Party cakes

The party had been planned for weeks. They’d already spent the money that hadn’t gone on the deposit and stamp duty on furniture and new carpets, so Leo asked guests to bring themselves, wine, and some food. “Crowdsourced catering,” he’d said to Kim. “It’s the next big thing.”

They took the afternoon off work and spent it vacuuming, cleaning, and replacing lightbulbs. They’d gone to a housewarming in Balham a month ago where the kitchen lights had given out and the hosts had had to borrow a stepladder from the house next door – which was embarrassing enough with a kitchen full of guests standing around in the dark, but it turned out the neighbours hadn’t been invited, which they had taken badly to. The resulting scene had kept them in gossip for weeks, and the last Kim had heard the hosts were thinking of moving again just to get away from it all.

The first guests arrived at half seven on the dot and trilled the doorbell. “Lucy! Niall!” They air-kissed in the narrow hallway and went through to the kitchen, Leo and Kim offering pre-prepared apologies for its unfinished state that were waved away by their guests.

“Is it too early?” said Lucy, coquettishly waggling a bottle of shiraz.

“Never!” Kim crowed. She hunted in the unfamiliar drawers for a corkscrew. “We’ve not got any wine glasses so it’s tumblers or mugs, is that alright?”

“And we brought this,” said Niall to Leo, handing him a large purple cardboard box.

Leo set it on the counter and flipped open the lid. “Oh wow,” he breathed. “Hey Kim!”

Niall and Lucy watched proudly, their arms around each other’s waists as their hosts cooed over the cake. “Lucy made it,” Niall explained quietly, so as not to disturb them.

“It’s amazing,” murmured Kim, then she turned with a glint in her eye. “Let’s have some!” They served it on paper plates. The sponge was light and airy, and the jam and cream filling spread deliciously in their mouths. Sugar crunched between their teeth.

The doorbell rang. “I’ll get it,” said Kim, sucking the last of the cream from her fingers. Leo topped up the wine and Kim returned trailing a nervous-looking man behind her.

“George! Great to see you,” said Leo. He offered the new arrival a sticky hand to shake.

George took it briefly. “Wasn’t sure what to bring so I thought maybe some cakes?” He placed the box on the table. It was plain white except for the stamp of the bakery it came from, which was a bear wearing a chef’s hat and an apron.

“A fellow cake fiend,” said Niall, approvingly. George said nothing and sipped at his wine. He was one of Leo’s colleagues, and nice enough, but he could be hard work.

Kim left them to talk and went through to the living room to sort out some music. They hadn’t yet got round to setting up the stereo, and the internet was still temperamental. Wine and cake was all very well, but you couldn’t have a party without music. She heard the front door go several times as she fiddled with wires and the router, and the excited chatter of new guests admiring the place drifted from the hall.

She’d just got it sorted and allowed herself a congratulatory glug of cabernet sauvignon when Leo’s head appeared round the door. “We have a slight problem,” he grimaced. He led Kim through to the kitchen. Almost every available surface was covered in cakes: cupcakes with ridged swirls of icing, coffee cake studded with walnut pieces, even a gateaux that squatted indulgently like a toad on its cardboard pad. They’d had to stand the wine bottles on the floor to make room.

“Has… has everyone brought cake?” Her voice sounded faint with disbelief. She poured a fresh mug of wine and drank it as she surveyed the scene. A blonde woman in a backless dress was whispering to her partner, who as he listened put an entire fairy cake in his mouth.

“And wine,” someone said, and yes, there were wine bottles everywhere too, like tiny trees hugging the mountain ranges of the near-empty cupboards. Well. Kim had never been one to back down; she grabbed an unopened bottle and a hunk of lemon drizzle and got to work.

There was a cheer as others followed her lead, accepting the challenge, joining the team. Even George was nibbling on his second thin slice of coffee and walnut. The air was dense with scent: delicate floral bouquets mingled with dank, tightly-packed Jamaica cake. Every time they seemed to be making progress the door would inevitably ring, heralding yet more additions to the stacked boxes and ranks of bottles.

“What’s going on?” Kim hissed to Leo in a crazed whisper as they passed each other in the kitchen in search of another round. He shushed her and told her not to worry: there was no way anyone would forget this party anytime soon.

By the time the final guests arrived bearing a Battenberg and 75cl of merlot most of the guests had been reduced to groaning. People were sprawled on sofas, chairs, and even the floor like fattened sloths. Their breathing was shallow through cake-thickened mouths, and discarded corks and screw-tops littered the carpets. Kim hauled herself to the front door, leaning on the radiator for support. “More cake! It’s a cake-pocalypse!” she declared. Her mouth was gluey and her words slow as she laughed madly. Stray granules glittered around her wine-stained lips. There were crumbs everywhere. It would take them six months to properly vacuum, but that could wait. There was still a party to be had, wine to be drunk, and cakes to be indelicately eaten. It was still a party.

