Sunday, 13 November 2016

Day 318 Of My Captivity.

The restaurant world keeps its own time. I've been the GM for nearly eleven months now but it feels like I turned around and a few seasons passed. I worked for Mr Morrisons when I was student up north doing night shifts at his slaughterhouse near Wakefield. I was a dinner lady serving breakfast at 11pm to men who'd previously worked on oil rigs. Lunch was around 3am. The other dinner ladies were usually married to the men, or would be, and the sons often came to work there too. We were all locked in together and the shifts would pass in a dreamlike state, as though non of it were real and we only existed at night. I once bumped in to one of the other women in the town centre mid morning and we exchanged shy hellos, feeling exposed outside of our parallel time zone.

Comparatively this job is a breeze. I mean, at no point during a busy night has anyone dragged me in to a staff room, handed me half a pint of cheap wine and a Lambert and Butler and said 'Get that down ye luv, it'll carry you through till finish.' Not that I'd complain. When I started at the slaughterhouse I asked one of the less terrifying women how many sausages, bacon etc I should put for each serving and she said: 'Put it this way, if they can see t'plate there'll be hell to pay.' Oh, okay. So, yeah, comparatively, this job is a breeze. Not easy though. I'm still learning. Every time I think I'm beginning to get my head around it all there's something new to learn, another element of the job that I've been shielded from until deemed ready.

I need Lara, the previous Manager, less, but lord knows I still need her. She's my 'Restaurant Management for Idiots' guide. We're about to head in to our first christmas together and she is bright eyed and bushy tailed whilst I stare at the already heavily booked calendar with a sense of mounting bewilderment. Of the staff who were here when I arrived only Lara and Simon remain. Everyone else I either employed or brought with me from previous jobs. So my safety nets have been slowly disappearing and more often now I find myself turning back to ask an adult what I should do and finding only myself there. My wonderful, utterly capable and profoundly chaotic Ali has moved to our new pub, The King Alfred, and is now quite rightly an assistant manager. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed taking that darling for granted. Apart from her multi tasking genius on the floor, she did a lot of background stuff that I consequently never had to think about. Until now. And Karon. Off she went and gave birth to a Henry. She'll be back though. Mark my words. Every time I get the place ready for an evening shift I think of Karon moving a table one inch to the right, adjusting a candle, all the little things that seem so inconsequential but strangely make such a difference. And then all the bright young things who come back for a month or two before heading off on their next adventure. So, obviously, I have some new staff.

There's Hannah, who in real life is one third of The Spitfire Sisters musical arrangement. She works for us around her gigs and much to all of our delights she'll be performing here during our Prohibition night for Winchester Cocktail week in February. All of the venues taking part will create two cocktails that wristband wearers can purchase for £4 each. I decided to serve ours in tea pots and keep to a prohibition style drink. Our cocktails will be The Mermaid's Tub and Moonshine Honey. It's all very exciting. We're using The Isle Of Wight Distillery and Fabian Chase (real name) is a mixologist who's helping me with my concoctions. Hannah is also a trained barista and makes the best coffees.
There's Dominic, Craig and Joshua who do a couple of shifts a week. Dom and Craig are students and very charming. Dominic in particular has been a hit with women of a certain age. I've had at least four come up to me after a meal and tell me he's 'just excellent'. Joshua does Viking re-enactments at the weekend and has promised I can come along one day. He turned up to work a few weeks ago with his hair carefully covering a fairly impressive battle wound.
'I like your hair like that.'
'I look like Justin Bieber.'
'No, no, no...yes.'
My old timers of the new wave are Sam and Janna, who joined me from my last job shortly after I started and I don't know what I'd do without them. Sam's main response to anything I or a customer says is 'No problem'. Janna comes in and quietly does everything that needs to be done without fuss or difficulty. And then of course there is Benjamin. I worked with him a few years ago at Loch Fyne. He was my supervisor when I was a waitress and now he's my supervisor again. Oh how the tables turn! Well, not really. We don't much do hierarchy here. I write him long rambling lists of things that need doing and he does them and ticks them off as he goes. His girlfriend Rachel has come to work here too. She's a student also and has a good dry sense of humour and like all of them, just cracks on.
So, our first christmas booking is on the 24th of November and then its just a roller coaster ride to New Year's Eve. We're having a Day of The Dead themed party and Lara and I are having a ball sourcing decorations, drinks, Mexican style tapas. Quite a few of our conversations feature Pinata's and skulls. We've hired a close up magician who didn't balk at all when I asked him to dress in top hat and skull face. It's going to be a splendid night and when it finishes I'll crawl in to bed, wake up on New Years day and remember that I will officially have worked here a whole year.

