Sunday, November 4, 2012

And still it begins, needles and pins

“It’s not just Waitrose vs Tescos you know,” said Pierced Boy, rubbing A&D cream gently onto his new tattoo.
“What’s not?” I asked, filling the kettle. For some reason I’m always the go-to person for Boy’s tattoo after-care. This involves making tea, providing an evening of diverting box-sets, and saying convincingly admiring things about his latest tat. Clearly I had also signed up for listening to his latest theory.
“I’m talking about another Great Lewes Debate,” Boy said. “To add to the where do you shop discussion. Or the are-you-from-Islington or have-you-been-here-since-the-Reformation argument.”
I handed him a cup of tea, but made no other encouraging continue-please signs.
“You only get them for giving blood.”
“I have bled. Look!” He pointed.
“Rather not, thanks.” I averted my eyes and broke out the Rich Teas.
“Where was I? Yes, I’ve realised this is the season for another Great Lewes Debate: Bonfire.”
“Aren’t you away on the fifth as usual?” Despite being born and raised in the environs (Plumpton), Pierced Boy is well-known for his aversion to loud bangs.
“Yes, I’ll be in the centre of London. Nice and quiet.” He put the lid on the A&D. “So, do you want to hear my Bonfire theory?”
Oh god. Still in tattoo after-care mode, I smiled encouragingly.
“I’m glad you asked. Here it is. There are only three sanctioned opinions allowable about Bonfire. One: you love it and you march. Two: you love it and you watch. Three: you hate it. And there are only three reasons why you might hate it, and they are (a) because you misunderstand it (b) because you’re a wuss or (c) because you’re a health-and-safety-political-correctness-gone mad DFL.”
“Wow, you really have been thinking about this.”
“But actually,” he went on, wordlessly indicating that he wished me to direct me the cooling fan I was waving nearer the tattoo, “I believe there are many other different  possible responses. For instance, you could really like and support the idea of Bonfire, wish it well in all its wildness, and yet not necessarily want to be there on the night.”
“Like you.”
“Like me. Fan down a bit please. Or you might just be kind of indifferent towards it.”
“My arm’s aching.”
“Or you might like some aspects of it, such as the fireworks, but not others, such as car alarms going off in the middle of the night. Have you got any frozen peas?”
“You can’t put frozen peas there!”
“Fair enough.” Pierced Boy stood up gingerly. “Do you like the new body art by the way?”
I looked properly for the first time. It was an image of a blue rookie. “Nice – fits very well there.”
He pulled his jeans up, and taking my arm, limped into the sitting room to watch some pain-distracting telly.

Beth Miller, 18/10/12. Published in

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It ain't nobody's business if I do

“Have you heard about my new business enterprise?” Grange Girl asked as we hopped over puddles on our way to cake. I was so surprised I mistimed a hop and splashed rainwater into my Crocs. “Your what?” I spluttered. You’d be looking at Grange Girl a long time before the words ‘business enterprise’ would spring to your lips. She’s not exactly Donald Trump or Richard Branson. Then again, and luckily, so few people are.
“My new business,” she repeated, pushing open Laportes’ door with an imperious air, like Margaret Mountford off the Apprentice. I ordered chocolate and beetroot cake while Grangey carefully removed her gaiters, galoshes and sou’wester. That is something she and Donald Trump have in common: they’re both of an age to remember these quaint words for waterproof clothing items.
“What’s the business then, Lord Sugar?” I asked, nibbling a lump of sugar.
“It’s called ‘A Moment of Sense.”
“And what’s its USP?”
“Its what? Anyway, it started at work, when my colleague was flapping about organising a leaving do. Getting everyone to order their meals in advance had reduced her to tears. I stepped in, and said, ‘let’s just order when we get there.’”
“Simple, yet brilliant,” I said, secretly thinking it sounded a bit obvious and that her colleague was clearly an airhead.
“I know you’re thinking that was a bit obvious and she’s clearly an airhead,” Grange Girl said perspicaciously, “but when you’re in the middle of a situation you can’t always see the beetroot for the chocolate. My new service helps muddled souls to identify the…”
“Exactly.” She bit into her cake. “My latest client said I’d saved her marriage. She wanted to go walking in Cornwall, he preferred to jet to Dubai. Impasse. Till ‘A Moment of Sense’ mediated, proposing that they take separate holidays with friends.”
“You like Cornwall don’t you?”
“I do, very much.”
We both thoughtfully stirred our tea.
“So how many people have used ‘A Moment of Sense’, Grangey?”
“That,” she said, fixing me with a stare like Duncan Bannatyne’s, “is between me and my accountant.”
Suddenly I felt I scarcely knew this hard-nosed tycoon opposite me, brushing chocolate crumbs off her cagoule. Yet that very evening, in the middle of one of those bottomless domestic arguments that has no end other than death, I was seized with the urge to hire ‘A Moment of Sense.’ I rang the emergency hotline – handily the same number as Grange Girl’s landline - and outlined both sides.
“It’s very simple,” she said briskly. “If you can’t agree on square or round, the obvious solution is triangular.”
“Brilliant, Grangey!”
“Thank you for calling ‘A Moment of Sense’. Please pay by BACS within the next 28 days. Terms and conditions apply.”
She hung up. I hated to denigrate her early steps into capitalism, but I did feel slightly unsure. I turned to Man of the House. “Do they even make triangular tables?”

