One of the more unexpected consequences of lockdown has been the rediscovery of my fondness for raw carrots. It’s not that I ever actually forgot that I liked raw carrots. I suppose what I mean is, I’ve reacquainted myself with the simple pleasure of eating them.
When I was a child, supper was an important part of the daily routine. It wasn’t a meal as such, more a bedtime snack. Supper took many forms. It might be leftover gravy from the Sunday roast, heated and eaten as soup. Sometimes it was toast and dripping, or bread and milk. It might be a home-grown apple. I can even remember a brief phase when it consisted primarily of ice cubes.
One of my supper favourites was a raw carrot. Unlike formal meals, supper was only lightly supervised, so I had freedom to experiment in ways that would have been considered ‘playing with my food’ at any other time of day. A carrot, I soon discovered, is a vegetable of two parts. There’s a deeper orange outer layer, which becomes darker and harder on the teeth as the carrot grows bigger. There’s also an inner core. This is lighter, juicier and often sweeter than the outer layer, although it can become woody if the carrot grows very large. It’s fairly easy to remove the outer layer carefully with one’s teeth and eat it, I found, without damaging the inner core. By this means, I was able to save my favourite part of the carrot until last. With practice, the same technique can be applied to a bourbon biscuit, although the cream’s inclined to disintegrate rather more easily than the centre of a carrot.
I have no idea where I first came upon the idea that a person who saves their favourite part of a meal until last is a natural optimist. The theory, if I recall correctly, is that a pessimist will eat the best first, for fear someone will steal it, whereas an optimist has a more positive view of human nature. To be honest, to steal food from someone else’s plate would have been so far beyond the pale when I was a child I’m not sure the possibility of it happening entered my head. I saved the best for the sheer delight of enjoying of it. On the other hand, I suppose delight is a crucial part of optimism, and I’ve spent much of my life being taken to task for seeing the world through rose-tinted spectacles, so perhaps the theory holds good. These days, sadly, my spectacles are untinted, and absolutely necessary if I’m to see anything at all.
My self-sufficiency must’ve made me an undemanding child, but I sometimes I wonder whether my parents noticed my childhood was lived pretty much wholly in my imagination. The stories in my head seemed to me vastly superior to a world of which I could make little sense. What was the point of sitting at a desk all day? How was it my best friend could turn on me without warning? Why was a stuffed sock on a garden cane the closest I could get to a pony?
On wet days, I’d beg my mother to let me go through the family photographs, kept in the end drawer of the sideboard. This seemed a world full of magic. I’d leaf through worn envelopes, where women in full length skirts stood arm-in-arm with men in dark suits and stiff collars. I handled the photographs as if they might crumble to dust at any moment. If Mum wasn’t too busy, she’d stop by from time to time to tell me a little about one or other of these strangers. The naked baby on the bearskin rug was her own mother, my grandmother. The girl on the gate was Granny, my father’s mother, taken long before my father was even thought of. The curly-headed boy in the Scout uniform was Dad. There was a photo of a stern woman in black, with a new-born baby on her knee. Granny and Mum stood either side of her. Here, four generations had been photographed together for the only time in history, just weeks before my great-grandmother died. The baby, of course, was me.
Magical though my excursions to the past were, there seemed always something lacking. I loved my visits to a world long gone, but what I was really searching for was an answer. I wanted to know why I felt at home with dragons and princesses, ponies and pirate ships, flowing gowns and flying machines, yet so out of step with the world of scraped knees, inkwells and playground bullies. Could these grainy photos hold the key to the mystery? Was I a changeling, perhaps? Or a fairy princess? Maybe I’d been smuggled, at great peril, out of a distant land, and would discover my magical powers when I came of age.
Of course, I never found what I was looking for. The stories have become faded as the photos. I don’t remember the names of the imaginary princesses, what happened to the pirate ships, or the colours of the ponies that galloped the prairies of the back garden. What I do remember is the garden itself. If I close my eyes I can still see the concrete patio where the pirate ship stood, the coal bunker that housed a horse made from a stuffed sock, the apple trees that screened the vegetable patch where I ate the world’s most delicious raspberries, and the track where the grass was worn away by the tyres of my brothers’ bicycles. It’s not the fantasies I dream of a night, when my mind is free to roam, but the place I loved. It’s the smell of orange blossom, the tart bite of a windfall apple, head-bowed peonies, crimson by the path, and the pop of purple-hearted fuschia buds. These are the memories that remain. And now I understand that to love little things was the magic all along. An imagination powerful enough to create a wild horse from a woollen sock, a travelling companion from a stone, or a pirate ship from two logs and a broomstick can find beauty one way or another, no matter how dark the days. Turns out those rose-tinted spectacles are a magical power after all.