Neon Blue Tales II

Am so excited I can barely type.

We have an exhibition. Rescheduled from last year, I’ve become so used to things being cancelled, it came as rather a shock to discover that this time we are going ahead! When I say ‘we’, I mean the Dolls of course, but also three other non fabric friends.

Meg Wroe, Bev Sage, Clair Meyrick and myself will be returning to the Pie Factory Margate from 30th April to 4th May for Neon Blue Tales II.  Using paint, print, mixed media, textiles,  spoken word and poetry, our work complements each other while transforming the space into a place of wonder.

Of course I am busy making new work, but there will be some old favourites wanting to get out as well. Just depends how much we can get into Nobby van, and how much we can then get on the walls. Neon Blue Tales was a special show, and I am so very much looking forward to being back together again for part II.

The Pie Factory is a wonderfully spacious gallery, so as long as visitors observe all social distancing measures and behave sensibly, we should all have a glorious time!

Now, back to stitching.

We hope to see you at the Pie Factory Margate

White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits…

not very white rabbit doll, not very well stitched, sitting on top of a pretty green tin, waiting while his wings are stitched on, showing how I have made some of my rabbits

Do you remember to say White Rabbits before you say anything to anyone (or anything) on the first of the month? Especially the first of March?

If you don’t – tut, tut. That’s a bit risky you know. And, if you do – do you know why?

As usual, with all sorts of daft habits, no one really knows where the whole thing began, or quite why. By 1909 enough White Rabbits were making themeselves heard to provoke a scholarly question regarding the matter to be raised in the august journal Notes and Queries. At this time, at least amongst the journaling scholarly type, it was regarded only as a matter of children saying Rabbits. And probably the lower classes too, but what do they know hmmmm? However, once notable types like the writer and Gallipoli war correspondent Sir Herbert Russell shamelessly admitted to White Rabbiting

“From sheer force of unreasoning habit I do it still—when I think of it. I know it to be preposterously ludicrous, but that does not deter me.” 

Well, that puts the rabbits amongst the pigeons, make no mistake!

One learned gentleman suggested that his daughter believed the outcome would be a present. How lovely! Not just Saint Nick at Christmas, but Rabbits at the beginning of every month. I must say, I’ve never thought of rabbits and presents – but then again if you consider the Easter Bunny, that line of reasoning makes perfect sense. Excuse me a minute, I lost focus then as I was convinced there was a six foot rabbit reading over my shoulder. Harvey, of course. Always comes to mind when I consider the Easter Bunny. Can’t help it.

Back to the rabbits in hand; according to the father of the present hopeful girl the words simply must be spoken up the chimney to be most effective. Definite Santa Bunny conundrum here! And sooty knees.

Whoops, gone again – the Present Hopeful Girl was swinging on the back of my chair, threatening to tip us backwards. I am imagining the hopeful girl to be like Wendy as drawn by Mabel Lucie Atwell in my favourite edition of Peter Pan. Wendy as drawn by MLA is not too dissimilar to Alice drawn by MLA, or to be fair, Little Ida or the Little Mermaid, but perhaps that is why as I child I loved her drawings so much. Still do. Obviously.

title-page-alice-in-wonderland-pictured-by-mabel-lucie-attwell - Flashbak  showing how Mabel Lucie Attwell's Alice looked. Long hair slightly untied, a floppy bow, thick sensible leggings and a white dress with roses upon it.

Another of the Edwardian White Rabbit noters, no doubt twiddling a fine moustache while he scribed, pointed out that the word rabbit was often used in expletives, and suggested that the superstition may be a survival of the ancient belief in swearing as a means of avoiding evil.

Now you are talking my language. Rabbits AND Profanity, all in the name of Good Luck? Perfect. And you were wondering whether I actually had a point, weren’t you?

