplum fairy ten hours before mine. She has a basketful of goodies from me. I wish I could sit on her bed and watch her open them. She might even like these biscuits, she of No Sweet Tooth. They're spicy and biscuity and have a hint of honey -- the vaguest scent of eucalyptus. My love affair with honey is decades old, and I couldn't possibly be unfaithful to my Australian bees.
Spiced Christmas Biscuits
300g plain flour 1 tsp ground mixed spice 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper 1 tsp baking powder pinch salt 100g unsalted butter 100g dark muscovado sugar 2 large eggs, beaten with 4 tablespoons honey
Preheat oven to 170°C and line baking trays with silicon paper.
Mix together the flour, salt, pepper and mixed spice in your mixer or processor. Add the sugar and butter with the motor running, and then slowly the egg and honey mixture. Don't add all of this if the dough starts to come together before it's run out. Form the dough into two discs. Wrap one in clingfilm and put it into the fridge.
Dust your work surface and the other disc with flour. Roll out to about 5mm and cut out your shapes. Smoosh remaining dough into a ball and wrap in clingfilm, while you get the other disc out of the fridge. Roll and cut out. Add the remaining dough to what you had left over from the first disc, and roll out ... continue until you've used up all the dough.
Put shapes on trays and bake for around 20 minutes. It can be hard to see when they're done -- if they're not doughy on the bottom, they're cooked. Put on wire racks to cool.
Nigella recommends that you ice these with a plain white glacé icing, which puts me in somewhat of a quandary. Me and icing have a fraught relationship. In the first place, I tend to think it makes things too sweet. But these biscuits are spicy enough to handle that, and are even perhaps not quite sweet enough to be left plain. In the second place, I just hate icing. I hate making it, and I hate the actual part where I ice something. Why is that? Mysteries of the Xtin Bake Psyche.
I'm hoping I'll get away with a simple dust of icing sugar.
A few years back, after one of those desultory wanders around the video shop that afflicted millions of poor little Westerners before the advent of Netflix and Amazon DVD rental, Pluvialis and I ended up on the floor of the living room with two Ben & Jerry Wiches, watching National Treasure.
We were really ready to enjoy this movie, you understand. After the Half-Hour Browse Of Death in the video store, your standards are as tenderized as minute steak.
Pluvialis and I laugh quite a lot. There was the time that the birdoole fell backwards off the bedroom curtain. Then there was the time when we were in Waitrose and she decided to mess with my head over the pronunciation of "gravadlax". Then there was the time that I faux-swatted at the parrot with a pillow because he was chewing the bedhead, and accidentally whacked him under the bed instead, with bemused tweeting emerging from the depths. That one went straight into the Pluvalis--Xtin mythology.
National Treasure put all of these into the shade. I don't remember anything about it except for the part, close to the beginning, when Our Hero Nicholas Cage unearths a ship that's supposedly been under the snow in Antarctica (!!!) for more than 150 years by dusting a couple of inches of powdery snow off the surface of ... gadzooks! The ship's nameplate!
OK, no, I remember there was some stuff about the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well. And, um ... the FBI.
After the snow-dusting escapade Pluvialis and I started laughing and yelling at the screen at the same time. Every thirteen seconds or so we would yell the next wild plot development at the characters and then high-five our preturnatural screenplay prescience. Pluvialis kept saying, damn, Xtin! We should write one of these! We can put Diane Kruger into a pink Vera Wang! That totally counts as a plot development!
A couple of weeks ago, I sent her the link to the latest in the franchise: National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Seriously. You don't even have to go and see it to get all the health-giving laughter. Just watch the trailer. Maybe twice. And in case you needed anything further, herewith a plot summary from the New York Times critic Matt Zoller Seitz:
"To acquire the cleverly named Book of Secrets, Ben plots to kidnap the current president and blah, blah, blah purple monkey dishwasher."
In May, walking home, I saw a hedgehog. I haven't seen one lately, but I don't need to, for I have Boy in Yellow Converse instead, a man more like a hedgehog by the day --- simultaneously the appearance of the friendly, the everyday, the familiar, that which belongs in the stories of what is good and right; and the wild, the fleeting, the moment that is captured and thought over, that which belongs only in the story.
On Saturday night, with a plastic cup of Fitou in one hand, I rubbed between the paw pads of a fine grey-and-white tom cat at a party. He observed me out of slitty eyes and concaved his spine with a sound only an interrogative cat can make, an uprising diaphragmatic trill of vaguely determinate import. His white belly fur furls out like a concertina paper lantern. In a bowl in the kitchen there are tiny ginger biscuits from the Netherlands and party-sized Mars Bars on the mantelpiece. Boy in Yellow Converse --- who at this time of year favours terribly retro white leather trainers with red stripes --- wanders the crowd, arching over it with mythological tallness and a Polaroid. His targets warm to him with the shy affection of strangers, clustering to his piked leanness like goslings to watch the images take shape. I talk to a girl with glimmering American dentistry in her smile and a formidable brilliant-cut diamond on her hand which flashes as her hands stir the air, she laughs, chipping high split cadences. I watch the dip in her throat, shorter than she.