The restaurant world keeps its own time. It passes quickly though the days can be long. Our weekends are often on Mondays and Tuesdays. We stay up late and drink at each others businesses. We see more of each other than we do our non industry friends and family. It's often fun, it can be very satisfying. Sometimes you can get too knotted up about little things you can't control and then you step back and remember its all just a ride. The job ultimately is to feed and water people and make them happy. Hope they come back. Since extending our wine list to impressive proportions, adding cocktails and sourcing even more local beers we've started to see people just popping in for a drink which is hugely pleasing. I light the candles for breakfast, keep the lights low, turn the sign to 'Come in we're open!' and the day rolls on to night, and then again, and again. Each one different, each with its own challenges and rewards.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Ceramic Ducks.

It's 10.15am on Friday and Ali is pacing between table 12 and the window.
'John isn't here yet.' She frowns.
John is a lovely old boy who comes in every Tuesday and Friday for breakfast. He likes to do the Guardian crossword whilst he eats his salmon (half portion) and scrambled eggs (runny please).
Ali always reserves his table and puts the paper open on the right page by his cutlery. He's never late, 10am on the dot. Except today he is late and Ali is fretting.
'He'll be here in a minute,' I say and find myself straightening his chair.
'He's never late,' she counters.
We pace a bit.
I always help him finish the crossword which he keeps his arm wrapped around whilst telling me to bugger off until he needs me.
We have quite a few regulars. There's Malcolm who literally runs in for a flat white on his way to or from one of his endless spin classes. He's somewhere in his early fifties and I've never seen him out of sports wear. Rose who works for the hat fair comes in for coffee and breakfast early before it gets busy. The woman who is impossibly glamorous, has hot milk with her coffee and is very good at napkin origami. The tall elderly man who always has an espresso with hot water on the side, pays at the counter and never stays more than ten minutes but is terribly nice.
Okay so I don't know ALL of their names. But I'm pretty sure Ali does. And Karon. Karon probably knows their National Insurance numbers. She's off on maternity now and kicking it up in the South of France. It was getting to the point where the tiny woman was having to tie her apron higher and higher over her belly. If she'd stayed any longer she'd have been wearing it as a scarf.
John eventually saunters in at twenty past ten with no kind of excuse or apology for the hand wringing he's caused. Instead he says:
'Your man cooking Thursday night?'
(My man is the head chef at The Green Man)
'Good. Can you ask him to do me a chateaubriand. I'm taking an old mate and he likes his meat ruined so can you ask if he'll cut it in half and do my bit medium rare and his bit leather?'
'7 for drinks, eat for 7.30?'
'Fine. Are you OKAY? You're late.'
'Yes I'm alright. Can I have a coffee?'
Damn him.
You know that expression about how it takes a village to raise a child? Well it takes a small pub group to keep a John up and running.
Working in a little local place is a curse and a blessing. The curse is how many people's lives you become tangentially involved in. That's also the blessing. We have a lot of regulars and most of our suppliers are local and independent so we get to know them too. And the little pub group has three other pub/restaurants in Winchester so you get to know all that lot too and before you know it, seven months down the line of pretending to be a general manager, you can't walk down the street without stopping five times to say hello to someone and ask about their day. I can't remember the last time I felt part of a community. It was sometime in the 70's when summers lasted forever and you still went tad poling.
I think independent businesses might be the last bastion of community. It's depressing to see so many places shutting their doors as another chain invades the High Street.
It's a bit more expensive to eat at a place that can't afford to offer you two courses for a tenner. When we started using Fran's coffee we had to put our prices up by about 5p a cup. I asked John what he thought of the new Moonroast and he quipped 'Can't afford NOT to like it.' Then winked at me roguishly. But 5p isn't the end of the world because what you get in return is people who know your name, your favourite table, that you like your eggs a certain way. We see you come in for a first date, you have your wedding here and the following autumn you rock up with a baby in tow.
A community witnesses your life, let's you know that you matter, and that if you are usually always here at ten am on a Tuesday there is someone who will worry when you're not.

