The Sweetest Thing

I’ve bought 5lbs of modeling chocolate. I’ve got something important to make.

 

I always loved chocolate, and was rarely allowed it. Mum locked the cupboards. Chocolate was a treat or a reward, and had to be earned. The next day she would make me stand on the scales and show me my shame in numbers.

 

As soon as I left home, I was free to eat all I wanted but it seemed I was never full. I buried myself in layer on layer of comfort. Mum said I was a disgrace.

 

‘I don’t care,’ I said, ‘I’m done trying to please you.’ But it wasn’t true. Her approval and her disgust were all mixed up in my head.

 

I met a girl. I thought she saw the real me under the folds of my disguise. We were friends. Until one night I misread her kindness and tried to kiss her. She recoiled.

 

I immediately saw my advance for what it was: the clumsy lurch of a greedy child. I tried to apologise but the words got stuck in my teeth.

 

It was later that the anger took root. It was when I saw her moving around, unaffected, still smiling and existing, as though I’d never touched her. Hot rage grew in me like a gnawing hunger.

 

It has to be chocolate. You can’t easily make the same kinds of shapes with buttercream, marzipan, or fondant. You can’t mould a person.

 

I make her beautiful. I carve her hair, shape the curves of her body, pinprick her eyes. I don’t give her a mouth, so she can’t tell me I’m not good enough. She can’t tell me no.

 

I stand her on the kitchen counter and look at her a while.

 

Then I smash her, and swallow her piece by piece.

 

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Ashley at the the zoo

I took my nephew Ashley to the zoo the day his parents divorced.

His mother, my sister, was celebrating her officially-recognised freedom by taking a plane to St Lucia with the photocopier repair man from her office.

I helped Ashley climb up onto the viewing platform so he could stand eye-to-eye with the giraffes. His little face was pink and streaked with snot, and utterly serious.

‘You are very tall indeed,’ he told the animal lumbering towards him, and held out his chubby hand to be sniffed.

I thought of his mother, on the beach by now, strawberry daiquiri in hand, and hugged Ashley to me as we watched the gathering clouds.

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Celery

I hate celery. I’m annoyed about hating it, since I generally pride myself on being an unfussy eater. But really, what’s the point of it? It’s like corrugated cardboard. It looks as though it should taste of nothing, but in reality it’s revolting, and the worst thing is that its appearance does nothing to warn you of this. It’s the disguise I resent the most. At least porridge, the only other thing I won’t eat, looks like something you don’t want to put in your mouth.

It was the third date. Everyone knows the third date is The One, the pivotal moment. We agreed I would go to his flat and he would cook, and we both pretended I would get a taxi home (my toothbrush and spare pants were, of course, stashed in my bag). The smells from the kitchen were divine. Onions, garlic and white wine. He was cooking risotto, and as I watched him stirring in the butter and cheese at the final stages, generous, indulgent handfuls of parmesan, I thought, I like this guy.

He lit candles. We sat down and tucked in. I smiled at him as I brought the fork to my mouth.

And that’s when I saw it.

You can’t pick celery out of risotto.

I’ve trained myself to eat olives, and raisins. But I won’t do that for celery. Celery doesn’t deserve my time and effort.

I ate the risotto, I felt it was only polite. But there was no fourth date.

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The Hiding Tree

 

The tree I can’t stop looking at stands in the middle of the green, in the middle of a village whose name has too few vowels for my English tongue to properly pronounce.

We’re here for a wedding; Mike’s old school friend is marrying Agnieszka, at last. We’ve been promised three days straight of vodka and dancing, so we decided to rent a small house a little way from the venue, so that we can duck out if we need to.

The secret no-one but us knows yet is that I’m pregnant, so while the dancing will probably be okay, the vodka certainly will not. Mike will switch my shot glasses for water when no-one’s looking.

There is a plaque, brown and gold, in front of the tree, commemorating its success: it was recently named International Tree of the Year.

I never knew there was such a thing.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very nice tree. I imagine it was surrounded by others, once, others that were felled to make way for what they call the ‘new’ half of the village, built in the 1960s. But this tree was spared. It has a fine thick trunk, and branches that stretch like worshipful arms towards the heavens.