Beth, 4th Oct 2012. Published in Photo by Alex Leith.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Want some seafood, mama

We were having one of those discussions you have at work, about where to buy fish in Lewes; obviously a matter of considerable importance. Terry’s Riverside fish stall was first on the list, but then the conversation flagged slightly, because Tescos and Waitrose are all right, but they’re not exactly Billingsgate, are they? Then I said, “Well of course there’s the fish van,” and everyone cried, “What fish van?”
“Why, the Wednesday fish van, of course,” I said, “the one that goes round all the streets.”
“Not mine, it doesn’t,” said everyone, Greek-chorus style, and as their geographical spread runs from Cliffe to Nevill, I was forced to wonder why my street seems the only one blessed by the fish fairy.
The van comes every Wednesday morning – it’s done so for years. It signals its arrival by subtle use of a klaxon that used to wake my babies from their morning naps, when I had babies who had morning naps. On hearing this noise I leap into my shoes from the third stair and run outside to buy three fillets of salmon. I’m not very experimental in the matter of fish. “Three fillets of salmon, please,” I always say, queuing with Betty from up the road, the only other person I’ve ever seen at the fish van. The friendly fishmonger opens the back of the van where the fish lie fishily on ice, and chooses a fillet. “Like this?” he says, and I always say “yes.” I don’t know what either of us would do if one day I said, “No, not like that.” I’m not going to risk it. He wraps them, charges me a small amount of money, and remarks on the weather. “Hot enough for you?” he asks, or “Getting cold, isn’t it?”
I reply appropriately, take my fish parcel, and go back indoors. Man of the House doesn’t like salmon. So I really ought to buy a different fish that he does like. But then the children probably wouldn’t like it. You see the dilemma. Wednesday evenings me and the kids have roast salmon. I’m not sure what Man has. Bran flakes, probably.
I hesitated under my colleagues’ sceptical gaze. “I’ve lived in Lewes all my life,” one said, “and I’ve never heard of a fish van.” Eventually l I started to doubt myself.
Last Wednesday, the van didn’t come. Or if it did come, I missed it. Maybe I was back too late from dropping the kids, or I’d got Neil Pringle on BBC Sussex turned up too loudly to hear the klaxon. Now I’m worried that it was the Old Curiosity Shop of fish vans, and by discussing it with outsiders I’ve made it disappear for ever. I’m missing the salmon, and the weather discussion, and Betty, and everything. I hope he was just on holiday, and it’ll all be back to normal next week. I’d like to ask if he’s considered trying any other streets in Lewes.

Beth, 20th Sept . Published in and Viva Lewes magazine, November 2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

Lots of girls and lots of boys, lots of smells and lots of noise

When my child was younger she couldn’t get enough of my fascinating tales. “Say again how you messed up the ballet show!” she would cry, or “Tell me that slightly implausible account of how you met Daddy.” And I would smile, and pull her on my knee, and begin. “Once upon a time, a handsome prince saw a beautiful princess…” and she would be rapt, I tell you, rapt. Recently though, her intellectual curiosity about me has dissipated; now I am mostly just the annoying person standing between her and her DS.

However, she still loves to hear about my schooldays, treating the notions of logarithm tables and standing up for your teachers with the same forensic disbelief as once did I over the slates and bloomers of my grandmother’s time. Man of the House is accorded more respect, because his Glasgow alma mater used the belt for minor offences (“Tell about being walloped on the bottom, Daddy, for forgetting the date of Bannockburn”), while my jovial primary head-master threatened to cane us daily but never did. But even my less dramatic stories get an attentive audience.

My secondary school had absurdist rules about the necessity of wearing navy blue knickers, but we soon realised no-one was going to check and reverted to our usual Snoopy pants. There was a lack of pastoral care staggering to today’s children. An anecdote which interests Thing One concerns the time I was in a car accident on the way to school, when I was eleven. No-one was hurt, but the car was wrecked and it was frightening. “You’re late,” snapped my teacher when I finally arrived. I mumbled an apologetic explanation about the crash. “Are you all right?” she said briskly, and when I nodded, said, “Well sit down then,” and I joined the lesson, trembling slightly from shock. A modern child would be comforted, and checked over, and possibly offered counselling, and quite right too.

Thing Two recently did a school project on Tanzania. I remembered doing something similar, the most exciting part of which was my carefully coloured-in map of Upper Volta falling off the wall and being lost forever behind a dusty radiator. Thing Two’s teacher had arranged the classroom chairs to resemble seating in an aeroplane. The children all made passports,  then they sat on the plane, and the teacher/air steward handed out sucky sweets to avoid ear-popping. When they ‘arrived’ in Tanzania, they changed into cool t-shirts and were given African food to try. “Is school better now or when you were little?” asks Thing Two, younger than his sister and still interested in my opinion. I tell him that it is so much better now, I could cry.

Beth Miller. Published in and Viva Lewes handbook, September 2012

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Let's get into physical

As I was taking the children to the Leisure Centre for their weekly bout of yelling, kicking and punching (martial arts are marvellous for instilling, er, peacefulness and respect), something odd caught my eye, out on the running track. It looked like… but surely it couldn’t be…? When the children’s officially-sanctioned combat had begun, I hastened out to check. Sure enough, the puffing, stumbling figure in a grey tracksuit was Hoxton Mum. I watched, fascinated, because I had only once before seen her move faster than a stroll: when Django, then a toddler, had been on the verge of tipping his smoothie into her Mulberry handbag.
Hoxie rounded the bend and came hobbling towards me along the straight. She clocked me watching and made a pitiful attempt to speed up, collapsing several minutes later at my feet.
“Am I red?” she spluttered, hacking up phlegm like a career smoker. She whipped out a compact from her pocket and scrutinised her face. “Gah, like a Waitrose baby plum tomato.”
“I didn’t know you owned a trackie, Hoxie.”
“Oh, you’re so hilair,” she sneered, insofar as a person hyperventilating can sneer. “This is in fact a Stella McCartney high-performance jacket-and-trouser suit. Sport is having a moment.”
“Is it?”
She swigged some water from one of those fancy circular bottles you can grip in the middle.
“It’s. The. Olympics. In. London,” she spelled out, as though to a dim child.
We sat at the edge of the track and watched the proper runners from Lewes Athletic sprint round. I realised with a start that the chap at the back was Born and Bred Boy. I turned to Hoxton Mum. “Did you see…?” but she had a faraway look in her eye.
“Not for the first time,” she sighed, “I’ve a teensy soupcon of regret about our move here. We could have been right at the very epicentre. Who knew, back in 04, that the East End would be hosting the Games? Our house might have had one of those big guns on its roof. Usain Bolt might have bought his chicken nuggets from our local Maccy D’s.”
I nodded sympathetically, knowing how she sometimes struggles with no longer being an UIL.
“Mind you,” she said brightening, “Lewes is a trés sporty place. It’s not just art shows and transition town socials, you know. I’m going to try all the Olympic sports: tennis, horse-riding, trampolining, zumba.”
Born and Bred Boy waved nonchalently as he went past, impressively swiftly considering the twenty-year collection of Harveys stored in his belly.
Hoxie stood up and began doing stretches as pioneered by Olivia Newton-John in the ‘Physical’ video. “Right – I’m ready for the second half of my training sesh.”
“How much more are you doing?”
“One lap,” she said, setting off at the pace of an elderly snail. “I’ve already done one, don’t want to overdo it.”

