When ice cream is more than just ice cream
A number of objects, themes and settings can be used in fiction to ground the action; to make it real. Characters seem to spring to life when they dance and run, embrace or cry; but little adds subtle weight to a story better than food and drink. The way the hero of the piece holds a fork; the way his rival points his knife, and crams chips into his mouth, dripping with sauce or mayonnaise.
We have read of a princess daintily spooning crème brûlée into pursed lips while thinking of her figure. We have watched children greedily tuck into filled rolls after a swim, dangling feet off a jetty and smiling through lettuce, cheese and tomato. We have nodded as we recognize the lunchtime hunger of high school students standing in a canteen line and eyeing dreary mashed potato, grey peas and watery stew. We have read of a portly parish priest waiting at a stained tablecloth for his meagre lamb chop and claret, while jealously thinking of the mayor and a large poached salmon, two doors down the high street.
In my novel How to Disappear, which is written in lyrical repetitive language used to express the tone and mood of the female protagonist’s situation, I try to express longing, or boredom, or happiness, or grief through food. It also jogs readers’ memories about food and the roles it played in their young lives. The emotional episodes of my youth and childhood were all accompanied by food. There was the miserly thin meat of school dinners, the generosity of grandparents and their trifle and roast pork. There was the clumsy attempt at baking a first cake, poorly iced but so delicious, and the boiled eggs and toast fingers of the sick bed. And how could I forget the struggle of learning to eat spaghetti?
The challenge in my novel is to make it as subtle as I can, to portray the waking emotions of a woman too long stifled and suppressed by the people she thought loved her. Here is an excerpt taken from the first section of this two-part novel:
She watched him eat two hamburgers, grasping them like they were alive, like they would escape if he loosened those spatulate fingers. Flattened fingernails. Tinged a kind of mauve underneath broad ridged nails. Rolled up sleeves on his blue, blue shirt revealing sinewy muscles and hairs bleached and bristly. Working jaw, chewing, square, what her friend Thelma might label strong and scary. He could be an axe murderer, she’d said.
‘I told … I said I was taking the coach. Except to Thelma. I told Thelma I’d met you again.’
Raised his eyes. Oh. Dark, dark brown in here out of the sun. ‘Again?’
‘Since school and all that.’
Laughed. ‘All that you hardly remember.’
Wiped his mouth in long drags, side to side, with a paper napkin folded into a strip, a horizontal thing, left to right, right to left. Taking a deep breath, smiling hugely. ‘That hit the spot.’ Drinking tea like it was necessary. ‘Do you want more tea?’
‘And something from … A cake, or something?’
Oh. Wanting, needing, wanting to enjoy this properly. ‘Ice cream. Let’s have ice cream.’
‘Now, Selby-Brixham-Bec-Winmarley, now go ahead and enjoy this properly then.’
How did he know? Walked over to the counter. Watched the girl pile three differently-coloured scoops into a fluted ice-cream dish. ‘Do you want nuts or sprinkles with that?’
Morgue calling from the table. ‘Both! Both!’
It was a holiday. She didn’t know, three days ago, that she wanted a holiday. Had not even wished for one. And here she was, dipping, dipping a spoon, taking turns with two spoons. Laughing. Scooping up green, cream, pink ice cream tasting of real cream, country cream. Avoiding the nuts in the dish. Sharing ice cream. With two spoons. Never done before.
‘You don’t like nuts.’ Not a question, but a mental note taken. He would remember, like he remembered her graduation ball gown.
‘Are we on holiday?’ Shaking, lowering her head and smiling. ‘I must be crazy.’
‘You are. You left town with this guy you hardly remember from school. Just like that.’ Broad smile.
That hot tea, those hamburgers, the ice cream, those nuts; they frame the action and are more than mere props. There is meaning, emotional meaning, in their invention. Although a writer rarely stops to think too much about the food placed in a story, it is intuitively chosen for its suggestions, its hints. It is emotional, communicative, suggestive of the feelings floating around the characters as they play out the complications. We call the complications plot, we call the food and utensils, the plates and cutlery props, but a good writer knows they are more than that. They are carriers of mood, emotion and meaning, and they travel from writer to reader like the scent of herbs and garlic, or of caramel, lemons, and vanilla. Food is introduced and served a number of times through the narrative, and it always carries the weight of meaningfulness.
Enjoy the next course by finding this novel on Amazon and eating and drinking with the protagonist on her adventure.