Thoughts

December 10th, 2000.

It was 7.30am on a Sunday and the phone rang, a shrill silence-shatterer. My then-husband wandered off to answer it and I can remember lying there, staring up at the bedroom ceiling, just steeling myself. Because you just *know* when the phone rings at that time on a Sunday it’s one of two things: it’s a spam call, or it’s bad news.

Oddly, when he came back into the room, somber and serious-faced, my instinct was that my grandmother had passed away. She was in her nineties at that point and had been in decline for a while. My mother, while never in the best of health, didn’t even cross my mind.

There was no easy way for him to break the news to me of what had happened and so he told me straight. Shot from the hip. I’ll be forever grateful to him for it: he didn’t wrap it up, he just fired those seven words in quick succession, his own shock evident in his eyes at the time.

Seven words. That was all it took to completely upend my world, to shake my belief in everything.

Seven words.

“It’s your mum. She’s collapsed and died.”

As soon as the last syllable slid from his lips, my body went into what I can only describe as Extreme Coping mode. I got out of bed. “I need to call my dad back,” I informed him. “Can you get The Child out and ready, we will have to drive down today.” I called my dad back. He answered the phone from across the other side of the country, five hours or more away and he sounded so tired and sad.

“I love you,” I said when he answered. It was the first time I can remember saying it to him with such bluntness, such utter certainty and such conviction. He gave me the details: mum had suffered what the paramedics were fairly sure had been a massive heart attack at about 3am and had passed away in my dad’s arms despite efforts to resuscitate. It was quick, he reassured me. He also said that he’d wanted to call me straight away, but my brother had stopped him, saying it would be better to let us have sleep so we would be safe driving down.

I told him we would be there just as soon as we could be, then hung up.

An infinite period of time passed. A period of time that was perhaps five, maybe six seconds. We’re talking 22 years ago and yet I can still quite clearly remember those moments. I can remember walking into the living room. I can remember the feeling of utter, awful loss. I can remember actually crying out, like they do in books, ‘not my mummy’.

And that was it. It looks pitiful written down, but there was real, heart-felt emotion behind it.

Then I turned my mind to the important business of dealing with everything that was suddenly going to be thrown at me. I stood in the shower. I gave my son his breakfast. I laughed and gurgled along with him. I sat in the car as we drove south, an awkward silence between us. He didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what I needed to hear. We stopped on the M1 halfway down and I can remember him pushing a sandwich in front of me and gently telling me I needed to eat.

“Yeah,” I said.

I didn’t eat.

When we got to my dad’s house, I hugged him for the longest time. I soaked up his grief like some kind of sponge. I took my brother’s grief as well. And by this point, I hadn’t shed a single tear. I remember, at some point, going up the road to see my mum’s friend who welcomed me with her tears and sorrow. I soaked that up, too. Then she said something very simple, very sweet and which I have carried with me every day since mum died.

Seven words.

“She was a kind woman, your mum.”

Yes. Yes, she was. She was kind and she was thoughtful and she was funny and she was the buffer that stood between teenage me (a hormonal monster) and my dad (politically diametrically opposed to me in every way) and stopped us from actually killing one another. How was life going to go on without her? I can clearly remember going into town for some reason or other with dad, sitting in a coffee shop and watching people going about their Christmas shopping business like nothing had happened.

Don’t you know the news? I wanted to scream. Haven’t you heard?

And I realised with the cold shock of water to the face, that life goes on.

The funeral came and went. It was so close to Christmas – 21st December – that we decided we’d have a Christmas carol instead of a hymn, because mum loved carols. Silent Night will never be the same for me. After the funeral, a friend came to me and said the fact I stood so straight and without tears throughout had been the thing that made her cry the most.

I soaked that up as well. For a good couple of years, I didn’t release all that pent-up grief and when it finally burst, it was a relief. Because I’d been afraid there was something wrong with me. How was it I could cope and manage all this tragedy without emotion? Was I too hard?

All of which is preamble to today. HM the Queen’s passing is a sad thing, certainly. Yes, she was born into a life of wealth and privilege. Yes, there are all sorts of political reasons for not giving a stuff. I am sorry for her family on her loss: losing a beloved relative is an awful thing. But I cannot for the life of me fathom out the Queue.

The Queue, in case you’ve somehow missed this bit of news, is perhaps the single most quintessentially British thing to emerge in years. Even before HMQ was settled at the Palace of Westminster in her lead-lined, solid oak coffin (pity the pallbearers), the Queue began. People pouring from all over the UK – and apparently the world – to stand in line for an opportunity to walk past the coffin, perhaps incline their heads respectfully, or curtsey, or whatever – and then go on with their day. Queuing is a British pastime. The world knows that as a nation, we love nothing more than an orderly queue.

But this Queue (capital letter justified) is – at time of writing this – five miles long. Five miles. The estimated wait time is at least eleven and a half hours. HMQ’s lying-in-state is being live streamed and out of some sort of morbid curiosity, I switched it on. A seemingly endless sea of (mostly middle-aged, white) faces filing past. The silence is deafening in this stream. The little nods of respect are strangely touching. I saw one woman blow a kiss to the coffin.

I’ve never really understood this thing people have of being overwhelmed with grief due to the death of someone they’ve likely never met. In this instance, I have concluded that the end result of the Queue has become secondary to the experience of being in the Queue; being part of this utterly, utterly weird piece of history. According to some news reports, people are travelling to look at the Queue. There is a Queue for the Queue. It’s… bizarre.

There’s no real conclusion to this brain dump. My feelings on the monarchy are for me to keep to myself. I feel sadness for those who have lost a beloved mother, grandmother, aunt… but just like that December day so long ago, life goes on.

What I will say, though, is this.

If you have a family member you love, who you’ve maybe not called for a while, or spoken to in a while – particularly if they are aging – then take those five minutes to get in touch. Never forget that every time you speak to someone, it might be the last chance you have. Cherish every precious moment you have with the people you love and never, ever forget to tell them you love them.

Pay your respects while they’re still living and can appreciate it.

Love you all.

Back to the Seventies

Welcome to December! Never mind autumn, that literary season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Let’s talk about December, the seasons of… dark mornings, gloomy days and fairy lights gleaming through the grey to bring that sprinkle of joy at the end. It also happens to be the birthday month for both me and Himself (mine is 17th, his is the 20th). When this month’s baking box arrived with its glorious 1970’s offering of a Black Forest Gateau, it took us approximately fifteen seconds to decide that would be our joint birthday cake.

Off he went to do the shopping for the bits needed. Therein lies comedy of errors part one, but more of that shortly. Let’s talk about Black Forest Gateau a little bit, shall we? Check out this Wikipedia definition.

Black Forest gâteau or Black Forest cake is a chocolate sponge cake with a rich cherry filling based on the German dessert Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, literally “Black Forest Cherry-torte”.

The article then goes on to explain that under German law, it MUST have Kirsch to be called a Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte. This makes me sad, because there is no Kirsch in the finished product. Then I stop being sad, because it’s a chocolate and cherry cake and how can that even be wrong?

Anyway.

On this misty, moisty Saturday morning, my cat decided that 7.30am was a perfect time to drag me from my warm cocoon, where I was having dreams about Henry Cavill in the Witcher (we were binging season two the previous evening. These were good dreams. My cat and I are presently not on speaking terms). I left Himself sleeping and came downstairs to feed the cat. Once awake, I’m always awake, so what else do people do on a Saturday morning at 8am but make cherry jam for a cake.

