Friday, 18 January 2013

Tinned spag

The snow on the ground today brings back memories of Aunt Joy who lived at the bottom of a series of zig-zagging tree-lined lanes in Surrey. Little Coldharbour, the house was called. Dark woods behind, brown fields in front. Whenever there was snow at Little Coldharbour, our mother told us, the road became impassable. Half a century before, Aunt Joy had fallen ill with double pneumonia, following a blizzard. Her mother, Ellen, my great grandmother, had had to walk along the tops of the holly hedges to summon medical help. Although we rarely, if ever, had to contend with snow ourselves, visits to see her were not without a sense of adventure. My mother was not particularly talented at driving or finding the way anywhere, and so there was always an unbreathed tension: would we ever get there? "Signs for Penge", muttered my mother. That name grew to have the resonance of the golden gate to Samarkand.

Aunt Joy was usually stretched on the day bed in her sun room as we arrived at last at Little Coldharbour. Grapevines hung from the ceiling but I never saw any grapes. There was a set of eight bells on the wall with a stick, inviting any passer-by to play a scale. Beyond the sun room was a windowless room stuffed with books, sofas and blankets. It was inside that darkened sitting room that Aunt Joy's sweet cupboard was located. Inside, row upon row of jars, as though it were a miniature sweet shop. Sherbet lemons. Dolly Mixture. Mint Imperials. Pear drops. My brother and I were allowed free licence to delve among the jars and choose, which we would do, repeatedly, during visits. Even our mother was indulgent on such occasions, despite her general antipathy towards "sugary sweets" and, worse still in her eyes, "cheap sweets": "You'll rot your teeth."

Aunt Joy was also fond of allowing us to guzzle fizzy drinks. "Kids' booze, I call it", she would announce, brandishing a bottle of lemonade. "I always think it's unfair for you to have nothing while the adults are all boozing away." Another Aunt Joy treat was one of her famous Ice Cream Sodas. Drunk using a straw: cream soda in the glass followed by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. When our mother was out of the room, Aunt Joy would encourage my brother to blow bubbles in his glass.

Those, then, were the between meal snacks. What about the main meals? Aunt Joy had a number of favourite sayings, now sounding slightly ominous. They included: "I've always been a good cook" and "I've always liked experimenting with food." The experiments were conducted in her rather grubby and damp kitchen. At its rear was a larder to make your heart sink. Row upon row of tins. Tinned beansprouts, tinned meatballs, tinned cream, tinned condensed milk. It was exactly the same larder which had entranced her little nieces - my mother and her younger sister - when they had gone to stay in Bletchingley in the early fifties. At supper time, Aunt Joy would say: "Like some spag? Or baked beans?" According to my aunt CeCe: "We always had tinned spag as we weren't allowed it at home. We adored it."

As adults, though, those nieces' tastes developed into deep distrust of anything emanating from Aunt Joy's kitchen. For instance, her "Chinese" cooking, consisting of rare chicken with Cook-In Sauce and those tinned beansprouts ("I've always liked foreign grub"). But we, the great nephews and great nieces, loved it. My cousin Tom used to say indignantly "But I LOVE Aunt Joy's cooking", whenever anyone suggested the contrary.

The last time I recall visiting Aunt Joy was to pick her up to take her to her niece's wedding reception in the neighbouring county. The same niece who remembered loving the tinned spag. My mother's mini had something wrong with it on the day and the added weight of Aunt Joy caused the car to splutter in indignation. At the foot of one hill, my mother had to get us out of the car to walk to the top. The reception over – no tinned spag in sight - we dropped Aunt Joy at Little Coldharbour for the last time. In her absence, the little car sped away without difficulty.

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