Monday, 16 September 2013

14. Hiatus


(written by Katy Widdop)

    At this point in the story we were really stuck. We still had some pages of Antoinette’s reminiscences of the conversations at Tamasha that summer in the 1860s, and quite a few more of Madeleine Thomas’s letters, plus of course John Widdop’s journals, but not enough to really flesh out the Lucas sisters’ stories. It was clear enough, from the later papers in the tin trunk and from the Thomas papers, what had happened, but according to Julie we needed more details. But then her and Cassie had a row, because Cassie immediately started blathering on about what a bit of luck it was that Antoinette’s handwriting was so lovely and clear—Julie looked superior and snapped: “Copperplate!” but she wasn’t listening—and it made the recipes she’d written out herself so easy to read—Julie turned purple at this point, it was bad enough she was blathering on about handwriting but a million times worse that it was only the bloody recipes again—as opposed to the ones that must have been written by the old ladies, that writing was spidery and quite different-looking, really, wasn’t it? Sort of, um, slanted? Julie shouted: “Slanted and rather crabbed, it’s an 18th-century hand, you moron, those lower-case g’s are quite unmistakable!” and slammed out. Oops.
    After a bit Cassie said sadly: “Do you think Tiddy baba maybe wrote some down for Antoinette in person, Katy?”
    Oh, cripes. “Um, well, we’d need a sample of her handwriting. Have we got any of her actual letters, Cassie? I mean, as opposed to what Antoinette copied out?”
    “You could look in the database,” she replied, looking at me hopefully.
     Okay, I could look in the ruddy database. (Gee, I thought the whole point was that anybody could look it up.) So I did. The answer was a lemon; I mean, there was a letter in the tin trunk but she couldn’t match the writing with any of the recipes. So she burst into tears, wailing: “I’m never gonna identify them!”
    This was true. I tried to encourage her to go back to Mrs Beeton, muttering something feeble about 1861: that’d help to date them; but she rubbished this, pointing out that Mrs Beeton’s recipes all came from before that, they dated back to—blah, blah. Aw, yeah, they must, eh? Because ya don’t sit down and grab recipes out of thin—Mm. Okay. Scrub that.
    Then I tried the style thing. Because Mrs Beeton uses a lovely clear style, her recipes are astoundingly readable, even I can follow them. Well, theoretically, I’ve never actually tried to cook anything from her book. Well, would you, when your sister’s a superb cook? No—right.
    So, okay, we worked out that anything that said “Mode”, like, what do the modern ones call it? “Method”, I think. Anything that said “Mode” had to be directly influenced by Mrs B, this put her in a slightly better mood, well, at least the tears had dried up. Okay, that was a terminus a quo.—Oops, didn’t know that expression: big mouth, Katy Widdop!—Couldn't reasonably be earlier than that, as to the writing down, Cassie. Good, she got it.—But most of them didn’t, Katy!—Er, no: well, it’s flaming obvious the method is the method is the—yeah. See, when you scribble down a recipe—have you have ever read the etiquette for a 19th-century tea party, by the way? Yo, boy! You don’t comment on the tea, the food, the lady’s décor, the lady’s sewing if happening to be doing it when you call, in fact you don’t comment at all. It’s a miracle any recipes got passed on, isn’t it? As I was saying, if you scribble down a recipe for someone’s cake or that, you don’t normally put in the unnecessary bits. Likewise if you scribble down your recipe for a mate. And anything in the spidery writing would be bound to be a really early recipe, Cassie, wouldn’t it? She brightened. That was true! Um, but there were a lot that were spidery but different.
    Aw, were there? She rushed off and got some. –Not the originals, no! Julie would’ve killed her, hasn’t that dawned by now? The photocopies. A lot easier to read, actually, because thanks to the marvels of modern technology you can tell the thing to darken it up. That is, until it goes on the blink and Julie shouts: “I might’ve known that anything you bought would be a piece of junk, Katy Widdop!”
    Shit, my poor little printer-scanner had been going for nearly ten years— Who cared? I let her buy another one. It took several nights of intensive Internet research, plus and consulting that mag that the well-off bourgeoisie buy to tell them what expensive consumer junk to buy instead of the dreck that the rest of the population has to fall back on.
    Aw, ya didn’t think Australia had a bourgeoisie? You’re dreaming! Eighty percent of the population, min’. Sole aims in life: overseas holidays that are flasher than the neighbours’ (where to doesn’t seem to matter), giant shiny consumables including enormous fridge-freezers about the size of a car (on end, geddit?) and humungous TVs that dominate the entire lounge-room, and the giant fees to the private schools and the private medical insurers. (The ones that have broken the back of anything that once looked like public education or a national health service—yep.) The other twenty percent? About one percent are really rich. Another one percent are underprivileged Aboriginal Australians with no proper health or educational services at all. Going on ten percent are unemployed. The rest float between unemployment and short-term jobs which guarantee them zilch. Land of mateship and opportunity? Yeah.
    So anyway, we had a look at the different spidery ones. It was glaringly obvious to me, perhaps because I wasn’t reading the actual words, that some of them were 19th-century handwriting merely gone spidery because the writer was old. Written at the end of the 19th century by friends of Antoinette’s, see? Older ladies who were now a bit shaky. Cassie claimed that she could tell that anyway from the content. Yeah, well. A few did seem to be much earlier, though. Yeah, okay, Cassie, possibly some of them were actually written down by the Lucas sisters or Ponsonby sahib, but were we ever gonna prove that? Fortunately I didn’t say it.

    She was getting teary again, so I quickly looked up the database. Right, there were a few letters written by Ponsonby sahib in the tin trunk. She got out the photocopies and burst into tears. Okay, the handwriting doesn’t match, just shoot me now.
    Um, actually, on sober reflection—well, not literally, there was a bottle of shiraz in there, as a matter of fact—but it has sort of percolated to the surface of my mind that maybe Mr Thomas wrote some of those down for Antoinette. Hang on, he’d’ve been the same generation as her. Okay, black mark, Katy Widdop, his writing would’ve been more like Antoinette’s than the writing of the previous century. More shiraz needed...
    Charles rings up angrily to ask “Where’s MUM?”—“Here, of course.”—“Do you know what the TIME is?” he screams. Aw. So it is. Well, heck, she is an adult! “We’ve been drinking shiraz.”—“Don’t you dare let her drive!” he screams. Who, me? When did either of my sisters ever listen to me? And she is an adult. (Don’t say it.) “No, okay, Charles. I think she’s asleep, anyway, sh’marrer uh fack.” He rings off angrily with the threat: “I’m coming over first thing tomorrow!” Um, think he means today. Is there any cheese left? ...Bugger.

    The morning: much later. Charles turns up in person. He will sort everything out and Uncle Don’s gonna help him, because us moos obviously aren’t coping. “You need to approach the content as well as the writing scientifically, Mum. Mum! Are you listening?’
    Not on top of all that shiraz she’s not, no. Okay, he’s going to analyse and categorise and Aunty Katy will put some more fields in the database so as to—What? With this head? I mean, yeah, I can handle the software, no sweat, been using it since the old DOS days, the Windows version’s a piece of cake, but not when I can hardly see, boy: have a heart!
    All right, Charles, I will a have a shower and then your mum can have one. Plenty of hot water? Uh? “Um, dunno, Charles, ’cos I only take one shower, ya see.”
    Awards me a bitter glare. “You’re hopeless!” Marches outside to inspect the gas thingo.
    Apparently it’s all right; at any rate I’m allowed to have a shower and as soon as Charles’s mum’s had hers he will make some coffee and do these dishes (very grim). Good, let him: nobody’s done dishes for me in living memory, it’ll be a lovely change!
    Have a shower. The brilliant thort surfaces as I’m having it, that that software, good though it is—don’t mention Access to me, thanks, that’s a dirty word round here—good though it is,  will not actually analyse handwriting. Or content. Let alone literary style, a phrase that was being bandied about as I slid out. Nup. A person has got to set the categories and actually look at all those bloody little wrinkled bits of paper, Charles. Well, photocopies of wrinkled little bits of paper, almost equally annoying. (I’m not gonna say it, I’m not barmy!)
    Very much later. Him and Uncle Don are doing it. Okay, let them, that sort of thing is a Y-chromosome-linked gene. Bit like tying flies, uh-huh. And golf—right again. Goes with the shed? You said it, Germaine! It isn’t gonna solve anything and even if it does Cassie’s mind is not capable of grasping their system, but if they feel they’re contributing, so much the better.
    Meantime Cassie’s gonna make them something extra-special for lunch ’cos it’s so good of them! Mm. That must be one of those female genes that I missed out on.
    It was a kind of quiche, I think. (I had two dozen eggs to use up, see, because I bought some and the supermarket didn’t have any half-dozens, well, not that I could afford: it had overpriced completely organic free-range ones at seven times the price of a dozen. And then Mrs Barnett from the next-door unit but one was going away on holiday—they’re the sort of retirees that moan about the old age pension but own a huge shiny car and a huge shiny caravan, not to mention the actual furniture, they’ve a got a three-piece lounge suite crammed in there, plus and go on holidays at least four times a year. And she didn’t think they’d keep. Why buy a dozen eggs if you’re going on holiday, you may well ask. There is no answer to that one, except that the Barnetts of the world are like that.) –Well, like a quiche but without a crust, I think she calls it an eggy. I didn’t have any, funnily enough I wasn’t hungry.

