During the war, I longed for butter. Not the paltry scraps they slid over to you in exchange for the wretched ration card, but mountains of it. Rivers. I wanted to bathe in butter, in the same manner than Cleopatra washed herself in virginal milk. To clog my pores with it. Become butter, as it were. I was so wearied by the hardships of battle, the indignities and privations and constant demand for sacrifice (I won’t let anyone say we on the Home Front didn’t suffer; one doesn’t need to sit in a tank to suffer). There was only one way to remedy the situation: I needed to live deliciously again. I needed the ambrosia, the manna of butter. But Amy – the girl I shared a bed with at the time, my lover if you prefer – didn’t understand. She got what she could, blessèd thing – but it was never enough. The problem, you see, is she would only use legitimate means.
“It’s not right,” she said, whenever I mentioned the black market. Her head could not be turned from Mrs Simm’s dreary, righteous little shop, not with promises of chocolate or new stockings or any one of my descriptions of the back alley’s bounties.
“I need it,” I told her, again and again. Writers, I explained, have delicate stomachs – to go with their delicate nerves – and their appetites need to sated. Not just that, but respected, as much as you would respect a diabetic’s insulin. Or a blind man’s cane.
She offered me her government-sanctioned share always, the dear, but it wasn’t enough. My craving only grew more insistent.
“Rapunzel’s father,” I said to her (wanting to use a reference she, poor pet, could understand) “risked it all for his wife. The woman wanted the witch’s greens and he got them for her, knowing if he was caught it could mean instant death. Or worse – transformation into a frog, or some other slithery thing.”
“He was caught,” Amy replied. “And they lost the little girl.”
Truth be told, I didn’t remember every detail of the story when I first cited it (what with all my schooling, I had moved quite beyond those childhood tales, as you can imagine), but I thought it was right to stand my ground.
“When he first stepped into the witch’s garden, he did not know what would happen: only that his pregnant wife was hungry, and he was willing to do whatever he could to help her.”
“But the witch took their daughter,” Amy insisted, “and she wouldn’t have, neither, if Rapunzel’s dad just bought his wife radishes from the shop, like any other bloody man would do.”
“Amy, I am pregnant, in my own way, with my work, and I need – ”
“Any fool knows you shouldn’t be messing around with witches. He was asking for trouble, and he got it.”
There was no point talking to her when she got into one of those moods. I’d try to reach her again, I thought, when she was in a more sensible frame of mind. So I graciously swept up my books and left her to grumble over fairy tales, all alone in that mouldy little living room.
She tried to placate me with margarine.
“It’s almost as good,” she said. She had slathered the tricksy stuff all over a slice of toast, ruining the bread underneath it.
Margarine. Mar-gar-ine. Marr my tongue with this forgery, I thought. Jar my taste buds with this fake filth. In-decent pretender to butter’s throne.
I’m not an unreasonable man: though I had little hope, I tried her yellow Judas. Attempted to show some Blitz Spirit and make do with muck. But I’m not some celestial creature – I’m flesh and blood, and I can only bear so much.
“Get me butter,” I told her, one wan November afternoon. “Or get out.”
The troops were out in Egypt, doing something or other – it was hard to keep up. What were they even fighting for, I wondered, when it had all gone to seed over here. When the krauts were bombing Canterbury and the milk ration had been cut to two and a half pints a week.
Amy didn’t even look at me. “I can’t do it, Bob,” she said. She was hunched over a pan frying a half or a quarter of an onion. Frying it in oleo, no doubt. “If you want it so much, you can get it.”
I wasn’t quite ready for that. “Should I grab your basket and put on your apron, too? Would you have me knit my own hat and make jam for the boys at the front in Cairo or wherever the bloody hell they are?”
“My brother’s one of them, Bob.”
“Then by all means, send him some biscuits or some woolen underpants. Just bring me butter.”
“I won’t go against the war effort.”
There was no going back after that: she wasn’t a woman any more. She had been transformèd into a Ministry of Food poster.
So she went, in the end, to dig for victory or to make ammunition or to be a nurse overseas or to tuck the children left behind by her gallant soldiers into bed each night. She was replaced, of course, by a Sarah, and then Sarah by Ruth, and Ruth by Gerty. There’s always a woman in my flat, some Jenny or another. So why linger on Amy?
Laura Yash was born on the fourth of July in Chicago (her mum went into labour at a parade). Patriotic birth aside, she moved to the UK aged three months, and is now a Londoner with a confusing accent. Recently, Laura has been spending some time writing flash fiction around the subject of margarine. She really believes in oleo’s thematic potential.