Wednesday November 1, 2006
It's late summer 1973, Washington new town, Tyne and Wear. Our new house smells amazing because the carpets have just been laid. This is our family's first house - we've been living with my grandparents until now - and it's still exciting to explore. I've been playing my new game: climbing to the top of the stairs and throwing myself back down. My chest and belly are scabby with carpet burns and I'm trembling with adrenalin. I push my face into the pile once more. It smells good. I need to explore. It's all so huge. There are no doors downstairs, so you can run in a big circle between the rooms. The kitchen is bright and unfriendly, but I can see Mam in the back garden talking to her new neighbour about the house-warming party she's having this evening. The best thing in the kitchen is the washing machine. It has big orange buttons and a purple plastic door, which turns the world purple when you squash your face against it and look through. I can't see much from that angle, just the cupboard door and a bit of lino, so I try to get inside. It looks good in there anyway - shiny like a spaceship with a million little holes to put your finger in. I put my head in and try to force the rest, but my shoulders are too big and the catch is hurting my arm, so I give up.
I wander back into the front room where there is a coffee table my grandad made. He smells of Woodbines and can make anything. It is covered in pretty-coloured glass bowls filled with snacks for the party, some of which I recognise, some I don't. More exploring. I'm curious to find out what tastes good. Crisps do - I know that already, so I eat them, enjoying the salt and the crunchy bites. A very different bite goes with the pink and white marshmallows. They're soft and you can put more in your mouth than you'd think. I've learned a good trick with them - if you do a sort of sicky burp move with your stomach, you can bring them back into your mouth and chew them a second time. I like doing this because they taste different second time around. Then there are orange squares on a stick with yellow squares. The yellow squares are pineapple chunks and are tasty, a bit like sweets, but not quite as good. Mam lets me drink the juice from the tin when we have them for tea. The orange squares are cheese. I suck on one, even though I know it won't be good. It isn't, so I put it back in the bowl. Grown-ups' food. Horrible. On another square, there's a little onion. That's good - crunchy and squirty-tasting. I eat more, making sure I leave the orange squares behind. Tomatoes. They're disgusting.
There's a bowl of slices. It's the slimy green pips that are worst. Still, I'm feeling curious. I want to know if I can ever like this stuff. No way. I can't even swallow it. I spit it out and hide it under a cushion. There is no way I will like that taste. Ever. I'm feeling full, but it's fun.
There's a bowl of things I've not seen before. They're almost the colour of crisps and have a weird smell that makes the back of my tongue clench against the opening of my throat. I pick one up. It's hard, so I roll it between my palms before putting it in my mouth. It's salty and crunchy and . . . No. Something's wrong. My mouth itches. It's tingling and itchy and my throat feels like a cactus. I stagger away from the table. I spit the last bit from my mouth. I'm starting to drool. I can't stop the slobber. It's pouring from the corners of my mouth like a left-on tap. Now my stomach is doing a weird thing. It's wobbling like I'm on my swing, but in a bad way. It's a bit scary. No - it's really scary. Something bad is happening and I have no idea what it is. I start moaning. "Mam!" Where is she? "Mam!" She'll help. My stomach clamps, like a strangling fist. I throw my stomach contents in an arc across the carpet. "Mam!" I start to run. Another arc. "Mam!" I slip in the sludge of half- digested nibbles. "Mam!" I run between every room, tramping secondhand crisps, pickled onions, marshmallows and pineapple into the new carpet. My beautiful 24-year-old mother appears like an angel. I run with arms stretching out for comfort. I'm scooped into the air. Everything's all right. She holds me under the armpits with her left arm. My trousers are down. She swings. I rock from the first blow. My tiny arse stings. I puke down her arm. She's shouting something about carpets, parties and a little shit.
Later I sit at the foot of the stairs, too exhausted to sob any more than an odd hiccup of sorrow. My mother is still angry, scrubbing the last traces before her guests arrive. The smell of sick can't hide behind this new smell called Dettol and decorates the air like sorrow. I don't know the word, but I know I'm allergic to peanuts. I know I don't like tomatoes or cheese. I know I like crisps and marshmallows. The sobbing subsides to exhausted calm. I feel empty and good, everything seems clear and easy to understand. I think about the food - its flavours and how it felt in my mouth, how different each thing was, how it could taste of joy, revulsion or painful destruction. I don't think of it as a thing that stops me from being hungry. I know it is much more than that. Food is an adventure.
On my 13th birthday, my mum made tea for a few of my friends. There was a bowl of olives on the table. My dad's Greek, so we ate a lot of Mediterranean food as I grew up. Ewan didn't. His diet was more traditional west coast of Scotland - Lorne sausage, potato waffles and Angel's Delight. He'd never seen an olive before. That seems odd in 2006, but in Glasgow in 1985, olives were odd.
"It's an olive."
"It's just a thing you eat."
"What's it taste like?"
At this point my mother came into the room.
"Do you like grapes?"
"Yeah, I love grapes."
"You'll probably love olives then."
Of course he didn't. His face contorted as the expected sweetness gave way to the lie of briny bile, revolted mouth twisting to drop a pool of black gob on the plate. I'm still amazed by my mother's reasoning. As Andy starts to chew, I absentmindedly guess at the thought process: grapes look like olives - I like grapes, I like olives - they taste like each other. There's fear in the eyes.
The revolted mouth twists.
Out it comes.
"It's nothing like chicken".