Frozen cherries, introduced to sugar and a splash of water… and wait.

And wait.

Boil, cherries. Boil, I say!

Then, to break the monotony, wait a bit more. It was my clever strategy to make the jam early so it had time to set. This part of my plan worked brilliantly. The cherries bubbled away contentedly, never once threatening to turn my stove top into a chaotic murder scene and I left the pan to one side to… en-jamify? Bejam (wait, wasn’t that an actual shop in the 1970s?)… jamulate? What is the right verb for something becoming jam? Oh. Set. What a dull option.

Moving onto the batter. Usual state of affairs here: butter, sugar, eggs, dry bits. Bash it all together and you get batter enough for three tins. Two were the same size. The third one was just ever so slightly bigger, but eh. I’m a rogue. But they looked passingly acceptable pre-oven.

See the jam in the background trying to be a jammy hero?

What I will say about this bake is that I’m fairly certain it used every bowl, pan and spoon I own. Because once the cakes were baked – and let’s just take a moment to appreciate how deliciously glorious they looked… mostly… (also check out that beauty in the background – these are Baked In’s new Cookie Jars, and they are stupendously pretty – see them here as part of the cooking kits range).

There were the ones in the same size tins. Not shown: The Leaning Tower of Cake PIsa on the other side of the room.

Then came the fun that was making a) ganache; and b) the whipped cream for the filling. Himself’s trip to the shop highlighted a gap in his understanding of cream and it wasn’t until I took it out of the fridge that I discovered he’d bought extra thick double cream. By ‘extra thick’, we are talking clotted cream levels of rigidity. Do not overwhip, cheerfully stated the instructions and I stared between them and the cream in some sort of dairy-based paralysis. In the end, I just attacked it with a whisk and hoped. It sort of worked. I count ‘sort of worked’ as a win.

Constructing the cake though, that was actually genuinely fun and it all felt so 1970’s that I should have been wearing roller skates, a kipper tie and listening to ABBA. I honestly thought for a moment I might have opened the fridge to find a prawn cocktail manifesting in there. Cake. Cream. Jam. Cake. Cream. Jam. Lop-sided cake. Ganache. Remaining cream. Cherry liquid. ‘Swirled’. (Or at least manhandled with a skewer). Decorated with chocolate curls.

And what do you know… this happened.

Let us overlook the bit where I forgot to dust it with icing sugar. Nothing to see here, move along.

So there we have it, folks. The Black Forest Gateau birthday cake for two children born in the 1970’s feels weirdly appropriate. All in all, a brilliant cake to make, super-easy and weirdly rewarding.

The washing up? Less so.

For now though, have a splendid seasonal holiday of choice, enjoy your baking fun times and see you on the other side for what can only be a better 2022.

Right?

It’s All About That Base

The new kitchen is settling in nicely. I’m starting to appreciate the nuances of my new oven, still marvelling over the fact that I can fit my roasting tin in sideways and generally finding that being in the kitchen makes me even happier than I was before I replaced units that were basically older than Methuselah. So when this month’s box arrived, I was well prepared for the fun and challenges ahead. Little did I anticipate the tragedy at the end of it all… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Note: Pecans, not Toucans. Toucans are birds. These are not birds.

I am a great fan of pecan pie, I freely admit it. It took all my self-control not to eat the pecans straight out of the bag before I even started baking. But I managed to remain focused and began the first all-important job of creating brown butter for the base.

I feel we need an aside here. How did someone discover that by staring at a pan of melted butter for a specific amount of time produced something that is almost but entirely not unlike the starting product, only COMPLETELY DIFFERENT at the same time? Was it a happy accident? That’s got to be it, hasn’t it? A chef, at some point in the past left the butter on the stove for too long while he popped out back for a crafty smoke or something, then said ‘uh, this is a new creation, I shall call it Brown Butter, for lo! It is brown and verily, t’is also butter…” and thus it came to be.

I digress. It happens.

This is butter. It is extremely boring to watch and in no way offers any form of entertainment.
This, however, is its demonic counterpart, brown butter which is bizarrely exciting. I kept shouting OH MY GOD LOOK, BROWN BITS until my husband quietly shut the door.

Butter excitement level sixteen duly reached, I moved on to adding the other ingredients, mixed it all up, chucked in into the tin and stared through the door of my eve-level oven for a while. I was harbouring a deep, deep suspicion that what would emerge, forty minutes or so from that point would be either:-

a) Horrendously wrong; or
b) Outstanding.

I am proud to announce it was the latter and this picture is so glorious, its content so screen-lickingly delicious that it is worthy of presentation without comment. Imagine some soothing background music is playing while you look at it.

Words would render this worthless.

Onward then, to the joy of the topping! Melting more butter (fortunately not to heart-racing levels of excitement this time), then adding the sugar mixture from the bag to produce what can only be best described as sugar napalm. The ‘roughly chopped’ pecans were added to this (sidebar: ‘roughly chopped’ in this instance involved my setting about the innocent nuts with a rolling pin whilst still in their bag. Eh. It worked). Entire mixture was set aside to cool a little and looked very much like Squirrel Nutkin had been out the night before on the booze with Peter Rabbit (don’t judge them, Mrs Tiggywinkle is known to be far worse) and his stomach had rebelled. But it smelled phenomenal.

Squirrel Nutkin needs the Resolve, STAT.

So I moved onto the final part. Spread the topping over the base, then melt the white chocolate in the microwave, put it into the piping bag and then drizzle onto the finished bake.

So simple, right?

I’m going to break that sentence down a little and analyse it so that I can share with you what I shall call ‘Topping: A Tragedy In Three Acts’.

Act One: Edges Are For Losers

In this act, there was comedy as I realised there was not quite enough of the pecan napalm to cover the entirety of the base, but you know what? It didn’t matter. It was enough. So despite a few naked bits on my bake, I girded my loins and moved onto part two.

Act Two: Death and Loss

‘Put the white chocolate into the microwave in ten second bursts, stirring between each burst until melted’. Ten seconds. Stir. Twenty seconds. Stir… ooh, it’s melting. Twenty two seconds… uh, pretty sure that the microwave shouldn’t make fizzing noises and melted chocolate rarely smells like burning electrics in my experience, hello power switch…

Yes, the microwave had run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. The only remaining item from the Kitchen of the Before Times had decided to go toes up during this final, critical phase, leaving me with a half-melted bowl of chocolate chips. I improvised using some water boiled in the kettle and sitting my small bowl in a larger bowl like some kind of weird baking Russian Doll thing, but it wasn’t good enough.

Act Three: Self-Flagellation (or ‘I Don’t Do Piping Well’)

So there I was. Half-melted chocolate, frantically being scooped into a piping bag. It wasn’t melted enough and my attempt at ‘in a circular motion, drizzle over the base’ became a desperate race against time before the dratted stuff solidified again. Thus, we ended with more of a Pollock than a da Vinci, but hey. This blog was always going to be warts and all, so here’s the horror of what happened.

Quiet in the cheap seats.

Regardless of the nightmares, the end product was nothing short of utterly delicious. I meant to take a photo of a singular piece to share with you, but I mostly ate it first. But here you are anyway. This bake may well have surpassed the Brookies for me. I can’t emphasise enough how delicious the base is. Would I make it again? Yes. Absolutely. So until the next bake… enjoy!

OMNOMNOM

Buttery Biscuit Base!

In Which Some Things Go Well. Others… less so.