Beth Miller. Published in and Viva Lewes handbook, August 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

I pepped them up with chicken soup

“What’ll it be today, me love? Ooh yes, a pasty, good idea, warm it up for ye shall I? Just the thing on a cold day, can’t credit it’s June, can ye?”

When I buy lunch, the food is a secondary consideration next to the chat. Not that the food in Fillers is secondary in any way, of course - they have an immense choice of sandwiches and a bowl of freebie sweeties at the till. But the lovely Irish lady with the purple fingernails and the lilting banter makes the simple purchasing of a tuna mayo on granary into a pleasurable event. So very different from the joyless exchange of money for sustenance that you get in some other places (not anywhere in Lewes of course!*)

I can’t think of anywhere with food so good I would willingly tolerate horrible service, as did Seinfeld and friends when they braved the terrifying Soup Nazi to access the finest soup in Manhattan. When I was a child it was a thing amongst a certain strand of irony-loving Jews to eat at Blooms kosher restaurant in Whitechapel. Here the service was a parody of appallingness. If waiters weren’t ignoring you they were mocking you openly to your face. Plates of food were dumped onto the table from a great height, spilling stuff onto your lap, and the maitre d’ could have taken on Alan Rickman in a sneering competition. Yet people still went more than once. You’re thinking the food must have been amazing, but, “Don’t talk to me about the chicken soup in Blooms! An insult!” my Booba used to say, dishing up conciliatory bowls of the proper thing: a delicious greasy Proustian-memory-evoking liquid, with tennis-ball sized dumplings floating on top. As a child I found it rather frightening that my parents seemed not to mind the rudeness at Blooms. It made the world seem out of kilter. However, if I tentatively experimented with the notion that insolence had become acceptable I was quickly reassured on that score by means of an un-ironic and loud telling-off all the way home. Looking up Blooms now I can’t say I’m gutted to find that all three branches, including the equally ill-mannered Golders Green outpost, have closed down. 

Maybe this early scarring experience has meant I seek out businesses where the people are actively pleasant, where paying for stuff is elevated above its constituent parts into an agreeable, friendly exchange. Or maybe there’s no need to psychoanalyse myself and it’s just because, as Kingsley Amis once said, “Nice things are nicer than nasty things.” They understand that principle in Fillers. Also their avocado salad sandwiches are very good.

*Viva’s libel lawyer is insistent on this point.

Beth Miller, 19th June 2012, published in Photo by Katie Moorman

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fire, I'll take you to burn

“What else can you barbecue?” asks Thing Two with interest, holding aloft a wooden spike, his mouth smeared in sticky pink goo. I realise I have nodded off briefly, worn down by barbecue stress, and during that time my child has turned into a vampire. That really takes slack parenting to a whole new level. “Honestly, Social Services, I turned my back for ONE MINUTE and next thing I knew he was one of the blood-sucking undead.”
I reach out to check the marshmallow bag but it is, of course, empty. The children have toasted and scoffed the contents, and Thing One is lying in the hammock groaning that she never wants to see a marshmallow again. As a test I say, “I do have another bag,” and she sits up attentively. “Where? I’ll get it for you Mummy.”
“Can you barbecue feet?” Thing Two asks, looking at mine speculatively.
“No, only sausages and corn on the cob,” I say, but he’s already run indoors on a dastardly unsuitable-for-barbecuing fact-finding mission.
This time of year there’s so much pressure to have fabulous Cath Kidston-styled outdoor meals. In my head, egged on by those Waitrose magazines, I see pastel-coloured parasols and water jugs sprigged with mint leaves. I hear children laughing with a tinkle of cowbells, and see them eating salad, yes, even celery. I see a hunky man wearing nothing but an apron (actually he’s in my head all year round), smiling sensitively while flipping burgers, framed by a wisp of white smoke from the barbie.
I probably don’t need to humiliate myself completely by playing spot the difference with my own al fresco attempts. Enough to say that though the hunky man is in place (my hand is somewhat forced here), the whole pitiful un-matching no-celery affair is drowned in choking clouds of black smog because the stove is always downwind no matter where we put it. Still, it makes the clothes on the line smell interesting, like they’ve been worn by Burger King employees on a long shift. While the hunky apron man wanders off to attend to his singes with Savlon, the tonging and flipping falls to me. But all I have by way of a technique are those tv adverts about getting salmonella from half-raw chipolatas, so out of fear I don’t stop cooking until everything is as carbonated as the charcoal beneath it. Hence the children filling up on marshmallows, I guess.
Thing Two trots out of the house with sacrificial objects for the flames: a cheese string, an apple, a Barbie doll, which is semantically clever of him, and my slipper. I’m about to rescue this last item when Hunky Apron reappears, hurls the last desiccated burger – his - into the hydrangea, and puts the slipper on the grill in a subtle undermining of my domestic capabilities. I honestly don’t think this can have ever happened to Cath Kidston.

