Once upon a time, there was a plump boy with a round face, an upturned porcine nose and a long bowl haircut that finished at the midway point between his eyebrows and eyelids, he had a perpetual look of gormlessness and due to this, he feels now, was equally ignored by his elders as he was unloved by his peers.
The plump boy had a voracious appetite, although in recent years this had been clipped somewhat by the discovery of an allergy to sugar. His mother had taken him to see a specialist in a room at the top of a house in the village and this man with a beard and a stench of stale coffee had attached things to his toes and announced a strict diet stripped of sugar for the foreseeable future. Fizzy drinks and nice biscuits had been a staple of his old diet, but so had random bouts of violence towards those unfortunate enough to be around him during an episode. Removing one removed the other, so it seemed, so the broader community deemed this creepy sage’s proclamation a success. The plump boy was less sure.
Especially as he was, now, stood at the threshold of Christmas. Once a cornucopia of sparkly wrapped chocolates, bottle after bottle of sickly sweet drinks and a looser than normal definition of mealtimes that suddenly meant puddings and mince pies and meringues and little wrapped chocolates seemed fair game from morning to evening and any time after, before or in between; the Christmas holiday was now a wasteland devoid of anything of the sort save a sad tin of sugar-free biscuits from Boots that were his and his alone.
He loved the rest of the festive fare, there is no doubt about that, it was the pleasingly repetitive base drum that drove them onwards through the Christmas week, but it was nothing really without the high hat and snare drum of festive sweets and treats. His parents had stripped the house of temptation, which at this time of year meant ending their custom of littering the house with little silver bowls of wrapped chocolates, sugared almonds and dusty little bon-bons that would once have graced every surface and occasional table about the place. They took his intolerance very seriously, which was intended, he was sure, as an act of love, much as it wasn’t necessarily received as such.
It was the morning before Christmas and his boredom with the regime imposed upon him was building to a crescendo. Awake later than usual, breakfast had all but passed him by but he managed to secure a piece of toast with marmite before it was all completely cleared. As he sat chewing, he found himself in a gormless stare focused solely on the fridge door, and as he sat and stared and started to question why, he began to notice a pattern, a once familiar sight every time one of his parents opened then closed the fridge door to remove or replace something for their preparations. As it dawned on him what it was he was seeing each time the brown stare was replaced by the intense glare of a hunting hawk, it took only two more trips by his mother before he was sure that it was what he hoped it was - a massive bottle of Coca-Cola.
Thus he sat sentry at the kitchen table for what felt like hours. He watched as she removed potatoes, peeled them, and then returned them in a big bowl filled with water. She did a similar thing with carrots, and then with sprouts, although they weren’t kept underwater like the spuds. She then removed the big turkey from the fridge along with sausage meat and bacon and spent a good while fiddling with that before returning it covered in tin foil and removing a big fatty ham and the bottle he was fixated upon.
He tried not to fidget or show his excitement, but he did allow his gaze to leave the fridge door for the first time this morning and follow his mother as she walked the length of the kitchen to the bit of worktop she always stood in front of, near to the sink. He watched her remove a large pan from the drawer under the cooker and place it on the stove, he watched as she threw some vegetable scraps into its base. He watched still as she sat the fatty ham inside the pan, and he watched as she took a few little jars of spices and dropped one or two of each into the pot. He then watched with disappointment that gave way to awe as she unscrewed the cap on the big bottle of coke and poured every last drop into the pan with the ham. He did not avert his eyes as she lit the flame under the pan and he continued to watch as steam started to drift up from the pan and as, eventually, a dark syrupy sweetness started to replace the once clean air of the kitchen.
They tried to chivvy him to go upstairs and put some clothes on, they tried to make him go and brush his teeth and tame his hair, they tried to encourage him outside to expend some energy, but he refused at every inducement. He sat there, his stale breath and tufted hair unkempt, and he revelled in the cooking of the sugary ham.
Eventually, a timer went off and his mother came trotting back into the room. She said something to him that sounded vaguely cross before proceeding to remove the ham from the pan and rest it in a roasting tray. She took a sharp knife and scored diamonds into its treacle dark fat. She studded the ham with horrible-looking black spikes but he excused her that when she took a spoon and scooped gloopy black liquid from the big pot and poured it over the ham in the pan. This then went into the oven and this was where the boy’s stare landed then, unmoved until half an hour or so later an almost black ham was removed from the oven and lifted onto a chopping board and covered with strip after strip of tin foil.
How was he meant to do anything now? Knowing what he now knew.
Having completed this job his mother was gone. He could hear his parents in other rooms doing other things, and after a while, he started to feel confident he was forgotten and would not be troubled for a bit. He stood for the first time in hours and was shocked by the pins and needles that had accumulated in his feet. He almost fell but steadied himself and padded slowly for a few steps on spiky fizzing feet. Approaching the counter he was tall enough to lift the foil and see the sweet smoky ham underneath, he inhaled. Became intoxicated. Lifted a small finger she pressed it as deep as it would go into the hot flesh. He winced but clasped his other hand over his mouth. This was soon replaced by the sticky finger, now lollipop sweet and bacon smoked. He worked its circumference with his tongue. He was snapped from his sugar-induced reverie by terse voices from upstairs. Knowing how the ham came to be, he felt calm for the first time in weeks, he felt tired too in anticipation of what he knew he would eventually have to do.
So as not to arouse suspicion, he secured the foil back in place and traipsed upstairs and put on his favourite tracksuit before wetting down his hair and passing a toothbrush briefly around his mouth. He then made a show of going into the garden and kicking a football against the fence. This is what he was still doing when the call eventually came from the house that it was time to go to the nativity.
