Thursday, 18 December 2014

A Christmas Memory

Last Christmas I bought my duck from Waitrose, but a few years before that, I bought a goose.

We went to the butchers first, through the fish section of the night market.  The dirty smell of raw meat wafted softly over us in refrigerated waves while we stood on the front steps. We were careful not to fall into the trap door that led into the basement. I asked if they had geese.  The butcher shouted out of the entrance.  An assistant appeared from the trapdoor with a white goose in his arms.  Mummy, knowing more about goose shopping than I, pinched and prodded the bird.  I imagined the bird blushing under its feathers when she squeezed its breasts and thighs.  It had cold yellow feet, which struggled for purchase against the butcher’s chest whilst he held it for examination.  He had it cradled between his side and his elbow, keeping its wings gently pinned.  With his other hand he stroked its tiny head with rough and blunt fingers; I could see that he chewed his dirty nails.  I put out my hand and stroked the goose’s neck.  We arranged to come back for the bird in two hours and left with the feeling of goose down still tingling on my fingertips.
                We usually had Christmas Eve dinner at a restaurant in the old flower market, which led off of the main road, but this year we thought that we would have street meat.  Even the dirty pieces of soggy cardboard and muddy rubbish didn’t make us think any less of each rickety food stand.  While we waited for our goose to be slaughtered we wandered the alleys and stopped at stalls for snacks.  The basic wooden planks of the mussel stand were rough and splintered with a wad of plastic bags tucked into the brace.  A portable gas stove stood behind the old man, the bare ring flickered its blue flames under his pot of steaming mussels.  They were stacked like bullets in the tray.  Each one stuffed with a rice and mussel meat mixture; we cracked apart the shells and heaped it into our mouths using the lid of the shell as a spoon.  The fish was so fresh; we didn’t need the offered lemon.  We walked away still scooping up the tiny piles of soft rice. We reached eager fingers into the bag pulling out each parcel and tasting the sea.
                We wandered further down the fish market, as we passed, a careless boot knocked over a bucket of live shrimp and their frantic, pink little bodies went skating over the cobbles.  The fish mongers splashed water over the lines of shining bodies to make them sparkle under the bare bulbs strung between the buildings.  Cats meowed from behind the tables and sneaked as close as they dared to the smell of salty meat.  Nearby one table, a boy was sat. He was gutting the white, blue and grey little fish, throwing their insides into the street.  The boy also scaled the fish for the customers before they were sold. He was using the cap of a beer bottle nailed onto a handle of wood, the curved rough edges perfect for catching the rounded rim of each transparent scale.  They flew up around his hands like sharp flakes of snow and settled all over his body.  He looked up from his work as he laid the little creature on the ice and smiled a watery smile at me.
                We drifted into the spice area.  The blue and grey of the fish market was transformed into a vivid colour pallet of ochres and deep reds.  The harsh bulbs of butcher shops faded into the coloured glass of fairy lights that danced wildly in the wind above our heads.  The soft interior of every shop held powdered pyramids of spice, strong enough to make you sneeze.  Here the men played dominos and back-gammon into the night, the board resting on a low stool between them. While a constant supply of tea flowed in and out on trays. A low buzz of conversation and music hummed through our skin.  The popping sounds of frying crackled in our ears, making our mouths water. 
                At my eye level a vat of oil bigger than I could have put my arms round was filled with floating skewers of chicken.  The thick pieces were turning to bright yellow in the oil, bubbles frothing round them.  This man wore a white hat and apron, dotted gently with flecks of dull grey grease from his tub.  He turned the skewers with a large, porous spoon, so that his hands weren’t singed by fat that spat upwards from the bouncing delicacies.  While we waited in the queue to shout our order, I looked around.  The cold night was misting with the breath of the public. 
Here long spice tables stored and displayed every kind of chilli and peppercorn.  I watched as a fat old woman covered from head to toe with floral patterns pointed to a few different heaps.  The spice man took a miniature shovel from each pyramid, and poured each measure into a twist of newspaper.  The little packets were placed in a bag and handed to the woman and she pawed through them carefully before she handed over the note of money to him.  We were finally at the front of the line, Mummy shouted up for two portions.  Our polystyrene boxes of chicken were handed down to us with a paper napkin under each and we opened them immediately to smell the soft yellow scent of crispy chicken. My tongue prickled with spices.
We looked for somewhere to sit down.  We could see the passage that led off to the ex-flower market, where restaurants now flourished.  These old buildings with bare mouldings open to the air and balconies with French blinds folded back against the windows.  The cobbles gave way to flag stones and a fa├žade of Parisian style darkened the whole road of restaurants.  Each one had a waiter outside and as we walked slowly past, our chicken warming our hands, they shouted politely.  Letting on nothing we smiled and shook our heads as they tried ‘welcome’ in Russian, German, French, Dutch, Spanish and finally English. One handed me a red carnation and I hid it from mummy in my pocket.  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a door with a wide marble stoop.  We stopped and sat in the door way and opened our picnic box of chicken. 
We were between two restaurants and watched the diners sitting outside while we ripped the strips of meat from the wooden skewers.  A large group of people were sat around some tables; they were laughing and talking, shouting to each other.  All of a sudden they shifted and their hands groped under the table and came up with instrument cases.  They were mostly string, guitars and lutes and a tambur.  The spontaneous band of friends struck up a song and those without instruments hammered along to the beat and sang at the top of their voices.  These were no Christmas carols!  The waiters grinned when they brought round the food and spread it on the table, but the singers wouldn’t stop.  They grabbed a morsel here and there between beats and drank their beer in great gulps.
The girls at the table pushed back their chairs and began to swing their hips.  Their black hair curled loosely down their backs and they snapped their fingers to the rhythm.  They shook their shoulders and stamped out the time with their feet.  They lifted bites of bread and meat from the plates, and the juice dripped down their fingers; the music didn’t stop.  Each man rose from the table slowly, arms spread wide above their heads, heads bowed, snapping their fingers to a slow beat.  Only the drums kept going, as the men filtered from the table into the road.  As they went they beckoned to other men who stood by to join them.  The waiters from both restaurants joined the line, old men and teenagers lined up, arms draped across each other’s shoulders as they began their steps.  Mummy and I clapped along as the men kicked through the escalating beat.  The line snaked all over the road, pedestrians and shoppers stopped to clap and watch, and we had front row seats.  The rhythm sped until the men couldn’t keep up and they faded back to their tables, flushed rosy by the air. 
The fast music had sped up time.  We hurried through the market again back to the butchers. Picking up the goose, Mummy and I marched back up the hill, passing it all again.  Our normal chatter had stopped and we rushed to make the midnight church service.  When we got to the church we quieted down, our hearts still thumping. It was so dark.  We whispered in the cold church and rustled our hymn sheets.  ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ came out of the darkness and the flames of the candles lit up the choir’s faces, the mouth of the soloist rounded to an O of perfect red in the light.  The warm body of the goose lay in the dark at my feet through the whole service.

