Hope

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Someone had graffitied the nameplate. Garish, pink scrawl so the sign now read NO HOPE HERE. Looking at it, thought Static, it was pretty accurate. She gave the wheel on the large, iron door an appraising, optimistic shove. Nope. Never straightforward. She stepped back to take a proper look. The door was set into a much bigger gateway that rose maybe a third of the way up the side of the biome. It didn’t look like it had been opened in some time. The biome itself was coated in a thick layer of sand and grime, at least as high up as she could see from this close. Rain and wind usually kept the tops clear. Cleaning the outsides wasn’t really an option. The door was just as grungy, with caked dirt baked on over the hinges. Sand piled against the foot of the door was easily kicked away in a large arc to allow for movement. Sliding her pack from her aching shoulders, she unclipped a crowbar from its straps and wedged it between the spokes of the wheel. Experience having taught her not to risk her hands, Static pulled a pair of gloves from the top pockets of her trousers, one from each side, and slipped them on, tugging them down over her palms until her fingertips poked through the frayed ends. Manual doors were always hard work, but at least they’d open. The auto-doors were about 75:25 these days. If you could jump the connection, you might get lucky, but they were notorious for jamming even under full power and almost impossible to move by hand if the mechanisms were locked.

Static took hold of the crowbar with one hand and, with the other, flicked open the cover of the little microphone clipped to her lapel. She ran her hand down the wire to a sliding switch and clicked it to the REC-CAST position.

“Welcome back, you’re listening to Static.” She grunted as she applied her full bodyweight to the lever. “It’s been a long week, adventure fans, but we have finally arrived at Hope, which I’m sure we can all agree should be a lot better than Faith. I mean, it couldn’t be much worse now, could it?” She gave a short laugh, which sounded oddly joyous in the bleak, empty surroundings. “So, I guess that can be today’s topic: Hope”. There was a faint grinding sound and the wheel gave a few millimetres. “First, I hope someone opens this door,” Static continued, taking her hands from the crowbar to reclaim her dark hair out of her eyes. None of it was the same length, so this took a minute as she rearranged the clips and scarf to create some structural integrity. She wiped a sleeve over her forehead and removed her shades to give them a quick polish on the hem of her shirt, squinting in the sunshine as she did. “Man, it is hot out here today.” Shades back on, Static took up her grip on the lever again and shoved. “The a/c in my car is done, just so you know,” she said, “so forgive me if I’m a little grumpy. Extreme heat will do that to a person.” She flicked her eyes up to where a security camera hung over the door. There was a thin film over the lens but no other hint as to whether it was working. “Wanna open up? No? Anybody paying attention?” She gave another, forceful shove. Another metallic grating sound, another few millimetres.

“Hope.” Shove. Grate. Move. “What is hope? Feels a little weak, doesn’t it? Hoping. Hoping things will get better, hoping they won’t get worse. We spend a lot of our energy hoping. Doesn’t account for much.” Shove. Grate. Move. “I don’t know about you, but I wish I didn’t hope so much. But it’s hard not to, right? You hope it’s not as bad as you think it is. You hope, hope, hope your way through your day some days, just stringing together that feeling that it could work out, cross your fingers, hope not to die.” Shove. Nothing. Shove. Grate. Move. “Where’s the line between hope and belief? What happens to tip you over from just hoping to believing? I have a personal rule now against believing in anything. Not even myself. I’m my own worst enemy.” Shove. The wheel gave a sudden quarter turn and Static jolted forwards, nearly smacking her face on it. She pulled out the crowbar and slid it back between the spokes at an angle to the ground. Shove. Slowly the lever gave under her and the wheel rotated a little more. “Man, it’s hot. Did I tell you guys that?” She sat in the sand, back against the smooth wall of the dome and rubbed some feeling back into her hands. “I guess at least the thing with hope,” she went on, holding the mic between two fingers and twiddling it, absently, as she spoke, “is that at least you’re prepared for hopes to be dashed. It’s harder when you believe. A little hope might keep you going. Don’t have faith. We all remember what happened with Faith.” Another wry chuckle escaped from between chapped lips. “Let’s get this door open, shall we?” Static climbed to her feet, brushing sand from her shirt. The check pattern was faded now, though it had once been a bold red and blue print. You could see through it in places. She patted her thighs to shake off the last of it. These were turning out to be decent trousers. Good number of pockets, bit long perhaps, but the belt held them up well enough and they were cool enough and thick enough at the same time. 

