Thursday, 9 July 2009

sorrow valley

PC Emily French started her day much the same as most days. There was nothing about the morning to suggest it would be any different from any other run-of-the-mill day. She had breakfast, showered, caught the bus to work, changed into her uniform. She attended the morning’s briefing, was assigned duties with PC Lancashire. There was always a certain awkwardness between them. He had once confided that he had a bit of a crush on her. That had been at last year’s Christmas party. He had drunkenly told her she had pretty ears. He had apologised the next day and she’d told him to forget it, but it remained an issue between them. any more.
They drove down the main street. They attended a drunken argument between two customers outside a 7-11. They cautioned someone whose right brake light was broken.
Then they got a call about a delirious man at Sorrow Alley. They attended. He was a young man, wearing a crumpled suit. It looked like he hadn’t washed for days, but he didn’t look like your normal down and out.
She climbed out of the car. She approached.
“Okay, sir. How are we doing?”
He looked up, surprised, as if confused about his whereabouts.
“What seems to be the trouble?”
He laughed bitterly.
“Trouble? Oh, you don’t know the half of it.”
“Have you been drinking, sir?”
He shook his head.
“Taken any illicit drugs?”
He shook his head again. He was pale and shaking.
“Do you have anywhere we can take you? Someone we can call?”
He tried to work out what she was saying, then said:
“Fuck off! Just leave me alone!”
“I can’t do that, sir. You’re causing a disturbance. If you don’t have somewhere to go, we may have to take you in.”
He looked up, panicked, then started running down the alley way. She looked at her colleague and rolled her eyes.
“Leave him,” he said.
“There’s something not right with him.”
She started running down the alley after him. He wasn’t running very fast.
“Stay where you are!”
They ran past rubbish bins, the back doors of restaurant kitchens. God this alleyway stank. There was smoke. The man disappeared into it. Was there a fire somewhere? She ran ahead, covering her eyes, choking.
On the other side of the smoke, she stopped. She was still in the alley, but something felt different. It was colder. Yes, there was definitely an icy chill about the place. And there was some kind of sweet smell in the air. What was it? It reminded of her childhood. Marzipan. Yes , that was it. Marzipan.
She walked ahead slowly. She pulled out her baton. A rat ran across the puddled path in front of her.
“Where the hell is he?”
She kept walking. The alleyway seemed to go on forever. Surely it wasn’t this long?
Then she saw something on the ground up ahead. A body? She ran up to it. It was the man. But something about him had changed. He was cleaner somehow. He looked recently-washed. He was smiling, with his eyes closed. She knelt down beside him.
“Are you all right? ”
He opened his eyes. He looked at her.
“Yes, I’m perfectly fine,” he said, in a calm, quiet voice, “sorry, I was just resting.”
She helped him up.
“What’s going on?” she asked, feeling a little disturbed about the way he had cleaned himself up so quickly.
“Nothing’s going on. You’re so beautiful!”
“All right. That’s enough. Are you coming back with me?”
“What have I done?”
“Disturbing the peace.”
“I’ll be okay now, I promise you. I’m happy now. I won’t be going back. Just leave me and I’ll be perfectly, perfectly okay.”
She considered him carefully.
“Have you got somewhere to go?”
“Yes. My house is just around the corner.”
“What… what happened back there?”
“What? Oh. I had a turn that’s all. It happens sometimes. I’m okay now. I promise.”
He looked calm enough. She nodded.
“All right. But be careful. We’ll be watching out for you.”
“You won’t see me ever again. I assure you.”
He smiled and she looked at him a little suspiciously, but then turned to go.
“Oh, officer!” he shouted after her.
She turned to look at him. He had a posy of violets in his hand, which he offered her.
“You’re very beautiful, you know.”
He smiled, then headed off and she laughed, shaking her head.

Back at the car, PC Lancashire was waiting for her.
“Thanks for the back-up.”
“I didn’t think you needed it. Where’d you get those?”
“That guy gave them to me.”
He looked surprised.
“Where is he?”
“It was kinda weird. I found him on the ground.”
“He fell?”
“I don’t know. But he was different somehow. Calmer. Cleaner.”
“His clothes were crisp, his hair washed. He was normal.”
PC Lancashire laughed.
“You were only gone a few minutes. He washed his hair and changed his suit did he?”
“I told you it was weird.”
He looked at her suspiciously then laughed.
“Right. You let him get away, didn’t you?”
“He was perfectly calm. He gave me these.”
He shook his head and laughed again, convinced she was having him on. She felt an odd wave of anger rush through her. They got into the car. She bristled. She didn’t like being disbelieved. She clenched one of her fists and felt an odd desire to hit him.