I haven’t actually made a rabbit, white or otherwise, for some time. Time to rustle up a few sweary bunnies by the first of April. I’ll add it to the Mythical To Do List.

the Fairy Rabbit.  My first fabric rabbit since I was a child.  Not very well made, I reworked the pattern later, but have never made another one like this. He is a magic Fairy rabbit
The Fairy Rabbit keeping a beady eye out from the top of the stairs, ready to send Bad Luck packing with a swift kick up the youknowwhere from that strong back foot! Yes, foot, not feet. This was the first rabbit I made, and I just stitched my drawing, so he’s rather two dimensional in a three dimensional sort of way. He’s happy, and blissfully unaware that two front paws and two back paws might be useful sometimes. And anyway, he’s magic, as unique creatures always are….. He is quite old now, and …. and … where exactly is he? I’m going on a rabbit hunt…..

ps. I made that up about ‘especially the first of March’. It just popped out of my fingers and I let it stay.

Moving furniture round again

Let Us Pretend There Is A Way Through The Looking Glass

There is a Nick Cave song, The Sorrowful Wife, where he sings of her shifting the furniture round again.

My Mother was very much a furniture shifter. She has retired from such activities now, and sticks to shifting plants around the garden instead, but as a child, I would often return home from school to a whole new house. I had friends who moved often, but their new house was just like their old, albeit maybe bigger or newer.

The Engineer (aka my Husband) often finds the furniture shifting around him. Covid has obviously done away with the main reason for this – Artists Open Houses, when anything and everything was shifted, and the Big Dolls took over. And then they would stay, wherever they were, until the next exhibition, or someone gave us another piano, or we actually, heaven forbid, did some work on the house.

This last happened two years ago, the work on the house thing, and an awful lot of stuff was shifted to make that happen. Just now, I am shifting things back, at last. And removing enough cat fur to create several Cats That Are Ours, should I wish to.

In addition to moving, and getting rid of stuff, I am managing to do some sewing. The Profanity Embroidery Group annual exhibition cannot physically happen this year, but we are making new work, and will be showing it online instead. Right now I need to catch up on some stitches before I start moving books, otherwise all really will be lost.

“Oh the Holly and the Ivy”

Oops. Another of my throw away comments, and another doll appears on the horizon of my brain.

Holly appeared after I said I was decidedly lacking in Christmas Spirit, very Bah Humbug and disinclined to do so much as a Badly Stitched Holly. The second the words were typed, I could see her. She is currently arguing over quite where some bells go, but otherwise, has somehow managed to leap frog the proper jobs and get herself made.

It would now seem likely that Ivy will also be making an appearance. Obviously I have nothing better to do…

Anyway, Christmas Spirit is rising. The tree is waiting for decoration, and Holly has her eyes on the top spot, despite being far too big.

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas, however odd it may be this year, and looking forward to 2021 and hopefully being together again.

What’s on? Good question…

The studio is a mess again, which is in someways good, and someways bad. Over lockdown we set up a workbench for The Engineer under the north facing roof window, and I had the rest of the space. This meant a certain amount of keeping the studio floor a bit like a floor, as in something that can be walked upon without causing damage to self or whatever it is all over the floor, which at times can be quite hard to judge.

Now the Engineer is meant to be in his man cave in the garden, I have turned the place into something that is actually beginning to get on my own nerves. I may have to tidy up.

There are some new dolls, made from a 1970s M&S yellow flowery sheet, that are very lively. They are dancers and were supposed to be three – so I named them LaVerne, Maxime and Patty, after the Andrews Sisters (yes, I know they didn’t tap, I can’t help where brain goes, I never said I was logical). There was enough cloth for a fourth, so Betty appeared. They now have Dotty, a bigger sister (not too big), which is presenting some logistical problems – as usual.

And why am I telling you this? Because they dolls will be going OUT! After a fabulous week with friends and mermaids at Whitstable’s Show Off Gallery Pop Up in July, just after the lockdown was eased, we are back again in October.