So… here we are again, this time looking at one of my Baked In cake options. This wasn’t the mystery monthly box for October (I’m scared of that one), but a re-make of a previous box which I enjoyed so much the first time, I did it again. Welcome to the grand Brookie bake.

As ever, there’s always a ridiculous thrill on opening the box and seeing your ingredients so nicely packaged and laid out. One of the things I genuinely love about these boxes is the extreme lack of waste (both in terms of ingredients and in the eating of what’s left).

Things! Stuff! Stuff! Things!

So off we go. This is a lovely bake: a soft, chewy brownie on a chocolate chip cookie base and I remember it as being delightfully easy to make (and unfortunately easy to eat as well – they’re bordering on the obscene). Straight into weighing the butter for the Buttery Biscuit Base. 110g, says the recipe card. Well, would you believe it? This is a good sign, right?

It photographed appallingly, because FML, but it’s exactly 110g on just two guesses.

Add sugar. Cream sugar/butter together. Pause for thought and wonder which genius it was who discovered that these two unlikely ingredients, smashed together, produced what is indubitably the single most delicious by-product of baking. Don’t pretend you’ve never tried the sugar/butter mix, I know you’re fibbing. Egg, added. Flour, added. Chocolate chips added. We’re on a roll, guys. Everything is going 100% according to plan. Splat mixture into tin and use my shiny, brand-new offset spatula to spread into the tin before putting it into the fridge to chill while I make the brownie.

Whole process interrupted by my contemplating of the fact that an offset spatula is, without a doubt, the thing that I’ve been missing all my baking life. I’ve frequently wondered why people wax lyrical about the virtues of this handy little utensil and now I know why.

BUTTERY BISCUIT BASE BEAUTIFULLY BREAD… Uh.. spread.

Then comes the joy of making the brownie mix and I just don’t even care. Some of this fell out of the bowl into my mouth before it ended up on the chilled biscuit base. It was a terrible catastrophe and there’s so much regret. So much.*

*this may be a small lie.

No caption required.

Then, into the oven with it for between 35-55 minutes (turned out that 42 was perfect in my oven) and remove to sit for a while in the tin before stripping it of its papery coat and leaving it to cool fully on the side. We (Himself and me) stood in the kitchen and admired it for a while. “Are they ready?” The hopeful question was dismissed with the stern announcement that no, there was still white chocolate drizzle to be done and he moped sadly out of the kitchen, a man robbed of his chocolately joy.

This is the point at which things didn’t QUITE go to plan. This is nobody’s fault but mine. Don’t blame it on the Baked In, don’t blame it on the chocolate, don’t blame it on impatience, blame it on the boogie. Actually, impatience. Blame it on that, because I couldn’t be bothered to let the white chocolate melt properly. Thus, exit drizzle stage right, pursued by bear and enter the world of the white chocolate splat.

The moons of Jupiter were in my eyes.

Fear not, with assistance from my now indispensable sidekick, the Offset Spatula Kid, I managed to get something passably presentable – and I mean, just look at it in its completed glory. Note: chef’s privilege is the right to claim the first corner piece as your very, very own.

I mean…

The Brookie bake is really a very simple one – and the results it yields are nothing short of utterly delicious. I’m glad I decided to go for it again, but I fear my waistline may want to have words with my willingness to make them again!

Tune in next time when I may attempt the terror that is the Toffee Apple Drip Cake…

We’re Running Out of Thyme, Marty!

Well, we aren’t actually, but it was too good a title pun to *not* use. Deal with it.

So I decided my new kitchen has been in-situ long enough for me to make one of my Baked In boxes, but I didn’t have fresh ingredients for any of the cakes. So I went for the bread that’s been waiting for me – Olive and Thyme Loaf. As always, the first joy comes from opening the box. These little blue boxes of utter joy are what you get by joining the Baked In Bread Baking Club. Lookit! Look at those lovely neat little bags of STUFF. And… and… THINGS! You may be asking yourself ‘but where is Bag 5, Sarah?’ I asked myself that very thing. Bag 5 had become stuck to a leaflet in the box and I’d hidden it. But it didn’t get far, the sticky little customer and rejoined its companions in packaging heaven. Want a monthly box of your own like this? Check it out RIGHT HERE (RIGHT NOW).

Hey, Bag 6, what the devil are YOU? Just killing thyme. Also, you’re nothing compared to the suspicious thing that is bag 5.

There’s something wickedly enjoyable about looking at all these little beautifully numbered packets, so off we go! Bag 1 and 2 – bread flour. Dump into bowl. Add bag 3 – sugar and salt, bag 4 – yeast. So far so bread. Then we add bag 5. Let’s consider bag 5 for just a moment, shall we? Bag 5 is a substitute. It’s dried black olive granules instead of dried green olive granules (the horror). Or… IS IT?

Bag 5 is looking suspiciously like something that might get me written up at the roadside if I was caught with it.

Open bag 5. Sniff curiously. It’s olives. Pitch into bowl, add bag 6 (dried thyme) and stir about gleefully to combine. Add a tablespoon of oil. Tablespoon. Tablespoon? Oh yeah. New kitchen, thrown all old measuring things away, waiting for new ones to arrive in pack of Giant Kitchen Tat that’s on its way. Measure 15ml of oil. Added water, combined until I had a dough. A tacky dough, says the instructions, but who am I to question this dough’s lifestyle choices? Anyway, even with all the water combined, my dough isn’t particularly tacky, not so much. So in a moment that probably caused Paul Hollywood to suck in air over his teeth and shake his head disapprovingly, I went for it anyway. Eh. It’s combined. It’ll be FINE.

Tip dough out onto clean, floured surface.

I consider my newly installed kitchen worktops and for just a moment, am delighted that I have the house to myself for this venture. The Husband might well have a cardiac arrest at the thought of what I am about to do to these shiny new sufaces.

I am not even exaggerating: these worktops aren’t even a week old at this point. But in true Baked In Crusader style, I GO FOR IT!

OH MY GOD MY NEW WORKTOPS OH MY GOD

I knead. I knead. I KNEAD. Lawks, and probably a-mercy, this dough is a tough customer. It’s like trying to knead a steel bar. But eventually I find some give and end up with a silky smooth, entirely non-tacky ball of dough which I sit in its clean, oiled bowl to prove for the requisite time of 60-90 minutes. I give it 90 minutes because I can. It sits there in the kitchen, quietly covered with its tea towel. I resist peeking. Will it rise? Will it at least double in size? Enjoy the power of the written word, dear reader, because I can take you to exactly 90 minutes later without missing a beat.

Arrr, Cap’n, thar she blows!

Dough is punched a couple of times (question: does anybody else visualise the face of someone they don’t like when they knock back proved dough? Or is that just me?) and shaped into a ball of olivey-thymey doughy goodness to sit for another 25 minutes until I make my attempt to make it look just like the pre-oven image in the instructions. Now, I may be bragging just a little bit here, but look at this. THIS is picture perfect. Now, though, it gets to go in the oven for 40-45 minutes. The new oven. That I am still getting used to. But look at this pre-oven comparison shot. Look at it several times, because 40-45 minutes is a while. Back shortly.

Which is the image, which is the real thing? One thing is for sure, one of those two will taste better after being baked than the other.

And so the alarm sounds. Let’s approach the oven with extreme caution and see what we see, shall we? How has my new oven taken to its bready christening? Well, judge for yourself:-

CHECK IT AAAAAAAAAART.

WELL.