Over the next few days, she found herself thinking about the alley. What had happened didn’t make sense. She looked it up in a street map and was surprised to see it was actually quite short, not the seemingly never-ending alley she had walked down.
It bothered her more than it should.

A few days later, they heard a call to a purse snatch over the radio. Sorrow Alley. She said to record them dealing even though they weren’t close. Her partner, PC Johns, said: “There’ll be other units closer.”
“Well put your foot down then.”
At the scene, there was an elderly woman in a pink dress looking distressed. She told them some youth had snatched her bag and it had all of her money inside. She left PC Johns to take the details while she searched the alley.
She felt an odd tingle of excitement as she walked down the alley slowly. The same smells of decay and rubbish. Someone really should clean this place up.
She kept walking. She walked past some crates. The air ahead of her shimmered, like a heatwave.
She walked through it. The air was suddenly icy cold and, there it was again, that smell of marzipan.
She felt as if she were in some weird dream. She walked in slow, deliberate steps. There was something not quite right about this place. She couldn’t see the end of it.
“You’ve been here before?”
A woman opened the door to one of the restaurant kitchens.
“I haven’t seen you before, but you must have been here before.”
“Why’s that?”
The woman shrugged. She went back inside and closed the door.
PC French kept walking.
Eventually, she came to a red door that was ajar. She knocked. There was no answer, so she stepped inside. It was a simple room with a large dining table, an open fire, some platters laid out ready for some party. On the platter were all manner of sweets and lollies. A brightly-colourful array of them. White, pink, black, yellow, orange, lime, blue, speckled with red dots, purple-striped. She could smell icing sugar, aniseed, liquorice, musk, peppermint, vanilla… marzipan. The aromas were so enticing, making her mouth water. She couldn’t resist reaching out and picking one up, a small, round one with a red top. She put it in her mouth and it tasted intensely of raspberries and marzipan. It was the tastiest sweet she had ever tasted. It was smooth, creamy, soft, melting in her mouth; something buttery and nutty, berryful. It seemed to communicate its sweetness and fruitiness to her very soul. It was as if someone had condensed something particularly wonderful to its purest essence. She shivered. The hairs on the back of her neck lifted.
She looked around the room, suddenly aware that she was intruding. But the sweet had thrown her off centre. It was as if she had discovered something that she had never known could exist in this world. Something incredible. Some nectar made possible only through sorcery.
She sat down on a chair. She felt overwhelmed by it. She could feel the sweetness rush through her veins. It was like a revelation.
Hearing a noise inside the house, she stood up. She didn’t want to be caught out. She went outside. She debated whether to go off in search of the handbag thief, or whether to go back. She resisted an almost overwhelming urge to go back inside and try another sweet.
She headed back to the street.
“Anything?” PC Johns asked.
She shook her head. The air felt thick and suffocating. She got into the car.
“Are you okay?”
She nodded, not able to speak. She wanted to hold the sweetness inside of her mouth. She was afraid that, if she spoke, the gloriousness of it would float away, leaving her bereft. She pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth, the tip of it searching for the memory of that honeyed, almond wonder.

The sugar spun through her blood sweetly all day. She felt deliriously happy. After work, she uncharacteristically joined some of them at the pub. She drank vodka and cranberry juice and got very drunk. She played Pulp’s ‘Common People’ on the juke box and danced, holding her arms out, as if crucified in air, spinning around happily.
In the corridor, on the way back from the bathroom, she saw PC Lancashire and suddenly pushed him against the wall, kissing him. He was surprised, but she pressed her mouth hard against his, wanting to taste and smell him, wanting to eat him, until he suddenly yelped and pushed her back.
“What the fuck, Emily?”
He raised his hand to his lips. His bottom lip was swollen and bleeding. She looked at him, surprised as well, but then laughed.
“You sure you still wanna fuck me, Harry?” she asked, brushing his bleeding mouth with her soft fingers.
She licked the blood from her fingertips, winking at him before she headed back to the front bar.

For the next few days, she was somewhat distant from the rest of her colleagues. She was inside of herself for most of the time. But, in the car, at the end of the week, she said;
“Sorry, Harry. I was drunk. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
He looked at her, his lip still a little swollen.
“You were crazy, you know?”
“I know.”
“You were like an animal.”
“I’m saying sorry, mate.”
He nodded and smiled.