Beth Miller 30th May 2012. Published in, and Viva Lewes magazine July 2012. Pic by Alex Leith

Thursday, May 31, 2012

God save your mad parade

While clearing out my mum’s flat the other day (we’ve moved her to a Home for the Baffled and Irritating), I came across a dusty red presentation sleeve containing my silver jubilee coin.  The children immediately squirrelled it away to their room, informing me they’ll give it back only if they receive similar diamond-themed largesse from the Council. Back in 1977 I imagined the Queen had munificently sent the coins out herself to every child in the land. Certainly Man of the House was given the exact same one in Glasgow, and he slipped it under his pillow each braw bricht nicht to prevent it being thieved by the frightening neds who shared the filthy tenement block he called home. I’m convinced he’s hired Irvine Welsh to script these reminiscences.
Grange Girl couldn’t recall getting a silver coin, though she did remember dressing up for a street party as HMS Britain, made out of cardboard and milk bottle tops. Ah, memories. Just the words ‘street party’ and I’m back, ten years old, squinting into the perpetual-sunshine-of-childhood, slightly anxious about the unfamiliar Liebfraumilch-fuelled bonhomie of our street, and dressed as a little Dutch girl. I assume I must have had the costume already and doggedly insisting on wearing it to the party. I can still bring to mind the simultaneous feelings of pride in the little white hat with the turned-up corners, and hot embarrassment at the suspicion that I looked like a div. I wasn’t old enough yet to question my fervently patriotic feelings towards the Royal Family, particularly Andrew, who unbelievably was quite fanciable back then, if you were ten and inclined to wear clogs, anyway. I saw no conflict between my Union Jack scrapbook and my punkified Pippa dolls, whose malleable plastic cheeks I had pierced with safety pins.
My family kept itself to itself, but on this one glorious day no traffic was allowed in the street, and my mum was seen talking – even smiling! – to the other, more glamorous mothers previously categorised as ‘tarty’ or ‘probably anti-semitic.’ All the adults worked together to place trestle tables end to end, their uneven heights covered by sheets that had seen better days. Dads stood smoking in their ‘Life on Mars’style tank tops, and mums trotted back and forth with plates of, I suppose, flat little cheese sandwiches on white bread and Golden Wonder crisps. I don’t think we were allowed to eat anything else back then. Sitting in the middle of the road, in the middle of the afternoon, the heat almost setting my polyester Dutch dress aflame, my mother chatting vivaciously to people she held grudges against,  it felt like the world had tipped upside down, in a good way. But it was an illusion. Next day there was nothing but a few crusts in the gutter, and my mum shifting the lace nets muttering, “She’s off out again. Could she show any more bosom if she tried?’

Beth Miller, 14th May 2012. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine June 2012

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Tea for two and two for tea

Pixie Haircut set two mugs on the counter. One was a straight-up-and-down piece of china emblazoned with a Scrabble letter P. The other was a fancy thin thing, its twisted briar handle inspired by the pattern on the cup – a blossoming of unlikely purple roses – rather than by comfort and ergonomics.
“I’d like that one please,” I said, pointing to the Scrabble mug.
“That’s mine,” she said gently. “See the P on it?”
“But the other one’s the WRONG SHAPE FOR TEA,” I said, accidentally raising my voice.
“I KNOW,” she replied, “that’s why I don’t want it.”
Impasse. We stared at each other and the kettle began to whistle. Odd really, as it was electric.
“Come on, Pix, you must have some others.”
She opened the cupboard and huffily began showing me mugs as if introducing beauty contestants. I discounted three more thin ones – “presents,” she sighed – because tea does not taste nice in thin mugs. Don’t ask me why, I am merely the messenger. Next I rejected a large pint mug; these don’t work because of temperature issues. I recoiled from a low wide striped cup with a large comedy saucer, and shook my head at a tapered mug with a black interior. No matter how clean, dark insides make tea look scummy and/or the wrong colour. There was a Golden Shred Golliwog mug which we’d all bought from a local shop to prevent them being purchased by racists; and another which was the wrong shape (squat), the wrong colour (mid-brown) and slightly chipped.
“That’s the builder’s mug,” Pixie H. said.
“What if you need more than one?” I asked, thinking of our window cleaners, who turn up mob-handed in twos and threes, and who incidentally take four sugars each except the gaffer who takes five.
“I’m afraid they get this.” She revealed the Most Evil Cup Of All: a misshapen monstrosity in the form of a cat. China ears stuck out at the top, clearly designed to poke the casual drinker in the eye, and the handle had been forced to depict a furry tail.
“Heavens, Pix, are those FEET?” I cried in alarm.
“Look!” she wailed, flinging it to the tiled floor whence it bounced, unharmed. “It’s indestructible.”
I didn’t judge. We all have gifts from in-laws which we have failed to mercy-kill.
“You know Alan Bennett spoke at length on this matter,” Pixie said, generously giving me the Scrabble mug and taking a black wrong-colour-producing one herself. “He has a ‘friendly fork, a bad knife and a blue-and-white plate that is thicker than the others.’”
“Oh, don’t let’s get started on the rest of the crockery,” I said, starting nonetheless. “I have a horrid white plate which is too small.”
Pixie H. thoughtfully stirred her tea. “This is my favourite tea-spoon,” she said. “If it’s in the dishwasher I have to take it out and hand wash it, though I have twenty-four others.”
“Well that’s just daft,” I said.

Beth Miller, 3rd May 2012. Published in and Viva Lewes magazine, January 2013

Sunday, April 15, 2012

I'm sittin' in the railway station

Cowering at the back of Shoe Gallery, pretending to examine a brogue, I mourned what my life had become: hiding as if on a protection witness scheme. The shop door creaked open and I flinched; sure enough, in a few paces my Uncle was at my side, and putting the shoe firmly back on the shelf. “Definitely not, Niecey; too Virginia Woolf.”