“If any of you happen to be listening from within Hope, you should feel free to pop down and save me the effort.” Shove. Move. Shove. Move. The wheel was loose enough now that Static could lean the crowbar against the dome and spin it by hand. It wasn’t easy, exactly, and it took more rotations than she’d have liked, but it was moving and that was the main thing.

“A little bit of hope in the morning to get you through the day.” The wheel clanged and the lock was fully retracted. “Do we know any good songs about hope?” she asked, as she adjusted her stance and took hold of the wheel at ten and two, as if about to steer the massive biome. “I’d play you something but my collection got smashed, if you remember. I’m sure you don’t mind though. I feel like we’ve been doing well with a talk cast, these past few days.” Static braced herself and yanked the door towards her. It moved, but only a slight movement. She dropped to her knees and began scooping the drifted sand away to the sides. The door was, apparently, buried deeper than she’d thought. “That sound, listeners, is the triumph of hope over experience. It’s also me, bailing sand from a doorway.” She continued in silence for a moment, shovelling the hot sand with her palms, ignoring the irritation as it crept inside her gloves and under her fingernails. Then, suddenly realising she had dead air, Static snapped her attention back to the microphone. “Sorry, my friends, I hope you’ll forgive me. My mind wandered. Man, it’s hot out here.” She’d cleared about half the space in front of the door now. “Time for a water break.”

Static pulled off the gloves and rubbed her hands on her legs to shift the sand that had worked its way in. She shook the gloves the right way out and stowed them back in her pockets as she crossed the few metres of sand to where her car sat, tyres gradually pooling yet more sand around the bottoms. The metal of the car body had a hazy, heat shimmer and Static knew better than to touch it. “Hot enough to fry an egg,” she said, breezily, as she rounded the vehicle and popped open the back. “In case you hadn’t fully understood how hot it is.” In the back there was a large, plastic vat with a tap. The gauge on the side showed seven litres remaining. “For those keeping count at home, we are on seven – that’s seven – litres of water.” She pulled a flask round from a bandoleer across her chest and unclipped the carabiner. It was a screw top. Flip tops were too unreliable; a wet leg and a lost litre were not worth risking for convenience. After pouring the last few drops over her face, Static re-filled the bottle, took a long drink and put the flask back in it’s proper place. “Six litres.”

“Where were we? Oh, yes, I remember. Hope. What do we think, listeners? Is hope a view point? A way of looking at the world? Or is it childish fantasy? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Myself, I’m inclined to think it’s a good way to crush your spirit, though I’ve heard people say it’s just optimistic realism. Which,” she paused, dropping back into the sand and recommencing the excavation of the door, “leads me to wonder if realism can be optimistic?” Dammit, gloves. Static brushed her palms together and pulled out the gloves again. “This sand is hot. You’d probably worked that out, but I thought I’d mention it.” The sand was cooler beneath the top layer, and firmer so it shifted in bigger clumps and didn’t drift back into the space it had vacated. “Nearly done, my white noise warriors,” she chirped. “Wow, if I didn’t know better I’d say I was starting to feel hopeful.” The lower edge of the door had revealed itself and Static worked quickly to clear what she figured would be enough of the barrier. Taking hold of the wheel again, she braced her shoulders and, with one foot on the wall of the biome, heaved backwards.

Nothing moved. Static sagged forward, head resting against the metal, eyes screwed shut. “Not sure this one’s going to open, guys. And if you’ll permit me – that’s a lesson in the pitfalls of hope. Please excuse me for one moment.” She gave the door an almighty kick, the exposed toe cap of her worn boot clanging hard against the iron, ringing like a gong through the silence. “Oh are you kidding me?” Static shook the reverberations out of her leg. The door had inched forward. “It’s a push door, listeners. Which just goes to show you that sometimes all you really need to do is pay attention.” She gave the door another kick, much more purposefully and smiled inwardly as the base of the door grated loudly over the floor inside. The smile vanished almost immediately as a waft of dull, stale air hit her. “Not feeling good about this one, I’m afraid,” she said, unable to keep the disappointment from her voice. “On the up side, it’s much cooler in here.” Static stepped through the doorway into the gloom. As she’d expected, light was streaming in from the centre of the dome but the sides grew increasingly impregnable as they approached ground level. The effect was a muted sort of half light around the edges with a brightly lit circle in the middle of the space. The biome wasn’t very big. Sections had been repurposed and the dome shrunk as the need grew less. You could still see where tunnels and chambers had led away from this central space, now haphazardly patched over. The plants were still alive. They usually were. Boxes and crates stood empty, looted a long time ago. Cages were stacked and toppled along one wall, occupants either gone or… gone.

