Thursday, 28 June 2012

Fiction Challenge #3

A new prompt! Use this line to inspire a story.

"He always spoke of his son as 'the little one'; always spoke of him mournfully rather than hopefully."
This is from Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, just so y'all know.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Sponge and jam and cream

He had weighed the flour eight times. 225 grams exactly. It was. It definitely was. The butter was harder. He had to add more and then more and then take some of it away again. It had started to melt by the time he got the scales to say 225 grams and he wasn’t sure if that would make a difference. You have to melt it anyway so it should be fine he told himself. He felt his left eyelid flicker. It would perfect. Sponge and jam and cream. It would be perfect. 
He had made the jam himself three weeks ago. Despite wearing rubber gloves, he had a few scratches on his arms to prove he had picked the blackberries himself. He had meticulously selected the very best of them. Any slightly crushed, any with a hint of underripe pink were left for the blackbirds. They had gorged. It had taken all day to get enough berries. All evening he had made jam. It was set now. He used plenty of sugar and some extra pectin. It was definitely set. He had tested some on his morning toast. His nerves made it hard to swallow it and then his stomach needed convincing to keep it down. It was perfect though. It tasted perfect. He had tested some from a small extra jar. Not the jar for the cake. That couldn’t be opened yet. No, not until the sponge was done. It has to be perfect.
Crouching in front of the oven, his knees touching his chin and ached. He watched it rise. The light behind the glass door hurt his eyes after the first fifteen minutes. When he closed his eyes, the oven door was still there, screaming white. 
‘If it’s not done well, why do it?’ he muttered to himself in her voice. ‘What’s the point if you won’t even try.’
He noticed he was crying. He stopped.
The alarm spoke up. His arm whipped out and turned off the oven. He almost tripped over his feet as he stood up to get fish shaped oven gloves she had bought him. If she hadn’t, he would have thought they were hideous. 
Gently lifting the cake onto the counter, his arms trembled grateful of the warmth. He closed his eyes, again the bright white oven greeted him. Three breaths. Three deep, slow breaths. Opening his eyes again he delicately pushed the cake up and out of the tin, removed it entirely and left it on the rack to cool. His lips twitched up into a smile. His own version of a smile. If anyone had been there to see it, they would have thought he was in pain. Happy for once he stepped back from the sponge, nodding. It was perfect. Perfect. He lent against the cold tile wall opposite his perfect sponge and stared. He watched it cool. He was happy until he remembered what came next. 
The clock told him she would be there sooner than he’d like. He shuddered as he lifted the knife. ‘Now or never.’ His voice sounded like a child in the shadow of a giant.
He cut the sponge in half. His arm ached with fear but he did it. It was… it was perfect. It was straight. Straighter than any of his practice runs. ‘Perfect, yes.’ 
The cream and the jam were knifed on generously on the bottom half, the top was balanced and centred. He lifted the whole thing with a cake slice and a great deal of care onto her favourite plate. The one with the peacock full of colours. She’d like that. 
He washed his hand three times, his face twice. He combed his hair and put on the cleanest of his clean white shirts. Her favourite tie. He almost laughed when he heard the doorbell ring. The almost-laugh made him choke. 