Even hitherto impenetrable nooks such as the café upstairs at Ieko and the children’s section of the library were no longer places of safety. Since Uncle Adultery had made an offer on a “small abode” on Rotten Row, his visits to Lewes had increased in such frequency and length that they were one long joined-together visit; essentially he was living with me. At least when he hurt his ankle last year and was confined to my sofa he was stuck in one place. Now, no matter what I was doing – meeting friends in Baltica, browsing in Rehab, necking shots in the Brewers, somehow my Uncle would hear of it and materialise there, wearing his lavender silk suit and a pungent cologne. I began to suspect he’d secretly attached a tagging device to my person. The worst of it was that none of my friends appreciated my plight. That’s always the way with elderly relatives, isn’t it? You spend years bitching about your dreadful old mother, then when your chums meet her they think she’s charming. On one desperate occasion I snuck out, leaving Uncle A enthralling my social circle about the estate agent who’d shown him a house with a DOWNSTAIRS BATHROOM, but I got stuck halfway out the loo window and had to return damply to my seat, to discover the anecdote had only reached Act II, in which Uncle invoked the hardships of the trenches as an appropriate metaphor.

As ever, I was saved by Grange Girl, though by accident. She told me to meet her at the station. I like Grangey’s magical mystery tours, but when I got into the ticket queue she tugged my sleeve and led me, with a familiar nod to the railway guard, down the stairs onto platform 3. “I do like a place that’s been done up,” she said, opening the door to the waiting room. It had been freshly painted, was clean and warm, and had a darling little library of books to browse. More to the point, it was empty of uncles. I sat experimentally on a comfy sofa, but he didn’t appear. “Come on,” said Grangey, “I want you to see the Ladies, they’ve won awards, you know.” I unzipped my parka. “I’ll just stay here for a bit,” I said. With the Runaway next door for sustenance, John Grishams on the shelf and an award-winning loo mere steps away, why need I ever move again? Then my phone buzzed with a text from Uncle A, saying he was “devastated” to report that the house purchase had fallen through. I smiled at Grange Girl through tears of joy. “I’m ready to go back home,” I said.

Beth Miller, 5th April 2012. Published in

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Something’s gone so terribly wrong here in Pleasantville

The house being full of estate agents particulars and over-excited uncles, I took myself off to Baltica. But before I’d managed even a sip of cordial, a rose-silk suited Uncle Adultery was lowering himself into the chair opposite me and ordering a latte. “Saw you through the window Niecey!” he exclaimed, and, closing my magazine, he placed six houses in front of me. Not the actual houses, obviously, that would be silly, but their paper representatives. I groaned quietly. I didn’t want to be unhelpful, but to be fair to me, I had spent ALL WEEKEND looking at descriptions of well-appointed kitchens and gardens with potential. I just wanted a teensy break, a chance to read about Cheryl Cole’s latest heartbreak and find out why Kerry Katona’s taking it slowly this time. But instead, once again, here I was perusing granite worktops, dual aspects, and mainly laid to lawns (or ‘manly’ laid to lawn as one of them said confusingly, making me think wistfully of Sean Bean playing Lady Chatterley’s lover).

Ever since Emmanuelle astonishingly agreed to Uncle’s proposal to relocate to Lewes, he’d been in a house buying frenzy, trying to exchange contracts before she woke from her trance and remembered that she hated it here. Poor Uncle. Even his eyes were semi-detached with lack of sleep. But still, it was a bit much to lose my precious Heat-reading time to yet more large bay windows and picture rails. I waited until he nodded off in the middle of an anxious monologue about Grade II listings, then I dashed out. Where could I hide? As I dithered on the corner of Station Street, eyes darting about like a hunted deer’s, Grange Girl walked up and said, “What gives, Bambi?” I hurriedly explained, and she seized my arm and steered me into Fisher Street so abruptly we left Road Runner-esque scorch marks on the pavement.

“Presumably he doesn’t know about Pleasant Café,” she said, pushing open the door, “because you’ve not been here yet.” Grangey’s brilliant at guilt. I apologised for my remiss-ness and ordered tea and cake all round. Sara behind the counter said she was just taking a carrot cake out of the oven and would we prefer it with icing, or without? I crammed delicious warm cake into my face until my cheeks bulged like Chip ‘n’ Dale’s, and properly relaxed for the first time since Emmanuelle kissed me Frenchly (on both cheeks, I mean), and said Lewes was her kinda place.

Everyone who came in said ‘hello’ to the entire café, like we were in an imaginary American town in the 50s. I turned to Grangey and uttered the fateful words, “It’s charming here, so friendly and just that little bit off the beaten…” when the door pinged open and in bustled Uncle Adultery. “Hello ladies! Followed the scorch marks,” he beamed, adding, “serendipitous really, because I found another estate agents. Look!” and he tipped a hundredweight of Fox & Son’s details onto the table.

Beth Miller, 22nd March 2012. Published in Picture is a detail from a shot by Colin Bell

Thursday, March 8, 2012

With a baby Louis Vuitton under her underarm

The first daffs push their way through the chalky soil, the signal for Uncle Adultery to embark once again on an annual reconciliation with Emmanuelle. Even I am weary of this ritual by now, so lord knows how they feel. Here they are now, stepping off the London train to share the joy of their re-kindled romance, enveloping me in clouds of Gucci scent (her) and Versace Homme (him). “Ah, lovely Lewes,” gushes my uncle, tipping his panama hat at the unsmiling ticket inspector.

Emmanuelle dumps her Vuitton weekend bag in my arms and totters off sulkily on her six-inch heels. She’s never felt at home here, which is fine by me, because Uncle Adultery loves it too much; last year he nearly bought a pied-à-terre on South Street. Emmanuelle’s distaste for all things Lewes – she calls it ‘Beige Town’– is all that stands between my uncle keeping a respectable distance in South Ken and him living up the road and driving me to commit avunculicide (that’s the correct term, fact fans). So as we walk up the hill I carefully direct Emmanuelle’s attention to shop window displays I know she’ll hate, things which you or I might call tasteful understated elegance. Her sneer grows until it is larger than the chihuahua she carries in her handbag.

