"I chose...responsibly": fiction preview

A sneak-peak at Jackie Kay’s short story, "Mind away", featured exclusively in this week’s magazine.

We've all been there. The frantic scramble for misplaced keys amid a heady morning rush never fails to infuriate. "'The brain's a sieve. Maybe not a sieve, maybe a...what's the name of the thing with bigger holes?' ". But what if you found yourself forgetting not just where you placed your keys, not just words, but whole worlds? This is the struggle that shapes Jackie Kay's Mind Away, a dreamlike story in which the symptoms of dementia weave together a mother, daughter and doctor. Published exclusively in this week's New Statesman, it anticipates the release of Kay's latest collection, Reality Reality, a series of short stories which place the banalities and strange obsessions of everyday life into captivating tales.

Kay is loved by readers for her ability to conjure strong, believable voices that are rooted in accessible human experiences - in Mind Away, a mother and daughter attempt to reassemble what has been lost through their own whimsical imaginings. Though saddened, the daughter resolutely attempts to jog her mother's memory, prompting her to recall vivid sights and sensations from the past: "'What happened to that dress?', I asked, 'One night your father took me to the Locarno. I remember I was wearing it then...I felt like a million dollars'".

But the frustrating reality of the present is an ever-lingering spectre: "'Years ago is not the problem. Yesterday is the problem. Today is the problem. Years ago are piling up!'". To deal with the present, the daughter attempts a writerly solution - it is here that Kay demonstrates her ability to render multi-perspective narratives with real finesse, as the story wanders into the failing mind of a doctor, shocked at his own symptoms of memory deterioration.

Kay's message is one that celebrates the power of the imagination to ease the pain of reality, and the potential of stories to be healers in themselves. As ever, she deals compassionately with moving subject matter, and even leaves room for a witty take on a situation that we often assume offers little cause for optimism: "'What have we got to lose? Isn't life an awfully big adventure? Who was it that said that again? I've forgotten'". It's a timely endeavour, since more people than ever are feeling the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's, both as sufferers and carers.

Mind Away is accompanied by an illustration from Liam Stevens and appears in this week's New Statesman available from newsagents now.

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder