Posted in Personal life, Reading, Type 1 diabetes, Writing

The Alchemy of Chocolate

Logo for the SilverWood Authors Spring Hop

Welcome to the SilverWood Authors Spring Hop!

“Some of SilverWood’s many authors have come together to share a variety of articles and items of interest on their blogs for your enjoyment.

“There are some lovely giveaway prizes, and – to stay in keeping with the Spring and rebirth theme at this time of year – some colourful Easter eggs.

“Feel free to collect the eggs, and use them where you like. They were drawn by SilverWood author Peter St John who writes the ‘Gang’ series about a boy who was evacuated to a village near Ipswich during WWII. Meet Peter and his characters on the Blog Hop, along with a host of eggcellent SilverWood authors. 😉

“Have fun!”

Helen Hart
Publishing Director
SilverWood Books
www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk

About My Spring Hop Post

Cover of my new book, "Coming To Terms with Type 1 Diabetes"
Cover design by SilverWood Books

My contribution to the blog hop is a light-hearted very short story that takes as its theme every woman’s love of chocolate. I’ve always loved chocolate, though my relationship with it hasn’t always been easy, especially since my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 3.

But it is a complete myth that diabetics can’t eat chocolate – they can, they just need to give themselves enough insulin to offset it before they eat it. So if you know a diabetic and are wondering what to give them this Easter, don’t hesitate to give them a chocolate Easter egg – and not “diabetic chocolate” either, an evil concoction made with a sugar substitute that spoils the flavour and has no health benefit compared to normal chocolate. (Yes, there IS a health benefit – to dark chocolate, in moderation, and it’s a useful source of slow-release carbs, which is why Paula Radcliffe eats a couple of squares before running.)

This and other myths surrounding life with Type 1 diabetes will be dispelled in my new book, Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes,which SilverWood will be publishing in paperback form for World Diabetes Day, 14 November 2014. The ebook edition, for which SilverWood provided this beautiful and appropriate cover (the blue circle being the international symbol of diabetes), was published for World Diabetes Day 2013 to raise awareness of the condition and funds for research into a cure.  and has gathered many 5* reviews and has been called by a leading GP “one of the best things I’ve ever read about diabetes”. The paperback will have new bonus material added. To keep informed about the book’s progress, and for an invitation to the launch in Foyles’ Bristol Bookshop on Thursday 13th November, please click here to sign up for my mailing list.

Prize Time!

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my chocolate-inspired short story below – and if you like it, please leave a comment. As an incentive, one commenter drawn at random on the day my book is launched will receive a free signed copy of the new paperback – plus a slim bar of chocolate to use as a bookmark!

 

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Image of an Easter egg

 

The Alchemy of Chocolate

If you dip a wafer biscuit into a chocolate fountain enough times, eventually it won’t fit in your mouth. Much the same had happened with Jennifer’s body. It was as if every bar of chocolate that she’d ever eaten had been melted down and painted onto her frame.

Oozing into hidden places, the fat encroached so slowly at first that Jennifer was slow to notice her transformation. Then, one summer’s day while sunbathing on her lawn, she realised that she’d no longer pass the fat test she and her friends had used at school: the ability to lay a ruler flat across her hipbones. (That was the best use they’d found for their geometry sets).

By the time she came to squeeze into an old pair of cords for Bonfire Night, Jennifer observed that where her stomach had once been concave, it now billowed out, like a ship in full sail. No wonder sleeping on her tummy had become uncomfortable.

Trying on a party dress for New Year, she spotted that her waistline only curved inwards when elasticated clothing constrainied her flesh.

By the Spring solstice, the fat had found new places to hide. Her eyelids were thicker, and when inserting an earring, she had to push harder before the post emerged on the other side of the lobe.

Jennifer was glad when spring sunshine came early, because it gave her licence to go bare-legged. Lately, tights had become irksome. Unless she aligned their waistband precisely with that of her knickers, skirt and petticoat, her silhouette resembled the scalloped edge of a doily on a plate of cakes.

At Easter, Jennifer was quick to remove the temptation of her Easter eggs – by eating them. But then, at last, she decided to take action about her surplus fat. Precisely what action, she was not sure. She was unwilling to relinquish chocolate, or indeed any kind of food. Nor did she fancy exercising her way into shape. Poring over a list of how to burn calories, she was horrified by the ridiculous distance she’d have to run to work off a single bar of Dairy Milk. There had to be an easier way. It was just a question of dispersing fat rather than storing it.