Cassie’s Extempore Eggah with Green Beans
450 g sliced frozen beans    6 eggs, lightly beaten
3-4 tablespoons grated Parmesan
3 tablespoons fine breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
salt & freshly ground black pepper

Boil the beans until tender-crisp; drain well. Place in pan with butter or olive oil and marjoram and cook gently 3-4 minutes on medium heat. Lightly beat the eggs with the grated Parmesan, salt & pepper. Remove beans from heat, stir in egg mixture. Grease a casserole well and sprinkle with crumbs. Pour in bean mixture, top with more crumbs, and dot with butter. Bake in a slow oven (165-177 C) for about 3/4 hour, till set and coloured.
Serve warm, cut in slices like a cake. (May also be served cold.) Serves 4.

    Later. No, all right, Cassie, it’s an eggah, and I do know that! (Manifestly I don’t, but let it pass.) The ingredients were just what I had (ya don’t say?), but the method’s out of a Claudia Who book? I have so heard of her, have I? If you say so. The coffee was good, Charles makes miles better coffee than anyone else in the entire extended Widdop family, a mystery that can probably be solved by correlating (a) the price of ground coffee these days with (b) who has to pay for it. Uh-huh.
    Very much later. Gee, Julie’s having a screaming fit because there are all these extra fields cluttering up the database. “Why did you let her talk you into it?” she screams.
    Uh... It wasn’t actually her, Julie, it was your nephew? Um, no. Uh... It seemed harmless? Um, no. “Um, dunno. Well, heck, Julie, they’re only for her blimming recipes—”
    Bugger. She’s searching in those fields. See, I made the mistake of explaining that if you put an asterisk in the search box it’ll bring up all records with that field filled in...
     “Who did all this work?” she gasps. “You’re not telling me it was her!”
     No, I’m not, ’cos I’m not that good a liar, Julie. “Charles and Uncle Don got all keen—”
     Scream of rage. Rave, rave, wasting valuable time, and rave, rave...
     “Couldn’t you have got them onto something useful?” she spits.
     Who, me? “Um, what?”
    If the software can handle huge chunks of text like I reckon it can, onto sourcing every reference in the text so far and correlating it with the record for the original source!—Some of us thought all that was in your head, Julie.—“And tracing all the members of the families: we need them all in the database!”
    Eh? “But there’s your family tr—” Okay, I’m shutting up.
    She’s looking at the screen display again. “Did any of this crap result in anything?”
    “Um, no. Cassie found a recipe for using rosellas that she’d overlooked bef—”
    “That’s not FUNNY, Katy Widdop!”
     Uh—oh. “No, um, not the little parrots, um, sorry, Julie. In the 19th century they seem to call them roselles. Um, kind of a flower, um, a hibiscus or... Jelly,” I mutter.
     Yeah, all right, Julie, I’m talking bullshit again. But Cassie did reckon she’d found a modern recipe on an Aussie website—No, I won’t tell her, it’ll make it worse.
    Yeah, all right, Julie, I will sit down and start indexing every last reference in the text and correlating them with the “documents”, if you say so. And thank God you haven’t decided I’ve gotta do all the members of all the fam—
    And after that I can record all the members of the families! Why was I ever born?
    It didn’t get better, it got worse. Julie got sourer and sourer, and Cassie buried herself in the recipes, only emerging to report that she’d traced something back to something or someone unlikely, all unrelated to the Tamasha story, if (apparently) vital to the huge history of colonial cookery that she now seemed to be compiling. Well, the actual experiments weren’t bad, but unfortunately as the weeks and then months went by these got fewer and fewer. Charles got fed up and reburied himself in his thesis. True, this wasn’t bad as far as him finishing the bloody degree was concerned, but—Yeah. Uncle Don went back to his other obsession, wood-turning. One of them, he’s got a few. This one at least usually results in some nice salad bowls or some such. Unfortunately this time it only resulted in some very strange-looking walking sticks. Aunty Jen came over with a lovely cake for afternoon tea and bent my ear about it—“Walking sticks! Nobody wants a carved walking stick in this day and age!”—but it was worth it for the cake. Well, almost. Julie was of course buried in intensive research. Plus and had taken a part-time tutoring position at the uni history department while somebody was on maternity leave and was moaning about how the senior lecturers never did any work and were always shoving their tutorials onto her.
    We got an anxious email from nice Jane and Bill Cooper asking if anything had gone wrong when the blog petered out, but apart from Sally, nobody else seemed to care. Cassie sent Jane the recipe for the rosella jelly, plus and the address of the Aussie website where she’d found the further intel, though personally I’d sincerely doubt that the things’ll grow in England. Well, I ask you, a kind of hibiscus? Um, did I say that, before? Well, evidently that’s what rosellas are. They’ll grow like weeds in Queensland, true.

Culinary note by Cassie Babbage
“Roselles” as they are called in America (“rosellas” seems to be an Australian usage) are the hibiscus flowers which in Mexico are called “jamaica”. They are sold dried there. 

To make “Agua de Jamaica” (Cold Roselle Tea)
Just boil the flowers with water and sugar for about a minute (3 cups of water and 1/3 cup sugar to 1 cup dried flowers, or you can use fresh if you have a bush). Leave to soak (don’t use a bowl that will stain) for 2 hours or more. Then strain. Adjust by adding water & sugar if needed. Chill.

    Sally’s the one bright spot on the horizon. She’s finalised her thesis subject: she’s going to do the social history of an Anglo-Indian family, i.e. the Widdops, basing it on John Widdop’s journals, and tracing how this branch of the family ended up in Australia. Not looking at the personalities so much as the forces at work which scattered these colonising Britishers to the four corners of the globe, or words to that effect. In much more with-it, 21st-century, social-history-type lingo, of course. Anyway, it means she’s gonna stay in Adelaide with the journals, so that’s a huge plus! Where? Er, well, vexed question. She started off camping on my sitting-room floor but as I may have mentioned, you can’t swing a cat in there. (An expression which must have been invented by a cat-hater? No, think it must mean a cat-o’-nine-tails on, unfortunately, sober reflection). However, good old Aunty Jen came to the rescue. Of course you must stay with us, dear! Don’t be silly, we’d love to have you! We’ve got plenty of room! This is true, they’ve got a huge great four-bedroomed house. There’s just the two of them and Aunty Jen’s in her late seventies and he’s a bit older, quite a lot younger than Dad. Yes, there’s only about twelve years between me and Aunty Jen, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t come on like my great-grandmother. At the moment one spare bedroom’s being used as Aunty Jen’s sewing-room and one’s got Uncle Don’s non-messy, non-shed-type hobby material in it. (Don’t ask. Jigsaws, for one.) But gee, that leaves a whole spare room, doesn’t it! Sally gave in gratefully, who wouldn’t? Well, the alternative was to stay with Cassie and Charles, which could’ve been embarrassing all round, depending on whether they did or did not want to take it to the next level, you see. I mean, it’d be embarrassing if one of them didn’t want to and really embarrassing, with his mum two doors down, if they did. Oh, you got that? Sorry.
    Sally’s spending most of her time round here during the day, though. Using her laptop, mostly. Her idea is it was a waste of time (put much more nicely) photocopying the documents and we should’ve scanned them. Julie threw a fit at the idea of scanning the originals, it was bad enough they hadda be flattened out for the photocopying, but Sally decided she could scan the photocopies. Yours truly could then attach the graphic images to the database records and this would make the whole procedure much, much more convenient. Yes, Sally, but (a) Julie will have a blue fit if I dump an illegal copy of the software on your laptop, (b) I know laptops these days are marvellous but can yours store thousands of digital images? and (c) it’ll be hours and hours of work.
    Network my computer? Jesus Christ!—Yes, ’cos see, then we wouldn’t be infringing my software licence and blah, blah... (True, it’s licensed for a network, it just wants one user at a time, not one user, period, but heck!) And Charles knows a guy who can do it for free!
    Julie weighs in with: That computer’s got all our hard work on it, no way is some cowboy Charles knows going to get his sticky paws—No, but he’s an expert, he works for Blah-Blah. Uncle Don (it’s raining, bowling’s out, plus and Dad’s infesting the clubroom, and Aunty Jen has vetoed any more walking sticks) weighs in with: Ya don’t want yards of blue cabling all over your lounge-room, love.—How true.—And how much would it cost to buy Sally a copy of this program, anyway? Fortunately Sally at this point turns puce, and gasps: “No!” –Yes, he was proposing to pay for it, he’s like that. Him and Dad are chalk and cheese.
    Funnily enough the upshot of all this is yards of blue cabling all over my lounge-room, the computer out of action for a week, and Charles and the mate over here for hours and hours and hours... Well, yes, Cassie came over and made some great meals for us all, but was it worth the aggro? And Julie in person—very, very annoyed—had backed up everything to one of those stick thingos and taken it, or possibly them, by this time I wasn’t looking, away to a very safe place, but—Yeah. Hell on wheels, really.
    Time passes... 

