And, we’re back

Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?

So, yeah. I thought I was done but maybe I’m not. That was a good break, but I kept thinking ‘I should write a blog post about that’, and then remembering that I don’t do that any more. Then I had a three month stint of being paid for my writing via a ton of articles I wrote for a project that in the end didn’t happen but whatevs, I got all the money anyway and some stuff got published on a corporate blog somewheres on the interwebs.

In the midst of that, I got a new, full time job that doesn’t require a shitty commute or stupid hours and lo! I’m home before 6pm on week nights. Oh, and it’s a good job paying a proper salary and the company seems really nice. Huh.

And I had all my hair cut off, and did some decorating and read some books and listened to some audiobooks, and Charlie has so far left three dead rabbits under the bed. I’m going to start storing stuff there just to stop him using it as a larder.

I made a sourdough starter and my sourdough isn’t the greatest but it’s ok. Loaves are rising as I type, and will continue to rise overnight until I bake them before I go to a yoga workshop in the morning.

I’m still single. It’s still fucking awesome. John Wick 3 was ok, better than 2, not as good as 1. I need to see Avengers Endgame again and I meant to see Rocketman this evening but then I painted my fence with teak oil, rewarded myself with wine and ordered a takeaway instead.

I’m reading a book about otters, and listening to Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver and I simply cannot find the right pair of black shoes.

I think we’re up to date now. Did you miss me?

 

 

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Things I actually do now I live on my own

 

white coffee mug on brown surface
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

Way back when I first put the offer in on this house, before life proper blew up around me, I wrote about what I’d do when I lived on my own. So I thought I’d go back and see if I realised any of that particular fantasy.

  1. Put the lights on in the morning when I wake up – No. But, when I wrote that originally, I expected still to be working and therefore getting up in the dark by now. At some point, I will set an alarm to make me get up before it’s light, but not quite yet.
  2. Get a really good reading lamp in the bedroom – No, but I curse my current lamp every evening. I haven’t bought a new one because I don’t have any money but it’s inching its way up the priority list.
  3. Go back to bed on weekend mornings with a novel and a pot of coffee – Yes! And not only weekends. For a while, it was most mornings, now I’ve managed to shift myself downstairs earlier. It is one of the small but great pleasures of my new life that because I’m not dashing off anywhere in the morning, I get to make a pot of coffee and sit around to drink two cups while reading, or listening to the radio. In fact, it is one of the incentives to make my own business work, so that I have the flexibility to continue to do that.
  4. Or, get all the cleaning done by 9am so I can sit down with coffee and a novel – this varies. I do tend to get the cleaning out of the way as early as possible. It helps that this house is small and easy to clean – 45 minutes tops.
  5. I will buy a beautiful, colourful rug – No, again because by the time I moved I didn’t have any money. But I will when I get some, the impetus hasn’t gone away.
  6. Music throughout the house – Yes! I bought a Sonos speaker months in advance, so that covers downstairs. I’d like another one for upstairs as well, so that whatever I’m listening to can follow me around the house.
  7. Buy more pictures and not have a TV – Yes! I bought pictures from a couple of artists  I visited as part of Oxford Art Weeks. Plus I have a ton of images that I got from my art nude shoot. But, lack of finance is getting in the way again, so nothing new has been framed. In fact, I still have to hang all my old pictures and there is less wall space than I remembered. Definitely no TV though. I did wonder if I would notice this, as during the summer I got quite used to Neflix on a big screen. But I’ve defaulted happily back to my old ways and watch Strictly on the laptop without noticing the difference.
  8. Scent things in the airing cupboard with lavender and rosemary – Not yet, but good idea, Earlier Me! I shall put that on my list. I have rosemary in the garden so I could dry some of that as a start.

But the main difference I’m seeing is not the living on my own, it’s the unexpected change of not working and therefore having so much more time. My dears, it is glorious. I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed and it may well be never, given that I’ve been working full time since 1994. It makes the fact that I’ll never be able to retire even more poignant, now that I’ve had a taste of what life could be like.

Of course, I am putting in a good few hours on my own business, but that is currently very flexible. At the moment, I prefer to start later, as a counterpoint to all those early mornings of the last few years. But I spend my time reading or baking or getting other chores done. I also find that I don’t mind working in the evening. I take a break from about 4pm – 7pm, so that I can go for a run, cook dinner, feed the cats and watch Strictly It Takes Two (yes, I am organising my life around Strictly. Because I can.) But then I don’t mind fitting in another couple of hours, particularly if it’s writing work.