She went back to her normal self. If anything, she was more cheerful than normal. She brought in a large box of chocolates to hand around at morning tea. She took to carrying blocks of chocolate in her jacket: organic dark with chillies and ginger, milk with Early Grey; lavender, basil, cinnamon and nutmeg; vanilla and cherries. She would break pieces off and chew them throughout the day, but seemed oddly frustrated by what she ate, often not finishing it, but throwing it away.
“What’s with you and chocolate?” PC Lancashire asked her.
“Nothing’s with me and chocolate. Just drive, okay?”

She decided to pay a visit to the alley again She was curious. No, she was being dishonest with herself. She craved that experience of utter joy she had felt when she had eaten the single marzipan-laden sweet. Her bedroom and front room was littered with the torn papers and crumpled aluminium foil of abandoned chocolates and sweets which had failed to meet her expectations. She had bought marzipan sweets, had even laboured to make them herself, from a recipe in an old cook book she found in the library, but it just wasn’t the same. She yearned for marzipan that was really marzipan.
She drove there on her lunch break. She walked down the alley with a sense of nervous anxiety and anticipation. She smelled rotting fish, mouldy vegetables. She held a hand to her nose.
Somewhere, a cat meowed. She stepped in a puddle. She looked down and watched reflected light break up in the rippling water.
She felt that familiar sudden coldness that indicated she had stepped into that mysterious place where weird things happened; where there was a rumour of marzipan in the chilly air.
Her skin was goosebumpy and tender to the touch. She walked as if following the pull of a magical spell.
She came to the red door, but it wasn’t ajar this time. She turned the door handle, but it was locked.
“You came back?”
She spun around. It was the woman from the restaurant kitchen the other day.
“I was wondering… the other day… inside this building..?”
“You went inside?”
“Yes. There were… I tasted…”
“You want to taste it again?”
She wondered how the woman knew what she was talking about. She nodded. The woman smiled.
“What did it taste like?”
“Oh! Like nothing I’ve ever tasted before.”
The woman laughed.
“Sweet? Hot? Bitter? Fishy?”
“Sweet. Like marzipan.”
The woman raised her eyebrows.
“Marzipan? Marzipan always reminds me of Christmas. My mother used to make rich fruit cake with marzipan and royal icing.”
The woman smiled knowingly.
“There’s a shop. You have money? I could show you.”
So she followed this stranger down the wet alley, feeling the coldness of the place seep into her skin. She shivered. It felt oddly as if dozens of eyes were watching her.
“This shop I’m taking you to, the sweets cost a lot of money, but they’re like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.”
“I don’t mind paying,” she said, knowing, suddenly, that she would be prepared to pay anything for one more taste of that glorious marzipan.
She was following a stranger to a sweet shop. Whatever was happening to her? But she felt her tastebuds tingle in anticipation.
The shop was the most wonderful shop she had ever seen. She felt like she had suddenly and inexplicably been thrown back to the days of being a child.
It had a huge bay window and, behind it, were shelves of sweets. Gobstoppers, sherbet lemons, aniseed balls, peppermints, truffles, chocolate drops, gummy bears; handmade confections with flavours printed on little cards: mandarin and coconut; raspberry ripple; nutmeg and custard; vanilla and redcurrant; apple and cinnamon; coffee; pistachio; nougat; brandy and butter; dark chocolate, white chocolate; bitter chocolate; milk chocolate; chocolate with rum; chocolate with vanilla cream; white chocolate with dark chocolate insides…
She nearly fainted with the wonder of it.
They went inside. The aromas were almost too hard to take; they overwhelmed her with their sweet, nutty, chocolaty, spicy luxuriousness.
“This young lass here craves something with marzipan, the woman said to the person behind the counter.
PC French had been looking at a tray of dark chocolate truffles. She looked up.
“The other day, I had a marzipan sweet. With raspberry topping.”
“Ah, the Marzipan Kiss. Yes, that’s one of ours. You like it then?”
“Oh, it was wonderful!”
The woman behind the counter seemed pleased.
“How many would you like?”
“How much do they cost?”
“For how many?”
“Just the one, dear.”
“$50 for one truffle?”
“They take many hours to make. It’s a special recipe. There’s none like it.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course. Okay. I’ll take… well, just the one thank you.”
The woman nodded and headed off. She came back a little while later with a single marzipan sweet wrapped in orange cellophane. PC French handed over the money and took the sweet. She was trembling.
“Thank you,” she said to both women.
She headed out of the shop. She walked back down the alley. She held the sweet in her palm as if it were something precious, something she should be careful not to break.
Eventually, she could carry it no more. She sat down on a step and carefully opened the cellophane. She looked at the tiny sweet, no bigger than a small plum. It looked unremarkable; the kind of sweet many would avoid among the prettier ones. She raised it slowly to her mouth and popped it in, whole. She chewed upon it…
… and was transported to a place of joy. She could feel the glorious flavours seep into her skin, making her face and arms glow. She felt lighter, less troubled by the world. She knew the world could be a good, kind place where incredible beauty flowered.
She closed her eyes, feeling the sugar rush through her veins. Her head spun, as if drunk. She laughed. She sobbed. She sat on the cold, damp step, crying out of the sheer joy of knowing such wonder existed.