What with one thing and another, we are not opening the house this year for East Kent Artist’s Open Houses, and so have booked Show Off from Friday 23rd October to Thursday 29th October, open 11am to 5pm daily, which coincides with the last week of EKAOH. Which means, hopefully, I’ll be able to visit some of those that do open! Hurrah!

This time in Show Off, the plan is to return to the Circus. That’s the plan. We’ll see if we get there, as creativity has been a bit random. Like a spoilt child only doing what it wants, when it wants, and not be very co-operative at all. Hence the mess.

In other news, next week a small selection of work (hedging my bets here as I can’t make a decision as to what to pack) I’ll be joining Bruce Williams and Alma Caira in the Fishslab Gallery. Do pop along and visit – the gallery is all set up to conform to current guidelines. Open from Wednesday 30th September to Monday 5th October. 12 to 5pm daily.

Fishslab Gallery: 11 Oxford Street, Whitstable CT5 1DB

Show Off Gallery Pop Up: 13 Harbour Street, Whitstable CT5 1AQ

A Dwelling of No Significance

sharing our heritage from Bruce Castle Museum Archive

This project was exhibited at Bruce Castle Museum, and as part of their wonderful lockdown email series, they very kindly invited me to revisit this house. So, in the words of the Museum, come along “and travel back in time, peeling away the layers of history, researching, documenting, recording and sharing an extraordinary portrait of what might have seemed an everyday house, hidden away in Wood Green.”

 ‘A Dwelling of No Significance’This phrase sealed the fate of No.24 Truro Road, Wood Green. Officially uninhabited for almost a decade, the building was considered to be of no significance as described by planners in Haringey Council. A house with no history. It could be demolished.

I disagreed. The dilapidated building had been my neighbour for thirteen years. No longer a home, the property opened up as it decayed and shared a record of domestic life spanning the whole of the twentieth century.

home life : a snippet of cine film found under a floorboard

The house was tucked away at the end of a long driveway on a large plot between two roads, completely obscured from prying eyes by a vast willow tree. Following a huge fire in the adjacent builders yard, the property was abandoned and sold to a developer. The garden became overgrown and wildlife increased. People began to use the house as a free material source, and tiles and pipes and floorboards began to disappear. The local children used it as their own playground, and the sound of shattering glass continued until there were no windows left to smash.  Squatters came and tamed the garden (and the children) and they grew vegetables and raised pigs, and were in turn evicted *.

The garden rewilded. Rumours spread of it having changed hands again.

pinhole camera photograph: view from my garden of No.24

Climbing over my back wall, with a homemade pinhole camera wrapped in a black bin bag, I started exploring and recording the property. My process was one of trial and error, with many opportunities for things to go wrong. The camera was a hatbox, and the photographic paper I placed inside was old stock, which didn’t always react. My exposures could be up to an hour long, depending on the light conditions and the behaviour of the paper. I was using out of date paper as I wanted the images to look and feel as though they had been found in the house, and to capture the change of light as real time passed.

I picked at the many layers of wallpaper as the damp caused them to unpeel, and scavenged remnants of the house to include, reused, in layered kiln-formed glass.

self portrait in the ruined house

The glass was recycled from the broken windows and greenhouse. Using textured plaster moulds, I formed layered and spaced glass memories. Some had an image transferred on, either a photograph or a detail from a census, and in the formed spaces I placed objects and scraps from the house.

wallpaper samples from the house

Each individual piece was a fragment of history. Put together, splintered stories of this house and it occupants could be traced.

kiln formed glass, fragmented memories

The blank spaces that appear in a fading memory are all too present in the history of this house, and correspond to the blank spaces within the glass pieces. These voids are waiting for recall, for the information to come to light that completes the story of this house with no history.