 

But its history is the reason it was commended.

In the early 1940s a Jewish family hid in this tree for two years and so avoided deportation to Auschwitz. The villagers brought meat and bread in the night, paper parcels laid as offerings next to a hole in the trunk from which a thin white arm would emerge in the darkness to gather them.

Two years.

I imagine the curled bodies, matted hair, dirty skin, lying among the crawling creatures and rotting mulch. A life lived in silence and shade. I wonder how many they were, whether they held hands, prayed, dreamed. I think of them finally, finally, coming into the light, unfurling their limbs and blinking, spitting dust and leaves as their tongues rolled in their mouths, remembering at last how to form words.

 

The hole they came out of has been filled in, now, and I move closer to try to see or feel the difference in texture that belies the once secret doorway, but find no obvious clues. The deep ridges of its belly are as beautiful as wrinkles on the face of a lover. I lean into the bark, inhaling its scent. I reach my arms around the trunk and find that however hard I stretch, the tips of my fingers won’t meet around the other side. I imagine that the tree breathes and moves in my embrace. Turning my head, I press my ear against the wood and listen, the way you might hold up a conch in the hope of hearing the ocean. I am listening for voices, for heartbeats. There is a faint rustling, nothing more, and I wonder what lives this tree continues to contain, what beauty and hope now grow inside it.

When I step away, there are traces of bark, of damp moss, clinging to me, little slivers of brown and green on my clothes.

 

I place a hand on my still-flat tummy, fancying I can feel the shape of the life that we have already dared name in hushed conversations under covers, a tadpole, a bean, a tiny thing doing nothing but the business of becoming.

The tree stands, steadfast as a mother, yet ever changing, edging skyward in imperceptible shifts.

Its roots chart a course beyond anyone’s reach, whispering their secrets to the earth.

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Melissa Smit

Melissa Smit. Your voice, your very name

a lisp, your hissing tongue,

your backcombed hair.

Bubblegum pink and baby blues,

and blonde, so blonde, but I knew you,

I saw through

the wide-eyed looks, the way you took

a sherbet dip-dab to your lips

and licked, and licked

and locked on him, on him, my Jim,

my all-time love. Your whispered words

and berry mouth

too much to resist, your apple bite,

your serpent’s kiss.

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Fairytale of New York

My first glimpse of the city, from the back of a yellow cab, was of the Empire State building lit in Christmas colours of red and green. The Hudson shimmered with reflected sykscrapers and I knew the instant we crossed the bridge that I was a city girl, an urban animal, and that the bustle and noise of this place would take a bite from my heart.

Movie scenes met us on every corner, in this unreal place where we cricked our necks looking higher, higher, the spires of St Patrick’s reaching for a sky filling with snow. Even the steam from the drains, the litter and the sirens had a kind of grimy glamour. I was falling in love.

Two years and a week later, the same man who showed me my city, via helicopter, boat and foot, proposed to me as the ball dropped and ticker tape rained down.

A little under ten years on, he was back in Central Park, where we had skated and fallen, marrying someone else.
Our small son stood between them, wearing a waistcoat for the very first time.

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He’s always a legend to me: in praise of Billy Joel

There’s a scene in classic rom-com Love Actually when Bad Harry teases his wife for still listening to Joni Mitchell. She replies, ‘I love her. And true love lasts a lifetime.’ It always makes me smile and think of me and Billy: an (admittedly one-sided) love that’s coming up for 30 years and shows no sign of abating. I recently saw him perform live for the 8th time, and it caused me to reflect on where this love originated and what it’s meant in my life.

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Giddy as you like in September

Getting ready for the Wembley Stadium concert last September, which I suspected might be the last time I’d see him (although I’ve been wrong before, so here’s hoping), I thought it would be fun to dig out my teenage diary from 21st May 1990 – the date of my first Billy Joel concert.

