MOTORCYCLE IS THE BEST SAUCE
BY RICHARD ROCHE
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Turning the hob to a lower heat, Simon gave the contents of the pan a cursory stir, inhaled deeply, then stepped into the dining room to inspect the soundproofing again. Satisfied that the double-glazed windows were all closed and locked, he glanced nervously into the street below. Still. Lifeless. Perfect. Moving deftly, he next checked on the rubber sealant lining the inside of the doorframe. The narrow rim of foam rubber which adhered to the inside of the door’s niche was still intact. Looking down, he noted the presence of the draught excluder resting against the skirting board. This was the only aspect of his solution which he judged less than ideal, but until a superior alternative could be found, it would serve his purposes ably enough.
I sat almost motionless as I observed him, scribbling the occasional note and striving to maintain the reverential silence of this procedure. Next, he moved to the bookcase, where nestling conspicuously among the volumes squatted his stereo. Finding the cassette deck vacant, he studied the shelf above the sound system, his fingers running across the acrylic spines of cassette tapes where three months previously literary classics had resided. The tape cases were stacked three-high to compensate for their small size in the space of the former, considerably taller occupants. The topmost of the three rows displayed yellow spines, and carried labels such as ‘Starter – seafood chowder’, ‘Starter – duck liver pâté’ and others of similar nature, all penned in indelible fine-tipped marker with a careful hand. The tapes of the lower row, all white-spined, were entitled ‘Dessert – crème brulée’, ‘Dessert – rhubarb tart’ and so forth in the same manner.
But it was to the middle row that Simon’s attention was drawn, scanning the orange labels until he came to rest at ‘Main – pan-fried salmon’. Removing the tape from its casing, he inserted it into the system and pressed play. A heavily accented male voice began speaking at an even pace:
‘Hammer… Money… Ranger… Steel… Tobacco…’
Smiling, Simon stopped the playback and rewound the tape to the beginning. Turning finally to check the lone place-setting at the dining table, he returned to the kitchen, where white noise continued to crackle from the television set on the counter.
I had never really thought myself strange. I admit to having been something of a solitary child, but this never reached the point of isolation. I imagine all people must view themselves as a bit different at some time or other while growing up. And I would much rather be considered a little odd than called ‘normal’, a label I have always found most disagreeable. So, as I passed from childhood to adolescence and into manhood, happy enough in the knowledge that I was not quite the same as everyone else, I supposed nobody actually was anyway. And there was comfort in that. I think secretly I felt that my little quirks – and I have a few – in part made up for my unremarkable appearance; I am, to be honest, a forgettable-looking person. I’m a bit skinnier than most, and I think this effect is made worse by my nervousness; I’m very fidgety, which gives some people the impression of a bird – or so I have been told. But it’s not my physical appearance that’s the issue; it’s something … else, something very unusual that sets me apart.
Simon presented himself to me with his strange case some months after he had arrived at his unique and ingenious solution. He had found my name by sifting through the research interests on the university website, a process which – for reasons I would later understand – he had found more than a little traumatic. After several days of hesitation and self-doubt, he had finally mustered the courage to navigate his way through the busy campus, announcing himself with a timid rapping on my office door. It was a grey Thursday, and being free of lectures I invited him in to hear his story. Within ten minutes, I had decided to devote this chapter to his case study.
Undoubtedly his most telling personality trait was his affinity for order and system in every sphere of life. For Simon, things must be done in a particular way, objects located in a certain place and tasks carried out in a predetermined order, lest terrible consequences follow. When asked what form these consequences might take, he would often reply that the very deviation from the specified way of doing things was a dire enough end in itself. Items were to be placed either parallel or perpendicular to each other and to the edges of whatever surface upon which they happened to be placed. Cutlery and utensils were meticulously stored in terms of function and size. Even the contents of his wardrobe were arranged alphabetically and grouped by colour. To any objective observer, his actions would have been quite straightforwardly classifiable as those of someone suffering from an obsessive-compulsive personality type (if not disorder), though to Simon these were merely the most efficient ways of behaving. To upset this natural order, as occasionally happened in his youth when a parent would pick up or move an item from his desk, would result in significant distress, and he invariably felt the need to act quickly in restoring order. Such torments had ceased from the time he left the family home to live alone, and his small rented apartment was a veritable shrine to symmetry and Pythagorean beauty.
