Sugar and Spice
Once upon a time, I had a massive crush on Danelaw Smith.
I was twelve, and he must have been about twenty-something. And he wasn’t exactly all that good-looking, but my affection for him threatened to overwhelm me. Perhaps it was something in the name, the originality of it, or the juxtaposition of exotic ‘Danelaw’ with the mundanity of ‘Smith’.
Or maybe it was the doughnuts.
Because Danelaw made and sold the most awesome doughnuts. He had a truck, and one of the places it stopped was outside our school. He would cook the hot doughnuts right there and then; the round knobs of dough sliding along a conveyer belt and toppling into a little vat of simmering oil. Others would be pre-made, and he’d have them lined up on window shelves - all different colours, painted with all kinds of icing, topped with an array of glaring sprinkles; cream or jam-stuffed. There were weird, twisted doughnuts; and ones with fruit in them; ones coated in chocolate and covered in nuts. There was almost nothing you couldn’t get standing at that truck window.
My favourite was a round doughnut covered in a citrus icing. I’d forgo my lunch some days to have spare change to spend when he dropped by on Tuesdays and Fridays.
I’d talk to him at times when I could. It was hard. There were always so many kids lined up, or milling around. I might wait behind, sitting on a wall, my hair half-covering my face. I might only shyly approach once the crowds had thinned away and I could have him to myself for a few minutes.
Danelaw had a crooked nose, and a scattering of facial hair. His eyes were smoky, and his hair was a mild ash-brown. There was nothing about him that should have ignited a young girl’s attraction. But something did. As I handed over my fifty cents – that’s what it cost in those days – I would smile at him and whisper a musical little ‘thank you’, then I’d hover for a moment, trying to draw his attention. I might ask him, “have you sold many today?”
And he’d answer something polite and distant: “not a bad day” or “a little bit slow today.”
And I’d try to draw more out of him, saying something about the warmth of the day; or about how I’d seen a stray cat on the way to school and I’d stopped to try and pat it but it’d run away. Or I’d tell him I’d seen the first autumn leaves walking to school today. On a few days when I was brave, I might ask him something about himself: where did he go to school? Where did he grow up? Did he like selling doughnuts? Eating doughnuts? Always with my head hung a little bit, my hair shading my face, eyes never quite meeting his.
The girls – if they waited – sitting behind me and whispering amongst themselves, nudging one-another, making me blush right when I most didn’t want to.
I got a hard time about liking Danelaw. The other girls didn’t get it. When we walked through the woods talking about the guys we fancied, he was nobody’s choice but mine. And they couldn’t see why.
“He’s not a spunk,” Lydia declared – that being how we designated the good-looking males back then.
“So?” I mumbled.
“So, what do you see in him?”
“He’s…” and I really didn’t know what to say, what word I was looking for. Nice? It seemed so pallid, and honestly, I didn’t even know if he was nice. I didn’t know that much about him. Just that pull, that twitching attraction that simply was. “He’s… interesting.” I finished lamely.
“He’s dumb,” Peggy decided, “and he’s ugly.”
“Well who do you like then?”
Lydia chimed in, “Now he’s a spunk.”
“He’s nothing special,” I said, though I knew he occupied that special stratum of boys-who-were-suitable-to-be-fancied. You couldn’t have a crush on just anyone. They had to be cool. Have a bit of attitude. Gregor Fenton was at that level. He was thirteen. And I did know that he was good-looking; and popular, and confident, a bit of a dare-devil on a skateboard. Him, and Logan Rolls, and Danny Yorro. You could have a crush on all them. And it was certainly okay to be into Johnny Depp; or to think David Bowie was all right. And there was a teacher in school, Mr Christo, who plenty of girls had taken a shine to.
Not Danelaw though. He seemed beneath notice.
Everybody’s except mine.
“My dad says he’s got a chequered past,” Lydia told me once, as we walked home from the bus stop and along the railway track.
In my head I pictured Danelaw with his skin all patterned in tartan and gingham, the patterns changing colour and flowing out over his clothes, washing into the ground, flowing there as well.
“Huh?” I’d gotten distracted.
“We were talking about your boyfriend.”
“But you wish he was.”
“Well, my dad doesn’t like him. He says he’s dodgy. He grew up in a bunch of foster homes.”
“So, he kept getting moved on. Too much trouble. And nobody wanted to adopt him because he was such a shit.”
“How would your dad know?”
Lydia shrugged. “I just know what I heard him saying.”