When I meet them that evening in the Pelham House bar they are sipping Hemingway daiquiris and Emmanuelle IS SMILING. I didn’t know she could do that. I put it down to cocktail supremo Sam’s skills with the old silver shaker but when I’ve ordered a Dark and Stormy, Uncle Adultery leans forward and says, ‘Marvellous news, Niecey!’

Oh god. Luckily my cocktail arrives extremely quickly for the purposes of a smooth narrative and I glug half straight off, then put on my big go-on-tell-me-your-news smile.

“Let Emmanuelle tell you,” beams my uncle and for one gasping moment I think, hell’s teeth, could she be pregnant? I try and remember how old that Italian lady was, or even other mature mums closer to home, but surely Emmanuelle is… hang on, she’s speaking and it’s about shops not babies.

“For ze first time I feel welcome in zis crazy beige town,” she coos, and kisses me on both cheeks. I can barely take in her words, but it seems she has been captivated by new clothes emporium, Mimi, and its un-Lewes-like stock of rock-chick chic. “I bought zo many beautiful zings!” Emmanuelle continues in her implausible accent, showing off her new outfit: skin-tight pink leopardskin dress teamed with a diamante-studded leather waistcoat. “And next door to Mimi is zis darlink nailbar…” she spreads out her fingers: pink leopardskin nails to match the dress.

“But that’s not the best bit,” says Uncle A, and something in his smile makes my blood freeze, “My dear fiancée is now willing to consider a move which would make me very happy.” And they toast each other with their daiquiris: “To Lewes!”

Beth Miller, 1st March 2012. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Something's cookin' in the kitchen

Aww, they looked so sweet, the two of them, little faces glimmering with pride as they clutched their shiny trophies. Why no! Not the children; they haven’t won anything. I am referring to Man of the House and Grange Girl, who came joint first in last weekend’s muffin competition at Seedy Saturday. It was incredibly lucky they both won; it would’ve been pretty awkward for the next few decades if only one had triumphed. It did mean enduring an afternoon of them forcing baked goods down my neck with the entreaty, “Have another AWARD-WINNING MUFFIN!”
Back home, Man strutted round the house holding his trophy, which sounds more Julian Clary than I intend. Uncle Adultery, who was inexplicably still staying with us, admired Man’s win. “How lucky you are, Niecey, to have a life-partner who can cut it in the kitchen.”
Man preened in the mirror, using the trophy as a pretend Fonz comb.
“Life-partner, Uncle?”
“Isn’t that what the young people say? It’s unisex, you see.”
“The word unisex fell out of fashion when the last hairdressing salon dropped it in 1976.”
We watched Man running victory laps round the living room, trophy in one hand, small child in the other.
“Do I detect domestic jealousy dear Niece?”
“No. NO! What an outrage! No, no and thrice no.”
Yes. I went into the kitchen and kicked a cupboard. There are no prizes, are there, for the run-of-the-mill day-in-day-out fish fingers and macaroni cheese business of cooking? The oh-god-why-do-the-children-have-to-eat-again-I-just-gave-them-breakfast-it’s-six-pm-is-it-oh-all-right-then kind of cooking? Well there blimming ought to be. For such awesomely consistent and repetitive meal-serving there should be medals, certificates, huge boxes of chocolates and fireworks.
It being Lewes, a firework went off just as I had that thought, and I pretended it was for me and my pesto pasta, raising my arms in the air like an athlete who’s just broken through the tape at the end of a gruelling Ironman event. Which, cooking wise, I am.
Man came in and said, “You all right?”
I put my arms down hastily. “Can’t a woman have a little stretch in her own kitchen?”
“Ah,” he laughed, “But now I’m joint Muffin Master 2012…”
“Oh are you, I had no idea.”
“…perhaps we should refer to this as MY kitchen.”
I could hear the children starting to make those needing-feeding noises, like small dinosaurs.
“What a good idea.” I handed over my pinny. “Think I’ll head upstairs with a cuppa and a nice beetroot muffin.”
The children burst in as if shot from a cannon and hurled themselves into their seats, banging cutlery in the style of Henry VIII.
I sidled out as Man said, “Right kids, who fancies supper made by an award-winning chef?” And their bellowed replies followed me up the stairs. “WE WANT PIZZA FROM THE FREEZER.”

Beth Miller, 9th February 2012. Published in Photo by Alex Leith.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Now we all know the muffin man

When Grange Girl requires your immediate attendance you don’t open your diary to find a more convenient time, nor bother her with extraneous trivia such as being in the bath. So I hurtled round, not even stopping to put on mascara, and did she thank me? Did she heck as like. She glared at her watch, told me not to let my wet hair drip on the sofa, and said, “Your eyes look piggy.”

“What’s the emergency?”

“I hope you’re hungry.”

“An eating emergency – my favourite kind!”

“I’d like you to taste test some muffins.”

“This gets better and better. Worth leaping out of a fluffy bubble bath for…” My nostrils did that outraged widening thing patented by Kenneth Williams. “What’s that smell?”

Grange Girl opened the oven and the room was filled with noxious smoke. “Yes, I did wonder if sprouts would work.”

“Brussels sprouts muffins?”

“I thought they’d be a pretty colour.” Grangey removed a tray of huge round bogies.

“I prefer chocolate muffins.”

“The point of the competition is to use vegetables which can be grown or foraged at this time of year. Like sprouts.”

“What kind of cockamamie competition is this? Don’t tell me!” I slapped my forehead. “This has to be something to do with Seedy Saturday.” I’ve got previous with Seedy Saturday. Last year I got so rained on during raffia bird feeder-making that the resulting bronchitis nearly did for me. And at the fateful Seedy Saturday three years ago I first introduced Grangey to Uncle Adultery, setting off a chain of events that began with her abandoning her marriage and ended with her creating mutant muffins.