Everyone who has worked at The Corner House for any length of time loves it and owns it. This too is a curse and a blessing. The curse is quite funny. Every new manager wants to put their stamp on the place, make it their own a bit. My stamp has been a desire to shift its image a little. A really tiny amount. We are well known for our breakfast, lunch and afternoon cake but not so well known as a bar. With that in mind I put together a little cocktail list. That went relatively well once everyone was up to speed on how to make an espresso martini and we remembered to order some kahlua. I then thought we should perhaps de-chinz a little. As you know I'm not a fan of the expression 'shabby chic.' With that in mind I started quietly removing some of the more quaint decorations. The odd ceramic duck here, a tea pot there. I placed them in a box and returned a day later to find them quietly removed from said box and placed neatly back in their original locations. I less quietly removed them again and this time sealed the box and hid it. One of the tea pots still found its way back in to the restaurant. When I moved some of the furniture around, to let some light in, I came in the following morning to find Ali standing in the middle of the floor rubbing her wrist and staring like a rabbit at the new layout.
'Everything okay?'
'Yes. It's fine. It's just different. Fine. This is fine.'
On the whole its a well functioning democracy. I change things and if they aren't met with universal approval they are swiftly returned to their original way and we say no more about it. If one out of five changes are kept I suppose I'm winning in some way.
It's a bit like the make over scene in a romantic comedy. The previously perhaps slightly set in her ways, comfortable and cluttered beauty, is plucked, primped and bejewelled and reveals herself to be a Goddess like vision. Except half way through the transformation the beautician turns away to grab a pair of tweezers only to discover that a ceramic duck has been placed on the head of the subject whilst her back was turned.
We've just had some more shelves put in. It's all very exciting. We are expanding our wine range don'tchaknow and we need somewhere to put it all. We usually have six white, six red, one rose and four sparkling. We are in the process of adding twelve white, twelve red, two more rose and another sparkling. The actual getting of and having the new wines is jolly fun and was really as far as I'd bothered to think about it. I hadn't really taken in to account all of the business bit around it like reducing the old stock and staggering the ordering of the new stock and – anyway, Lara, made me a graph. She always makes me a graph when I stop blinking. We've got a lovely new Sancerre if you fancy a tipple.
We do a monthly pop up Vegetarian and Vegan night too now. That's proving very popular. I want to call it Nothing With A Face Night but have been forbidden. Anyone know of a good Vegan wine that doesn't make your teeth disintegrate? We've found a shockingly good vegan stout but you can't please everyone. The next one is on August 24th if you fancy it. 

The more I learn about this job the less I know. There's nothing fundamental I'd change though. I wouldn't want to work with anyone but the people I do and when things get overwhelming I have a nap and everything look much more manageable. It never ends, its a constant rolling ball of madness and incomplete lists and cake and orders and people, a breakages and christmas bookings (yes really) and ceramic ducks and locals and days and weeks and sun and rain (both equally bemoaned). It's life. It's a community. And as my mum says: You just take it in your stride darling.
PS Do you like our little ad? Ali was FYYYURIOUS that I used the picture of her with all the cake and wine. Oh how we laughed.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Corner House Bell Curve

When I first started as manager at The Corner House I asked the owner what the difference between gross and net profit was.
No, really, I did.
Everything froze for a moment, the birds stopped singing in the trees, the coffee machine ground to a halt. To her credit she merely stared unblinkingly at me for a fraction of time (whilst she wildly calculated the risk she'd taken) before launching in to a 'Finance for Idiots' explanation: “Imagine you have a hundred pounds...”
Larabelle, my predecessor and educator, has fielded so many mind numbingly stupid questions from me its a wonder I haven't found her rocking in a corner. She sometimes draws pictures to explain things to me. And she does this on whatsapp whilst dandling a baby on her knee. The Corner House was her baby until she had an actual baby and she has bit by bit handed me the reins with great grace and kindness.
Everyone I work with in one way or another has had to teach me something they probably didn't think they'd have to teach me.
“Ali. ALI! How do I get someone to come and look at this beer thingy that doesn't work?”
“You see that number on the wall right next to the beer barrel?”
“Call that number and ask them to send someone.”
“Okay. And will they know what I'm talking about?”
“Yes. Just say you're calling from the – I'll do it.”
“Okay great! Thanks. Busy busy!”
I shuffle some papers.
“Ali. ALI! We need bin liners and -”
“I do that order on Fridays.”
“Right. Well there's hardly any Twisted Nose Gin left -”
“I've ordered some already.”
“Okay, good, great. Good job everyone, keep it up.”