She came out of the other side of the alley, stunned and shaken. Her face was sticky with tears. Her uniform was splashed with mud. The memory of the joy lingered, but she was shaking. She walked in a daze. She took the police car and drove home. She undressed. She stood under a hot shower and cried.

The next day, she felt oddly off-centre in the world. It was as if she was at a distance from it; she was in her own, quiet space, dreaming. In the car with PC Lancashire, she said nothing. Every now and then, she closed her eyes, summoning up the memory of marzipan. It was still there, lingering deep inside of her; reminding her of what it was like to experience perfection. Looking around the world as they drove through it, she understood how flawed it was; the cracks in its surface; the blemishes; the aspirations never satisfied. The greatest, most wonderful experience in this imperfect world couldn’t come within an inch of the joy she had felt from eating that single, heavenly sweet.
She wondered if it contained some drug? If she was becoming addicted? But she knew, instinctively, that this wasn’t true. It wasn’t a drug. It was a state of being; it was a revelation of some sort; some kind of new understanding of the world.
“Emily, are you okay?”
“You don’t look well.”
“I’m fine.”
“You look ill.”
“I’m not ill. I’ve never been better. Stop by a sweet shop will you? I fancy something sweet.”

She visited the alley whenever she could. She rationed it. She didn’t want to let it get out of control. But she fell the pull of it getting stronger and stronger. And, each time, she bought a single Marzipan Kiss. She was never tempted by any of the other sweets. And, each time, she found she couldn’t wait to eat it and sat somewhere in the alley, chewing on the sweet, never ceasing to be astonished at its marvellousness. She met other people in the alley as well. There was something about them, something different, but she couldn’t put a finger on it. They all smiled at her, as if understanding her and she smiled back.
Whenever she was in the normal world, she unsuccessfully sought out that experience of pure joy she felt in the alley, but it was never there, it existed only as an empty craving.

PC Lancashire visited her one day. She hadn’t turned up to work. He found her looking pale and bleary-eyed. She invited him in, telling him she felt out of sorts.
“What the hell?”
He looked at the room. It was littered with cellophane, aluminium foil, chocolate wrappers, coloured boxes, unfinished chocolate bars.
“Emily, what the hell’s going on?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s going on. I’ve been a little tired, that’s all.”
“But what’s all this?”
She looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time and was embarrassed.
“Yeah. It’s a mess, isn’t it? God, I’m not normally like this.”
“If you keep going like this, you’re going to lose your job.”
“Yeah. You’re right. Okay. I’ll be in tomorrow. I’ll pull myself together.”
“But what is it? What’s happening to you?”
She looked at him. She felt suddenly sorry for him because he would never experience what she experienced; he would never understand. She felt a tear brim in one of her eyes.
“I’m okay. I just needed a day off that’s all. I’ll be in tomorrow. I promise.’
He looked at her sceptically, clearly worried about her, but she didn’t want his concern. Life on this side of the world was tough, but, on the other side, she knew a perfect kind of joy that PC Lancashire would never know.
“I’ll be okay,” she said, “I’ll be okay.”

At night, she curled herself up into an embryo. She imagined herself being born. She would emerge in a perfect world where no-one suffered, no-one yearned for things they could not have.