Static pulled the scarf down from her head and used it to mop her brow as she looked about. Her hair had plastered itself to her scalp, so she absentmindedly tousled it. “Sorry to report, Hope is lost.” She spotted the water tank where she expected it to be. Three litres. There was algae floating on the surface. No use. “Bear with me, I’m going to scan the frequencies. I’ll be right back.” She rolled the dial on her receiver, skimming through the numbers steadily. Nothing but static. Pulling the scarf back over her hair and adjusting her shades, Static stepped back out into the scorching heat and slumped back into the car. “I guess it’s all down to Luck, now.”

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Five Things.

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There are very few people I’d actually volunteer to spend time with repeatedly. Even fewer whose company I’d actively seek out. By and large, I find social interactions thoroughly exhausting and the majority of humanity torturous to be around. I am aware that sounds reasonably dramatic; it’s not them, it’s me Well, no, it’s them. People are the worst. What I’m trying to convey is that I’m picky about company. So when I say I like these four people, you should know I don’t bandy that about lightly. You know the sort of people you can’t really imagine – or remember – being without? The people who’ve always just been there, for all of the stuff. Outside of my family (and, frankly, that ranking can depend on the day), these are the four people I would consider, as the kids would say, ride or die. My guys. Four humans, unrelated by blood, with whom I can be my absolute, terrible, authentic self and they can be theirs. They call me on my garbage and they lift me up. They make me laugh, effortlessly, and occasionally cry, but generally in the good way. On February 14th, we celebrate Non-Romantic Life Partners Day. In November we have Friendsgiving. We share fake memories of being at events in our lives that we weren’t actually present for, which can be very confusing – both for the thinker and thinkee. I’m pretty sure we worry some people because, if you’re not one of us, we don’t often make a lot of sense. Our significant others (The Others) have a shared bond of their own over being utterly left in the dirt when we’re together. Seriously. There are two cars. They’re not getting in ours.

We’ve been a 5-some since… 1999… (can that be right? Note to self: we’re going to need a 20th anniversary celebration next year) when we were ‘persuaded’ to take part in a school Pop Concert (shut up, it was the 90s) to raise money for the 6th Form prom. We were Steps (and S Club 7. And Britney’s backing dancers) and we bonded over a mutual love of Eddie Izzard and arsing about. We spent our last year at school driving about the countryside taking trips to McDonalds (five McFlurry’s, please), camping in each other’s gardens, inventing pizzas in a basement cafe and trying not to be left in specific combinations in establishments that provide alcohol. Over the past 19 years, we’ve accumulated 5 weddings, 4 dogs and 3 children and yet when you put us together we are still, immediately, idiots. It’s that kind of friendship.

As life goes on, which life tends to do, it’s harder and harder to align our calendars and actually see each other. The last time we were all together was the penultimate wedding (in 2014), where I had a three week old baby and one of us was getting married, so the dynamic wasn’t quite what it used to be. Since then, we’ve managed various combinations (including the finale wedding, last year, which I didn’t get to as I had another baby. Stupid procreation) but being busy and important people, it’s mostly flying visits where we try to crowbar ourselves into other plans. It also might have something to do with the fact that since 2012 we’ve been operating on a one-in-one-out policy where someone must be resident in a foreign country, which, to be honest, makes things logistically difficult. I miss them. So, because I can’t be a normal human, I’ve come up with a plan. It’s called: Five Things. The idea is that I will see each of them, individually, no spouses, no kids, just two of us, for one, specific ‘thing’, during this year. One meet up each to see where we’re at. Who we are now. What’s going on in our lives. The past decade has incorporated a lot of change for all of us and though I’m incredibly proud of each of them, it feels like we’ve grown apart. It’s understandable, and I’m not mad, but I am sad about it. I’m pretty sure we don’t interact the way we used to. It’s hard to share your life in text messages and pit stop cups of tea on the way past. It’s easier to misinterpret, misunderstand, skim the surface. We’re the same people, but we’re also completely different people now, and I find myself wondering if we’d still be friends if we met today. So here we are. Five Things.

The astute among you may have spotted that there are four of them and five things. This is not a mathematical oversight, rather the fifth thing is set to be all five of us together. It’s a bloody nightmare to organise, I can tell you that. But if I have to kidnap the bastards, it’s happening.

I can’t speak for them, but it feels like a good plan to me (more the ‘things’,  less the kidnappings) and they are duty bound to shut up and accept it. They can roll their tiny, emoji eyes in the group chat later.

