As a child, the closest I ever got to sleeping over at friends’ was spending a few murky hours in a tent, pitched in the back garden of our next door neighbour’s house. Camping at dusk sounded fun. However, not when you are laying top-to-tail with your best friend’s little brother who just happened to own the smelliest pair of feet in Bolton. Poking my head through the flap was sweet relief but gazing through the privet hedge and beyond at the warm light surrounding my mother’s silhouette at our kitchen window was unbearable. I was soon through the gap in the fence and mewling like a wet cat waiting to be let in at the backdoor. The door would open, in I would slink and Mum would smile, “I told you so.”
If a more comfortable arrangement had been offered would I have wanted to spend the night with any of my friends? I’m musing... I’m thinking... probably not. Let’s see... there was Joanne across the road. Now her mother was a notorious brag - forever boasting to my mother about “our Joanne” and how her “bedroom was a children’s paradise.” And it was true – Joanne’s bed was as soft as duck down and she was always the first to own the latest creation from Mattel. Her Barbie, it was said, and I can confirm, owned more outfits than Joan Collins. Joanne, however, had one fatal flaw. She didn’t like cats. I’m pondering... sharing a bed with Raggedy Ann and Andy or a big scraggedy ginger tomcat? No contest.
Susan, my next door neighbour friend, liked cats. We would sit side-by-side on the front step. She with her fat ginger tom and I with mine. Like companionable chimpanzees we would thumb through their thick sandy fur and pick out fleas holding each doomed finding aloft against the sun before remorselessly pressing their blood-bloated bodies against our thumb nails and relishing the snap. When daylight began to fade, however, and the air cooled, Susan would take her love of the macabre just a touch too far and regale ghost stories until I became benumbed by fear. My nervous disposition could never have dealt with a full night of ghouls and vampires; witches and warlocks.
Deborah was another friend and she lived lower down the street. She had a back garden swing. I wasn’t allowed inside her house (so a sleepover would have been nigh impossible), but occasionally, throughout the long summer holidays, Deborah was able to play outside; she would sneak me in through the back gate and I would swing to and fro while she watched timidly, hands clutching the swing’s rusted frame, refusing to take part in who-can-reach-the-highest. Her mother, you see, would go demented if Deborah dared dirty the seat of her dress. I knew and feared the tyrannical authority of a stern father, it was my norm, but to have a strict mum was unthinkable. My mother’s voice was as soft as whispers and never minded that my socks were soiled or my shoes muddy. No - to be scrubbed clean and ordered to bed at 7pm every night while the birds still sang and before the TV watershed would have provided poor ingredients for sleepovers.
Decades have now passed and I’m delighted to announce I’ve found the perfect companion for sleeping over. We stay up late and watch Laurel and Hardy films. We press our cheeks into the cats’ fur and listen to them talk. Real speak not spit and purr. We read Flower Fairies and then sleep comforted by the night light. We wake with a need to be in the kitchen. We laugh a lot while we bake muffins and eat them whilst they are hot from the oven.
Meet my six year old niece, Rebecca.
I am your Auntie Littley. You say my name like it’s an unwrapped sweet – sticky on your tongue. You hold out your hand and in it I see a little monkey with big bug eyes. I take it from you and stare into its face. I see you as a baby. Pushed from your mother’s womb too early. A bag of sugar dressed in candy pink. Swollen eyelids struggling to contain eyes as bright and round as marbles. Your life is reduced to a glowing rawness. I visit you in your warm limbo between unborn and born. I try not to wonder at your pain. I wonder if you cry. I touch and go. I leave you to your world of whooshing voices and booming machines. Your new world of foggy colour and giant hovering limbs. We wait for you to incubate.
You grow and smile and laugh.
You link my arm as we watch the clowns. One fat; one thin. I ask which you like best and you need seconds before pointing at Stan. I am surprised. I thought it would be Ollie. I smile at your concern for the underdog. We are side-by-side in our sleepover and I tell you about the poppy fairy. We read Cat Tales. You share your doll and tell me her name is Rosy. Boo sings us to sleep.
It is 8am and you are awake. I envy you your wide awake eyes and goddess-beautiful tresses. I show you how to poach eggs as Uncle Biggy brews tea. You feed toast soldiers to the cats. Now it is time to make muffins. There are too many hands measuring out the ingredients; the worktop is powdered brown and white. Your cuffs are covered in cocoa and the cats have flour on their whiskers. We are laughing so much that we forget about the melting butter spitting on the heat. You ruffle up your nose as I let you smell the buttermilk’s sourness before it pours into the bowl. You shake in the chocolate chips and say it’s ready. The smell of baking makes us hungry and we eat muffins straight from the tin.
The cats watch mesmerised as you cover your fingers in paint and dab colours on the egg box. They need to join in and sniff at the paint pots. Uncle Biggy places a blue bowl of water on the worktop so you can clean your hands. A craft feather lands in the bowl and I say it looks like feather soup. You are inspired. More and more feathers are used to make a thick colourful feathery broth. I don’t mind the waste. It has made you happy. You stick spongy letters on the gift bag: MUM – we can’t find a D so you stick on TOM and you wait for the muffins to be put inside. You smile; you like to give presents.
It is 3pm and it is time for you to go. Your dad eats a muffin from the gift bag and we wait to hear him say yummy. Your mum pats her tummy and says she is being good. She has a new dress and can’t eat any chocolate muffins. I watch as your face smiles through the car window. We wave goodbye.
Becky-Boo’s Chocolate Muffins
Having a six year old chocolate girl come to stay does have its drawbacks. Four years ago, I resolved to give up chocolate for good and I lasted out a good long while. If not pleased then I’ll say I’m somewhat reluctant to announce that I have reintroduced chocolate into my diet. Not huge brick-sized bars of it. That would be greedy. But there can’t be anything wrong with the odd sampling of a child’s home-baked chocolate chip muffin, can there? My reasoning may only be queried if you saw how many spoons of cocoa powder and shakes of chocolate chips went into these dark little domes.
We needed a somewhat hardy recipe to withstand Becky’s abuse of all things chocolatey and so used Nigella Lawson’s recipe for blueberry muffins as our base. Taken from her baking book How to be a Domestic Goddess - these are beautiful baked just as she intended with 200g of fresh plump blueberries instead of the cocoa and chocolate chips. Nigella uses buttermilk in her recipe to dampen the texture of her muffins and offer up a lactic tang which, in our adapted version, helps cut through the dense bitterness of the cocoa.
75g unsalted butter
200g plain flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
75g caster sugar
Pinch of salt
200ml buttermilk (or 100g yoghurt and 100ml semi-skimmed milk)
1 large egg
Packet chocolate chips (or to taste)
2-3 tablespoons (heaped) cocoa powder
12 bun muffin tray lined with 12 paper cases
Begin by melting the butter and setting aside to cool. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6.
Combine all the dry ingredients (apart from the chocolate chips).
Beat together the buttermilk, egg and melted butter in a separate bowl or jug.
Mix the milky ingredients in with the dry using a wooden spoon.
Add the chocolate chips (saving a few to decorate the tops).
Spoon into the muffin cases and decorate the tops with the remaining chips.
Bake for 20 minutes until risen and firm to touch.
You can eat them warm or cold as you desire. Becky split hers open as you would a sponge pudding and ate it whilst steaming with a dollop of chocolate chip ice cream melting on top. Yes, impressive and all before 10am.
Artwork by Rebecca Gradwell
Face paint and hospital images by Tom Gradwell