Unfortunately, with all that extra time comes less money. But even that has an upside: necessity means that I’m cooking so much more and fortunately, I love a veggie casserole at this time of year. I’m baking my own bread or cakes too, so my grocery bill has plummeted. Over all, I’d say I’m eating less (the workday boredom doesn’t kick in and drive me to snack), but more healthily and for cheaper. I am driven not to waste the fresh ingredients I do have, and that pushes me to be more creative in what I’m cooking. It’s a matter of ‘What can I do with what I’ve got that needs using?’, but I enjoy that, and the knowledge that I’m being less wasteful.

And finally, it’s an absolute joy to spend so much time with the cats. In the seven years I’ve had them, I’ve always been away most of the time. They are older and calmer these days, and spend most of their days sleeping. But they come and find me several times a day, and Belle in particular likes to be nearby. Previously, it seemed that just when they wanted attention, I had to head out the door. Now, I can always stop and make time for them, so I do.

These halcyon days can’t last, because I must earn some money. I am gathering all the rosebuds I can right now.

Being broke

Going from a salary of around £50k to around £0 is a bit of a shock to the system. Especially when you do that immediately after buying a house – not that my mortgage is any more expensive than rent was. I am fortunate in that I can afford to tide myself over for a few months, so I’m not really down-to-my-last-dime broke. But, I very really could be. Oddly, this situation is still a whole lot less anxiety-provoking than my last job was. As time goes on, I’m still unpacking how very damaging that was for me.

I have started my own business offering business coaching to small businesses and for a couple of weeks in, I think it’s ok? Some interest, anyway and I will keep pursuing that. But, I’m also still applying for jobs – full time, part time, anything I can get. Some money is better than no money and fortunately, I never thought I had a career in the first place so it’s not like I’m wedded to anything in particular.

And, inevitably, I have a budget and am suddenly very aware of where my money goes. I don’t have disposable income any more, so unavoidable costs like parking have to come out of money allocated for something else. Probably food, as that’s the one area really under my control that I can whittle down even further.

Other than the fact that having to sense check every purchase adds a lot more decision making to my days, it’s all ok. The luxuries just go, and I don’t really mind. I’m cooking and baking more, which I enjoy. Now that it’s Asda and Lidl rather than Sainsbos and Waitrose, why buy their crappy bread (and it is crappy) when I can bake a better loaf at home?

The interesting thing is with job applications, though. I’m used to being able to drive everywhere and not consider distance. But for a minimum wage part time job, I do have to take that into consideration because I could easily wipe out a most of a week’s earnings in petrol and parking. Or parking and bus fares. Or parking and train fares. So although part of me is thinking apply, apply, apply, that’s not actually realistic. Argh.

Well, all I can do is to keep chipping away at the problem. I won’t say ‘and hope something comes up’ because it’ll take more than wishful thinking!

 

The Nigella key

Written for A, who was complaining that I don’t make late night brownies in my nightie, unlike la Lawson. It’s like he hasn’t met me. Anyway.  This is the first short story I’ve written in forever and it’s obviously nonsense, but I did like the idea of the Nigella key.  I say it’s a cautionary tale, he says it’s an incentive to put a spare key under the doormat.

The Nigella Key

Sara woke up with a start. She lay for a few moments, wondering what had woken her, automatically reaching out to check the time on her phone. A little after 1am, and as she put the phone down, she heard a cupboard door in the kitchen squeak open. That bloody door! But she relaxed. It would be Matt, unable to sleep and unequally unable to resist a guilty, late night sugar hit.

Except that the warmth in the bed and the sound of breathing told her Matt was still in bed, next to her. So, what the fuck? She must still be half-asleep, mixing dreams up with reality. She listened.

She heard a drawer slide open, then gently rattle shut. Something that sounded like a cork coming out of a bottle. Seriously, what the fuck?

‘Matt’. She nudged him. ‘Matt! I think there’s someone in the kitchen. You need to go down and check.’

She could tell he was awake but he pretended not to be. He hated being disturbed, it made him grumpy all the next day if he didn’t get his eight hours.

‘Matt!’

He gave up pretending. ‘I can’t hear anything’.

‘Just listen’.

He buried his face in the pillow, but they both heard the next noise.

‘It sounds like… someone humming’, Sara whispered.

‘What sort of bloody burglar starts humming, for God’s sake?’

‘I told you, you’ll need to go and check!’

