Every time I phone her, she is peeling onions. I know this because she says, I’m peeling onions, and the tone of her voice is far from joyful. I ask her what she’s making, and she says, I don’t know yet, but everything starts with an onion. And I say, that’s a good line, it reminds me of the song, The World is Just a Great Big Onion, and she tells me there is no such song, that I’ve made it up. So I put her on speaker and scroll through my phone to prove it. There it is, I say, 1969, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. It’s a classic, I tell her, how can you not know it? To which she says, I don’t know it because it’s doesn’t exist. Whereupon I sing the lyrics down the phone to her: “The world is just a great big onion, and pain and fear are the spices that make you cry. Oh, and the only way to get rid of this great big onion, is to plant love seeds until it dies, uh huh.” To be fair, I don’t do it justice, and all my (bad) singing achieves is to cement her belief that there is no such song, because she laughs and says that “planting love seeds until they die” doesn’t even make sense and, besides, it’s ridiculous to compare the world to a great big onion because if we lived on or in an onion everyone would be crying all the time. Good point. Mind you, a lot of people are in tears these days. Then we talk about the usual – the children and the weather and the Covid, until one of us says, I’d better go, and then I hang up and start doing the same thing, despite the fact that I hate peeling onions, chopping onions, frying onions. She’s right though, it didn’t used to be this way, but everything starts with an onion.
The skin never comes off for me, so I pick away at it with the point of my knife, trying to catch an edge (it’s as bad a losing the start of the roll of Sellotape). Scraping at the papery skin strains my eyes, causing me to lean in closer, then my hair tumbles down and I push it away and rub my eye, forgetting that my fingers are all oniony. Then comes the pain, the stinging, the crying, the dangerous one-eyed chopping. Soon the sting has jumped to my other eye so I’m chopping through one closed eye and one blinking slit of an eye, the result of which is that I am slicing precariously close to the tips of my left hand and if I take them off I’ll never play the fiddle again. God knows, I need all my digits, and much as one never wants to end up in A&E, these days are not the days for A&E. Part of the problem is that my knife is not sharp enough and they say that blunt knives are dangerous because you are more likely to press harder, lose precision and control, slip, take out a digit, turn the work surface red and the air blue. Perhaps I’ll use the Joycean profanity from Ulysses– apparently it was something James Joyce’s father used to say, but in the novel he gifts the words to the character of Stephen Dedalus – “sh**e and onions!”
I’ve been trying out a technique I’ve seen used on Masterchef (good luck KD, she’s on tonight!) which looks both effective and safe. A wee trick where you don’t chop off the end of the onion but keep it in place so you can slice right up to it but not through the whole onion; horizontal slices first and then vertical so you’re left with miniscule, perfectly proportioned one millimetre square chopped onion shards. Doesn’t work for me, mine are still the size of Lego cubes. Iceland sells bags of frozen chopped onions for 99p but every time I reach into the freezer for one I hear the voice of my inner-judge (or it might be my mammy) telling me to put that back, that to buy frozen chopped onions would be akin to opening a packet of Smash and adding boiling water, or is it milk? Powered potato, my stomach turns just thinking about it. Peeling spuds, now that’s what we should be doing every evening, me and the sister, instead of this onion business. No onions tonight. Tonight it’s Hail Glorious Saint Patrick, it’s Erin’s Green Valleys, it’s a plate of spuds and butter.