Equinox

I was the chieftain in the settlement then.

A killing winter it had been and a grasping one, reaching with frost crackling fingers to catch the young ones and the old ones and freeze the yet unknown ones in the womb. 

Not a child under three years old survived that winter. And that winter dragged and bore down on the land so that at the turning of the year, when night balances day, the signs of spring were few, and those often rimed with frost.

Since the loss of our daughter, my wife had turned me only for warmth. The long dried tears had cut her deeper than any knife and severed, it seemed, the affection between us. 

‘No,’ she’s say. ‘I couldn’t bear to catch with child again only to lose it.’

In vain I said that it was not to make a child that I wanted her, that I loved her and in that release we might find comfort together and heal, even though we couldn’t speak of the empty place under the covers where our little girl had once lain or the one under her heart where our son should had found haven. 

But she would not agree and I am not a man who would not force his wife. 

So there we lay, night after shortening night. And though the finest blade could not have separated us as we lay close for warmth, the longest bridge could not have spanned the gap between our spirits. And in the end as the nights grew a little warmer, I stopped turning towards her and dreamed of the days when we’d made love with all consuming passion and joy. And her face in my dreams stopped looking like hers and became wondrously strange and I tried to catch her but she was as elusive as a patch of light on the river wave and my longing burned.

And in the day, my wife was somehow even further away. When she’d finished listlessly grinding what little grain we had, or made my food, she’d curl back into the bed, her back turned to me, her face to the wall of the round house, curled like a babe in the womb, or a corpse in its grave.

Then when it came to the turning of the year, someone forgot to do what needed to be done, just as they had at Winter solstice. And though the winter had taken the old man who used to guard the gateway facing the stones had died, no one thought to find another to take his place.

On that day when promise of spring whispered in the chilly sunshine, the things that should have been done were left undone. The fires were not stirred up to ensure that fiery smoke filled the holes in our houses’ roofs, doors were left open, thresholds welcomed.

That day, I took my bow and went hunting alone. And in the woods, I looked into the mossy stone circle and saw nothing and no one and turned away, then turned back to see the woman from my dreams there, sitting astride a beautiful horse. And I knew that woman as if I’d known her my whole life. 

Her hair was as dark and rich as Midwinter night and yet shimmered like water in the full sun, it flowed down her back as far as her waist, in thick curls and her waist was slim and her breasts were high under her linen dress. Her face was…. I can not describe it. Whenever I looked at her eyes I found mine straying to consider the angle of her cheekbones and then the berry fullness of her mouth.

She slipped from her horse, the horse whose hooves I had not heard. It was sixteen hands at least that horse, and stood tossing its mane at her side, standing without bridle or saddle, as loyal as a dog yet as independent as a cat. Powerful yet slender, all its strength a potential in the muscles shifting under the chestnut skin. 

Will you help me? said the woman. Or I thought she said. I knew her so well that I knew what she was thinking. 

‘What ails you lady?’ I made to step in towards her. 

May I come to you instead? she said, or thought.

I beckoned. ‘Of course.’

And then… she stepped out of the circle towards me and smiled. 

I am lonely, she said or thought. Will you walk with me? And we walked, side by side, and  her hand slipped into mine and the warmth from her body warmed me and the horse followed behind without a sound, not even the crack of twigs underfoot or the swishing of young bracken as we passed. 

I cannot say how long we walked till we found a grove where soft green leaves lay fresh and inviting under the curving bough of a silver birch and no, I never once wondered why there were green leaves lain down like a cloak, nor why when she asked me to sit down with her, they were warm as a blanket held by a fire. The scent of her filled my head. It was like spiced mead and rich berry wine – heady and sweet – driving out all other thought but the need to taste her mouth and curve my hand round her breast and her waist and every secret of her body until I had given her the joy she demanded and deserved. And I don’t know how long we rolled in those leaves, only that when she pulled away, she smiled. 

I never wondered how at the turning of the year, on a day when the morning had started with frost, we could lay there naked and feel warm. My back was raked with her nails, and my own blood was salty on my lip, yet I only wanted her again and again until I died from the desire for her.  

But she smiled and dressed and stood and wordlessly, climbed onto her horse’s back and without a backward glance, they galloped soundlessly away.

