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Pot Nostalgia

Nostalgia for me comes in a pot. It’s a green and white plastic pot with a tin foil lid, chicken and mushroom flavour. It has to be prepared in a very special way in order to maximise the memories.

First of all, disregard the instructions. Who reads them anyway? Not the generations of students who live on such fodder, or the alcohol-filled revellers in need of a late night snack. It’s a dehydraded noodle-based meal, not rocket science.

The stages of the recipe are simple. Fill the kettle, boil the kettle, pour the hot water in. Let it stew for a bit, BUT – and, this is crucial – not for too long. Certainly not for as long as the manufacturer advises. The noodles need to have a certain crunch. Then give it a quick stir, but – and again, this part is imperative - not too much of a stir. There needs to be a bit of powder waiting to surprise the eager consumer at the bottom of the pot.

As for the sachet of sauce which comes with the pot, well, I’m ambivalent about that. Sometimes I add it. Sometimes, I just take it out and throw it away. It doesn’t seem to affect the nostalgic power of the meal in any way whatsoever. I think the real problem with the sachet of sauce is that I can’t remember what my father did with it all those Saturdays when Mum was out at work. Did he add it to the pot? I just can’t remember. It doesn’t seem to affect the taste anyway, so it has become irrelevant to the ritual.

Then, I close my eyes, take a big forkful of the still brittle noodles and let the memories come flooding in.

It’s as good as a time machine. Suddenly, I’m back there again, in that narrow house in Manchester, circa 1980. Mum is out at work at the newsagents. She only works one day a week on a Saturday. It’s her ‘me-time’, her holiday from us kids, my sister and me. She works there with a sad-looking middle-aged man, with greying beige hair a drooping beige moustache, always wearing a greasy beige cardigan. His name – this beige man – is Mr. Ferguson. He is the owner of the shop.

She also works with a small, jolly woman called Pam. Pam used to be in the Navy. She taught my Mum the correct way to wash a floor (the water has to be really hot, and you have to put all your strength behind wringing the mop out). Pam says that men ‘join the Navy to see the world’, whilst women ‘join the Navy to wash the world’. Pam and my Mum laugh at the same joke every Saturday. Apparently, Pam did a lot of cleaning in her Navy years.

That’s the way it was then. At least, that’s the way it was for working-class women in Manchester. Men, like my Dad, went out to work all week, and women stayed at home and dusted their ornaments, polished their brass collections and washed their net curtains. Then, once a week, on a Saturday, Mum would escape the narrow house to the Newsagents. She left Dad to fill in with us kids.

Dad’s idea of filling in was watching Grandstand, sometimes participating in whatever rugby match was on by bouncing around in his reclining armchair in the exciting bits. Then at lunchtime, in the break between rugby and the afternoon racing, he’d heave himself into the kitchen to undertake his parenting duties. This came in the form of the provision of food for my sister and me (the under-stirred, under-stewed noodle-based snack in a pot).

Sometimes ready salted crisps were provided as a vegetable side to the noodles. Sometimes, he even ran to a piece of toast to dip in the powdery sauce. Sometimes, it was just al dente noodles.

Parental duties fulfilled, it was back to the sport, leaving my sister and me to roll our eyes at each other and giggle when we encountered the inevitable clump of powdered residue at the bottom of the pot.

We had the same meal for lunch every single Saturday. Then Mum would return home and we’d have sandwiches for tea, with a piece of fruit, a cake and a biscuit. Saturday’s were always the same, reassuring in their predictability. They would roll around, week after week. Mum always going to the beige newsagent’s to work with jolly naval Pam. Dad watching Grandstand, with an intermission of a noodle-based lunch. The same people in the same places, the same clothes, the same jokes, the same food.

My sister was my best friend then. She was my best friend through all those Saturdays, through all the days of my Manchester childhood. I suppose some people might think it strange. Some people argue with their siblings. We didn’t argue. At least, we didn’t argue very much. She was fun then. She laughed a lot. And how we laughed at those lunches! The predictable crunchy noodles with a powdery bottom.

I have another memory of my sister and me. It’s from just before they took her away and sectioned her. She’s 17. It must be 1990, or thereabouts, I guess. I go into her room. She’s sitting on the bed, staring at the wall. She looks gaunt and thin, her hair hanging in strands as greasy as the newsagent’s cardigan

Do you remember, 

I ask her,

all those noodles in a pot Dad used to give us every single Saturday for lunch?

I’m desperate to make her giggle again. Or cry. Or anything.

It was so funny, wasn’t it?

I demand of her blank countenance.

He was such a typical Manchester man. He couldn’t even make a Pot Noodle properly. There was always powder in the bottom and the noodles were still hard.

She doesn’t answer. She never answers.

The next day or so they took her away, because, they said, she’d got so depressed, she was a danger to herself. I guess they were right, although Mum swore at the social worker and tried to stop them taking her. Dad didn’t say anything. He just sat there in his reclining armchair with a blank folded-in look on his face, as if he thought he’d failed. As it turned out, she was so much of a danger, they couldn’t keep her safe either.

I suppose I’ll never know if she did remember all those Saturdays, back when we were all safe and everyone was where they were supposed to be. Mum at the newsagents, Dad watching Grandstand, my sister and me laughing about my father’s culinary skills, or lack thereof. All those Saturdays which were so reassuring in their predictability. Now only ever recoverable through a noodle-based snack.

Valerie Derbyshire

Val Derbyshire is a WRoCAH supported AHRC-competition student studying for a PhD in the evocation of place and space in the works of Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) in the

School of English at the University of Sheffield. Val has an interest in the romance genre generally, from the eighteenth-century, up to and including contemporary fiction. She also has an interest in creative writing. Her first novel, Blind Ambition, a romantic comedy, was published in 2011 by Castaway Press. In 2014, she was the winner of the 2014 Booker Prize Foundation Universities Initiative Short Stories Prize.