‘So what is Milton showing us here? Simon?’
I try to swallow it down, but it keeps flooding back. I remember learning about the salivary glands in biology – three or four years ago now, I suppose. Saliva is a secretion; holds secrets in liquid suspension.
‘What’s the matter, Simon?’ Dr Knowles hiccups a little laugh. ‘Anyone would think you’d been tasting that fruit alongside the devils.’
The entire seminar group swivels round to inspect me. I feel myself writhe in my seat, as if I had indeed been transformed into a snake – just like Satan’s crew. Now, with all eyes upon me, I succeed in swallowing. And yes, it tastes of bitter ashes.
‘Milton’s telling us that the devils were tempted just as Adam and Eve were. And, like them, they taste the bitterness of death.’ I smile at my tutor, and at my fellow students. The true interpretation, of course, is the secret one, the secretion. Good. With luck, Knows-All Knowles won’t bother me again. Now I can return to the real story.
I’m in the garden. It’s soon after we moved to the new house, the one in what my dad liked to call the country but which was actually an edge of the green belt punctured by executive homes. We moved there when my brother was born. That, and the memory’s pinpoint of focus, helps me to date Simon Foster: portrait in childhood.
Looking out of the window of Seminar Room 9, watching the clouds chase each other across the sky like flying kittens, I can see my five-year-old self sitting in my favourite patch of garden, cross-legged against my favourite bush. I call it the Seuss bush, because its pointed top tips over like the famous cat’s hat. Opposite me, in the middle of the lawn, stands an apple tree. I register that its hard green fruits are starting to blush and swell. Summer, then – later in the year than now; warmer. I can feel the tickle of the Seuss bush against my bare skin where my T-shirt has ridden up. When you haven’t yet lived through many summers, you’re still puzzled but excited by its dizzying thrill. Moments like this inject a lifetime’s addiction.
I am eating marshmallows.
They are my mother’s marshmallows. Looking back on it now, I think I can guess why so many bags of marshmallows started appearing in the naughty cupboard, piling up there on the top shelf as though reproducing by vegetative propagation in the dark. They must have been Mum’s comfort food. I noticed, as I grew older, that she often gobbled when she seemed sad. Marina does the same. Later, the reason for my mother’s sadness was my father. But back then, on that summer’s day of Seuss bush and apple tree, the immediate reason was my grandfather. My grandfather was ill.
As I wriggle up against the bush and scoff my fourth marshmallow (I’m learning my numbers, so it’s important to keep counting), I try to make calculations about this shadow that has cast its length over Mum. Dimly, I grasp that grandfather’s illness is serious; my inward eye glimpses the picture of the old, dying elephant in ‘Babar’ and I shudder in sunlight. But I’m also aware, with the callousness of childhood, that this has its advantages: my mother’s too busy to check up on me, so it was easy to push the breakfast bar stool across the kitchen floor, clamber up on it to open the door of the naughty cupboard and reach up to its top shelf, carefully pincering a bag of marshmallows. And here I am near the bottom of the garden with no-one bothering to come and find me.
I lick the sweet stickiness from my fingers and dip into the bag again for number five. Pink, white, pink, white. So it’s time for another pink one. I have to admit that I’ve noticed no difference in taste between the two colours, but privately I prefer the pink even though that’s the favoured colour of my seven-year-old cousin Charlotte who comes with her parents for Sunday lunch from time to time, always wearing something pink and frilly. A pale pink still makes me think of the smell of Sunday roast and the taste of death.
As I finger the plump pink cushion before popping it into my mouth, it occurs to me that it’s a bit like my mother, really – round, soft, comforting. Experimentally, I squeeze its flanks. Yes, it yields as easily as my mother’s arms when she picks me up and I pinch her because I don’t want to go to wherever she’s carrying me.
And now I nibble off a tiny corner – a hint of joys to come before, all foreplay abandoned, I thrust it onto my tongue and suck on heavenly sweetness. With a marshmallow, you can suck and slurp and chew all at the same time. There’s that teasing hint of a shell on the outside, which gives way quickly to the slightly rubbery flesh within, moist with sweetness. So easy for toddler teeth to chew on – a last, lingering syrup of babyhood cascading over the tongue, leaching into the gums.
‘Simon! There you are… I’ve been looking everywhere… Simon! What’s that you’ve got?’
My father, framed for an instant in the French window, has come striding down the garden in his seven-league boots. He scoops me up from the Seuss bush; the bag of marshmallows lands with a soft thud on the grass. I don’t think he’s spotted it, but the first thing he notices about me is the sugared evidence.
‘Don’t pinch my arm like that, Simon. Hey, leave off! You’re making my shirt all sticky.’ For a minute, his voice grows gentle. ‘Come on, old chap, let’s just sit on the sofa here for a minute, and…’
It must have been then that I turn to look at him and he sees my face.
‘What on earth have you been up to? What’s that stuff round your mouth? Bloody hell, Simon, it’s up your nose, as well… Or is that something else? And it’s gone in your hair.’
He picks me up again – more roughly this time, hauling me upstairs while I cling to his chest screaming. And, as he dangles me over the washbasin, he scrapes my face with my Spot the Dog flannel. I’m terrified he’s trying to rub off my skin.
‘As if we didn’t have enough to worry about right now. Simon, you’re a very naughty boy. Daddy’s very cross with you. And Mummy will be so sad when she hears about it. Even more sad than she is already.’
Still hoisted above the basin, I vomit copiously. It’s pale pink vomit, and it slithers towards the plug hole. That’s the first time I actively remember being sick.
So it’s all my fault that my grandfather died. If I hadn’t stolen those marshmallows, he’d have lived. Or at least, if I hadn’t eaten those five, he’d have lived for five days longer. I think I must have been too young to work out all those details at the time, but I remembered the numbers and thought about it a lot. The guilt – that was instantaneous, like a hand grasping my throat and making me choke and puke.
And here is my penance. I never touch marshmallows. They are forbidden flesh, tainted with decay. But I tell myself that if I come across a dried-out, past-its-sell-by-date marshmallow at the bottom of the bag – I’ll eat that one. It will turn to ashes in my mouth. The taste of death.