He opened the front door for his mother and her sister.
‘There he is, my odd little boy,’ his mother said pushing him out of her way and into his house. ‘No hello for you mother? Typical. Never had any manners.’
‘Oh I know, I remember well enough,’ her sister replied.
His voice, like a small bird, hid in his throat. He couldn’t call it out. He tried his best to smile and ignore how much his knees still hurt.
‘Well then? Make some tea, boy. I though perhaps you’d have it made already but that would be too much to ask, of course. Your poor mother has had a long day, isn’t that right Mary? I can’t even expect my boy to have a cup of tea ready for me.’
‘Oh, Alice, I know, I know and the day you’ve had. These young ones don’t know what suffering is. Feckless, selfish boys don’t know what their mothers go through.’
He boiled the kettle and scooped tea leaves into the pot. One for each of them. One for luck. He filled the pot with water, the steam filling his eyes. He was grateful for the warmth. Their words kept on moving and he let them wash over him in the hopes they wouldn’t sting. Bone china tea cups and saucers with rose petal patterns. One for each of them. Milk in the cup first or his mother wouldn’t drink it. He remembered. He always did. When he poured for his aunt his arm slipped and he smashed the cup. He flinched at the sound. He flinched to see the broken shards. His aunt smacked him on the head. 
‘Clean it up, you clumsy lug. Sometimes, Alice, I wonder how he can be yours at all. You were always so graceful.’
This was an exaggeration.
‘I’ve thought much the same, he always was breaking things, careless and cruel that way.’
This was a lie.
‘He broke that vase you gave me for a wedding present remember?’
He had not. 
‘Oh, I remember. I’ve not forgiven him that yet and all. That was a fine vase.’
He swept the pieces of broken cup up watching the shape edges. He did not cut himself. He poured tea into his cup and gave it to his aunt. He retrieved an old chipped mug for himself feeling unworthy of another good cup. No one commented. Staring into his tea he waited for a gap, some little pause in the conversation and some courage. They mentioned their brother. There was always a pause for him.
‘…And the girl was Vietnamese if you believe it.’
‘But why would-‘
‘Better not to ask.’
The silence would remain for a minute or two while they sipped their tea and looked at each other and then the room. Then they would tell him what was wrong with his house. That was the usual way. This time he spoke. He still stared into his cup.
‘I made a cake. If you’d like some?’
He thought they would be surprised. They weren’t.
‘Fetch it in then. Should have told us before you made the tea.’
He did not meet his mother’s eyes but he assumed rightly that she was frowning.
He fetched the cake, small plates to serve it on and a knife to cut it. He had bought them specially. 
‘I love a nice bit of jam and cream, this should be lovely after the day I’ve had.’
‘After the day you’ve had you deserve it.’
‘Not a big slice for either of us, we must watch our weight, as ever.’
He ignored that as he knew he was supposed to. Both slices were generous. He handed one to his aunt first. Then his mother. He could not eat any himself. The tea was disagreeing with him enough. He watched his mother bite into the sponge and jam and cream. He watched her chew. He felt indecent and forced his eyes back to the remaining cake. The peacock’s head peeked out, sticky with blackberry.
‘Mmm, I love a bit of jam and cream,’ his mother repeated, her mouth full.
‘It’s a good cake,’ his aunt said. He felt his left eyelid flicker.
‘Not great but good.’ She licked jam from her lips. There were crumbs on his floor.
‘The problem with it,’ his mother told her sister, ‘no love in it.’