One day someone ripped out all the copper pipes and there was a fountain bursting up through the gaping living room floor. It became increasingly dangerous to flipflop around the house and after finding half the staircase smashed, I knew that I would soon have to leave the physical house alone.

interior and wallpaper layers

Turning to the local archives of Bruce Castle Museum I began to construct a factual history alongside my imaginings.

Using the information I gathered, and a lot of hunches, I tracked down the family who last lived in the house. Attached to the front porch of the building had always been a homemade sign – The Swifts. This wasn’t the house name as I had expected, but the family name. They were surprised at my interest, and a little suspicious. However, they kindly allowed me to visit, and Mr Swift shared his memories. He talked not just about the house, but about his life, for the two were so entwined.

pinhole photograph from homemade camera

Leonard Swift was born in the house on 11th July 1911. It was his home for eighty-seven years.

From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service).
Truro Road – a century apart

Built in 1860, the house was possibly intended to be two cottages, for the end wall to the north had the staggered bricks and internal fireplace of a never completed project. It is possible this was because the Finsbury Freehold Land Society acquired additional land and the terrace of Sidney Road was built instead.

Originally known as Blenheim Cottage, it became home to a florist and gardener, who worked the large plot as a nursery. The produce from this garden continued to feed the family for many years and even earned them extra sugar rations during wartime for jam making and preserving.

Detail of OS map. From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service).
Detail of OS map. From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service).

The Swifts first came to the property in 1900 to rent the large outbuildings for their thriving business, Edward Swift & Sons, Microscope Objective Makers. As soon as the cottage was available, the family moved in. The four Swift sons – no longer the ‘terror of the neighbourhood’ as the young Len recounted in his stories, but busy making microscope objectives (these are the brass tubes with the lenses inside). They worked both the brass and the lenses, with Leonard’s father, Herbert, cold working the glass lenses to within a thousandth of an inch, tiring and precise work. Their cousins, James Swift & Sons of Tottenham Court Road, made the actual microscopes. In 1901 Captain Scott was supplied with Swift Microscopes for use on the Discovery.

During the First World War, the forty-foot shed was full of busy lathes constantly working, and many staff. Leonard always thought he would take over the family business, and spent all the time he could at Herbert’s side, learning. Sadly, by the mid-1920s, there was no demand.

pinhole photograph, long exposure

The cottage had three rooms downstairs, and three rooms upstairs. The Swift family – Catherine, Herbert, Leonard and his brother – shared the property with lodgers, as the Objectives business became less profitable. The business ceased to be with the death of Herbert in 1932.

When war came again in 1939, Leonard joined the Air Force as a ground gunner and was posted overseas until August 1943, when he landed in Liverpool to begin a long and dodgy journey back to London. All the underground stations were crowded with sleeping families and everywhere was pitch black. As he finally reached Wood Green, the air raid siren was going, and he couldn’t get into the house as most of the rooms were let out and he didn’t have the right keys. He thought everyone must be down the underground shelter, so dumped his kit bags and went round to the police station on the corner of Nightingale Road and asked if he could sleep in a cell. At first they said no, but Leonard said “Why not? It’s got a bed hasn’t it?” So they gave him a cup of tea, and let him stay. In the morning he went home again, only to make the shocking discovery that his mother had been buried on the very day he landed in Liverpool.

After a month’s leave, Leonard was reposted to Hillingdon to work in the operations room. Here he met Margaret as they worked together, plotting the flight information. They were married in 1945 and settled down together at No.24. Leonard returned to work in Covent Garden.

Detail of OS map 1956. From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

The house had always been rented accommodation, with rent being about ‘thirty bob or something a quarter’. But in 1956 a couple of men turned up to look at the house, as it was being auctioned the very next day. Margaret found out where the auction was to be, and that they needed a 5% deposit. They didn’t have any money, but borrowed what they could from their neighbours.