During one of my early meetings with the owner she gave me some golden advice:
“The secret to good management is surrounding yourself with people who are better at something than you and then letting them crack on with it.”
Never let it be said that I don't listen.
But I am learning things. And I'm better at my job now than I was three months ago. The first time I had to arrange for a man from Dyno-rod to come I was so amazed that he actually showed up and fixed things I embraced him like a long lost friend and kissed him on both cheeks. I'm told this is unnecessary. But then on the two subsequent visits he's made he's always greeted me with a bear hug and a 'two sugars just a dash of milk sweetheart.' I feel like we're old friends now. His name's Rob and he and his wife are in Majorca at the moment so I'm not allowed to call him.
In the words of Blanche Dubois: 'I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.' Though I think she was largely talking about sex. And that's really frowned upon in a managerial capacity. Never let it be said that I don't listen.
The place is starting to feel like mine. As do the staff. They are mine. And if one of them leaves me for any reason at all (Damn you Karon and your glowing baby growing betrayal!) I will take it in much the same vein as I would being dumped. Three of my girls used to work with me at my last job and I brought them with me as a sort of security blanket. There's Janna who handles all my ailments with the stock phrase “Here, drink some water.” There's Sam who can answer most questions with “Yup, did it already.” Sophie who does one shift a week is basically a mum from the 1980's trapped in a 20 year old body “Everything looks better with a bit of parsley on top.” And now Ben has joined us. Ben and I worked together for a few years a while back and we compliment each other in that
everything I hate doing he quite likes and vice versa. He is also growing a magnificent red beard which you should really come and see. Laura is with us for a while before going travelling and Hannah is back for a bit before heading off to Canada. They are young and free to come and go but Ali, Karon, Simon and Ben are not allowed to do that. I'm trying to find a way of putting that in a blood signed contract.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the chefs at this point.
There's this joke about how all chefs are basically pyromaniacs with a knife fetish who work in kitchens because its the only place their tourette's is considered par for the course.
Our chefs are NOTHING like that. 
They skip in to work every morning fresh as a daisy and rearing to go. They often wear flowers in their hair and listen to Joni Mitchell whilst prepping. They all drink nothing stronger than camomile and can be found weeping in butchers shops. Show them a 14 hour day and they will show you a heart giddy with anticipation.
I've enjoyed writing fiction from an early age.
Something you won't know unless you've worked in a kitchen or its vicinity is that chefs suffer the most physical ailments of anyone you'll ever meet. One chef sleeps with breathing apparatus stuck to his face because for the brief few hours he gets to be unconscious his body decides to try and kill him. It thinks its doing him a favour. Don't get me started on the varicose veins from constant standing, the burns, the scars, the high blood pressure. They can move seamlessly from humour to a towering rage and back again before you've had time to whisper 'Aneurism'. And no, being a chef does not mean that you eat wonderful food all the time. They all eat like 14 year old boys.
That said, if you show them a little appreciation, make them a coffee or take them a cold beer at the end of a long shift they will always have your back. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and care enormously about what they produce and how. The Corner House uses local produce wherever possible. They're passionate about cooking, all of them. If you ever meet an indifferent chef he won't be a chef for long. The positive feedback from a table means a lot. You know how it is when you're throwing a dinner party for say eight people and you're fretting that your soufflé won't rise? Now imagine there are between forty and eighty coming for dinner and a few people you weren't expecting might rock up too. And some of them have deathly allergies. It's important to love your chef. There's no magic in that room at the back. Just a lot of hard work, heat, and a stunning amount of preparation.
Over two decades of working in this environment on and off I've watched gangly monosyllabic kitchen porters become confident talented chefs. You have to learn to be disciplined, take criticism and praise (both can be equally hard) and be part of a team.
They always play tricks on the new kitchen porters. Always. You will have heard about those. Doe eyed kids being sent off to find glass hammers, tartan paint, salmon feet, or walking down to the hardware shop to ask for a 'long wait'.
They're a bit tribal really. The nature of the job means they often spend more time with each other than they do their families.
The Corner House is small by restaurant standards but it produces a vast array of different dishes and all of our menus; breakfast, lunch and dinner cater generously for the gluten intolerant and those that prefer not to eat anything that once had a face.
On the 18th we're having our first pop up vegan and vegetarian night and the bookings are flowing in.
Tuesday's Acoustic night is slowly finding its feet too. Charlotte was magnificent with her sax and Alex continues to make us swoon a bit with his pirate good looks and covers of Jolene.
I've been sticking posters up around town and handing out flyers but I find asking a guest face to face if they'll pop in one night works best. Usually whilst holding their plate a food just out of reach and staring at them balefully.
People think of us in terms of food and I want them to know we're a bar too. We have an array of bottles that would give the most hardened of drinkers pause. I've been cataloguing our spirits. There's stuff I've never heard of. One chocolate liqueur called 'Mozart' baffles me. I tried it and its really nice. Trying everything is a very very important part of my job. At the moment I'm suggesting it as a shot or something to pour over ice cream as a boozy dessert. Unless you have any better ideas? Simon and I are compiling a list of cocktails. He's already done a few and he's laminated them so he means business. He has been quietly biding his time by the coffee machine waiting for someone to let him off the leash and have at it. He loves the cocktails and he's really good at them. They'll be on the menu next week so you should really pop in and try one. Because y'know, we're a bar too.
A few weeks ago the owner printed off a ten foot X reading from the till and told me to study it as it would really help me understand what we we sell, how much, what that means etc.
After a particularly long day I took some scissors to it and made one of those banners of paper men holding hands. I then strung it up and took a picture of it which I sent to her saying “I really feel like I'm getting my head around these figures.”
She texted back: “We need to talk.”
Probably about how hilarious I am and that humour is a perfectly good substitute for business acumen.
Everything is going to be just fine. Every new job comes with a learning curve and so what if that curve is more of a bell curve? I now know the difference between gross and net profit. It's 20%. Right? I'm fine. This is fine.