It’s the first thing to come out of my new oven that didn’t start life out as the pizza the Husband brought home on Sunday. The first thing I have baked for myself. And when it’s cooled, I will no doubt enjoy eating it! Like all the bread kits to date, this one was super-easy to make, the instructions were crystal clear and I will also add that the loaf is cooling on one of the new stackable wire racks I got from Baked In with my well-earned Brownie Points.

Tune in next time for Probably Cake and Likely Less Success!

Resurrection

Well, I’ve been very quiet over here for a very long time. So I figured the time was ripe to stir the dregs at the bottom of the blogging pot and produce a delicious word stew. Or maybe a small, faintly tasteless snack.

I could wax lyrical for ages about the state of the world over the past eighteen months, but I’m pretty comfortable that topic has been done to absolute death and you do not need me to start blathering on about the pandemic, or the associated awfulness that has gone hand-in-hand with it. As you may (or may not, I’m not the boss of you) remember, I work for the NHS and am acutely aware of the impact the whole thing has had on the system and the people who work within it. Suffice to say, tough times for all and we aren’t out of it yet.

I am avoiding discussing it because the whole thing leans too closely into politics, conspiracy theorists and that collective group of utter crazies we call the ‘British Public’ – three topics that send me off into a state of ranting, so let’s avoid that and keep the blood pressure down, shall we?

Let’s start with what’s changed over the last couple of years.

The Son finished university, somehow completing his final year in the middle of the pandemic and emerging, blinking into the sunlight with a 2:1 Bachelor of Engineering degree in Biomedical Engineering. To say I was proud is the ultimate understatement. That he got such a good result under some pretty weird and unexpected conditions is nothing short of spectacular. It also means he has decided not to move back home and so my nest has remained empty since the day I drove him down to Uni in 2018. I’ve gotten used to it more now so it’s easier. I still miss him every day and his former bedroom has become a waste ground of ‘things we need to put in the loft but haven’t got that far’ yet.

Work remains work. Nothing has changed for me on that front, although I am more confident with the more complex parts of my role.

The Husband goes from strength to strength in his post-retail working life. Within a year of him starting what was basically a call centre job, he was identified as Someone Who Knows Their Stuff and has climbed the corporate ladder with an alacrity that is nothing short of startling. It also allows me to say ‘I told you so’ when he reflects on how glad he is to have left retail.

There have been films. We have even been to the cinema a few times once restrictions were lifted enough to allow us to do this. There have been TV shows. There have been computer games. Overwatch still makes me furious, Apex still makes me laugh… to a certain extent, because I live my life as a hermit, things don’t feel *massively* different to how they did before we weren’t allowed to go anywhere. The difference, I guess, is that in the Before Times, I could CHOOSE not to go anywhere. Now I feel annoyed that those decisions are taken from me.

What I have done a lot more of since lockdown, along with just about everyone else, has been baking. I subscribed to the Baked In baking club and it’s been one of the best decisions I ever made. There’s something inherently joyful about that letterbox-sized parcel hitting my doormat once a month without knowing what exciting contents it is going to contain. The quality of the ingredients is first rate, the recipes are nothing short of endlessly delicious and the community is an utter joy. If you’re so inclined, I suggest checking it out here! Tell them I sent you. That link sort of does that anyway. But you know what I mean.

Combined with the fact that I have just had my kitchen ripped out and replaced (a mammoth task that has given enormous stress, but resulted in what is frankly, a room I now love to be in instead of the small corridor through which I hurried to the bathroom), I am thinking of resurrecting my blog to do more stuff about Baked In. I think it’d be fun to do blow-by-blow accounts of my occasionally ridiculous Adventures in Baking. I have a backlog of delicious treats to engage in at the moment:-

  • Jaffa Orange Cake
  • Chocolate Brookies (brownies with a cookie base – have done these before and they are amazing).
  • Mocha Swiss Roll (another one I’ve done previously and ordered again because… coffee. Chocolate. What’s not to like?)
  • Toffee Apple Drip Cake (see picture below. This one has caused chaos in the Baked In Community. When is too soon to take your toffee off the heat? When should you pour it on the cake for Optimal Drip? I mean, I’m that impatient that I fear I would end up with a lava-like puddle on a plate).
  • Olive and Thyme Bread
Heads-up. My cake will *NOT* look like this. There will be a lot more drip and a lot less cake is my prediction.

That’s a lot of cake.

Is it too much cake?

Is there such a *thing* as too much cake?

Discuss.

Dragon of the South Wind

“Saké!”

The call came from the corner table. It was the most private table in the bar, thoughtfully set back from the rest of the tables and offering a reasonable air of privacy. It was the kind of table where Deals, capital ‘D’ were clinched. It was the kind of table where dark plans were hatched, where arguments were born – and sometimes died. By design, it was set in deep shadow and only the glittering eyes of its occupant could be seen. The air of deep brooding emanating from the table was palpable.

It was as though, the barkeep mused, a permanent cloud hung just above the head of its occupier. If that cloud of bitterness and rage had been capable of raining on the man below, or of creating its own thunderstorm, the barkeep posited that it might well have done so.

The barkeep hesitated for a moment or two before reaching for a freshly warmed bottle of sake. He set it on a tray with a new cup and the waitress took it without a word, delivering it to the man in the corner.

There was a grunt of thanks, the clink of coins hitting the table and the guest crawled into the new bottle. The waitress leaned closer and murmured something inaudible. The man glanced up sharply, then shook his head and reached out to touch the back of her hand with his own. It was a gentle gesture; a show of gratitude. The silent tableau spoke volumes.

The customer, the barkeep observed, had been drinking steadily since his arrival barely an hour previously and by now must be quite inebriated, or must have the constitution of an ox.

Or a dragon.

Discomfited, the barkeep shook the words out of his head. He had recognised the man on arrival: even despite the poorly thought-out hood that had been drawn up to cover his face – poorly at that – had failed to hide the familiar features of a Shimada. The glance had been too brief to be totally sure, but the eyes, the brow… he knew them.

Word from those in the know, those from the family’s inner circle, had been conflicting. One brother was dead, both brothers were dead, one had chosen exile, one had been expelled by a raging father, nobody knew the truth.

The man in the corner knew the truth. Perhaps with more saké in him, he might be prepared to reveal what that was. The truth was important currency in Hanamura, and Sojiro Shimada might well be prepared to pay handsomely for the word. The inn might be small fry in the vast ocean of the Shimada holdings, on the edges geographically, but its owner was nonetheless loyal to his masters.

Another hour passed and the saké bottle was upended many more times. The barkeep went about his business, which admittedly was not very much. The little bar did not see much in the way of footfall, but was a useful and out of the way place where meetings happened, occasionally violently and sometimes fatally. It was good enough – and that, in and of itself, was good enough. The barkeep tended his bar, cleared away the debris left in the wake of the Shimada clan and looked forward to a day when he could live a quiet life.

The door opened, briefly letting in a gust of the sweet spring air. It was heady with the scent of the cherry blossoms and the barkeep glanced over at the corner, hearing the deep inhalation of a man taking simple pleasure in the aroma. It was worth it: the clean scented air was welcome and pleasant. The barkeep noted that shadows were lengthening and the day was drawing to a close.

He also noted other new details. The newcomer was dressed in a sharply tailored dark suit that did little to hide his bulk and musculature. Everything about him screamed ‘henchman’. His parents may have even christened him Henchman. He was that sort. The barkeep further noted that the line of the suit was definitely ruined by the bulky outline of the sidearm strapped to its shoulder holster beneath the jacket.

The new arrival was carrying a long bag, free of design or logo and from behind dark glasses, he looked around the bar. His eyes fixed on the figure in the corner and then turned to the barkeep.

