This isn’t what I was going to write about today. I was planning to pontificate about the structuring of non-fiction and how issues that you had no idea even existed can leap up and bite you hard enough to draw blood, like the contents list.
Today I was/am supposed to be creating a contents list. I have done something, although it doesn’t look like the model contents list I was sent, and that depresses me.
So I went to make a blackberry and apple sponge instead, for three reasons:
1. It’s comfort food
2. I have the ingredients to hand (picked kilos of blackberries at the plot yesterday)
3. I want to use the recipe in the book.
And in making the sponge, which is a small whale of a sponge (like a cetacean of average size if sponge puddings were sea creatures) I found my hands cradling this dish. It’s old, kitsch and not at all elegant. It’s big, which is one reason I still have it, but there’s another reason. It’s Malcolm’s mother’s Pyrex.
Once we were homeless. Sounds like the beginning of a story, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t a story, it was bitter and real and sordid. Our baby son was a day old when a supposed friend told us that if we brought the baby back into her home, she ‘wouldn’t be responsible for her actions’. We’d been staying with her while we tried to find a place to live, on returning from Europe, but London in 1992 was not a good place to try finding a flat when one of you is nine months pregnant and both of you are unemployed.
So I was kept in hospital until a place was found for us in a hostel. The hostel housed people who locked each other out of rooms, with the locker-in screaming abuse through the keyhole while the locked-out attempted breaking in with fire axes or car jacks. Our baby son had to have an emergency stomach operation and the ambulance men refused to come up the drive because the place had such a bad reputation.
Malcolm was the friend of a friend and he let us live in his natal home. His parents had both died, and their terraced ex-council house in Dagenham became our nest. We tore down the wallpaper and ripped up the carpets and made it our home for a year.
That was probably insensitive of us. I don’t know how Malcolm felt about us destroying the (literal) fabric of his life – I do know he never said a word. We dug the garden over and I planted everything I could afford. Our baby son grew fat and happy and we acquired a kitten who’d been dumped.
I got a job. A good job. We moved to a house of our own, half the size of Malcolm’s, but in Tooting, which was as much as we could afford then. We were on our way to being normal people again.
But I took Malcolm’s mother’s Pyrex with me. To remind me that once I was homeless…
Once a virtual stranger gave us the chance to put ourselves back together and I hope our lives have in some way repaid his generosity. We lost touch with Malcolm – I think that was probably a necessary part of the process: how could I bear to be in contact with somebody who’d seen us in that extremity of vulnerability and need? Now I’d love to hear from Malcolm again, because the wounds have healed and anyway, I was never ashamed of homelessness, just of my own inability to be properly gracious in thanks.
And I still think of that house whenever I make a blackberry and apple sponge.