Books Reviews

Story: Fighting Weight

By: Vanessa Cutts

thin man

Jack sprat could eat no fat
and his wife could eat no lean
so between them both you see
they licked the plate clean

Jack Sprat came from a very large family. He had too many relatives to remember all their names but he always remembered what they told him. One day Jack Sprat decided to go round the world and visit his temperate relatives where some grew as big as herrings. This was no exaggeration, Jack Sprat had heard lots of tall stories from a pickled herring from Crystal Palace and some from a Roman Sprat who was more familiar with the fish knife back stabbing of Emperor Julius Caesar who was filleted by his own senate.

In India Jack Sprat’s cousins thought he was looked underweight. His Hindu cousins said to cure his underweight ‘ kohlum’ he should eat healthy sesame seeds, the symbol of immortality. They described the green pods of the sesame plant and the white and purple flowers known in Urdu literature and proverbs for meaning place so crowded that there is no room for a single seed, ’til dharnay ki jagah na hona’, and told him if he ate them then he would not have a problem with his fat but he might end up looking more like a sardine.

‘Why should I believe you?’ Jack Sprat asked his Indian cousin.

‘Because I’m telling you.’

‘OK so why does your toque hat have the same name as a French chef’s?’

‘Probably because we are used to the English coming here and trying to boss us around! Now go and look for the sesame seeds!’

Jack Sprat laughed and said he would find some straight away. He set off swimming up a river that flowed through the lush green countryside. Soft low cantations from the temples travelled through the streets and across the fields as the flowers dripped water from the early monsoon rains. He looked all day and watched the elephants drinking by the river whilst hiding from the Keralan fishing boats with reed roofs that bobbed up and down on the water. At last he found a plant with a green pod. He picked one and swam back along the river that ran parallel to the red earth road in the dry heat back to his cousins.

Unfortunately the green pod he found had white seeds that fitted the description but when he ate them it was so hot he had to drink lots of water.

’It must have been a green chilli,’ said his cousins laughing, ‘they are very hot!’

Before he left they made him a tomato and coconut curry and they listened to a concert played on a sitar and an instrument with eighty strings played by an octopus. He thanked them for their hospitality and carried on his travels to find the sesame seeds, symbol of immortality.

When he got to Italy, his Italian cousins in Napoli he told them about the chilli and they teased him and gave him a caper instead to laugh about his silly mistake.

‘Beware of chillies Jack! You won’t do that again! Don’t lose your cool or take off his jacket or be gutted if you want to keep going . You’ll end up in a big oven on a pizza lying around like a pair of Gucci loafers if you lose your head.’

Jack Sprat thanked them and told them that his Egyptian cousins also ate the Latin black bread Picea seasoned with herbs originally made to celebrate the Pharaoh’s birthday. And when the anchovies kept their silver jackets on, the Napolitana was taken off the menu and more people ate Marguerites. He said he would tell them how nice the capers were and that Italian pizza was the best in the world.

Not put off by his failure to find the sesame seed plant and symbol of immortality, Jack Sprat continued on his journey. In Spain he was told to look for the white’ ajonjoli’ sesame to boost his weight but the green vegetables he found were all cucumbers and olives. He told his Spanish cousins about his Italian cousins and they warned him if he teased the Spanish they would take him to the bullfight, make him fight the bull and then eat paella with lots of saffron and watch a hot blooded flamenco.

‘It wasn’t you that was owed the six squid then?’ said Jack

‘No!’ said his cousin

His cousins were not too sure what he meant but did not want to look stupid.

‘No!’ they said, then told him how the olives were harvested by beating the trees and collecting the olives in nets underneath, then some were pressed to make oil and this was used to store the rest of the harvest. Sometimes anchovies were rolled around the olives, served as canapés and eaten with champagne. His cousins warned him to be careful of the farmers they might try to catch him and gut him like the fishermen as they went together really well. They decided to do something with the cucumbers he had found, as it would be a shame to waste them. His cousins sliced them up and made a big salad then used some of the remaining slices to put on their puffy eyes to rehydrate and keep them shiny and bright and keep cool in the sun. They also polished their fins with them like a manicure or ‘finicure.’

