Plague! Plague!

Ay me. I’ve been poorly. What they call "poorly sick". I lost about ten pounds in four miserable days. Fortunately only one of the children followed suit, and he had bounced back after twenty-four hours. Fingers crossed that represents an end to it.

When you’re poorly before children, you can crawl back into bed, take any medicine you fancy, and wait. Not so for me nowadays, alas.

On day one, as I fell into incapacity, they wanted feeding. Curry, specifically, as promised. No. Just no. In the end, after a spectacular disaster in the kitchen, there was an emergency dash to the chip shop. I had to hide from the grease because it was overwhelming.

You know, they want feeding every single day? Multiple times a day too, with variety, and balanced nutrients. I mean, that’s enough of a challenge when you’re fully fit and hungry yourself.

And they want taking to school, and stories reading, and clothes washing, and oh good grief they never, ever, ever stop talking.

Mummy, may I…?
Mummy, will you…?
Look at this!
Watch me!
I want a …

But this isn’t a post just complaining. I’m here to talk about how to survive a plague day/week.

First of all, I’m afraid you have to clean things promptly. It’s misery, but puking into a clean loo is marginally nicer than … well, a less clean loo. If you have a healthy adult around, it is absolutely their job.

Wash everyone’s hands like they’ve been playing with bin juice. Keep hand cream handy or you’ll desiccate like coconut.

I recommend antibacterial surface wipes for door handles, taps, etc. I’m not a brilliant housekeeper at the best of times, but containing the contagion is high on my list of priorities.

Secondly, drop your culinary standards. I managed an online grocery shop that was about 90% Favourites, and pointed the children towards the fridge. So what if they have beans on toast for tea a few times. Fish fingers never killed anyone either. Stock the fruit bowl if you’re concerned about nutrition.

Same for you – if you can stomach something, try it. Half a chocolate digestive for breakfast? Better than nothing. Plain pasta with nothing on? Great. Who cares if your meals don’t have a name?

The BRAT diet is often recommended at times like these: Bananas, Rice, Apple juice, Toast. Yes, yes, yes.

And finally, the tv is your friend. Who cares if it’s been on for three days straight? The children aren’t asking for things you’re incapable of providing, like conversation or intelligence.

I’m conscious, after writing "finally" there, that there’s another coping mechanism I’ve left unmentioned.

If help is offered – or has ever been offered in a general sense – then for goodness’ sake take it. Seize it. Someone else doing the school run? Take it. A few hours of child-wrangling so you can go back to bed? TAKE IT. Don’t get to the stage of sobbing down the phone before you say "Actually, yes, how about…"

They say it takes a village to raise a child: nowadays the village may not be a literal geographical place, but the support you can get can make all the difference. Let’s talk about villages soon.



What’s in a name?

Children have a baffling habit of discarding their belongings willy-nilly. Mine shed clothing, in particular, so shoes, socks and even trousers can be found all over the house despite the strategic placement of shoe storage, washing baskets (yes, plural) and coat racks (again, plural).

And I’m not sure I can remember the last occasion on which the eldest emerged from school at pick-up with all the equipment and clothing one might hope for. “How about your coat? It’s snowing.”

Schools are particularly dangerous regions for clothing-shedders, because 90% of the clothing in any school is identical: two hundred identical jumpers only in various sizes and with varying quantities of gravy and yogurt dripped down the front. The Reception teacher says her class identify ownership by smell: the mind boggles.

In a previous life, before children, marriage or even university, I had a job on a pastoral team at an English prep school. One of my areas of responsibility involved laundry, and a lot of it. I learned to recognise whose shirts and socks were whose immediately (not by smell, mercifully, since they were washed together in the same detergent) but for some standard items such as jumpers or PE shorts you had to check the label.

Woven name tapes. I love them. Quite apart from the fact that they don’t fade, or detach in the wash, you can read them, and there’s no squinting at something that might say Jack F but equally could be Tom T.

Ten years later I was faced with naming clothing for my eldest as he started day nursery. I didn’t bother researching alternatives: I Googled Cash’s, and bought them by the dozen, in plain black capitals. I sewed them into coats, wellies (the lined type) and jumpers, and on to a blanket and a toy mouse he took with him every day, clutched in his little fat hand <sniffs>

That’s all very well, I hear you scoff, but you can get iron-on these days. Well, yes you can, but after a term’s washing they start to unpeel – unless you’re trying to remove them, in which case they suddenly weld to the fabric like chocolate biscuit to upholstery. The only thing that defeats an unwanted ironed label is Sharpie; a wanted ironed label slips away.