Night was falling and now she was gone, the leaves looked like ones that had lain there  since Autumn, and the sweat on my skin started to chill me. I dressed, shivering, and made my way home. I made some excuse for bringing no food with me and turned from my wife’s sad eyes. And that night, I rolled myself in my cloak and lay on the other side of the fire so that I could not touch her even by accident and wondered how I could feel so empty and lost and if I would ever see the woman again.

The days drew out. The promise of green became rich foliage, the hunting was good once more and my wife now turned her face to the sky, and she bathed in the river and sat on the threshold shelling peas, the sun drying her lovely hair into waves of brown. She smiled a little. Shyly, she waited for me in our bed with the covers turned back, but though I joined her, I did not touch her. My longing for the woman was a sickness and I could feel the ribs through my skin as plain as the wheals on my back that her nails had left.

At Summer solstice someone remembered. Thresholds were closed, smoke holes filled. 

But I was the one who offered to face the stones. And I took my bow and I walked towards them and waited. And there she came, riding once more from nowhere into the centre of them. Her horse was as wild as ever, its eyes flashing and green and the woman was petulant. 

It did not work, she said, or thought. Your seed did not grow. I need you to try again. Or maybe I need a man whose children live.

‘All our children died the winter just gone,’ I said. ‘It was too bitter for them.’

The woman pursed her lips. It was too bitter for ours too.

I stared at her then, remembering my little girl fade in my arms. She had become strange in those last days of her life. And she was not the only child who changed in their final moments. Going to sleep like one person and waking as another, only to die a few days later. 

Call me out of the circle, she said, or thought. I need you to… I want you. Her petulance changed into desire. The horse stamped its silent hooves. The air shimmered.

‘Did you exchange your children for ours at midwinter?’ I said at last, bile in my throat. ‘Did you take my girl?’

Your children are stronger than ours. Ours are weak, but our powers are great. Give me another child, mix your blood with mine then…

‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Where is my little girl. Is she alive?’

If you won’t call me out of the circle, then come with me and find out. She coaxed with her mouth but her eyes were cold. She patted the horse’s neck. See what wonders could be yours.

And for a moment I stood there, the burning of desire strong in my gut, the scent of her filling my head, but it was a cold scent and a cold desire a.

‘If you can bring back our children alive, maybe I’ll come with you. Maybe I’ll do as I ask.’

The desire dropped from her face and her teeth snarled. I cannot.

‘Then go back to where you came from,’ I said. ‘I have betrayed my wife enough.’

She hesitated for only a second, then wheeled the horse round and galloped into nowhere.

And since then, I have faded in strength, though the scars on my back have not. I yearn for the woman every night though the desire is nauseating and cold. 

For I remembered who it was who was responsible for making sure we kept the gateway protected and the thresholds sealed at Winter solstice and turn of year in the Spring. 

It was the chieftain. It was I. And I lost more than my daughter with my negligence.

I lost everything.

A song called ‘Ride On‘ by Christy Moore inspired this story. One day, I might expand on it.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/vintage-arthur-rackham-victorian-1722369/

Of Chopsticks, Tramps and Bandages

‘Girls must be partners and comrades rather than dolls.’ 

‘Their pork is excellent… but they do not find it necessary to burn the house down for each joint.’

‘The well-dressed man has an unpleasant shock in store for him.’

‘Returning from the city, they discovered the house lit up and a man lying in bed.’

‘Most of the processes are of course, familiar to real Colonists, gipsies, and the better class of tramps and poachers.’

Are these from any of my works in progress? Not yet.

Are they story prompts? Not specifically.

These are actually sentences from real newspaper articles published in British newspapers between 1910 and 1912. 

Researching is like entering a rabbit warren (or indeed a certain Swedish furniture store) mistakenly expecting a speedy exit, then finding yourself with something you never knew you wanted.

I first discovered the British Newspaper Archives when I was trying to find a report of a real event for Death in the Last Reel. I was feeling pretty pleased when I found what I was looking for, then spotted something on the same page which fitted into the story too. It may look totally coincidental in the novel but really wasn’t. A newspaper that day really did have two things that Margaret would be concerned about next right to each other on the page.