    I am slaving away at the database, Julie! I know I was slopping round the place in my dressing-gown, unquote, but it was a rotten day and I just got up and sat down at the comp—Um, well, not all your stuff, no, I’ve been attaching some of the digitized—All right, I will stop doing stuff Sally ought to be doing for herself and concentrate on indexing family members for you. (Actually that’d probably help Sally, as well. Good.)
    Time passes...

    I am working on your family members, Julie! I am entitled to go out to the flicks once in a blue—No, I wasn’t “again” yesterday, I was doing my shopping: a person has to eat! I don’t know where Sally was; if she didn’t answer the phone she wasn’t here! (Or she was buried in the computer and fed up with taking pointless messages from you. One or the other.)
    Time passes...

    Cassie, if you think Jane and Bill Cooper will be worried because the blog hasn't been updated, you update it! Um, well, could you maybe just say something about the progress of the recip—Okay, no. Cassie, I haven’t got anything to report! Report that? Cringe!—People do!—Do they? If you say so. (What has she been reading? Aw—other mad cooks’ blogs, that’ll be it. Like: “Today I cooked a cheese soufflé. It collapsed.” Next entry: “Today I didn’t do anything.” Like that.)
    Yeah, all right, Cassie, stop nagging, you’re getting as bad as Julie! I’ll post a load of crap to the blog! ...Okay, it’s on.
    Time passes... 

    Ooh, cripes, three people have contacted us wanting the recipe for rosella jelly! There must be a lot of mad cooks out there, that’s for sure. Yes, Julie, I’ll answer them. No, Julie, this wasn’t what you envisaged when you put that contact address—Aw, right: put it in the blog, that’ll shut them up. (She thinks.)

Roselle [Rosella] Jelly


Remove the petals of the flowers; then mince finely. To every cup of minced petals add 3 cups of water. Boil quickly as the colour is much better if it does not stand around. After boiling about five minutes it will be ready to strain. Strain through muslin. To each cup of juice take a cup of sugar. Boil quickly. It will soon become jelly. Remove all the scum as it rises, and, when the jelly appears firm when a little is poured on a plate, it is done.
In flavour and appearance this ruby-red jelly cannot be surpassed.

    More time passes... Sally’s research is going good, that’s something. I’ve got all the main family members, I mean all the members of all the main families, into the database by now. And almost traced every reference to each one of them, mm. It’s much warmer, thank God. (Yes, I do sound like one of those mad bloggers, next thing I’ll be telling you about my collapsed soufflé.) And it’ll soon be Christmas. Sally’s gotta go home for it, and, get this, Charles is gonna go with her! Cassie came round and had a little cry on the strength of it, so I said: “Cassie, you can’t tie him to your bloody apron strings for the rest of his life, it’s unnatural! Thank God he does want to go off and spend some time with his girlfriend!” No, all right, I don’t understand, never having had any kids myself. Speaking as the onlooker that sees most of the game, I understand only too bloody well, and if that kid stays at home any longer letting his Mum do his washing and cooking for him he’s gonna turn into either a spoilt nancy-boy, pardon my French, or one of those unbearable Aussie lumps that expect their wives to do everything for them and never raise a finger to help round the house. Meanwhile expecting the wife to hold down a fulltime job as well as do all the grocery shopping plus and chauffeur the kids to and from their bloody sports fixtures, not to mention to school, not to mention taking time off her job when they’re sick, stop me if you’ve heard all this bef—Yeah. All right, I have stopped. But that is what makes the buggers, Cassie, dear. You and the rest of your stupid suburban voluntary martyrs.
    Time passes... 

    Sally’s spending a lot of time in at the uni, she copped a gander at my phone and ISP bills and, bless her, tore a strip off Julie. I will say this for Julie, she shot over and, having of course scrutinised them narrowly, paid them for me. Not from her bank account as such, no. From a separate bank account she’s set up for the project. I think it might have some of Cassie’s dough in it but I haven’t asked. Most of it’s Julie’s. Well, she can afford it, she got a fair whack out of bloody Rod Darling. She then discussed seriously with herself the pros and cons of giving me access to it but decided not to as I’m an idiot about money. So I didn’t point out that I’ve been paying all my bills online for yonks, what’s the point? Besides, if anything did go wrong with the bloody account it’d turn out to be my fault, you betcha.
    After a bit she did say: “Don’t you ever ring anybody up?”
    “I mean, heck, there’s one phonecall to me, and one to the speaking clock on this bill!”
    “What about those nice ladies you used to work with?”
    Eh? She’s waiting... “Um, they’ve all got busy lives of their own. I mean, they’re all married and their kids are growing up, um, or they’re having kids now, and, um, we never had anything in common anyway... They don’t wanna hear from me!”
    “How do you know, if you never ring them?”
    Because they never ring me, you benighted ass, and they’ve all got my email address, if they really want to get in touch! “I did try at first. They’re all busy. Anyway, if you wanna know, they bore me solid!”
    Heavy sigh. “Your theme song.” Pauses. Thinking, thinking... “Look, I’d take you to my bridge club, buh—”
    “No!” Help, didn’t mean to shout.
    “No,” she agrees drily. “I’ve never met anyone with a worse head for cards. You’d better come to Polites* with me.”
    WHAT? Jesus Christ, they’re all skinny affluent suburban moos like her with fully organic leotards and how’s-yer-fathers, with huge Volvos and BMWs, I’ve got less than nothing in common with them and anyway I can’t do that stuff!
    “No, thanks. The lady always demonstrates facing you and I can’t follow it, my brain does a flip in my head.”
    She shouts at me but I win that round. It’s exhausting, though. Better have a shiraz. And some cheese...
* Not sure if that's how you spell it, but I dare say you know what I mean. Exercises for well-off suburban matrons with nothing else to do. They have to drive there and back in their Volvos and BMWs, or at the very least their giant 4WDs (SUVs?). Heaven forbid they should walk to their exercise classes! Or even walk to the bus stop like us yobs have to. 

      ...Is there anything for tea? Oh. Well, okay, finish the shiraz. And the ch—Oh. Well, it was only low-fat, anyway, not exciting. Shiraz and a thick slice of wholemeal bread with marg with cholesterol-lowering plant sterols in it, that’ll do it!
    ...Ugh! Just made the mistake of looking up “sterol” in Mr Gates’s helpful online dictionary. But the marg must be all right, it’s got the Heart Association tick of approval. Mustn’t it? All right, I’ll have an apple to counteract it. Um, well, I did see this thing on TV a bit back that said that modern apples are slathered in wax which allows the supermarkets to keep them all nice and shiny for months and months and—Not thinking about that.
    ...Blast, I was gonna keep the rest of that shiraz for tomorrow! Um, don’t think I’ll do any work tonight. What’s on TV? Ugh. Will these bloody amateur cookery competitions never end? Hard to tell which are more nauseating, really, the competitors, the dishes, or the ruddy judges. No, on second thoughts the judges, by a good length. ...What? Ugh! Not more fat people exposing themselves getting thin, this is ludicrous! They must all be exhibitionists at heart. All right, I’ll watch a nice DVD. A chick flick! Um.... Toss up between Bridget Jones and Maid in Manhattan, really, given that I watched that Sandra Bullock thing the other day. Where she gives in her notice to Hugh Grant, not the While You Were Sleeping one she made yonks back, which I really like, but I’ve seen it so many times I’m afraid the videotape might wear out. Okay, Maid in Manhattan it’ll be, I really can’t take Miss Zellwegger’s simpering tonight. And I dunno why, something buried deep in the psyche no doubt, but I really like J.Lo. The little boy’s good, too. I can overlook Mr Fiennes—well, he is a good actor, yes, but he doesn’t appeal; at least, that’s not quite true. He does have a sort of sick appeal. Not yer out and out hetero crush like what I’ve got on the matchless Gary Cooper, no. Very different. Put it like this, I wouldn’t be watching the thing at all if it didn’t have J.Lo in it. Plus and those fabulous clothes she gets to wear. Um, maybe if I open another bottle of shiraz and just have half a glass. That other one was half empty when I started, in any case...

