October is here, and even those of us who live in the urban jungle must acknowledge harvest home. And so, Mr Millard was dispatched into the sodden strip we laughingly call a garden, with a large saucepan, while we stayed indoors and sang "We Plough the Fields and Scatter" around the kitchen island. Ten minutes later, he returned with about five kilos of unripened tomatoes. Cheers all round for the hunter-gatherer.
After this bounty, there were further sorties to the Pound Store for jars, and to Budgens for malt vinegar, sugar and raisins. Barn Owl from the Brownies gave us a bagful of cooking apples, and so our Christmas present-making enterprise was underway.
Christmas presents? When Hallowe'en is still but a distant cloud on the horizon? Well, if Budgens can herald Christmas in September, then I can start making Christmas presents in October. And as green-tomato chutney, which will form the bulk of my gift-base (whether people like it or not), needs three months to ferment, early October is the time.
Three hours and a cut finger later, I survey the fruits of my labour. Twelve kilos of home-grown, home-made, altogether very homely green-tomato chutney, total cost: £12. Decorated with labels designed by the Junior Millards, featuring not only tomatoes but also bees, ladybirds and Princess Aurora. Hurrah, and deck the halls with boughs of holly!
The point is that, as I have designed all my debt-repayment tactics to come to some sort of heady climax in late January, I simply can't risk endangering the whole precariously balanced organisation with Christmas overspend. Plus, home-made stuff is cheap and everyone loves it, and while the children are still young enough to be cute, why not use their art work to good effect?
If you haven't got green tomatoes or Barn Owl's apples to hand, I would suggest just going to the local market (an ordinary one, not a posh farmers' one) and buying a whole bunch of plums, blackberries, apples, pears, pickling onions... anything! Chop it all up, bung in a bit of vinegar and sugar, or wine, pop in a jar, shove on a sticker saying, "Home-made blah blah, Xmas 2006", and a red ribbon, and you're away. I will have saved about £360 on presents.
Which brings me to the latest financial disaster Chez Millard. The Junior Millards are cute when they're doing labels for chutney. They're not so cute when they jump on my bed and murder the mattress, which then murders my back. And so, two months ago, I went to Heal's for a new mattress. Not that thrifty, but the sale was on. And it's where the Marital Bed came from.
I even measured said bed before I went. Naturally, I couldn't find a tape measure, so used a Mr Man 7in ruler. Arriving at Heals, I marched into Bedroom Furniture, and did the proper thing, ie lay on a mattress feeling foolish for about two seconds. The mattress I selected cost around £400, but it was the second cheapest in the store. It was also in the sale. So I ordered one.
This week, having been stitched by Princess Aurora's handmaidens, my New Mattress finally arrives. Two men from Heal's haul it upstairs. In the meantime, I'm in my boudoir, emotionally bidding my Old Mattress farewell. Well, it has been around at key moments.
The Heal's men come in and unceremoniously remove it. They then plonk the New Mattress down. Everyone goes quiet. The New Mattress is about six inches too narrow for my bed. (This, dear reader, is why using a Mr Man 7in ruler for bed measuring isn't recommended.)
"Has this happened to you before?" I ask the men, laughing nervously. "No," they say, heaving my lovely New Mattress back downstairs and driving off.
I get on to Heal's. "Well, your mattress was bespoke," says Mr Bedroom Furniture. How I have come to hate that word... "We'll take it back but you will forgo 25 per cent of the cost." Oh. "And the sale's no longer on. A larger mattress will cost £260 more."
So, a total of £360, exactly what I saved via the green-tomato venture. Plus, another eight weeks of sleeping, hammock-style, on the Old Mattress while the new one is made. It will probably arrive at around the time the chutney is ready. Now you see why I'm so keen on home-made Christmas presents.