Alternate Realities: Of walking in sugar

Words by Annabel Brady-Brown

Pictures by Kitty Allison

Published on December 22, 2014

Flying back to New York. Despite my fever, the air conditioner beats heavily upon me, as my latest documentary about the Huaorani people of the Amazon basin in Ecuador recedes with each second. I fear my film will wither and die, ravaged between the jaws of the jaguar that took with him a sizeable chunk of my upper left thigh. This loss of my work exceeds the physical pain, which screeches beyond anything Kinsky cursed upon my soul. Braying Americans fill the plane. I want to be alone with myself. I retreat into morphine, and this little notebook.

New York City Hospital. I am heavily medicated. I lie immobile on these starched linen sheets, brooding and sluggish, and recall a Swiss zoo where I once saw an elephant shot with a tranquiliser dart. Someone has placed yellow tulips in a vase by my window. I spent this morning watching each petal wilt and fall, dropping like the elephant, forming a rotting pile. It is a journey we are all condemned to share.

My leg has become worse. It rests elevated in a stern plaster cast, connected to an intravenous drip that flushes the wound on the hour in an attempt to erase all presence of the jaguar and Ecuador from my tortured limb. If it goes on swelling, I fear the worst. Visiting hours are heavily restricted. There is a nurse — a ferocious, voluble woman named Stella — who brings me pudding in a cup each morning and clears it away, asking many questions each night.
‘Did you miss New York, Mr Herzog?’ she said this morning while emptying my bedpan.
‘New York is an abattoir,’ I said. ‘The city was founded upon the barbaric trade in beaver pelts, from which the Dutch extracted secretions of the anal and urinal gland to make their perfumes. This stink, this ghastly stink suffocates New York City. Can you smell it? That is not Chanel. That is the agony of the beavers. Their cries ring through the five boroughs like a death knell.’
She suggested perhaps I am confusing this phenomenon with the cries of Herb’s night terrors in the room adjacent. I weep into my pudding.

Later, in fitful sleep, I dreamt of nurse Stella, who turned upon me, transformed into a monstrous chicken, pecking at my eyeballs. I cannot remain in this place.

It turns out my daughter, Hanna, is the giver of tulips. She came today, bringing me a selection of my favourite newspapers, news from the greater world, and a disheartening communiqué from my producer. She refused my offer of pudding, saying she had just breakfasted at the bakery next door. She had consumed a cronut. Cronut. I repeated the word, savouring the name like a newly discovered planet.
‘Hanna, tell me more about this cronut,’ I said.
‘Well Dad, it’s basically a mix between a croissant and a doughnut. There’s a hole in the middle. It’s deep-fried in grapeseed oil, filled with cream and glazed, and people are going nuts for them. It’s kind of dumb-‘.
I stopped her.
‘The laws of breakfast pastry have been mutinied,’ I said. ‘An aberration of nature, a cyborg of culinary delights, befitting these disjointed times in which we live. I must have one.’ Although the nurses have forbidden anything beyond a strict regime of pudding and soup, I have always despised authority, a trait that I have passed on to Hanna. She promised to return tomorrow.

Oh, how I bless Hanna. True to her word, she appeared, angelic in the relief of morning light and morphine, bearing the novel breakfast pastry for me to sample. She informed me that she had queued for three hours from dawn outside the famed Soho bakery, the birthplace of the cronut, to ensure she could procure one for me. ‘It was like an L.A. nightclub,’ she said, shuddering.
From the window of my hospital room the tail of the epic queue stood below. What item could inspire such a spectacle of insanity? I gazed at the heavy, golden orb of pastry in my hand, reminiscent of a halo. Icing sugar fell like snow across my palm. I nibbled at its edge. I, who am 72 and have lived through so much; I, who have ventured into the seething heart of the jungle, witnessed the silent beauty of the Arctic fields, penetrated the ancient caves of Europe, swooned before the clutch of tiny fingers of a new-born child — nothing had prepared me for this. I asked Hanna to leave me to meditate upon this experience, basking in the heady sugar-rush, the caress of the soft cream filling, the bite of lemon in its sublime frosting. I felt the first relief since the jaguar’s poisonous touch — the throbbing pain in my leg, for once, forgotten.