Ok, fine, but you can’t label everything with woven labels. No? I’ve labelled clothes, shoes, trainers, wellies, rucksacks, reading folders, water bottles, lunchboxes, microscooters, and even most recently a descant recorder.

The name tapes used to come on a long roll – you simply snipped off a name tape as you needed one. And when you needed two or three together (they make good hanging loops) you could cut off two or three.

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Now, “helpfully”, the tapes come precut. Now if you want six inches of tape you have to stitch them back together. Hmph. Cash’s take note.

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As an aside, I should point out that name tapes vary in length according to the child’s name. There is a big psychological difference between sewing on name tapes for *Rob Key and for *Alexander Raymond-Thorpe, I can tell you. I’m still not sure “Alex R-T” wouldn’t have sufficed. When choosing what to put on the tape, you might care to balance price per inch (they charge per tape, not per letter) against stitches per tape.

In August I always volunteer to do other people’s labelling, because I find it meditative. But nobody has yet taken me up on my offer. I wonder if labelling is a kind of devotional offering as the child is sent into the world.

*Real names changed, obviously, not least because the men in question are each the top hits for their real names on Google.

(there’s a page break here – you need to click on the scarcely discernable 2 down there somewhere…)

Happy Half Birthday

When you are small, it’s an awfully long time between birthdays, and the difference in age between four and four and a half is very significant.

In our family we mark half birthdays, so that the children know precisely when they can start to say “… and a half”. We mark the day with a half-birthday half cake.

The first time I posted about half-birthday half cakes on Facebook, a friend (who is an accomplished baker and usually quite bright) asked where I had bought my half-circle cake tins. I think she felt a bit daft when I said I had baked a round cake and cut it in half…

This week we are celebrating an adult half birthday – since ordinarily we adults avoid sugar where possible, we do tend to jump at any remotely legitimate excuse for cake.

The half-birthday boy or girl chooses the flavour and decoration of the cake. Previous examples have included a green-iced chocolate cake with fire-breathing dragon (optical illusion with a toy dragon and half a cake candle), and more recently a “Horrible Histories” cake – a chocolate cake with mint chocolate buttercream and “HH” in mini marshmallows (and mint green edible glitter, which isn’t really visible in the photo).

HH cake

One of the chief benefits of a half cake, incidentally, is that the two end slices of an iced half cake are extra frosted (top and two of three sides). I’m not a big fan of icing, but many people are.

To work, then. The cake is to be ginger, with chocolate truffle filling. I need to control the sweetness of the truffle, so it doesn’t overpower the ginger, so I shall be using dark chocolate and lemon essence. Alternatively, try whisky, or coffee and chilli. You don’t taste the latter two they just dial down the sugar and dial up the ginger.

The cake recipe is adapted from The Perfect Cookbook by David Herbert.


60g butter or baking spread

125g golden syrup

100g plain flour

25g self-raising flour

1tsp bicarbonate of soda

2-3 heaped tsp ground ginger

1-2 tsp mixed spice

1tsp ground chilli (optional)

100g caster sugar

125ml milk

1 egg

160ml double cream

75g dark chocolate

2-3 drops lemon essence or 5-10ml single malt

Preheat the oven to 170 C and line a 20cm (8″) round tin.

Melt together the butter and syrup.

Combine the flour, sugar, bicarb and spices. Mix in the milk and egg, and when well mixed add the butter mixture. Mix well – the result will be very runny, like cream.

Pour into the lined tin and bake for 50-55 minutes, when a skewer will emerge clean, and the top is dark, springy and shiny.

After five minutes, remove from the tin and cool on a rack. When cool, cut into two equal semi-circles.

Beat the cream to stiff peaks, then melt the chocolate. Fold the chocolate into the cream with the lemon essence (or whisky), then use the mixture to sandwich the cake.

Leave to set.

lucy cake

The cake can be baked into a large loaf tin (it goes sort of sticky like Jamaican Ginger Cake from a shop) or into individual bun cases (in which case cooking time is drastically reduced – check after fifteen minutes).

The basic truffle mixture (cream, chocolate, flavouring) can be used as a rich trifle layer or as tart filling (bake the case blind, fill with truffle filling and top with fruit or nuts as desired). With alcohol you need very little to flavour a large quantity so be frugal. You can use white or milk chocolate instead of dark, to taste or for visual impact – or even try marbling – but they are very sweet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have spoons to lick.