“Close up,” he said and there was threat in the two syllables. “No more customers. Then find work in the cellar or out the back. Understand?”

The barkeep understood and although disappointment crept through him that he would not be able to listen in on the exchange, he was also rather fond of being alive. He produced another bottle of saké along with a spare cup and reluctantly set about the business of closing the bar. He ushered the waitress out the door early, he collected empty glasses and he bustled for as long as he could manage. The entire time, he felt the henchman’s hidden eyes on him.

“Done?” The henchman took up the offered bottle and cup. “Good. Now go.”

The man in the corner had not so much as looked up during this exchange but now he did, Seeing the barkeep leave, he pushed back his hood and stared up at the henchman from eyes that known no sleep for days. They were red-rimmed from grief and alcohol and several days of stubble graced the previously clean-shaven face. The young man’s hair, once his great vanity, hung limply in greasy strands that had been nowhere near a shower.

The henchman looked him over and shook his head. He set down the new bottle and squeezed into the seat opposite. “You look like death looks when it’s feeling particularly bad,” he observed artlessly. “Everyone’s looking for you, but frankly, I reckon they’d be disappointed if they found you.”

He sighed.

“You found me.” Despite how much he’d drunk, the man sounded remarkably sober.

“Yes, but then I knew where you’d be.” The man gestured at the empty sake bottles on the table. “At the bottom of a bottle.”

“Well done. Pour another.”

There was a long pause, then the henchman sighed again. “Fine,” he grumbled and upended the bottle into the other’s cup. He pushed it across the table and poured one for himself.

There was another long pause and then the henchman leaned forward on the table. Despite his resolve, the young man shrank back. It was a tiny movement, barely perceptible, but it was there. The henchman shook his head and started a quick-fire conversation, the kind he had shared with the other man all his life.

“We’ve been friends since we were children, Hanzo.”

“That was before.”

“You have nothing to fear from me.”

“That was before.”

Eyes locked, a silent war ensued. Hanzo, exhausted, grief-stricken and bereft of reason, was the first to look away. He’d never been the first to look away.

That was before.

The henchman, whose name as it so happened was Hayato and who had, indeed, been Hanzo’s friend since childhood clenched his jaw.

“I am not here to kill you, Hanzo.”

“Has my father put a contract out on my head yet?”

“It’s not formal, no. Not yet. It’s still too soon. However, I cannot lie. The reward is quite healthy. A man could have a comfortable retirement on a reward like that.” Their eyes met again. “Very healthy indeed. A man with a price like that on his head would do well to get extremely far away from Hanamura.” He pushed a sealed packet across the table and lifted the bag. “A man with a price like that on his head would need money to get out of the country and the means to defend himself against those who might seek to claim that reward.”

Hanzo stared at Hayato in silence for a few moments and then unzipped the bag. His hands closed around the familiar grip of the bow, neatly packed inside, its limbs not attached, its string carefully set in its own pouch waiting to be strung. He took out the riser for moment or two and hefted its weight, then he looked at his childhood friend.

“Why would you do this for me?”

“I told you, Hanzo. You are my friend. I have two sisters. You are the closest thing I ever had to a brother.”

It was the wrong choice of words. Hanzo’s face, momentarily showing vulnerability hardened again.

“And you have seen what becomes of my brothers, Hayato. You would be wise not to allow yourself to remain close to me.”

“I have no intention to remain close to you, Hanzo. Indeed, I plan to report that I checked this far afield and found nothing. In a moment, I am going to leave this bar and you are going to finish that drink and you are going to head west.”

“Is this money yours?”

“Yes.”

Hanzo shook his head and pushed the envelope back across the table. “I cannot accept this. I will take the bow and you have my thanks. But I will not be a thief as well as a murderer.”

“Consider it payback for the times you helped me out.” The two men hesitated, both hands on the package and they met one another’s gaze. “If it helps, consider it a bribe for you to leave. Vanish. Let the Shimada clan continue their work and allow you to fade into obscure memory. It is easier this way, my friend.”

Hanzo, born and bred to carry himself with the grace and dignity appropriate to a scion of the Shimada clan, seemed to deflate. He buried his head briefly in his hands and Hayato coughed loudly and perhaps a little over-theatrically to cover the stifled sob that came from his friend and former employer. The uncomfortable moment passed and Hanzo finally nodded.

“Very well,” he said, “but I will find a way to pay you back.”

“That is a simple thing. Live, Hanzo. I have no wish to see both of my friends dead. I do this for our friendship and I do this because it is what Genji would want.”

“I have not spoken his name since…”

“You will speak his name again. When you feel ready to.”

Hayato drained his cup and stood. “I must go,” he said. “And so must you.”

Hanzo stood and in a moment of rarely demonstrated emotion, clasped his friend’s forearm in a warrior’s grip of friendship

“Yes,” Hanzo said. “I must go.” He gathered up the envelope and dropped it into the bag with the bow. He shouldered the bag and without further hesitation moved across the bar. His hand paused on the door and he glanced over at Hayato one last time.

“Thank you,” he said. “The strength of the dragons go with you.” Then he pulled up his hood and slid out into the gloaming.

“And you, Hanzo Shimada,” murmured Hayato and rose to his feet. He put his dark glasses back on and turned, very slowly, to face the barkeep whose sudden movement from behind the bar had caught his attention.

“That was Hanzo Shimada!” A statement, not a question.

“Yes,” replied Hayato. “Yes, it was.” He reached into his jacket, a motion missed by the excited, nosey barkeep whose thirst for gossip had brought him to this, his very last afternoon on Earth. If Hanzo was to stand a chance of getting clear of his father’s extensive reach, then nobody must know where he had gone.

When the issue of the barkeep had been dealt with, Hayato paused.

Nobody must know where he had gone.

Nobody.

The gun fired for a second time and outside the inn, the cherry blossoms eddied on the winds, pulled ever onward in the wake of the dragon of the south winds.

Light and Shadow

The meeting was long and the meeting was arduous… and the meeting was, quite simply, boring. His father and those with whom he had been speaking had hardly taken in his attendance, although he had puffed a little with carefully controlled pride when his father had introduced him as ‘my eldest son and the man you will be dealing with in years to come’.

It had pleased Hanzo for two reasons. Firstly, the thought of running the Shimada Empire and having its far-reaching resources at his fingertips was pleasing. After all, had he not been groomed for such a future from the day he had been born?

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was the first time Hanzo could recall his father referring to him as a man. There was a simple pleasure to be had in that. Finally, he was recognised as a peer instead of being overlooked as a child.

“What do you think, Hanzo?”

So caught up was he in the moment of revelling in this, uncharacteristically having allowed his mind to wander, that it took a second or two to realise that the entire room was staring at him, patiently waiting for a response to a question he had entirely failed to hear being asked.

His father’s sloe-dark eyes narrowed at his son as Hanzo glanced from face to face. Panic threatened to surge, but he quashed it and without seemingly missing a beat. Getting this correct was important and he had long endured his father’s disappointment when he’d stepped wrong.

“A most excellent question,” he said and confidence dripped from every syllable. “And one which is certainly worthy of further consideration.” A subtle, sideways glance at his father whose head inclined in the tiniest of movements, and he continued, fiddling with his gold cuff-links in what he hoped seemed a confident and nonchalant manner. “In principle, certainly, I agree, but you respect that I must converse with my father before I am able to give a final opinion.”

I wonder, he mused silently, what exactly it was that I just agreed with?