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Cake #2

I finally wrote something. Woo!

She plonked the cake down in front of me and prompted me to dig in. “Dig” was an apt word choice. I was sure that the rich chocolate strata, stretching miles deep, contained paleontological evidence of walnuts. I hate walnuts. My grandmother is too old to understand such pitiful excuses as “dislike”, or even “allergic”; she’s always been a firm believer in you-get-what-you’re-given.

I can’t blame her for forcing the cake on me though. It’s an inherent instinct in our family to feed people at times of high emotion, and this was definitely one of those. My cousin Louise had just announced her marriage to a woman called Charlie (a brilliant scientist who’s promised to take me on her next field trip. It’s only gonna be to the Isle of Arran, but it’s still a legitimate reason to miss school in these harsh economic times, when experience is everything in the job market.)

The fact that Charlie’s a woman wasn’t the issue. My grandmother’s old, but that doesn’t mean she’s old-fashioned – she lived through the sexual revolution of the sixties and she’s sensible enough to recognise that it’s not a big deal any more. What had caused the uproar was that they had gone and gotten married – horror of horrors – in Las Vegas. I mean, how tacky can you get? Louise had claimed that they didn’t want to make a fuss, and that they’d have a big party soon. My Nan was having none of it.

“You’re meant to have family at your wedding. That’s what it’s for, to share your happiness with your loved ones. It’s just selfish.”

My aunts and uncles were nodding emphatically. Charlie caught my eye and her glasses flashed in quiet amusement. She and I both knew that they were all just annoyed at missing out on a free booze-up. I smothered a snicker with cake and nearly choked on a fossilised walnut.

“Come on, Nan, you know we couldn’t have afforded a big wedding. Besides, the idea of flouncing up the aisle in a meringue didn’t appeal to me.” Louise was getting snippy, but she had a point. If they’d stayed in Leeds she’d have been forced into the white wedding, complete with a meringue dress, and that just isn’t Louise. She’d have been miserable. Who wants that on their wedding day?

The argument went on for hours. It was completely pointless of course; they were married now. That couldn’t be undone, at least not just to appease an 80-year-old matriarch. Well, that was two weeks ago. Today is the “big party” we were promised, and it does look set to be a roof-raiser. I’ve got the tux out, because Louise has booked my band. I wish I could say that I played something cool like guitar or drums, but alas: at eight years old I was under the delusion that the trumpet was what got the girls to like you. Can’t say I’ve done too badly, but it wasn’t until my late teens that I started to meet girls who appreciated how cool Louis Armstrong was.

Anyway, the sound check’s done and we’re just milling about in the tent. Louise and Charlie have gone all out on the decorations (within a small budget), and they managed to enlist help from everyone in my family under the age of 23 so the rented gazebo is looking amazing. I spy the buffet table and make a B-line for the cakes. More homemade fare, but it’s the best in town; I avoid the chocolate monstrosity onto which my grandmother’s piped “Happy Non-Wedding Day”. It sounds spiteful, but at least she’s coming.

I select a little jam-and-cream delicacy and turn around to lean on the table while I survey the tent. Guests have been arriving steadily for about an hour, and everyone looks amazing. Charlie looks especially beautiful. She’s wearing a dress (a rarity in itself), but it’s covered in delicately swirling flowers that undulate around her curves.

I feel the tell-tale swell in my trousers and turn around again to stare at the gaudy streamers behind the buffet. It’s not the first time I’ve had that reaction to Charlie. She and Louise are a bit older than me – she’s 26, Louise is 25 – and I’m still waiting to do my A Levels. I always got on well with Louise, but I’ve started to resent her for having a girlfriend like Charlie. No, she’s her wife. The word helps to quell the uprising. I hold on to that thought: it’s permanent. Charlie loves Louise completely. I’ve seen the way they are together, especially when they’ve had a few too many. Touching each other...buggar, that’s making it worse. I stare so hard at the streamers that I’m sure they’re about to catch on fire. I think about geology, about layers of rock. Layers of cake. I shove another one in my mouth.

“Steady on, mate, you don’t want to blow chunks down yer trumpet.” My bandmate, Jamie, who still quotes Wayne’s World constantly.

I’ve calmed down enough that I feel safe to back away from the table. “Haha, yeah.”

“You alright, mate? Getting nervous about the set?”

“Nah, I’m ok, Jamie. Let’s go nab a seat with the others before they’re all gone.”

The tent is steadily filling and we manage to cram ourselves into a corner near the dancefloor, close enough to the stage that we can run up once the speeches are over. Oh god, the speeches. Of course I’m not doing one – it’s Uncle Pete, Louise’s dad, Charlie’s mum and Charlie’s best mate Matthew – but I’m still nervous on their behalf. Luckily I’ve still got a couple of cakes to keep me going through them.

“Hi guys, you’re up next.” It’s Charlie, standing right by my shoulder and looking tired and happy and beautiful. I nearly choke on my jam tart.

I must have been staring because Jamie shoves me half out of my seat. “Move, bro.”

