The Cheese Man by Kelly Evans

I had a normal childhood in every way. We lived on the outskirts of town in a new housing development with plenty of woodland and fields nearby in which to play. I remember hot humid summers, crisp fresh autumns and cold sharp winters. I recall playing outside my house – kick the can, hopscotch, stick ball, all the childhood favourites. We’d be amusing ourselves and having fun when the music would start. The kid with the best hearing would suddenly stop and put his finger in the air to silence us.

Say Cheese (image via Flickr user theredmission)

Say Cheese (image via Flickr user theredmission)

As the music got closer, we all heard it. And that was when we acted. We’d all run for our piggy banks, or to beg some change from a parent, then run outside and wait by the curb. For you see, it was the van. The Cheese Van. I can still hear the metallic, tinkle sound of the cheese song played over ancient speakers. The screech of brakes as we, unable to contain our excitement, ran along-side the window where the friendly Cheese Man watched with a benevolent, wise look that said “Yes, today the children will have cheese.”

The bossy kid who always cut into line ordered his usual, Gorgonzola on a stick. We laughed and called him “G-Man” behind his back and I don’t think he ever found out. The wait seemed endless! Children are not known for their patience, and we were certainly no different than any other group of kids waiting for cheese. My feet were antsy, I could hardly stand the anticipation. As I rattled the change in my hand I thought to myself, “Today I’ll try something different. Today I will try…” and then scan the cheese sign for something unusual, out-of-the-ordinary. But when I got to the window and the tempting smell of cheese reached my nose and the Cheese Man smiled down at me, I froze, my brain racing but the words not coming out. “Chedder cubes, please.”

Darn, my usual. Those lovely little cubes with the toothpicks in. Clean, tidy, no melted cheese all over my hands. Next time I would be brave, I would order something else, something new.

Next time.

This simple childhood pleasure, one which most of us look back on with fondness, became more than a weekly moment of joy for me. I grew up, as did the other kids in the neighbourhood. We slowly drifted apart, gaining our own interests and friends. But despite getting older I was always on that street corner when I heard the music. I started to take a deeper interest in the complicated, mysterious workings of the Cheese Van. Where did the cheese come from? Who decided what to offer customers?

The older I got the more complicated my questions became. Until that fateful day when I decided that I, too, would be a Cheese Man. The best Cheese Man anyone had ever seen.

But the work, oh, the work that must be done first. For the Cheesemen’s Guild were very selective about who they accepted for apprenticeship, more so than the other guilds my old childhood friends were pursuing. Even the motto of the Cheesemen’s Guild inspired a sense of awe and pride in all members: “Caseus, Nunquam Non Caseus”- Cheese, Always Cheese. The first item we were tasked with was to learn the motto, understand the motto. Become the motto. And study the history of course. Oh sure, we had fun too, it wasn’t all work work work. I remember someone in the class would whisper “caseolus diutinus” – a little cheese goes a long way – during lesson, and soon the entire class would be rolling around, laughing until the tears were streaming down our faces and our sides were in agony. We were just average students after all, having a bit of fun.

I enjoyed the study, difficult though it was. I was particularly interested by ancient history. I recall being fascinated by the description of an archaeological dig which took place in Egypt years ago. I remember I could barely contain my emotions when I read about a find from the Eighteenth Dynasty: an ancient fondue set, complete with a fork fragment. How exciting to be the person who made the discovery; to pick up the ancient fork in your hand, to feel the strength of the stand and the roundness of the bowl, decorated with sacred images of Bastet, goddess of cheese. I could only imagine the thrill of that life-affirming event.

In the months and years to come we were pushed to the limits of human endurance, both physically and emotionally. The weak ones (there were a few whose dreams greatly exceeded their abilities) were forced to drop out early. Others lasted until later, only to stumble at a seemingly simple hurdle like “Basic Skills with Cheese Wire” or “Best-Before Dates: Rules or Guidelines?” Then we would be one less, our little group. We soldiered on, gaining the secret knowledge. We grew wise in the ways of cheese. But even then, I felt different to my fellow students, my aspirations somehow greater. How could that be possible? Surely the greatest thing that I, that WE, could be doing with our lives, was to perform the sacred obligations of Cheese Men? But no, I wanted even more. I not only wanted to own the best Cheese Van in the area, I wanted to own an entire fleet of Cheese Vans! Imagine the joy I could bring to countless children all over the country! The same joy I had experienced, multiplied thousands of time over! Surely there could be no more purity of purpose to which a man could aspire?

My ambition fuelled me through the long wakeful nights of study, the painful process of proving to the examiners that my knowledge and skills met the extraordinarily high standards they sought, until finally I graduated and was awarded the title of Cheese Novice by my superiors in the Guild.

It was around this time that I met Robyn. She was beautiful, intelligent and funny, and was the most intoxicating person I had ever met. More importantly however, she understood and shared my love of cheese. Whereas most people would smile politely when I mentioned a fine Finnish Lappi, Robyn would immediately launch into her opinion on the current explosive controversy of whether Spanish Manchego was better with crackers than an Italian Romano Pecorino. Robyn was truly a rare gem, a Couronne Brie of women. After a single date I was smitten. Another two and I knew this woman was my soul mate. We would enjoy endless moments gazing into each other’s eyes. We made plans, great plans. The world was ours for the taking, with all the cheese we could imagine. Sadly, though, it was not to last. Like lovers through time, our love was torn asunder by the classic discussion of whether the first Taleggio was made in the tenth or eleventh century. Try as we might we could find no common ground upon which our relationship could survive, and so parted. We agreed to remain friends but the rift remained there between us, forever unspoken.

I was now more driven than ever and quickly passed all of the initiations that a novice must. I completed every task set for me, no matter the difficulty. I had no life except for my life of cheese. I rose through the ranks of the initiates faster than an excited child in an Edam-rolling contest. All my diligence and determination paid off when I finally reached my goal, that wondrous moment in my life when I was awarded The Golden Roundel. I had made it.

After that it was all just a matter of economics. My very own Cheese Van. Then another. And another. Soon I had a fleet of Cheese Vans and was content in the knowledge that I had achieved my dream, that of bringing happiness to children all over.

I still have my very first Cheese Van, parked out back. It’s rusted now, the bright painted pictures of cheeses faded to a more ghostly version of themselves. My son has just started to babble in his own language, my own little Babybel. I saw him out in the yard with the dog yesterday, having the kind of conversation only a dog and a boy his age can have. It could have been just a childish bark or the dog sneezing, or even a strange effect of the wind carrying his youthful voice to my ears, but I could have sworn he spoke his first word.

“Roquefort.”

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meKelly Evans was born in Canada and obtained degrees in European History and Religious Studies before moving to the UK.  While in England Kelly joined a writing group offered via the University of London, remaining with the group for a number of years.  She moved back to Canada after 20 years away and obtained a Master’s in Creative Writing, during which time her first short stories were published.

Kelly continues to write stories and novels while working as a Business Consultant.  When not writing she enjoys watching really bad horror films and reading historical fiction. www.kellyaevans.com