In a manner to be expected of a nearly-14-year-old, I (1) talk more about the minibus journey from Bolton to London and back (arriving home at 4.33AM Tuesday morning – responsible behaviour from the teachers who took us?!) than the concert itself, and (2) employ mainly generic superlatives e.g. ‘fantastic, wonderful, unbelievable’. A flick through the pages preceding the gig is revealing, featuring countdowns to the big night, and Billy’s birthday (9th May) duly noted (was I planning to send him a card, I wonder?).

How and when did the obsession (which was not a normal one, to be honest, in the days when most girls my age were attaching Grolsch bottle tops to their shoes and swooning over those blonde twins, oh and The Other One that Smash Hits called Ken) begin? As with so many of these stories, there was a boy, of course. A boy I had a crush on made me a mix tape (for younger readers, this is what we had before playlists. They were ace and we would search them frantically for romantic meaning, of which there was usually none. For further illustration of this, see Avenue Q, below, which spookily enough references Billy Joel*).

I became hooked on the same things I love today: his melodies, his piano playing, the sheer variety of his music, which ranged from jazz to pop to rock through classical and blues, and probably above all (being a bit of a fan of the words even then) his lyrics. I thought he was just a brilliant writer. I liked the way he used songs to tell stories; and those stories were about ordinary people, who, although they were usually from another continent, were people I could recognise, people I might know. He wrote about working class (or lower middle class), ordinary people.

I fell in love with Brenda and Eddie (see Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, best song ever, by anyone, yes ever), Anthony who worked in the grocery store, Bobby, who was driving through the city in a hot new rent-a-car, and Virginia with her much-coveted, well, virginity. I fantasised about the places: it was no coincidence that, later, New York would become my favourite place in the world. It was a kind of pilgrimage for me: while other people’s ‘must see’ lists were headed by the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty, I sought out the Staten Island Ferry, Mulberry St, Sullivan St, and thrilled when I found them, humming to myself in a triumphant, dreamy way.

Now, it will probably come as no surprise to hear that the 14-year-old me was a full-on geek (and geekdom was not cool then, as it is now). Evidence: we did a kind of ‘show and tell’ in an English lesson, which was really just a ‘tell’, when we all had to get up and talk about something we really, really liked. I talked about Billy. I read out THE ENTIRE LYRICS to Goodnight Saigon (it’s a seven minute song, folks, and it includes the lines: We came in spastic / like tameless horses / We left in plastic / as numbered corpses). It’s fair to say the room fell into stunned silence. Not just a geek, a socially-conscious, earnest geek at that.

Then there was another boy. I wanted to kiss him so I made him sit on my sofa and watch the entire ‘Russia concert’ (again, see Avenue Q) and waited for a slow track (Baby Grand, I still remember it – not particularly conducive to smooching, being a love song to, well, a piano) during which to make my move. It wasn’t the last time I tried to enforce a Billy initiation as a precursor to romance; I can’t say it’s always been successful. I soon came to realise that not everyone would understand Billy as I did; and no-one, no-one, could love him as I did.

Over time my tastes broadened and eventually I could even pretend to be a little bit cool, because I started to like bands other, cooler, people liked (see: Stone Roses, Libertines, Arctic Monkeys. OK, hardly ground-breaking, but a step up for someone who had Genesis and Sting posters on her wall at uni). But I never lost my Billy Joel obsession, although at times I expressed it like a guilty pleasure. I continued to be frustrated by people whose eyes would glaze over and who would then mumble, ‘Uptown Girl, right? Er…that one about the river?’, would continue to suppress the urge to tie them down and perform a kind of inverse Ludovico technique on them, forcing open their ears while they absorbed the full glory of his back catalogue (particularly The Stranger, Turnstiles, and 52nd Street, since you’re asking). Every now and again, I would meet someone who shared The Love; in this crucible were special friendships forged.

Mostly though, as with all the best love affairs, it was just me and Him (yeah that’s right – I just capitalised him). He was with me through all of the growing up, the joys and the disappointments, of teens, twenties, thirties and he’s still with me in this proper adulting bit that’s happening right now. He’s my all-time favourite and that means for all time.

True love lasts a lifetime.

Thanks, Billy. Happy birthday. Don’t take any shit from anybody.

 

*’Mixtape’ from Avenue Q:

 

 

 

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