Without putting up a fight he came inside, put on his scratchy blue coat and soft red scarf and followed his parents from the house for the slow traipse into the village and up to the church.
They left the church promptly. Walking home after the nativity the plump boy could think of only one thing. During the nativity a box of sweets had been passed around with the collection, he had looked to his parents but they had simply dropped a few coins into the weird little bag and passed it, along with the box of sweets, on to the next family without so much as a look down to say sorry. This cemented his intention. The ham was all that was on his mind.
For some reason, his parents always had all sorts of people from the village into their house after the nativity. They did this every year. This was what the ham was for. So, as they entered the house ahead of everyone else's arrival, his parents rushed to take off and hang up their coats. He followed suit. He followed them into the kitchen and he stood near his mother knowing that she would eventually ask for his help. Sure enough, she started handing him things and pointing to areas of the house where they should be placed. To his surprise, this not only included piles of napkins and paper plates, little pots of toothpicks and little plates with pots of ketchup and mustard and cranberry sauce on, but also the silver bowls and platters of chocolates and bon-bons that hadn't been out on display at all this year.
He did as he was told, although this very nearly threw him off his plan. More than once he nearly succumbed, more than once he picked up and started to unwrap golden-wrapped chocolate, pressed his little fingers into the dusty surface of a bright white bon-bon. But resist he did. He knew his prize and he would not jeopardise securing it for himself.
After a good few journeys with this and that, there was very little else to put out, but whilst he had been running things to all corners of the house, and whilst his father had been filling the sink with ice and settling bottles of things into it, his mother had started slicing his ham into big pink rounds. She used a two-pronged fork and the special knife that she kept in an old leather box and only got out on special occasions. He had missed the bit where she ran it up and down a big metal spike with a flourish, something she always did on Sundays, and something he always liked watching her do. He did not mind missing it today though.
His parents were growing frantic. The villagers would not be far from ringing the doorbell. His mother carved a few more slices before leaving the platter untended as she fetched hot trays of other bits and pieces from the oven and slid them out of oven trays and onto frilly-edged platters. These would contain mini things in pastry, maybe things wrapped in bacon, perhaps something melty and cheesy, and would all normally be things he gravitated towards if he could, but today they held no candle to his plans for the ham.
In the guise of being a good boy and helping his mother, unasked and completely quiet, the plump boy reached up and lifted the heavy platter down from the kitchen counter. It was heavy and he nearly let it slip from his hands, but he held on for dear life and managed not to make a sound. As bottles clinked and trays clattered, he wondered from the kitchen into the sitting room where the remainder of the food and napkins and paper plates and plates of dips and sauces and bowls of crisps and sweets and other things had been laid out in anticipation of their guests. His mind was empty as he floated towards the furthest corner of the room where the back of the big sofa met the edge of the Christmas tree. It was here that he could sit with his own back to the sofa and slump completely unseen on the floor, the platter of sweet ham balanced in his lap.
At first, he just stared at it. Then he lowered his face over it and inhaled. He was shocked by the acrid scent that hit him first, but this soon gave way to coca-cola sweetness, to sugary smoke, to rich fatty candied ham.
He heard the doorbell ring and little shouts and yelps come from the kitchen. He could hear feet stomp through the house and felt a draft come into the room and under the sofa. He could hear voices in the hallway and with each new thing that unfolded, he picked up a slice of ham and stuffed it into his mouth. The first slither did not disappoint, and as more people arrived and as he could hear the room-filling from his hiding place, panic and excitement rose in him and what started as an intention to snaffle a few choice slices of ham became a panicky intention to eat the whole plate and hide the evidence.
He could hear his mother calling for him, he could hear his father making jokes about his likely location as he walked the room starting to pour drinks into people's glasses. It was not until the plate was completely clean and he had shoved it under the sofa and made sure there were no signs of ham left around his mouth that he slowly stood up and shuffled his way out from his hiding place. As always he went largely unnoticed. He ignored the bowls and plates he passed along the way and did not fill his pockets as might have once done as he slalomed out of the sitting room and back to the kitchen. His mother had another plate on the worktop and was slicing more ham. She waved at him and signalled for him to carry this one into the lounge just like had done with the one before. So he did. With exactly the same results.
He repeated this seemingly helpful journey twice more before people started to leave and his parents started to retrace their earlier steps, this time removing the emptied plates and bowls and glasses back to the kitchen.
Sat in the corner, watching them, unseen as always, the plump boy started to feel dizzy, started to feel a heavy sickness in his belly. Careful not to be seen he fetched the plates from under the sofa and deposited them in the kitchen, again unseen, and then took himself upstairs and lay down on his bed.
Horizontal, his eyes tracing the cars and trucks and motorbikes on the wallpaper running around his bedroom, he started to feel the once familiar gurgling and twisting of his stomach, he squirmed and writhed with the discomfort, but he didn’t care a jot. He’d eaten almost a whole ham, and he was happier than he’d been in months, perhaps years.
So as he bent double and started to retch, all he could think of was the sweet scent of the coke boiling in the kitchen that morning, the heady scent of the ham roasting in the oven that afternoon.
He was very sick that night and he struggled to eat another morsel until the day after boxing day, but no one knew why, no one knew what he had done, and despite it all, it was the happiest he had been ever before or ever since. He’d found a love for glazed ham. He’d found a lifeline.
*This story is based on true events. Whilst some details have been changed for dramatic effect, the plump boy does still love glazed ham.
Co-incidentally, that’s the very food item that’s simmering on my stove at the moment for tonight.