    Would it surprise you to learn that I woke up the next morning feeling terrible? No, quite. It was quite early, headaches that bad don’t allow you to sleep in. I took two paracetamol tablets (I can’t spell that but Mr Gates’s dictionary can, it does have some good points) and then I made a mug of very weak tea and didn’t have a shower: taking a shower requires energy and decision-making. Almost four hours later I had to take two more tablets. By that time I’d drunk three large mugs of very weak tea and run out of milk. So I didn’t trudge round to the supermarket and buy some—no.
    I had checked the email, both mine and the project’s (yes, of course Julie’s set up a separate address for it). Mine had 3 exciting, very special offers. One from an online grocery shopping service that’s apt to not supply the one crucial thing you really need the week when you’ve decided to use it just for some essentials and grossly overspent your budget. Nah, not tempted, last time they never sent the toilet paper. One from the ABC shop, I’ve stopped buying from them since I discovered that they send the stuff by Australia Post, which may or may not actually leave it if you’re out, depending on how they feel, presumably—I haven’t been able to isolate any other criterion. And one from the ISP. Can’t understand a blind word of it, don’t want it, wouldn’t know how to make it work if I did have it, kind of thing. And 3 newsletter-type thingos. One from a library group I don’t actually belong to—I mean, I officially resigned, so why I’m still on their mailing list don’t ask me. One from an American specialist cookery books website that Cassie’s never managed to order anything from because when you get the entry up you find you can’t just click on it and do it, you have to fill in a completely blank form, by which time you’ve lost the page the details are on, I kid you not. And one, that I suppose falls into the category, it’s definitely not a special-offer thingo, from good old Amazon dot com, who’ve somehow got the idea I want to hear about all these weirdo scientific titles just because I once bought—Forget it. It’s very nice and helpful of them and I wish I had a scientific mind.
    The project’s email, by contrast, had 3 exciting, very special offers. One from a book shop. Will Cassie want the CSIRO’s latest diet cookbook at a reduced price? No. One from the ISP. Can’t understand a blind word of it—Right. I deleted it, if Julie never sees it she can’t worry about it, eh? On second thoughts I deleted all the “Trash” folder. Ooh, and one from the ABC! For God’s sake, I told Julie about them! Aw, gee, it had the same CSIRO cookbook. And uh, a DVD of Bob the Builder? Presumably a very special offer to the whole country, then. And 3 newsletter-type thingos. One from a genealogical website. Australian. Wanting to sell you books on how to do your genealogical research good. One from that American specialist cookery books website that Cassie’s never managed to order anything from... And one from Amazon dot com. Amazing! Southeast Asian cookery. Mexican cookery. West Indian cookery. Uh, Bosnian cookery? Well, presumably they have to eat, but—Serious scientific study of the Japanese diet, think that one got in there by mistake, or, faulty algorithm. New fad diet. Definitely faulty algorithm. Or have they cunningly worked out that if you get fat by buying all these fabulous shiny cookery books and trying out all the recipes in them, you’ll have to go on a diet?
    That was it. Oh, dear.
    I’d just boiled the jug up for another large mug of very weak tea without milk and been to the loo because of all those other mugs of ditto, when the doorbell rang. Eh? Believe you me, if was another bloody middle-class lady in pearls and a clipboard proselytising for the local MP I was gonna  give the cow very, very short shrift ind—
     Jesus! Not a clipboard lady, Gary Cooper in person!!
   Well, very nearly. Not as good-looking but what human being could be? Tall, though. Gorgeous long legs. Those jeans were helping. Well, yes, Australia does contain a certain number of the tall, long-legged, gorgeous male type alongside the millions of little grey-faced, shaven-headed, soulless ones that work in the soulless office towers, but when did one ever come ringing my excruciatingly deafening doorbell? –Uncle Don put it in for me, since the so-called charity that runs this dump which is built expressly for ageing retirees on pensions has failed signally to provide anything at all at either door, thus allowing Australia Post to knock very, very quietly at the front door and, when it doesn’t open in the next split second, run away without leaving your parcel. No, he didn’t ask their permission, he just did it. It works real good, I can even hear it if I’m in the shower.
    The tall god opened his mouth and didn’t say “Gidday” or “Uh—sorry, wrong unit” or “Uh,”—expectant stare—“plumbing, was it?” or anything typically Aussie at all. He said: “Good morning. I think you must be Katy Widdop? I’m Jack Cooper.” In a noticeably Pommy accent.
    To which I responded by an open-mouthed stare.
    The poor bloke went rather red, scarcely surprising, and managed to croak: “I’m sorry. Bill Cooper’s brother—from Kent. He did say he’d email you.”—Swallow.—“Jack Cooper.”
    At which point K. Widdop gave an hysterical laugh and gasped: “Ya got the surname right, at any rate!”
    “I—er—yes. Jack Cooper. I’m sorry; are you Katy Widdop?”
    The one standing here red as a lobster with her great foot in her mouth? Yeah, that’s me. Well, heck, he was about my age, with lovely blue eyes, and he was clean-shaven, can’t stand the fuzzy-chinned look, quite apart from the physiological consequences for the party of the second part in any sort of hetero relationship—work it out. The answer to a maiden’s prayer—quite. Not technically, no! I have lived, my relatives’ assumptions to the contrary!
    “Yuh—um, yeah, sorry. What was it about, again?” I croaked weakly.
    —By this time it had had time to percolate to the surface of the battered consciousness that I hadn’t had a shower this morning and that I was standing there in my summer dressing-gown, possibly not as daggy as the winter one, but very, very shapeless and unflattering, dating as it does from 1989 and being Aunty Jen’s choice in the first place—pale blue cotton daisies with frills do not wash well. Not over twenty years. With underneath the dressing-gown, which comes to just below the knees, a pair of cotton pyjama pants, men’s, with a washed-out pattern of steam trains on them in brown, with the last ten inches of the legs hacked off and not hemmed because no-one but me was ever gonna see me in them. Me and the odd bourgeoise or two in pearls and clipboards, they don’t count. And bare feet. Well, the lounge-room and the bedroom are carpeted and in any case summers in SA are very hot. Did I mention the hair pinned up uncombed in a big plastic clip? It completed the picture.
    The poor bloke was starting to look very hot and flustered and it couldn’t have been the ambient temperature, it was only around twenty-eight, headed for thirty-two this arvo if you believed the ABC’s classical music station that I hadda switch off straight after the news and weather because the superior, relentlessly smiling cow of a female announcer came on and as usual started splattering her ego all over the air waves. Ya don’t see how I could tell she was smiling, on steam radio? You can hear it in her voice! Yes! Stupid, patronising bitch. She mispronounces all the foreign names, too, and blahs on about herself when she should just be announcing the music and shutting up. I’ve given up trying to listen to the bloody station except for the news: she and her pal, another superior bitch, have completely ruined it for me.
    Um, on second thoughts maybe it was partly the temperature, because if he was English, as that accent certainly indicated—not fake-Pommy nayce, like the flaming announcer’s—he wouldn’t be used to our climate, would he? Straight out from England, then? Oh, my God!
    “Shit! You’re Jane and Bill Cooper’s brother-in-law!”
    “Y—Er, yes. Jane’s brother-in-law,” he murmured. “Bill’s brother. They live at Little Froissart, in Little Shrempton.”
    “Yeah. I’m Helluva sorry, Jack, it didn’t connect. The shiraz-induced fog had something to do with it, I’m afraid.”
    “Shiraz?” he murmured, smiling nicely.
    “Yuh—um, yeah. Wine. Red,” I muttered. “Um, from the Barossa—well, this one was. Um, I think I read somewhere that you don’t call it that in England. Well, you'd probably be used to French wines, eh? Um, I think they use it in Châteauneuf-du-Pape...”
    He actually smiled, at that. I nearly passed out. Not that he had spectacularly good teeth or anything. But I’ll tell you what I felt like: it was like when Gary Cooper finally kisses Audrey Hepburn at the very end of Love in the Afternoon. My whole chest goes all funny and I nearly pass out. It was just like that, only sort of terrifying with it—terrifying and kind of unreal—because he was an actual bloke standing there outside my front door. –Why hadn’t I swept the dust off that flaming useless apology for a brick porch? Ledge’d be a more accurate term. And last winter’s dead leaves. Added to which, never mind he was standing there in person, this was a gorgeous bloke that was never gonna notice dumpy, eccentric Katy Widdop if she lived to be a hundred—which, please note, I very nearly am. Plus and the sort that always has a wife, you betcha.
    “Yes, of course! I think they call it shiraz in South Africa, too, don’t they? We’d call that variety syrah.”
    “Um, that right? Uh, sorry, Jack, wouldja”—oh, shit, nowhere to sit, of course!—“um, like to come in?”
    “Thank you, Katy. It is rather warm today, isn’t it?”
    Oh, dear, presumably that was a British understatement. “Well, not for SA,” I said feebly, standing back to let him in.
    “Ess Ay? I see, so that’s what you call South Australia?” he said with interest, coming in.
    Uh—a bloke who actually notices the peculiarities of the parole of the linguistic group in which he happens to find himself? Nah, much too good to be true, it was a flash in the pan.
    “Yes, we tend to use the abbreviations of the states. Well, SA and Dubba You Ay,” I said carefully, though without hope.
     He smiled—slowly, this time, hold me up! “I see. A la ‘George Dubba You’, would that be?”
    “Yep! ’Tis the local vernacular!”
    “And the other states?”
    “Um, well, even the Aussie tongue hasn’t managed to turn ‘Queensland’ or ‘Victoria’ into anything. But it’s definitely Tuh—uh, well, the popular spelling is T,A,S,S,I,E.”
    “I thought that was—” He broke off abruptly.
    So I said promptly: “Burns. Tassie. Presumably from the French, tasse. Yes. Aussies don't know that, even though there are Burns Societies all over the country.”
    He swallowed, hah, hah! So I added kindly: “Pronounced ‘Tazzie’. I spell it T,A,Z,Z,I,E, and of course everyone corrects me.”
    At this Jack Cooper went into a helpless spluttering, wheezing fit, gasping, when he could finally speak: “I’m so sorry!”
    I could feel I was grinning all over my mug. “Nah, don’t apologise, Jack. I presume the popular spelling derives from the full form: ‘Tasmania’ with an S pronounced as a Z, you see. Dangers of universal literacy, eh? Mind you, you can’t second-guess them, it’s ‘Aussie’, double S pronounced as a Z too, from ‘Australia’, written and pronounced as an S. The unfortunate Yanks read it and pronounce it ‘Aw-see’, naturally enough. Which of course gets up the locals’ noses.”
    “Don’t!” he gasped, going into another wheezing fit.
    In that case, I decided I’d better not tell him that ‘Australia’ is commonly pronounced ‘Astraya’ in this day and age. And it isn’t just John Clarke (he’s a Kiwi, didja know? Yeah)—it isn’t just him having a go, it’s true!
    So I just said awkwardly: “Um, I’m afraid there’s only the desk chairs, but siddown, Jack.”
    “Thank you,” he said with that smile, sitting down at Sally’s workstation (cheapo student desk, Uncle Don went out and bought it, from Allmart, I think, before we could stop him). “So this is where you do all the work on the Tamasha project!”
    “Um, yeah. Well, Julie does a lot of research from home, and Cassie’s cookery books are mostly at her place, but yeah. Um, the papers and the photocopies are all in those filing cabinets,” I added lamely, as he was looking at them. –Well, I like red, see? And it is my flat. And Julie said I could choose the colour. And in any case the red ones were on special, she was really pleased about that.
    “I see! You have been busy!” he said, grinning at me.
    “Um, yeah. Wouldja like a cold drink, Jack?”
    “Yes, I’d love one, thanks, Katy.”
    Yeah, thoughtcha might, mate. That knit golfing-shirt-type thingo you’ve got on might be trendy for your age group, with its little whatsit over the nipple, but thick knit golf shirts, whatever the bloke in the shop that sold it to you might have said, are too hot for this climate unless you’ve lived here all your life. A cheapo short-sleeved cotton or Dacron and cotton-mix shirt from Kmart is what you need, mate! (Didn’t say it, no. Too chicken? Didn’t want to come over as one of those middle-aged, managing middle-class moos that infest the suburbs? Some of the above, yeah.)
    Okay, the next problem was, no cold drinks. And SA tap water is horrible. You don’t notice it unless you’ve been interstate for a while, because if you drink it every day, you adjust to it. Um, anything in the jug? Yes, there was, but it was pretty hot.—Boiling it makes it taste a bit better.—Um, ice blocks? Ooh, good! Freezing it definitely improves it. I didn’t use to have any proper glasses, well, you can’t count three whisky tumblers left over from a set and one wine glass left over from a set, but Cassie very kindly bought me a set of wine glasses after she’d made a lovely coq au vin for us and discovered we were gonna have to drink out of mugs or whisky tumblers, and Julie bought me a set of actual water (or juice) glasses after that time she came round with two big plastic bottles of orange juice for the workers. So I filled one up with ice and very slowly dribbled some water from the jug over it and added more ice and very slowly... And took it through to him.
    “Sorry it took so long. ’Tis only tap, but I’ve used plenty of ice. Ya need to watch out for SA tap water, it tastes really nasty until you get used to it.”
    “Thank you. The people at the hotel did say something about the water.” He drank thirstily.
    “Where are you staying?”
    He told me. Gulp! Right downtown, slap bang on North Terrace. Two steps from Parliament House—yep. Right over the road from the railway station-cum-casino—yep. (Just skip it if you’ve never heard of that particular South Australian phenomenon: you’re lucky.) I think it is only a middle-of-the-road hotel as their prices go, but on North Terrace none of them are cheap. “Do you know it?” he added nicely, possibly reading my expression.
    “Um, yeah. I mean, I’ve only been to the downstairs lobby bar, back when I was working. There was a guy trying to sell us his library software—well, an add-on, we already had the basic software—and I couldn’t make it during the day, so he set up a meet”—Why was I blahing on? The man didn’t want to know!—“in the lobby bar after work.”
    “And did you buy the add-on?” he said nicely.
    “Sort of. I reported back to our top manager—not the librarian, her boss—that we didn’t need it, and why; but as it was Internet-related he thought he knew better than a mere female that worked in the back room of the library, so he went ahead and bought it. As far as I know they shoved it in a drawer and never used it. Well, the library would have been quite willing to have our catalogue mounted on the Net—that was what it was for”—why couldn’t I shut up?—“but it was the IT department that would’ve had to do it, and it never happened.”
      “I see. So why didn’t you recommend buying it, Katy?”
    He didn’t want to know, why the Hell was he asking? Nice English manners, presumably. “Because our catalogue was pretty specialised, it wouldn’t have been of much interest to anyone else, and because anything popular we did hold was duplicated in all the public and state libraries. And the staff never worked from home, so they didn’t need Internet access.”
    “Very sensible.” –Why was he giving me that kindly male smile, crinkling up the corners of the eyes an’ all, to die for? You know: the “funny little woman” smile. Never had that? Lucky you. It means they find you mildly amusing (as opposed to sexy) and will never take you seriously for the rest of their lives. The very tall ones specialize in it. I can’t help being short, and I will take my dying oath I am just as bright as Jack Cooper! Well, shit! Served me right for blahing on—yep.
    He finished the water and said: “I really must apologise for turning up without notice. Bill did promise me he was going to email you.”
    “Um, there was nothing in this morning’s email. But it doesn’t matter. It’s nice to see you. Out here on holiday, are you?”—And where was the bloody wife? Back at the hotel, presumably? Sleeping off the jet lag, that’d be it. He looked like the energetic type that doesn’t give in to it. Or to anything else, actually.
    “No—well, business and pleasure, really, Katy.”—Jesus, if the man gave me that smile once more, I was gonna scream, or burst into tears on the spot, or both!—“I was overdue for a holiday, and I’ve always fancied the thought of Australia.”—Plus and in the socio-economic bracket that could afford holidays at the other side of the world, that stood out a mile.—“So,”—positively twinkling at me, damn him—“Bill and Jane persuaded me to combine the holiday with a visit to the Tamasha project HQ!”
    HQ. Hilarious, Pom. “Right, goddit.”
    He pulled the knit shirt away from his neck—muscular, but definitely not thicker than the head as with the ex-footballer type—smiled, and said: “’Tis warm, isn't it? And of course it must just be the beginning of your summer. No, well, there’s a bit more to—”
    “Hang on! Sorry!” I gasped, bounding up. “I’ll put the air-con on!”
    “No, really, not for me—”
    “Nah, see, thing is, at this time of day the sun’s right overhead, the flat’s still relatively cool but it’s slated for thirdee-two this arvo.”—Oh, God, was that Astrayan as she is spoke, or what? Why couldn’t I shut up or least speak nice, like the prayvate-school girls we used to insult on the bus, on those rare occasions on which there were any on the bus, as opposed to being chauffeured home by the affluent suburban mums.—“And if I don’t put it on now it’ll take ages to cool down later!” Point, click, VROOM!
    Cripes, the electronic thingo actually worked, that was a first! Usually it takes up to three goes, or on occasion five, to make the ruddy thing do anything. Don’t ask me why: the retirement complex’s bloody Maintenance types chucked out any instruction booklet that might have come with the reverse-cycle at the same time as they ripped out all the curtain rails that the previous tenant had paid them to install. –Mrs Barnett from next-door but one told me, three days after I’d moved in, is how I know. But they don’t charge very much to put up new ones for you, dear! They do it privately, you see. You just have to speak to X, he’s very nice! Was she kidding? K. Widdop doesn’t fall for Maintenance-guy scams like that, thank you very much! I’ll do without curtains for the rest of me natural! Or if I ever manage to save up the dough, pay a proper curtain firm to put some in, rods and all. There are blinds. They don’t fit at the sides, no SA blind in a cheapo SA flat that I ever saw ever did, but at least they’re there.
    The poor man had jumped. Maybe they don’t have reverse-cycle in England?
    “Um, it does make a bit of a noise just at first but it’ll settle down.” Luckily that ergonomic chair of Sally’s (Uncle Don again, who else?) is well out of the draught.
    “Thank you,” he smiled. Yeah, well, it was starting to kick in. “Where was I? Oh, yes! The full story, Katy! You've heard of Maunsleigh, of course.” Expectant smile.

