Stories for Hatstands

The little story that follows is real. It’s not really mine to tell but it’s true and it illustrates a fairly obvious point. So I’m borrowing it and altering it a tiny bit and adorning it a little, just to (hopefully) get away with it.

Here follows the story in question.

A person I know was recently moving into their new office, which was on the first floor of the building. They were bringing their stuff into the office bit-by-bit. No lift in this premises so everything was being person-handled up the two flights of stairs. The person would leave some of the stuff outside the front door while some more of the stuff was being carried up. A one-person job which begged a couple more persons to do it easier.

One of the items left on the walkway outside the front door, during one of these trips up the stairs, was a hatstand. Quite a nice hatstand, modern and sleek. A little metal, a little wood. You know the type. If you don’t, picture it. It’ll come to you.

The hatstand stood outside the front door, minding its own business. All good. Except, in the really short time it took the person to carry a big box up, drop it in their new office and then come back down again, the hatstand was gone.

A story, yes, but not a great story. If it turns out that the hatstand was stolen, that’s a little bit better but still not great. If the town-cleaner brigade came by and swept it away, in the brief period of time it stood there, well, that’s fine but still not great. But the hatstand was not stolen nor was it taken away as rubbish.

It was sold.

Next door to the building containing the person’s new office, the lies a Charity Shop. A very good Charity Shop. Sometimes they place particular bargains outside of their shop. A little something to catch the eye of the passing public. No harm, no foul.

Except, in the brief moments that the person was up and down the stairs, somebody spotted the hatstand, mistook it very a potential nice bargain, carried it into the Charity Shop, asked ‘How much for this?’ paid up and left. By the time the new office person got back to street level, the hatstand was already long gone.

Now, maybe you don’t agree, but I think that’s a great little story. Hence my reaction.

When the person was telling it to me, within moments of it having happened, I simply could not conceal my delight at how the story concluded. Whatever little internal antennae I have for tales and narratives, must have been twitching excitedly. When the person, who was a bit put-out, finished telling me their story, I all but punched the air.

“That’s great,” I said, “isn’t that just great?”

The person, who doesn’t know me very well, looked at me in a somewhat bemused fashion.

“Well,” they replied, in a measured tone, “I’m not sure I’d call it exactly ‘great’…”

I tried to explain, as I will try to explain here now, but I don’t think they fully understood and I’m not sure you will either.

It’s simply this. I would sacrifice my hatstand for a good story any day of the week.

I do it all the time, if only metaphorically. This here blog is littered with stories where I have lost out. It might not always be something material, like a hatstand. It might just be a loss of my pride or my composure or my… anything really. If I lose (and I regularly do) and I get a little story to tell out of my defeat, then I can’t help but feel that’s I’ve really won.

It's a little comfort to me to realise that. I may not always be comfortable defining myself as a writer, having never quite gotten as far along that road as I thought I might. I may not be able to say I’m a theatre writer or a screen writer or a short story writer though I’ve done a fair measure of all of them. I may not always be able to sell that ‘Writer’ definition to myself in my own head.

But, by golly, I’m a storyteller. Put that on my gravestone or little marble plaque or whatever I end up behind or beneath.

Ken Armstrong – Storyteller

“Willing to Swap Hatstand for Story Any Day.”

Patricia’s Good Year

On Sunday evening last, my wife Patricia was due to receive a prize. I’ll tell you about it in a minute. Alas, through a couple of circumstances that were really nobody’s fault, the prize-giving was over when we got there. Patricia got her prize and got her photo taken for the paper, and that was all good. However, there was an escapable feeling that a small moment has been lost. Just a small one but still a moment.

You see, Patricia had secretly been planning to say a few words after she was presented with her prize. Not a speech or anything. Just a line or two to her friends.

Because that didn’t happen, through no fault of anyone, I thought I would try and create a moment here on the blog where those few lines could be set down. Not to fix anything or, heaven forbid, to punish anyone but just simply because the lines are worth setting down and worth hearing. I don’t even know exactly what Patricia might have said but, knowing her as I do, I imagine a line or two like this would have been in there.

“Some years ago, I had major surgery. At the time, the surgeon couldn't guarantee that  I would ever be able to play tennis again. And you all know how much I love my tennis. I would say to you, no matter what you get told, keep trying. Always keep trying.”

When Patricia’s eldest sister Una got breast cancer and then her next eldest sister,
Penelope also got breast cancer, just as their Mother, Maevie, had got it before them, it became clear that the cause was a genetic one. Una, Penelope, and Maevie all gave Patricia a gift. A gift of foreknowledge, where she could take some action against an oncoming train. It also left her with a decision to make. Not an easy one.

On the morning that Patricia was going in for her surgery, she was due to be taken down to the theatre at eight in the morning. I was driving to Galway at seven when I got a call from her to say she was being brought down early so we would have to catch up afterwards. Patrica had a bi-lateral mastectomy and, at the same time, she had the muscles called the latissimus dorsi taken from her back on both sides for a breast reconstruction. This was judged to be the best way to do things, implants tending to be a bit troublesome after a certain age. The operation took over fourteen hours.

My abiding memory will be of Patricia asking if she could walk into theatre under her own steam rather than being wheeled in. The staff obliged. It is hard to walk into a room full of people who are waiting to go to work on you when there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. It takes a bravery beyond my understanding. A profound will to live.

On the day before the surgery we walked on the beach, had some cake, and carried a feeling that this day was the end of something and the beginning of something else. In the hospital that evening, ensconced in a bed that she could have got up and walked away from, a nurse with a chart tutted at Patricia’s smiling face and, a little judgementally, said, “this is a major procedure… a very big procedure.”

