Hungry Ghosts

Clearing the flat of her late, estranged father, Patricia finds the recipe for forgiveness

I brew my morning coffee and sit down with a tattered blue notebook. The binding is broken, resewn and taped, the yellowed pages stuffed with loose sheets and newspaper clippings. On the cover, Recipe Index is inscribed in gold, and inside the marbled endpapers: Walker’s Private Recipe Book No 3. A handy book for the housewife. 1940. Here lies treasure.

In the days before internet-accessible Delia Smith, so much of a family’s wellbeing rested on the curiosity and capability of a woman (or man) in the kitchen. The preparation of food is an act of love. Most homes would probably have owned a volume like this – a repository of family favourites and traditions. It is approaching Christmas, no more potent festive time for gathering relatives, reconciling and reaffirming bonds through familiar shared food. A season laden and fraught with sentiment. This little blue time capsule is bursting with the recipes of plain days and fabulous feasts, many recorded by my closest kin in handwriting I don’t recognise. It is the first time I have managed to open it since I found it while clearing my estranged father’s home seven years ago.

When I let myself into his silent Bearsden flat after his death, I had not spoken to him in several years. My sister and I had not had the stomach for a funeral. Inside I found the oppressive squalor of an alcoholic who had tried for years to drink himself to death. It would have happened sooner if he hadn’t eaten so well. He had prepared a salad niçoise for the day he finally managed to die. A 300-year-old Jacobite wine glass sat on the draining board, rinsed for the evening meal.

Colin was a brilliant young man. I have a photo of him, very much in the mould of Cary Grant, sitting on the bonnet of his E-type Jag, with desert boots and a mischievous grin. A gifted musician, he played jazz clarinet and piano. In his early twenties he was a reporter for a paper in Kenya and was made chief sub-editor of the Glasgow Herald by 26. In 1974 he moved his young family to Rhodesia so that he could edit the Bulawayo Chronicle and then the Rhodesian Herald. Like many of his generation, he was looking for tests of manhood that matched the war his father had faced – WWI in my grandfather’s case. Born in 1880, my grandfather lived an epic life of globe-spanning exploration and adventure, the classic Scottish engineer of colonial times. He was 60 when he retired to marriage in Scotland and my father was born. He died fourteen years later. Riddled with recurrent malaria, deaf from quinine, he was grumpily Edwardian to his only child. His passing left my father forever conflicted and bereft.

Clearing Colin’s flat was a gruelling undertaking. Colin had not thrown away anything from his own life, let alone his father’s. In a dark room with roses climbing through the window were all my grandfather’s brass prospecting instruments and vellum-bound notebooks full of neatly pencilled calculations for bridges built in the Congo and Siam. Ancient shaving brushes and ivory combs. A shrunken voodoo head in the darkest recesses of a cupboard. I’m sure Colin left that there as a jump-scare joke. Here too were Colin’s papers and pictures from a turbulent time in Rhodesia’s history. Any reporting of atrocities during the war for independence was greatly restricted for the sake of morale. Some of my earliest memories were of him coming home raging about Ian Smith. The former British colony had unilaterally declared independence in 1965 and life involved constant danger during the Bush War that followed between the minority white government and black opposition groups. Bags were searched at shop doors for weapons, passenger planes shot down. I remember an Easter bus ride with snipers posted at every corner.

My father wasn’t the monster I believed he was for decades

Pictures of every hacked and burned victim crossed Colin’s desk. He became consumed by alcohol in those years, his mind on fire and his body screaming if he did not get a drink. He accidentally let his gun off in the sitting room one evening, the bullet ricocheting around the room till it came to rest in my chair, where I sat in my pyjamas. In the deafening silence that followed, our maid Daisy Ncube stood in the doorway, met and held his startled stare. I discovered years later that she had suggested to my mother that Colin might be flagged down some late night on his way home from putting the paper to bed – flagged down by men armed with machetes.

And yet, here in his kitchen was a wall plastered with pictures of my sister and me as small children. The 40-year-old newspaper clipping of my sister’s birth announcement was in a drawer, and by his bed there was a picture I recognized: five-year-old me in Scottish primary school uniform, taken a few months after my mother left him and returned with us to Scotland. I saw the steady gaze of a fey child whose heart was reverberating with the loss of Africa and the impossible contrast of a new life in muted Ayrshire. I had pined for Daisy, a six-foot Matabele princess, and the evenings when I went to feast on sadsa, stew, greens and sweet tea in her garden. Tastes I will never forget, of comfort and safety. I missed the sanctuary of that garden, the mulberry and pomegranate trees, the enormous ants after the rains. The marvellous scorpions and snakes that were more predictable in nature than my parents.

Among the mess and flashbacks I found the recipe book. I instinctively knew it had to be saved, but actually opening it has taken time. This book illuminates nearly a century of the unknown, intimate history of family I never knew. Each page is a match that flares to light tables past – here a spread of roast goose stuffed with sage and apricots, next a kitchen fragrant with plum pudding, the recipe copied carefully on a page torn from a diary in November 1943. Beef olives and sweetbreads – sturdy fare for sturdy folk. Meals that would have been puréed and fed to my infant father. A Noble Christmas Cake and enough tablet, toffee, biscuits, cakes and ice-cream to satisfy the Scottish appetite for sweets.

I’m glad to see the famous Scottish penchant for deep frying everything represented in a dish of mushrooms stuffed with haggis, battered and served “with salad”. We are what we eat, and we eat what we are. The Scottish favourites of dumplings, Cullen skink, cranachan and bramble gin are here, but so are my grandfather’s Ceylon fish curry, Penang chicken and piri-piri prawns. All these dishes must have stories, reminiscences of people and places that I cannot know. Triumphant tales of sourcing exotic ingredients in days when olive oil was bought at a chemist’s shop for unblocking your ears. As my father’s biro scrawl replaces the copper-plate fountain pen of his mother, his robust character and experience come through: Provençal tapenade; aioli from scratch; tomato chutney; chicken with vermouth, tarragon and cream; gazpacho; scallops; lobster; and crab prepared in countless ways. How to handle a squid. Sunshine and a clink of glasses over the moules marinière. Exhortations to eat with your hands, slurp, DEVOUR, enjoy, mop up the juices with fresh bread.

So, this is Christmas. Time to quench darkness with light. Time to make some of these recipes with my children. My father wasn’t the monster I believed he was for decades. He was damaged, self-centred and sick. He did love, in his way, and he lived his last days in profound regret at the hurt he had caused. ’Tis the season for reconciliations of the mind – and the heart. The recipe book, his jazz musician’s metronome and appalling handwriting are all I have of him. We can let injustice choke us and betrayal gnaw at us forever, we can drown in the spirits of the past – or we can sublimate our sorrow into wishes and float them free on burning love letters to the future. Happy Christmas.

In memory of Colin John Campbell, 24 March, 1940 – 11 June, 2016.
Rest in peace.

Patricia Campbell is a mother, biological anthropologist and consultant in infectious diseases and microbiology in Oslo, Norway

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