But, for now, let's stick to just the toffee. For the most part, every time I saw my grandmother in the kitchen she was complaining. She complained incessantly about making boiled eggs, cod, stews (although not all at the same time). Mainly she complained about my grandfather. She may have been a very early feminist. Most of the time she was just bitter and resentful. Toffee was the only thing I ever saw her make with any enthusiasm.
Condensed milk was the corner stone. My grandparents chopped and changed between calling it condensed and evaporated milk when I was a child, and so I never really understood which one it was that she was using. Call it what you will, it was the corner stone. It came with the obligatory story of how my grandfather had told his mother that the first time he brought a girl home for dinner (okay, tea, this is Northern England after all, dinner is strictly a midday thing) they would eat pears and condensed milk for desert (pudding in Northern speak). I hated the sound and the taste of condensed milk, loved anything to do with my grandfather. This story lead to various conflicts in my eight year old brain.
Then there is the sugar. Eyes wide, she would measure the sugar into the scale, always pouring in at least two ounces extra. Sugar is her main vice. When my grandmother was pregnant with my mother she used to eat spoonfuls of sugar neat. In the post war rationing, people used to save their sugar rations for her to sprinkle down her throat. A whole different kind of white powder drug. As a result my mother has constant trouble with her teeth—a fact that, if you ask my grandmother, has nothing to do with her.
The sugar is added to the condensed milk in the pan. The pan, and the spoon used to stir it, are metal, but despite the heat my grandmother licks large dollops off the spoon as she stirs. I tell her that her mouth must be made of asbestos (my grandfather told me this) and she looks at me out of the corner of her eyes and tells me I shouldn't know a word like asbestos yet. No one yet knows that asbestos is deadly, but this only serves to confirm my belief that she is made of it. Nothing was more deadly to the heart than my grandmother's carefully timed 'she's a strange child' or 'she knows way too much about things' or 'isn't she fat' (something I will only later recognize as pot and kettle syndrome). The stirring is the worst time. It gives me time to mistakenly take my grandmother into my confidence. Later the whole church hall will be able to recite my secrets back to me verbatim.
Toffee comes in two types: plain and treacle. Often, my grandmother used Bonfire Night and its traditions as an excuse to churn out tray after tray of treacle toffee. She is sick of the admonitions that come with sweets since she was diagnosed diabetic ten years ago, and any excuse she can cling to will do. The treacle is poured into the pan: black like hate. I watch it bubble in the pan like tar and wish my grandfather would finish golfing so that my time alone with her can be over. Despite secretly liking it, I will tell her I can't stand treacle toffee, and as an adult will always taste the bitter memory of time alone with my grandmother when I eat it.
We spread it out onto a tray, smoothing it to a perfect flatness. Technically, this is the part where you leave the toffee to cool for two hours. In reality, it is the part when my grandmother picks off oozing dribbles and drops them into her mouth like a tiger tearing meat apart. If I'm honest, I'm more than a little disgusted at this and take my leave to the bathroom—the only room in the entire house where my grandmother even begins to comprehend privacy, the only place I can get away from her.
Later, when my mother picks me up and my grandfather comes home, my grandmother offers a biscuit tin with chunks of the toffee, minus the fifty percent she gorged on. Everyone makes polite excuses. No one quite fancies saliva sweets that particular afternoon. It makes the whole process a waste, a pointless charade every addict is willing to go through to get her fix.
These are the good years. These are the days before my grandmother tells me that she hates me, before she sends me poisoned darts of words at well timed intervals. These are the days before our relationship cracks and breaks. This is light years before she succumbs to dementia and forgets who I am; before her life boils down to asking my mum to bring her boxes of toffee and grabs the privates of men who sit next to her in her nursing home.
Toffee is a brilliant cement, a smooth gloss that paints over cracks and tastes delicious in the process. Remember, you can make it plain, or treacle, but, for best results, make it before there are any real cracks to cover—before it's too late. My grandmother can still devour toffee as if there is no tomorrow, but we are lost to each other. There are some rifts that even caramelized condensed milk can not heal.
Helen Dring lives in Liverpool, UK and has had work published in Southpaw Journal and Queerzinelit, and was a winner of the Declaration Publishing Short Serial Fiction challenge.
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