THE CHOCOLATE SONG • by Helen de Búrca

The crunchy lettuce in her sandwich resounds in her head as she chews, so it’s not until she swallows that Maggie hears the song threading its way through the fug of damp clothes and coffee steam. The melancholic voice conjures up an advertisement for some sort of chocolate, although she can’t remember the brand. In her mind, her fingertips fit themselves pleasurably into the two holes of a cassette and touch the small smooth plastic teeth of the inside circumference. The chocolate song; the box of cassettes.

She and Daniela had spent several summers like that, headphones whirring, legs folded around the rucksacks that always ended up being stuffed into the space between the front and back seats of their parents’ small car as it carried them over the roads of France, Italy, Spain. The shoebox always sat between them, cassettes for their Walkmans wedged into it so that they had to reinforce the corners with Sellotape. Daniela – older than she and much better at managing her pocket money – always saved up for new tapes for the holidays. She, clumsy little sister, was not supposed to touch them, but Daniela’s music was much more interesting than the old Madonna and Phil Collins albums she had already listened to a million times, and so her curious fingers would dive and search through the box as soon as Daniela’s gaze turned to the passing landscape. It was a thrill with a sour edge, though, for however quick she was at slipping her purloined tape through the black plastic jaws of the Walkman, Daniela always noticed and demanded the tape back, and she hated it when Daniela was cross with her.

One summer, Daniela had bought a collection that claimed to be the year’s fifty best songs. When Maggie had sneaked the tape into her Walkman and pressed the “play” button, it had been this song that she had heard, the one from the advertisement, the one she had only ever known as “the chocolate song”. It had been the only time Daniela had relented upon discovering Maggie’s thievery. Instead of demanding the tape back, she had listened to the song with her, twisting one of Maggie’s headphones around so that they could each press an ear close to it. When the song had ended, Maggie had wound it back, and they had listened to it again and again, until at last Daniela, with a sigh, had moved away and begun listening to her own music again.

Maggie pulls out her mobile phone. Before, she would have called Daniela and, without preamble, asked her whether she remembered the song, but ever since Daniela and Marcus decided to get married, it has become difficult to get hold of her. She used to answer after a couple of rings, but now Maggie usually finds herself listening to an automated message, which always seems to have wiped any coherence from her mind by the time it asks her to leave a message. Her sister calls her back, of course, but much later, sometimes even the next day. When she does call, she doesn’t ask about Maggie, just chatters about cousins who won’t sit next to each other and how many tiers the cake should have and which flowers are in season. Maggie listens, but she knows these are not confidences. Daniela isn’t telling her all this because she offers better advice than anyone else. At these moments, Daniela could be talking to anyone.

She’s still hesitating over the dial icon when the song draws to a close, conjuring up an image of dry yellow mountains. She wonders where they can have driven through such scenery. Spain perhaps? She wonders now how her parents did it, driving for hours in a cramped car with no air conditioning and two squabbling daughters in the back. She remembers now that it was just after that summer, the one when they had listened to the chocolate song together, that Daniela had suddenly turned against all that music they had both liked until then, calling it commercial and gutless. Maggie suddenly had the box of cassettes all to herself, because Daniela started going out to her friends’ houses to listen to music – bands Maggie didn’t know and couldn’t find a way to discover now that Daniela didn’t put anything new in the box of cassettes anymore. The summer after that, Daniela had found a job, and when Maggie had left for the holidays with her parents as usual, the back of the car had felt too big for her on her own.

For once, Daniela answers the phone immediately. Her voice is alert and a little nervous when she says, “Hello?”

“Just me. I had something to ask you.”

“Oh! I thought it was going to be the hotel telling me the wedding has been cancelled! At this stage, I’d nearly thank them… What did you want to ask me?”

“Do you remember that box of tapes we used to have in the back of the car when we went on holidays?”

Daniela gives a hoot. “God, do I! We used to fight like cats over those tapes! And I always wanted to listen to them in the same order! Those holidays were wasted on us – Mum and Dad drove us around the half of Europe and all we were interested in was those old cassettes.”

Maggie touches the brim of her coffee cup and smiles. “Yes. That’s what I remembered too,” she says.

