TELL ME A a story, my daughter says, and even though I don't feel like telling stories tonight, I still tell her about the best way to eat smoked mackerel.
First, I say, you have to travel back in time to 1974, when I was exactly your age. This is too hard for her to imagine, so I say: Remember the Brady Bunch DVD?
Her eyes gleam and she sings Here's a story / Of a lovely lady, and sits up in bed so quickly Tilly Tiger threatens to knock off the rest of her snout by falling to the floor. She relishes the opportunity to clamber out again and says: If we're doing The Brady Bunch, then can I be Marcia?
Okay, I say, you can be Marcia, but you live in Adelaide and you've just finished Saturday morning ballet class at the Gwen Mackay School of Ballet...
Am I on points? she asks, back in bed with Tilly.
Yes, you can be en pointe.
...in this big old building that looks like a monastery, with pentagon façades and doorway arches and redbrick detailing, right next door to Parliament House. Now this was before it became the Constitutional Museum...
My daughter jabs me in the ribs.
...and it had lots of creepy staircases and dark hallways, just like Hogwarts.
She smiles the same way she does when I finally agree to play shoe shops after hours of negotiation.
When your mother picks you up after ballet, you run, still in leotards, across the road with Zosia, the girl with the lazy eye I told you about...
The one they laughed at?
...that's the one – to the railway station and continue running and laughing down its entrance ramp, running so fast it feels like falling, down and down like Alice in Wonderland. At the bottom there's a kiosk that looks like it's been there a hundred years but it sells caramel Crazy Mazes and you and Zosia buy one each because you both love the way it stretches when you hold it in your teeth and pull.
Is the railway station like in Harry Potter, too?
Not quite, I say, but close. It has a marble hall two storeys high and telephone booths set into the wall, just like you see in old movies with Marlene Dietrich in them, all heavy black handsets and buttons. This was before whoever it was sold out and part of it got converted into a casino...
She reaches out and jabs me again. The mackerel?
Then you and Zosia and your mothers head back up to the car park and you wave goodbye and yell: See you next week! And Zosia smiles the biggest smile ever and her mother looks as if she might cry. You sit in the back seat of the grey Datsun 1000, which looks like a slater on wheels, and your mother talks to herself as she drives down North Terrace; past the trees that would remind you of Paris if you'd ever been to Paris; right into King William Street; and through the city centre to Victoria Square, where the police building has goldfish in a pond out the front. A duck lays her eggs there, and each year the police stop the traffic and escort the duck and her line of ducklings all the way down King William Street to the Torrens River.
That's so cute, my daughter says. When does the mackerel come into it?
Take a right into Grote Street and head up to the car park on the roof of the Central Market. Even before you go downstairs you know you're in the right place, because the smell of hot roasted nuts grabs hold of all the smelly bits up your nose...
...and doesn't stop squeezing until you beg your mother to buy you a bag of nuts. She says no, reminding you of the time two years ago when you dropped the bag and an old lady slipped on the cashews and yelled so long they had to call an ambulance.
Was she okay?
I guess. I never knew. Anyway, you're downstairs now and your mother knows every stall in the market but you get mixed up because one fruit stall or delicatessen looks pretty much like any other. Also, the stalls are set higher, so the customers have to look up and it's even harder to see if you're that much closer to the ground.
Am I still in the leotard? my daughter asks. I won't go anywhere in just a leotard.
You put on a skirt in the car. Now it smells of sausages and vinegar and you come to a stall which has all its creamy cheeses arranged in a long line to the right of the counter. Your mother is greeted with a smile by the Ukrainian woman who wears a headscarf to hide her bald spot and always sneaks you a slice of ham to fatten you up, so she says.
Ukraine's in Europe. Dobrý de, your mother says, because back then you knew what everybody was and you all spoke a few words of each other's language. Your mother ums and ahs and steps back and frowns, but then buys what she always buys: a kilo of the Neufchâtel cheese that feels like you're eating toothpaste but tastes like heaven; the smoked mackerel; Polish dill pickles – real pickles, none of these made-in-India pretenders you get in the supermarket; white crusty bread, thick and dense; sausages you need to boil called parówki, your father's favourite; three other types of sausage; double-smoked gypsy ham – real ham, not like this stuff today all covered in preservatives, as slick as pig spit...
...and a bucket of sauerkraut. On the way home, the Datsun is so full of the smell of fresh bread and sausage that you think your stomach will eat itself. So you beg your mother to take a detour home down Port Road, to the cake shop run by women who make everything themselves with real cream. Even though your mother complains there's no time to waste, you end up watching the clock in the shop for thirty-five minutes with your stomach rumbling while she stands chatting in Polish, and you're in agony trying to decide between the striped vanilla cake and coffee-cream triangles, the baked cheesecake and the pâczki, which are donuts with no holes covered in sugar, with jam in the middle. If you're really lucky, your mother will be in such a good mood by then that she'll buy you one of each.
At home in the kitchen, you help by switching on the kettle, getting out the teabags and turning on the lights, because even though it's early afternoon the carport blocks out all light to the kitchen window. Your mother slices and dices and puts out plates of food on a plastic tablecloth that is spotless but has been there for as long as you can remember. You pat Irena, the fat corgi, whom you named after your father's favourite singer, Irena Santor, because of her blonde hair, and trace the swirls on the olive green wallpaper with a finger until your mother tells you not to. The Black Madonna looks down from the wall over all of this and your mother sings to herself Holy God, Holy Strength, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Us.
Is this before or after grandpa died? my daughter asks.
It takes me a second to reply. Before.
I'm tired, she says.
You're too hungry to wait any longer, so your mother tells you to sit and you use your special fork with the pattern on the handle to pick out sausage and bits of mackerel and set it on your plate. You take some bread. Then this is what you do. First, you take a sip of sweet milky tea, to see if the temperature is right. Then you take a bite of mackerel, and the smoky-oily flavour hits your tongue and you feel the texture; it should be firm yet soft, and not too dry. Then you crunch into the white bread and try not to spray any crumbs, but eating bread without making crumbs is like smelling flowers without any scent. Next you bite the Polish dill pickle until the salt and garlic, smoke and bread mix together like old friends, and you realise you're eating the most perfect combination of food you could possibly hope for. You take another sip of tea, your stomach sighs, and you're the happiest you've been in ages because your ballet teacher praised your pirouettes, you feel good about asking Zosia to go for chocolate, your mother's singing in the kitchen, there's cake coming, Irena is lying under your feet, and you are waiting for your father to come home from work and tell you a funny story about his day. Suddenly your mother says: Oh, God. Did I give Bronek his medication before we left?
What? says my daughter.
I shut my eyes for a moment, then continue.
And you turn to your mother and say: Mother dearest, thank you for the glorious fare. This is surely and truly one hundred per cent better than McDonald's.
You're making that up, says my daughter, but her heart's not in it, and she is yawning.
Now it's time for the sausage, and you slap Neufchâtel on bread (none of this butter business) and finish your tea. You decide on the triangle cake and wonder how on earth they manage to slice the cake thin enough to make stripes. But nothing, not even the triangle cake, tastes quite as perfect as that first mouthful of smoked mackerel.
When can I try some? my daughter says as her eyelids flutter and Tilly Tiger relaxes.
Dear God – not tonight, my baby, I whisper, because by then she's asleep, and a whisper is all I can manage.