Bitter With The Sweet

by Elif Soyler – an autobiographical piece

Right before lockdown, I heard an old song for the first time. It was Carole King’s ‘Bitter with the Sweet’from Rhymes and Reasons, released in 1972. Those last few days were tentatively spent wandering around the emptying streets of Norwich. I admired the last of the magnolia blossom and picnicked at the viewing point in the north of the city. From up there you can see the cathedrals, the castle, the town hall, the newly built student accommodation, now quiet and hollow, and the Norfolk landscape laying low for miles in every direction.

It was my second year studying English lit and creative writing at the UEA, barely six months out of the perpetual chaos and euphoria of life in halls. I found myself in a suddenly bare house, my friends all home safe with their families. I wandered around eating their hastily abandoned fruit, brown bananas and bruised apples, and I made piles of books to take home on my bedroom floor. The house was on a very quiet street on the edge of Unthank Road and if it had not been for Carole’s voice floating through the thin walls and filling the vacant rooms, I would have felt lonely.

Sometimes I’m tired and I wonder

What’s so all-fired important

About being someplace at some time

Woah, but I don’t really mind

‘Cause I could be on Easy Street

And I know that

You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet.

The week before, I had been bundled into a car by my housemates and driven to the nearest beach. We spent hours there, just escaping. I had been crying a little, all day. When I found a patch of good phone reception in the car park I called my mum and begged her for answers on what was going to happen next. She had nothing to say.

But, I had a sinking feeling that soon, my parents would want me home.

The night of the Prime Minister’s first major announcement, I sat cross legged on the floor near my window, clutching a glass of wine. A text from Mum said:

“Might be coming to get you tonight instead of tomorrow. Be prepared.”

I looked at Ardin, my boyfriend, and he tried to smile. The morning after, my mother’s car was parked outside and she helped me load up any remaining food I had left, my beloved houseplants, my record player and a small suitcase of clothes.

Like a lot of people, I hoped I would be back to normal after Easter.

On the hour and a half journey back, I held Ardin’s hand in the back seat. We’re long-distance, since he lives and works in London. Before the pandemic, we spent many weekends travelling back and forth for each other. The train tracks run past Ilford, Forest Gate, Stratford, before reaching Liverpool Street. On my covert missions to visit him I would shrink back, away from the window seat, worrying needlessly that some unknown stranger, neighbour, or family member would get a glimpse of my guilty face as the train hurtled past. My dad rang the carphone as we reached the Redbridge roundabout at the edge of the city border and I let out a “Hello! We’ll be home in ten” leave my lips in Turkish, laced with fake cheer. Ardin squeezed my hand tighter.

My dad doesn’t know about him. I’m not sure if I’ll ever tell the truth. University life allowed me an escape from his staggeringly high expectations and strict, devout lifestyle. It was complicated and it still is now. Although my mum is English, and a stubborn atheist, my brother and I were raised to be committed Muslims. This duality in my home life was confusing as a child; during primary school other Muslim kids teased me and accused me of lying to fit in. I am still trying to make peace with never really belonging in one place. It was frustrating as a teenager; I wanted to go to house parties and taste alcohol and kiss people but I was faced with an early curfew and harsh punishments. It was still terrifying as a near-adult, but I had nowhere else to go.

We dropped Ardin off at Redbridge station. I got out to say goodbye properly, but he wouldn’t kiss me while my mum watched us in the wing mirror. I held him for a minute and then watched him disappear into the Underground, heading West. It would be three long months before I saw him again.

I have to admit that in some ways, it was nice to be back home. I felt content while I was on Easter break, my studies paused for a few weeks. Those final assignments loomed on the horizon, but still slightly out of view. I poured energy into new writing ventures, starting an Instagram account for my poetry and pondering questions and ideas for the dissertation I would write in the autumn. The weather was glorious: it was almost as if the sun had decided to shine brighter when no one could come out to enjoy it. Spiteful. However, I was one of the lucky ones, living in a house with a garden, with green grass and a leaning willow tree; there was ample room for all four of us to breathe the fresh air. In the evenings, I retreated to my bedroom, still painted repulsive shades of pink and purple that I picked out when I was fifteen, and I would video-call Ardin. We whispered each other to sleep for weeks on end.

My brother, Emin, was just turning fourteen, and he was thrilled to be missing school and able to play video games to his heart’s content at all hours of the day. It was a chore to peel him off the sofa and take him outside. My home is near an entrance to Wanstead Park; I know that lake so well I could do the hour’s walk on its banks on tiptoes, with my eyes closed.

Everything was bursting with bright green life, the surface of the water was coated in pondweed, the ducks and geese left swirling trails of disturbed water as they circled around. On warmer days, terrapins would sunbathe on half-submerged logs. We rarely saw other families together, mainly a few like-minded locals, fellow worshippers of the lake. I wished and wished we had a dog, but my dad would never agree to it. So we just walked him every day instead. And we did have a cat, after all.