Renegade Rising

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Jutoro Outpost was a dingy sort of place. It was located in a particularly dingy sector, if space can be described as dingy, far enough from any planet to make it essential but not appealing enough that anyone stayed long. No-one was really sure of its origins; it had existed under various guises for as long as anyone could remember. At some point in the last fifty years it had transitioned from major hub to minor waypoint and shifting regional politics along with better, newer options elsewhere meant Jutoro had gradually morphed into a rather unglamorous feature of back sector space. There had been several systems that were generously referred to as ‘management’ during that time; from pirate lords to military cabals and back again, but currently it was considered ‘between owners’ or, by those who didn’t visit, ‘out of control’.

Despite it’s disreputable status, Jutoro managed to be relatively stable and secure. There was an unspoken agreement that, although in person fights were perfectly acceptable ways to solve a dispute, the outpost was off limits for anything on a grander scale. Remarkably, it was in a good state of repair, for the most part. Sure, there were zones you couldn’t enter without an oxygen suit, and one entire section didn’t have an outer wall, but that was more due to neglect by former inhabitants than anything else. Jutoro was popular amongst those unaffiliated with the Interplanetary Association as this made for more relaxed requirements – both in trade and in personal conduct. There was definitely a criminal element, but the outpost was largely a ‘live and let live’ environment. Safe, by independent outpost standards.

It was often said that if you couldn’t buy it at Jutoro, it was probably a legitimate purchase. That said, there wasn’t much you couldn’t find – in one form or another. Between the market concourse, the vessel hangars and the back alley deals there was a buzzing atmosphere. Goods, services and information; all available for the right price and, crucially, with few questions. Usually.

“Name?”

“Do you really need…”

An eyebrow crept up. “I don’t sell to strangers. Name?”

The trader was a dingy sort of person, smudgy and crumpled in a cheap outfit trying to look expensive; a common occurrence among the fixed stores as they tried to create an air of legitimacy. Her oily hair was scraped into a too-tight bun at the back of her head and she had somehow wedged a large pen behind her small ear. A faded name badge on her chest read ‘VERO I A’ and she drummed long fingernails on the desk, oversized rings glinting under the lights, studying the man before her. He seemed a little on edge.

“Orion Bennet.” He cast a quick glance at the monitor over the desk. It showed a wide angle of the main concourse of the small outpost; busy, as usual. Thronging crowds flowing between stalls, stores and sustenance. A fight had broken out beside an eatery. Nothing out of the ordinary so far.

Veronica looked up from her keyboard, two immaculate eyebrows raised this time. “Not the Orion Bennet?”

“Oh, you’ve heard of me?” Bennet tried to look nonchalant but it didn’t really translate. He switched his weight from foot to foot and ran a hand through his hair, brushing away the sweat that beaded on his forehead.

“Hmmm.” There was an unimpressed pause as Veronica tapped some information into the form. “Always thought it was an alias.”

“No, my mother just likes stars.” On the monitor he could make out a group of men, forcing its way through the crowd. They didn’t seem to mind that they were causing a scene. He wasn’t surprised.

“Terra Nobilis?”

“Yeah,” Bennet flicked his eyes back to the screen. The men had disappeared. Why didn’t this store have more than one camera?

“Earth-borns always have these romantic ideas.” Veronica slid a file from her console to a hand held pad and proffered it for Bennet’s inspection. “Price at the top.”

He gave it a quick scan and winced. The data pad showed a vessel that was definitely not new. The nameplate read RENEGADE RISING in a font that was, at best, dated but while the hull was no longer shiny it didn’t have any visible holes. Scuff marks crisscrossed the surface plating and the previous owners had attempted to hide this with various mismatched shades of paint. It had not been successful. There was a huge dent in one wing.

“That ship has got to be sixty years old!”

“Only on the outside.” Veronica did an excellent impression of someone earnest. “She’s had a lot of work done.”

“The outside is the only thing keeping me from dying in the cold vacuum of space, so it’s pretty important.”

To her credit, the woman managed to pull together an almost genuinely affronted expression. “Are you suggesting I might be selling a ship that isn’t space-worthy?”

Yes. “No, of course not. It’s just that I’d really prefer not to die out there.” Or in here.

“Judging by your face, it seems you’ve got more pressing concerns.” She eyed the data pad. “Have a scan through that and let me know. She’s not going to hang around forever, I’ve got several interested parties lined up.”

I’m sure you have. I’ll bet theres a never ending stream of people trekking out to this back belt trading post to buy junkyard ships.

Orion flicked through the images. “What happened to it?”

“She’s got character.”

“Yes, but what actually happened to give her that specific character?”

The trader gave a barely concealed eye roll. “She’s just a bit dinged up. Do you want her or not? You’ll need to fill this out.” A form slid across the desk.

