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'Throughout my childhood, during the Christmas holidays, my siblings and I were sent by our young mother to Edinburgh along with our young Scottish nanny, Maureen, on what was meant to be her own holiday. It didn’t ever seem to occur to Maureen to say no, so we, the four kids that she looked after all year, were the gift that kept on giving. Maureen, aka, Mo, was not a keen flier, and considered the train a faff, so we would pile into the back of her heavily dented car for the eight-hour drive from London to Edinburgh.
Through slanting rain, or clouds of snow, Mo puffed merrily on an ever-glowing Rothman, as we sang Like A Virgin, the Madonna song, for the 48th time, along with the game of flicking her baby soft earlobes whilst she drove, earning low curses and threats of Chinese burns as soon as her hands were free.
My brothers had a particular brand of torture which was to sing a song called ‘Her name is Maureen on a Monday, Maureen,’ which went through all of the days of the week until it became Saturday and her name was Stan, and she dressed up like a man, and then it would start all over again. These were the circumstances under which we finally pulled up in the dark at her familial home on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Mo was the eldest of five children. Her father Pop drove a hearse, and was huge and Brylcreemed, her mother, Effie, fierce and tiny. Pop had a Lazy Boy chair upon which he’d snore like a rumbling dragon as family life unfolded around him. It was frosty, the pebble-dashed house lit up from within, television flickering.
As we stepped out of the car, we were greeted with long lost-style love, and Mo was pulled into the noisy clutch of her family, we alongside her. Gathered on the sofa, in a noisy pile, dinner would then occur. Maureen’s sisters were horrified by the fact that I was at boarding school, and every meal was antidotal. ‘Och, you poor wee bairn, worse than prison, have a lemonade.’ That first night feast is still my favourite thing: breakfast for dinner.
In the kitchen that was always five degrees colder than the rest of the house, Pop made potato farls, using the night before’s mash, occasionally pulling a sweet from behind my ear. A gargantuan, mysterious black skillet was made sizzling hot, and Pop added streaky bacon (I always stopped being vegetarian at Mo’s), fried eggs and tomatoes. His hands were like butcher’s blocks, and he didn’t say much. I could hear the others all laughing next door, Mo becoming broader Scots by the second. The pan spat and chatted. Pop plated up and pulled the farls from the oven. He passed me the butter, and I covered each of them in a yellow slick. It all went on the kitchen table, next to a bottle of Daddies brown sauce. ‘Food!’ Pop yelled.
As I’d helped, I was given the first plate. We took our plates to the living room, balancing them on our knees, the salty yolk of the egg breaking onto the doughy, buttery farl. The sweetness of the lemonade, tempering the salt. The fire roared, Mo’s family roared, and everything felt warm and right.
The deep welcome and acceptance we children were met with in Scotland has stayed with me forever. Welcomed into the bosom of a family that wasn’t ours, but felt like it was, unfailingly.'
Sophie Dahl's children’s book Madame Badobedah, illustrated by Lauren O’Hara (Walker Books, £12.99) is out now – also available as a Bolinda audiobook.