It’s a beautiful part of England, Northumberland. I’m proud to say I see it as my second home. We come here every year, following the same paths: through markets; along the North Sea’s shore; beside farmland that suffocates you in musky rape. The beaches are a Geordie secret I feel lucky to share. For a person who feels anxiety in crowds (as I do) a Northumbrian beach is paradise. Walk with your shadow and feel safe in the sky-scraper distance from it and you to the next silent stroller.
We stay in the village of Shilbottle renting one of the holiday cottages owned by Anthony and Crissy Stoker. This time we were lucky enough to inhabit the flat which adjoins their farmhouse. Through the windows we watched take after take of country living and so the stable yard below our sill was the only TV we needed. One morning I spent a full hour watching the farrier shoe horses. In the evenings we would watch farm dogs greet the stable-hand as she arrived late to perform her night time duties. One evening brought out a blackbird’s alarm call, shrill and loud and angry. So what! I hear that every day in anyone’s street or garden. I know but this one belonged to the fiercest of all; a black mean streak who chased a howling Tawny Owl over the lawn and then, hoot-less, into the trees.
Martin spent most of his childhood here. Taking for granted the white waves foam on the beaches which stretch out to eternity; the enormous skies and the farmyard which smells of dung and kippers. The rest of his family live here still (aren’t they the canny ones?) and so our holiday time incorporates family visits.
This time it was a little different in that we visited a new place. Martin’s mother now lives in a care home. She is suffering from Alzheimer’s:
We are sitting in a lounge full of sleeping people but Martin’s mum is far from sleepy. She does not know who I am but for a moment is pleased to see Martin (her ‘big boy’) and Tommy, her husband. She is a curious mixture of kindness and outrage. Her eyes sparkle a gritty blue and she grins at her son before she berates him for talking too loud. She tells Tommy to stop swearing. Through the thicket of Tommy’s Northumbrian roots I’m unable to latch onto any particular swear word and can only smile in ignorance. Suddenly she remembers and tells the whole room that I’m a foreigner. ‘She’s from mucky Bolton!’ I should feel shame that I dare rise from the slag heaps of Lancashire but I laugh with her and hope she can sense, like I can, the sharpness of her humour.
Her disease is a series of full stops that punctuate a page full of sentences within a book that holds more meaning when you skip backwards. She reaches another full stop and can’t recall the preceding sentence. Instead she flicks back the pages and reads out loud in a clear bright voice:
When we were kids we would walk to the beach at Alnmouth;
We would take off our shoes and socks and play all day in the sand...
...Mam would appear at tea-time to bring us home.
She looks down at her feet and is alarmed to find she is wearing slippers. She wonders where she has left her handbag as she wants to pay for tea.
Tommy is silent on the car journey home. We tell him he has done all he can and that she is in the best place but his home feels empty as we step into the kitchen, flick the kettle on and make some tea. We are all silent with tasks so it is easy to sense something transformative taking place. I turn from the teapot to find the gas stove lit and Tommy sitting by its side as a pan heats up. The kitchen is now warm with the sweet earth smell of leeks, carrots and potatoes. He kindly ladles vegetable broth into small soup tureens and shoves us a bowl each. I tell him it’s the most wholesome soup I’ve ever tasted. And so begins a conversation about food. A sudden and surprising shared passion. He tells me he can’t imagine life without his slow-cooker. And in there I see a rolled joint of meat decked with a pale glistening arch of fat – its slow release moistening the beef and amalgamating with its juices. I can only wonder at what sort of gravy this might produce...
...The morning after I could still taste it – beefy and satisfying. I saw it too – a coverlet in dark brown draped and dripping over the thickly sliced brisket. I remember Martin’s face as he tested it with spoon from the jug before it was poured over our scrubbed potatoes and chunks of carrot and meat. A strange look I thought I’d never seen before – as though he’d been jabbed and comforted all in one. Today I asked him what that look might have meant and he could only smile. Much later he said, ‘It felt like I had tasted home.’ It made me understand.