“Yes, it’s their Muffin Master comp. ‘Show off your skills and maybe win a trophy!’” She frowned. “I don’t like that maybe.” She lined up four misshapen and whiffy monstrosities on the table, beauty pageant style. “So here we have kale and cheddar, nettle and raisin, rosehip and star anise, Brussels sprouts.”

“Because Brussels sprouts are a super-food that stand alone?” I thought longingly of my bath, and of nice food with chocolate in.

“Ok, eat up. I need an objective opinion.”

“Tasting doesn’t get much tougher than this.”

“Stop stalling.”

I reached reluctantly for the first one, and the phone rang. Grangey looked at me suspiciously. “How did you do that?”

“Me? I’m sat right here.”

“Don’t move.” She went into the living room to answer the phone and I hastily crumbled the muffins into the earth of Grangey’s weeping fig.

“No-one there. Idiots. Good god, where have all the muffins gone?”

“Long time passing,” I sang, as I reached under the table and clicked my mobile off. “They were all scrummy. The nettle one was best.” This guesstimate was based on it containing raisins, a bona fide ingredient.

“Thanks,” said Grange Girl, opening a cake tin full of blackened warty muffins. “Here’s some more experiments from yesterday for you to try.”

Beth Miller, 31st January 2012. Published in

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nae cheerful twinkle lights me

A few short weeks ago, sobbing with relief, I finally waved Uncle Adultery off after his extended Lewes sojourn. He’d been resident on my chaise longue since October when he broke his ankle running away from an estate agent, and I’d been dutifully nursing him back to health, which is not my strong suit. I began strongly with, “Dearest Uncle, can I tempt you with a little homemade chicken broth just like Booba Baumgarten used to make in the Stoke Newington shtetl with her own fowls?” But this palled almost immediately, and for the best part of three months our interactions were more along the lines of, “Whaddya want NOW?” “Merely the finest quails eggs lightly poached upon a gold-plated loaf from Flint Owl, dear Niecey.” “Here’s some beans on Kingsmill 50/50 you rotten old malingerer,” [chucks plate onto Uncle’s lap and turns up telly].

It’s been indescribably wonderful having my house back. So imagine my face when I answered the door yesterday to find Uncle Adultery looming on the stoop, wearing a startling tartan suit in the style of the Bay City Rollers. “Greetings, favourite niece!” he cried, and made as if to enter the hall, but I blocked his passage with the elephant’s foot umbrella.

“Did you leave something here, Unc?” I asked. “Just text me the details and I’ll post it to you instanter. Bye!” I went to shut the door but his early experience of flogging the Encyclopaedia Britannica meant he was already in the hallway.
“I fear I rather overstayed my welcome recently, Niecey,” he said, stepping into the living room with a proprietary air. “So I’ve decided to make amends by throwing you an authentic Burns Night supper. Oh dear, you’ve moved that picture, I don’t like it there so well.”

“Comments and questions, Uncle. One: A Fortnums hamper would have been adequate recompense for my nursing stint. Two: How can you do an authentic Burns supper, never having been to Scotland or indeed, knowing where it is? Three: Burns Night is 25th January which is a worrying several days away.”

Uncle Adultery pulled from his sporran-shaped manbag a tam o’ shanter and planted it on his head. “Och, dinna worry your little heid, hen.”
“Stop that please.”
“Sorry. Just getting in the spirit. To answer in order. The haggis is from Fortnums. My dear friend Hamish McDougal will be running the ceremonies in his kilt. It’s going to take several days to make all the necessary preparations.”
“You’ve made up Hamish McDougal haven’t you?”
“That’s not his real name; it’s his Highland persona. He’s much in demand for his readings of Address to a Haggis.”

Uncle A put down his – I now noticed – suitcases and sighed happily. “Good to be back, Niecey. Emmanuelle’s needing a teensy bit of space right now. I’ll just make up the chaise and then I’ll get cracking on the invitations.”

Beth Miller, 19th January 2012. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sail boats, canal boats, and cruisers too

'Now is the time, to send us a line,’ I sang, as I walked down the Cliffe, ‘For your Hoseason’s boating brochure.’ When I was young this was one of the catchiest jingles, along with ‘It’s a beautiful day, come to C&A!’ and ‘A finger of fudge is just enough to give the kids a treat.’ This isn’t going to be one of those nostalgic wallows about naff jingles [too late – Ed.], but anything to do with boats, even just the ferry to Calais, gives rise to the Hoseason’s boating brochure earworm. ‘We’ve got all kinds of craft, that’ll suit you just fine, for messing about on the water.’ I’d somehow agreed to join Hoxton Mum on the maiden voyage of her new boat, which she’d parked (parked doesn’t sound right), on the river in South Street. Since Lysander went freelance (eg unemployed), Hoxie has conceived increasingly desperate schemes to avoid seeking paid work herself. The latest is to join ‘buy nothing new year,’ which has add-on options such as ‘knit socks with wool from old sweaters’ and ‘fish for supper using a second-hand boat.’ A salty sea dog in the Lewes Arms recently convinced Hoxie that not only are there mullet, carp and chub in the Ouse, but that his old boat was an unmissable bargain.
Hoxie waved her blue fisherman’s cap when she saw me. ‘Nice authentic touch,’ I said.
‘It’s new,’ she said, then clapped her hand to her mouth.
‘I thought you weren’t buying anything new?’
‘That’s this year,’ she said. ‘I got this on December 31st. Let’s set sail, me hearties!’ She got in what looked like a baby’s bath. I stumbled in after, the boat tipping alarmingly, and when we sat down our knees touched.
‘No fishing today,’ she said, ‘I just need to get the hang of the craft.’ She rowed out into the middle of the river, surprisingly expertly.
‘How come Lysander didn’t come?’ I asked.
‘Oh, he’s making a silly fuss about the cost of the boat. Wait till he sees all the amazing free suppers. Reminds me, must get a fish kettle.’
‘A new one?’ I teased.
‘Steamer Trading doesn’t count – they sell essential items to support my buying nothing.’
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ I said, ‘But why is my bottom wet?’
I’ve always hated swimming in my clothes, ever since school when we had to dive for bricks wearing pyjamas. But needs must. We sat cold and damp on the muddy path, watching the last traces of the boat going glug glug glug before it disappeared beneath the briny.
‘Let’s get coffee,’ she said. ‘And before you point out I can’t buy it, you can.’
‘All Britain’s waterways waiting for you,’ I sang as we squelched along. Hoxton Mum emptied her shoe into a drain. ‘They can keep waiting,’ she said, and we pushed open the door of the Snowdrop.

