The Sweet Smell of Victory by Gappy Tales

I feel I’m cheating a little here. This post was actually written and first published in April of 2010 – almost four years ago. So long ago, in fact, I had almost forgotten ever writing it. But re-reading it today made me smile and reminisce, and so I’m re-publishing it now, this story from my life, just because.

When I was a little girl growing up in the early 1980′s I had a best friend and a worst enemy. Her name was Melissa. Melissa and I lived in the same square terraced block of council houses that stood off to the left at the top of our road. In the middle of the square was a small patch of grass and next to that was a slightly bigger patch of asphalt with a hopscotch painted onto it and a line of concrete blocks on which you could jump from one to the other. Our whole town was designed like that. Rows upon rows of these great long roads with square blocks of terraces branching off them at intervals like little goldfish bowls. Almost everyone I knew lived in one.

My favourite possessions in the whole wide world were my Strawberry Shortcake dolls. To this day I can still remember every single word to the song on the advert by heart. Small and plastic with bizarrely coloured hair, each doll came with its own little separate plastic pet and its own individual ‘fragrance.’ My mother says they used to stink the whole upstairs of the house out and that every morning after I’d gone to school she would have to open all the windows to let some air in. But at seven years old they were my pride and joy. I could identify each and every one and match it to it’s correct pet simply by using sense of smell alone.

Melissa and I played together almost every day and yet I don’t remember ever going to her house very much. Her parents – who I can still just vaguely picture – were distant, undemonstrative people who always spoke to her sharply in Swedish whenever I was there, even though I knew that they spoke English most of the time at home. Her mother was a tall, severe looking woman who Melissa swore blind had blue lips under her lipstick, and looking back now I can recall an awkward feeling of never knowing quite where to put myself accompanying the odd occasions I did go inside her unfailingly pristine house to play. The vast majority of my memories instead involve us playing together in the little square onto which our houses faced; endless games of hopscotch and skipping and twirling around and around on the grass looking at the sky, trying to make ourselves dizzy.

Of the two of us Melissa was the most dominant and confident. She had an authoritative air coupled with a vicious streak that would rise up suddenly out of nowhere like a guard dog woken from its slumber. Her nastiness could reduce me to tears in a matter of seconds. Looking back now I suppose that ultimately ours was a friendship of convenience rather than of genuine affection; proximity more than anything drawing us back together time and again. But we did have one essential thing in common: Melissa was as in love with her collection of strawberry shortcake dolls as I was with mine. In fact these dolls became in the end largely symbolic of – and certainly the main focus for – our entire friendship. We were constantly and shamelessly embroiled in a bitter competition over who had the most, the best, and the newest. Indeed the only time I ever really felt as though I had any power – temporarily at least – in our relationship, was when I was the proud possessor of a brand new doll that I knew Melissa coveted. Dangled like carrots and wielded like sticks, we used those poor dolls to control, manipulate, and punish each other mercilessly, the worst punishment of all being a shouted threat of, “That’s it! I’m NEVER going to let you smell my strawberry shortcake dolls EVER again!”

I remember one argument in particular beginning with an announcement from Melissa that from now on she was only ever going to call me Knobbly Knees, and that I was to call her Sylvia. She had recently had a birthday which had enlarged her collection of strawberry shortcake dolls considerably and she was therefore only too aware that I was not in a good bargaining position. I protested feebly – if she got to be called Sylvia I said, then it was only fair that I got to be called Camilla – but no she insisted; it was to be Knobbly Knees or nothing. I promptly burst into tears and began to walk off, shoulders heaving, towards my front door. Melissa stood her ground, hands on her hips in a gesture of mocking defiance. “Fine, go in then. Tell your mum then. I don’t care,” she hissed, before delivering the final knock-out blow, “Anyway, I’m NEVER going to let you smell my strawberry shortcake dolls EVER again!”

I can remember afterwards lying face down on my bed sobbing pitifully into my pillow and feeling utterly overwhelmed by a dark sense of injustice and impotent rage. I wished so hard that I could be brave. I hated myself for crying and running to my mother. Too small to understand that I alone was responsible for my own behaviour and responses, I blamed her for making me run home crying. It was all her fault.

The next day she was being taken out somewhere by her father. I remember pressing my nose up against the cold pane of our living room window, my breath misting up the glass, and watching her leave the house with him, immaculate as always in her best dress though looking oddly miserable for a child who was to be taken on a treat. I saw them walk out of the gap in the square that led to the road and then disappear from view.

My heart was pounding so violently that I felt it might leap out of my throat as I rang Melissas doorbell and heard the sounds inside of her mother coming to answer it. She opened the door and stood there unsmiling. I have absolutely no recollection of what I said to gain access to Melissas room – perhaps I said that I had left something in there, or that she had borrowed something that I needed back – but my next memory is of standing in her bedroom feeling as though I desperately needed to pee. I can remember her room was freakishly tidy with an air of having just recently been hoovered – this in stark contrast to my own which always bore the air of having just recently been ransacked – and that it gave me the creeps. The only things on the floor were her collection of strawberry shortcake dolls, arranged in a perfect circle with their pets neatly in front of them.

I immediately spied her newest ones, the sight seeming to shake me out of the fear that held me immobilized, and cause another emotion entirely to take over. Like a little girl possessed I seized the first doll and buried my nose in its purple hair, sniffing, almost gulping in the synthetic smell of cherries as though my life depended on it. I hurriedly did the same with the next one and the next and the next. Then, satiated, I put them back very carefully as I had found them, making sure to arrange them just so. I walked as calmly as I could down the stairs, called out a goodbye to Melissas mother, and ran out of the house and back the few metres to my own front door as fast as I could, a strange feeling of elation beginning to spread from my grin down and out through my entire body.


Jeni Harvey: Writer, feminist, mother. Likes cake, hates Jeremy Clarkson. These are my principles – if you don’t like them, I have others. @GappyTales or Huff Post