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Monday, February 27, 2006

Shelling peas

It has not been warm lately; the winds are cold. Think English June - sun coming and going - wind chilly - the shops full of young vegetables - green peas - salads - the first strawberries. That is how it is here now. Even though in the right place round the house, a sheltered enough place, the sun can be warmer than in England in June; certainly brighter; certainly stronger.

No problem about using only fruit and vegetables in season here! New green peas in February grown just round the corner/a few miles up country? Ditto strawberries? Granny up at the market on Saturday, the market where she acquires these lovely things, heard an Englishwoman in the queue ahead of her complaining; 'it's much pleasanter in England at this time of year.' By which she meant there's proper heating in the UK. She can't have meant the temperature outside - in the UK it has been below or at freezing for weeks as far as Granny can tell, this has removed any temptation she might have had to take a quick trip home. 'We had to put in a wood stove, ' the grumbler went on. Smug Granny thought - but didn't say - she'd had her own for years; some people take a long time learning. The woman went off with her bag of peas happily enough; she must have seen some advantages in living where she does.

So Granny sits outside in the sun, emptying her young pods, serenaded by courting sparrows. (Would you believe it, they not only fan out their tails, they almost sing, sweetly, not at all like the usual rough chirp chirp chirp. What love does - even for birds.) Shelling peas is a kind of ritual she remembers happily and painfully from her childhood. In the right season it was her mother's preferred way of having a talk with one or other of her daughters. Summoned, you would sit, the pair of you, in deck chairs, basket of pea-pods between you, alongside the bowl for the peas themselves. Both would be wearing those cotton skirts, gathered at the waist, voluminous enough to cover your splayed knees - was there anything ever more uncomfortable, more ungainly than a deck chair? - 'I can see all you've got, dear,' Granny's mum would joke if you didn't cover them well enough, quoting an old aunt. Not that she herself cared one jot. If it was warm enough, she would have stripped off the aertex shirt she, like Granny, would be wearing above their cotton skirts, to show the bra dyed pink, by now much faded, that she used as a bikini top; it sagged, it left nothing to the imagination whatever. On her other side would be set her ashtray, her lighter, her packet of cigarettes; always Player's Navy Cut, the one with the head of a bearded sailor peering out from a life belt. Granny thinks now that it reminded her of her dead ex-sailor father. That it was a kind of loyalty even. She never in her memory, never ever, swapped brands.

And there they would sit, their fingers stripping the pods as mechanically as if milking cows, discussing whatever it was, they'd come for. Only when the pods were all empty, the bowl of peas full would Granny's mother pick up Players Navy Cut, her lighter, light up. (She smoked always, inside the house and out - passive smoking unheard of then, Granny and her siblings must have breathed in a fair quota through their childhood. Their father also smoked, a pipe in his case filled with his own tobacco, grown down the garden, hung to dry first in the garage, then in the kitchen, on the clothes airer, then chopped up on the kitchen table and sprayed with some preservative or other. It smelt disgusting, but was very cheap. Granny's parents were always trying to save money in one way or another.)

Having grown up with the endless labour of war and post war grow-your- own, Granny was not tempted to self-subsistance Good Life later like many of her contemporaries. Hunting for hens with a torch in the middle of a rainy night? Picking brussel sprouts off frosted plants? Spending all of June, July, August head down in vegetable or strawberry beds, or inside a fruit cage picking raspberries of red currents or in the kitchen, processing them? No thanks. Down to the greengrocer for her.

Nonetheless shelling the peas from the market, picked almost certainly the very same morning, cooking them with a little mint, eating them slowly quite on their own, she is reminded of the unbelievable luxury of home-grown vegetables that she used to take for granted. A greedy child she looked for descriptions of food in the books she read endlessly. One was a much cut version of a nineteenth century classic called the Fairchild Family; an evangelical book in which children were taken to see corpses hanging on gibbets as a lesson in what would happen if they continued to quarrel among themselves. Such things had been cut from the illustrated edition Granny owned, handed down from her mother. Along with descriptions of believable naughtiness went descriptions of the food the family ate. Granny can't quote directly; the book is in London. But it went something like 'a roasted leg of lamb, new potatoes and green peas, and a redcurrant pie with cream.' You had to grow up with a vegetable garden to know exactly how perfect that could taste, simple as it was. Granny did know; she drooled over it. Read it again and again, like comfort food for when she was feeling sad.

Beloved daughter, or rather Beloved Daughter's Beloved Husband, does grow vegetables down his garden. Granny sometimes gets to taste those. Beloved Granddaughter alas, does not. She does not like vegetables - or fruit - much. What a waste.

Granny has been tagged by the way. She will attempt to answer the questions, slowly, over the coming week. Patience, Pat.


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