Beth Miller, 10th January 2012. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Return to sender, address unknown

Every December Man of the House receives a Christmas letter from an old friend he’s not spoken to since way back in the last century. This friend, who I’ll call Smug, and her husband Smugger – aren’t they cute with their matching names in their cosy nook! – writes the sort of round robin I thought journalist Simon Hoggart had satirised into extinction. But clearly not, so it gives me great cheer to report – verbatim - ‘Daughter continues with piano (grade 4) and viola (grade 5). She has founded a string quartet, which gave an exciting debut performance at the school concert, with a piece arranged by Daughter.’ As I read this out to Man of the House, who always acts as if the letter is my fault, Thing Two rushed in, yelled, ‘Fleabag Monkeyface is on!’ and rushed out again. He was wearing just pants and a Santa hat. Sighing, I read that Daughter had sung with her school choir at both Disneyland and Chartres Cathedral. ‘Quite a contrast!’ noted Smug, though whether he meant between the two venues or between Daughter and Thing Two who can say? Simon Hoggart says that braggy letters tend to gloss over the dumkopf child of the family, but you can easily work out the meaning of ‘lively’ and ‘creative.’ Alas, the other child in the Smuggery was ‘very successful in his 11+ exam’ (the family has relocated to the 1970s so the kids can take the 11+) and he ‘relishes playing rugby… passed grade 3 cornet and piano… won the School French conversation… likes to hack most weekends’ (on a horse or into celebrities’ phones? No idea).

I truly can’t work out if I hate these people or wish I was them. This issue remains unresolved, pending my next therapy session. In the meantime here’s my reply.
Dear Smuggies,
Sorry this is unseasonally late but that’s the kind of slacker household I’m barely holding together here!!! What a great year! The kids got to really high levels not only on Moshi Monsters but also Club Penguin! Thing One is fully engaged in the music scene, having almost learned to cover up the holes on the recorder, and Thing Two is speaking French; his cousin’s taught him to swear like un matelot! They relish experimenting with the Freeview box and it’s now stuck on Men & Motors, what an eye-opener! They are such a pleasure to take to restaurants. Thing Two astonished me recently by ordering a ham pizza instead of just cheese, a true gourmand!! I must briefly blow my own trumpet and announce that I notched up 351 washes in my Hotpoint washer-drier! I’m aiming for 366 washes this year, well we all have to have Olympic goals!! I see from your letter that you’re planning to see in the New Year with a visit to the RSC!! We are similarly going to the UGC, to see Alvin & The Chipmunks III – Chipwrecked!!
Best wishes for 2012,
Conflicted & Bemused

Beth Miller, 4th January. Published in and Viva Lewes handbook February 20

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ça plane pour moi

As I toiled up the hill, muttering my list like a mantra - wrapping paper, Turkish Delight, hexbug nano - someone hurtled into me with a decisive thud.
“Why don’t you look where you’re going?” thundered the bag-encumbered shopper.
‘Hello Country Mouse,” I said, for it was she. “Chrimble shopping?”
“Yes, O Curse-d Day,” she intoned. Mouse always gets mardy when forced to forego her cornfield for the fleshpots of the Big Town.
People pushed past us, muttering, for we were blocking the entrance to the Parking Shop, which was doing brisk trade. People buying tinselly parking-related presents for their relatives, I guess.
“Lucky I bumped into you, actually,” Mouse said. “You can show me round the new supermarket.”
I escorted her to Aldi, acting all knowledgeable because Mouse makes me feel urban and loaded with street smarts. But I hadn’t actually been inside Aldi yet. Man of the House is in charge of Supermarket Policy, and as his personal list of significant dates reads, in its entirety:
1978 – Scotland beat Holland in the group stage of the World Cup
2003 - First child born
2005 - Waitrose opened in Lewes
he was unlikely to sanction an official visit.
The doors swished open and we browsed the famously unfamiliar brands. There was a no-nonsense element to the display of goods. BISCUITS. FLOUR. RICE. JUICE. ANORAKS. Eh? Yes, the middle aisle housed bins of arbitrary items such as inflatable air beds, worryingly cheap power drills, and blue anoraks the exact type my Dad wore in Brittany in 82, which I remember well because he wore it a lot that trip. I realised I had a nice mellow holiday feeling, because it was like being in a French supermarket. The lighting, the oddly-named items, the unpretentious furnishings – all that was missing was a sullen French goth girl rapping out the total amount so quickly I had to keep repeating, “Scusez-moi?” till one of us died or she reluctantly agreed to take the correct money out of my hand. Possibly not the correct money, I now reflected – I had doubtless been fleeced un peu.
While I’d slipped into reverie, Mouse had been filling her trolley with pretty much everything except anoraks. “Essentials to get us through the festive season,” she snapped, in response to my inquiring eyebrow. She said festive season as others might say “nuclear holocaust.”
I’d have asked if she really needed fourteen packets of Disco Biscuits, but my attention was snagged by a pile of boxes of Turkish Delight, very attractively priced, and some super-cheap wrapping paper. With a cry of Zut alors! I grabbed armfuls.
‘Seasons greeting, I suppose,” Mouse said fulsomely, as we parted.
“Joyeaux Noel!” I cried, and went off to find someone – anyone – who was able to tell me what a hexbug nano was.

Beth Miller, 7th December 2011