The tension leached from the moment and the visitors nodded their approval at his tone. Hanzo shifted his glance again to his father and thought that for just a fraction of a second, the old man’s lips quirked upwards in a smile.

Such a thing, though, was a rare occurrence and had more likely been a trick of the light. Hanzo’s gaze turned briefly to the window and the darkening skies. There would be rain later and the rich, loamy smell of petrichor would be a welcome relief from the gruelling heat of summer. Aware that he was allowing his thoughts to wander again, he reluctantly dragged his mind back from the weather forecast and to the matter at hand.

Another hour of small talk ensued and this time, Hanzo paid closer attention. He learned much about the etiquette: how a simple conversation around planned vacations could be code for many underhanded dealings. He learned to respond without committing himself or the Shimada resources. He tuned himself fully into the negotiations and after a while, his father lapsed into comfortable silence and allowed his eldest boy to lead.

Afterwards, he grunted his approval in three words that brightened Hanzo’s day.

“You did well.”

Any elation Hanzo felt at that statement was crushed by the follow-up question.

“But where was your brother?”

Hanzo had looked in on his eighteen-year old brother first thing that morning to remind him that the meeting was taking place and the misshapen hump beneath the bed covers had grunted acknowledgement. But he had not shown. Torn between loyalty to his father and brother, Hanzo settled for the lie.

“He was feeling unwell this morning. I said he should rest. My apologies, Father. I should have explained before the meeting began. The fault is mine and…” Sojiro’s eyes narrowed as he studied his eldest son.

“What ails him?”

“It is nothing more than a headache, but you know how irritable Genji can be when he does not feel his best. I felt it more appropriate that he was not here than for him to be here and be disagreeable.”

He gave a well-practiced rueful laugh and hoped that his father bought the lie.

“Very well, Hanzo. I will leave management of your brother to you for now.” Sojiro Shimada rose from his seat and made his way to the door. He paused, with his fingers on the handle, before looking back at his son, no emotion readable in his expression.

“This lie does not become you, Hanzo. You must take him in hand before he becomes your ruin. Do you understand me?”

He had not fallen for it, not one bit. Hanzo should have known better than to believe he had gotten away with the deception. For the briefest moment, smouldering resentment built in his heart. But he let none of this show on his face. ‘Show the cold face, Hanzo’, his father had taught him. ‘Give away nothing. Show nothing. Feel nothing. It is the way we learn to cope with what we must sometimes do.’

Hanzo bowed his head in respect to his father and did not speak any word of apology. He would do as he had been tasked without question. He was the dutiful son and he played his role to perfection.

“Yes, Father. I understand you.”

Left alone with nothing more than his dark thoughts, Hanzo stewed in silence for a while. Over and over again his brother caused him problems and repeatedly he felt obliged to defend the younger Shimada. Every day brought some new humiliation or embarrassment and every day Hanzo’s patience and affections grew more stretched and threadbare.

“Why can you not just take it seriously, Genji?” He had asked his brother that question the previous night and the answer had bothered him.

“Because it’s your problem and not mine, Hanzo. You are the scion, I am the spare.”

It grieved Hanzo to hear his brother speak in such a way. From the moment the younger boy had come into the world, a squalling, pink-faced babe whose demands had wearied everyone around him, Hanzo had styled himself as the boy’s protector. He was the older brother. It was his duty to protect Genji. They were both Shimada clan. But it became apparent, as both boys grew, that they could not have been more different.

Deeply thoughtful, with a propensity for brooding, Hanzo was serious and while not without a sense of humour, less inclined to find the joy in life. Genji could not have been more different. Sunshine oozed from every pore, bringing light into the many shadows of Shimada Castle. Wherever Genji went, people followed in his wake, pulled along by his youthful exuberance and energy.

Everyone except Hanzo.

“You should try coming with me just once, brother,” Genji had suggested a few months previously. “You might actually enjoy yourself.”

Hanzo had tried, he truly had, but the sort of things that Genji found ‘fun’ did not stimulate him in the slightest. He couldn’t understand his brother’s simple joy at successfully retrieving pointless stuffed creatures that were somewhere between turnips and octopi from a machine’s claw, or relate to elated whoops of joy when he was able to enter his initials as a high score on a game machine. He couldn’t understand how drinking oneself into oblivion could constitute entertainment and, despite the acute knowledge that his own family dealt in any number of what could kindly be termed as ‘illegal substances’, he had no interest in partaking of them.

Genji partook. Genji partook with gusto and Hanzo, despite his best efforts, could see quite clearly where this downward spiral would lead. The thought of it kept him awake at night. He’d tried reason. He’d tried anger. He’d tried gentle persuasion, but it seemed that no matter what he did, Genji would do whatever he wished, whenever he wished and of more immediate concern to Sojiro Shimada, with whomever he wished.

The matter of appropriate marriages had been raised recently, now that Hanzo was certainly of an age and that Genji would not be far behind. Neither Shimada brother was comfortable with the thought of their romantic futures being chosen for them, but neither were they prepared to overturn many generations of tradition. After all, their own parents had not married for love, not initially. But they had grown to respect one another over the years.

His mother had been dead for a long time now, taken from the family when Hanzo had been seven years old. Genji, at four, had few memories of her, but Hanzo still recalled her with the same sense of love he’d known then. Sojiro had genuinely mourned her passing and it was the only time Hanzo could recall his father showing any sort of emotion in public. No, the funeral of his mother had not been a time to show the Cold Face.

Desperate for approval and desperate for the occasional kind word, Hanzo had taken to mimicking his father’s mannerisms and approach to the world. He had grown so good at keeping his emotions under control that at times, he feared he could not have loosed them if he had wanted to.

It was a challenging path, but it was a proven route and Hanzo followed in his father’s footsteps with the greatest of care. Genji, the study in contrasts, crashed blindly down a path of his own making.

For all this, Hanzo reluctantly acknowledged that if pressed, he couldn’t honestly say whether it annoyed him, or if he was simply jealous of the casual ease with which his brother careened through his existence.

Either way, Genji had let him down today. Again. And he would have to find his brother and deal out the appropriate remonstration.

Finding him was not difficult. He located his brother in the arcade where he preferred to loiter with his friends and hangers-on. Genji relished his status as a Shimada and welcomed adulation from the younger populations of Hanamura and Kanezaka. For their part, they fed Genji’s already over-inflated ego and sense of self-importance. It was poor nourishment and Hanzo feared it would end badly.

He stood in the door of the arcade, feeling awkward and out of place, dressed as he was in a three-piece suit. His clothing and demeanour marked him out as different. Once, he had been comfortable with that. He was, after all, different, something his father had impressed upon him. He was a Shimada.

Even at such a young age, there was something about Hanzo that suggested he was old before his time, a visible symptom of the weight that had been placed upon his (admittedly broad) shoulders. There was a gravity to his bearing that was sorely lacking in the younger brother who, even now, was lounging in a corner table, his sneaker-clad feet resting on the table. A gaggle of admirers surrounded him and for a heartbeat, Hanzo considered turning on his heel and leaving. But it was too late: his brother had spotted him.

“Hanzo!” The younger Shimada got to his feet and Hanzo felt a moment’s guilt. It seemed that his brother was absolutely genuine in his delight. “Have you come to join us?”

It would be easy to say yes. It would be easy to give himself over to the need to be liked, accepted and welcomed among his peers. It would, alas, be impossible to then have to explain to his father why he had shrugged off his responsibilities for such wanton frivolity.