It came as little surprise to anyone who knew me, then, when I found my way into the occupation of librarian. On the fateful day that I wandered into the public library (having failed to find what I was looking for in the hopeless jumble of the local bookshop) and was introduced for the first time to the Dewey Decimal System, it felt as though I had met a soulmate. The order, the elegance, the simplicity, the predictability; the systematic poetry of it just enchanted me. From that day onward, I could often be found lost among the stacks, silently drifting from shelf to shelf, my fingers trailing across the coded spines, always on the lookout for a renegade volume squatting guiltily in another’s place. Few things in life give me greater pleasure than returning the book to its rightful location and restoring the continuity to the shelves. So, having successfully pestered the chief librarian for a summer internship as a shelver – at which I was told I was a natural! – I was finally taken on as a trainee librarian at the age of eighteen, and there I have worked ever since, nine years spent happily cataloging, sorting and shelving, content in the knowledge that there is no other job in the world from which I could derive more satisfaction. For among books, a man can never feel lonely.
The only major problem in his life, and the one aspect in which he did consider himself singular (if not necessarily strange), was to do with the area of gustation: Simon had never enjoyed a meal in his life. From an age younger than he could recall, he had found any attempt at pleasurable ingestion quite impossible. So uncommon was the nature of his unique malady that he had long since decided to cease speaking of it, as to do so was to invite such quizzical glances and suspicious incredulity as he had come to dread. The simple fact of the matter was that Simon tasted words. Up until the age of six he had assumed, as children will, that all people shared his own experience; at that point, a schoolyard conversation with another boy had produced the revelation that the word ‘truck’ did not, in fact, taste horrible to others when the teacher spoke it. The boy had retreated in confusion, pointing at Simon and calling him strange. On raising the point at home that evening, Simon was told to stop being silly and eat his vegetables. This proved immensely problematic, however, as the mere mention of the word had triggered a sickly sensation of rotting chicken which almost caused him to gag. Doubly scolded for silliness and then wasteful disobedience, he was sent to bed. This was Simon’s earliest recollection of a meal ruined by intruding tastes generated by spoken words. Since then, his life had become a catalogue of thwarted attempts at dining – at home, mealtimes became tense affairs as he would try to dispense quickly with the proffered dish lest his parents’ conversation yield a word such as ‘leather’ or ‘river’ to assail his palate with nauseating sensations.
Not all words taste of things for me – if this was the case I would be constantly bombarded by them from every sentence I hear. As my interest in these odd events grew, I started to keep a record of them in an attempt to better understand, or even predict, some of them. I had always known that only certain words – nouns, mostly – were able to trigger these tastes, though beyond that I could never find any pattern to it: words as unrelated and random as ‘rat’ and ‘encyclopaedia’ were equally able to produce different flavours, while some people’s names also caused this odd feeling. One major breakthrough was when I discovered that not all of the tastes were unpleasant to me. One day, on being introduced to a girl called Samantha, I was surprised by a wonderful sensation of fresh strawberries, almost to the point of drooling. Since that meeting, I have found that hearing the same name always causes me to experience that exact taste. In fact, I still use it sometimes as a means of getting rid of an unpleasant taste when I don’t have any actual food or drink to hand; whispering the name to myself helps to counteract whatever foul sensation it happens to be, although the effect is far weaker when I am the one speaking the word. Sadly though, I estimate that around 70 per cent of the tastes are not so nice. And many are not merely unpleasant, they are disgusting: rancid fish, wet cardboard, earwax, even vomit sometimes. Words like the sweet-tasting Samantha are unfortunately in the minority.