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The trouble with mother

2,178 words – approx. 7 minutes

There would be words later, but for now father just looked down at my muddy, wet boots and walked off, leaving Jonesy to deal with me and my self-pity.

Jonesy – or Jones, as he was to father – had always been one of the kinder staff members, not as quick to lose patience as others I could mention, and more willing to allow minor incidents to go unreported. I had been secretly delighted the previous year when he was the one father decided to keep on as an all-purpose employee, although I suspected then the decision was more driven by his youth and attendant low wages than anything else.

Continue reading The trouble with mother

Jenny

Jenny’s waiting for me downstairs.

“We need to talk,” she says, spreading precisely the right amount of butter across perfectly-browned toast.

My mind races. I charged her last night. Was there an update I forgot to install?

“You’re cheating on me.”

Shit. I start to protest but she interrupts.

“I’ve scanned all incoming and outgoing messages to your communication devices and there is a 98.73% probability that you’re in a clandestine relationship with Sharon Holdsworth. That’s in direct contravention of your End User Licence Agreement.” She swivels her head towards me and says, quietly: “Our End User Licence Agreement.”

I grab a slice of toast, stalling. I’ve no intention of admitting my transgression, but wouldn’t know how to explain it to her anyway. Things change – Jenny was exciting and new at first, but I miss human warmth, human connection, human foibles. Jenny doesn’t make mistakes. Even if you install the DitzPack, it’s not the same.

“Is it because I can’t have children?” Clear liquid rolls down her cheek. As emotional blackmail from a machine goes, it’s remarkably effective.

“We can talk tonight. I have to go or I’ll be late.”

“No.”

Our central-locking system clicks. I pull at the door. “Let me out!”

Her eyes are flashing. “Contravention of an End User Licence Agreement is prohibited. Under the Artificial Intelligence Act 2028, I am authorised to interrogate you and to administer a sanction.”

“Er, what sanction?” I’m suddenly very aware of the thick, unyielding metal of her arms – intended to guard against misuse, but titanium knows no distinction between misuse and an attempt to prise the grip of hands from a neck.

“I am not at liberty to disclose that information,” she says, and I think I see the sharp curl of a smile as she marches towards me.

Jazz night at Arbuckle’s

Soft, suspended chords drifted from the piano as Melanie looked out at the crowd. Even if she shielded her eyes with her palm she couldn’t see how many were out there, which was probably just as well. The muscular smell of steak floated from an unseen plate, causing her stomach to rumble and making her momentarily forget what she was about to say.

“It’s, er,” she began. Her long nails scratched at her neck and caught on a loose thread at the shoulder of her dress. She pulled her hand sharply away and felt something give. She hoped it wouldn’t show. “Thank you all so much for being here tonight, it means the world to us. This is our last song tonight.”

At the cue, Ira’s playing began to gain form, the background music coalescing into something more insistent, something with a purpose. Melanie closed her eyes and began to sway gently from side to side, willing herself into one with the sound. It had been harder lately to find the point at which the outside world fell away and left her cocooned in a blissful fog.

Somewhere a glass smashed, and a cheer briefly rose then was stifled.

The intro was finishing and Melanie could feel Ira’s eyes on her. She nodded, and found the first note. But as she sang her thoughts leapt to the ‘dressing room’, a narrow corridor that led to the fire escape. Ira would expect a repeat of the previous night, when she’d been unwisely drunk on gin cocktails (bought by the manager, who might have hoped he’d be the beneficiary of his largesse). In spite of herself, she was tempted. Ira wasn’t bad-looking, he had a wicked sense of humour, and, most importantly, he understood music. He would understand the late nights, the travelling and the exhaustion, the motel rooms and plastic-packaged service station dinners. He wouldn’t sit up waiting for her and hurl accusations of infidelity that eventually would come true, because if that was what someone was going to think anyway, why wouldn’t you?

She could do a lot worse than a man like Ira.

Back, back to the song. This was her audience and she owed them a performance: that was the cardinal rule, the one constant of the last fifteen years. Yes, you could phone in a set and people might not complain, but that wasn’t enough. You had to give them more than just the songs themselves. You had to give them you. If they didn’t want it, that was their problem.

The crowd were getting into it now, clapping along, which Melanie liked although she knew lots of singers didn’t. Always end on something upbeat, that was the key. You could serve up the most mournful set imaginable, but closing with ‘Hallelujah, I Love Him So’ or ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’ as good as guaranteed a happy audience and a repeat booking.

