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.


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?’



‘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.


Smoke and Whispers, Mick Herron

It’s the Jackson Lamb books that are getting displays in bookstores at the moment, as Spook Street has just come out in paperback. And it is a great series, doing something different with the spy genre, undercutting any notions of James Bond or even Le Carre. The only character who can see round the corners and through the corkscrew twists of the latest internal machinations is Jackson Lamb himself. The rest of his spooks, flawed and failing, stumble through the action with such good intent and lack of understanding that it sometimes gets them killed. Slough House isn’t kind to its denizens.

And Mick Herron isn’t kind to Zoë Boehm either. She is the heroine, or anti-heroine, of her own series of books, of which Smoke and Whispers is the last. It starts with a body, that could be Zoë’s, floating down the Tyne. The body has Zoë’s belongings and Zoë’s clothes, and it’s a testament to the strength of the preceding books that the reader can both fully believe that yes, Zoë could have ended up face down in a river, and yet not want that to be the case. It would be an unsurprising end, but not a fitting one.

Zoë Boehm is an independent detective, based in Oxford. You’d think that Morse had Oxford covered, but Zoë’s city is not one in which a Jaguar could stay safely parked. Over the several books, her own car gets stolen and torched by an ex-policeman, she gets beaten up in Jericho and nearly drowned in the canal (and now I’m wondering if that was foreshadowing). Her Oxford is one in which the nice jeweller’s is fencing stolen goods, and the nice hotel is the starting location of a clever woman’s campaign to present herself as an abused wife before knifing her husband in the heart. No quadrangles here.

Unusually for me, I read the first book in the series and then I’ve listened to the rest. I’m listening to Smoke and Whispers at the moment and I’ve been trying to work out what makes Mick Herron such a good writer. So far, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fact that every sentence is crafted. There’s no makeweight in a Mick Herron sentence, each word lands with direct authorial intent. One paragraph can contain more observation than lesser writers display in entire novels.

And he’s great at writing female characters. Zoë is a detective first and foremost. She doesn’t get home at the end of the day and start maundering about the size of her thighs or the fact that she hasn’t got a boyfriend, in order to signal to the reader that she’s also a real, relatable woman. She is not primarily defined by her physical characteristics or what she wears: Zoë just puts her jeans on, they don’t cling enticingly to long, elegant legs that are tanned and toned from her early morning runs. Her black jeans, red top and black leather jacket may be identifiably hers but about all they say is she doesn’t pay enough attention to bother dressing to impress. She also doesn’t have a phone full of specifically skilled, male mates who can help her out when a case gets difficult. It is, frankly, a relief to read a female character who is allowed to get on with her job without also having to perform being a woman at the same time.

So far, most of the investigating in Smoke and Mirrors is being done by Sarah Tucker, someone whose life Zoë saved in the first book in the series (Down Cemetery Road) and who is now her only friend. Sarah has identified the body found in the Tyne as Zoë, but that’s based more on the conclusive leather jacket than on recognition. Something isn’t stacking up for Sarah. Maybe at first it was just unwillingness to believe that her friend is dead, but she’s now beginning to think that an old case caught up with Zoë and might be reaching out to entangle Sarah herself as well…

In Down Cemetery Road, Zoë didn’t get introduced until the endgame. I’m hoping that’s what happens here too, and maybe Sarah saves her. Then again, maybe Mick Herron isn’t going to be kind to his readers, either.


Now we are 46

Well, I’m 46 but some of my friends aren’t far behind. 46, I must say, seems to make me feel perilously close to 50, while also stubbornly disbelieving that 50 is a number that will ever apply to me at all. Which, I suppose, is one of those things about getting older. The numbers are just incredible. I feel like they signify life stages that I either missed or have no desire to reach. I suppose this is because by this point and onwards, all the major milestones are associated with families. There aren’t a whole lot of models out there setting expectations of what to do when you’ve skipped all that.

So the way I spent my birthday wasn’t all that far off how I spent my 34th birthday, and I very much doubt my 50th will look much different either. I took the day off work and headed off to London so that I could enjoy being solitary and anonymous in the middle of a crowded city. Actually, being mid week, it was fairly quiet, so that was even more of a bonus. I had brunch at Charlotte Street Hotel, which I can tell you does a delicious omelette. Then I had a makeover in Covent Garden and spent a fortune on the kit to achieve an unmade up youthful glow effect that I knew as I bought it I’d never manage. But still. In between I shopped and failed to buy boots in John Lewis and so had a nice glass of champagne instead. At every opportunity to sit down, I read more of my birthday Lee Child book, so really for half the time I could have been anywhere.