It then occurred to me that some of the minutiae of life might be easier to find out this way. For example – how much prize money might be offered for a short story in 1912? I’d put £5 in my early draft and someone said ‘That would have been nearly half a year’s wages for a maid. Surely it’s too much.’ Accepting that as a good point and looking for something accurate, I searched the archives again and found a short story competition at the right sort of time, with a top prize of … £5. Wages and the value of things then and now can’t be directly correlated. But £5 was a princely sum and well worth winning. 

When I’m not book researching, I’m digging into my family history and there was a mystery I wanted to solve for myself, so I used the website to see what I could find. While I discovered some things that were anticipated and tragic, I found other things that were rather sweet. I also found a crime. 

When my grandfather was about six, his home was burgled. The burglars stole £18 3s 4d but were pursued by a constable as they tried to get away, whereupon they launched an attack on him with the jemmy and a stick and left him injured as they escaped. The constable was found and hospitalised. The burglars were caught, charged and brought to court. I haven’t quite found out what their sentence was yet, even though the crime was reported in several papers.

But like the page with the factory fire and the spy, it’s not just one headline on the page that fascinates.

In the tabloid forerunner the London Illustrated News, ‘Alleged Burglars Attack a Constable’ (an article which includes the word ‘burglariously’) is perhaps one of the milder incidents reported on 13th May 1911. It nestles in the middle of: ‘Appalling Tragedy at Asylum’, ‘Sensational Scene at a Theatre’, ‘Fatal Affray at Limehouse’, ‘Savage Murder of a Yorkshire Gamekeeper’. At the bottom of the page is an advertisement for Dr Patterson’s Famous Female Pills (which corrects all disorders of females where other remedies have failed).

Four days earlier, The Halesworth Times and East Suffolk Advertiser, reporting the same thing has a rather different approach. ‘Constable’s Fight with Burglars’ comes after ‘Bride but no Bridegroom, £500 damages for Jilted Widow’, which itself comes under an instalment of the story ‘A Miscreant’s Wife’ by Lillias Campbell Davidson and before headlines such as ‘A Modish and Becoming Coiffure’, ‘Cooking a Village’*, ‘Interviewing a Ghost’ and ‘Girl Leads Rebels’ among others, before a section for children. At the top of the page is an advertisement for Dr Williams’ Pink Pills (which can tackle a strong man’s unexpected collapse). *No that’s not a typo.

I sometimes worry that I have a lot of odd things happening in my books, and then I consider real life and feel I’m not trying hard enough. 

Anyway, if you want to know what the quotations at the top relate to, without further ado, here is a brief explanation of each quotation. 

  1. Oxford Journal 10th August 1910 – an answer to a question about exactly who Girl Guides were supposed to guide. Turns out it’s husbands and/or Empire. The sentence quoted above is the last that perhaps wouldn’t exasperate a modern woman who doesn’t consider matrimony or colonising someone else’s country her life goal. Rather chillingly, given the date, one useful thing Girl Guides would learn was how to find a wounded soldier on a battlefield if necessary and then treat his injuries.
  2. Pall Mall Gazette 18 May 1912 – a description of the fairly new and fashionable Chinese Restaurant off Piccadilly. It’s in a number of newspapers and describes authentic and interesting sounding Chinese food which clearly baffled yet delighted the diners (and yes the restaurant supplied porcelain chopsticks but also offered knives and forks).
  3. Daily Mirror 3rd May 1912. An article entitled, ‘The Most Envied Men… Those who bought their clothes before London’s Tailors’ Strike’ goes on to give the awful fact that ‘It is likely that in the next few months, possibly, he will have to wear garments of last year’s choice…’
  4. Christchurch Times, 26 October 1912. No it’s not a re-enactment of Goldilocks. Two ladies returned from an evening out in Glasgow to find an inebriated burglar, who’d collected all their jewellery together, but then decided to have a nap.
  5. Pall Mall Gazette 18 May 1912 again – a review of a book called ‘In Camp and Kitchen’ by Lucy H Yates. (No, I didn’t realise there was a class system for poachers either.)

Were they what you expected? Or had you thought it was something else entirely? Do tell!

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/squirrel-rodent-newspaper-reading-6374731/

A Hint of Spices Past

Ingredients: a good book, time, tasty food.

Method: Combine as desired. Try to keep grease spots and crumbs off the book.

VariatIon:

Ingredients: A historical recipe, unfamiliar ingredients, time, and a mixing bowl. 