Daniela says, “Funny that you’re asking about that, actually…”

“Why?”

“Well… I wanted to ask you to come over later and… help me decide how to do my hair for the wedding – I know it’s super boring but it would be such a help – and – I thought you could help me with the music list. Would you? I know you have loads to do but…”

“I’d love to,” Maggie says.


Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and has lived in France, England and, most recently, Geneva, Switzerland. She has published flash fiction in the webzines Every Day Fiction and The Irish Literary Review. In 2015, one of her short stories was shortlisted for the Cúirt New Writing Prize and in 2016, she was awarded second prize in the inaugural Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland Short Story Prize and third prize in the Nivalis 2016 Short Story Competition.


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Rate this story:
 average 3.3 stars • 34 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • The writer certainly has a passion for the subject of this story. Regrettably one I don’t share as I found it to be over-worded with adjectives and adverbs in areas where plain speaking would have sufficed.

    I waited until the end to find a significance of this “chocolate song” to be revealed. Why was it on a top-50 cassette but no name provided?

    This line made no sense: “She wonders where they can have driven through such scenery. ”

    The last minute inclusion in her sister’s wedding was just odd, unless I misread that part.

    **

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Not IN her sister's wedding. Helping her figure out how she wants to do her hair...
    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      "The Tightrope"
      • Thanks.
      • Camille Gooderham Campbell
        Thank you, Sarah. I've now tagged that story with the author's name so it can be found more easily.
  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Ditto Jeff.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    The premise of increasingly estranged sisters reuniting is a good one. The spanner in the works was the chocolate song of the title. It’s insertion felt like perhaps it was a prompt for a writing assignment.

  • I was put off by the opening line: “The crunchy lettuce in her sandwich resounds in her head as she chews,” I’ve never had lettuce that crunched. Celery? Yes. And how can lettuce “resound” in someone’s head? The crunching of something might. Yes I know what she meant. But isn’t that part of writing – proper descriptions?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Well, iceberg lettuce is crunchy, although only the over-sensitive would hear it resoundingly. But yes. The image of masticating followed me throughout this story when it was the least important of all possible facts. It led me to expect (hope for?) a story of disintegrating stability/emotional dislocation/alienation. But what we got is not the sort of obsession I find compelling.
  • Again I was going for something bigger here. The conflict between the siblings was not enough to be the end all.
    Too many telephone calls for me.

  • S Conroy

    I liked the dynamic shown between the sisters as children (In my memory those stuffy back car-seats were a breeding ground for sibling quarrels.) and how music is still a key to their connection. I was racking my brains for what the “chocolate song” could be, but to no avail.

  • Jeffrey Yorio

    My take is the sisters are semi-estranged, they do phone tag talking. I like many of the descriptions, yet some seem over done; “… Before, she would have called Daniela and, without preamble, asked…” is without preamble needed. Still an enjoyable story.

  • Chris Antenen

    Maybe you had to have sisters, older sisters, to make this story meaningful. They just leave. They don’t love you less or forget you, but they leave, and you’re left with some unfinished things, nobody to ask things like “What was the name of the chocolate song?”
    I suppose things are different now, but back when my sisters left, long distance phone calls were expensive and there was no email, etc.
    I liked the story, a touch of nostalgic reality. Maybe the big sisters missed the little sisters after all.
    Except for the crunchy lettuce, which I have never experienced, I could find nothing to nit pick in this nice piece of memory.
    It was an easy 5 for me based on the story and the execution.

  • Amy Sisson

    For me, the author effectively portrayed a sense of loss. I’m the older sister in this scenario, but it spoke to me.

  • I rather enjoyed the writing in this one. Perhaps a few too many adjectives, but overall, I found it to be very well-written and thought out. As someone else said, clearly the author has an attachment to this subject. It shows.

    I thought the sister dynamic was done very well, and it was sad to see them drift apart. Yet, it is a reality many people deal with, and the subject was approached in a realistic fashion.

    I was a bit disappointed by the ending. It didn’t live up to the writing in the rest of the story, in my opinion. Although I still enjoyed it. It got me thinking, and to me, that’s a hallmark of any good story.

    For the record, I eat lettuce pretty much every day, and yes, it can be quite crunchy.

    Thanks for sharing.