I didn’t talk to anyone in any meaningful way all day, and all my thoughts just drifted through my head without me needing to pay attention to them.  I don’t know if you have to be a busy, working woman to understand how relaxing that is but every woman I’ve told about my day has said, somewhat wistfully, ‘Time by yourself! That sounds lovely’.

And it was.

Life lessons

So, Charlie-with-the-broken-leg is now out of his cage and under house arrest. It’s been a week so far and I can see him getting stronger every day: he’s gone from limping a little and being uncertain about some jumps, to bounding wherever he feels like. He got out one night by going through an open window and down a sheer, 8 foot wall. A couple of hours later, at the sound of the snack packet, he came racing across the lawn to me.

He’s got another 10 days in the house before he’ll be back at the vets to have the pin removed from his leg. Then normal life will resume. I’m looking forward to that, as he’ll be so much happier being allowed outside; but he’s taken to following me around and I’ll miss my little shadow.

Meanwhile, my other cat barely comes in the house because she no longer recognises Charlie. When I do lure her in, usually with food, she’ll tolerate him for as long as it takes her to eat, then resume growling before making for the nearest exit. I’m hoping the trade off for seeing less of Charlie will be that Belle feels comfortable in the house again.

With all this cat care going on, I’ve been at home a lot more. I haven’t done any overnight stays away and I’ve been working from home as much as I can. I’m at my laptop by 8am latest, but as everyone who gets to skip their commute knows, you get to sleep in, do a fuller day’s work and still have more of an evening. So for me, despite working longer days, it’s felt like something of a holiday simply because I only recharge by being at home.

I hadn’t realised the extent to which I had gotten into the habit of looking at the various locations ahead of me during my week and thinking ‘Just got to get through it.’ Or the extent to which a constant low level of tiredness and stress was delimiting my ability to relax in what felt like very limited time in my house. The balance was off and although I knew some of the negative effects, I hadn’t appreciated all of them. There’s a pretty long list:

  1. Not getting time for lunch at work, so 3pm lunches of popcorn and granola bars, plus too tired to cook proper evening meals.
  2. Not drinking enough water
  3. Drinking too much tea, I think, and therefore over-caffeinated and twitchy
  4. Plus tired and unable to concentrate properly, so too much time on my phone
  5. Therefore internet shopping and then wondering where my money goes
  6. Not enough exercise
  7. A bit of not-exercising guilt
  8. General sense of should be doing something but failing to tackle any of the above because tired and lazy

And the big one, not feeling as though I had any time. Which is different to not actually having time: if I had any time at all to read Popsugar then I certainly had time to make decent food or practice yoga. It just didn’t feel that way because I had trapped myself in an apathetic circle of lethargy.

Now, I am definitely busier when I’m commuting, and I had been spending a couple of nights away a week. So it wasn’t all perception. But the situation wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, either. It’s just taken a bit of critical distance for me to be able to reassess the situation. I’ll have to get back to a more normal working pattern, but there are still steps I can take to keep some balance:

  1. More driving, fewer hotel stays. Not that more miles on the road is ideal, ideal but it’s the necessary swap for me to be at home where I can relax.
  2. Less time on my phone. I don’t think it’s a smartphone addiction, I think it’s a lazy habit (I can stop any time). Right now, I’m not sure where my phone is, but it’s definitely not within arm’s reach.
  3. Yoga. I’ve found a great yoga studio about half an hour away, and I’ve been trying to go to at least one class a week. I’m going to try to start a home practice, which is something I’ve never been successful with before.
  4. Water. I don’t understand why I struggle with this one so much. I spent Monday with a self-induced dehydration headache and it’s still hovering in the background, waiting to come back if I’m not careful. I can drink tea by the bucket but even with a water bottle on my desk, I can fail to take a single sip. I know all the benefits, I know from experience that I feel better if I’m hydrated (no shit, Sherlock) so why am I punishing myself? Argh.

So that’s kind of my promise to myself. Nothing huge there and yet, in small ways, life changing.

In which I go to a gig on my own

Yeah. Not the original plan, but at last minute the arrangements didn’t work out, so my choice was pretty much go or don’t go. So I went. It was Miranda Lambert at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham (which was much, much better than the vile and never-to-be-returned-to O2 in London) and as luck would have it, the on site food was a faux diner.

