I have just heard tonight that Mrs Spain, one of my mother’s dearest friends, died this week. My mum died 15 years ago, and I haven’t kept properly in touch with her friends … so it came as a great shock to hear that Marie, who was without question the most glamorous woman in my parents’ country Catholic family circle, was in her seventies (I realise I have always pictured her as still resolutely, elegantly 47), and had had Alzheimer’s for some time, and in the past week apparently decided her time was up, and refused food and drink, and faded away with her daughters by her side.
Marie Spain was quite a woman, let me tell you.
When were small, our family of seven would turn up to Mass late, every week, with each one of us kids looking as if we’d been torn through a bush backwards – hair fuzzed, clothes misbuttoned, faces unsuccessfully tissue-swabbed, still squirming and tearfully or viciously swatting at one another over some outrage committed in the Kombi on the way to church. Once they got us into the pew, I think our exhausted parents simply closed their eyes with relief at the hour of enforced silence to come (somehow the presence of God, incense and altar boys, combined with an icy parental stare when necessary, momentarily stilled the Beelzebubs within).
But though we were always late, there was invariably one family who arrived later – but oh, so gratifyingly so. Each week, with a regal air I am certain they never knew they had, would enter a procession of Spains, all nine or twelve or sixty of them (they had multitudes of kids, plus various extraneous extended family members of all generations in constant residence, I seem to recall…) and take up their series of pews down near the front.
The differences between my family and the Spains were many and various (mostly to do with sporting prowess and wide smiles and great warmth and good looks on their part, vs wan, lankhaired, spottiness and physical clumsiness on ours) but by far the most enthralling of these differences was that the Spains – all of them, but none more than Marie – always dressed like a million bucks.
I don’t think they had a million bucks, but Marie was one of those women of our mum’s generation who could sew. I mean really sew, not the apologetic crookedly-pinned, wonkily hemmed A-line skirts we would labour over under Mum’s bored, lacklustre supervision and the Singer threaded too tight. Marie’s stuff was serious art: the kind of French-seamed, gorgeously satiny lined, perfectly fitted stuff we would all pay thousands for these days if we could afford it, which we never will, because that kind of skill and eye for beauty is priceless.
So Marie arriving at Mass was something akin to Audrey Hepburn taking a stroll down the aisle of Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Cooma North, every Sunday. I’m talking elaborate hats, and, when called for, minxy black mantillas. I’m talking gorgeously tailored suits in sumptuous fabrics, gleaming, unscuffed shoes and matching bags, fashionably barbaric jewellery. This was the seventies: Marie wore fur, and tartan pantsuits, and slinky boots, and in one glorious phase the Spains would come to church each week accompanied by a new movie-star mother, in a fabulously funky wig: platinum bouffant one week, redhead flapper the next.
We would gaze along the pews past our mother, past all the other perfectly presentable women like the ones we girls would grow up to be, and who paled (and still do) into the faded green baize carpet in comparison to Marie Spain. If she happened to be hovering in her grotto on the wall above Marie that week, the boring old Virgin in her chipped blue plaster sack, with her downcast eyes and her lank defeated hair, simply never stood a chance.
Marie and her husband Brian – a tall, strong-boned, confident, handsome tennis champ with warmth to burn – made a dashing couple. Their arrival at Mass was as if a pair of birds of paradise landed on the church steps every week, with a brood of chicks-in-training-plumage stepping along behind.
I’m told that the priest there now, a young chap, never knew Marie. It’s kind of unthinkable to me, that her funeral might be presided over by someone who never witnessed this Sunday spectacular. Not his fault, obviously. But just in case he happens to read food blogs, this is for him: Marie was a woman of a steady, powerful gaze; slender shoulders; a firm handshake; perfect lipstick (red, I think); excellent Twiggy-style haircuts; bold earrings; immaculate tailoring; a husky, throaty, flirtatious laugh; a complete absence of bullshit; a conception of love and family (and god, I reckon, for that matter) that surpassed all boundaries of blood or duty, to embrace anyone having a moment of loneliness or need; a woman of boundless love, enormous verve, enormous fun.
When our father got sick and died at 53, Marie and Brian were there, instantly and at all times for my mother, and for us. When our mother got sick a few years later, Marie and Brian were there, instantly, by her side, full of love and outrage. When Brian, super-fit and indestructible, suddenly became ill himself and died devastatingly young, my family was shaken to the core for all the lovely Spains. It was impossible that he had gone, and still feels like that. They were a team.
So tonight I feel the same all over again about Marie herself, though I haven’t seen her for decades. I simply cannot get my head around her being old, being gone.
There is one more thing about her.
Every year on my father’s birthday, Marie would show up at our house with a small plateful of her famous chocolate hedgehog slice. This stuff is legendary. And in her typically stylish fashion, Marie’s slice made an entrance – a few perfect squares, artful on a white plate, or wrapped in some elegant paper – and on this day, once a year, the package was always strictly for Dad, and Dad alone. The hedgehog slice would go straight into the fridge, in its special wrapping, until he got home from work. We kids were never allowed to even sniff it, though we stared longingly, with the fridge door held open, and I guess now and again we must have been given enough of a tiniest taste for me to have developed the Pavlovian drool that still starts up whenever I think of it.
I think it took a woman with a hundred kids and every demand under the sun upon her to understand something about the specialness of the biscuit equivalent of A Room of One’s Own – how she managed it every year I don’t know. But the hedgehog cake was Dad’s birthday treat, delivered by Marie every year without fanfare, without fail, and savoured every time.
So Vale Marie: fashion icon, generous soul, deeply loved woman with exactly the right overabundance of style and substance. I proffer this recipe for hedgehog slice, which cannot possibly measure up to hers, but all the same, I offer it in her honour and memory, with love.
- 250g plain sweet biscuits (e.g. milk arrowroot)
- 3/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
- 125g butter
- 125g sugar
- 2 level tbsp cocoa
- 2 tbsp coconut
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 beaten egg
- 200g good quality dark chocolate
Crush biscuits, leaving some lumps, add nuts.
Combine butter, sugar, cocoa, coconut and vanilla in a saucepan and cook for 2 minutes.
Cool slightly and add egg, then add to biscuit & nut mixture.
Melt chocolate and stir thoroughly into mixture.
Refrigerate until set, about an hour.
Cut into squares, reserving five or six to take on a small plate to your friend on his birthday.
* This recipe, while pretty good, nowhere near approaches Marie Spain’s hedgehog slice. If I ever get my hands on the original recipe, I will most definitely post it here.