Jack Sprat thanked his cousins for their wonderful hospitality and the sprat spa and set off refreshed and cleansed. He travelled to the port of Aligeceras where he disguised himself as a trader and enquired about the boats to Africa.

‘There wouldn’t be a boat for about three days because of an approaching storm …’ he overheard some sailors saying,

Jack had heard about Phoenician sailors who painted an evil eye on their boats to protect them from bad spirits and storms and he also knew he should avoid sea birds.

‘It takes ten years for the crayfish to grow to full size, ten minutes to catch one and ten minutes for them to be eaten,’ said one sailor before adding , ‘it also takes ten minutes to sink the fishing boat in a storm and he was not going to risk the weather.’

Jack knew he was in great danger, he felt his disguise had worked with the sailors and he was confident it would fool the seagulls. He followed a cruise ship instead . Then he stowed away in the bilge of a tanker.

‘Why are you going to Africa and Arabia?’ asked a butterfish fooled by his disguise

‘To be as free as you and find the famous sesame plant.’

‘It’s more like a tin of sardines in the Kasbahs, you’ll get crushed!’ replied the butterfish that laughed to himself and flew away

From Tangiers Jack Sprat travelled through Africa along the Amazon River where his African cousins had also heard of the lightening seeds, symbol of immortality that popped when they were ripe, he found lots of gourds and beans but no sesame ‘ benne’ pods as they were known. They drank some honey beer and worried about the rains instead. The farmers needed the Harmattan trade wind from the Gulf of Guinea in Ghana to bring the clouds and rain to grow a decent peanut yield and a good harvest of sesame to make tahini paste, tatziki an sugary nut brittle that was very popular.

Jack Sprat got his honey beer hangover up early the next day and swam to the Spice Islands, but all he could find were green coconuts, vanilla pods, flowers and cardamom seeds. He saw the coconut palms and followed the different scents on the breeze collecting the different spices to show his cousins but could not hear any pods popping despite keeping his gills open. His cousins used the spices to make a big bowl of ice cream and several Pina coladas made with sugar cane spirit, coconut and cream from a village cow and he told them about the Africa rains needed for the savannah drought in the desert and plains of Africa.

’In the islands we have more clouds made from the sea in the equator, the water evaporates and condenses over the mountains where it cools. That’s why it’s so lush here compared to Africa, ‘advised his cousins.

Jack Sprat did not want to leave the beautiful shells and beaches of the Spice Islands. He wanted to stay under the shade of the mango and palm trees all day, forever and watch the pretty grass skirts walk past. But his wife who could eat no lean was expecting him back. Tainted love was for turbot and trout he thought, then he looked at his confetti covered wedding photo in his wallet and missed his home. He thanked the Spice Island cousins for their hospitality and waved goodbye and left the white beaches and cool scented breezes for the hot deserts of Arabia.

When he arrived at the dunes and deserts along the banks of the Nile he found his Arabic cousins and told them his story about looking for a sesame plant too. His Arabic cousins said the green pod sounded like a green chilli but he had to really listen hard for the ‘jaljala’ echo of the ripe pod going ‘pop’,

‘If it goes ‘jaljala’ like an echo then you would know it was definitely a sesame seed pod, symbol of immortality, not a fiery chilli in Cairo,’ they said and added, ‘ if you find one we will get it gold plated for you to keep.’

‘ Maybe there is too much jungle noise of water, birds, monkeys and crickets to hear properly,’ someone suggested.

‘ The best time to listen is in the morning. Avoid eleven and four when we have the call to prayer, it was impossible to hear anything then.’

‘And it is also why actors say ‘ open sesame ‘ speak and spells to open doors in pantomimes to treasure caves.’

