The Honey Clus­ters

She’d al­ways have those mem­o­ries, but per­haps now some­one else could share them…

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - HELLO! -

We run into the house, as we do ev­ery Christ­mas morn­ing. Our eyes should be on the fat Dou­glas fir with its ice-white lights and piles of presents, but we don’t see it. Not yet.

Par­ents and un­cles and grand­par­ents ex­change hol­i­day kisses, pinch our cheeks, tell us how pretty we look in our vel­veteen fes­tive frocks, and try to steer us to­ward the big room. Anna and I ig­nore them. We’re on a mis­sion.

‘Tut!’ says our fa­ther, but Poppy, the pa­tri­arch, smiles. He knows.

Three plat­ters sit on the kitchen side­board, wait­ing. I watch as lit­tle Anna licks her lips. The plates with their moun­tains of hol­i­day treats must seem so big to her. I pull a chair from its place by the old farm ta­ble and hoist her up on it so she can see

Poppy’s show.

‘Go ahead,’ Poppy says. He’s rel­ish­ing the mo­ment. After all, he made the candied wreaths for us, as he had done each year for his own chil­dren. The magic has gone for them, but not for us.

Anna ex­tends a fat fin­ger and tries to unglue one of the tiny mar­ble-sized balls from the top of the near­est plat­ter. ‘No, Annabella,’ I re­mind her. ‘Al­ways take one from the side. That way, the grown-ups won’t know.’

I hear Poppy laugh­ing and re­alise my sub­terfuge has never re­ally worked. He al­ways knows when we’ve been pick­ing at the honey clus­ters – the struf­foli in Ital­ian, the ci­cidille in his di­alect.

We have to be care­ful.

I tell Anna to take one at a time. To savour it. To make it last. She’s too young to be pa­tient, too young to un­der­stand the con­cept of a fi­nite pile, too young to cal­cu­late how quickly the struf­foli will dis­ap­pear.

Now it’s my turn. I sneak a look at Poppy and he nods. ‘Go ahead, te­soro,’ I hear him say with his eyes. His pet name for me de­scribes the three gifts on the side­board – a trea­sure of honey-golden treats pep­pered with jew­el­coloured sprin­kles.

I take one from the side. And I savour it.

The honey clus­ters won’t last long. They never do.

It seems I have been knead­ing, rolling, and cut­ting for days, but the kitchen clock tells me only an hour has passed since I started mix­ing the trio of in­gre­di­ents: eggs, flour, vanilla...

Not too much vanilla, Poppy had said. I have to be care­ful with the bot­tle. My hands shake much more now than they did last year. I don’t want to spill too much. It would ruin things.

After the last of the cuts, I clean my knives and board. The warm wa­ter soothes my stiff fin­gers, and I take my time at the sink. I can rest for a mo­ment be­fore fry­ing up the batch. Then, I’ll rest a bit more.

I watch the pea-sized dough balls puff in the oil, as I have for each of the past 70 Christ­mases, ever since Poppy wrote his mother’s recipe on the notepad he kept in the old farm kitchen. Thank good­ness I’ve fin­ished the hard part. I laugh a lit­tle, be­cause I know why the rest of my fam­ily had al­ways left this hol­i­day job to me. They’re all gone now.

Poppy went first, of course. Then my par­ents. Anna left the world this sum­mer, and my neph­ews scat­tered them­selves around the coun­try, as young peo­ple will do.

One year, I tried giv­ing the honey clus­ters to my neigh­bour. I knew it was a mis­take when I saw them atop a rub­bish bin nearby. No Ital­ians here.

I don’t give the trea­sure away any more. I save it all for my­self.

When I’ve rested, I re­turn to the kitchen and read the grease-smudged pa­per with Poppy’s recipe. One cup honey, one ta­ble­spoon su­gar. Boil five min­utes ex­actly. This part is tricky, but I learned long ago to use a su­gar ther­mome­ter. Poppy wouldn’t have ap­proved.

The lone plate waits on the counter as I watch the num­bers climb on my new ther­mome­ter. Even with read­ing glasses, the old one had be­come im­pos­si­ble to read.

Now, I say to the pot of

‘Al­ways take one from the side. That way, the grown-ups

won’t know’

boil­ing syrup. The next step re­quires quick work. I don’t know that I could man­age a triple recipe the way Poppy did when he had reached my age.

After a few mo­ments, the clus­ters have cooled, and I spoon them into a wreath on the wait­ing plate. With moist­ened hands, I give it shape, re­mem­ber­ing to fill in the spa­ces, to even it out. The cir­cle is per­fect, but it needs one more thing to turn it into a trea­sure.

I rum­mage through kitchen draw­ers for the small jar of sprin­kles. Ev­ery year is the same, I for­get where I had put it the pre­vi­ous Christ­mas. That’s the trou­ble with sprin­kles. Or maybe it’s the trou­ble with me.

Gotcha! The half-filled jar with its jewel-like con­tents winks at me from the back of the spice cab­i­net. It’s been wait­ing. Poppy’s words echo in my head: ‘Just a lit­tle, te­soro, just a lit­tle.’

I tip the jar and tap it, watch­ing the hun­dreds and thou­sands of colours fall and bounce and stick to the hon­eyed pearls on the plate.

I take one from the side. And I savour it.

The honey clus­ters won’t last long. They never do.

I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep, but a knock­ing and bump­ing from the other side of the wall, the place where June Everett lived in quiet iso­la­tion un­til last week, wakes me. Some­one is mov­ing in, an­other tem­po­rary ad­di­tion to Golden Sun­rise Rest Home. They re­ally should call it Dis­mal Sun­set Rest Home. Poppy would have had dif­fer­ent names for this place; he would have com­plained about the may­on­naise on the sand­wiches, the watery sauce served up on spaghetti night, the pale res­i­dents who turned their noses up at his pizza and pas­tries. In Italy, there’s no joy in eat­ing alone.

A whiff of cof­fee hits me as soon as I peek out my door. It isn’t nor­mal cof­fee, but

His smile alone would be enough to pull me to­wards him

some­thing dark and sweet. A scent mem­ory from a mil­lion years ago; strings of sounds I haven’t heard in a for­ever: Lavazza, Se­gafredo, Medaglia d’Oro. The smell is so strong I can taste it on my lips.

He’s car­ry­ing a small leather case to­wards his apart­ment. Poppy had a case like it, a sou­venir from times of crafts­men and old­coun­try ar­ti­sans. He says, ‘Buona sera, sig­nora,’ when he catches me watch­ing him. ‘I have more cof­fee, if you like.’

I shouldn’t, not at this late hour. Still, I know I will. His smile alone would be enough to pull me to­wards him, and the voice in­side the smile is warm and thick. But in his eyes I see a boy I used to know, a boy who used to carry my school satchel when it was heavy with books, or who scram­bled up trees to pick or­anges for us.

‘I have honey clus­ters,’ I say, imag­in­ing inky espresso cut­ting their sweet­ness.

And I dis­ap­pear back into an apart­ment that seems a shade brighter than it did this morn­ing. There’s only the one plate, and honey clus­ters don’t last long.

They never do.

But I’ll make them again next Christ­mas. And maybe the Christ­mas after that. Per­haps even a dou­ble recipe, I think, as I walk next door to­wards the per­fume of real cof­fee and a smile as broad as the Mediter­ranean sea.

THE END CHRISTINA’S DE­BuT NOvEl, VOX (£12.99, HQ),

IS OuT NOW Christina Dalcher, 2018

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