“I think the heart remains a child
The mind may grow wise
But the heart just sulks and whines and remains a child.”
– Everything But The Girl, ‘The Heart Remains A Child’
For this recipe you will need:
About a pound of wholemeal bread (stale will do)
Pint of milk
8oz brown sugar
8oz mixed raisins, sultanas, currants
2tsp spice (cinnamon, coriander, cumin – or the commercial ready-mixed spice)
A little nutmeg
Break up the bread and let it soak in the milk in a large bowl. Heat oven to 180C (gas mark 4). Add the raisins etc and mix everything together vigorously with the butter (which you might want to melt a little in the microwave to ease things), and the sugar and spice. Any small children will enjoy this mixing, if you need help, and don’t mind some of the mixture being spread over the work surface and adhering to your clothes.
Beat the eggs and mix in well. Put the whole lot into one or more greased shallow ovenproof dishes. Bake for around 45 minutes or until set.
Delicious and evocative, hot or cold. Evocative for me, anyway.
I remember the first time I made bread pudding for Sam.
I soaked some stale bread in milk before we went out to the shops to get the other ingredients. It was a perfect day, with a clear sky of pale blue, like fine porcelain. Warm enough in the sunshine to make me sweat a little as I pushed Sam up the hill towards home, sitting in his buggy with the bags of shopping hanging from it. But chilly whenever the sun slipped behind a scrap of cloud.
When we got home Laura did some gardening. Sam wanted to garden too. And for a while he did, dressed in his red plastic raincoat, with his navy blue Wellington boots on. I stood and watched the two of them for a while through the kitchen window. Laura dug up part of the lawn, turning the broken turf over to reveal the dark soil beneath the thin and mossy grass. I love watching her like this; lost in the task, breaking off only to talk to Sam as he toddled round the garden with his yellow plastic watering can.
Occasionally she paused in her digging to look towards the house, leaning on her spade and wiping her brow with the back of her wrist. Once or twice she saw me looking and smiled. I loved that smile. It looked at once happy and sad, like a watery sun breaking through on a grey and overcast day.
I knew she was thinking of her father. He used to do the garden with her and just as her spade turned over the earth, being in the garden churned up memories of being there with her dad. Happy memories, made sad because they reminded her how much she missed him. And then she’d catch sight of me in the window and smile and for a moment I felt that me being there turned up her happiness a notch or two, and eased some of the pain. I’d smile too and for a moment a current would pass between us.
Laura was thinking of her dad, and that made me think of mine. So I decided to make bread pudding. I put the oven on and called to Sam. He was muddy and wet by now. His watering of plants quickly becomes the watering of his shoes and trousers. Laura pulled his boots off as I held him. Then I took his trousers off.
“Sam, do you want to do some cooking with me?”
“No.” His blue eyes fixed me with a stubborn stare. He shook his head. “Mummy. Garden.”
“Mummy’s coming indoors in a minute. If you help me do the cooking you can stand on the chair.” He shook his head again and looked more stubborn.
“And guess what, when you do the cooking you’re allowed to eat the leftovers. We can make bread pudding and there might be some raisins left over.”
“Raisins,” he said. Instantly, the garden was history and Sam eagerly turned chef. He stood on a kitchen chair as I poured raisins, currants and sultanas into the mixing bowl in front of him on the counter. His stirring skills were a little undeveloped. But his flicking-bits-of-wet-bread-and-fruit-around-the-kitchen-with-a-wooden-spoon skills were already top drawer. We soon settled on a system: I did whatever the recipe required and – so long as I kept a supply of currants in a small bowl in front of him – Sam let me.
Just as Laura’s gardening was a kind of homage to her father, my deciding to cook bread pudding was a tribute to my dad. I had actually never cooked it before, never in the thirty years since he died. But I always think of it as being somehow his. It’s the only thing I can remember him cooking when I was a child. He’d get a load of stale bread out and in no time we’d have bread pudding. In my memory of course it was always delicious, in a way that the bread pudding I’ve bought over the years in bakeries never could be.
For this reason, my suddenly deciding to cook bread pudding – for the first time in my life, with my own small son – couldn’t be for me the casual act that it might be for someone else.
He died when I was twelve. He had been ill for a couple of years but even so, his death was sudden, a heart attack one January Saturday night while working a late shift at the hospital, where he had a porter’s job. He had only recently got a job again after a long spell out of work. He was losing his sight and all in all he had a rich variety of things wrong with him, some of which we didn’t know about at the time but which would have got him soon enough if his heart hadn’t. They all had their roots in the fact that he was diabetic and found it hard to keep the strict control that diabetics need.