Method: Follow recipes wondering if they’ll work. Eat the result whatever it turns out like. Don’t worry too much about crumbs and grease spots because they’re a badge of honour on a cookbook.

My interest in what people in ‘olden days’ might have eaten started when I was about nine and read a book called ‘The Gauntlet’ by Ronald Welch. In it, a modern boy is transported back to the Middle Ages and lives as a nobleman’s son in Carreg Cennen castle. At one point, someone brings in a dish of meatballs and there on the page was the recipe for how they were made. It somehow brought the scene alive, not simply to imagine them ‘doing a Henry VIII’ (as my aunt used to say, meaning to eat with ones fingers and chucking bones onto the rush-covered floor for the dogs to munch) but visualising the cook, sweating in the kitchen, preparing something I could actually cook myself one day.

Roll on a few years and as a writer of historical fiction, one of the things I like to research is what people might have eaten and how they might have managed their lives. Below, you can see a selection of my historical cookbooks (original, facsimile, translated).

You might think it’s hard to work out for Lucretia and her fellows in the Murder Britannica books but fortunately, not only are there translations of Apicius’s Cookbook but Farrell Monaco works out a modern version of those recipes and shares them on https://tavolamediterranea.com/ under Edible Archaeology. I’ve cooked a few of them myself for Sunday dinners and very nice they are too. 

It’s easier for the Caster and Fleet and Margaret Demeray books, because if all else fails, there’s Mrs Beeton. I bought my copy a very long time ago from a shop in the Forest of Dean which specialised in secondhand/antique cooking utensils and books. This edition is from the early 1930s though, so wanting to be sure that I had a better idea of what women who had to do their own cooking or at least help with it might have cooked, I sought other books. 

‘The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book’ (facsimile) is interesting, as the recipes were sent in by ordinary women to be compiled into a book which not only would raise money but would suggest things a busy campaigning woman could cook and eat in a short time. They are all very simple, easy, and mostly cheap, nutritious and generally appealing even to modern tastes (maybe eating brains isn’t). There’s a vegetarian section and a sick room section and also practical hints and tips. ‘The Best Way’ book (original) gives pages of simple, flavoursome recipes and explains how to deal with anything from cleaning brass to baby care. I can imagine Margaret and Katherine referring to both of these, although only Margaret can cook well. 

Even though ‘Indian Cookery’ (original and pristine, so not a real cook’s book) dates from 1861. It would have been thirty plus years old by the time the Caster and Fleet and Liz Hedgecock’s Maisie Frobisher mysteries take place, but it’s perhaps possible that in a wealthy household like Connie’s or Maisie’s cook the cook would have had one as Indian cuisine was already very popular in Britain and Maisie has been to India. It was written by Richard Terry, chef de cuisine at the Oriental Club, what is referred to as the first Indian restaurant in London. I’m sure there were already others, run by Indian people with authentic recipes, but were perhaps not appreciated by well-off white British people at that time. The recipes in the book are all called ‘curry’ of course and doubtless are/were unrecognisable to anyone from India. There’s reference to a curry powder blend, the recipe for which is provided and a curry paste which isn’t, perhaps because the author sold it and wanted to keep the ingredients secret. Due to the British Raj, Indian food caught on (and was Anglicised) very quickly and has never looked back, though hopefully nowadays, there’s more authenticity and respect. For a fascinating if sobering article about the early British fascination with Indian cuisine, check out https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/curry-in-colonial-india

Although ‘Indian Cookery’ itself might not have been on the kitchen bookshelf of the average middle class woman like Margaret in the 1910s, don’t let anyone tell you that ‘foreign food’ like pasta, rice and all this spice is a modern thing. 

There are plenty of all of them in the Suffrage Cookbook, Mrs Beeton and ‘The Best Way’ which might have been. Cayenne, curry powder, chillies, curry paste, rice and pasta are all mentioned throughout. The Suffrage Cookbook includes a vegetarian version of babotie (spelled boboté) using a meat substitute called protose. Babotie is a spiced South African dish we often eat at home (meat version) and the recipe I follow is fairly similar. Apart from a slightly worrying recipe for ‘the kind of macaroni called spaghetti’ which boils it for half an hour otherwise, everything is very edible even if the recipes are sometimes a little vague as to method.