I have found my ecstatic truth. It grips my heart, galloping like wild horses on amphetamines through my veins. Visions of my youthful, virile, handsomely moustached-self marching through blizzards of exalted glucose claim me, and my output of sweat is prodigious. I abandon myself to joy.

I believe Stella suspects that I have betrayed her diet. Making a great, bothersome display, she noted again this morning that my blood-sugar levels are spasming inexplicably — the line on my records is as jagged as the Andes — and warned this increased glucose intake is potentially inhibiting my recovery. I admitted nothing. I have cleared my browser history so that she will find no evidence of the many hours I have spent engaged on Craiglist sourcing and haggling with cronut delivery men, upon whom I remain dependent. It is a cruel trade. One can only purchase two units at a time, and the prices soar as bidding wars and madness takes hold, and all civilised notion of monetary value dissolves. Yesterday, desperate, I paid $73 for a crème-bruleé cronut, with an extra $3 tip if the pastry could be catapulted through my tenth-floor hospital window, beyond Stella’s demonic watch.

All anxiety for my leg and my film are forgotten, and my inbox festers with neglected mail. My producer is attempting to salvage the project. I have been invited to head the Jury at Cannes but even if my infection passes and my wound sufficiently heals by May, I fear I must decline. Having visited for many years, I know there is a bounty of croissants in the depraved coastal city, yes, but no cronuts. I am trapped, but I have learnt much about the sacrifices one must make for one’s passions. I wonder if I shall ever be able to leave New York again. I wonder what tomorrow’s flavoured cronut will be.

Tragedy. Stella found me gorging fiendishly on a fig-mascarpone-filled cronut and promptly detected the stash stowed beneath my hospital bed. At the same moment of disaster, my regular delivery boy — Al, a Brooklyn youth clothed in dungarees whom I contracted via Craigslist and who I admit has been exploiting my desolate circumstances, charging me $200 for a box of two — arrived with the morning’s batch. Doom. Ignoring my protests of the thousands of dollars I had invested on the delicacies held in her fierce arms, Stella confiscated the lot and then blacklisted Al from the hospital. My cronuts are gone.
‘Don’t you want to get better, Mr Herzog?!’ she shrieked, then contacted Hanna, who has ensured the bakery will no longer honour my orders.
Do I want to get better? Do I even care anymore? What is ‘better’ in a cronut-free world? Woe engulfs me. I am robbed and powerless to restore my supply.

As I fantasise about gazing once more into the deep hole at the centre of the cronut, I am reminded of humanity’s feeble position in the void. Desire ensnares us, and it debases, it enslaves us. We drown in the savagery of its saturated fats and its unrelenting murder of our arteries.

Where are you, my cronut friend? Have you forsaken me?

Liquid sugar coats my body. I believe I am experiencing withdrawal.

My spirit is in crisis, my body rocked by seismic shakes. Stella, Hanna and the remainder of my family have conspired to cancel my credit cards, and the bakery does not respond to my pleas. It appears an impossible dream, but I dare not abandon hope. I must look elsewhere, no matter the fiscal or spiritual burden. I attempted to auction my most prestigious awards on Ebay but, thwarted, no one believes them to be authentic.
One interested buyer called, and I answered, ‘Hello, friend. Please buy my 1982 Cannes’ Best Director Award. It’s a very nice one.’
His response, however, was disheartening: ‘Nice try, bud. You sound more like Vincent Price,’ and disconnected the call.
I listen as Herb howls towards the West Village, as wretched as a murdered beaver. I join, howling with him, my comrade in suffering.

My leg is healing rapidly. Somewhat liberated, I have been given crutches, and my producer is confident that the film is still possible despite the delay of my convalescence, but I care little. I see no point in going on.

I have glimpsed the abyss but now hope returns to me in the form of Herb, who appears my saviour. The man is perhaps deranged but he is a great lover of film, and of pudding. I have outlined my predicament to him. He too yearns for the crisp Manhattan air. We meet at midnight in the patients’ lounge, at this hour a spectral desert landscape of Scrabble boards bereft of vowels. There is much work to be done. Armed with Herb’s stockpile of plastic pudding spoons, we dig. It is a hole to freedom. To dignity. To cronuts.
Through the widening gap in the plaster, my blizzard of sugar overwhelms me once more, blinding and brilliant. I glimpse the triumph of mankind. Onwards, we dig.