The set goes well, and I manage to get through ‘Crazy in Love’ without keeling over. The CD player is out and we’re all having our one permitted alcoholic beverage (mine’s a homemade cider) when Charlie appears at my shoulder again. Her eyes are shining and her cheeks are flushed; it’s corny but it’s true, happiness does make you prettier. I start gulping the cider for all it’s worth.

“Great job, guys, really great. I’ll be recommending you to everyone I know.” She’s smiling her gratitude and it’s making my chest ache. Then she touches my arm. “Wanna dance?”

I somehow manage to nod and glide over the dancefloor with her. Luckily it’s not a slow song – if I’d been pressed up against her I think I might have died – but even gyrating near her to some old ‘90s trash with a bellyful of strong cider made me feel invincible.

“I love you, Charlie!” It slips out before I can control it, but Charlie’s just laughing.

“I love you too!” She kisses me on the cheek. That’s when it happens, that I make my big mistake: I turn and try to kiss her on the lips. Charlie backs off quickly, embarrassed, and I can feel my face flushing red.

“I’m sorry,” I mutter, and I run off towards the back exit of the tent, grabbing a handful of French Fancies on my way past. Once I’m outside in the cool air of my grandmother’s back garden everything hits me and I can feel myself start to cry. What a baby. I try wiping away tears and eating a cake instead, but the sickly sweetness just cloys in my mouth. To my left I can see the old swing set that we all played on when I was little, and Louise used to push me so hard that I felt like I could fly.

I sit down on the swing and begin to rock. It’s comforting, hanging my head and just swaying gently. Why did I try to kiss her? Why did I say I loved her? I don’t really, it’s just a crush I have on a beautiful, intelligent older woman, and I’m not so young to think that I actually have a shot with her. I’m happy for her and Louise. So what is it?

“Are you alright?” It’s Charlie. It takes me a little while to lift up my head, but when I do it’s too painful to see her worried, pitying face, so I hang it back again and mumble, “yeah, I’m fine”.

“What was that about?”

“I don’t know.” It’s the truth, I don’t. “I needed a breather.”

“It is pretty stuffy in there.” She sits down on the other swing next to me, and I just wish the ground would swallow me up. “You were drinking my mum’s homemade cider, weren’t you? I think it’s nearly 10%, it’s lethal.” I keep staring at my feet as she rambles on. “It’s a good shindig though, isn’t it? You guys have been so accepting of us, and taken me into the family really easily. I’m really grateful.”

She starts to sound a little choked up. I turn to see that she’s crying, just a few tears rolling down her cheeks. I reach out and take her hand, her left hand, feeling the wedding ring warming to her skin, becoming part of her.

She wipes her cheeks a bit and giggles. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”

“It’s the cider,” I hear myself saying, and start laughing as well. “It really is lethal. And I’m sorry. I meant what I said – I do love you, and so does everyone else. We can all see how happy you and Louise are together and that makes us happy. Of course you’re one of the family now.”

Charlie’s smiling properly now. “You’re such a sweet boy. Looking forward to our trip to Arran?”

“Yeah, it’s gonna be great!” I can feel the and strength coming back to my voice.

“You gonna be ok?” Charlie’s smiling at me and I know that the answer is “yeah, I’ll be fine. I just need a bit more time out here.”

“OK, see you in there.”

As she walks off it’s like a weight is being lifted off me. I got to be the grown up, just for a little while, and that was enough. That was enough to make me feel like...what? That I’d repaid Charlie’s kindness? I guess that must be it. But that’s enough introspection for one evening. I reach into my pocket and find a rather squashed French Fancy. I might actually enjoy it now.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Cake #1

This is my response to the cake challenge, and yes, I ate more baked goods than was strictly necessary while writing this. 