"Maunsleigh, the Main Front"
Engraving, circa 1815
(from a portfolio of mounted prints & sketches, Maunsleigh Library)
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection
    Eh? Blank, blank...
    He looked at the filing cabinets. “I’m sure it’s in there somewhere, Katy.”
    Yeah, probably. Whaddever it is, mate. “I can find it through the database, I expect.”
    “Of course! Your famous database!” he beamed.
    Oh, shit. Did I blah on about that in the flaming blog? “Uh—yeah. What was it?”
    “A stately home, the principal seat of the Earls of Sleyven. The Wynton family.”—Eh?—“Jarvis Wynton, Ponsonby sahib’s friend from India, Katy,” he said limply.
    “Aw! Yeah, I know! The nice man that came and used the fantastic carved Indian bed in the room with the tiger skin, and played with the kiddies!”
    “That’s him,” he said, smiling.—It was that kindly male smile again, the “funny little woman” thing, what the Hell had I said?—“The present earl’s rather like that, I  think!”
    Wot? He must’ve noticed I was sitting there gaping gormlessly, ’cos he said: “Sorry; I’m jumping ahead of myself. Bill and Jane were very upset when your story got stuck, so we all did some further research. I was already acquainted with the Maunsleigh library, you see.”
    That right? So what was he? Some sort of flaming professor? That accent was toffee-nosed enough for it, for sure. Um, hang on. “Do you mean the room or the book collection?”
    “Both!” he said with a laugh.—This could not go on, I was definitely gonna faint! That laugh was distinctly masculine but not hoarse or raucous, and not high-pitched but not a coarse bellow—Nope, it’s impossible to describe a laugh.—“No, well, I’d done some research there, in another life, as it were.”—Okay, he wasn’t gonna let on the details of his past life to Katy Widdop, so why should I care? Ruddy Pom!—“And it occurred to me that though Ponsonby sahib’s letters to his friend Jarvis did all seem to have been returned to him, there might still be something in the collection that had been overlooked. So I went along and had a bit of a hunt round.”
    “Ya mean they let you?”
    “Er—yes. Well, I already knew the librarian quite well.” –Right: she’d be a slim, attractive woman of under forty, would she? Or, stretch a point, under forty-five with a fabulous figure and totally on top of everything, personal and professional, and always superbly groomed.
    “He was quite happy to let me ferret about in his manuscripts. –No, well, twisted my arm and got me to catalogue them, the things hadn’t been properly sorted since round about the time Jarvis Wynton inherited, and Pierce’s own interest is the incunabula.”
    Lucky him. Well, phew, at least it was a him! “It sounds like a great collection, Jack.”
    “Yes, ’tis! I’ve always rather envied Pierce his job!” Uh-huh. Meanwhile he himself was doing what? And incidentally, what qualified him to catalogue manuscripts? Because he didn’t look like a male cataloguer to me. –They come to the ALIA conferences, and they’re all gay. No, well, I have met one or two male teachers of cataloguing who were hetero, but they don’t count, they’re in education. I don’t claim to know any specific manuscript cataloguers but guess what my money’d be on?
    “That was pretty much how I spent all of last summer—that’d be your winter, of course—which is why Bill and Jane’s emails dried up, I’m afraid.”
    “Um, yeah. Well, I think Jane gets in touch with Cassie pretty often: she’s got her home email address as well. They swap recipes. But yeah, we haven’t heard any more about the Thomases or anything for ages.”
    “No, that’s right. But”—he took a deep breath, “I’ve unearthed something very exciting at Maunsleigh!” Opened swish little case he’d brought in and set down on the desk. Okay, it was a flaming laptop, these days you aren’t with-it if you don't spend your life with the thing welded to one hand and your flaming nuisance of a mobile phone welded to your hip, when it isn’t stuck to your ear. –Where was it? Not in the usual pouch locked to the manly belt, how strange. Uh—no, must be one of those ultra-thin, e-nor-mous-ly expensive ones, in the manly pocket. At that point I decided to stop thinking about his manly pockets—and belts, yes—’cos if I didn’t I was gonna explode with frustration. It was like having a lovely ripe apricot on the tree just out of reach, y’know? Uh, maybe they don’t grow all that well except in South Australia, they do grow like weeds in our climate. Okay, a mango, or, um, custard apple? Peach? Big fat fig? Anything really delicious. And out of reach.
    “Couldn’t bring the originals, of course.”
   “What? Um, no.” Look, by this time I was past taking in very much at all about anything he might have unearthed! Let alone finding it exciting.
    Gee, he immediately found what he was looking for. Efficient, with it. “There! That's the first find!”
    “Ye-es...” Blast, it was a manuscript—scanned, right—written in a crabbed masculine hand! Couldn’t read a blind word of it. “Um, sorry, Jack, I can’t read it.”
    I was awarded the kindly, mildly amused smile again, funny little woman that I am. “His handwriting is rather difficult until you get used to it. It’s a whole set of Ponsonby sahib’s letters, Katy. These ones were written to Lord Sleyven around 1829 and 1830: they’re not all dated, I’m afraid. The first one seems to have been written shortly after they returned to Calcutta after the trip to the hills, just after the rains came. There's a delightful description of Tiddy baba fronting up to a snake that appeared on a verandah!” He laughed. –So was she a funny little woman, too? Shit.
    I managed to produce: “That’s really great, Jack.” But only just. He didn’t notice anything.
    “Mm, we thought so,” he said, smiling. “I came across them by accident: they were folded up inside a large volume of household hints that I only opened because I thought your Cassie might be interested in it. Jane did get in touch with her about it, but apparently there are several copies in Australian libraries.”
    “Yes, the early settlers brought their books of household hints with them—well, wouldn't you?”
    Boy, that one went down well, the eyes were crinkling up like anything! “Of course! One could hardly set up house in the Australian bush without the hints on getting candle grease out of tablecloths.”
    Yeah? That’s precisely the sort of thing that our own 19th-century books of recipes and household hints are full of! Don’t believe me? Okay, this is one of Cassie’s favourites:

