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Nuala McCann: My £2 bargain Christmas cake is a shaft of warm light amid January's bleakness

January is a bleak month but there are signs of new life, with the first spring bulbs poking through the soil.

JANUARY is bleak.

It feels dark, dank, miserable on our evening walks.

The fairy lights, the giant blow-up reindeer and Santas have been exiled to garages and attics.

We mourn them as we walk.

Without the baubles, our trees are wet black boughs and our neighbourhood gardens misty barren.

Looking for comfort, I found the leftover Christmas cake on the Co-Op shelf.

It was a bargain. Ma would have approved.

Every year, I promise to make a cake,

This year, I begged a recipe from my cousin but time played its usual trick.

Now, the bags of dried fruit and candied peel give me the evil eye when I open the kitchen cupboard. I never got round to that cake.

So mid-January, I bought the bargain Christmas cake with a thick layer of marzipan and rocky white icing and little red baubles painted on top.

I have eaten it crumb by sainted curranted crumb, sliver by sliver.

It was to die for and all the more welcome for the £2 price.

The cake brought back memories of the 1960s - that era of the blue formica kitchen table; of a tiny black and white television with a button at the back that you twiddled every time the picture went wonky.

I can see my brother getting me to hold the portable aerial up at just such an angle to get the picture right.

"Stay there," he'd say and me - wobbling on one leg like Cupid poised to fire the arrow - froze as he watched Tomorrow's World.

It was a time before central heating when we curled up in our nylon nighties (synthetics were king), barefoot at the marble hearth on winter mornings as my father knelt twisting newspapers, wigwaming sticks, lighting the fire.

In those simpler times, the post was a surprise.

None more so than when a tiny box landed in our hall.

Those boxes were invariably white and decorated with silver – the etching on the front might be a church with a high spire or the swirl of a silhouette of a bride.

It was what married couples sent out after their wedding to people who did not make the ceremony.

Inside, bundled up in a lacy paper doily, lay a slice of wedding cake.

My mother often gifted me the treat... brandied brown crumbs, fat raisins, cherries, marzipan and sweet white icing... The taste sweeps me back to a childhood where women wore housecoats and developed mangle muscles.

Once my aunt was staying with us and she received a letter from her daughter who was on holiday in France.

She put it in the pocket of her housecoat to read later but my little sister followed her about.

"Open your letter, please open it," she said to our aunt. "You never know, there might be money inside."

My aunt laughed loud at the child's optimism.

But my little sister was used to birthday cards with a 10 shilling note tucked inside - a present from indulgent aunts and uncles.

She got excited at the thought of a letter or a card.

If money in a card is an old tradition, then so are Christmas cards.

I packed away our cards last week and thought that, like the sliver of wedding cake in the post, hand written cards are a dying tradition.

Outside, the garden seems to be dying too but look closely and you'll see that the first daffodils are poking their noses through the dark soil.

It's time to dream of the spring ahead, the new hope that comes with the first shy snowdrop and the purple and golden flash of a crocus.

There is a bog lily that has lost the run of itself out my front - it could be the daddy of that huge man-eating plant in the Little Shop of Horrors.

I have a clematis that is hardly worth the effort, but you never know, let's see what this year brings.

My sister has taken a shine to gardening too. She wants yellow roses and a clematis and a hedge of lavender.

"First you'll need to fork in a good few bags of manure," I tell her.

She wrinkles her nose as she was never a dried cow-clap kind of a girl.

But there's a whiff of hope in the pale yellow winter sunlight.

We're holding out for St Brigid's Day.

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