house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Saturday, 31 August 2013


Islamabad, a few nights ago: something wakes me. Too bleary to know what, I lie there in the deafening wind tunnel aka our-room-at-night (three fans, one air conditioner, still not enough to keep the heat at bay).

Then I notice something different about the sky: it flares and flickers, gold disco lights lined with plum-coloured fists of cloud. Since when can something look like light and be so dark? Intrigued, I jump out of bed and sleepwalk to the window, much like a child would approach a House of Horrors at a Fair.

I walk in the dark, to a bigger window next door. On the way, I step on Kira's discarded sandals, a hairbrush, two books and a fountain pen; stumble against an extension cable which makes the iron shoot from the board straight at my hip; walk into a few table corners and a chair; slide on last night's DVD - and hardly notice. Away from the constant buzz of fans, the night becomes even more dramatic.

Never-ending lightning in the sky. A continuous deep rumble as if something is crouching in the dark ready to pounce, a creature with all the size, anger and scars of two continents. Loud bellows of thunder. And a vast waterfall of rain or iron, I can't tell.

Our swimming stuff flaps on the line outside, drenched and defeated. I stop behind the balcony door: should I run out and get it? Two, five, ten seconds holding on to the door handle to brace myself. My feet are already drenched in icy rainwater coming into the house. Rumble, bellow, light. The earth is not at peace.

I am frozen and blank. This terror probably belongs to the caves of the first humans. Silenced and confused, with a head full of buzzing wool and nothing much besides. There is no way I'm opening this door.

What about birds? I wonder somewhat inconsequentially. Where do birds sleep on a night like this?

And, oh my God, what about people? The millions clinging to each other in the dark, in mud huts, out there in the Indus plains?

I step outside and meet the monsoon.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Port au Pizza

It's the end of July, I'm feasting on raspberries. I don't know it yet but the berry bugs are also feasting, at my neckline. The garden emits a constant low buzz. For once, after weeks of work in Portugal, there is nothing to do, just enjoy the Scottish summer...

Instead we dive into another insane project. Build a pizza oven in five days, stoke the fires. Knead dough until a corkscrew ache digs deep into shoulders, whisper over a cauldron of tomato sauce. Make hundreds of pizzas and sell them at Traquair Fair'.

22 July - Monday

It starts with countless questions (and naturally, it ends with the same). But for today: how many sacks of lime / sand / clay? How many pizza bases are there in a pound of flour? Stone ledge or brick, marble or slate? Chimney, no chimney? Is it too late to start this madness? The head spins. A builder merchant goes from shelf to shelf, in search of a clay oven, the lady of Traquair shows us the corner of the walled garden where the pizza oven will reside forevermore. Deep green shade, inhabited by birds and spiders.

Then a glimpse of Nikita pushing a wheelbarrow full of stone, running almost and with that rare and blinding smile and oh man, have I seen all this before? All our Portuguese building years at a glance. But when did he learn to make it look so easy? When did he get so tall? His back so broad? There is the hope, mid-elegy, that he won't drop the barrow on his toe (and no he doesn't). Moving on.

23 July - Tuesday

My eyes open, but the head appears cemented to the pillow. Stuck there and throbbing, with me vaguely inside and then away again into sleep. In one lucid moment I manage a roll-and-scan-left, which hurts and makes the room spin. Yep, the man is there and he says GURRRG. HIS head appears cemented to the pillow. GURRG back, I say. For once, I know exactly what he feels.

It'd better be a 24 hour virus. We have an unfinished pizza oven in the grounds of Traquair House.

24 July - Wednesday

Fantastic dreams, starring giant tins of tomato sauce and long lines of mushrooms marching into an oven. I stand at the arched entrance of said oven, welcoming them with festive showers of flour. Behind me, empty aprons dance and their long tails grab small round stars and roll them, until the sky is full of flat yellow moons. All against the swish and simmer of tomato sauce.

I surface. The swish and simmer are still there, eventually identified as 'kettle'. The man is up and seeking strength in a cup of tea. 'Coffee' I croak and, once again, he saves me too. We lean on each other and stagger to the car.

Surprise and relief at the pizza site: the stone base is built, filled and plastered and they've started on the oven dome. A circle of bricks and a mesmeric rhythm: measure, lay a brick, fix it with cement, measure, lay, fix, measure... M. dives right in, I sashay between piles of brick and buckets of cement. My head is a circus of lists and recipes.