Armed with £30, Leonard went off to Piccadilly for the auction. “We had decided we couldn’t go more than £500 for the house. There were all these people who wanted to buy it, plus there were families there who were in tears as their houses were being sold from under them and they couldn’t afford the money. So at the auction, I’m surrounded by all these big blokes bidding, £300… £400…£500… I thought what am I going to do? I haven’t got enough but we can’t lose our home. Then a bloke said £600 and I said ‘And five’ and he said ‘oh let him have it ‘.

Now it turned out that the deposit was 10%, not 5% as Leonard had thought, and he only had a matter of hours to find the other £30. Once again, friends rallied round to stop them losing their home, and his boss agreed to lend them the rest as a mortgage for two years, at two and a half percent.

Once the family owned the house, and had paid back the money, they added gas and electricity. The landlords had never wanted the expense of running power all the way from the road up the long drive, so it had been oil for lamps and coal for cooking and heat. In 1966 he was given a grant to add a bathroom block instead of the old outside brick toilet.

Over the years they made many improvements and alterations to the house. It was Leonard’s son who built the porch and added The Swifts sign.

Copper print from the collection of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service).

If it were not for the fire, the Swifts might never have moved. Admittedly, the garden and the house were really becoming too much upkeep, but it was home. That night though, “I was asleep when I felt Margaret urgently trying to wake me, but when I sat up, Margaret was still fast asleep! I’ve always thought it must have been my mother, come back to warn us. The heat coming through the window was unbelievable.” After that, the Swifts decided to move, and left Truro Road for the last time on 28th July 1998.

I wish I’d gone up the long drive when the Swifts lived there. I sometimes saw a man and woman getting into their car at the distant end of their drive. I could never think of what to say – what reason could I have for going and opening their gate and letting myself into their secret garden? It was intriguing, a magical space that I wanted to know, whilst at the same time recognising that it was totally private, and that my nosiness would not be welcome.

My other neighbours didn’t share my obsession with No.24. They described the family as one that ‘kept to themselves’, but maybe they’d just seen so many people come and go in the last few years they had stopped getting to know their many neighbours. Once families would stay in the same house for generations, as had the Swifts. But as people moved away, houses turned into flats, and a new block was built along their west boundary.

My neighbours also agreed with the council verdict that the house had no history. The house doesn’t I suppose, it is rather the history of the family that lived there, and of how lives and expectations changed. Mr Swift remained nostalgic for the soft glow of the oil lamps over the bright light of the electricity he worked so hard to obtain. He grew up there and raised his own family with no bathroom, sharing the three bedroom house with others whenever necessary. He laughed a lot as he recounted tales of boyhood and fatherhood. No.24 Truro Road was a real home, with a loving family and good friends.

My partner and I used to wish we could buy No.24, and talk about what we would do if we could. We watched the final owners pull it down in 2006. The enchantment was broken, and we moved away too.

* This was the subject of a BBC Life of Grime programme. From a precarious position on top of my wall, I watched the council men try to evict the pigs and their guardians. It was one of the funniest things ever. Those travellers were the best neighbours.

The artwork and research I did on the house became my art degree show, which was exhibited at New Designers at the Business Design Centre Islington 2005 and Free Range at the Old Truman Brewery.

With many thanks to Bruce Castle Museum

“Travelling back in time to 2006, when we had an exhibition at Bruce Castle, curated by artist Annie Taylor and called No.24 Truro Road ‘A Dwelling of No Significance’Annie as our special guest writer today guides us through this touching portrait of a derelict house in Wood Green, that she lived next-door to from the 1990s into the 2000s.” Bruce Castle Museum

The Cinderella of Manual Arts

Educational Needlecraft by Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth

Inspired by a beautiful post this morning from Arnold’s Attic, of a sampler book stitched in 1852-4, I went looking for my Educational Needlecraft book. This wasn’t easy as last year we had some work done to the house, and most of my books are still stacked along the wall behind our bed, and the smaller ones piled in triple rows on the remaining shelves. Fortunately this one is always within reach.