Thursday, 21 April 2016

Hi I'm the, really.

I've been the Manager at The Corner House for almost four months now and no one has asked me to leave yet.
When friends come to see where I work they comment on how very 'me' the place is and I know what they mean. If I had the doors taken up I could probably wear it as a coat.
It's often described as 'shabby chic' an expression I don't much like. It's like telling an overweight woman she has a really pretty face. I'm allowed to say that because I was on the receiving end of it for twenty years. I don't think its shabby at all. Nor do I think its chic. It would be more accurate to describe it as; 'Pleasantly eccentric with a tongue in cheek approach to décor and a steely eyed determination to make every singe visitor feel as though they've stepped through the front door of a much loved but rarely seen friends house. Who has a lot of booze. And some nice cakes.' It just doesn't trip off the tongue like 'shabby chic' does it.

When I first got the job I imagined myself plumping the cushions and throwing the curtains wide. I'd always have on red lipstick and exist in a Darling Buds Of May halcyon dream of gin and cake and charming sun dappled afternoons.
The scales continue to throw themselves lemming like from my eyes.
Yes, the building has charm. It's a crooked house with beer mats keeping the tables from wobbling and unusual artefacts dotted around, the usage of which in some cases is still an arcane mystery. (There are these wooden roundish blocks that a customer recently informed us were the bit milliners used to shape the hats they made. Live and learn live and learn)
But what holds it together, what makes it inexplicably magical, is its staff. Sone of whom have been here for decades as far as I can make out. I suspect Alison may have laid the first brick. And she would have done so with great but stretched patience (this is a metaphor for how she deals with me). Without them I would be a wild eyed Miss Havisham staggering around the place pouring ribena from a tea pot and begging people not to disturb the dust.
Please don't tell them this as I'm trying to create an illusion of utter capability whilst keeping them on a knife edge of terror. With mixed results. The mission is occasionally knocked off course when I throw my arms around one of them and beg them never ever not never to leave me.
Karon (no that's not a spelling error) has of course gone and ruined everything. She has very inconveniently decided to grow a baby. I can't be certain of the ins and outs of it but knowing Karon it'll probably arrive in a three piece suit with not a hair out of place.
Karon makes everything look right. That's her job. No one that works here is just a waitress or a bar person. I can spend hours lighting candles, polishing tables and rearranging cushions only to have Karon stroll in, cast her eye across the devastation, move one table a quarter of an inch and transform the place in to a cosy paradise.
She's tiny. The size of a rice crispy with bright blue eyes and a cheeky little bob. When I ask her what's going on with her tables during a busy service I expect her to say: Table 2 is on mains, 7 on desserts etc. What she actually says is: Table 2 just met their first grandson, his name's Henry and he's 6 pounds. They really like daffodils and he's got a gippy leg as a result of cycling incident in 1976.
And then there's Ali. Ali can carry 27 plates whilst chatting about her puppy and operating the coffee machine with her left foot. She makes the inventor of multi tasking look like a rank amateur.
Interestingly I knew ALL about her puppy and its proclivities for several months before she even mentioned she had kids. In the words of the great late Victoria Wood:

Did you ever love us Mummy?
-I didn't know what love was until I bred my first Afghan.