“What? Are you kidding? Can’t I just transfer funds and get the keys?”

“It usually takes a few days to process the paperwork.”

“What?! I don’t supposed there’s any way I can make this go any faster?”

“In a rush, are we?” A hand reached out the pull the form back. “Not sure I’m keen on dealing with troubled sorts…”

You’re troubled sorts! Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean that… I just… have somewhere to be.”

“And that is?”

“Not here. As soon as possible.” From the concourse beyond the doors came a crashing, violent sort of noise, followed by a lot of shouting. “Do you have a door camera?”

“That for you? You’ve gone very pale.”

“No? No. I’d lock the doors though, just to be safe.”

Veronica examined a nail, pointedly, in a manner that clearly suggested beggars could not be choosers. The commotion in the hallway grew louder and, worryingly, nearer. A gaggle of what passed for security on Jutoro was making its way across the screen above her, though with no real sense of urgency.

“They seem unhappy. What did you do?”

Orion looked around the room. “I shot someone. On Ishibara.”

Veronica made a face. “Oh, that was you? I heard about that. If it helps, people are saying it was self defence.”

“It was not. He was a complete bastard, he absolutely deserved it.” Though this predicament should be a good indicator that it was still a poor choice.

A shrug. “He shot at you, you shot at him. I suppose it doesn’t make much difference to the guy who ends up dead. Or his friends.”

“You’d be surprised. Some people get very hung up on the details.”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“Veronica, look.”

“Don’t bring your charm in here, Mr Bennet, it’ll only get you a smack in the mouth.” You’d never have known she was smiling if you weren’t looking at her face.

Fair enough. “Look, I…”  Something shattered just beyond the door. “I’ll give you ten percent extra if we can do this now.”

“Fifteen.” Veronica dropped the key fob onto the desk, tantalisingly close.

They looked at each other for a minute, neither one blinking, sizing each other up. Bennet broke first.

“Ok, yes, look, I’ll take her, ok? Can you lock the door?” There was a faint hiss and click as the mechanism slid into place. “Ok, good, thank you.”

“Done.” There was a hammering on the door, accompanied by a lot of shouting which was, thankfully, muffled by the thick metal. “Fingerprint.” For a woman who’d just sold a spaceship for a frankly ridiculous price Veronica seemed remarkably unmoved.

“Can I give you a credit card?”

Veronica visibly brightened. “Sure, makes life easier for me.”

I’ll bet it does. Untraceable funds will do that. Bennet pulled a couple of small, black cards from one inside pocket and a card reader from another. He held each card to the reader in turn and checked the contents, then passed two across the desk into Veronica’s outstretched hand. In return, she held out the keycard. Bennet grabbed it like a drowning man reaching for a rope and clutched it to his chest. The hammering on the door had become a series of determined thuds. He could picture the shoulders hitting the panel.

“I don’t suppose there’s a back door to the hangar?”

Veronica was occupied with the credit cards but gestured over her shoulder to a well concealed exit that slid open with barely a sound. Bennet jogged round the desk and stopped in the doorway.

“She’s got fuel, right?”

“She has. You’ve got yourself a bargain there, Mr Bennet.”

“Sorry about those guys,” Bennet nodded at the front door. “I’m sure they’ll be ok with you – it’s me they want.”

“Not a problem.” From behind the desk, the rack of guns was visible. “Nice doing business with you.”

Bennet slid through the door as it swished shut and leant against it for a moment, eyes closed, breathing deeply. There was a faint hiss and click as it locked behind him. He opened his eyes and took in the junkyard dealership’s hangar. There was an array of shuttles and small ships from a variety of origins and classes. If he’d had more time, the appreciator in him would have loved to look around but as it was he focussed on locating the Renegade Rising. He spotted her quickly, some distance away but thankfully near the space side doors and not blocked in. She wasn’t the biggest in the hangar, but she stood out by style alone. Everything else in there was much, much newer. Still, Veronica was right, she did have character. An unfamiliar sensation bloomed in Orion’s chest. What was that? Optimism? Feeling like this could easily be a triumph of hope over experience, he crossed the hangar at a pace that tried to convey, should anyone be watching, that he wasn’t in a rush – while still rushing – and held the keycard to the hull. The entry port slid open several metres above his head and a ladder descended, which he skipped up with practised speed. Outposts were fine, being on a ship was better. Pausing on the top rung, Orion gave the small docking port nameplate a gentle polish with his sleeve. “Nice to meet you, I’m Orion. If you can get me out of here alive, we stand every chance of becoming good friends.”