On Wednesday my feet are cold again. Spongy, rabbit-combed turf and clover underfoot and Pluvialis a few hundred feet away at the fence calling Mabel out of a tree. She whistles, pushing her hair out of her eyes with the back of a hand that will later be bloodied. She hefts a quail in her hand and catches it, which has the absurdly loose-jointed action of dummies pitching over waterfalls in cheap action flicks. Mabel! The quail goes up again. I shuffle in my wellingtons, watching rabbits dancing everywhere, white flash-flash-flash gone into the hedge, under the sod. Suddenly a movement near, and I turn my head. Straight, impossibly straight, against the ground like a burnt butter hoverbeast, and fast. A silence in my mind. Black tipped tail, perfect like a calligraphy brush dipped just-so into the ink, and words come back to my thoughts all in a rush, David Attenborough, The Children of Cherry-Tree Farm, stoat! A small purposive furry sinew with a blaze of white under his chin. Rabbits in his nose.
There he goes.
I recover my voice. Stoat! I yell to Pluvialis hundreds of yards away, uselessly but I cannot help it. Even at the distance I can see her amusement at my eight-year-old delight and she displays a thumbs-up. I am ruining her day's hunting because I am distracting Mabel. I dance around on the hillocky warrens trying to keep warm, tinkering with malteasery piles of rabbit droppings with the toe of my boot. Pluvialis gets Mabel to the fist and wanders back to me with the distinctive rolling, sailorish gait she has when booted and disappointed. She sighs, circumflexing an expressive black eyebrow.
She gives the hawk a wing to pluck. Mabel is all at sixes-and-sevens and Pluvialis is accidentally footed. I see the stoat in my mind, skimming the ground, low wide-arc ears cupped to its head. She sucks the back of her hand. The silvery late afternoon glints go out of the light and we go back to the car.
M, ever maternal, puts Savlon on Pluvialis' hand and we drink coffee out of cups with wildflowers on them. S, the guru, rolls a cigarette and Pluvialis smokes her Camels. There are three pointers. I am wildly, wildly in love with these dogs, lithe and silly and brilliant. The black and white alpha bitch rests her muzzle in my lap and I hold her head, cupping her ears and running a finger down the groove in the centre of her lovely skull. I remember the gleaming, coppery afternoon in September when I watched her quarter the field in Barton for G's barbary. She had leaned against my knees, warm flanks alive with delight, miles to run, the fabulous smell of everything, the promise of things hiding.
But now they climb into our laps and cock their floppy ears and glance every now and then to S, the Super Alpha of the house, while he mocks me gently for my shameless adoration and craven capitulation to the insistent wet-nosed nudging for more ear-stroking. M confides later that this is rich, since he sleeps with the bitch cupped spoon-style into his belly.
At home I stand on the street, wiggling my frozen toes and puffing frost, watching the odd, Grimm-esque yew on the fence, alive and rustling with birds gobbling the squishy red seed cones. A mistle thrush dances out on a dropped, curving branch haphazardly bunted with needles and missteps, falling through the greenery, a soft papery sound of wings striking, a leopardy breast and bright eye, bobbing uncertainly on a too-far twig. Cocks its head, chocolatey go-fast stripes moustachioed. What?
Inside a tight ball of ladybirds sleeps behind my bedroom blind. I make tea.
It hasn't snowed yet. I yearn for snow, the magic of the far away and story book, Christmas card of places cold in December. Dancing fluffy flakes clumping and bursting like handfuls of paper torn into bits and thrown around with a kind of triumphant reproof. The odd, ear-muffling silence before, like the sound of the door closing on soundproofing. Everything white and crunchy and unlike itself. But if not snow, then frost.
Frilly, tiny fronds of ice clinging to everything, frozen silvery lichen. Crisping just short of silently underfoot, a milimetre of shiny ice on a recent footprint, a leaf curled and candied, crackle. A morsel-toting blackbird prints tiny greennesses on the clipped hedge dove-grey through the ice. White sheets everywhere, tyre-tracked on the road, over the courts, everywhere there is a shadow, suddenly where the sun don't shine blinged.
I break off a piece of a spider's web, hard for a split half-second like spun sugar, no time to think, a smudge of sticky cold between my fingerpads as though it had never been there.
I have new shoes. I am tall, new degrees of vision, the tops of things. Black gown, black gown on that, all black, the perverse precognition of objects.
It is cold in the court and I look at the lamps at each corner, frosted. Peter was playing squash. Pluvialis pressed to my ear, I say something. nothing. Peter was playing squash.
I go back to the table. Smeared long exposure evening dress, zoom burst wine glasses, the sound of my heels striking the wood, the tops of things. A crisp frame of the master's brown eyes, cocked sparrowlike, perspective-forced candle comas. Then I am on the other side of the table and she holds my hands, tiny and splintered. Tears on her knuckles and I am at home, Pluvialis holds my shoulders, my ribs hurt.
At the funeral a shifting, rippling mass of people makes no sound at all. Kippahs against the sky like something fruiting under frost. It is cold, colder and the soil is dark and we breathe water. The field behind us spits skylarks flip, flip watery mordent of sunset and desperation. I pull my gloves on and off, on and off, running my fingers through the wind. I put earth into the grave. I sleep cheek to the sod, wake cold, again and again. I burn myself, my hands, doorways are strange, thoughtless trajectories treacherous, keep out of reach of children. I will sit still a lot.
Vaulted wood inside after, I hold his wife's hands, we see each other for the first time, she is like the bloody pages of a book come to life, a staggering battlement of power and grief with a black cap of cropped hair. Our eyes meet and it is knowing that on the fens you are underwater. You have been abandoned, she says. A silence. The smell of tea.
Later on the wrong side of Trinity long tailed tits trilling through water shearing a wet birch, silent blackbird, the kigo of not happening.