Sara switched on the torch on her phone as Matt swung his feet off the bed and reached blearily for his dressing gown. He glared at her as he left the room, muttering something under his breath. She heard his steps going down the stairs and treading towards the kitchen. There was a pause, then she could have sworn she heard him say ‘Nigella!’

Yeah, because that was likely. Sara looked at her phone again. 1.07am. Now she could hear low voices coming from the kitchen, and laughter. Definitely laughter. After a moment’s hesitation, she scrambled out of bed and edged her way to the landing. Soft light was leaking out of the kitchen doorway into the hall below, followed by familiar domestic noises. The fridge door opened and closed, the oven beeped into life. Ok, this was weird, but, Sarah judged, not dangerous. It must be one of their friends, although she couldn’t immediately think of anyone who had a key. Anyway, no reason not to go downstairs.

Matt was laughing again as she walked into the kitchen.

‘That’d be amazing!’ he said.

To Nigella bloody Lawson, who was standing there in Sara’s kitchen, large as life and twice as voluptuous. She was unmistakable, partly because, well, she was Nigella, and partly because she had an array of baking equipment on the work surface in front of her and appeared to be making a start on weighing out the sugar. She was wearing a nightdress. The words ‘lawn cotton’ popped into Sara’s head, not that she knew exactly what they meant.

‘Oh, hi Sara’, Matt said, as though it was the most natural thing in the world to find Nigella in your kitchen at 1.13 on Tuesday morning. ‘Isn’t it great? Nigella’s just making some chocolate brownies’.

Nigella looked up from her weighing. ‘Lovely to meet you, Sara’, she breathed. ‘Honestly, it won’t be long. Don’t mind me’.

Sara stared. She walked out of the kitchen, looked at her phone. Back into the kitchen. Yes, Nigella was still there, but now she was asking where they kept the chocolate. She’d poured herself a glass of wine, Sara noticed. Nigella saw her looking.

‘Gosh, so sorry, hope you don’t mind? I always like a glass of wine when I’m cooking late at night. Have some?’ She held out the bottle towards Sara, but it was Matt who leapt up enthusiastically and got himself a wine glass from the shelf. He raised an eyebrow at Sara, who shook her head, so he just poured one for himself and sat back down.

‘Sorry’, said Sara. ‘Sorry. Can I just check something? You are Nigella Lawson, and you’re in my kitchen at stupid o’clock in the morning, making brownies?’

‘That’s right!’ Nigella laughed.

‘But – how did you get in?’

Nigella and Matt exchanged a conspiratorial glance.

‘Do you want to tell her, or shall I?’ Nigella winked coquettishly at Matt. He blushed. He bloody blushed!

‘She used the Nigella key’, he said, avoiding Sara’s gaze. The scent of melted chocolate started to fill the kitchen.

‘The Nigella…?’

‘It was under the doormat’, added Nigella. ‘It usually is.’

‘Under the doormat’, Sara repeated, blankly. ‘Right. Matt, can we have a word?’ She walked out of the kitchen, flicked the sitting room lamp on. More low voices, then Matt followed her into the room.

‘Are you all right?’. He was concerned. ‘Look, I can keep Nigella company, why don’t you go back to bed?’

Sara stared at him. ‘Matt, what is this? I wake up in the middle of the night and it turns out there’s a TV chef in the kitchen and you act as though it’s just normal? And she had a key? What the… I mean, I don’t get it.’

‘Well, I’ll admit I was a bit surprised she was actually here, I never in a million years thought she’d use the key. It’s just, you never know, do you? It’s a guy thing.’

‘It’s a guy thing to leave a key for Nigella Lawson in case she decides to pop round unexpectedly, in her nightie, and bake cookies?’

‘Brownies’

‘What-the-fuck-ever!’

‘Well.’ Pause. ‘Yes.’

In the kitchen, Nigella listened and smiled her cat-got-the-cream smile. She hummed to herself and poured another generous glass of wine. This was how it always went. The wives, or girlfriends, or partners, or whatever they called themselves, never understood. They never stayed for a brownie. The men did, though. And then, Nigella took them with her when she left.

And she didn’t even do the washing up.

Hello? Hello? Is anyone still there?

Bit of an unexpected blogging break there, chaps. My laptop died unexpectedly, and it’s taken a few weeks to figure out what’s wrong and get it fixed. Back up your laptops, friends! I managed to upload my CV to Dropbox from email, but other than that, I wiped everything. I didn’t have much stored anyway, and really old photos are on my really old Mac, which still fires up if I can round up enough hamsters to power it, but still. Read my cautionary tale and be afeared! TimeMachine is synching with a shiny new external hard drive even as I type.