Hanzo, thus tempted, allowed his mind to run through an assortment of possible outcomes and not one of them ended well for him. Usually occupied with shielding Genji from his father’s wrath, the older brother had long been used to bearing the brunt of the legendary temper that the leader of the Shimada clan possessed. He was reaching the end of his tether. He could make a simple choice if he really wanted to and he could adopt Genji’s blossoming playboy lifestyle, or he could follow in the footsteps that had been set for him before he had even been born.

It would be so easy…

For what felt like an age, he fidgeted with his cufflinks, his eyes fixed with great yearning on the scene before him. Eventually, his breeding took over and the thought of abandoning his responsibilities fluttered into the night. No. He would not fall for this trap of his own making. He must not falter. His shoulders set determinedly, his back straightening and he shook his head.

“No, Genji, I am not here to join you. We must speak.” He met the defiant eyes of his brother, eyes so like his own and he didn’t waver. “Alone. Now.” He turned on his heel and walked out of the arcade, not looking over his shoulder to see if Genji followed him. He half expected that he would not. But he did.

“How was the meeting?” Genji’s tone was affable, but there was a definite hint of mockery in there. Hanzo ignored the question and went straight to the point.

“You were missed.”

“You lied for me, though.” Such confidence and certainty. Such conviction that Genji knew his brother would always be his champion. For the first time in the life they had shared thus far, it annoyed the older Shimada.

“I cannot do so any more, Genji. Too much is expected of me now. You must speak to Father and you must explain yourself to him.” His brother’s expression became one of disgust, the nose wrinkling in distaste. “Our father thinks you are his shining jewel, brother. Of late, the shine is tarnished. You must repair that image before it is too late.”

Genji made a noise that was somewhere between a snort and a laugh and shrugged his slender shoulders. In build, as in personality, the young men were different. Genji was his mother’s son: slender and lithe, the perfect build for the agility required of an excellent swordsman. He was always moving: he could barely stand still, giving the impression of a tightly coiled spring ready to unleash on a hair trigger. By contrast, Hanzo was solid: broad shouldered and powerful. He was no less accomplished a fighter, but his stillness granted him great skills of marksmanship.

“I don’t care what the old man thinks of me, brother. And neither should you.” Already bored by the conversation, the younger man turned on his heel, preparing to return to his night of excess. Hanzo closed the distance between them with startling alacrity and caught Genji’s shoulder in his hand. He turned his brother so they were staring at one another. Genji’s defiance was something palpable and it set a fear fluttering deep in Hanzo’s breast.

“You should start to care,” he said. “Before it is too late.”

Genji looked as though Hanzo’s words might have reached him and the fear was quelled by a surge of hope.

It soon died.

Genji’s lip curled upward in a sneer.

“Too late? You are too dramatic brother.” He pulled himself free of Hanzo’s grip and sauntered with the swagger of a man who believes himself to be invincible. “Who is going to stop me living the life I want? You?”

The laughter that followed this was derisive. Hanzo stared after him and then, with a clinical precision of thought that he had learned from his father, began to take every good memory of Genji  he had, metaphorically setting each one alight and consigning it to the past.

“Be careful, brother,” he said in a voice that Genji could not hope to hear. “It just might be me.” The words dissolved into the Kanezaka night and Hanzo stood for a while, as motionless as a statue before swivelling on a booted foot to begin the lonely walk back up the hill.

The Lonely Parent

tl;dr – I miss my son.

My son is twenty-one in February next year and that’s given me time to reflect on the last couple of years of parenting. The short version is that since he turned eighteen, it’s been the hardest years of my life as a mother. Because it’s all about the letting go. And that’s exceptionally difficult when you love someone as much as your child. Is it too over-dramatic to say that what I’m going through is a kind of grief process?

I don’t think it is. It’s what it feels like.

From the start, he was more than just my son. He was a fascinating, funny and sweet person in his own right from day one. We are friends as much as relatives. All these years, and we have never had any problem relating to one another, or talking to one another, or showing affection, or saying ‘I love you’. I am proud of the relationship we developed over the years. I am proud of the young man he’s become. I am proud of the messages I get from people complimenting him and saying what a nice person he is.

I love him every bit as much now as I did the day he showed up two months early and threw my world into chaos – and extremely sharp relief. I had never had anything to do with babies. I wasn’t remotely maternal. But here was this little life, hanging by a thread the day he was born, only to turn around, stick two metaphorical fingers up at the universe and make an exceptional recovery.

I remember looking at him, this little bundle in an incubator, made extremely pink by the additional oxygen he was getting, and with a covering of downy fuzz like he was a little peach. I remember looking at him – and bear in mind that I didn’t actually see him until a good 12 hours after he was born – and thinking ‘what do I actually do with this person now he’s here?’

I remember, when he was about six months old, failing to remember my life without him in it.

I remember, when he started secondary school, that he was moving further outside my circle of influence and I remember how I was scared of that.

My life has been irrevocably altered by his presence in it. How can it not be? I put my life on hold for eighteen years and the focus of everything became him. From those early, long-forgotten sleepless nights where I watched more news programmes than before or since through to the tears the day I left him at university, everything has been about him. And now I feel like part of me has been cut away, leaving this groping, seeking tendril that has nothing to hold onto.

How do you do it? How do you let go? How do you perform the act of separation and make it clean and painless, or is it always going to hurt? When he doesn’t get in touch for several days and you try to ignore it, or when he’s feeling poorly, or has an injury that might require surgery, how do you take that step back and acknowledge that he’s a grown-up? That he has to deal with life on his own terms? How do you weigh independence against thoughtlessness? Should you even try?

Me and his dad, plus his step-parents on both sides, have done a great job of equipping him to live in the real world and that’s a good thing. But the price you pay for raising a successful individual to adulthood, without them having exploded or caught fire in the interim is a high one.

Perhaps it gets easier, but right now, I find that every day is hard. Every day I miss him. Even writing this, the ache of separation is making me tear up.

One day, he was there. The next day, he wasn’t. But there’s an echo of him everywhere.

We have children because we want continuation, a perpetuation of our species and perhaps even of ourselves. I see in him a lot of my own traits (not all of which are good!) and I have felt honoured to share in the shaping of him as a person. But you don’t think about it at the time. You don’t think about the fact that one day, they don’t actually need you any more. Oh, they don’t stop loving you, of that I’m sure, but they survive from day to day without you always there.

These last three years have been immensely stressful. Between him going off to university, my husband’s complicated surgical situation and even losing a beloved pet, I’ve been shouldering a lot. Everyone tells me that I should now take a step back and concentrate on myself. Trust me, that’s easier said than done.

Because I’ve forgotten who that person is.

There is so much guidance and advice available to people when they have children. There should be more guidance available to parents who have to let go.

Being a parent is the most wonderful of things. It’s also one of the toughest.

Games!

I have a nark. This is my blog, so I’m going to vent it here.

Games, games, games.

When I was at school, (which was a very long time ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the land), one of my classmates threw a proper hissy fit because he didn’t win at a game of rounders. My then-teacher, the erstwhile Mr. Hodgkinson, told him to go back indoors and to look up the definition of the work ‘game’ in a dictionary. Let’s do that now, from the comfort of our own chairs, shall we?

Game [geym]

Noun

An amusement or pastime.

Key word there: ‘amusement’. A game is supposed to be fun.Boy-at-school was embarrassed by being called out and indulged a little more in the team spirit going forward. But, as I say, that was a long time ago, back in the days when ‘game’ was clearly more easily understood. Now, we seem to have entered a time where this definition has lost its meaning.