Another strand of Simon’s research into his condition involved exploring what practical steps he could take to make this malady easier to cope with, and this endeavour met with considerably more success than did his attempts to understand its origins. From his schooldays onwards, he had always attempted to eat alone, and preferably away from any other children whose conversation he might accidentally overhear. This had quickly become self-perpetuating, and his acquired tag of ‘loner’ had come with the consolation of untainted lunch breaks. Eating in restaurants and cafés was, of course, quite impossible, and several family meals out for some special occasion or other (on one occasion, his own birthday) had been ruined as the young Simon had rushed to the bathroom to retch in response to a stray comment from a neighbouring table.
In my first year working at the library, I was invited along to the Christmas party. Now I was understandably wary of attempting to eat in a public (and therefore uncontrolled) environment, but a number of reasons made me relax my policy – it was important to bond socially with my colleagues, I told myself. And perhaps I could steer the conversation in directions that would not assault my senses. And surely the background of classical music – dinner was to be in a traditional Italian restaurant – would provide some defence against a stray word or two. And there was always – as I had by this time learned – the fallback of Samantha. And so I had agreed to go along; the prospect of being part of a friendly group was too appealing to turn down. The evening began well enough, with some post-work drinks in a local bar, harmless small talk with my colleagues and gentle laughter at their stories. Next came the meal – a standard Christmas menu, turkey and ham and vegetables, with plum pudding to follow. I sat between a pleasant middle-aged woman and an attractive new shelver who had just started at the library, and the starters passed without incident, the conversation mainly chit-chat and work politics with the odd joke or anecdote. It was with the arrival of the mains that things took an unfortunate turn. By this stage the course of the conversation had turned to children – many of the staff are parents – and the various challenges they present. Then the couple opposite me, both of whom worked at the issue counter, began talking about their local playground, and at the mention of the word ‘see-saw’ the vilest sensation of sawdust mixed with cod-liver oil announced itself in my palate. Thinking quickly, I tried to suppress the urge to vomit by shifting my attention to the music in the background, but a Christmas CD was now playing and the song contained so many references to ‘snow’ – tasting of stale sweat – that I had to fall back on my mantra of whispering Samantha to myself. Unfortunately though, the taste of strawberries did not sit particularly well with the turkey in my mouth, and I had to excuse myself from the table urgently to be ill. I left the dinner early on my return, as I knew it was too risky to endure the rest of the meal. It pained me so deeply to have to abandon such friendly company and genuine warmth, but I knew that to stay would only compound the stories they would tell later. Stories about the strange new employee who baulked at the mention of children and whispered women’s names beneath his breath.
So I left.
I never attended another work gathering – I would always be invited, of course, by the unfailingly polite staff, but I would make up some excuse or other as to why I could not go. Loneliness, it seems, is the land of the different. If only Samantha had tasted of cranberry, I sometimes thought …
Learning from such disasters, he had by adulthood developed a strict regime for his own mealtimes. This had originally consisted of ensuring he would have silence while he ate, but after a while it proved insufficient; noise from the street had to be removed via double-glazing after an unfortunate incident when, as Simon settled down to a dessert of profiteroles, a passing pedestrian outside the window shouted to a departing friend something containing the word ‘scarf’. So sudden and powerful was the sensation of turned milk that Simon immediately vomited back what had been until then a very satisfying supper onto the dining-room floor. Since then he had improved his soundproofing and, as a precaution, he kept a bucket beside the table during meals. To further prevent any mishaps, instrumental music was always played while he dined. He had discovered white noise to be the most effective means of damping down intruding tastes, but found it difficult to endure more than ten minutes of it, so had opted for instrumental classical music as his preferred defence. Opera was also quite effective, as it appeared that only words in English were capable of assaulting his senses in that mysterious fashion. He took to wearing earplugs when walking about town, and while the advent of personal stereo technology had reopened the possibility of eating in public, he was reluctant to stray from his own carefully controlled system unless it was unavoidable. So while his researches had brought him no closer to understanding the origins or nature of his strange situation, he had at least developed some strategies to restore a semblance of normality to his daily mealtimes.