Well, when in faux Rome… I had a burger and fries and a Budweiser. I don’t drink beer, but in England Bud doesn’t count as beer and anyway, I wasn’t going to chance the wine list. The diner was pretty full and I could see several other people who were definitely Miranda bound. You could tell by the hats and the cowboy boots, and one of the women sitting next to me at the counter had a Miranda Lambert cap on.

It probably would have been easy to get into conversation with someone, but yeah. No. I read my book and ate my food, and the diner gradually emptied around me, which gave me some indication that the support act were probably on. So, eventually, I toddled out into the Friday night rain and found the right door and was shown to my seat by a grumpy man. It was a little way into the Ward Thomas set, and the rest of the row stood up to let me pass.

Ward Thomas were pretty good and I read my book again until Miranda came on, and she was great and I was glad I was there. And partway through, I realised with a bit of surprise that this was the first time I’d been to a gig on my own, but it just felt normal. I thought about it some more, and I’m not sure there are any ‘things to do on your own’ left on the list: movies, dinner, theatre, holidays, living, weekends away, drinks, parties, weddings. I’ve got the set.

Isn’t that great? I started off going to movies on my own in my teens, and sure I felt conspicuous but then I’d forget about it while watching the film. All of those things where you don’t have to engage with other people are easy. I sort of drift through them, feeling comfortably invisible in my own head. Parties and weddings are harder, because of the forced engagement with other people, but they don’t really take more than a thin veneer of fake sociability. And, no one notices when you leave early.

I think I owe a big thank you to teenage me. If she hadn’t faked feeling comfortable standing in the queue at the cinema on her own, while hoping that none of the school couples would show up, then I probably wouldn’t have been at that gig on Friday.

The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, Enid Blyton

Really, I was looking to wrap up reading about the O’Sullivan twins at St Clare’s, but Blackwells didn’t have the next volume. But I’d been thinking about the Cherry Tree Farm and Willow Farm books, although I now know I was mixing them up in my head with another book/series that I can’t remember the name of.

Anyway. Who knows how long ago I first read these, but it just goes to show how formative and influential one’s early reading can be. I was brought up on Enid Blyton, from The Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree, to Mr Galliano’s Circus, finishing up with The Famous Five, Malory Towers or the aforementioned St Clare’s. I read them again and again and again, probably long after I was technically too old for them. I always read a lot and I never had enough new books, so I got very familiar indeed with the old favourites.

I desperately wanted to go on an adventure with the Famous Five and I also desperately wanted to board at Malory Towers. Enid Blyton introduced me to the solid, middle class, mid 20th century life that I definitely wasn’t living. There were lovely Mummies and jolly Daddies, bustling cooks, scary but essentially kind teachers. Her books are easily challenged these days on the grounds of reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, being xenophobic, racist and privileged, and I’d be hard pushed to defend them. Then again, a fairly wide swathe of literature from the 30s onwards shares some similar traits, so are we supposed to stop reading all of it?

From Enid Blyton, I did learn about some good, solid values. Anyone who wasn’t quite the thing learned the error of their ways, whether they simply wouldn’t try at games or were too boastful, or stole sixpence from the mantelpiece. The important thing to do was to own up and take responsibility for your actions, whether you’d left the farm gate open or almost burnt the whole place down. I also learned about the countryside, a place that up until my 30s I thought was somewhere that you occasionally visited rather than lived. So the countryside was exotic, exciting, a little bit intimidating. I wasn’t quite the city child who had never seen a cow, because when I was 9, I was lucky enough to participate in the Farms for City Children programme and spend a week at Nethercott House. But most of what I knew was gleaned from books like the Cherry Tree Farm series, my first experience of nature writing.

They are very straightforward, plunging straight in with liberating four London born children from their unhealthy city existence into the robust healthfulness of the country. The children’s parents have to go to America (children’s books of this time always seem to pack the parents off to America – see also The Children Who Lived in a Barn) and so Rory, Sheila, Benjy and Penny are sent to stay with their aunt and uncle at Cherry Tree Farm.

They have to learn to help out on the farm at a point when farming was still only beginning to get mechanised, and at least in the Blytonsphere, was still profitable. So they feed chickens, bottle feed lambs, milk cows by hand, churn butter by hand (so that’s how you make butter!) All of this was completely alien to my own experience, of course, but when you’re  young there is so much that’s new that you can take a lot more of it in your stride.

This still leaves the children plenty of time to become friends with the ‘wild man’, Tammylan. Despite living in a cave in winter and a tree house in summer, Tammylan is locally respected for his skill with and knowledge of animals, so the children are given the all clear to spend time with him. Ah, more innocent times.