Every Christmas I think of that night - my last brightly coloured memory of Istanbul on Christmas Eve.  

Thursday, 11 December 2014

How To Read A Book Lover's Christmas List 2014

A helping hand for friends and family who are thinking about what to get their book loving friends for Christmas. (This includes me by the way, I will be sending this link to my family...)

Most of my Christmas lists look like this:

- A Book.
- That series of books I like.
- That new book by that author.
- A collection of classic books.
- If you're still stuck for ideas, perhaps a nice book.

I can see that this could be confusing and difficult to interpret for other people, but here is the interpreted Christmas list for a book lover in 2014.

- A Book.

This year the book at the top of my list is The Minaturist by Jessie Burton. It has been a lined with The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, so it would be a great gift for any reader who tackled THT at school.

- That series of books I like.

A little tougher, if you cant remember anything that they have read. Also can come in a little pricy to buy a whole series. If you don't want to turn detective every time you see their bookshelves, I'd go for something simple. One of the things on my list is a cover for my Kindle a trendy designer one that reflects my personality. That way they can enjoy their favourite books and still love your gift every day. 

-That new book by that author. 

Approach with caution. For a real book lover, chances are they already have every new release for the past 6 months. check out the pre-orders section of amazon and pre-order for January. That way they get the gift twice! In the mean time, combine their love of books with their inevitable love of hot beverages and get this mug: 

- A collection of classic books

Something I have learnt this year is that even if you have read them all a thousand times, nothing beats having a new suped-up edition of your favourite classic. 

If you're determined not to buy a book try one of these gadgets for book lovers