I was cataloguing in the blissful semi-silence of the library when I discovered the book. It was a Tuesday, I recall it vividly, and an uneventful monthly delivery of new titles had arrived that morning. I was working through the fresh intake with my mind elsewhere when my eye was drawn to the strange title of the volume in my hands: ‘The Man Who Tasted Shapes’. Something in those words resonated with me, for obvious reasons, and as I began to turn the pages I had the sense that, with each new paragraph, my awkward place in the world was finally being revealed to me.
Simon, as neuroscientists such as I would have recognised almost immediately, was a synaesthete. The author of the book, the neurologist Dr Richard Cytowic, explained that the term originates from the Greek, meaning ‘mixing of senses’, and that the label is used by psychologists and neuroscientists to describe a crossover or confusing of the senses. Synaesthesia is a relatively rare condition where an experience in one sensory modality (such as visual or auditory) for some reason evokes a sensation in a different system; some people claim that hearing letters or numbers gives them the sense of different colours. This is the most common form of it, called colour-grapheme synaesthesia, and even seems to run in families. Often mothers and daughters will have a coloured alphabet, where the letter A might be blue, and B is green. Other people experience coloured numbers, or days of the week, or months of the year. As Simon read on, tastes flashed across his palate, triggered by specific words, but such was the import of this text that, for once, he was almost unaware of their presence, so anxious was he to learn of the story behind the book’s title. Eventually this was revealed as the case of a chef who reported that specific tastes evoked a tactile feeling of different shapes on the skin, as if an object of a particular form had been pressed against him. A soup that was too salty might taste too ‘pointy’ for the chef, or a dish too heavily spiced might feel too ‘round’. As he read this account of the hapless chef’s experiences, Simon realised that this was the answer: he must be a synaesthete for whom words induce tastes. At last, the man who had been so tormented by the names and labels applied to him in the playground found relief and comfort in the discovery of a term that accurately described him. That night, Simon, the synaesthete, slept soundly for the first time in twenty-seven years.
The following day, after re-reading the book in work, I resolved to carry out some further research into this mysterious synaesthesia. Taking a detour from my usual short walk home from the library, I stepped hesitantly into an Internet café. I supposed afterwards that I must have looked a little like a man walking into a tiger’s cage, and in truth that was how I felt at the time. My reluctance came from habit and bitter experience; I have always been wary of the Internet, something I view with huge suspicion as a reservoir of disorderly sensations – pop-up adverts, flashing banners, scrolling messages all seem to attack my brain’s taste buds mercilessly and I have no way to control them. But I had equipped myself with strong chewing gum to suppress any unpleasant tastes, and with loud classical music supplied by my headphones I began my investigation. The web was rich with sources on this strange condition, and I was led deeper and deeper down the electronic rabbit-hole. After close to an hour of surfing, I found it.
‘It’ was a video clip; posted up by some unknown Samaritan that he could never thank, it consisted of a BBC documentary about synaesthesia entitled ‘Derek Tastes of Earwax’. The forty-minute programme contained scientific explanations of synaesthesia and interviews with several synaesthetes – one woman experienced number forms, another was an artist who experienced colours for sounds. But the conversation with the man who gave the show its title was the part which Simon played again and again and again. He was a pub landlord, Mr James Wannerton, who tasted words. He described in agonising detail how the sight or sound of certain words produced strong taste sensations that were very often sickening or at least unpleasant. In fact, as the camera crew recorded the incident, a stray word from the interviewer induced so strong a creamy-yoghurt taste that James had to leave the room as the sensation conflicted with the aroma of the sausages he was cooking. Simon watched the entire documentary four times. As he paid the substantial fee for his Internet usage, he left the café with the sort of elation that Robinson Crusoe might have experienced when he discovered that fresh footprint in the sand.