Coffee Grounds For A Pincushion
Coffee grounds should never be thrown away. They must be rinsed in cold water before spreading on paper to dry thoroughly in the sun. Then stuff the cushion. Dressmakers should heed this advice well.

    She tried it once. It worked good up to the putting out in the sun bit. Then guess what happened? –No, it wasn’t a windy day. Give up? The cat came along and sat on the paper, scattering the coffee grounds to Hell and gone and into the bargain contaminating them with cat hairs and dirt!
    But my absolute favourite household hint is the one about what to do in case of bushfires. “In case of bushfires, put old balls in the top of downpipes.” Yep! That’d save your life!
    “What is it?” said the glorious Jack Cooper, looking at my expression.
    Cof. Didn’t wanna risk hysterics in front of him. “Um, well, the thing is, that’s precisely what life was like, Jack. The pioneers brought their own habits and assumptions out with them. The poor women that found themselves dumped in the bush really struggled to maintain the standards they’d known back home. It would’ve caused real dismay to find candle grease on your best tablecloth. Probably the one that was only trotted out for weddings and Christmases. –Honest! They were still maintaining standards madly well into the 20th century. My Gran used to have a special tablecloth in the 1950s!”
    “Mm. Sorry,” he said, biting his lip. “Didn’t think the thing through. Actually, Jane’s got a special tablecloth that only sees the light of day at Christmas.”
    “There you are, see? Human nature or something!”
    “Of course, Katy!” Those blue eyes were twinkling like anything. Why hadn’t some kind assassin shot me before he ever turned up on my doorstep?
    He was busily getting up another file. “Now, I think you’ll find this really exciting. It’s—No, I’d better tell you how it ended up at Maunsleigh. It was in a collection labelled ‘The Partridge Papers.”’—Expectant pause. K. Widdop just looked blank.—“Myrtle Partridge and her brother were Kentish village identities whom the Lucas girls knew in the 1820s. They were at that amusing picnic. Miss Partridge was the sort of gossip who knows the entire peerage off by heart. She was a connection of Lord Sleyven’s on the distaff side.”