He felt the nerves twinge under his shirt collar, the beads of sweat prickle his forehead; now was not a convenient time to get the shakes. When he was a small boy, Wallace Tymons had named his toy bear Cake. Cake had been his first word, his favourite food and his downfall. He couldn’t remember when he’d first become addicted. It may have been sometime around his third birthday. His Auntie Vi had wheeled out a massive cake covered in butter-cream frosting with a ribbon wound snugly around it. The top had been studded with a forest of flaming candles and in the centre there was a plastic figurine, a knight on a rearing mount with a sword thrust skyward in triumph. When he’d attempted an addicts meeting a while back he’d taken the figurine as a kind of talisman, but of course he’d been laughed out of the group. Wallace’s body didn’t reflect his addiction; it was toned and honed, sculpted from marble. The free hours he didn’t spend glazed-eyed looking over cake recipes were spent pounding out pent-up aggression in the gym, running for miles and miles on the treadmill as if trying to outrun and escape his own weakness. It didn’t work though.
His mind lingered over the memory of his third birthday cake, the moist sponge sandwiched with cavity-inducing cream and strawberry jam smothered in wet, creamy icing, the perfect combination of taste and texture. Wallace’s mouth began to water. Drool gathered at the corners of his open lips and only the cooling wetness of it dribbling on his chin brought him back to the moment. He adjusted his grip on the support pole to his left and used his handkerchief to dab at his chin. He looked up as he replaced it in his pocket, but the disapproving sneer of a well-groomed woman on the other side of the underground carriage made him hang his head to hide his embarrassment.
He glanced from the tips of his shiny polished shoes to his watch and back again. There was time before he had to be at the office. Thirty whole minutes. That was enough time to find a supermarket or cake shop wasn’t it? He could feel his resolve waning and the need for cake, with the inevitable ensuing sugar rush, building. He watched as his right foot started tapping a tattoo on the hard, smooth floor of the carriage, a nervous tic he’d picked up when he suppressed his urges. The shiny flecks embedded in the industrial flooring reminded him of the edible glitter that covered the cupcakes in the bakery window around the corner from his apartment. Every morning he forced himself to walk past and look in as a test of his will power, but today he’d almost caved. His foot started tapping faster and he had to step on it with his other foot before anyone noticed. It put him in an awkward duck-like posture, but at least the twitching began to subside under the pressure of being stamped on. Damn it, the sweat was feeling itchy on his neck now. Was it the sweat, or was it his skin? Suddenly his whole body started feeling itchy, freakishly itchy. It seemed today the withdrawal symptoms were manifesting themselves as an allergic reaction. The overhead system chimed and burbled away as they pulled out of the darkness into a flood lit station. It was the one before his, but he got out anyway, nervously adjusting his clothing as though he were sneaking out of a hotel room having had some illicit, sordid affair. Perhaps the fresh air would soothe his nerves and calm the shakes.
He weaved his way through the crowds and fidgeted in the bustle of people on the escalator. He stepped out into the milky November morning; the sky was bleached white with cold and his breath condensed in sticky clouds in front of him. He bent over at the waist, balanced his briefcase between his feet and braced his hands against his knees. Sucking in gulps of cold helped reinforce his tattered resolve, freezing the weakness in his lungs, cooling the itchy clamminess of his skin. He felt stronger, fortified, less afraid. He righted himself and picked up his briefcase, smoothed his tie against his shirtfront and proceeded down the road ahead. Within 10 minutes he’d be sat behind his desk with Cynthia reading him today’s schedule, he’d have a large black coffee steaming beside the familiarly warm glow of his laptop and a few hours of peace and quiet before his first meeting. He could do this. Wallace strolled down the pavement looking every bit the professional businessman, serene and steely. Little did he know a new bakery had opened around the corner from his office. In the window sat five little, pink, glittering cupcakes, two large elaborate looking birthday cakes and in the centre, on a revolving turntable was a ridiculously rich and gluttonous-looking chocolate cake. It was the mother of all chocolate cakes. How would his resolve stand up against almost three and a half kilograms of frosting?