The idea, when it arrived, evolved from a scarcely formed germ to a detailed plan in an instant. He was walking home from the library, mulling over the many bombshells the past week had brought. The titles of his two key sources swam in circles in his mind; The Man Who Tasted Shapes; Derek Tastes of Earwax; the chef and his shapes; James Wannerton and his tastes; the chef … When it hit him, Simon stopped walking. Sitting down on the steps of the adjacent town hall, he articulated his new plan in his mind. He began to realise that it could work, but that he’d need to enlist the help of a chef.
That evening, I did something I hadn’t done since that Christmas party eight years earlier – I walked into a restaurant. It was a local place, one I passed daily on my way to and from the library. Steeling myself, I walked past the outdoor tables of diners enjoying the mildness of the late-autumn evening. I involuntarily recalled my harrowing trips for a ‘nice meal out’ which so often had ended in embarrassment and shame. This very restaurant had been the scene of one such débâcle – an ill-advised attempt at a date some years previously. I remembered the looks of confusion and disgust on the faces of the other diners – and of my dinner companion – as I had struggled not to vomit when the specials were announced, the word ‘stew’ doing the damage this time. The date – if it could be called that – didn’t make it past the starter; she made some excuse about an emergency and left in a hurry. The prospect of returning to this place had initially filled me with trepidation, but the staff on that evening had been kind. I had become convinced that my only hope of success lay within, so I forced back the painful memories of that night and swallowed my pride – along with some strong mints – as I pushed open the door. Aware of the redness creeping up my neck, I made swiftly for the maítre d’, a smiling Spanish girl who seemed not to notice my tension, or at least hid it well if she did. Feeling very uneasy, I asked if I might speak to the chef at some point when he had a spare moment. I was informed, very politely, that the head chef Salvatore would not be free for some time as it was a busy night, but I was welcome to come back and wait for him after the restaurant closed at half past eleven if I wished. And so, at eleven forty-five, I managed to persuade Salvatore, a burly-looking Italian, to spare ten minutes of his time in return for a coffee or, if he preferred, something stronger. As it transpired, it had been a very long evening, and something stronger was precisely what was required at that point.
And so, Simon set about explaining his story to Salvatore – the years of bafflement and ignorance, the embarrassments and catastrophes, the self-doubt and worry for his own sanity, the discovery of the book and the redemption contained within (he had brought the book with him, in case the chef thought he was delusional or worse). Finally, he related the story of James Wannerton from the documentary, and the range of taste sensations this poor man, like Simon, had to endure as a result of the spoken or written word. At the end of this tale, Salvatore was silent for several moments. I can only begin to imagine the mixture of hope and anxiety Simon experienced as he awaited for the chef to formulate a response. At last the Italian began by stating that he was sympathetic to Simon’s situation, and that he found the condition of synaesthesia fascinating, but he failed to see how either of these things involved him; unlike the chef in the Cytowic book, he himself was not a synaesthete, and knew no other chefs who might be. If Simon somehow wanted help in contacting this man, he would be better advised getting in touch with the author, or even James Wannerton himself. The Italian had finished his limoncello and was on his feet to leave when Simon caught his arm.
‘You don’t understand,’ he had smiled at the chef. ‘I have a plan. But I need your help.’