I jest. She's really fond of her kids. Really fond. I just suspect she'd prefer them with a shiny coat and a wet nose.
Ali orders everything. To maintain an illusion of control I text her weekly on her days off and check very officiously that she has remembered to order toilet roll or cake or coffee beans. She rarely responds.
She has the look of chaotic capability about her until you take pause and really examine her features. She has the kind of classically high cheekbones you can eventually cut your wrists on when she hands her notice in.

Simon. Ah, Simon. It's pronounced Simmon by the way. It's because he's from Chile. I sometimes speak Spanish to him with a heavily accented Mexican inflection which really makes us laugh.
He laughs on the inside. It's a Chilean thing.
Simon works the bar diligently and when anyone thanks him for anything he always says 'you're welcome' in a way that leaves a lot of room for flirting.
These are the longest serving staff at The Corner House. There's a fair few more that I'll tell you about next time. And the regulars of course. And then there's the chefs, some of whom haven't seen daylight for 27 years. That's a blog all it's own.
But in the mean time you should probably come and have a look for yourself. And if you're not a cake sort of person we do have a really substantial arsenal of hard liquor that you just don't seem to be taking advantage of as much as you should.
Why don't you come Tuesday next week? I just picked that day randomly. If you can't THAT'S FINE. I'm really busy actually.
Oh, hang on. How silly of me. We have a live music night on Tuesdays. There's this really beautiful young woman called Charlotte who'll be playing the saxophone for a bit whilst we serve lovely wines and cheese boards. It's a very casual affair at the Corner House that could at a push be described as 'Pleasantly eccentric with a tongue in cheek approach to décor and a steely eyed determination to make every singe visitor feel as though they've stepped through the front door of a much loved but rarely seen friends house. Who has a lot of booze. And some nice cakes.'
Or shabby chic. Whatever.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Coven

'Every Monday and Thursday I listen for the phone long after I know it won't ring. And even if it did I would not hear it. But those were the days you called me, before my hearing went. I think of you every day.'
A German man called Meinhart sends me this message in a whatsapp. These are not Meinhart's feelings, they are my Grandmother's; Mutti.
We've been pen pals since I was four. She always lived abroad, adventurous and clever like a witch. When I was very small her letters would rhyme and she would decorate them with stickers. Over the years they changed shape and form but always came with a small gold sticker on the back with her address printed on it, a tiny palm tree etched on the side.
A few years ago her sight started to go and the font on my letters became bigger and bigger until every page had about seven words on it and was as thick as a phone book. Her writing which had always been so distinctive became scratchy and hard to decipher.
We'd always spoken on the phone from time to time. Usually when I was drunk late at night and decided that whatever friend I was with simply HAD to speak to my Mutti. And she'd always laugh, sit up in bed and be terribly witty in her beautifully modulated (think Judi Dench) voice.
And then more recently her hearing started to go.
'How are you Mutti darling?'
'SO fucking old!'
'But you're immortal, yes? We agreed.'
'Ha! Maybe. I think you're a premature reincarnation of me.'
My calls became louder and louder until I would be screaming down the phone and she still couldn't hear. She would become distressed.
And so now a German man called Meinhart, a physiotherapist who goes round twice a month and gives her a massage (because frankly when you get to 99 years of age a massage is a divine right), sits next to her on the sofa and bellows my emails in to her left ear. She then dictates a response which he sends to me. It always amuses me to think of polite reserved Meinhart typing “Dearest Darling” to me on his phone.
Because of the timing the messages often come when I'm in the middle of a busy service at work. I'll see his name come up always assume it's him writing to me with news of her health and then I'll see the first sentence;
“My darling. I doubt I'll see you in the flesh again but I have so many happy memories...”
I stroll in to the toilets, sit in a cubicle and cry. I send a rushed message back “Don't say that. I'm always with you. I love you.” I blow my nose, put on my glasses which are a great disguise, walk in to the restaurant and pretend that I am a grown up and everything is within my control.