I hand Moona the final brick, the one that closes the pizza oven at the very top of the dome. It's the same as every other brick, which comes as a bit of a surprise. So: does being special put you at the top? Or does being at the top make you special? Hmmm.

25 July - Thursday

Clay from the river, to make an earth coat for the oven. Steph and Aidan load it into the car, start driving up the track. The bottom of the car collapses. The car is dead, the old Land Rover deployed to the rescue.

We need a couple of young girls for the next bit of magic. Mix clay and sand, chopped straw, water. Tread on them, hop and mix, do a little barefoot dance. Add more, dance more. The dance floor now resembles a vat of peanut butter, warm and clingy, specked with straw-gold. And this is our cue to carry handfuls to the dome, throw and pat down, pat down and smooth, smooth and caress. Tranquil beyond belief.

26 July - Friday

Onwards, to the hard part. Shopping for those unknown, unknowable quantities of .. what was it? Yes, it's this hard. We somehow get a car load of the Stuff. We take it home and then go back for more. We phone friends and they go too, and get yet more.

Stephanie finds a huge pot, bridged with cobwebs. I sip red wine to still the mind and chop a bag of onions. Into the pot they go, with butter and sugar. They spit and jump and turn translucent gold. I wait and sip, sip and wait. The tomato sauce goes in next. Salt and basil flakes, a pinch of cinnamon. The rest of my red wine. The sauce simmers and I nap.

(A brief dream featuring our rounders team, only now our faces and arms are painted with tomato sauce, we wear skirts of straw and corsets of clay. We throw round pizza bases at the assembled multitudes. It is unsure whether we aim to feed or kill.)

Pop. I'm awake and the sauce still simmers with a deep orange glow. Delicious? Radioactive? I don't know. A taste then. Another taste. A slice of bread for a better taste. Another (small) slice to make sure. I think we're set to go.

27 - 28 July - Saturday and Sunday

5 am wake up call and dough, dough, dough. Dough is good, I discover, at dispelling any alarming thoughts about the day. The way dough fills the bowl, warm, full, there. The way it rises. And how it smells of home. Yep Monica, remember: when troubled, make some dough. Again and again, dough.

One doubt though: what if no one wants, likes, buys our pizza? No customers and so much dough... The baker stops and all is still. Bird song swirls like smoke up to the early sky and the ache deep in the baker's shoulders pulses on.

At the fair now, too scared to breathe. A huge fire roars deep inside our dome of bricks and clay. The pizza oven is ON! White tablecloth on the counter, our ingredients lined up: dough, tomato sauce, cheese. Mushrooms stewed in butter and garlic. Sliced chorizo, jalapenos, olives. Chilli flakes. Black pepper.

No customers. Thousands of people, no customers. Despondent, I start rolling pizza bases and somehow I don't stop all day. I roll while the first, second, hundredth person orders a pizza. I roll as they bite into it. When they smile and throw their heads back, when tomato sauce drips from their lips onto their Sunday lapels, when they go mmmmh and take another bite, that's when, very briefly, I look up.

Nikita is the pizza chef. He's wearing a pink apron, a shirt with a heart shape cut into the cotton the size of his whole tawny back . He reaches into the bowels of the oven to lift a pizza on the peel and those muscles ripple and lock and then again. Someone wrote 'Don't touch what you can't afford' on his skin so it is only natural that I should see several women point at him and ask the cashier: 'how much? for the pizza boy? how much?'

He is oblivious to all this, as absorbed in his baking as I am in my rolling. The pizzas he takes out of the oven are thin, golden, crisp. They smell of summer and Italy and more, here in Scotland where summers are so brief and inclement. An illusion, our pizzas create. People are buying an illusion and wash it down with cold cider from the next door tent.

Sunday, 11 August 2013


'They look like my size.'
We're walking fast, early morning in Edinburgh, street sweepers at work, hunched over crumbs of last night's revelry.
We've just said goodbye to Nikita and it's too early for coffee. So we just walk, tickled at times by stiff tendrils of sun.
The shoes, abandoned on a pavement, look like a punctuation mark at the end of something that happened during the night. High, elegant, pathetic.
We walk past one, hold our breath for five steps. Then spot the other shoe behind a telephone booth, on its side and pointing west.
'They look like my size.'
All the time wondering: were they too small for the previous owner? Was she too drunk to notice they weren't on her feet any longer? Did she throw them at a cheating lover? Did she drop them in the middle of a kiss?
In the meantime, the man has left my side. He walks back, picking shoes.
The cafe is open now.
I'll try them on later.