I also have a copy of ‘A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes’ first published in 1852, which aimed to help people on a limited budget cook nutritiously. This is a suggestion of what should be in a basic kitchen:

  • A cooking stove (with oven and with or without boiler)
  • A three gallon boiling pot
  • A one gallon saucepan with lid
  • A two quart ditto
  • A potato steamer
  • A frying pan
  • A twelve gallon copper for washing or brewing (or presumably both though not at the same time)
  • A gridiron (griddle/girdle/bakestone)
  • A mash tub
  • Two cooling tubs (or an old wine or beer cask cut into two would be cheaper and do the same)

The total cost for all this was apparently £6/12/4 – six pounds, twelve shillings and fourpence. To put this in context, even a clerk might be lucky to earn one pound a week and someone further down the social scale a lot less. The author (chief cook to Queen Victoria) suggests that if the reader doesn’t have enough savings to buy these, then they should save up. How long would that have taken given that your £1 per week also had to pay for rent and food? Having doubtless depressed the average working class wife and told her she must keep everything clean, the author next suggests a Sunday dinner for a family of ten with leftovers for the next day of boiled beef with cabbage and potatoes with suet pudding or dumplings. He says it will cost perhaps three shillings (and to note that small children only really need the dumplings). On a wage of £1 a six day working week, three shillings would have been one day’s wages. I imagine the leftovers may have lasted more than one day. You only need to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ to get an idea of how hard things could be . (Sadly they still are, and it’s good to know there are resources for cooking on a very limited budget, https://cookingonabootstrap.com/category/recipes-food/ being one.)

Going back to my research, of course, just reading the recipes is no good, I like to try them too. Yesterday, I had a historical baking afternoon. 

I made some Richmond Maids of Honour Tarts (bottom right on the plate), which have a history going back to Henry VIII’s time. The original recipe (which allegedly once involved a maid being locked up) is a closely guarded secret (though I assume she’s been let out by now). So I used this one by Delia Smith.

As April 25th was Anzac Day, (which commemorates the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign on 25th April 1915) I also made some Anzac biscuits (top). The recipe I followed to avoid having to choose between NZ or Aussie recipes was my gran’s and you can see it below (and a photograph of the original in her writing).

Finally I thought I’d go back to Roman times and make some barley biscuits with cheese and figs (left) from the Tavola Mediterrea site. 

How did it go? The tarts, while looking nothing like Delia’s are delicious. I used ready rolled puff pastry which I put in a patty pan and ended up with 12 tarts and a small amount of leftover filling. The Anzac biscuits, are delicious too, even though I had to use granulated instead of brown sugar (I’d run out and went to the shop to get some and of course forgot and came out with something else entirely as you do). The barley biscuits dough possibly needed more water as the dough was quite dry, but the end result is very good, a little like an oatcake biscuit. I drizzled them with maple syrup and the cheeses are Mantego, Cheddar and Philadelphia.

What’s on the menu today? Well, I have some cod and a Roman recipe book. What about Patella Lucretianam? It’s a cod recipe with herbs and spring onions. I have all of those. And according to the book, ‘Lucretius has yet to be identified.’ What if it wasn’t a Lucretius? What if a certain Lucretia inspired the recipe and Apicius wrote it down wrong? Mmm.  It seems a bit bland for Lucretia. Now what’s in the fridge that’ll go with cod and onions really well? Aha! Chorizo. I can pretend it’s spicy Lucanian sausage. That’ll be right up Lucretia’s street. 

Now where’s my pinny?

Granny D’s Anzac biscuits

1 cup flour

1 cup rolled oats

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup desiccated coconut

1 tablespoon hot water

125g margarine

2 tablespoons golden syrup (black treacle may be used)

Method

  • Preheat oven to Gas mark 4; 180°C; 350°F
  • Heat the margarine and syrup gently together.
  • Mix all dry ingredients together, except bicarbonate.
  • Pour well stirred margarine and syrup into the dried ingredients.
  • Add the bicarbonate mixed with water.
  • Mix all together.
  • Make into walnut sized balls, put onto biscuit tray well spaced.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes.
  • Reverse trays on shelves after 5 mins, turning trays for even cook.
  • These are more gooey if slightly undercooked.

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.