The women in my family are all without exception fabulous. And each one as different and unique as a snowflake.
My mum is small and foreign and if you cut her down the centre you'd see the rings of an oak with the word 'mother' written over and over again in ever decreasing circles. She is strong and stubborn and will feed anyone that gets within a twenty yard radius of her. My cousin Hester has memories of being a child and coming round to our house.
'It would always smell of something delicious cooking and your mum would be in the kitchen, impossibly glamorous and sexy, like a tiny Sophia Loren, in very high heels.'
My mum is cups of tea and the smell of Chanel. Cigarette smoke and a raised eyebrow that could instil terror in child and adult alike. She's an accent that won't go despite sixty years in this country. We all imitate her badly. She says 'Darlink' instead of 'Darling'. She has stared down cancer twice and never took as much as a paracetamol after the mastectomy. She can move fridge freezers twice her size and she heals like its some kind of mild super power. She has green fingers and everything within her purview flourishes, including her children and grandchildren.
She is kind but without sentimentality and I have never known her to suffer with depression though there were times she had good cause. She is my mother.
My sister has mum's fierceness, her protective instincts. I sometimes fear that she'll happen to someone who has unwittingly upset one of her kids, or me, or mum, or anyone she has unexpectedly taken a liking to. She can be prickly on the outside but she is soft hearted and though she has literally the least patience of anyone I've ever known, she is wildly empathic. Her sense of humour borders on the vicious and when she really laughs she stops breathing. If you try to hug her you might get punched but she'd almost certainly buy you a piece of cake afterwards. She is not a people person though she hides it very well. I have seen her sarcasm silence the boldest of opponents and I have seen her inconsolable at the death of a hamster. She is my sister.
And she gave me two incredible nieces (two glorious nephews too but this blog is called The Coven for a reason).
There's the first born who at twenty five is by far the more emotionally mature of the two of us. She watches Buffy with me when the real world becomes a bit overwhelming, she has me saved in her phone as The Dude and whenever I'm feeling insubstantial she tells me I'm the prize.
'You're the prize dude. Prize comma The.'
She is the shyest in the family and quietly the funniest. I remember things she's said weeks later and burst out laughing. We have in jokes that no one else in the world would understand but can leave us helpless. She is solid and rational in a way that I have never been and she keeps me sane. She has endless patience, she's practical, she's kind, generous, loyal and she can plot a revenge with the dead eyed calm of a psychopath. She is the least selfish person I know. She's strikingly beautiful. She is my niece.
The second born is more like me. More like me than I am actually. Her heart seems to be on the outside of her body. She'll cry because she's tired or a bit cold or because, well, she doesn't know why, she's just a bit emotional right now. She's romantic and utterly lead by her heart. She loves to be in love and she is happiest at home, curled up with a book or in the arms of the person she has chosen to love. Like first born she is strikingly beautiful, though they don't look anything alike. She likes a nap and will happily take to her bed at any time for a few hours. She's really good for relationship advice because at twenty three she has had significantly more long term relationships than me. Beneath that soft slightly ethereal appearance she understands some things about life. She is my niece.

I have them all on a group text on my phone entitled 'The Coven.'
Since I lost weight I find it hard to buy clothes. I still pick up stuff that's two or three sizes too big. Or I'll get something that fits but have no idea what I look like in it. I stand in the cubicle and take a picture of myself in some concoction and send it with “Coven Assemble”.
Within minutes they are all giving their opinion;
'I like it.'
'Do they have another colour?'
'What size is that?'
And twenty minutes later when my mum has finally single digit replied;
'Yes darlink very nice xx'
I recently bought my first proper handbag which caused about 60 texts of mirth.
'Nice teal colour.'
'How much was it?'
'Sixty quid!'
'Haha! Oh Thea, you rank amateur.'
'whatzzhe oh bloody,,,stupid ting'
'Aw leave nan alone she's trying'

These women are the fabric of my life. My lighthouse, the thing that keeps me tethered and makes me loved and loveable. They fit around me perfectly, sometimes an audience to my performance and sometimes the fortress that keeps out the world.

She is my grandmother. She is my mother. She is my sister. She is my niece. She is my niece. They are my coven.