"Our Partridge cousins"
Pencil, circa 1830, artist unknown
(from a portfolio of mounted prints & sketches, Maunsleigh Library)
From the estate of Jarvis Wynton, Fifth Earl of Sleyven.
Courtesy of the Maunslegh Collection
    That right? Boy, never thought I'd hear a living, breathing human being say the words “Kentish” and “distaff side” in the one speech before. Nor “village identities”, actually.
    “I do remember a picnic. The time the slimy doctor proposed to Tess?”
    “Mm: pressed his suit, at any rate!”
    “Yes. So is that something Miss Partridge wrote?”
    “No, far from it! This is a manuscript that Tiddy sent to Miss Bartlett for safe-keeping—she rather liked her, if you recall. She didn’t gush or toad-eat her so much when it was just the two of them. She wrote to her from India asking her to keep the manuscript safe and not open it except in the event of her death. Miss Bartlett’s will left everything to her friend Miss Partridge, and Miss Partridge’s and Brother’s papers went to Maunsleigh. The packet from Tiddy had never been opened: it was very exciting being the first person in a hundred and eighty years to read it.”
    “Tiddy wrote to Miss Bartlett? You mean it was a secret?”
    “Yes. A secret which Tiddy wasn’t supposed to know about. –Well, when you cast your mind back those girls didn’t seem to have any real friends in England, did they? Their neighbours looked down their noses at them because Mr Lucas had been in trade. I’d say it was a choice between Miss Bartlett and Miss Partridge.”
    Ugh! Clearer memories of Miss Partridge were coming back to me. “She’d have spread it all round her august rellies.”
    “But what on earth was it? And why did Tiddy think Miss Bartlett needed to know?”
    “I’m not honestly sure why, Katy. Her covering letter doesn’t make it clear. I think, really, she needed some older person to know, if anything happened to both her and Ponsonby.”
    “Know what, for Pete’s sake?”
    He smiled. “‘You'd better read it for yourself. Her writing’s a lot easier than Ponsonby’s.”
    Yeah, all right.
    ...“Good grief! She knew all along!”
    Jack was just placidly waiting while I read. “Uh-huh.”
    “But— Hang on. This explains rather a lot, doesn’t it?”
    “I think so,” he agreed.
    “Ugh, I can see why she didn’t want Mlle Dupont to know!”
    He shuddered. “Perish the thought!”
    “Yeah. Um, hang on. If she thought someone needed to know, why on earth didn’t she tell Mrs Allardyce? I mean, the stuff that we’ve read is pretty circumspect but it’s bloody obvious she was pretty unshockable. And heck, she was right on the spot!”
    “I thought of Mrs A., too, and came to the conclusion that Tiddy didn’t tell her because she  wasn’t a woman’s woman. Not the sort to confide girlish secrets—or any other secrets—to a womanly, sophisticated, charming creature like Mrs Allardyce.”
    Right, and he’d have known a few of them in his time, too! But I had to admit he was right.
    “She was very young, of course,” he added. “Personally I had the strong impression that Mrs Allardyce, whilst outwardly conforming to the mores of her contemporaries, saw right through them and quite probably despised them.”
    “Yuh—um, the mores or the contemporaries?”
    “I meant the mores. But very definitely the contemporaries, too. Light amusement is about the kindest emotion she evinces towards any of them, really, isn’t it?”
    “Yes, you’re right. ...I can’t get over it! All that time, and Tiddy never let on she knew!”
    “Mm. I think it explains some of her sourness.”
    “Just as well Miss Bartlett never had to read the letter; I think she’d have been shocked.”
    “Well, yes: though of course the double standard prevailed, didn’t it? It wouldn’t have been nearly so shocking as hearing the same thing about a woman.”
    “No, that’s true.” I mulled it over for a bit.  “But hang on! If Tiddy knew, surely—”
    “The letters from Ponsonby to Lord Sleyven explain what happened next.”
    “You mean we’ve got to plough through that awful writing to find out how it worked out?”
    Jack Cooper grinned. “I did.”
    At this point I pretty much caved in and rang Cassie—couldn’t ring Julie yet. Guess what? The minute I got her on the line she squeaked: “Has he come yet?” What? Turned out that Jane (not Bill) had emailed her at home... Yeah, yeah. Anyway, the upshot was she did rush over, yes, but only to collect us both and take us back to her place for  a "decent meal.”

     (Meaning the meal she’d have made for him anyway, in a decent setting.)
    Funnily enough he looked around at Cassie’s shiny, polyurethaned floors, couple of Persian rugs, lovely plain wooden dining set that dates from the ’70s and was a really good buy, and lovely plain maroon leather suite that dates back to when Babbage was getting ready to go off with the bimbo and presumably had guilt feelings, with the large Paisley shawl in tones of maroon and blue just draped negligently over the back of the sofa and the cushions that all tone too, not to mention the lovely view of the patio with its Babbage-paid-for, huge hand-thrown pottery plant pots and the garden that the proceeds of the divorce pay a bloke to look after, and smiled and said: “May I say, what a lovely house, Cassie?” She was pretty much eating out of his hand already, but that did it. His greatest fan from that moment on.
    The lunch? I’d’ve settled for a piece of toast and a coffee, frankly, but of course it was all perfect. Sally and Charles turned up for it—together, yes: good sign, eh?—and once several people (not me) had tried Julie on their mobiles yet again and failed to get her, we had it. Jack was thrilled when Cassie thought he might like to try some of the Tamasha recipes, so that was what it was. Just a simple combo of two vegetarian curries, according to her.

Banana Bujea [Bhujia]

Take 1/2 dozen not too ripe bananas, cut in pieces [about 2 cm long]. Soak in weak salt water for a while. Slice 2 [small, or 1 large] green bell peppers [capsicums] and 1/2 inch [1 to 2 cm] of green ginger. Finely slice a clove of garlic. Brown a sliced onion in butter. Then add the bananas, peppers, &c. When the fruit softens stir in 1/2 cup of cocoanut. Cook a few minutes more.

To Make a Curry of Green Peas

In 3-4 tablespoonfuls of ghee [or oil] fry 1 large onion, sliced, with 2 teaspoonsful of turmerick, 1/2 teaspoonful of chilli powder, and 1 1/2 dozen pounded mint leaves. When the onion becomes transparent, add 1 lb. [500g] of peas. Stir and fry for 5 minutes. Now add 1 cup of water.* Bring to a brief boil. Lower to a simmer, add salt to taste with 1 tablespoonful of lemon juice and cook till peas are tender. Add a little more water if it dries out, but there should be little liquid left.  
    *[For frozen peas, use 1/4 cup water]

Serve the curries with plain boiled rice, poppadums, and the following:

Fresh Chutney of Carrots
Wash and trim 1/2 lb. [250 g] of young carrots. Chop coarsely. Pound [blend in a blender or food processor] with 1 small Spanish onion and 1 tablespoonful of fresh ginger [peeled and chopped].

Mix with 2 tablespoonfuls of dhania leaf [coriander leaves]. Sprinkle with a little salt and the juice of 1/2 lemon.

Cucumber Chutney

Peel 2 cucumbers. Pound to a thick paste [use a blender/food processor] with 1 clove of garlic, 1 tablespoonful of chopped red bell pepper [capsicum], 1 tablespoonful of chopped heart of celery, a little parsley, a little salt, 1 teaspoonful of ground black pepper, a little cayenne pepper to taste, & the juice of 1/2 lemon or more as needed. Mix the whole into an equal quantity of sour milk [yoghurt].
    [Serve slightly chilled]

Fresh Chutney of Mint [With Coriander]

Soak 1 good tablespoonful of immalee pulp [tamarind] in a half of a cup of hot water for half an hour. Then strain through muslin, wringing tightly to extract the juice. Grind together [in a mortar and pestle or blender/food processor] equal quantities of mint leaves and dhania [coriander] leaves, if obtainable, with 1 small green chilli. This will suit a 1/2 cup of the mint. Sprinkle with sugar, salt and the immalee juice.
   (This recipe is quite possibly one of the ancestors of the much-dreaded mint sauce of our childhood: malt vinegar instead of tamarind, mixed with sugar, with a bit of chopped mint floating in it. I had thought it was just an Australian phenomenon but then I met a New Zealand woman of about my age who’d also had it as a child. My guess is it would be British, with an Anglo-Indian ancestry.
 -Cassie Babbage)