‘I’ll listen for the vibrations,’ said Jack Sprat, ‘because didn’t you know that fish don’t have ears on the outside of their bodies, they have internal ears.’

He spent all day listening for the popping sound then returned to his cousins who reminded him of smoked mackerel because of their darker flesh. After a big dinner they had lots of mint tea in a room with lots of woven carpets where they saw more than genies in the smoke coming from the from the oil lamps.

‘Maybe there is a carpet with the location of the immortal sesame seed, said one cousin,’ My wife will make a you carpet about the story of your journey for when you return. We will make lots of carpets and sell many, telling of your adventures.’

‘What would you wish for if you had three wishes?’ asked his cousin.

‘To……………. to find the sesame seed plant and get some ears! ‘said Jack.

Determined to be a great adventurer remembered by his grandchildren rather than a diminished epigone, Jack continued to visit his anchovy cousins in Siberia and look for the Russian ‘kunzhut’ sesame seeds to cure his underweight ‘kohlum’. He had brought some cabbages and onions with him from the souk to use as barter and bribes in his quest for the sesame. His experience told him this was a good idea as he had been to his cousin’s wedding five years earlier. It was nice to be back in the USSR and see what had changed. They welcomed him with vodka, cheeses and pumpernickel. He told them about the Arabian prayer mats, mint tea and listening for the popping sound.

‘We have Russian samovar if you prefer tea. Russian Sprats do not need ears to hear the sesame popping. We have listening devices from the cold war with the American Sprats at best black market prices. We can detect the sesame if it even whispers!’

Jack then told them about the traders and the storm and the genies in the lamps and they replied that the Russian lamps used the fat from the fascist pigs and that if any genie appeared in his house he would have to drink vodka too.

‘What would you wish for?’ he asked his Russian cousins.

‘Three Russian wishes – to drink best Russian vodka every day, live in Winter Palace and own the best Russian football team.’

When he got to Japan in the spring he found the paddy fields beyond the cherry blossom and beyond that he found the endomame and green soya beans. One step beyond that he found his cousins. A step in Japan was like a Zen kilometre in sprat terms. His cousins did not understand why he needed to be any fatter unless he wanted to be a sumo wrestler sprat; they looked at the soya beans and rice plants but could not see any sesame seed plants amongst them. They were impressed with his Russian listening device and said he should enjoy the nori seaweed while he was there and drink some sake and plum wine with his teriyaki and tell them more about his travels. Jack Sprat sang some karaoke and bowed good night. Turning Japanese was fun! He was happy and decided to go back to Great Britain he would swim the Pacific then traverse America and swim the Atlantic. In fact he crossed the Pacific in the swimming pool of a cruise ship where they ate lots of green olives on plates and drank cocktails because they were scared of sharks. And his Route 66 he spent in the water tank of a Harley Davidson motorcycle looking out of a port hole wearing a jacket and helmet made from a wine bottle top and seal.

He swam up the Hudson River in New York to the Statue of Liberty where he met some cousins who had some cactus and tequila. Jack’s cousins thought maybe the cactus plant looked a bit like a sesame pod but they had eaten the mescaline worm that lived in it .This was meant to be a bit like taking LSD so Jack did not take their word for it.

‘Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t a green sesame pod,’ they said to Jack Sprat and smiled.

Narratror

Eventually he returned home to his wife via visiting some distant Welsh relatives in Lake Llyn-y-Cau in Calder Idris, a high lake above sea level in the mountains near Snowdonia. Far from the manic streets of Marrakesh he could still feel the hot desert winds and hear the male voice choirs in the valleys. His cousins said the Japanese seaweed sounded awful and nothing beat the camphor and seaweed on the welsh coast; they also said that sesame didn’t grow in Wales but they had some in the local supermarket. Jack asked someone to buy him a packet for 20p and took them back to his wife who added them to their plankton and they listened to pop music instead, lived happily ever after and stayed away from the flock of seagulls.

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