Quickly, April was over, May was underway, and then it was the holy month of Ramadan and I was staying up until three in the morning to force down soggy Weetabix chunks as the light of dawn collected in the kitchen. My father, brother and I would then finally go to sleep, and not even be able to brush our teeth in the morning when the day began. The evening meal, Iftar, became the real highlight of every day. I remember leaning out of my bedroom window to take blurry, poorly-angled photos of a mediocre sunset for most nights and then rushing downstairs to devour my dinner as soon as the sun disappeared.

At the same time, the remains of my second term were happening virtually. Some tutors required students to keep their cameras and microphones switched off throughout seminars to improve internet connection. Those two-hour sessions made me feel empty and increasingly numb.

I didn’t ever imagine that I would be debating literary concepts through a tiny chatbox, ignoring the typos (and there were many), trying to squeeze in a response to a question before it was lost in the forsaken chat feed. It did not feel worth nine thousand pounds a year. Other tutors, seemingly quite chipper and cheerful, couldn’t understand at all why so many students let their resounding silence behind the black screen speak for them, every time they asked to see some faces.

The weeks had become months yet every day, I felt the same. I felt tired of being tired, I felt bored of being bored, I felt guilty about all the self-pity, and I missed my freedom so much.

I guess it gets to everyone

You think you’re not having any fun

And you wonder what you’re doing

Playing the games you play

Hey, well, it’s true what they say

If you wanna feel complete

Don’t you know that

You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet

It was a Wednesday night in the third week of fasting, at the witching hour. I could hear Emin getting out of bed in the room next door; he was always the last to get up so I knew I was almost out of time to eat. I was close behind him, coming down the stairs.

“Do you have to stomp like that, Elif? BANG! BANG! BANG!”

“Oh, shut up, Emin, you’re one to talk, I mean, shout!”

“Well it doesn’t matter now that you probably woke Mum up with your rhinoceros feet!”

“Oi! Calm down.”

“Stop laughing!”

“Hey, hey, what is going on here? Be quiet, your mum is asleep.”

It was my dad, on the top step, the three of us stood frozen, in the darkness, listening for the familiar snore and sure enough, he was right, Mum was deep in her dreams. We descended the rest of the stairs and turned on the kitchen light.

Our eyes adjusted slowly, my dad took a step towards the fridge, blindly searching for the milk. Emin was still blinking with annoyance under the light, a packet of chocolate cereal in his left hand.

I saw her first. I did a double take and realised she wasn’t breathing or blinking or basking by her food bowl. I let out a cry and turned away. Emin’s eyes flashed to where I pointed but he couldn’t believe it, he rushed to where she lay. She was still warm and soft, her limbs flopped about. Her face and whiskers were wet with dribble that had oozed out of her slack face. He shook her, and she trembled in his arms as he cried.

She wasn’t an old cat, just past twelve years.

Emin can’t remember life without her.

A friend of mine once told me

And I know he knows all about feelin’ down

He said everything good in life

You’ve got to pay for

But feelin’ good is what you’re paving the way for

She was named Cilla. She was black and white and according to my mother, it just fit. She was greedy and spoiled and a little overweight, fond of sitting next to whoever was in the armchair, but a notoriously silent and deadly farter. She had a knack for catching bumblebees in the garden during summer. She didn’t like being picked up and carried like a baby, never biting or hissing, just squirming in your arms until you relented and let her go. When we came home from work or school or Wanstead Park, she would snake between our legs and gaze with green eyes up at us, wondering if it was dinner time yet.

Anyone who had a heart would have loved her immensely.

You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet

You’ve got to take, you’ve got to take, you’ve got to take

The bitter with the sweet

The bitter with the sweet, sweet, sweet, woah, sweet

The next morning was the beginning of the hottest day of the year so far. None of us had slept. It was quarter to nine and still, lockdown hung over the street. All the neighbours’ cars were in the driveways; no one was going to work, or school or anywhere.

We set off, all together, in the direction of Wanstead Park. Emin carried in his arms a bundle wrapped in a white pillowcase. We buried her hurriedly. My dad’s hands slipped off the handle on the shovel several times, the sweat collecting between his fingers like water in cupped hands.

I stood with Emin a little way away, my hand on his shoulder.

When we returned, we all went to bed, and slept for twelve hours. The smell of food and the call to prayer were what woke me. Mum had made macaroni cheese: Emin’s favourite.

You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet

You’ve got to take, you’ve got to take, you’ve got to take

The bitter with the sweet

The bitter with the sweet, sweet, sweet,woah, sweet

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