I’ve owned this book since 1977. When my brother was busy with his punk band, as were most sentient teenagers, I was busy listening to soundtracks from Busby Berkley musicals (complete with tap dancing) and heading back from Art Deco to Arts and Crafts. (I did wake up to punk later, but I’ve always a bit slow to catch on).

My parents were avid bookshoppers. They still are, but don’t get out so much (not at all these last few months) but even so, no bookshop en route, no reason to leave home. This one came from the Antiquarian Bookshop in Sheen, a very posh shop for us, rather expensive too. It was visited because it was a museum of a shop, and on the way to Richmond with its vast array of junk shops and second hand bookshops. It was always a pleasure to visit the Sheen shop, the book spines alone were works of art. I did acquire a few books from there as presents, as I had a habit of returning to favourite books and hunkering down to absorb as much as I could, against the day where someone else bought it and it was no longer ‘mine’. Occasionally, as happened with this volume, after a year or so, I had proved my loyalty to this book, and it was purchased for me – possibly even a discount taken into consideration by the shop owner for the same reason, and that of the fact that no-one else had purchased it. And no, I didn’t hide it, in case you were wondering. There were books at our local library which sometimes the librarian would gently suggest I might like to not renew this time, so someone else could have them. Often no one else did want them, so after a couple of weeks of the book being on the shelf, home they came again. I do own copies now of all of them, some bought new as they were reprinted, others unexpectedly turning up second hand. One large volume I lugged on Greyhound busses after finding in a vintage shop in San Francisco, and in reality it was one picture that always stayed in my memory. I can’t show it to you because I cannot reach it. Too far down the pile behind the bed. But I digress, as usual. Back to Educational Needlecraft.

It was the quality of the arts and crafts drawings and designs, and the full colour stitched panels that I was looking at. Ann Macbeth taught at the Glasgow School of art and was a friend of the Mackintoshes. She was also a suffragette.

I was stunned by the stitching, but never really thought of doing it. Obviously, I never have. But I still love the book, and it is never far from reach, and I do sew an awful lot, even if it is not exactly educational.
Rereading the introduction I was struck how the authors, Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth talk about art and needlework and the eye of the child.

“This book represents the first conscious and serious effort to take Needlecraft from its humble place as the Cinderella of Manual Arts, and to show how it may become a means of general and even of higher eduction.”

“In becoming good craftwomen girls may become something more. Their work itself leads them to look at last BEYOND their homes, and if they look to-day, what do they see? Much beauty and happiness, work and pleasure, but also beyond these vivid glimpses of widespread misery and darkness – a chaos which waits for creators to make of it a new world. That winged power in them, the unresting creative energy, must find a new field for its labour. It cannot be CONFINED to the home. What the educated woman of tomorrow will do we cannot foretell, for she will not longer be the slave of routine and tradition.”

Here we are a hundred and twenty years later with the Society For Embroidered Work being created to loudly shout ‘Stitched Art is Art’. If I were not a member, I don’t think I’d be able to look my book straight in the eye. As it is, I’m wondering quite what Ann Macbeth and Margaret Swanson and Margaret McMillan (pioneer in the education of children and provision of free school meals) would make of ‘the educated woman of tomorrow’.

Red Thorn, Black Thorn. Rose Red and Sloe

The sisters felt the first blow rather than heard it. Without thinking, each put a hand to their heart. The beating within echoing the thumps throbbing across the forest. The sisters exchanged a glance. “They’re back, Rose”.

Everything had been peaceful for so long now, living as they were so far away from the madding crowds. Away from misunderstanding. Rose and Sloe ventured out only when the carnival came to town, when spirits were high and colourful, and nothing seemed quite real. As they aged, it became easier to go unnoticed, to be the hunchback herbalist with reliable potions, to be the lonely old woman from the woods.