The rehearsal took place a week later; after explaining my proposition, I had met with Salvatore twice more in the meantime to go over arrangements, fine-tune my materials and make sure every aspect of the plan had been considered. While I had been full of enthusiasm about the possibility of my idea actually working, he went along with his instructions with a slight scepticism which I did my best to ignore. This whole scheme must have sounded quite crazy to him, I’m certain, but to his credit he indulged me; I suppose he didn’t see any real harm in it. I showed him into the apartment, and invited him to sit at the dining table in the silence of the evening while I set to work in the kitchen. The Italian was surprised when I insisted he take no part in the preparation of the meal, but I explained to him how crucial it was that I cook everything myself – his role, I pointed out, was purely that of consultant. When I finally returned with a serving of duck à l’orange I set it down on the only place-setting at the table and wondered for a moment if this accomplished chef was passing judgement on my very modest cooking skills. I sat down in front of my dish and glanced at Salvatore who reached for the laminated sheet of paper laying where his plate and cutlery should have rested. I nodded to him, and it began: I took a slice of the tender duck, raised it to my mouth, placed it on my tongue …
‘Carpenter,’ said the chef, and waited ... The sensation of oranges exploded into my palate and began to mix with the taste of the duck I was eating to produce a combination of flavours so intense and satisfying that I almost wept. As Salvatore glanced nervously across, I nodded again, now taking in my fork some mange tout:
‘Meadow,’ he said, reading again from his sheet. Now the flavour of peas erupted into my mouth, interacting with the taste of the vegetable I was chewing and enhancing the experience five-fold. Smiling as I nodded again, the chef proceeded to call out more words as I continued through my meal; sometimes the spoken nouns produced complementary flavours to the meat or vegetable on my tongue; sometimes they elicited the same, congruent flavour to whatever part of the meal I was at that point enjoying. The sensations – which were all the more exotic due to his deep Abruzzo accent - mixed and intermingled in increasing complexity until, by the end, I was quite sure that this was the greatest meal of my life. After I finished my last forkful I sat back for a moment, nodded several times to myself and then burst into such tears of relief and joy that my slight frame shook with the violence of them. Salvatore reached over to console me, but I grabbed him in an embrace more powerful than the Italian would have thought possible from such a wiry man as I.
‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ I sobbed again and again until at last Salvatore was able to pull me away. He was smiling, happy to have played a role in the success of this experiment, but his eyes carried a hint of worry.
‘I am glad that I could help you enjoy your meal, Mr Foxe,’ he began, ‘but there is a problem. I cannot be here speaking words every time you have a meal. And this list here, it can only work for this dish. What will you do if you have steak? Or fish? You cannot say them yourself, you will be eating at the same time.’
‘Don’t worry, my friend,’ I replied as I wiped away the tears. ‘I have a plan for that too …’
‘… Steel … Tobacco … Motorcycle …’
The tape continued to emit the recording of Salvatore’s dulcet tones as Simon ate the last of his salmon. I sat in respectful silence at the other end of the table, my notebook in front of me, barely daring to breathe for fear of disturbing this most bizarre and personal of rituals. In truth, I had never expected him to agree when I suggested he might allow me to observe his new mealtime routine, and so I did my best to remain unobtrusive. In the three months since the initial experiment, Simon had perfected his system and it now proceeded like a finely tuned clockwork. Through his consultations with the chef he had been able to identify, catalogue and record the specific taste sensations that would be complementary to each dish in his own culinary repertoire. Their primary efforts had focused on main courses, but following their successes he had recently expanded this to include starters and desserts, and he was currently contemplating how a similar system might be employed, via his personal stereo, for enhancing lunch.
He shot a glance at the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink, where the bucket now remained for every mealtime, and smiled; it was no longer needed, he explained. Replete, he rocked back in his chair in a state of consummate bliss; thinking back over the past months, he suddenly remembered that one final task remained incomplete. It was, he said, something he felt he should do out of a sense of duty before he could fully enjoy his new life. And so, after clearing the table and retrieving his writing materials, he began his letter:
Dear Mr Wannerton,
You don’t know me; I obtained your address from the people at the BBC for whom you did a documentary a few years ago. I believe I may be able to help you …
Richard Roche is a lecturer at the Department of Psychology, Maynooth University, where he has been employed since 2005, following undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral study at Trinity College, Dublin. His areas of interest are neuroscience/neuropsychology, particularly memory, stroke, psychosis and synaesthesia. He has published 24 research articles, several book chapters and one book, and has a forthcoming book on brain, art and science due for publication in 2016. He is also strongly committed to science outreach and public engagement, and has recently hosted ‘The Brain Box’, a 2-part radio documentary about the brain on NewsTalk 106-108FM. The first of his three co-authored novels is due to be published by Wolfhound Press within the next year. Learn more about his interest in neuroscience at The Brain Art Map or follow him on Twitter @RRocheNeuro
Mark Guider is an American photographer. Originally from Philadelphia, he now lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico. View more of his work at DeviantArt.