a bag of shallots

Every christmas we had the same stuff: a massive mutant turkey, a boned ham joint, brussels sprouts cooked close to mush, each one with a little cross at it’s base, roast and boiled potatoes, stuffing, gravy, the whole nine yards. I wasn’t a fan of christmas dinner, but boxing day lunch was something that I did like because most of that stuff made a reappearance, just done over into bubble and squeak, with pickles.

You can’t make an old fashioned west midlands pickle overnight so in October, my mother would get a monster string bag of shallots and spend a horrible hour or so skinning and topping and tailing them before dunking them in brine to soak overnight. I got lassooed into this as I got older, the worst job in the kitchen. The next day she’d boil up some vinegar with allspice and peppercorns and bay leaves to make a vile gas that seemed to pull all of the oxygen out of the air. This was then poured over the shallots which were packed into an old Heinz Ketchup catering jar which would then sit in the dark somewhere going, slightly soft, until Boxing Day.

So until 1979 the bag of shallots always meant that it was about a month until fireworks night with jacket potatoes that had crisp skin and the sausages were black on one side because of the fire. Soon I would be able to swap tea at breakfast for cacao and that could only mean that the selection box and Beano annual combo wouldn’t follow all that long after. Shallots were the hurdle you had to get over in order to get to the good stuff.

On October 1st 1979, when I got home I knew my mother was skinning shallots because farty onion smell was seeping out of the front door even before I got my key into the lock. I hoped she’d done most of the job because I wasn’t in the mood to help anybody do anything at all because I’d been in the middle of something exciting that day because I’d been part of the huge crowd on the street watching Woolworths in Worcester burning down.

It was lunchtime and me and my new friend Fi had gone looking for something to eat that wasn’t a chip butty in the canteen. There was a good whole food cafe round the back of Foregate Street and I am guessing we were on our way there. Instead, we stopped in front of Woolworths because the blaze was really taking hold. There were some police pushing the gathering crowd of rubber neckers back into a semi circle cordon from where we watched people still leaving the shop, in a calm but determined manner. That was until a pane of glass fell from a couple of storeys above and damn near sliced a woman in two. I swear it was like that scene in the Omen, where Patrick Troughton gets skewered by the lightning rod, except she got out. After that, the mood was up a notch, the panic was palpable and I thought it was fucking exciting.

So I got home and wanted to tell everybody about this extraordinary event, but nobody was really interested. Like I said, mother was spoiling shallots, my brothers were watching TV or noodling about on guitars or percussion and my father was upstairs getting ready to go out for a beer with a new colleague from his new job. I felt kind of cheated and disgruntled. Something exciting, newsworthy, was happening and here in my small town nobody really cared. It made me all the more keen to get away from there. Art school wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, nothing was what I thought it was going to be. Though I’m not sure what I really expected. I was pretty fresh out of usual school, but beyond not having to wear a uniform and being allowed to smoke in the canteen, there was not an awful lot of difference between being at college or at class. I had expected my new life to be a more radically, palpably different, without any real idea of what that difference would actually be.

I can’t help wondering what I had for dinner that evening. I was a vegetarian then on the more extreme end where I wouldn’t wear leather, so that meant once the weather got bad, I had to go everywhere in wellies and carry pumps, I really was a pious knob. My mother usually prepared something for the family, but if I wanted a meatless option, then I was out of luck. I’m quite proud of her for that. I don’t know why I think about that missing meal.

At some point my father came downstairs. He was wearing a dark blue suit. He was waiting to be picked up. I don’t know why I was in the hallway, or even if I was in the hallway, but I definitely saw him. I do remember him standing at the door in a strange way that I’d never seen before. He looked as if he had a great sack of something wet and heavy on his back that he’d been carrying for a very long time. Then the door bell went and he, well he unfurled, he stood straight, he went from my height, which was about 5’4″ to 6’0″. He assumed something amazing, an entire body mask, opened the door, greeted his new colleague and left the shallot soaked house.