I’m in New York City, it’s January, and it is of course cold. The Accuweather app on my phone tells me that it is going to start snowing in 12 mins which seems astonishly accurate (which is, I suppose, why it’s called Accuweather – hang around and I’ll tell you if it’s right). I was in Edinburgh last week where it was a balmy 8º C. Since it had been well and truly in the minuses over here, I felt quite warm. Some of you know that I was there to visit my aunt, Aileen, who had a stroke in October and has now returned home. She will be there until Suzy and I have sorted out everything necessary for her to move into a home. She’s lived in her flat since she was 7 – 81 years. It will undoubtedly be a wrench for her to leave her home, where her mother too was brought up from the age of 2.
The stories about that flat are legion. As you enter the door and walk up to the flat, you’ll notice that there are brass nodules set into the bannister. These were put in by my great-grandfather, John Mackay, to stop my grandmother from sliding down the bannister. Since there is a drop of two stories to stone slabs, Nana was braver than I, I tell you. Nana used to be able to throw a ball over the building (three stories) from the street onto the grass behind, much to the irritation of her twin brother, Angus, and Albert, my grandfather, who could never do it. Dad swore to me that he saw her do this once, in 1938 when Angus had returned from South Africa for a visit. The flat was bought in the late 1880s by John Mackay (Grandpa Mackay) and, apart from a period when it was commercially let after Grandpa moved to Friockheim in Angus, and Nana and my Papa were living in Arbroath, it was essentially occupied by Nana, Papa, my Dad and Auntie Aileen. Various other family members came and went, but Auntie Aileen was always there after 1933.
Nana’s mother died when she was two, and she and her elder sister, Peggy, and Angus were brought up by two spinster aunts, Auntie Katie and Auntie Aggie, sisters of Grandpa Mackay. Nana met my Papa not long after the Moyes family went to Edinburgh from India, I believe at college, and they wrote to each other during World War I when he was stationed in France. Papa enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders but when it was discovered that he spoke fluent Urdu, he was sent for officers’ training. The war, of course, ended in November 1918, and Papa immediately applied to be demobbed. He was back in Edinburgh by the beginning of 1919. He felt he was too old to go back to school, but sat the Civil Service exams. Auntie Aileen told me proudly last week that thousands of people sat these exams, but that only the top ones were accepted into the Inland Revenue. Papa went to work for the Inland Revenue. He married Nana in 1922 and they lived in Arbroath until 1933 when he was posted to Edinburgh, and they returned to Nana’s childhood home. Initially, renting it from Grandpa Mackay, but after his death in 1949, they bought out Nana’s other siblings’ interests and it was truly their home.
Auntie Aileen told me that she has always slept in the small bedroom. She was supposed to share the front bedroom with my Dad, but she was scared because she was too far away from her parents. She said that people have asked her why she doesn’t move into the large back bedroom, but says she could never sleep in her parents’ room. (By the way, it hasn’t started snowing – should I delete the app?) During the war, Dad slept in the box room/junk room (always called the Glory Hole). Even though Suzy and I sorted out some of the stuff last year, there certainly isn’t room for a single bed in there any more. Auntie Aileen also told me that there used to be a quarter-sized billiard table in the dining room – a proper slate one – and that the family hid beneath this during bombings. I know that my Papa offered that billiard table to my Dad (after Dad had moved to England) and Dad told me that he’d always wished that they’d had room to take it.
My memories inevitably include food and I was thinking of the milk lollies that Nana used to make (https://chinupdeepbreaths.com/2013/04/12/spring-has-sprung-well-no-not-really/) and of her plastic strawberry. I was also remembering a lunch in Edinburgh where we all sat around the dining table, and Auntie Aileen gave us each our own cruet set. Mine was a couple of squirrels, and was definitely my favourite. Some years ago, Auntie Aileen gave me that cruet set and I was thrilled to pieces. The thing I didn’t remember correctly though was the size of the table – I truly believed that it was a 12-seater. When we cleared all the bags and stuff, there was a very ordinary 6-8 seater. I must have been much smaller then. We all have memories of playing Rocket Ship, a bagatelle game that took the place of a television. I can honestly say that I don’t miss having a television when I’m there, but golly this time I missed wifi. Every time I go, I find a new and interesting book that I haven’t seen before, and the china cabinet contains such treasures as decorations from Grandma and your Papa’s wedding cake, African bead work and Indian silver.
And now the flat is going to be sold. Doubtless it will be described as being full of period detail, a doer-upper, and in need of some attention. Suzy and I will have to sort out the contents. We will have to open those cupboards, drawers and presses that we ignored during the big clear out of last year. I know there will be some tears, a lot of laughs and probably some astonishment that Auntie Aileen has hung onto something for so long. What can’t be taken away are our memories. So if anyone of my family would like to come up to Edinburgh to help with this mammoth task, we can guarantee some good food, some whisky and a heap of ‘Oh my goodnesses’ and ‘Oh heavens, I remembers’, let me know. Suzy and I will supply the tissues.
As I said, it’s cold, I’m clearly feeling sad, so what did I cook the other day? Soup, I hear you chorus. Indeed – you know me well. I found a head of something called Elephant Garlic in the fridge and see below for why it is called this. Does what it says on the tin! I also had a basil plant, some rosemary and a tin of tomatoes so I created Basil and Rosemary Tomato Soup. I was very pleased with it – Dad was very complimentary and it will be made again.
Basil and Rosemary Tomato Soup
- Oil – I used ordinary olive oil
- A medium onion, sliced
- One clove of elephant garlic, crushed and sliced – probably two cloves of ordinary garlic
- Two stick of celery sliced with the celery leaves
- One large tin of tomatoes (approx. 800 g)
- 10 fresh basil leaves, shredded
- Two sprigs of rosemary with the leaves taken off and chopped
- Vegetable stock
Heat the oil over a medium heat in a saucepan. Add the garlic. Do not allow to burn. Add the onion and the celery, and soften.
Add the tomatoes and the herbs. Add about 450 ml / 20 fl oz of vegetable stock. Bring to the boil. Cover and simmer.
After about 20 minutes, blend or liquidise the soup. Check the seasoning. Serve with a couple of basil leaves.