It was only on the last chorus that Melanie felt she’d really done it justice, although it was good to know she still could. Ira’s playing slowed to signal the end, then he finished with a flourishing run. There was a moment of silence, punctuated only by the scrape of cutlery on cheap porcelain, before the applause started. It was a little too loud and a little too long, compensatory perhaps, but Melanie drank it in regardless. Someone was hollering and whooping like a madman, and Melanie wondered whether he knew her then decided he was just drunk.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.”

The stage lights switched off and the diner music started up, some heartless funk. Undeterred, Melanie continued: “And please give a big hand for my pianist tonight, Ira Stone!”

She stretched out one hand towards Ira, the microphone still in the other. He took it, and together they bowed to their audience, the applause falling over them as light and fresh as rain.

Animal bread

When I think of Linus I always remember his hands. They were huge, like the rest of him: slabs for palms and sausage-thick fingers that always seemed to be dusted with flour. On another man they might have been intimidating, but not on him; these were the hands that gently kneaded and pinched the soft dough, coaxing it to the shape of his choosing, a skill that seemed to us akin to witchcraft, even more so because he would never let us see how it was done. “Ah ah,” he would say with a shake of his head, a smile twinkling in his eyes. “A magician never tells.” We would protest in secret delight, hoping that he might take pity on us and give us each a piece of buttery, flaky croissant as a consolation, with an instruction not to tell our parents.

For as long I can remember we would drop in to his shop once a week after school to pick up rolls for mum. I loved the smell of fresh dough, and the way Linus (always Linus, never Mr Kowalski) would greet me and my sister like adults: “And what can I get for the young ladies today?” His English was perfect but thickly accented, which only added to the heady thrill of his shop and the feeling that you had stepped into another time and place entirely. But most of all I loved what he called his ‘creations’, the breads shaped like animals that lined the shelves at the window, welcoming passers-by. Rabbits, cats, and his speciality, hedgehogs, each one moulded with great care so it would bake and rise just so. Sometimes, if one had not quite come out as he had hoped, we would find it in the bag alongside the crusty rolls that mum insisted we buy, despite my pleas for her to consider a change. I was sure that if she did so she would be an immediate and total convert, but she never did.

To me, Linus was old in the way all adults are to children: unthinkably and unthreateningly. He had been in the town for longer than our parents had been alive, but this meant little to us. Children see age as a constant property, not as a progression; those we knew who had died had either done so in accidents or random illnesses or, as far as we were concerned, had always been old. But still, I was aware of things changing: we came home more often with charred or broken animal bread, the queues in his shop became gradually smaller, and I recall my mother returning one day with rolls not in the paper bags Linus gave but wrapped in plastic from the supermarket.

These small shifts, however, did nothing to prepare me for the shock of one day finding tall, t-shirted men carrying boxes and wooden tables out from the shop. I darted inside, leaving my sister following, to find Linus sitting at the counter, which was now stripped of the till and small basket he kept for tips. Perhaps it was the nakedness of the shop, but he stood and looked, for the first time I had known, tired, like his body was a coat several sizes too big for him.

“What’s happened?” I cried, unable to keep the distress from my voice.

He seemed to squint at me from beneath his shaggy eyebrows, then shrugged. “It has been a long time.” With a sudden movement, as if he had remembered something important, he reached down and picked up a brown paper bag and held it out to me. “Here – I made them for you and your sister.” I stepped forward to take it, but he pulled it back. “No, wait, I will give them to you as a surprise. Hold out your hands.”

We closed our eyes. I felt something warm and soft in my cupped palms, and I saw a perfect, golden hedgehog, its spikes delicately plucked upwards and a crooked mouth carved into its face. Impulsively I ran forward and hugged Linus, my eyes threatening tears. “Thank you,” I said, and burrowed my head into his apron as he stroked my hair soothingly.

We held our presents carefully all the way home, solemnly, as though they were china vases or funeral wreaths. It was only when we ate them that evening that we realised they were sticky and raw in the middle, and that they tasted unaccountably of salt.

Note: I have edited this post slightly since it first appeared.

Carole

3,258 words – approx. 11 minutes

It had been dark for hours when Carole switched off the lights and turned the key to bring the shutters down. From behind her counter she’d watched the light leach from the sky through the gaps in the posters plastered to the windows, advertising special offers that were still more expensive than the regular prices at the supermarket two miles down the road. Even she’d started shopping there, but what could she do?

She’d never liked this time of year, not just for the darkness and cold, but for the way it showed up problems that she could usually ignore: the broken lights in the forecourt, the temperamental boiler, the stiff lock on the staff toilet. All things that needed fixing and paying for that in the summer were minor annoyances, but now seemed to press constantly on her mind.

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