Then, lulled to sleep on Midsummer’s Eve by an exceptionally delicious hot chocolate, Jennifer had a remarkable dream. She dreamed of the perfect recipe for weight loss.

Next morning on waking, she knew exactly what to do. She rushed downstairs to her kitchen and assembled in a mixing bowl the ingredients dictated by her dream. Instead of stopping to wonder how this magical formula could require only store-cupboard staples, she got on with beating the mixture, her wooden spoon a biscuit-coloured blur.

Once the batter was blended, she tipped it into a saucepan and set it over a low heat, chanting the mantra that had also come to her in the dream. When the mixture was smooth and warm as the perfect waistline, she decanted it into a jug and popped it in the fridge. She knew instinctively that this was the correct next step.

When she arrived at her office for work, she was so impatient for nightfall – the witching hour, or so her dream had told her – that she could hardly concentrate on her job.

As soon as she arrived home, she slipped on her nightie, took the jug from the fridge and with a medicine spoon measured out the dose prescribed in her dream. She swallowed the quivering spoonful in a rush, before she could change her mind and retired to bed to await the results. The anxious fluttering in her tummy didn’t stop her from tumbling into solid, dreamless sleep.

Waking next morning, she climbed out of bed, slipped off her nightdress and flung it distractedly on the bed. Reaching with her right hand behind the back of her neck, she grasped what the previous night’s dream had told her she would find just above the nubbly bone at the top of her spine: a trapezoidal zip-pull. She grasped the metal.

Bending her head forward to clear her long dark hair out of the way, Jennifer tugged the zip-pull between thumb and forefinger as far as she could. Then she stretched her left hand up behind her back to meet the right one, and continued pulling the zip down, slowly, slowly, till it reached the base of her backbone.

As the zip-pull stopped abruptly at her coccyx, the thick flesh covering Jennifer’s upper back and shoulders started to feel loose. Soon she was easing off the entire outer casing of flesh as instinctively as a snake sheds its skin. Wriggling her hips and thighs to dislodge this pudgy onesie, she sat down on the bed, peeled it off her calves and finally stepped out of it on to the bedside rug.

Only now did she have the courage to glance in the dressing table mirror. There, to her delight, in a flawless casing of fresh skin, was her slender teenage outline. It was like meeting a long-lost, much-missed friend.

Glancing down at the discarded, Jennifer-shaped fat that lay perfectly still on floor, she wondered what on earth to do with it.

But of course! It was recycling day. She could simply put it in the green wheelie bin. After all, it should compost down as readily as bacon rind. Better to throw it in the wheelie bin than put it out in the garden for the birds.

With a new lightness of tread, Jennifer took a few steps around the bedroom. She felt decidedly different. The top of her thighs no longer rubbed together, her arms lay straighter against her sides, and she no longer felt that her stomach had been lagged, like the insulating jacket wrapped round a hot water tank.

Beginning to enjoy the full effect, Jennifer turned this way and that. But it wasn’t the slim reflection in the dressing-table mirror that caused her to smile. It wasn’t the realisation that her low-cost recipe would fetch a fortune on the heaving market for diet products. Nor was it the recognition that she’d achieving every slimmer’s dream of alchemy, turning fat into gold. It was the thought that she could now eat as much chocolate as she liked, without ever having to worry about gaining weight. It was a dream come true.

 

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Cover of Quck Change flash fiction collectionThis story features in “Quick Change”, my first collection of flash fiction, which you can buy from Amazon here:  Quick Change.

My post is just one of many interesting articles in the SilverWood Spring Blog Hop. To hop forward to read these, please click on the links below. You’ll also find more colourful Easter eggs to collect and some more giveaway prizes!

 

Helen Hollick :  Let us Talk of Many Things  – Fictional Reality http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/fictional-reality-silverwood-blog-hop.html

Alison Morton : Roma Nova – How the Romans Celebrated Spring http://alison-morton.com/2014/04/17/how-the-romans-celebrated-spring-2/

Anna Belfrage: Step inside…   – Is freezing in a garret a prerequisite? https://annabelfrage.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/is-freezing-in-a-garret-a-prerequisite/

Edward Hancox: Iceland Defrosted – Seaweed and cocoa http://icelanddefrosted.com/2014/04/16/silverwood-blog-hop-seaweed-cocoa/

Lucienne Boyce: Lucienne Boyce’ Blog – The Female Writer’s Apology http://francesca-scriblerus.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-female-writers-apology-or-then-and.html

Matlock the Hare:  Matlock the Hare Blog –  Pid-padding the self-published Pathway… http://matlockthehare.blogspot.co.uk/

