Porridge for tea

By D Carmichael

I was fat once. It didn’t last long, and it didn’t take long to get that way either – approximately the length of time I lived with my grandmother. No one can spoil a child quite like a grandmother can, and my Gran was no exception to this rule. I’d rise whenever I chose in the mornings, usually to find her already up, out of bed and bustling about the kitchen, or the garden, or enjoying a cup of tea with one of the neighbours. A place would be set at the table for me, and I’d be presented with toast and varieties of jams and marmalades, cereals, and porridge. Later in the day, we’d maybe head into town – a short walk from the house – and meet one of her friends in McTavish’s Kitchen Coffee Shop, where I’d be treated to a milkshake and a chocolate eclair before we headed back home for lunch with maybe a bowl of ice-cream and raspberries to follow.

We were spending a wet summer together in Fort William. Five weeks away from home. To the grown-up me, a father of two used to seeing his kids every day and rarely even letting them wander much further than the end of the garden unaccompanied, it seemed odd, for a long time, that my parents would willingly allow me to spend quite such a long period away from them. To an independent twelve-year old boy in 1985, it was an adventure packed with now unimaginable freedoms. I’d visit the swimming pool at the end of the road with the kid next door, climb the Cow Hill at the back of the house or wander down to the train station to watch the Class 37 diesels come in from Glasgow on their way to Mallaig.

“What do you want for tea?” she asked, sticking her head around the kitchen door one evening.
“What can I have?” I replied, looking up at her.
“Whatever you like,” she smiled.

From the mouth of any normal person, the words ‘whatever you like’ would be delivered with numerous unspoken caveats implicitly understood by both parties. ‘Whatever you like’ for tea would mean something that was cooked – unless it was a salad – and in those days, most likely involved some combination of meat and vegetables. Macaroni cheese was about as exotic as it got back then. From the mouth of a grandmother to her grandson, however, the words ‘whatever you like’ can literally mean ‘whatever you like’.

I thought long and hard. This was a decision that needed careful consideration.
“Porridge.” I eventually told her.
“Porridge?” she asked, a smile spreading across her face. “Are you sure?”
“Porridge,” I repeated. “Definitely.”
Her smile grew and a childish delight flashed across her eyes. “Porridge it is,” she laughed, turning back to the kitchen.

Her porridge was proper Highland porridge, with no frills or fancy flavourings or sweeteners. It was Spartan, Presbyterian fare – oatmeal, water, and a pinch of salt – but it was rich in flavour. She let me stir the pot as it simmered, and as always, I took great care to do it exactly as asked; slowly and gently shifting the thickening mixture around the pot in a wide figure 8, waiting for the boiling ‘pops’ on the surface to reach the perfect consistency. I’d inhale the steam deep into my lungs, savouring the aroma. The second it was ready, I was hustled aside and she poured it into two waiting bowls. We took our places at the table with them. There we sat on a wet Fort William evening, two daft wee kids, generations apart, laughing at the crazy idea of eating porridge for tea.

Within the space of a few short years before this, she’d lost her brother, her sister, her mother and her husband. It seems unspeakably cruel that a woman who'd spent her career as a midwife, bringing new life into the world should, at the beginning of her retirement, be devastated by death and loss on such a massive personal scale. Like any 12-year-old boy I was, of course, oblivious to all of this. I saw the same jolly old woman I'd always known, treating me to cakes and sweets and indulging my childish jokes, stories, and songs. I imagine there were evenings when she tucked me up in bed and then sat alone crying for her mother, for her husband and for her siblings. But for one short meal she was a child again, laughing without a care in the world.