Sandwiches with a pinch of Friendship thrown in!

Many friends have told me that they have acquired new skills during the course of one national lockdown or another, and Facebook has borne witness to a veritable deluge of posts about the success (or otherwise) of home baking projects, ingeniously crafted ‘Fakeaways’ or the cultivation of fresh produce.   

I have to admit that (pre-2020) I had staunchly shied away from baking of any kind, believing that my efforts would almost certainly fall woefully short of my mum’s delectable creations. However, with lockdown 1 came the desire not only to rekindle precious childhood memories with my boys, but also to lay that particular ghost to rest. And by choosing a homemade chocolate cake (over a shop bought Harry Potter one for his birthday earlier this week), my youngest son unwittingly gave my baking skills the resounding endorsement that I so desperately craved! However, as I sat basking in the glory of my new-found culinary success, I found myself taking a somewhat reluctant trip down memory lane to a week’s work experience, carried out shortly after sitting my GCSE examinations. 

It was the summer of 1991 and my parents had kindly arranged for me to go and help out at the local primary school. My mum dropped me off at the school office and I waited nervously for my instructions. The Headteacher (a terrifyingly exuberant character) cantered towards me, welcomed me to his school and promptly dispatched me to Class One. I was immediately put to work cleaning up the painting corner (surely that was a job for a Friday afternoon, not a Monday morning?) and sorting the Lego from the Duplo – which I dutifully did. Later that day, I was entrusted with delivering ‘Storytime’ to twenty-four rather fidgety four- and five-year-olds but I relished that particular challenge, and I have to admit that (before long) I had them all captivated.

By lunchtime, I was beginning to feel much more relaxed and had already warmed to several of the children in that class. It was evident that many of them viewed me as a sort of ‘big sister’ and, rather like the Pied Piper, I seemed to have quite a following by the time I accompanied the TA out onto the playground! When I returned to the classroom, the teacher presented me with a large canvas shopping bag and quickly informed me of her plans for the next session.

The children had been growing their own cress and so they were going to make egg and cress sandwiches for their afternoon snack. I glanced into the bag and saw a loaf of bread, some low-fat spread, some hard-boiled eggs, and a plastic container filled with a thick creamy substance that looked like a cross between mayonnaise and salad cream. The cress, of course, was on the windowsill on a bed of cotton wool. All very straightforward, I thought.

The children were sent to me in batches of six where we swiftly found our rhythm (in true production line fashion) buttering bread, removing the shell from the eggs, and combining the ingredients before plating up the sandwiches and allowing the children to tuck in.

Well, they were thrilled with their efforts and utterly effusive in their verbal feedback. I beamed at them, rejoicing in the notion of a job well done. The teacher seemed pleased with our efforts too and it was soon time to tidy everything away and send the children home.

Once the last child had been safely handed over to his parent, I went to collect my things from the staffroom. As I was leaving, Miss B called after me to ask where I had put the canvas bag etc. I proudly informed her that I had placed it under her desk with the plastic container (meticulously washed and dried) inside. She looked at me aghast:

“But what have you done with the contents of the container?” she enquired.

“Most of it got used,” I replied. “So, I didn’t think that there was much point in keeping the rest.”

“Used?” she asked, “On what?”

(I began to wonder why Miss B was being quite so slow on the uptake!)

“In the sandwiches,” I stated rather incredulously, “to bind the egg together.”

“Oh, no!” she cried. “That wasn’t mayonnaise, it was Friendship Cake mixture!”

She went on to explain that she had been given the recipe by a parent and that it was one that had taken quite some time to ‘cultivate’.

Taken from an Amish tradition, the idea was to keep adding ingredients over a ten-day period and then to give portions of the ‘starter batter’ away to friends, so that they could bake (and enjoy) a cake for themselves.

I remember thinking that this was quite a long and drawn-out process. That it might have been considerably more ‘friendly’ simply to have given someone a cake that could be enjoyed immediately, with a nice cup of coffee perhaps? I resisted the urge to voice these thoughts, however!

And with that, my first day euphoria instantly evaporated and I beat (what can only be described as) a hasty retreat. I had absolutely no idea how Miss B might go about telling the parent in question that her well-intentioned gift had just been ingested (uncooked) by each and every child in Class One. Looking on the bright side though, the week could only get better!    

In pursuit of the happy medium

People constantly talk about ‘striking a happy medium’ and I’ve often wondered if this is, in fact, possible? So many factors would have to be finely balanced in order for this to be achievable and human nature is so inherently fallible (certainly in my case, anyway!) that somewhere along the lines the potential for error must arguably be too great!