Michael Wills:  Michael Wills – A Doomed Army http://www.michaelwills.eu/2014/04/a-doomed-army/

Isabel Burt: Friday Fruitfulness  –  Flees for the Easter Hop… http://isabelburt.com/ (her post will go live shortly)

John Rigg: An Ordinary Spectator – Television Lines http://www.anordinaryspectator.com/news-blog%20

Peter St John: Jenno’s Blog –  My Village http://jennospot.blogspot.fr/2014/04/my-village_16.html

Caz Greenham: Caz’s Devon Blog Diary – Springtime and Flowering Baskets http://www.wp.me/p3oYnS-n1

Helen Hart: SilverWood Books Ltd http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Writing

My New Philosophy of Flower Arranging

This weekend, my lovely friend Susanne, whom I’ve known since I was 11, presented me with a beautiful bunch of spring flowers – anemones and tulips (my favourite). As I stuffed them unceremoniously into the first vases that came to hand, (well, we were in the middle of my husband’s birthday party), I inadvertently conducted a floral  experiment that’s brought out the philosopher in me. Or should that be the flowerosopher? I think I’ve just invented a whole new school of thought. Florists, philosophers – you decide….

Sometimes it’s good to be in solitary splendour, regardless of what anyone else is doing – but it can get a bit lonely.

Single anemone in a green IKEA vase
1) Standing, strong, alone.

Other times, there’s safety in numbers, all standing together, disciplined and firm.

Tulips and anemones stuffed tightly into a glass vase
2) Looking pretty but with no room for manoeuvre.

Best of all is when you can be together, but enjoy the freedom to be who you want to be and to go where you want to go in life.

Tulips and anemones loosely placed in a glass vase, arrange themselves
3) With room for manoeuvre, these flowers arranged themselves to perfection.

I know which I prefer.

Thank you, Susanne – you and I definitely belong in vase number 3!

Posted in Family, Reading, Writing

In Praise of Public Libraries (For National Libraries Day)

The author, aged about 2, in the garden with her teddy
Tea with teddy. It was a big treat to be allowed to read at the table.

National Libraries Day seems the perfect time to publish something that’s been in my head for a long time  – a post in praise of the public library that I visited regularly as a child.

When I was a little girl, it was my ambition to become a “library lady”. This ambition clearly pre-dated the entry of the word “librarian” into my vocabulary, which suggests just how little I was.

In the leafy London suburb of Sidcup, where most of the housing stock had been built between the wars, I lived within 20 minutes walk from a sturdy, boxy-looking public library. I suspect that it was a classic 1920s style of architecture for public buildings, as was the primary school that I attended (Days Lane), about half a mile away. Down the next road was my grandmother’s house, where I went every day at lunchtime instead of having school dinners.

These three buildings were touchstones of my childhood, and they all backed on to a small woodland. In the spring, the wood was carpeted with wild bluebells. Before regulations were introduced to prevent us picking wild flowers, in May no classroom was complete without a jam jar of these simple, fragrant flowers on every windowsill. I still adore the sight of a bluebell wood; it grounds me.

Procession of children in traditional May Day ceremony at English primary school
Me, centre, being a May Maiden, with Days Lane infant school in the background

If this setting sounds idyllic, that’s because it was. It wasn’t just the children who enjoyed these woods. When I was 9, we had a trainee teacher for a short spell, a dark-skinned man called Mr Liverpool. He came from British Guyana (he had to show us on the classroom globe where it was). When I asked him to sign my autograph book before he left, he wrote “I love the woods, the woods of Haddon Grove”. I wonder whether he also loved the library.

Cardboard Tickets, Wooden Shelves

Old-fashioned wooden library filing drawers, viewed from the front
File under nostalgia

The youngest of three children with a primary school teacher for a mother, I inevitably joined the library at a very early age. In those days, we didn’t have plastic credit-card style tickets to be swiped against a bar-code reader. Instead, the lending system revolved around small cardboard tickets, with little pockets in them. Inside each book was a slender cardboard strip giving the book’s details. When you borrowed a book, you handed over one ticket per book, and the librarians slipped the book’s strip into your ticket. The ticket was filed in  date order, according to the return date. These tickets were kept in pleasingly solid, shiny wooden boxes behind the counter, alongside the rubber date stamp and ink pads, which the librarians used to date-stamp the sheet on the flyleaf of your book, to remind you of its return date. I thought the tickets were wonderful.

