An elderly couple lived next door to my parents when I was growing up, at least I think that they were elderly. Looking back through the eyes of a childhood memory it is hard to know what age the adults around me were when I was young. My parents were old, their neighbours were old, but this couple really did seem elderly.

They had a grown up son so, unlike just about all the other neighbours, no children lived in their house. As a result I never saw inside it. When I grew tall enough to clamber onto our garage roof I caught my first glimpse of their back garden. They had surrounded it with tall hedges and trees for privacy. If they saw me as I surveyed their realm from my hard won vantage point then I don’t suppose they appreciated the curiosity of their neighbour’s young child.

They were, however, friendly towards me. If I was playing in our driveway when they returned home from work each evening then we would greet each other. Sometimes the gentleman offered me a stick of chewing gum, a treat that did not impress my mother. I was interested in them because they ran a shop. It was located near to an aunt’s house and my mother had pointed it out to me when we went to visit this relative. I enjoyed playing shop with my toy cash register and was fascinated by this unknown domain.

I do not remember how it came about. Perhaps I asked outright, maybe they offered following my insistent questioning, but I was invited to join them at their work one day. It was not the highly exciting few hours that I had anticipated. Perhaps I was not even there for that long.

Being alone with a couple that I barely knew felt strange. Once I had inspected the drawer where they kept the money (they did not use a cash register) and looked around at the bikes, repair kits, spares and random toys that they sold, I was at a loss as to how to amuse myself. I suspect that they were at a loss as to what to do with this young child and regretted agreeing to have me there.

I wanted to touch too much inside so was allowed to play on the street so long as I did not stray from view at the front. It was hard to amuse myself alone though. I wondered why I had thought that this would be such an exciting treat.

At midday the lady cooked a hot meal in a little kitchen out the back. With my father at work and we children at school each weekday, our hot meal was cooked in the evening. I thought that this was how everyone lived. I was not invited to join them so hung around aimlessly as they ate. The smell of the food was not appealing and I was pleased when my mother appeared to collect me soon after.

My mother felt obliged to make a purchase now that she had entered her neighbours territory; perhaps this was why she had never taken me in before when I had asked. I had spotted many toys that I coveted on the shelves but she did not wish to spend much on the overpriced goods. The cheapest item on offer, a puncture repair kit, would have provided limited play value, so it was suggested that I accept a small doll. Even though I did not often play with dolls I was pleased to be given something new.

This visit to the shop satisfied my curiosity and taught me that the unknown is not necessarily fun. I had been bored and nervous of these virtual strangers who had seemed so different outside the brief encounters at our homes. I knew that they had done me a favour and was grateful for their kindness, but I had not enjoyed my day.

I continued to greet these neighbours as they came and went but I watched their habits with less interest as I grew older. I found them odd in so many ways, although I suspect they were merely of a different generation. My parents would choose to go out on an enjoyable walk whereas this couple took a purposeful, evening constitutional. The only visitor they ever seemed to have to their house was their son.

I remember when the gentleman died his wife decided to learn to drive. She had bought herself a licence before tests were required but had never been behind the wheel of a car. I watched as her son showed her how to use the controls of the little automatic mini that she purchased. When she drove it was wise to stay well away. Although she could make the car move forwards she struggled with reverse. Eventually she damaged her little car trying to back it out of her narrow driveway. She gave up on her attempts to drive soon after this.

As my life moved forwards I lost interest in my parent’s neighbours. When my sister and I were little we had seemed to know so many of them as they had children our age with whom we played in the street. By the time I reached my teenage years I was socialising with others who lived beyond.

I do not remember what happened to the shop. It was on a road that has now become quite fashionable with boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants. My parents still live in the same house in another part of town, but most of those they knew have moved away.

The first job I took, while still at school, was at a checkout in a local petrol station. I learned how to use a cash register and that I hated such work. I could cope with the stress of deadlines as all that was needed was my time and effort. Queues of impatient people were beyond my control.

It is only now, looking back, that I wonder about these people I lived amongst yet knew so little about. The media likes to suggest that we are less neighbourly these days. Back in the day I lived next to a house for more than twenty years yet never saw inside.