So, what’s been happening at Musings Towers, you cry? Well, in no particular order:

  1. The cats have killed the usual number of small birds and mammals, and memorably, one bloody huge pigeon. Belle made a valiant attempt to eat it, but after strewing feathers everywhere she gave up and slept for the rest of the day.
  2. I’m in shock (and anger, and disbelief and denial, and and and) about Brexit. Let’s just not go there.
  3. In partial response to the above, I started comfort reading fiction. I’m half way through A.S. Byatt’s Frederica quartet. I know I’d read The Virgin in the Garden and Babel Tower years ago, but I’ve never read the whole thing. Part of it was being read on R4 and it immediately became imperative to acquire the lot. Reading it has been interspersed with various other books, ranging from the last Terry Pratchet, to the latest Tessa Hadley, The Past. Fiction helps when the world’s gone mad, as it assuredly has.
  4. Not so much on the baking front, but this weekend I managed to make:
    1. Coconut macaroons that did not turn into coconut soup
    2. Some gluten free scones that didn’t rise at all, but to which all the baking powder (5tsp!) did impart a slightly metallic taste. I must be able to do better than that.
    3. Proper scones, to be eaten with proper jam and proper clotted cream.
  5. After several lovely years at this incarnation of Musing Towers, I’m moving. I will be sad to leave, but my landlords are getting on a bit and keeping the farm going is incredibly hard work, so they’re thinking about selling up and retiring into this house. I think my new place will be good, though. It’s in a village that has a shop, two pubs, a vets, a library and a doctor’s surgery. Inevitably, it also has a fair number of people in order to support all that but with any luck, I’ll never meet any of them. I’m moving over the Bank Holiday weekend in August, so I’m in that in between phase where I have to get all the moving out chores done here as well as planning packing and the purchasing of new bits & pieces for the house.
  6. After several years of being bored off my tits a lot of the time, I’ve finally knuckled down and registered for another OU course. I still can’t afford to do a PhD, and there’s no other classics stuff I can sensibly do, so I’ve taken a complete change of direction and gone for a degree in Psychology & Law instead. It will start in October, and I got very excited, anticipating the delivery of the usual OU box of readables I could dive into, but it turns out that this course is all online. Newfangled didactic methods, I never heard the like.
  7. In order to afford the OU course, I’m planning to give back my really quite nice convertible and swap it for something that isn’t a convertible and is therefore about half the price. I don’t much care what, because in my spoilt, princess way, if the roof doesn’t come down it’s not a proper car anyway, so who cares? Anyway, let’s hope that Mercedes-Benz will play along with the idea, ‘cos I don’t have a Plan B.
  8. Because some attempt at exercise was well overdue, I suffered through 5 personal training sessions. Every one of them left me aching, but I got stronger every time, too, and a decade plus old injury seems to have been fixed.  I’m definitely booking some more, and it’s beginning to seem inevitable that I’ll start running again, too.
  9. Bringing us right up to date, I drank a bit too much sparkling stuff at Battle Proms at Blenheim last night, and am slightly suffering for it today. But there were fireworks, and cannon and musket fire as well as the music, and if Land of Hope and Glory only sounds ironic at the moment? This too shall pass.

 

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2016-07-16 21.45.49

 

 

 

What’s been cooking?

Lots of different cooking activity lately, from which I have learned that you can do what you like with granola but you need decent sized flakes of desiccated coconut to make successful coconut macaroons. Seriously. I made extremely sweet coconut soup and even when I decided that treating it like cake mix and baking it in cases might work, it was still a bit wrong. Don’t go there.

Becky’s granola by way of Nigella who got it from Andy in Connecticut

I’ve started making my own granola, based on a Nigella recipe but with reduced sugary elements because just the thought of fruit compote + syrup + honey + sugar makes my teeth itch. But it’s kind of fun to mess around with the ingredients, and it means I get to skip the raisins (I have never understood the dependency of breakfast foods on raisins) and use what I prefer instead.

Today’s recipe was:

  • 225g oats
  • 60g white sesame seeds
  • 60g sunflower seeds
  • 60g light brown sugar
  • 125g whole almonds (I’d have preferred pecans with the maple syrup but didn’t have any)
  • 3 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp runny honey
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1/2 tsp Maldon sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • optional apple sauce or compote of choice
  • 125g dried apricots or dried fruit of your choice. I mean, I suppose you could use raisins. Freak.