There were also card indexes, with a white postcard for every book in the library, ranged in racks of wooden drawers. If you wanted to find out whether the library stocked a particular book, you had to search for it among these cards, filed alphabetically in order of author. The drawers  made a lovely soft whooshing noise when you slid them open and shut, running on smooth rails. A few years ago I acquired a set of these drawers, out of pure nostalgia, for my study at home. I adore them.

Strictly No Talking

The library counters were golden, gleaming woodwork, as were nearly all of the shelves, with the exception of some low, white-painted, open-topped boxes in which picture books were displayed for the youngest readers. Dotted around the boxes were low stools with colourful tops.  That part of the decor was distinctly 1960s (like me). From the moment you entered the echoing lobby the astringent scent of polish invaded your nostrils. The strict enforcement of the rule of silence meant that the only echo should be your shoes on the shining parquet floor.

Filed By Age

Once you’d entered the lobby, your age determined which route you took. Under 12s turned right through double glass doors to the Junior section. Adults went straight ahead, past the check-in desk, to the grown-ups’ section. There was also a Reading Room, off to the left, where people could park themselves at big wooden tables to read newspapers (asleep, if you were Smokey Joe, the local tramp) or consult the huge reference books housed there.

Cover of The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon
One of my favourite books

It was a major rite of passage to change the direction of your step from turning right to going straight on. Although I was a competent and eager reader, I remember dreading reaching the age of 12, when I’d be automatically promoted to the adults’ section. There was an advantage, in that I’d be entitled to more tickets (I think you had two as an infant, three as a junior and four as a senior). The tickets changed colour too: children’s tickets were sage green, adults’ were the colour of a digestive biscuit. But I didn’t want to leave the comfort of the Junior section, where I knew exactly where to find my favourite books (The Ship That Flew by Hilda Lewis and The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon). I couldn’t understand why a boy in my class should be boasting about his preference for the adult section.

Me, centre, aged 6, as a May Maiden on the school field
Another scene from my happy childhood. It was always summer when I was a child

Another pleasure in going to the library was seeing my favourite library lady. On the way there, I’d be hoping that she’d be on duty. This library lady had dark, bouffant hair and red lipstick, and she always smiled kindly at me as I shyly proferred my books to be stamped. She lived a few streets away from us and we’d often see her walking to the local shops with her daughter, a docile petite girl with Down’s Syndrome. The daughter always held her mother’s hand and in the other hand carried a large click-shut patent handbag. I remember being surprised when my mum told me that she’d just turned 21. (There was a Down’s boy of similar age, Tony, who lived in the house that backed on to our garden, and he used to come round to play.) My mum would say hello to the library lady when we were out, but I don’t recall ever really stopping to chat. This seemed appropriate, as if she carried an aura of library silence around with her.  In any case, I was slightly in awe of her: to me it was like meeting a minor member of royalty on the street.

This lady was my role model for the kind of library lady that I aspired to be. She was always smiling, always kind, but no doubt she had her fair share of heartaches, in those days before political correctness, when Down’s Syndrome was a newfangled expression and we referred to Tony and the library lady’s daughter as Mongols. (On the way to the library, we passed the Spastics Society collection box outside the shoe shop – another long banished phrase.)

I never did pursue my library ambitions, but even now, when I enter a library, I often think back fondly to the library of my childhood, set among the woods where, in my mind, bluebells always bloom. I was devastated years later when I heard that the library had burned down. But I am thankful to live in a country where book burning only happens by accident and we are free to read whatever we want. I bought a battered secondhand copy a few years ago of the same edition of my much-loved A Ship That Flew. The pink-jacketed edition of The Glass Slipper I’m still looking for.

Even so, visiting the library is one of many happy memories that stands out in my very happy childhood, and it’s definitely one to celebrate on this special day. Happy National Libraries Day and thank you, to library ladies (and men) everywhere.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like some of the others about happy memories of my suburban childhood:

Bowled Over By Fond Memories of My Grandma

Let It Snow: My Best Childhood Memories

Posted in Family, Travel

Girls In Their Summer Clothes

Debbie and Laura about to buy Sancerre at source
"Have red shoes, will travel" (Buying Sancerre at source in France last summer)

If the weather turns wintry tomorrow, blame me. Because this afternoon, I dragged out from under my bed the big plastic storage box in which my summer clothes have been hibernating since October (cue for a snowstorm).

As I spread flimsy dresses and crisp cotton shifts across the bed, images of last summer flitted across my brain like the apocryphal flashbacks of a drowning man. All of these images featured me in these clothes.

There I was on the Avignon tourist trail in a floaty, floral Cath Kidston number. This cool cotton lawn frock was the only thing keeping me on the right side of sanity in the sticky, seething streets. And it was the perfect outfit to  “danser sur le Pont” (as you do).

