By Maya Little
When she was seven and in hospital for the first time, her dad gave her a Cadbury Milk Tray. This contained two rarities: chocolate, and the attentions of her father.
Every night when the nurse had come and drawn the curtains around her bed, she would lay her bare feet on the floor, reach under her bed, and pull out the box. She could have had it in her bedside table, and eaten them in full sight of the rest of the ward, but she liked turning things into secrets. On the tenth night she had only the Surprise Parcel left. When she ate it, nothing unusual happened, so she assumed that the surprise must be that she would go home in the morning, which she did.
Her grandfather had died in her first term at the grammar school, and so she had been allowed to go on the school trip to Germany that year. She spent all of her holiday money buying boxes of Milk Tray at duty free. The bag was bulky and light, and she pretended that nobody else knew what was inside. It might be perfume, or thick whisky bottles. Then she pretended that she didn’t know what was inside either, so that every time she looked, she felt a fresh wave of delight.
Her host brother, whom she loved fiercely, opened each box and ate all the strawberry creams. She thought the way that he had patterned himself into her possessions was glorious, but when she left he gave her a bag of cherries to apologise. He ate like a worm through the heart of her and she ate the darker whole of his.
Later, aged seventeen and walking off a bus, she was struck by the realisation that his mother had probably made him give her the cherries as an apology. The mother had been good, but not the sort whose heart you want to eat.
She liked proverbs and sayings and idioms. Once she tried to collect them but her notebook was always in the wrong place or she heard them at the wrong time. She thought if you built your life up around many fragments of wisdom then your life too might be wise. So she stuck to rules like take things one at a time and save the best till last and when she lived in her own flat and could start hiding things again she had a Milk Tray chocolate every day and kept the box in the bottom draw underneath her socks.
By the time she reached her fifth box she could take the chocolate she wanted from the box without looking and by the time she got round to the Apple Crunch it always had the tang of laundry.
She had asked her co-worker what Milk Tray chocolate she would pick if she had the choice. The co-worker seemed to like this question very much, but afterwards she went round the office saying hey, if you could be a milk tray chocolate, which one would you be? This was not the same question at all.
She wasn’t foolish enough to think that you could tell much about a person from what chocolate they chose, but she liked to know anyway. Then, she would tell a story to herself to explain why this made sense.
Mary (the co-worker, the Fudge Duet) was very good at leaning over people’s desks in a charming way, and whenever she spoke to someone, she looked like she was part of a pair, from which the rest of the office was excluded. The office didn’t mind, because they knew that later in the day Mary would touch their shoulder or tap the top of their monitor and they could duet with her too.
She, on the other hand, was a sparrow. Outside and background noise. When she tried to talk to rather than under, she always fudged it.
She did not like to buy them on offer or in advance because she felt like she was cheating something. Her father said never especially not me and since she did not get much advice from him, she never cheated or broke promises, even to herself. She did not know if she was playing a game or participating in a ritual but she knew she would be breaking something if she did not buy a Milk Tray every 10th day from the underground section of the local Tesco and pay £3.50 at the self-service check out.
She was not an irrational person and so she was willing to adjust for inflation and didn’t dread Christmas, though she did dread the small red offer label and the departure from safety it brought.
He had a nut allergy and she was serious about him. He wore matched socks except at the weekends. They only ever spoke on the doorstep, mostly in the rain, and one day her Milk Tray box was soaked through. He said can I have one of those I haven’t in ages. She said close your eyes I’ll pick one. Just make sure it’s not got nuts in it or I’ll go into anaphylactic shock right here on the doorstep. They laughed. In the giddiness of the shining pavements and his red thin hands she mistook a Swirl for a Temptation. He ate it and went into anaphylactic shock right there on the doorstep. It was the second time she had ever called an ambulance.
The time she’d caught swine flu she was told not to eat chocolate, or anything much else. She came home with the little paper prescription bag and lay in bed thinking about the chocolate she had to eat. Today was Caramel Charm day.
She took the tablets, pressing her finger under the pill packet and watching the foil break and tear all the way along the length of the pill. She swallowed it dry and lay still and thought about the chocolates and the foil and the pill packet. Then she stood up and got a small tub from the kitchen and then popped the pills into it very slowly with the packet at eye level.
She bowed her head to wait for a wave of nausea to pass but it didn’t and she threw up. Quickly she went to the draw and took out the chocolate box. She took out the Caramel Charm and thought charmed to meet you this charming man charmed I’m sure taken with him, quite charmed the witch charmed the apple worked a charm natural charm natural charm natural charm. Gulped it down. On her way back to bed she threw up again.
She wasn’t much of a charmer, anyhow. In fact, everyone at school called her a softy. She was an adult now but all her defining moments had been back then. There was a certain comfort to having yourself set in stone like that, so you could gradually wear the edges off.
Parties weren’t something she normally did – ever did. The girl who invited her was always so nice she felt bad about it afterwards, though, and so she agreed. The theme was Hawaiian so she dressed as a palm tree only to find that palm trees were for decoration and everyone else was wearing bikinis and billowing shirts that made her eyes hurt.
She stood near the CD player in a corner as everyone danced. Her grandfather had taught her to dance when she was waist height on him, but he only knew the waltz, and so that was all she could do. It wasn’t a waltzing kind of party.
There were some women on the dancefloor who made it look like the music was following them, the pied-piper in reverse, men circling in on them like spotlights. The rush of the bass took over her brain and she let it, thrilled out of herself and into the shimmer of the floor, the squeak of rubber soles, the sweat she wanted to drink, turning herself inside out till she was light, beaming out of the wall fixtures, circling in on the men, the women, like a searchlight.
Then: do you want a drink I’m getting one?
No, it’s alright I think I’ll go home.
There she is, always goes this way, loops the corner and waits at the traffic lights if the green man isn’t showing, even if it’s just after and still before the red man lights up. Into the Tesco’s and she’s so quick she might have stolen it, maybe she has the change ready and counted out, that’s the only explanation.
She’s got a Milk Tray box under her arm like always and maybe that’s all she eats, maybe she eats the box too. What’s she like? Can’t tell, she’s always got her hood up and the coat is formless, like it’s still on the hanger. What’s her angle? What’s she about? What’s the story? What’s her heart like? Tiny little birds nest, strange hard rock, a cherry, a seed from the poison apple? No it’s a clock a clock that keeps perfect time and can’t stop, no it’s this tangle of memories and string, no, it’s truffle all the way through, lost down the back of the sofa and half melting, sticking all over.
MAYA LITTLE is a third year English student at Mansfield College. She hopes to be found dead moments after finishing her magnum opus in Hay-on-Wye.
Art by Abigail Hodges