And it was.

The recovery was slow. We walked the corridors of the hospital, drain tubes and murky maroon collecting bags slung in every direction like handbags. One of the back wounds was desperately slow to heal.

But it did heal. It healed well.

The prize that Patricia won in the tennis club was in the ladder competition. You play the person above you and, if you win, you ascend. Patricia ascended more than anybody else in the whole thing. She climbed eight rungs of the ladder. She played and beat men half her age along the way. Ironically, the latissimus dorsi muscles that they took from her back are the very ones you would normally use to climb a ladder, to pull yourself up. You have to use something else when they are no longer there. I’m not sure what that is but it is something strong.

Patricia is having a good year. The things she set out to do are being done in great style. She swam a mile, she won the tennis prize, she excels in other aspects of her life that I can't really talk about here. She is rocking 2023.

And it feels like Una, Penelope, and Maevie too, all dearly departed from us, are encouraging her on to be the best she can be. Having given her the gift of a longer life, through the hardest of lessons, Patricia acknowledges their strength and love by continuing to live the best life that she can.

And we both count our blessings to be here still. We don’t feel as if we have dodged a bullet; rather we have slowed it down. It’s the same for all of us, really; the bullets are coming for us all at some point. That's life. We can only avoid so many. But we keep ducking and diving and doing the best we can and we remember the people who have gone on ahead who, in doing so, have given us a better chance to carry on a while longer.

Onwards with your great year, my Patricia. It’s only August. 

Anything could happen yet.

The Cookbook Thing

In late 1990, we returned from our year ‘around the world’, settled in together in an upstairs flat in Acton, and started to get ready to get married. Doing things, completely arse-ways, by traditional Irish standards, but not unusual for the young London Irish set of which I guess we were then a part.

This was a first run at domestic life together. Granted, we had been in each other’s ear on the ‘around the world’ year and had even inhabited a little apartment with Andy and Natasha in St. Kilda in Melbourne for several months. (Hi Andy and Natasha, where on Earth are you now?) But this was a first taste of real domesticity. We went to shops and bought placemats, a teapot, some cutlery, and a clock radio to wake us up in the morning.

We were all set.

Except we weren’t. Not really. We could cook at thing or two, a Spag Bol or a grilled pork chop. And Andy and Natasha (remember them?) had given us a good grounding the basics of the preparation of a Sunday roast; something which continues to serve me well to this very day. That was all well and good but this was Total Domesticity looming on the horizon now and we needed to be ready, we needed to be armed.

So we took ourselves down to a bookshop in Ealing Broadway and looked over the cookery books that were arrayed there. There was only one choice for me. The one pictured above. Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. Although I knew little or nothing about Delia at that time, the book beckoned to me. You may wonder why. You may think you know why. You may surmise that it was that picture of Delia on the cover, looking so capable and wholesome, holding her egg in an undeniably sensual way…

Behave yourself! It wasn’t that at all. In fact I have no idea what you are talking about. Delia. Sensual. Really, behave. (Ahem).

No, it wasn’t anything like that. It was the shape and thickness of the book, the ‘heft’ of it in one’s hand… and it was Mum. Mum was a key part of the reason I wanted to bring Delia's book home with us.

It’s simple really. Mum had a cook book; it was the exact same size and shape and ‘heft’ as the Delia one we bought. In 1990, that book wasn’t a memory or an icon, as such. It was there, across the water, in a home by the riverside in Sligo. It has become an icon since, a lost icon but, back then it was just a book and I wanted one just like it in my home. I know it might take me many years to get it but buying Delia was a start. 

A good start.

You see the Sligo book was not just a book. Over the decades of Mum using it, it had become a venerable folio. Loose sheets with hand-written recipes were tucked lovingly between every second page. Cuttings from magazines and newspapers fell out if you opened it without due care. Mum’s book wasn’t just a book, it was a record of a lifetime of meal preparation. Nothing fancy or overblown, just excellent home-made fare, all kept between the pages of an ordinary book. Where is it now? Heaven only knows, almost literally.

It's thirty-three years since we brought Delia home with us and, without any deliberate attempt to do so, the book has grown and expanded to be the image of Mum’s book. The book is showing all the signs of a busy three decades in several kitchens, but mostly in this one. The 'sensual egg' cover is long gone and the spine is cracked and broken. Pick it up in the wrong way and front and back covers go in separate directions. It's best to lay it on the table and let it lie flat then flick your way through. There are less hand-written notes in there than there were in Mum's version. Except for one or two actual ones from Mum herself. Rather, there are colour photocopies from Sunday supplements, print outs from websites, that sort of thing. There is no order to it. It is just a random collective of recipes and guides.

As well as the many loose additions, I still often check in on my Delia and her good advice. Even when I’m making old favourites like Carbonara or Fish Pie. She is also a key part of my Christmas Morning routine, as I studiously check once again how she likes me to roast the turkey, right before I do it a completely different way. The ham is still all hers though, the cider a key part of it. The turkey giblet stock follows her faithfully too. Christmas dinner would be incomplete without her ongoing input.

But it’s those loose addendums that see the most action. Constantly being added to, by Patricia more than by me. Nothing is ever removed or thrown away.

Like Mum’s version, this has become more than just a book. It almost feels like an archive of our life together. Not something to be treasured or hoarded long after we are gone. It is more something to remind ourselves that, like Mum and Dad before us, we have travelled a long way together and, unlike them (alas) we still, hopefully, have a good way to go.

Now, that Shallot recipe… where on Earth did I tuck it in?

(The actual book)