And then there was the cappuccino sleeveless linen shift, short skirt sticking to my legs as we cycled across the cobbles of Senlis to reach the open-air municipal pool. Splashy French shrieks of excitement and distant foreign children’s laughter lured us in the right direction, even though we couldn’t see the pool till the very last minute. It was raised on a balcony above street level – an upstairs open-air swimming pool! Who’d have thought it?

Debbie and Laura on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Summer 2011
No prizes for guessing which city we're in! The terrace on top of the Arc de Triomphe provides a whole new perspective on the Eiffel Tower

The tiered navy sleeveless Gap drill dress didn’t show the dirt on a hot, dusty day spent giving my daughter her first taste of Paris.  Laura didn’t like Paris. “It’s too city-ish.”

It obligingly withstood another day’s wear at Disneyland Paris – a twelve-hour shift to get our money’s worth. Now that Laura did approve of.

And then there was the blue and white stripey jersey shift, too short and shabby to be worn beyond our back garden really, but perfect for the long haul south in our camper van, my feet on the dashboard as we ambled down the valleys of the Loire and the Rhone to Provence. (Don’t worry,  my husband was driving.)

For a second, I allow myself to  believe that the act of trying on my favourite summer clothes will magically transport me back to the south of France, far from the woolly jumpers of home. I gaze at my favourite cotton lawn sundress with the wistful longing that as a child I’d project on an old wooden chair, hoping it would sprout the wings of Enid Blyton‘s famous Wishing Chair and whisk me away. (How those magical children’s stories  stay with you forever!)

But this year we won’t be heading south, whatever we wear. We’re spending this summer is Scotland – and as my daughter likes to say, “You don’t go to Scotland for the weather”. I’ll still be taking my beloved summer clothes. But I expect I’ll have to wear them all at once.

Posted in Family, Personal life

The Guinea Pig Has Left the Building

Brownie the guinea pig with Laura the Brownie
Brownie the guinea pig with Laura the Brownie

Daffodils in bloom – check.  Wild garlic in full pungent flower at the roadside  – check. Tiny white blossoms starring the bare branches of our plum trees – check. Children shrieking as they bounce up and down on the trampoline – check. Spring solstice (and my parents’ wedding anniversary) – check.  But it’s still not officially spring in our household until another important ritual takes place.

In these confusing times of climate change, it’s not always easy to spot the season.  My husband has just invested in a weather station to help us get our bearings.  A neat white plastic box displays the current time, date, temperature, air pressure, humidity, cloud cover and precipitation.  It gleans this information from a smaller white box with which it has some sort of remote communication.  According to the weather station, we experienced a fabulous run of weather the first week after he bought it  – until we realised that the smaller white box was meant to be placed out of doors, rather than on the other side of the kitchen.

But we have a more reliable indicator of the seasons.  It’s small, brown and furry, and makes endearing cheeping sounds whenever we pass by.  The volume increases in direct proportion to the volume of cucumber in our hands.

Brownie travels around according to the season.  In the summer, she grazes all day on the lawn, safe under a vast chickenwire run, constructed by my husband for her enjoyment (he can’t bear to see an animal in a cage). When we go on our summer holiday, out comes her summer palace – a large but lightweight, portable plastic house that just about fits in the back of my Ford Ka.  We take palace and pig to my brother or sister’s house, where Brownie enjoys the materialistic life of a city-dweller, spoiled with treats  from the nearby pet superstore and trimmings from Marks and Spencer salad packs.  Last year she came back from her summer holiday with a red and yellow pop-up tent.  (No guinea pig should be without one.)

Then, when the nights start to get a little cooler, she migrates into the lean-to that we euphemistically call our conservatory.  Once frost sets in, we move her properly indoors, where, in her summer palace again, she takes up residence on the utility room worktop.  So begins a more sociable time of year for her.  We have cheery conversations whenever I’m loading the dishwasher or doing the laundry, and she likes to throw in a few helpful comments as I iron my daughter’s school uniform in the morning.

But as the nights shorten, there comes a point when she must be yearning for fresh air again, and today she got her wish.  I gave her outdoor hutch a good spring clean and doused it with disinfectant.  I lined it with old copies of the Radio Times and a thick layer of hay, before scattering handfuls of the greens that are suddenly growing like Topsy in our back garden.  Brownie squeaked her approval as I gently scooped her up with both hands and took her out the back door.  The guinea pig has left the building.  So spring is here at last.