So, context. I like and enjoy video games, but I’m not a die-hard. I enjoy MMORPGs, I enjoy problem-solving. I like puzzles and strategies and what-not. I’m a mediocre video gamer at best, although I am more than competent in most cases. Games that have more than two sub-menus frustrate me and fail to hold my attention span for very long. (This is not a reflection on the quality of the game, just a commentary on my short attention span).

Anything that requires mechanical skill is a challenge. On PC, I’m OK with games like WoW or SW:TOR, where I just push buttons and don’t really have to coordinate. If I am in a situation where I have to move and shoot at the same time using keyboard and mouse, I literally fall over myself. On a scale of repeatedly falling off a cliff to balancing on the narrow side of the primary school balance beams, I’m a 2.

On console, I walk the average line. I can coordinate a lot better, though. (Although there was still that time when playing Destiny when I was in a PvP game, was startled by another player and flailed at the controller before I turned around, punching him off the edge of Venus).

But here’s the point. I have fun doing it. But there are a few things that have been conspiring for a while to make me have a lot less fun.

1) Hackers.
2) Gamer entitlement.
3) Toxicity.

Let’s start with hackers. The delightful Mr. Stylosa put up a YouTube video yesterday about the problems in Apex: Legends with those people who can’t actually be bothered to play a game for fun and just want to win. Aimbots, wall hacks… just so they can say ‘look at how good I am!’ But they’re not good. They’re cheating. And they think that’s totally OK. 

What a strange world it has become where people are firmly of the opinion that cheating for the soul benefit of ruining other people’s game is totally OK. It annoys me in a way I can’t quite express. It calls back to that long-ago game of rounders and that guy being told to go and look up the word in the dictionary. 

You get nothing tangible for winning in Apex: Legends. There’s not some sort of cash prize or prestige that goes with it. All you get is a player banner with impressive stats that largely make my other half shout things like ‘get a job’ at the TV screen. By not actually playing the game properly and effectively just being a lazy fucker, you impress nobody but yourself. You should maybe see a therapist about that lack of self-confidence.

Transition.

Apex: Legends is a fun game, but it doesn’t really float my boat in the same way that other games do. I am certain that once more content comes in, and perhaps some sort of skill ranking system, I might engage with it more enthusiastically. I play on console, so the risk of hackers is minimal compared to that on PC. So let’s talk about Overwatch. Which I do a lot, I know, but that’s because I like it.

Overwatch was the first real FPS I played and I didn’t think I’d like it anywhere near as much as I do. I’ve played it pretty much since launch, although never seriously (I only wandered into competitive play in about season six, I think). I’m firmly in mid to high gold level, along with the bulk of players, so am decidedly average. But I have fun playing it. I like that Blizzard provide regular updates. I like that Blizzard provide regular character buffs and nerfs. I like we get the animated shorts, the lore teasers, the new characters, the new maps. I like Overwatch’s art style and the engagement of the developers with the community.

Ah, yes. The community. A word that conjures the concept of a group of like-minded individuals who all work together for the same goal and who ultimately have the interests of one another at mind. The Overwatch community.

A community that turns round every five feet, complaining incessantly that the game isn’t being updated regularly enough. That each change to a character ‘breaks the game’. That the character they prefer to play doesn’t get buffed in the way they want it to be. LOL people still play this game? That they are stuck in the rank they’re in because of everyone else, can’t possibly be them, their other account is Grand Masters don’t you know?

Seriously. Cry me a river, build a bridge and get the fuck over it. Why can you not just play the game and adapt with its changes? At least in that regard it’s certainly not a static game. It’s a very different game now to the way it was when it was released. For some people, that’s a cool thing. It means you have to learn new strategies, try new combinations of characters. But for the vocal set, it means that the characters and strategies they’ve perfected have been unbalanced. They don’t seem to think ‘cool, I get to learn something new’, they just complain.

Then they complain some more.

Then they negatively post on every single one of Overwatch’ssocial media streams.

“Hey, everyone,” says the stream. “Check out Baptiste, our new character!” He’s been designed, says the subtext, to add a new level to the game. His skillset is designed to work with some things, to work against others, but we’ll leave that for you to work out. “Look at the way he fits into the lore, look at the way he fits in with the other characters!”

“OMG HE’S SO OP WTF LUL OMG BBQ”

“THIS GAME IS DED RIP”

And so on.

I have my own gripes about certain characters in the game (Bastion, f’rex, can totally get in the sea. But the fact I’m rubbish at countering him is my issue, not the game’s. This, perhaps, is the difference between me and others).

The other issue in Overwatch is that of people who play using the dreaded keyboard and mouse. For them, it provides an advantage similar to the aimbot/wall hacks I previously mentioned in Apex: Legends. For me, it’d just add a whole new level of complexity that would produce comical swear combos. But you can tell. When a Widowmaker or Hanzo get repeated critical hits and you watch back in the Play of the Game feed, and you see that snap to target, you know. And it’s annoying.

Overwatch has come in for a lot of stick lately because it seems to be felt that the changes to the characters have been designed specifically with the pro-level players in mind. But for me, that’s fine. I’m happy re-learning my characters and if they don’t feel to be a good fit any more, I’ll change onto another. 

Which of course brings me to toxicity. I will usually mic up in Overwatch competitive, just to listen for call outs and to make call outs when I’m playing relevant characters. But I’ve given up engaging in any sort of conversation for a variety of reasons, the most fun one of which was the toxic little shit on Lunar Colony.

I took a support character (because nobody else did) and he proceeded to mansplain everything to me. Told me how to play a character I’m perfectly capable with, then threw in the kicker.

“You sound like you’re in your thirties, soooo…” The sentence tailed off and he snickered at me like he was my superior.

As it happens, I’m not in my thirties. I’m older than that. And it fucked me right off. For the love of all that’s good and holy, you little shit, I was killing Space Invaders before I hit double figures. Why wouldn’t someone my age be playing a video game? You don’t threaten me you little toerag. My mortgage scares me more than you do.

And because of that, this was one of the rare occasions where I did have an immediate response and it worked. It shut him up because all his friends laughed at him. He spent the rest of the game being meek and deferential, but it still annoyed me. It extracted the ultimate in cursing from me.

“You sound like you’re in your thirties, soooo…”

“And you sound like a c**t, what’s your point?”

As it goes, I’m lucky that it’s the worst I’ve experienced in Overwatch. I’ve seen screenshots of messages sent by ridiculously vile people, that are far worse and I’m glad I’ve never experienced that in the game (although I have certainly experienced it due to having the wrong chromosomes in a male-dominated fandom where I have written novels). 

As a contrast, I was in a game where I (as Sombra) and the enemy team’s Sombra were quite literally running round and round the payload on Eichenwalde like we were in some sort of cartoon. After the game was over, I got a message from the enemy team player saying how hard they’d laughed and to thank me for cheering up their night. I felt the same and it was nice.

That, right there, is what a community should be. Not whining and moaning, but enjoying the fun of a shared experience.

Am I ranting? I’m ranting. I’ll stop. Let’s summarise with this:-

1) Hackers – stop cheating. It’s bollocks, impresses nobody and just gives you an over-inflated sense of ego. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
2) Gamer entitlement. By repeatedly biting the hand that feeds you, the hand will eventually stop. So stop complaining and embrace change rather than be endlessly whiny about it.
3) Toxicity. Oh-so-simple. If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.

Vent over. Please go about your business.