Back in the office, Veronica unlocked and opened the dealership door; coincidentally in time with the thudding. Two men collapsed in a heap on the floor with a shout. Another, smaller man, with angry eyes and a lot of facial scars stepped over their prone bodies and approached the desk.

“I’m looking for a man I suspect you just had in here. Orion Bennet.”

Veronica looked up from her keyboard, eyeing the men picking themselves off the floor and the cold face in front of her. The credit card in her hand beeped as the transfer to her console completed.

“Never heard of him.”

Sandwiches, Toast Toppers and Other Lunch Ideas

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Sandwiches and toast fingers are great ways to introduce new flavour combinations with  only a little effort. You can be as creative as you like with both the contents and the styling – a few toast fingers will keep a smaller baby occupied in a high chair for a minute, something as simple as cutting out sandwiches with a cookie cutter will make lunch time fun for a toddler. Brown, wholewheat bread is better for you than white, as we all know, but seeded varieties are best avoided until children are bigger. Below you’ll find some inspiration for fillings (many of which can also double as toppings) that you and baby can both enjoy.

Apple & Cream Cheese: Grate half an apple into a bowl, mix in a few tablespoons of full fat cream cheese. You can grate in some extra cheddar if you like and season yours with black pepper.

Peanut Butter & Jam: Easy! Jam of your choice on one slice of bread, smooth peanut butter on the other. Combine. Done. {CHECK FOR NUT ALLERGY}

Hawaiian: Break up some pineapple rings from a can and smoosh them in some kitchen towel and a sieve to drain and crush. Mix this with a few tablespoons of cream cheese. Place some thinly sliced ham on a piece of bread, spread the pineapple mixture on the other piece and combine. Season yours with black pepper if you like.

Avocado: Simply mash some avocado and spread on toast. [Incidentally, Morrisons are now doing a bag of ‘wonky’ avocados for less than the price of an avocado in some places so check that out, because not a damn one of us cares what shape an avocado was before a baby smeared it it their hair.]

Bonus parent recipe!: Crack an egg into a microwave safe bowl. Pop it in the microwave on full for a minute. Ignore the horrendous noise it makes. Scoop out a small avocado (those wonky bags have some great ‘single portion’ ones in), mash it up with some chilli flakes, salt & pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice and spread it on one slice of bread. When the egg is done (it won’t look pretty or be runny, but it will be quick!), remove it from the bowl, place it on top of the avocado mix and top with another slice of bread, spread with some mayo and Sriracha chilli sauce if you like that sort of thing. Super quick and easy. And tasty!

Tomato: Never under estimate a simple sandwich. Slices of room temperature, ripe tomato make an excellent (and cheap!) sandwich filler.

‘Sushi rolls’: Use a wholewheat wrap (microwave for 10 seconds to soften if your wraps are a bit brittle) and spread all over with cream cheese. Lay sticks of pepper and cucumber a little in from one edge, roll that edge over and then keep rolling into a tube. Cut into different sized ‘sushi rolls’ and serve standing on their ends so the coloured vegetables show in the middle. You can also add slices of ham under the veggies if you like.

Omelette: If your child is ok with egg, omelette sandwiches are much less messy than scrambled egg. Use whatever herbs and additions you like – dill is good in a plain egg omelette, or basil in a cheese and tomato puree ‘pizza’ style. Glue it to toast with a little spread or mayo, or sandwich between bread and cut into fingers.

Carrot & Hummus: Grate some carrot into a bowl, mix in hummus, spread on toast. Change up the hummus flavour or add a little Moroccan seasoning for variation (though be aware of the amount of chilli). When pincer grips develop and you’re happy giving raisins, these can also be added to a carrot and hummus sandwich for a pop of sweetness.

Strawberries & Cream Cheese: Yes, I know, a lot of these feature cream cheese. But you know what? It’s easy and has some good calories and fats, and most people like it. So there. Anyway, slice up some strawberries and layer on top of cream cheese. Also works well replacing the strawberry with halved grapes when baby is big enough.

Mini Pizzas: Spread tomato puree on toast, top with grate cheese and a sprinkling of basil and oregano, then grill until bubbling. Let it cool – cheese tends to super heat and stay hotter than you’d think for longer than you’d like. You can add a variety of cheeses, chopped pineapple, ham, mushrooms… whatever takes your fancy. Change out the bread for variation – pitta and those thin bagels both make a good base.

Quesadillas: Or, as my daughter calls them ‘case ideas’. These really are great for using up leftovers. Sprinkle one tortilla wrap with grated cheese, top with pretty much anything (ham, chicken, vegetables, avocado). Sprinkle a little more cheese over (it acts as glue to keep the top on) then cook in a dry pan (check your wrap fits before you start!) over a medium heat until the bottom is crisp and browning, then flip for another minute or two until the cheese is melted and the bottom is toasted. Cut into wedges to serve, with a dip if you like – lemon or garlic & herb mayo are good options.