I’m always utterly fascinated by family dynamics and I derive huge comfort from seeing that my parental struggles are by no means unique! The notion that the ‘second child’ is always something of a handful certainly rang true in our case, but then I’m the fourth out of six – so I’m not entirely sure how that should have affected my own personality or emotional development… Perhaps being ‘somewhere in the middle’ has left me ‘floundering’ (in hierarchical terms at least) and unable to voice my wishes / feelings with any degree of conviction? I suspect, though, that my colleagues might (ever so politely) disagree! 

I’ve written before about the sibling rivalry that pervades our home-life and (by association) my largely unremitting role as judge and jury. However, as the boys get that little bit older, I’m beginning to catch glimpses of certain (almost desirable) traits coming to the fore, and I find myself daring to hope that they will, eventually, manage to reach an ‘uneasy peace’.

The fact of the matter is that my boys couldn’t be more different. My eldest is shy, relatively sensible (he is a prepubescent boy, after all!) and prefers to observe first, then join in later. My youngest is self-assured, quick-witted, and impetuous – and causes us far more heartache as a result. In this regard then, I must confess that I am utterly guilty of wanting my boys to ‘strike a happy medium’. After all, being polite and unassuming doesn’t tend to fare all that well in a Saturday morning league match but then again, neither does one want to be the parent of a child for whom a red card might almost become a ‘badge of honour’!     

With the return of a third UK lockdown, I’m fairly confident that parents far and wide have been desperately striving for a healthy balance between ensuring that their children continue to make some sort of academic progress, whilst trying to protect their physical and emotional wellbeing too. For those parents also trying to hold down a job, it can feel like something akin to being a trapeze artist, where the margin for error is depressingly slim. It seems to me then, that the quest for a better work-life balance, the holy grail of parenting or indeed the happy medium, is something that is destined to haunt us all for many more years to come. If, on the other hand, you are fortunate enough to stumble upon it, please don’t be shy in coming forward; my liver and /or sanity might depend upon it!

A brief encounter

Many years ago, I had the privilege of meeting someone truly remarkable. It was one of those chance encounters that renders you momentarily speechless, then acts as a powerful catalyst for change.

It was a dismal February evening and I had just left a rehearsal in central London. We’d been working on Michael Tippett’s five spirituals from ‘A Child of Our Time’ and it had been one of those rehearsals where you come away feeling as though your soul has been suitably nourished, and that something within the music has transcended human understanding.     

I had been experiencing some problems with anti-social behaviour in and around the housing development where I lived, and I was seriously considering handing in my notice at work and moving away from the area. However, having just been part of something so utterly inspiring, I was loath to concede defeat and allow the local ‘Youf’ to drive me out of my home and away from my Monday night refuge.

Having caught up on everyone’s weekly news over a quick drink, we all went our separate ways, as was the usual routine. I headed for Victoria station and, upon arrival, gave the departures board a cursory glance. My heart plummeted when I discovered that, not one, but two trains to Swanley had been cancelled and that I would have just over an hour to wait. There was nothing for it. I would just have to grab a coffee and a magazine and set up residence on platform 5.

When my train did eventually arrive, I was delighted to note that two cancellations had not rendered this three-carriage-wonder ludicrously full, and I settled thankfully into my window seat. Before long, the train pulled away and I felt reassured that home was now within reach.

The first part of the journey passed without incident and I became quickly engrossed in my magazine. There were additional stops to make, but there was something pleasantly mesmerising about the staccato rhythm of the wheels moving over the track and the sound of needles of rain bouncing off the windows at jaunty angles. And then I became aware of a different sound. The sound of raised voices and dull thuds.

I felt myself stiffen and the all too familiar feeling of fear and unease (associated with broken windscreens and trampled fences close to home) resurfaced. I looked around the carriage in an attempt to establish where the noise was coming from. And then I spotted the silhouettes of three men looming in the doorway of the adjacent carriage. It was not immediately clear what they were doing, but their presence was both threatening and unwelcome, reminiscent of an ITV drama, but sickeningly real. In a matter of minutes, the train slowed, and all three men came hurtling through our carriage, disappearing just as suddenly into the night.        

A little later, a young man staggered into view and gingerly lowered himself into an aisle seat. He had a cut on his face and looked badly shaken but there was a disarming aura of composure about him too. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, “Are you alright?” seemed painfully inadequate and yet I couldn’t just ignore his plight altogether. So, I made do with frequent glances in his direction, hoping against hope that he would somehow sense my feeble attempt at compassion. He must have done, because he looked straight at me before giving me the most tender of smiles. But rather than providing the comfort that was no doubt intended, the warmth of his gaze made me feel even more ashamed. How could he be so calm, after what he had just endured? Hadn’t he just been badly let down by his fellow passengers? By me?

As if he could read my thoughts, he said simply “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. And as he left the train, I wept uncontrollably; not just for him, but for humankind.