In their youth, life had been so very different. Rose was a beautiful as any bloom, pink and blushed with red red hair. Sloe, white of face, hair so black it shone blue. They had travelled with the circus, danced for kings – and princes. Ah yes, princes. Their mother, WhiteThorn Mae, had told the girls all the old stories, all the warnings. Still, true to form, along came a Prince, and the trouble began.

Any child of the Rose family has thorns. They will catch you and the poisoned tip will grip deep into your flesh. The poisoned tip will rot inside you, spreading through your veins until one day your heart just stops. To share a kiss with a child of the Rose family is a dangerous undertaking. To steal a kiss without asking is suicide.

Stories of the Prince killers spread far and wide. Embellished, untrue, believed.

The Sisters backed into the safety of the forest and let their family, black thorn, white thorn and red, grow and protect them, but stories persisted of a fair princess held captive by the dark witch. Of an old crone of woods, whose wicked ways were responsible for all ill that befell the town.

‘Burn the Witch’ would seem like a good idea once in a generation. The old people who remembered would try and talk sense to the young, but no one ever listened. Fanciful tales from the frightened old. A forest that killed, that left deep scars should you be fortunate enough to escape? Tell that to the children, they said, and gathered their high spirits and axes, and headed to adventure.

Rose sighed, and looked at her sister’s face, clouded now with worry and foreboding. “We could go and meet them – tell them”.

“They’ll not listen, they never do.”

The sisters stood a moment or two longer, listening. The hunt was yet miles away, hacking at the almost impenetrable wall of nature. Baying dogs, excited voices, trumpets to call order. These sounds travelled on the cool morning air, travelling easily where nothing with more substance than a ghost could pass. The sisters were old now, and did not welcome the intrusion, the dredging up of the past. They turned and headed for their cottage, using the branches on either side for balance, their hands automatically missing the thorns. They knew how the day would end, and felt great sorrow.

At Winter’s end, when the blackthorn flowers first appear like little stars of hope, and at September time, when the hedgerows at Prospect Field turn blue with sloe and red with rosehip, watch for Rose Red and Black Thorn, Red Thorn and Sloe. Stay on the path, pick only what you need, and leave the rest in peace.

Covidella: a LockDown Tale

“I want to bake a cake”

Covidella turned from the heaving sink of breakfast debris to face her stepsister, teetering warily on the top of the kitchen steps.  An unusual visitation this, and one that Ella was having difficulty processing. She paused the music and removed her headphones.

“Nigella’s dark and sumptuous chocolate fudge cake” the visitation continued in a querulous squeak, whilst flapping the torn page of a Sunday supplement food special.

It was Lockdown at the castle. Ella hadn’t thought of it as ‘home’ since her mum died.  Mum had always been accident-prone; walking into wardrobe doors, falling on the stairs. Funny really, ‘cos Ella never saw her trip, not even when wearing her old platforms for a laugh. They would skip and dance all around the house, making light of work and life. Until they heard her father coming.

The Stepmother appeared awfully quickly after that last fatal accident, dragging her two delightful daughters along for the ride. Stepmother promptly had a lift installed so she could avoid the stairs. Ugly thing.  The lift too….  Looked like a plastic Smart car someone had parked in the ancestral hall.  Still, for all its aesthetic lackings, Ella pretty soon loved it. She could chuck in all the laundry and the vacuum cleaner and mop and bucket and then sail off up through the floor like Willy Wonker in the glass elevator. Made life so much easier. Meant Ella could avoid those stairs too.

Ella missed her mum, and avoided attempts to play happy families, preferring instead to stay in the kitchen. She loved the peace down there, her mother’s presence was strong in the ping of the microwave and the sizzle of deep fat fryer. Dad had always been softened by a good plate of food. Well, not always, obviously.

Stepsister No.2 now appeared over Stepsister No.1’s shoulder. “It is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that is super squidgy, the sort of cake you want to eat the whole of, and even the sight of it all chocolaty and gooey, comforts”.

