Nana’s salted caramels!
My gullet was slavering …
But the tart tsunami of toffee goodness became too much, and I was soon gagging and retching my way up from deep sleep terror to eye-blinking consciousness.
The aftertaste of the forbidden still lingered, as my fingers brushed my tender throat and the familiar bedroom landmarks reassembled in the darkness.
Jane shifted slightly beside me but quickly resumed her softly undulating snores.
The beating in my chest subsided.
Nana’s salted caramels!
Such a defining childhood taste and memory.
In their plain dark brown tube on the little round bedside table in her bedroom.
Beside the large chair with the secret commode under the huge red velvet cushion.
The “do-it-yourself” toilet, as I had christened it, to mom’s great amusement.
How good it was to draw that tinkling laugh.
The commode chair had been in Nana’s family for generations but it was only for sitting on now. But my brothers and I still giggled over it.
So long since I had visited Nana … but today was the day.
Way back then there was no-one I feared more, or wanted more to please.
This lover of obscure experimental piano music, painter of wild, swirling abstract oils, and sometime composer of lush pastoral verses of varying metres and lengths.
I’d bring my own eager rhymes sometimes to the studio table in her whitewashed cottage outside the town, rapping on the bright red wooden door, and, if it had rained, dodging the thick droplets dripping from the ivy above it, as I waited for her call.
Inside, and pushing my words against her tweedy sleeve, I would wait.
As she read, a smile or softening glint in those complicated grey eyes behind those oversized tortoiseshell glasses would have the hairs on the back of my neck tingling with pride.
And if she was particularly impressed, there would be a visit to the bedside table, and a precious salted caramel would soon be liquid swishing gold in my honoured throat.
Less than full acclaim, however, would have me blushing in embarrassment.
No salted caramel either.
Even if I would be spurred to greater efforts.
She could never fake her responses, and maybe that’s why mom had no interest in anything artistic.
She fascinated me, though.
Her thick blond-grey hair was always tied back, but long strands were forever escaping and she would them brush back with one densely-bangled hand as she appraised me fiercely me from behind those large spectacles.
It was hard to know which came first her creativity or the move to this cottage in a windswept patch of untamed natural beauty.
With quiet Granddad Ian, flute player and pleasantly musty, leather arm-patched professor of Celtic mythology, and explorer of local ring forts and feasting places.
Grandad was long dead now, though Nana had recently told mom she would sometimes hear a faint but familiar melody lilting in off Cnoc Draoichta, or Magic Hill.
Still writing and still painting, my now white-haired Nana remained steadfast in her retreat, still rock star momma chic in her tweed jackets, shirt with upturned collars and colourful scarves.
Our 12 and 10-year-old girls barely remembered her.
Nana Marie, they called her. They were around 5 and 3 the last time we called in.
But they remembered her caramels.
She got them in that wonderful little shop in the village.
The two English women who owned it made their own toffee and fudge, and stuffed them in alongside all the sweets and bars in two glass cases on the smooth dark wood counter.
Jane had the immersion on now, and the girls weren’t too hostile to us or each other as they showered and got themselves ready quickly.
Clare, the 12-year-old, had been reluctant, but the promise of a nail job in that Thai place in town did the trick.
And I had made sure her iPhone was fully charged.
Myself and herself were clashing more and more recently, and she would give my stories and hard-won wisdom short shrift.
Her sister Mandy scoffed at my stupid dad jokes but would be smiling as she scolded me for knowing nothing about Snapchat or mispronouncing Billy Eilish, Clare’s favourite singer.
“It’s Eye-lish, not Eye-lash, Dad!”
Mandy said Nana had told her the last time those caramels were made by elves in the little forest just across the field.
“And Granddad Ian said the secret recipe was buried in a fairy mound near an enchanted tree, and could only be found by girls named Mandy, with red hair and blue eyes — like me!
“He was so lovely.”
The motorway was busy but the journey was calm and quick and soon we were knocking on the red door.
Slightly stooped now, and tapping along with a cool blackthorn walking stick, Nan seemed pleased to see us, even if she turned away sharply after I hugged her awkwardly.
Still remembered the day I took that salted caramel!
I had told the girls the story as we drove, feeling my cheeks blush as I did so.
They seemed more amused than anything.
I had worked really hard on a poem about our dog Lily and was bursting with pride as I rapped on Nana’s door that long ago day.
She was working on a painting of what looked like a golden horse and blue rider galloping up a purple mountain, but I didn’t dare ask her about it.
I don’t recall the poem now, but Nana’s upturned mouth and doubtful frown, left me in no doubt.
Not bad, she said, as she passed the sheet back to me, but the eyes said it all.
I said nothing as she picked up the coal bucket and went outside.
Angry and flushed, I headed for the bedroom.
The plain brown tube taunted me, and in a flush of temper, I peeled back the lid, and took one gleaming oval-shape out.
I stuffed it in my mouth, waiting for the liquid magic too sanctify my mood.
But it didn’t taste anything like as good as it usually did, and I swallowed it quickly, and retreated to the kitchen.
Nana said she was making tea, and had a gorgeous apple pie in the cupboard, but I grabbed my verse and told her I still had some homework to finish off.
It was weeks before I returned to Nana’s house, and even then I did not go alone.
Mom wondered why Nana was a little off, but the older lady and I knew why.
Now the girls sat in the unchanged kitchen and they were the ones that were not easily impressed, as Nana held court.
She was talking about multi-media artist Dorothy Cross’s latest project, the Heartship, an old navy ship travelling up the coast, with an ancient heart, in a heart-shaped-case, on board, and singer Lisa Hannigan was involved, and it was being filmed, of course.
Inspired by people dying in the Mediterranean, apparently, refugees …
“She’s certainly good at getting the newspapers and telly people onside, anyway,” I observed.
“Because she is so talented, and imaginative,” said Nana, bolt upright, her white right knuckle clenching the top of her walking stick.
Mandy had been staring out the far window, lost in those far off hills, but the tartness in our exchange had drawn her back to us.
Clare came up from behind her downturned mop of sullen chestnut hair to tell us she was going to the toilet.
The elongated seconds clung to the awkward silence.
After a while I began to wonder why it was taking Clare so long.
She came in and sat near Nana’s chair.
The old lady looked at her, narrowing her eyes in that fierce scrutiny I remembered so well.
“What’s that little golden streak in the corner of your mouth,” she asked.
Clare’s own complicated grey eyes narrowed as she licked her lips and casually replied.
“Mmmm, I just love salted caramels!”
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