    I didn’t point out to Cassie that Jack’s sister-in-law had undoubtedly been trying out those recipes on him for the past year, ’cos why bother? She’d have done it anyway—yep.
    There was no sign of a wife, that was a plus, I suppose.
    We finally got hold of Julie at six o’clock—after her late afternoon tutorial, the exact time I’d told them her mobile would be on again. Rabid excitement. Coming over straight away. Or would we all like to come to her place for dinner? Dinner at Julie’s is extremely up-market as to its setting (the pristine flat: the minimalist look), but extremely boring as it to its content (steamed fish, the rest vegetarian and largely raw), so she was ordered over to Cassie’s. And not to argue, the roast was in the oven. (Yes, it was December, and a warm day, but Cassie’s house has ducted air-con throughout.) The polite Jack did offer to take us all out instead, but Cassie replied vigorously: “Not on your first day!” so that was that.
    When Julie turned up it was obvious to some that she’d been home and changed: that was not her uni clobber. It was a very pale oatmeal wild silk suit, one of her simple sleeveless silk blouses, she’s got millions of them, this one toned with the suit, plus and one of her best necklaces, she’s got millions of them. This one a kind of big enamelled medallion thingo in shades of orange, maroon and gold hanging from a thick circlet of twisted gold wire, not that I’d ever looked that closely at it. Small gold keepers in the ears, nothing flashy, thanks. Really nice plain high-heeled oatmeal shoes and a squashy leather clutch bag to match, to die for. Yeah. The sweet-natured but naïve Sally beamed and told her how nice she looked. The hair looked good, but then it always does. Sleek, smooth page-boy bob. The ends always turn under, don’t ask me how she manages that. It was always pale and now it’s the most beautiful silver shade, we suspect helped along but that’s something that no-one but Julie and her hairdresser will ever know. She’s very slim, did I say? Goes without saying—yeah.

"The Widdop sisters - Cassie - Katy - Julie - sketched by Jack Cooper Christmas 2010"
    Naturally Cassie was in her version of nice clobber for meeting and dining with an up-market bloke from overseas, only at hyome. Tailored black slacks, not polyester, dunno what they were, loose silk blouse in a charming pattern of green, tan and black with touches of gold, casually open over a lace-edged cotton-knit singlet thingo just like anybody’s (oh, yeah?) in a toning deep tan, open-toed wedgies in a mix of tan and cream, very smart, not extreme, and one of her best necklaces. Gold chunks interspersed with green bobbles on a thick gold wire. Possibly not as expensive as Julie’s, but close. It’d be a one-off, they both favour hand-made jewellery that’s not junk off a market stall but crafted by gold- or silversmiths. Oh, ya got that. Yeah. The fact that she’d recently had her hair done was probably just coincidental but, recalling that email that no-one else got to hear about, possibly not. She favours the Melanie Griffith Working Girl look—post change-of-look, whaddare ya? Shortish, very thick and wavy, not too much curl, frames the face beautifully. Tinted, of course, at her age, but it looks good. Sort of a pale marigold shade, but it’s allowed to have some silver streaks it in. Ace—yes. She’s got the same sort of plump, squareish face as me (and Ms Griffith, if you could see past the gorgeous skin and the just generally gorgeous) but funnily enough my hair won’t do that.
    Me? I was just in old jeans and a clean tee. Once red, now very washed-out, but at least it didn’t have horrid stains on it. And can we draw a veil? Thank you!
    Cassie of course was horrified to learn that Jack was at a hotel on North Terrace and would have forced him to check out right away except that Charles pointed out he’d have had to pay for the room anyway, checkout time is 10 in the morning, Downunder. So tomorrow morning Charles would drive over and get him. He did object—Jack, I mean—but gave in and let Cassie decide he could have the spare room next to Charles’s. –Get that stupid old computer out of there, Charles, it can go in the next hard rubbish collection, you’re never gonna use it!
    Most of the evening was spent poring over the laptop and printing out screeds from the laptop and exclaiming over them and reading out bits to one another. Though a fair amount of a very nice Coonawarra red got consumed, too.—Babbage, part of Cassie’s share of the cellar.—Jack got very excited and wanted to go “down” there but Charles initiated him kindly into the mysteries of life Downunder by informing him that it wasn’t down, it was a little room off the garage that his dad had had fitted out with a special refrigerated unit. Well, yeah, lots of people wouldn’t have bothered, but that was Babbage. Anal control-freak? You better believe it! True, Cassie and Charles only turn it on in the warmer months but in SA that’s pretty much mid-September to early April, so it’s not that cheap to run, never mind those solar panels the garage roof is smothered in. Yes, of course there’s some on the roof of the house as well, this is middle-class suburban Adelaide!
    The dinner? Like I say, it was a roast. Lamb. Aussies still turn on a nice lamb roast for the visiting foreigner. Well, he seemed to enjoy it. Not roast potatoes, she didn’t go that far. Small new potatoes, boiled, sprinkled with parsley. Broccoli à la Cassie—not sure what she does to it but it tastes like actual food. Oven-roast sliced eggplant, tomatoes and capsicums with garlic and olive oil—the Italian influence. According to her it’s easy-peasy. My oven, before I gave up using it—I’ve cleaned my last oven, thank you, not into household slavery any more—my oven always burned it. It was a bit early in the season—Forget it. They are in the supermarkets, yes.
    The stranger in our midst might’ve been expecting cheese or even a salad and cheese after that but he didn’t get them, what he got was pudding. Oeufs à la neige, and please do not ask! Cassie gave us the full story of the confusion in the cookery books, post-Mrs Beeton, and whether or not Jane Somebody’s fault, between yer classic Oeufs à la neige and Floating Island, the two being originally quite different—Forget it. They’re kind of squashy things made from egg whites and set on a bed of soft custard and it is yummy—one of Charles’s favourites, spoilt brat that he is—but unless you’re an expert at making homemade custard, do not try it. Tears will result. Doing the egg-white puffy things is really tricky, too. She sometimes flavours hers with rosewater but as we’d had barfis flavoured with that at lunchtime, this time it was orange-flower water and really, it’s hard to decide which version is more ambrosial.—No. Don’t. Tears. I’m warning you!
    Bloody Jack told her he’d died and gone to heaven. It does make you feel like that, but I could cheerfully have choked him. And her—yep.

Culinary note by Cassie Babbage
You can follow the muddled history of Oeufs à la neige and Floating Island in the following cookery books. Confusion of the two recipes is an Anglo-American phenomenon which seems to have arisen in the early 20th century. I found it characterised both American and Colonial cookery books. Both recipes consist of a custard base. Oeufs à la neige, as in Mrs Beeton’s classic recipe, features puffy white spoonfuls of cooked egg white floating on the custard, while a Floating Island or Ile flottante should be one large mountainous shape sitting in a pool of the custard.

1815 (published 1979) “Floating Island” [after Carême?], in Grigson, Jane, Food with the famous. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1981, ©1979.
    (One large island built of layers of a light sponge cake, set in a syllabub rather than a custard.)

1861Snow Eggs, or Oeufs à la Neige”, in Beeton, Isabella. The book of household management. [London?], S. O. Beeton, 1861.
    (This is the classic recipe.)

1877 (published 1979) Oeufs à la neige” [purportedly after Zola’s Gervaise’s “Oeufs à la neige” in L’assommoir, 1877] in Grigson, Jane, Food with the famous. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1981, ©1979.
    (A version of the classic recipe. Not as good as Mrs Beeton’s!)

1908 Belgian Eggsin 365 foreign dishes : a foreign dish for every day in the year. Philadelphia, G.W. Jacobs & Co., [1908]
    (In spite of the strange name, a simply-written version of the classic Oeufs à la neige.)

1914 “Floating Island”, in Gurney, Lydia Maria. The things mother used to make : a collection of old time recipes, some nearly one hundred years old and never published before. New York, Frank A. Arnold, 1914.
    (This is not a single large island, but Oeufs à la neige, in less detail but very similar to Mrs Beeton’s recipe.)

1949?Floating Island”, in Congregational and Baptist Churches of South Australia. Green and gold cookery book : containing many good and proved recipes. 15th ed., rev. Adelaide [S. Aust.], R.M. Osborne, ca. 1949.
    (Spoonfuls of egg white on top of a custard: again, Oeufs à la neige.)

1952?Floating Islandin South Australian Country Women's Association. Calendar of puddings : a pudding a day for the whole year. [5th ed.] [Adelaide, S. Aust.], South Australian Country Women's Association, [1952?]
    (Combines 2 ideas, in that it is a single steamed pudding of egg whites with a caramel, set in a sea of custard.)

1963 (1st published 1914) “Ile Flottantein Saulnier, Louis. Le répertoire de la cuisine. London, Jaeggi, [1963] (originally published 1914)
    (A classic Floating Island: one large mountain of split biscuits de Savoie, remoulded, sitting in a sea of custard. The Répertoire does not give basic instructions for Oeufs à la neige but lists two variants, “moulés” and “Réjane”, both based on spoonfuls of egg white.)

2011Oeufs à la neigein Le club des gastronomes [website]
    (As one would expect of a French website, this is the classic recipe: undecorated, cooked spoonfuls of egg white floating in a sea of a simple custard.)

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