In fact, starting out, the novel was a barely fictionalised version of the major event of my childhood: my parents splitting up. But as my character became more fully realised, the story moved away from this territory. Iris's mother - Anna - for instance, while having traits in common with my mum, acts in a way my mum never would: leaving her family to drive across Tunisia in a sky blue Transit van. And unfortunately, Trick, the young Irish Traveller, is pure imagination...
But d'you know what I stole entirely from my childhood? Barefaced thievery, without even attempt at concealment or disguise? The food. Not only are Pot Noodles and cheese and bean toasties a mainstay of Iris's diet (I ate a lot of these at my dad's house) she also invents a meal of her own. A meal fit for queens and kings: chicken and mushroom soup spaghetti. Only a few months ago my dad and I argued over who invented this meal. Both of us claim the honour of bringing it into the world.
So imagine my surprise to discover that almost everyone who read this scene when I first shared it with my critique mates found the meal disgusting. Worse, they felt sorry for my characters that this was the kind of fare they were eating!
Without further ado, I will post this very-early-and-now-deleted scene here, readers. You may make up your mind on this important debate for yourselves.
Sam stuck his head round the door. He did his machine gun monotone. “What’s for tea?”
Dad rubbed his thumb into his palm under the hot tap. His hands were filthy from work.
“Crisps on toast?”
This was Dad’s idea of a joke. It meant he hadn’t done the shopping. Sam didn’t laugh.
“I’ll make it,” I said. How hard could it be?
Sam went through to the living room, and put the telly on.
“I’ll leave it with you then, Eye,” Dad said, drying his hands. “You’re a better man than me.”
I looked in the pantry: bread, pasta, crisps, pickled onions, tins.
Dad bought tins even when we’d already got tins – baked beans, pineapple chunks, soup – we were never short of these things. I opened a can of chicken soup and poured it into the biggest saucepan I could find, then sluiced a mushroom soup in, using the tea leftover in the metal teapot on the back of the Aga to wash out the leftovers, a la Dad.
A few minutes later, Dad walked through the kitchen, tanned knees poking out the holes in his faded jeans, brown hair wild around his head. He opened the living room door to go and watch telly, and I heard David Attenborough say:
“... from this vantage point, the lioness can scan, unobserved, miles of unforgiving...”
Bubbles emerged from the mixture, I poured in a pack of spaghetti, forcing the ends down until they were covered. I went to watch telly too.
Dad was in his green leather armchair by the unlit fire. Sam was in the seat next to him, a floral itchy thing that was Nanny's before she died. I took the settee, which at night-time became our dog Fiasco’s bed.
Stuck to the ceiling was a mysterious dollop of tomato sauce of which we all denied knowledge.
On telly, a lion stalked a gazelle.
“Oh no!” I said. “It’s got separated from its family.”
“From the herd, dickhead.”
“Sam,” Dad said.
The gazelle’s eyes stared straight ahead, bow legs still trying to run away as the lion tore a chunk out of its throat. Settling down onto all fours, the lion’s chest heaved sharp pants as it drained the blood from the gazelle’s throat.
I went back into the kitchen. The spaghetti was changing. If it wasn’t soft, it was at least chewy.
Everything was fine except that the meal was grey like the inside of a toilet roll. I tried to think of other foods that were grey like the inside of a toilet roll.
“How’s it going, Eye?” Dad asked, looking over my shoulder.
“Pork is a grey food.”
“Does it taste alright?”
“Course,” I said, getting a teaspoon and tasting it for the first time. “It tastes like chicken and mushroom soup.”
“What’ve you put in there?”
“Chicken and mushroom soup. And spaghetti.”
He held his hand out for the spoon.
“Mmm,” he said. “Soupy!”
Sam leaned round the door frame from the living room. “I’m meeting Benjy at seven.”
“It’s ready.” Dad told him and I wanted to whoop because this was the closest he’d ever come to favouritism.
“Five minutes,” I said, making the most of it.
“Is that all you can say?”
“No, I can say dickhead as well. Dickhead.”
“Iris,” Dad said.
Sam went into the living room, and it became clear what the dish needed. Sweetcorn. I opened a can and shook some in.
“Maybe chilli powder too?” Dad said. I nodded and he sprinkled it on.
“It is no longer a grey meal,” I said, splitting a strand of spaghetti for us to try.
Dad slopped out three portions. Ever keen to up the colour count, I added orange cheese.
We sat down at the table.
“This is disgusting,” Sam said.
He dropped a strand of spaghetti on the floor. Fiasco sniffed at it.
“Even the dog won’t eat it. Look!”
“You are an ungrateful little sod sometimes, Sam. It’s lovely, Eye. Thank you.”
The truth was somewhere between the two.
So? Verdicts please! Would you be happy to eat Iris's feast?
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