Imagine a long row of tall terraced houses with four floors, small yards and thin walls. You could hear everything on my street, like Mr Walker going to the toilet, Pat shouting for David, Richard and James, and the short Ukranian man singing Italian opera to his hoard of wood every morning, whilst chewing on a piece of salami.
It was a street of diversity from top to bottom and us kids made the most of it. Samosas from Mrs Patel at number one down to thick wedges of Irish soda bread and butter at number fifty-seven.
In the middle was our house.
My mother worked hard in the cellar of our house. It was where she washed clothes by hand and hung them to dry in front of the range which is still there. Wood burned in the dank spidery darkness and pickled cabbage was made in winter.
God how I hated the stuff. My mother moved on to jars after a few years, but she started making it in a huge wooden beer barrel. She sliced and pounded layer after layer, spreading salt in between. After several heads of hard white cabbage, the barrel was full. The cloth went on, then the large stone and then the lid.
It was left to fester for a while. The barrel was taller than me. (It’s the kind of thing trendy folk might use for a Japanese bath tub now). At first the smell wasn’t too bad. But once the pickling cabbage started to grow fur and a clear liquid would come out of the tap at the bottom, then the stench would set in.
I couldn’t go in to the cellar without holding my nose. There was no way I was going to eat the cabbage. My mother would remove the lid and stone and wipe away the fur on top. I was definitely not going to eat it. I never did. Instead, my parents had to buy saurkraut in a jar for me and keep it as far away as possible from the barrelled stuff.
The neighbours didn’t care for it either. Oh god, Melissa, no, they would complain. Bad cabbage, really bad – waving their hands as the smell would waft out of the back door and around the yards. Bloody foreigners, said the English wives. Bloody liver and onions my mother shouted back.
I think the same huge pan cooked for days. The best thing was the smoked spare ribs in it and the cornmeal ‘pura’ as a side to the cabbage. This was very peasanty Bosnian food.
After a couple of days my mother would tire of eating cabbage and she would throw away the remains, except for the liquid. She couldn’t pour it down the sink, because in those days a packet of lard was added to the pot!
So the liquid went down the drain by the back gate and the neighbours roared in horror. Melissa, bad smell, no! They gesticulated whilst hanging up their washing, every woman in a pinny and hair curlers. The drain would give a final belch as the fat and water oozed in to the underground.
Smiling she would go back in to the house. I give them bloody cabbage she would say.