“He doesn’t know anything.”
“Well, nor do you.”
Nor did I. And maybe I liked it that way. Liked that I could fill the void of my ignorance with imagined facts and possibilities. I could sit on the front porch in the evenings with my bare legs splayed and attracting sandflies, picturing this life we could have together, or maybe just imagining what he got up to when he wasn’t selling doughnuts.
I was jealous. Two years later, standing in the shade and shadow of an ancient oak tree. It should have been me, up there in the stark white frills, face veiled, red roses clutched in manicured hands.
I wasn’t invited to his wedding, of course. Why would I be? He barely knew me. But when I learnt that it was going to be held in the public gardens – Lydia had heard someone say to someone else – I knew I had to be there.
His bride was nothing special. That’s how I chose to see it at the time. She was chubby and plain, her mahogany hair I refused to see as anything other than tatty and old-fashioned. She had small, piggy eyes – I decided – and her shoulders were slumped. I could imagine myself in her place, in that same elaborate dress, drowning in its folds and hardly able to keep the tears out of my eyes. It should have been me.
And there was Danelaw, his sparse facial hair now fashioned into a neat little goatee, looking polished in a rented suit, a nervous smile on his face. I had fantasies of the wedding falling apart in some way, interrupted by a swarm of bees, or a savage dog, or maybe an out-of-control bus. But instead, she said “I do” and he said “I do” as well. And when he lifted the veil and I saw him kiss her, that was all I could take. I turned around and ran. Exploding with jealousy. I ran half the way home until, crippled with stitch, I had to slow down and stagger a couple of blocks, before settling into a slow, morose walk.
“What’s the matter with you?” my mother asked me.
“You’ve been crying.”
“No, I haven’t.”
She tilted my face up to get a better look. “You can tell me. I won’t judge.”
I couldn’t though. I just couldn’t. I could see myself through all their eyes, a silly girl, a dumb kid, crushing on a grown-up they all thought was a loser. And I couldn’t even defend myself because I couldn’t explain my feelings. A fourteen-year-old girl crying because a fully grown man she barely really knew was getting married, had gotten married. “Some kids at the park were mean,” I said to Mum, the most obvious go-to excuse I could offer. And sometimes the kids were mean. Sometimes I fell into the role of target, and I didn’t get why; and then a few hours later, or the next day, it would be as if nothing had happened – friends again. And I’d never understand it.
I imagined that things would have been different with Danelaw. He would have liked me for who I was, he wouldn’t have criticised and made fun of me. We would have driven all over the country, making and selling those doughnuts, kicking back together in the back of that truck at the end of the day, watching the sunset roll in all red and sticky, fired up from within, silk-smooth and roast-hot.
Well, I read about Danelaw Smith in the paper just a few days ago. It was in the court pages, and there was a picture. It would appear that twenty-odd years had done little to change him. The face was still the very same face, even the tilt and the angle of it. It turns out that he’d been selling more than doughnuts, even in those days. The court pages write-up went into some details about an established drug-dealer, moving about the country offering mostly pot, but maybe throwing in some acid or some illicit prescription painkillers. There was also mention of welfare fraud, public drunkenness, assault, and resisting arrest. Mention of some historic burglaries.
A ‘character’ was how the reporter chose to describe him, as if he was just playing the part of his own life, or as if she, personally, had created him and set him in the world in this form. A hard life, orphaned young, tossed around group homes and foster homes, some years on the street. An accident leading to possible brain damage.
This was the Danelaw I’d loved. All these things that had been threaded into his personality right from the start. Even while I was ordering doughnuts, talking about doughnuts and weather and stray cats. Maybe he’d been weighing me up in his head: old enough for something more interesting? what would happen if I gave her a little packet of ‘special herbs’ and told her I could get some more?
Well, here’s the funny thing: I still think of Danelaw fondly. When I remember him, I remember the sugar and spice of his doughnuts; the delicious, carrying smell of them, and the snippets of conversation I mined out of him over those years. If there was a hardened criminal in there, I didn’t see him, not even for moment, not even a glimpse or glimmer of it.
When I read about him in the court pages, my first impulse was that I should go see him. I should visit. Show him there was somebody out there who cared. It was stupid of course, and I abandoned the idea. A stranger from twenty years ago. But I considered it, and there was a moment – an almost moment – when I just about grabbed my car keys from the hook beneath my kitchen cupboard and drove out there to visit.
I didn’t. But I almost did.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work.