Clio knows that he gets off the third bus. The first two she lets pass with only the mildest of interest. But when the third bus stops, she waits alert and aching with anticipation. When Malcolm appears around the corner, she races over at her ridiculous top speed, she circles him a few times, and then she bolts back to me to give me her signature double-muddy-paw-to-the-belly kick, to make sure I’m paying attention to the miracle of her boy coming home from school. And then we collect Isaac, who is (to use a phrase he himself propelled into popular parlance) Fun To Be With. Isaac is a man who always answers the banal question, “How was your day?” with a series of interesting and unexpected stories.
I listen to Isaac’s stories with one ear, and with the other try to sort through Malcolm’s stream of pleasant absurdities for any actual news about his day. It has rained since the middle of the night, an incessant pouring rain, but this is a pause. The sky has a flat yellow winter-twilight glow, though it‘s only 3 o’clock. A block away fire engines scream down Main Street, with their sense of panic and urgency, and everyone turns to watch. Crowds of children walking home from school turn and stare at the lights and the noise. Ahead of us a flock of blackbirds hover strangely in front of a stop sign. Turns out there’s a branch with bright red berries crossing the sign. The birds eating stopsign-red berries don’t care about the fire truck, as they create a pressing disturbance of their own. Underneath all the noise is a strange waiting stillness. It feels like something will happen, even if it’s just the small change of more rain falling or night drawing in.
It’s a slender story, there’s not much to it. Just walking home from school as millions of people do millions of times, day-in-day-out. And yet it seems worth saving.
I read a story the other day about a student walking home, written by one Anton Chekhov. Ivan, the student, is walking home just at the end of the day, and though it’s spring, winter is in the air. He’s cold and hungry and night is falling, and “It seemed to him that the cold that had suddenly come on had destroyed the order and harmony of things, that nature itself felt ill at ease, and that was why the evening darkness was falling more rapidly than usual. All around it was deserted and particularly gloomy.” Ivan’s mood reflects the weather and the time of day, and he thinks about the neverending history of ignorance and poverty and want. “…he thought that just such a wind had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression — all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better. And he did not want to go home.”
He stops to warm himself at the fire of “the widows”—a mother and daughter who sit washing up after dinner. He tells them that the Apostle Peter must have warmed himself at just such a fire, and though they say they know the story, he goes on to tell it anyway, the story of Peter denying Jesus. It happens to be from The Bible, but what’s important is that it’s a tale of human frailty, doubt and forgiveness, from somewhere far away and long ago. When he looks up he finds the mother widow weeping, with big tears flowing freely down her cheeks. He says goodnight and he moves on, he crosses a river by ferry boat. He thinks about the widow being moved by the story, not because of the way in which he told it, but because “Peter was near to her.” He’s moved by their connection to a story from a far off time and place, and the unchanging progress of history that seemed so bleak to him before suddenly fills him with joy.
“The past,” he thought, “is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.” And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered…he thought that truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day…and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.
This past year it has occasionally felt as though the icy wind of ignorance and hate is gathering strength, and it’s easy to feel discouraged and gloomy, particularly on a pouring-down-rainy day. But maybe there will be a break in the rain, and you’ll watch people you love deliriously happy to see other people you love, and you’ll think about parents all over the world all down the years meeting their children at school. And this will remind you of a story about a student walking home, a story that moved you very much about a story that moved others very much. And little by little even small things will seem marvelous and full of lofty meaning.
This is a sort of cake I make a lot. You can try it with any kind of jam you like (I like cherry or raspberry!). You can leave the chocolate out. You can try with different nuts, but you might find that almonds make it the smoothest. I like to add a shake of cinnamon sometimes. you can even leave the jam and chocolate out and this is still good. you can also wait to add the chocolate till you take it out of the oven. Then turn the oven off and scatter the chips over. Return to oven for a minute or two until the chocolate is soft. Smooth it over the top with a knife or spoon, and then let cool.
1 stick (8 T) butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
2 T vanilla
1 t almond essence
1 cup sliced toasted almonds
1 cup flour
1/2 t salt
1 t baking powder
3 T strawberry jam
1 T rum
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350 and lightly butter a cake pan.
In a food processor process the butter till creamy. Add the sugar, process again, add the egg and vanilla and process until smooth. Add the almonds and process until smooth again. Add the flour, salt and baking powder and process again until smooth.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Mix the jam with the rum and spread over the center of the dough, or dollop, if spreading proves difficult. Scatter the chocolate chips over the top.
Bake for about 20 – 30 minutes, until the cake is browned on the edges, firm to the touch and pulling away from the pan. Let cool, and eat!