She pulled herself together. She woke, showered, resisted the urge to seek out confectionary heaven. She walked to work, needing the fresh air.
In the car, PC Lancashire glanced at her every now and then.
“I’m okay,” she said, without looking at him.
As they drove, she looked at the world and it seemed pale and watery, not quite as vivid and strong as the one she had known previously. She still felt distanced from her surroundings, sunk slightly within herself.
She looked at PC Lancashire. She studied his skin, which was the colour of musk lollies. She leaned closer, smelling his flesh.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Stop the car.”
“Just stop.”
Reluctantly, he parked the car.
“What is it?”
“I want to kiss you.”
“Let me kiss you.”
“Just let me kiss you,” she laughed.
She put her mouth on his and they kissed. She needed the texture of another human being to feel real.
“You’re not going to bite me again are you?” he asked and she looked at him.
“No. I’m going to lick you.”
“You’re what?”
She began licking his neck, under his ears.
“I need to taste you. I need to taste the world.”
She licked his mouth; kissing, licking.
He pushed her away.
“I need to know how everything tastes. To make it real again.”
“You’re mad. Get away!”

They drove in silence. She felt angry. She had liked the salty taste of his skin. She had wanted more. She looked at the washed-out, insipid city and felt angry at it for lacking the vibrancy she craved.
She sank lower in her seat, sulking. She petulantly wanted to disappear from this world; evaporate into nothingness; melt into pure flavour and aroma. She smiled at the thought.
“You’ve got to pull yourself together,” PC Lancashire said.
She tuned out his words.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with you.”
“It’s none of your fucking business.”
“It is my business, Emily.”
She looked at him.
“No. You don’t understand. You will never understand. You don’t even have the capacity to understand. I’ve been to a place where you will never go. I feel sorry for you.”
“Emily, you’re not well.”
“Stop the car.”
“Stop the car.”
But a call came over the radio about a petty theft nearby and so she went silent and they called in.
They found the thief not far away and he saw them, running off. She jumped out of the car and ran after him.
“Stop where you fucking are!” she shouted.
She pulled out her baton. She felt a rush of adrenalin spur her on. This was living! The rush, the thrill, the joy of it! They were headed for Sorrow Alley. She felt a sense of proprietorial fury at the thought of this scumbag encroaching on her beloved territory. As he ran into the alley, she put on a burst of speed and caught up, swiping him around the back of the head. He fell. She hit him again. Again. She swung her baton back and forth, left and right; until the fury subsided in sobbing gasps.
PC Lancashire caught up with her.
“Jesus Christ.”
She looked down at her blood-splattered shirt. She was trembling. A trickle of splashed blood ran down her face.
“Emily? What have you done?”
She knelt down. She looked at the bloody head of the man on the ground. She touched his head, feeling its heat and stickiness. She looked at her bloody fingers. Stunned, she lifted her fingers to her mouth, sucking on them, tasting the thing she had done.

While PC Lancashire radioed in, she walked down the alley. She tossed her baton on the ground. This wasn’t how she wanted her ecstasy to end up. She hadn’t meant to do that.
She pulled off her radio and tossed that to the ground as well. She walked slowly, almost unaware of her surroundings, sensing cold bricks and doorways only at the margins of her reality. She thought she heard a voice calling after her but it was far away and quiet.
She walked into coldness. She shivered.
Her mouth was filled with saltiness.
Her veins felt like ice.
She headed slowly towards the sweet shop. She thought of the man who had first led her here. She remembered his lost expression outside and his sense of peaceful, well-being this side of the alley. She understood now. It wasn’t possible to live on the other side of the world once you had tasted this one.
Inside the shop, she bought dozens of sweets: marzipan, caramels, liquorice, white chocolate truffles, Pontefract cakes, coconut creams, lavender buds, cherry blossoms.
She took her sugary haul to a small doorway not far away. Bloodied, pale, she sat on the cold step, swallowing them down, filling her mouth with bursts of intense flavour; feeling the sugary, soft, creaminess of the combined flavours explode within her head like a constellation of bright stars.
The pain left her, bite by bite. She swallowed her salvation in small pieces. Her own hot blood returned to her and the world was no longer cold. Her lips tingled with fruitiness. Whatever she had done, she would be redeemed with vanilla softness. She looked up at the grey sky and felt lilac and lemon flavours surge through her like some citrus-tinged divine light. Grace fell upon her in a pastel, peppermint halo. She knew that would live here forever now; she would live here in happiness and scented, caramel bliss. Sweet, hot tears rolled down her cheeks. Her tears tasted of almonds and sugar.