The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1

I was seven years old when I first tried my hand at baking. My brave teacher, Mrs Dodds, who was also instrumental in encouraging me to push ahead with my love of Maths, decided to run a lesson showing how yeast reacted when added to other ingredients. I missed the end of this fascinating experiment as, for the only time in my entire school career, my parents took me out of class early. They were driving across the country to visit friends who had moved from our area to run a pub several counties away. I remember the excitement of being allowed to stand behind the bar that loomed taller than my head, before the pub opened to the public. I knew that this was distant, adult space, banned to children in those days.

My teacher had whisked my tiny little bread roll out of the oven early for me to take with me, and I nursed it’s warm crust throughout the long car journey. When I eventually ate it I remember it’s hardness and the strangeness of the taste. My mother made delicious bread regularly, but not with yeast. I ate it in the car, feeling guilty that it was too small to share. I would have liked to split it, spread on some butter and show it off. There was too much going on that day to seek attention. I nibbled on it dry, trying not to drop crumbs on my father’s car.

A year or so later I became a Brownie Guide, where we were entreated to ‘do a good turn every day’. I took this mantra seriously. We were told that giving our parents breakfast in bed would be a big treat for them; looking back I am not convinced that my parents wished to risk crumbs on the sheets and would have preferred to rise at a time of their choosing. Ever eager to please, and having recently learnt how to scramble eggs, I went through a phase of getting up early on a Sunday morning to make them a breakfast which I carefully carried to their bedroom on a tray. This ‘good turn’ came to a halt when, unbeknown to me, the clocks changed from summer to winter time and I ended up making their breakfast an hour too early. My sister heard me going through my routine and intercepted me before I disturbed our parents. I returned to the kitchen and cried hot tears of shame and frustration as I tried to keep the food warm. It was the last time I made anyone breakfast in bed.

When I moved on to grammar school I was required to study Domestic Science with a characterful teacher with the apt name of Mrs Pepper. I was truly hopeless at the subject. When we made shepherds pie I could not get the potatoes to boil soft enough to mash; how did I find this so difficult? Mrs Pepper had little time for such incompetence and I dropped the subject as soon as I was allowed.

At home I had learned to grill cheese on toast, cook eggs and heat up tinned food, but was rarely required to produce food for myself or anyone else. The only exception to this that I can remember was when my mother fainted one afternoon and had to spend a night in hospital under observation. My sister was elsewhere so I felt that I should produce dinner for my father and I. Fish had been left in the fridge, to be grilled for the evening meal. I had no idea how long to cook it for and ended up drying it out completely. We manfully chewed our way through what should have been a soft and succulent dish, but I have not attempted to cook plain fish since.

When I first moved out of the family home I lived on cereal, toast, cheese, soup, salads and fruit. With a kettle, toaster and microwave to hand I could avoid the oven and hob entirely. In a series of shared houses, with others who seemed comfortable in the kitchen, I was too embarrassed to demonstrate my lack of skill. It wasn’t until I was able to buy my first flat, at the age of twenty-four, that I began to cook hot meals from raw ingredients.

My mother had produced most of our family dinners in a scary device called a pressure cooker. She would chop up and throw in the meat, vegetables and potatoes before adding a little water and heating it all up until there was an audible whistle. The heat would then be turned down and a heavy weight put over the vent at the top. Occasionally the weight would be blown off resulting in a frightful clatter and a rush of steam. After a prescribed time the pressure cooker would be placed in the sink and cold water run over it before the weight and then lid could be removed and the food served. I have never wanted to own a pressure cooker.

All of this meant that I had not regularly observed other types of cooking first hand, and had little experience to fall back on. I had paid scant attention to what was being done in my mother’s kitchen; I had no interest in participating and learning. My mother was an advocate for healthy eating long before this became popular. I may not have picked up her cooking skills, but I had taken on board her message that processed food was bad; that fat and sugar should be avoided; that puddings other than fruit and yoghurt should be a rare treat.

For the first few months after I moved into my flat I would pop down to the local convenience store after work and buy whatever I felt like eating that night. I continued to survive largely on breakfast cereal, cheese, toast, tinned food, salad and fruit. Once I had managed to save up enough of my wages to furnish the flat, I decided that I wished to show it off and planned my first dinner party. The fact that I had little knowledge of cooking did not present itself as a problem to my naive mind. This first event set the tone for the many to come. For me, preparing the food for each of my dinner parties became a memorable, if fraught, experience.


English: A pressure cooker with a simple regul...