Quite. Well, do you know what? That actually sounds like a damn fine idea.  Now she was out of her musical cocoon, Ella could hear familiar sounds storming around upstairs. Maybe Nigella’s chocolate comforter was exactly what this castle needed, right now.  She’d had a food delivery only that morning, and had ordered plenty of chocolate as her own special treat. So, she’ll be eating it in cake form instead, no matter.

 “Okay, I’ll make it” Ella announced, thinking it would save a lot of mess, wasted ingredients, and possibly a super pissed off Dad at the end of it all. The Stepsisters scooted across the room glued to each other, wild-eyed and eager, clearly without a clue but very determined. They wobbled their heads frantically from side to side, no no no.  “We want to make it. It’s very important. We want to make it and we want Him to eat it, and we want Him know that we have made it.”

Oh for goodness sake, who cares? She was getting sick of this lockdown baking mania. None of her friends had anything interesting to post on social media – it was all just bloody cake.  She sighed.  “Go on then….” She started to say. Then she looked at them, which she tended to avoid doing. Oh. “Is your mother alright?” The heads wobbled up and down, a little shaky, but generally affirmative.  

Ella whipped out her phone and googled the recipe. She wasn’t touching that torn and blood splattered cutting. No.1 was put on washing up duty, No.2 on … on …helping No.1. Actually, no, lets clean her up a bit, and, um, a bit more, and then just prop her in the corner with a large brandy. 

Plain flour, caster sugar, light brown Muscovado… hmmm, nope, damn, have to be Demerara and hope for the best. Not as moist, but it will have to do. Corn oil? Corn oil? Who the bloody hell has corn oil knocking around in the back of their Covid cupboard, sunflower shall have to do.  Yup, Nigella says that’s ok. We’ve got this!

Two hours later, rather longer than the recipe generally requires, the kitchen was clean (ish), and three satisfied and rather chocolaty faces were admiring the thing of beauty they had created.  The Stepsisters had mixed and stirred, and made a wish as they added their own special final ingredient.  They were sure Nigella would understand. For good measure, they added extra chocolate and a lot of Amaretto. Just in case he noticed any undertaste. He’d watched far too many Agatha Christies to let that go without hilarious comment and tapping of his little grey cells.

Together, they made tea, gathered plates and cutlery onto trays, and lifting the gooey chocolaty comforter, headed for the tv room.

Dad loved it. He gorged on it, taking great drunken handfuls. His chocolate fudgy hands trying to grab the Stepsisters or their mother, any one, he didn’t care. Oh he was a happy man as he fell asleep in front of Tiger King.

The women were gutted and regrouped in the kitchen with the gin and the rest of the chocolate stash.  “Well, it’s for the best really.  I mean, you didn’t really want to kill him, did you?” said Ella cheerily as she broke out another bottle.  Stepsister No.2 was rereading her ceramic glaze book.  “But it says here it’s terribly poisonous. He should have been in agony by now. Maybe we just didn’t use enough.” She took one of her own brightly coloured earthenware bowls, poured it half full of gin, and went in face first. Ella looked on her quite lovingly. Really this Stepfamily wasn’t half bad.  

After the Lockdown, the women opened the castle as a hotel. Nothing boutique or fancy, more a bed and breakfast with dinner sort of a place. Occasionally some guest would mention the whole Covid thing, mention the loss of a loved one before their time. The women would agree, and tell of their own experience – that awful coughing and long long weeks of waiting.

Mostly people just wanted to move on and forget about it though, and have another slice of that delicious, comforting chocolate cake of Nigella’s that featured on every single review.


This short tale popped into my head last week, when Nigella’s chocolate fudge cake was filling my social media feed as I read a Guardian report on the femicide numbers under Covid lockdown. Always like for my Cinders variations to have their revenge.

The picture was obviously inspired by Aubrey Beardsley – the exhibition is in lockdown, but there is a short Tate film of the curators talking which is better than nowt.