"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.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

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 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times