Dessert Quesadillas: Yes, this is a thing. Spread a little chocolate spread all over one wrap (pro tip – back of a spoon!), top with sliced banana and strawberry, cook as above. For older children (or yourself!) you can cover the other side in marshmallow fluff or scatter mini marshmallows over before you cook. Delicious served with a side of greek yogurt for dipping.

Apple wedges: While we’re dipping, cut an apple into wedges and serve with a peanut butter yogurt dip – just mix a tablespoon of peanut butter into two tablespoons of greek yogurt.

Sweet Potato: Cook yourself a baked sweet potato (stab all over with a fork, 12 minutes in the microwave on high, 15 minutes in the oven at 200’C or until a knife goes in with no resistance) and fill it with tuna or spicy chickpeas, and while you’re at it, cook another for baby then scoop out the flesh and spread it over toast. Tasty and good for you.

 

I’m pretty sure there are more of these kicking about in my head so as soon as I’ve amassed enough I’ll put them up here. Please do share your own ideas and favourites below!

 

 

Cashew & Date Bars

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Target Audience: Toddlers, Children, Adults

These tasty, tasty raw snack bars take very little time to whizz up in the food processor and are excellent for snacks. They’re a sort of knock-off of those Nakd bars and can be tweaked to suit your flavour preferences.

Ingredients

  • 150g cashews
  • 200g dates (the fancy ones in the trays give you the best texture but the cheaper ones in the bags work just as well, plus you won’t need to stone them yourself!)
  • Handful of raisins
  • 1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Optional: 1 tsp orange extract

Method

  1. Tip the cashews into the blender and give a few pulses to get them started.
  2. Add the dates, raisins, cashews, cocoa powder and orange extract, if using, and process until the nuts are finely distributed and the mix clumps together. This will take a good few minutes, so do it in bursts to protect the motor and be patient – it will happen!
  3. Line a square/rectangular container with cling film, tip the mixture in and press flat to approximately 2cm depth. Chill in the fridge for at least half and hour, then you can remove the container and keep wrapped in the fridge, or slice into bars and wrap individually in baking paper or cling film.

Variations

  • Try adding a handful of desiccated coconut or banana chips
  • Swap out the cashews for almonds and add dried or morello cherries instead of raisins for a Bakewell tart flavour
  • Leave out the cocoa powder and orange, replace the dates with dried apricots and add toasted oatmeal or coconut and lemon zest. You’ll need to play around with quantities to get the consistency right as apricots tend to be stickier than dates

Food foodie food…

Aside

I’m going to crack on with getting some recipes up. I’ll try and label them as to target audience and I’m hoping to get some pictures up to help you work out what I’m talking about but this may take me (quite) a while as I am a) not a food photographer, b) not in possession of a fancy camera and c) not going to make everything I post here just to take a picture of it so you’ll have to wait. I’m sure you’ll manage.

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“Having a bad day?”

As I wedged myself back into my booth at Pret, the lady next to me gave a sympathetic half-smile.

“Not one of the worst, surprisingly, and up until now it had been going reasonably well…”

The thing is, I have discovered, when you think you’re doing well is often the exact moment everything goes spectacularly to crap. Let me rewind…

This morning, weather being classic English early autumn (cold and damp) I shoved the kids in the car to go to the outlet centre. I do love the outlet; it’s essentially an indoor, pushchair friendly circuit lined with discounted brand-named stores and cafes. There’s a covered playground outside, a food court upstairs and family accessible toilets. Basically, perfect for low effort entertainment when you need to burn energy without actually being outside. Anyway, this morning being what it was and me needing to fill a good 12 hours of parenting time, we headed off.

The signs were all there, if I’m honest. Big wouldn’t stop talking at all the entire 25 minute journey. Little fell asleep, so I was feeling confident. The petrol station had works going on and I very nearly cocked up driving in. Then I lost focus (watching a man on a cherry picker) and the pump sped past the amount I wanted to put in, so I obviously had to get the the next round number. Because hitting exact numbers on the petrol pump is something everyone does, right?

There was a parent & child space available right outside the doors. That should have tipped me off that the universe was coming for me. Lulling me into a false sense of security, if you will. Little woke up. Any parent can tell you that <25 minutes nap is not the right amount of nap for a baby who’s been up for 4 hours already. The low level grumble began. I should have quit, I know this now, but I am stubborn and an idiot.