Mix it all up, bang it in the oven on a couple of baking trays and leave it for about 20 mins or until golden brown. I will say that because I don’t put so much liquid in, the granola doesn’t clump as much as you might prefer. I don’t care, so I don’t worry about it, but if you do then throw in some apple sauce or similar.

Once it’s out of the oven and cool, add in the fruit. Don’t do what I did first time and bake the fruit with the rest of the mix, because then you end up with fruit that is caramelized if you’re lucky and plain old burnt if you’re not 🙂

Store in airtight jars and you’ve got a couple of weeks’ worth of breakfast. At least you get to start every day with a sense of achievement/smugness, before everyday working life beats it out of you.

Gluten free lemon meringue cake

I made lemon meringue cake to take into the office and it destroyed productivity for the entire morning. The whole cake was gone by 10am and my colleagues were on a sugar rush like kids at a party. This cake has now become the benchmark by which other baking is measured, although probs best if we don’t tell senior management about it.

So far, so good but it’s my friend S’s birthday in a couple of weeks and she is gluten intolerant. So, today I’m practicing a gluten free version, which means I’ve basically made up the ingredients for the sponge layer based on limited knowledge and guesswork. I even looked up the point of bicarbonate of soda so I knew whether I needed to keep it or not.

Lemon meringue cake is basically a fancy sandwich cake. The biggest problem I had with it was maintaining the structural integrity of the top layer of sponge + meringue while maneuvering it into position. I don’t particularly like the texture you get with gluten free flour and I don’t think it’ll be stable enough to hold together during that process, so I’m going with almond flour.

For the full on gluten version, it’s off to Nigella again.

Here’s what I’m trying as the alternative ingredients list, we’ll see what happens.

  • 125g butter
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 150g almond flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 1 lemon
  • 4tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp milk
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • good quality lemon curd
  • 150ml double cream for whipping

Lemon curd

Just in case this post isn’t hitting enough middle class keywords, I made my own lemon curd yesterday, specifically for use in the lemon meringue cake. It it is ridiculously easy, to the point that I’m kind of embarrassed I haven’t done it before.

  • 4 unwaxed lemons, juice and zest
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
  • 100g butter, cubed

Put the lemon juice and zest, sugar and butter and melt in a bowl over a pan of lightly simmering water. Usual caveats about bottom of bowl not touching water apply. Stir occasionally until all the butter has melted.

Meanwhile, lightly whisk the eggs. Once the butter has melted, slowly whisk the eggs into the lemon mixture, keeping it all over the heat. Leave to cook for 10-13 mins, stirring occasionally, until it’s thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Leave to cool, again stirring occasionally, then spoon into sterilized jars. Keep it in the fridge.

[I sterilised my jars by washing them in boiling, soapy water and then baking them at 170C for 20 minutes].

In which I’m still employed

And that’s about all I want to say about it. The company is in the early stages of the consultation process, and a horrible thing it is too. I’m getting off lightly compared to colleagues whose jobs really are on the line. It has been stressful, and continues to be difficult.

I totally failed to do anything productive for a couple of weeks, other than obsessively check LinkedIn for jobs. I’m still waiting to hear back on a couple, but I’m not particularly hopeful. I think I’m at an awkward stage, because I jumped careers and now my experience doesn’t look as though it stacks up for the roles I’m going for. So I’m not minded to stop looking just yet – a backup plan ain’t a backup plan unless you know it’s going to work, and if I’m not getting interviews then something’s not right.

On the plus side, I’ve just clawed my concentration back and managed to read novels. After almost dry January, I started drinking wine again (it was the ‘Hey! You might be losing your job, but we’ll tell you in two weeks, ok?’ message that did it) but I think I’m about ready to stop again for a while longer. The next step is some exercise. I don’t know how I’m going to pick that back up this time round, especially as I swore I wouldn’t do another 10k. But without some kind of goal, it’s too easy to walk right past the gym and come home.

Life doesn’t get any easier, does it? But, hey. The immediate pressure is off. It’s almost spring. I have vacation booked for March. I made a banana cake and some coconut macaroons yesterday. My boyfriend starts his new job tomorrow, and that’s pretty exciting for him. The cats are healthy, I’m healthy and my sister just bought me this mug as a gift. Life may not get any easier, but at least it keeps flowing along and you can’t cross the same river twice.

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