The last thing I did for my dad on that Saturday was to go out on an errand to buy him some cigarettes. This was a regular thing. He’d give me the money and I’d walk half a mile to the nearest shops. Sometimes there would be something for me in this deal. A bit of change left over to be spent on a comic or some sweets. But even if there wasn’t, I was generally a compliant and helpful boy, so off I’d go to the shop to bring back a packet of 20 Players. Real cigarettes, these. No filters, no hint of low tar, and a salty picture of a hairy seadog of a sailor on the blue and white pack. Manly and healthy, those packets seemed to say. Nothing prissy about smoking these.
What a strange world it was in 1970s Land. It never occurred to me that my dad coughing like a mechanical road digger in the morning had anything to do with the fact that one of these smelly cigarettes was always between his fingers. It did occur to me that they stained his fingers brown and made him and the house smell, but that was just a fact of life, as so much is when you are twelve years old. Most of my friends’ houses smelled like that too.
Nor did I think about the contribution my dad’s smoking made to his declining health. Smoking is unarguably not a healthy thing to do. Life insurers hate smokers, pension funds love them. Heavy smoking challenges anyone’s constitution, significantly loading the dice in favour of that pension fund never having to trouble itself with paying out what you worked years to pay in.
How much more harm it must have done to a man who had been diabetic since the age of eight. One of the long-term hazards of diabetes is worsening blood circulation. Smoking also damages circulation, hardening the arteries, affecting mainly the heart, brain and legs. By continuing to smoke, my father multiplied his already considerable risk of problems such as heart disease. We didn’t know this then.
On this particular Saturday I was initially reluctant to make the short trip to get the smokes in. I was quite bad-tempered about the imposition. Maybe I was deep into a good book. Maybe the first trickle of adolescent hormones made me sullen. I don’t remember why, but I didn’t want to go. In the end I relented and took the cash and my dad went off to work with his cigs. He never came back and the funny thing was that for years afterwards it was a source of great relief to me that the last time I saw my father I narrowly avoided sending him off to work annoyed with me. I felt like if I’d not backed down and run the errand my dad would have been pissed off with me forever, frozen in that last mood without any chance of me making up with him. I was so pleased that I’d given in.
If I had known then what I know now, would I have taken my dad’s money and trotted off to get him his packet of gaspers? Of course I wouldn’t. I would have refused to touch his money. I would have begged and cried and pleaded with him never to let another cigarette touch his lips. I would have knelt at his feet and clung to his leg to prevent him going to get them himself.
But of course none of that happened. We lived in a world where it was perfectly natural for a young boy to walk into a newsagent and for the shopkeeper to sell him with a smile something to help his father towards the grave. A world where I could carry with me for years a sense of relief that I had not in the end put any obstacle in the way of my dad tapping the last nail into his coffin.
I stayed up late that Saturday night, watching TV with my older sister. Our mother went out in the car to pick up dad from the hospital. He was working a late shift. It didn’t bother him. He went to work with a smile. It had been hell for him, being out of work. Now he’d finally got a job again and he was more than happy to do a Saturday evening shift.
It got late, although I don’t remember fretting about where mum and dad had got to. I can’t remember how late it was, but it was a surprise to hear a knock at the door. It was the middle of January and outside it was cold and wet and dark. On the doorstep stood a good friend of my parents. A Scot, he was known inevitably as Jock. He lived about ten minutes walk away. Rather than phone us, my mother had called him and asked him to come down to be with us.
Jock swayed a little on the cold doorstep, as if the winter wind behind him might at any moment send him reeling back up the hill to his home. I could smell whisky on his breath. I don’t know if he had spent the evening drinking or had quickly knocked back a couple of shots after taking the call from my mother. I would have done.
He stared at us both for a moment. In that instant, he knew what we did not: that our lives were about to be twisted out of shape, that we would be wrenched from the path we were travelling and knocked roughly in some new and difficult direction. Behind him, somewhere out in the dark, my father’s death was in flight towards us, arrowing through the chill winter’s night.
He was dead, his death would be with us all our lives, never leaving us until our last breath did. But for that last moment his death hadn’t yet reached us. He was dead at Windsor Hospital, but he was still alive in our house.
For a few seconds more Jock carried my father’s death with him, as he had done since he hung up the phone after my mother called him. He looked in that moment what he probably was: a man bearing a huge weight of sadness which he dreaded passing to the two children in front of him, shivering in their nightclothes on the doorstep.
“Let me in,” he said. “I’ve just spoken to your mother.”
We went inside and Jock sat on our settee. My sister and I sat on separate armchairs across the room from him.
“Your mother phoned me from the hospital,” he said. “She asked me to come down to be with you. I’m really very sorry. But I have to tell you that your father died tonight.”
Somebody shouted “No”. I don’t know whether it was me or my sister. I flew across the room to her arms and she and I huddled together on the same chair.
“I’m so sorry,” Jock said. And he was, but there was nothing more he could do. He had delivered my father’s death to us. His job was done.
(To Be Continued Soon.)