The first half lap was ok. We got feet measured. We found an apron and mini baking set for Big. She promptly put the apron on and refused to take it off for the rest of the day. We managed a trip to the toilets, no-one opened the door mid-pee. The grumble grew in intensity. Silly me had assumed he’d go to sleep as soon as we got going with the buggy. Silly, silly me.

We made it out of Paperchase with the things we needed and without inadvertently shoplifting anything (and that’s happened before, so it definitely counts as a win). The grumble erupted. Lunch time.

Up to the food court, into Pret (another place I love: they have food that makes me feel healthy, fruit for the fruit bat that is Big and tub chairs I can trap her in at the table). We made our selections, I put back the myriad items Big tried to smuggle in. Life-saving coffee ordered, warm milk for Big and a (free!) gingerbread man to be rationed out over the day. To the table. And relax. Winning.

Except that as soon as Little latches on to eat, Big boots the table and sends coffee and hot milk everywhere. The chap at the next table whispers something to his wife (probably along the lines of ‘Rookie. Never take two out for lunch on your own, you’re outnumbered…’) and then very kindly comes to the rescue with napkins.

Big eats half of half a sandwich (the sandwich she specifically requested, no less) and wants to get started on the fruit pot, which I manage to open, one handed, like a boss. She loudly declares she wants my pasta (note: I highly recommend the ham hock and sprout mac & cheese. Pricey, perhaps, but tasty and filling) and then very dramatically spits it out with an ‘I don’t like it!’ (which is currently interchangeable with ‘I don’t want it right now’). She definitely likes it. Mac & cheese is a top 5 dinner for her in any form.

I refocus my attention on Little, who has cheered up and is giggling at me (and thus spraying milk everywhere like the Trevi fountain). As I do this, the chap at the next table calls ‘watch out!’ just in time for me to look up and see a fruit pot go flying through the air… and scatter fruit across the floor.

Little back in the buggy (cue screaming), me picking up strewn fruit, queue of people looking at me pityingly. Big yelling that she wants fruit. Me, picking up howling baby, explaining she can’t have that fruit, it’s been on a cafe floor and though I’m generally a 5 second rule kinda person I do have my limits. I clamber back round the buggy into the booth and sit down, feeling the zip on my skirt undo itself. Time to make some ‘now we’re out of the first 3 months’ dietary changes, methinks.

I shove some more food into Little. Big consoles herself with her steamed milk and gets chocolate sprinkle foam all over her face. The queue goes down and I go get another fruit pot because I am a Nice Mum (mug). Baby under one arm, because he’s pretty fed up by this point (and apparently me telling him this is his own fault and if he’d just go to sleep he’d feel better isn’t something he’s interested in hearing), wallet under other arm, fruit pot in hand. I am Mumming with great success. We shall save this!

Except that if you’ve been paying attention you’ll remember that my zip has released itself from its sole responsibility.

I reach the counter. Gravity does its job. I somehow manage to save it (well, partly) with a sort of interpretive dance manoeuvre, but you’ve probably worked out I am several hands short by now.

“What can I get you?” asks the barista.

“Just this fruit pot, please, and can someone hold this baby, as my skirt is falling off.”

Just style it out. You are cool and sophisticated.

Fortunately, it turns out I am in line behind everyone’s favourite person when you need a hand with a baby – a Granny. She’s thrilled.

“What an unexpected pleasure!” she beams (Oh, good, glad my dignity could provide that for you), cooing over Little, who incidentally has now moved on his Prince Charming act and is beaming at everyone. Which is a good thing, because it means no-one is really looking at me, as gravity has finally won. Thank the gods for million denier tights. Good job it was only lunchtime in a busy food court or that could have been embarrassing.

Back to the table, baby still feeling good from his surprise Granny cuddle, Big eats her fruit pot. And by ‘eats’, I mean ‘hands over ever other piece of fruit with a loud I don’t like it’. So that was worth it.

I’m pretty sure it was showing on my face at this point, as this is when the lady at the next table asked if I was having a bad day.

We didn’t hang around long after that. Little suddenly realised he was shattered and lost his tiny mind. Big thought she’d join in as he sang me the song of his people, with a rousing (and in a different key) MMMMMMMMMM sound.

I drowned them out with Loud Music. Sometimes a shouty singalong is as good as a rest. Little finally went to sleep, where he remains, pinning me on the sofa as I discover that the mantelpiece – last bastion of Places Big Can’t Reach – has fallen and she can absolutely get the scissors now because she needs a haircut. So that’s something.

If you very closely, you can see the last of my sanity escaping.