It’s Tammylan who gives the children the important first lesson of not littering the countryside, when they allow their sandwich wrappers to blow away after a picnic. Subsequently, over the course of the books, he introduces them to a hare, rabbits, a red squirrel that Benjy gets as a pet, and a fox. He shows them a weasel, teaches them to distinguish between a grass snake, an adder and a slow worm and is very clear that bats do not get into people’s hair. It’s down to Tammylan that I found out that hares live in a form; that stags grow their antlers every year and that the covering their new antlers first have is known as velvet. Without having ever seen either, I know how to tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel:

‘The stoat is easily told from the weasel/ By the simple fact that his tail is blacked/ And his figure is slightly the bigger’.

It’s probably down to Tammlyan that I’m anti fox-hunting, because, in one book, a tired, old fox takes refuge from the chase in his cave.

Of course, now I re-read the books I can spot the thin plot lines, lack of exposition, recycled characters and the bits where Blyton is just running out of steam. Even the familiarity is distant, grasped at, a memory of a memory. But there was a little girl, 30-40 years ago, who didn’t hear anyone calling her name because she was reading.

In which there is a missing cat, a cat chase and a hopeful outcome

On Friday night, I called Charlie in from the garden and he came sprinting across the lawn to me, neatly avoiding Belle as she launched at him from the side. Later, there were odd scuffling noises in the night, which turned out to be Charlie scratching at the laundry basket as he nested amongst the pegs. So far, so normal.

I saw him in the basket in the morning, petted his head, and trotted happily off to London. Some few hours later I had three missed voicemails and a text: ‘You need to call me. Charlie has hurt his leg and I can’t get to him’. It turned out that Charlie was holding up one of his hind legs in a way that boded no good, but was so resistant to further examination that he’d run away to hide in an old outbuilding in the field next to the house. Outbuilding 1 is on the boundary line between our garden, the field and the neighbour’s garden. It doesn’t seem to have a door because it’s not in use, but it does have a cat sized hole in the rusted corrugated iron. And there Charlie stayed, just visible through the hole.

By the time I got home, he couldn’t be seen, so had either removed further into the outbuilding or moved on somewhere else. Either way, he wasn’t giving us any signs of his presence and there wasn’t much to be done but hope that he’d come in overnight.

He did not come in overnight. I’m all for the cats having some independence and some time to walk by themselves but I’m also in favour of them eating. We went to look for him and finally found him in Outbuilding 2, which did have a door. He had curled himself up on an old cement bag, and was looking very unhappy indeed. He ate a few bits of Whiskas, leveraged himself up and walked unsteadily away for some privacy and a bathroom break. I had the basket ready to put him in… and as soon as he saw it, he adopted a surprising turn of speed and bolted straight back into Outbuilding 1.

So we took the side of it down. This still left some fairly solid corrugated iron at the bottom but there was enough of a gap to get in, slide down some rubble and hope that either Charlie would run back out of the hole (and into the waiting cat carrier) or realise there was no escape and sit mildly. There was another hole at the far side of the outbuilding, but up a slope of rubble and surely a three legged cat couldn’t…?

Oh, but he could, and went to ground in the neighbour’s garden. They were out. I fumed inwardly at the English obsession with gardens, privacy and trespassing and we went home to wait for the neighbours’ return.

The neighbours came home and we trooped round, with the cat carrier, a large towel, and a pair of gardening gloves in lieu of gauntlets. Charlie had ensconced himself behind their large pile of grass cuttings and beneath a web of sticks and branches. I carefully moved the wood away, stroked him a bit to calm him down. And he legged it through the wire fence behind him and into yet another garden.

You would not think a three legged cat could be so agile. It’s amazing what fear and adrenaline will do. On to the next garden, by which time Charlie had managed to jump up a few feet back into our garden, where we finally trapped him without anyone losing a limb in the process. Though all this, Belle was nearby, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings as though making sure no more harm came to her brother.

Now he’s spending his second night at the vets, after being diagnosed with a broken femur and biting a nurse’s finger in gratitude. We have no idea how the break happened, but he has no other injuries so it’s unlikely he was hit by a car. This morning, he had his leg pinned and plated, and tomorrow he’ll be home. The vets have all been great. Charlie is actually doing well but they’re keeping him in to monitor his pain management. He’ll spend three weeks in a crate (which we’re renting from the vets) and then, hopefully, he’ll be out wreaking havoc on the local wildlife again.