I have to get to the other side. I know I do. I keep telling myself that, over and over again, but I don’t think I can. My little legs are struggling. My feet feel heavy in the sauce. One step at a time. My shoes are slipping off my heels and I’m scared I’m going to lose them. I’m scared of falling. I’m scared the sauce will swallow me up as it thickens. It was my grandmother who said: “The more you stir it, the thicker it gets.” My slender calves are whisks that only stir up trouble. Either I stay still, and the sauce will stay runny, or I carry on walking and it’ll get thicker. If I stay put, I’ll never get to the other side. And if I don’t get across, I’ll die.
“You’ll finish the rest tomorrow,” she said. By the end of the meal, I still hadn’t touched the cauliflower in white sauce. Grandma sent me out, into the hallway. As usual, I turn the light on and sit at the bottom of the stairs. I observe the cauliflower I’ve mashed up with my fork; lumps start to appear as the sauce stiffens. The light goes off. I get up and turn it on again. The cauliflower in white sauce hasn’t budged. I sit back down and stare at it. I keep staring at it, trying to eat it with my eyes. But that would surely take longer than the three minutes before the light goes off again. I always have to get up to turn it back on. Every single time. And the cauliflower still hasn’t budged. The other day, I half-heard Grandma saying “…devoured with his eyes.” She was talking about my big brother. I didn’t know what he’d devoured with his eyes, though. I later found out that it was a girl, not cauliflower. Nevertheless, my big brother loves cauliflower. He even asked Grandma to make cauliflower in sauce for his wedding day. She laughed as she replied, “The worms will have eaten me up long before then.” I didn’t get it. They all love eating. They’re always talking about eating. But I don’t always understand everything they say.
The sauce is sticking to my calves when something soft and warm lands on my cheek. The other day, my big brother shouted, “This is war!” We don’t see Mum anymore, not since she has a new lover. She lives with him and we live with Grandma. Once we asked when she’d be back, and Grandma said that Mum was a hopeless romantic and we could cry over spilt milk as long as we liked but she still wouldn’t remember us. My big brother went nuts. On Sunday morning, he said he wouldn’t be eating with us because he was going to look for Mum. He threw his plate on the floor; the soft cheese spread splattered onto the yellowing kitchen tiles. Grandma smacked him. To get his own back, he scooped the skin off the milk in his mug and screamed as he threw it. It landed on Grandma’s cheek. Cool as a cucumber, she just peeled it off and ate it. She said, “You can tell that you’ve never gone hungry. You don’t know what war is.”
The deafening sound of bombs and gunfire turns into white noise. Everything’s white in this soggy land. I’m the orphan who escaped the bombing and now I’m moving forward with sauce up to my thighs and milk skin soaring overhead. I know that Mum and my big brother died under the rubble mixed into the sauce. I’d have to call out for Grandma to know where to find me, but when I open my mouth it fills up with white sauce. So, I keep it shut. I don’t say a thing. Just like I don’t eat anything when I’m sitting at the bottom of the stairs. I’m wading across. I’m walking. I’m sinking in. Perhaps, this sauce is actually coming out of me. Sometimes I see white dog poop in the yard behind the house. It must be Max, Mrs Roulet’s dog from across the road, who eats the leftover cauliflower in white sauce, because even though Grandma tells me I’ll have to finish the rest tomorrow, the leftovers have always disappeared by then. I think she gives them to Max. In any case, I’m never going to eat it. I don’t want my poo to be white.
That evening, once she’d calmed down, Grandma came to tuck me in. Mum used to tell me stories. She would pick a book, flick through the pages, and show me pictures of Snow White or Tinker Bell. Grandma only knows two stories: The one about her two sons who died in the bombings during the war, and the one about the little girl who didn’t like eating. I don’t like going to bed without a story, but I don’t like her stories. The one about her dead sons is a true story, I know it off by heart: Grandma was looking after my Mum while her two bigger brothers were at school. An American bomb blew their classroom to bits, and the boys too. It was all a sticky, yucky, red, brown and white mush of rubble, children and chalk. Grandma cried so much that her hair went grey overnight. I know perfectly well that she made up the story about the little girl who refused to eat: “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who didn’t like eating. She got so, so, so thin that… that’s already the end of the story. Goodnight, sleep well.” Nevertheless, I still dream of white sauce and milk skin. I shout out for my Mum, but nobody hears me. I’m five years old. Maybe six. I need to get across this white land. This same old nightmare has been waking me up for ages.
Grandma’s ears don’t work very well anymore. She’s old. My big brother says that she wobbles like jelly now, but she never has pudding in the house, let alone jelly. The only pudding she makes is porridge, and it’s supposed to be our supper. It’s runny; the oats stick in my throat. It’s never sweet enough, so I end up back at the bottom of the stairs with my bowl and the light that keeps going off. Grandma says that my tantrums really get up her nose. When she has sleepy dust in the corner of her eyes, I wonder whether it’s because she eats porridge or because my tantrums get into her eyes too.
On the day Grandma died, my big brother had already started his apprenticeship. He told me that as she was dying, she emptied herself and nothing was white anymore, that her sheets and her nightie were full of stinky brown poo, and that perhaps she should have eaten more cauliflower or porridge. I huddled up on the stairs to cry and didn’t even bother to turn the light on. My whole life changed that day. Mrs Roulet came to fetch me and told me that she was both my mother and my grandmother now, and that my big brother was going to live with our uncle. I was twelve years old and yet I didn’t even know we had an uncle. Mrs Roulet is kind, but she often gets muddled and calls me Max.
Mrs Roulet says that the way to someone’s heart is through their tummy and that I need to thicken out a bit. She makes custard and chocolate mousse for me. I daren’t try it, nor ask whether her dog’s bowels spilt out brown or white when he died two years ago. Every mealtime, she’s always saying “Come on, eat up!” She makes me snacks, but I give them to the other girls in my class. She keeps on asking me which are my favourites. I don’t know what to say. I like shaking salt into my hand and licking it; it reminds me of the taste of my tears at the bottom of the stairs. I also like plain Melba toast. And brown bread with Cenovis. She says that isn’t enough to grow tall, but I keep growing anyway and it’s not long before I’m taller than she is.
Mrs Roulet would have loved me to call her Mum, or Grandma, or Auntie, but I never manage to mouth those words. She goes shopping, fills the fridge and kitchen cupboards and tells me to do whatever I want. “You’re big now.” I reply, “Thank you, Danielle,” and she’s off out again, for dinner with a friend. She doesn’t invite me. Anyway, it was always the same: Every time we’d go to a restaurant, she would pay, and I would leave half the food on my plate. So, she decided it was better this way: “You’re big now, help yourself to whatever you want.” Since I don’t know what I want, I eat chocolate biscuits, then pickles because I feel a bit sick, then jam sandwiches because the vinegar has burnt a hole in my tummy. I drink a litre of iced tea and then finish the packet of biscuits so that she won’t see that I’d opened it, and I fall asleep exhausted. It’s been a long time since I was crossing the white land, but that night, I’m back there again. Just like before. I have to get to the other side. I know I do. I keep telling myself that, over and over again, but I don’t think I can. My legs are short again and are struggling. My feet feel heavy in the sauce. Bombs whistle past and milk skin flies overhead. I have to duck to avoid them, but my stomach is so heavy it’s hard to bend over. In my dream, I know that I am fifteen and that there’s no point calling out for Mum. Yet, I summon up all my strength to open my mouth. And I wake up retching.
This short story was awarded joint third prize in the short story competition Writing about food disgust organised by the Alimentarium in autumn 2020.
(Translated from the original in French)