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Sweet treats are abbreviating these long, cooped-up January days | Grace Dent


I have eaten the Waterfield’s Lancashire plum cake that was in the bread box, and that I was saving for Sunday. Forgive me, it was delicious. So sweet and full of plump vine fruits. I ate the Mrs Botham’s landlord fruit cake steeped in Timothy Taylor pale ale, too. It’s a riff on Christmas cake, but brazenly tipsier, and apt: the Christmas season made almost no impact on me, but sweet treats are abbreviating these long, cooped-up January days.

In the Lakes, the nurses who check in on my mam cannot accept fruit loaf or restorative cups of tea: their plastic head shields over face masks prevent refreshments. Not even a tempting square of Lathams’ blackcurrant flapjack with its claret-coloured jam lying slickly across the bottom of the traybake, transforming sugary oats and syrup into something fleetingly joyous. Each day, I promise myself: “Less sugar, fewer carbohydrates”, but I am yet to measure out mam’s morphine at 2am and then crave a rocket salad with an oil-free dressing. My mother, 84, and with more comebacks than Status Quo behind her, feels similarly. Occasions such as this need the big guns. Hot buttered toast laden with enough marmalade to make Paddington rethink the chest size of his duffle coat. Baked rice pudding smattered with cinnamon, and with crisp patches of caramelised skin. The sight of forced rhubarb on the shelves at Booths invites me to make a rudimentary crumble – an off-piste, recipe-free crumble made from a wonky Brownie guide memory. The results are claggy and stickily indulgent, and served with a pint of mascarpone custard that is, essentially, pourable happiness – a quick machine-gun-fire of teeth-rattling happiness, temporary, but nevertheless valid.

I’m unsure what your personal pain is, but there’s a lot of it about at present. The sadness seeps quietly from all of us. If you find yourself in an argument, the chances are your opponent is not actually angry with you personally. They were merely carrying their anger when they happened upon your person, and you are merely collateral damage. And in that moment you are the embodiment of another three months of home-schooling or their father’s missing second vaccination jab. You are their forthcoming rent, their vanishing career and their dwindling savings. You are their patchy broadband or the fact that their teenager spends all day not learning but cavorting on social media, while in America a person in charge of nuclear codes is no longer deemed stable enough to have social media. Or perhaps they’ve just not had any fresh air for a long time, because it’s currently a bit tricky to tell what enough fresh air actually is. How long outdoors is acceptable until your need for fresh air is deemed wanton?

I often go to Booths after 9pm, when I’m almost the only customer in the store. I pop wet wipes, butter or eggs into my basket, too, but those 10 minutes in the wine aisle with my headphones on while choosing a bottle of gavi or a crémant de Limoux feel, just for a moment, like 1992 on the terrace at Space in Ibiza. A long stare into the chiller cabinet while selecting ice-creams that might soothe a sore palate feels momentarily carefree and hedonistic. I am older and greyer and resemble one of The Flumps more and more, but in my mind’s eye, for these few brief moments, I look like Lady Miss Kier and I’m dancing at 6am in a crowd of sweaty strangers.

Sometimes I head back to the veg section to languish for a while by the reduced-price brussels sprouts, just so I can shamelessly enjoy a few more moments of music and hide from terms such as “comfort care” and “palliative”. My iPhone is my slenderest outlet of joy, yet even that has begun sending me warning messages about headphone volume.

One odd feature of living, at least for the time being, in the remote north is that supermarket supplies are uneven, which means shortages of the likes of bread when the roads freeze over; but it also means there is just as often a glut of frivolous, luxury items, because there are no longer any tourists to buy them. Banoffee pie was yellow-stickered down from £3.80 to £1.20 yesterday. So pleasing with tea and Tipping Point. I have trouble believing in an interventionist God lately, but I do believe He offers small mercies.



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