The notebook lies on the table like a brick thrown through the window. It smells of dust, its pages are furred and grimy, and the cover is spattered with unidentifiable stains. It arrived a week ago – sent by the care home, though I told them not to bother.
Just one look, before I throw it away.
I put on my reading glasses. Your handwriting leaps out, bold and curvaceous: Queen of puddings.
I expected an old woman’s script; faint and meandering. Like in the letters you sent until the end, the ones I never replied to. The writing in this book is assured; the paper is indented, the letters loop and swirl. A much younger you wrote this. Someone I barely knew.
Queen of puddings
Warm 1pt milk in a saucepan. Add 1oz butter, lemon zest and 2oz sugar. Stir until dissolved. Lightly whisk 3 egg yolks then add the warm milk. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over base of dish and add custard mixture…
As I read my chest constricts. Bile rises in my mouth; I clench my teeth.
… Make meringue from 6oz caster sugar and 3 egg whites. Spread raspberry jam over custard mixture and pipe meringue on top. Cook for 25-30 minutes.
The last word is written with a flourish. Were you proud of setting down your first recipe? There is a date – 1952. The year you got married.
I flick through more pages. Lemon cheesecake, Scones, Fruit Cake, Gingerbread Men. Memories crowd into my head. The recipes get shorter. The pen changes, ink gives way to biro. Towards the end some entries are no more than scratched lists of ingredients, linked with brackets and single words: Mix. Add. Then they stop.
I’m sitting at the table, legs dangling. The warmth of the oven is on my back. Your pushed-up sleeves show bruises on your arms but when I ask how you got them, you don’t answer. Together we make pastry. You line a pie dish and trim the spare dough from the edge. I roll it out and use my special cutter to make stars. We place them on a tray and sprinkle them with sugar, then you put them in the oven with the pie. Soon the kitchen is filled with the golden smell of fruit and butter. The stars are honey-coloured and glistening when you take them out. You prise one off the tray for me. Careful, darling, it’s hot. I bite and sweetness explodes in my mouth.
* * *
In the gloom my stomach growls. The ham is fridge-cold and the bread stale. Crumbs fall on my school uniform. I’m trying not to panic, but I’ve never come home to an empty house before. Outside the sky darkens. I’m still hungry but I don’t know how to prepare anything else. (Was it partly my fault? My constant demands, the selfishness of childhood?). Your apron is hanging on a hook; I go over and press it to my face, hoping to sense you in its fibres.
I hear the front door open. Father is back. He listens, stony faced, to my wails, then pounds upstairs and into the bedroom. I hear drawers open and slam, the faint jangle of bare hangers in the wardrobe. He returns to the kitchen, face hard as a hammer.
‘Stay here,’ he says.
From the window I see his dark shape turn the corner. I hug your apron to me as the street lamps sputter on. Cars pass. Beyond the houses, tree branches stretch pleading fingers to the sky. A draught curls around my skin, penetrates to the bone, but I don’t move.
I wash my hands. On the counter is a mixing bowl and your book. I’m not sure how this is going to turn out.
Sift together 8oz SR flour and 1 ½ oz sugar. Add 3oz butter. Crumble the mixture then add 2oz dried fruit and 1 beaten egg. (Save some egg for glazing). Knead into a dough.
It takes me a while to locate the kitchen scales. I measure the flour, sugar and butter and tip them into the bowl. Then I plunge my hands in and start squashing the butter into the flour. The greasy mixture gets under my fingernails and coats my skin. But after a few minutes of kneading, the contents feel smoother and more elastic; my hands look cleaner. I add the dried fruit.
Roll dough on a floured surface until just over an inch thick.
I roll the speckled dough until it’s the right thickness. What should I use to cut the shapes? I settle for an upside-down glass. It descends through the mixture with a soft wumpf. I repeat until I have several round pieces to place on a tray. When I pull open the oven door searing air blasts out, steaming up my glasses. Blind, I push the tray in and slam the door shut.
There is a new scent in my kitchen. I don’t have words to describe it. The table is a mess of flour and I haven’t done the washing up. The scones are out of the oven. They’re risen and golden-brown, with tops that are slightly dimpled. I find some raspberry jam in the cupboard. Steam rises when I slice open the scone. It’s springy and pale yellow inside. I scrape on some butter, which melts instantly, add the jam, then bite. It’s sweet and intense, the scone is dissolving in my mouth. I take another bite, then another and another.
When there are two scone-shaped spaces on the baking tray and my plate is empty, even of crumbs, I take up your book again. Flick through the pages, from back to front. My eyes linger on the graceful script in the opening lines. Then I close it and gently place it on the shelf.
ANGELITA BRADNEY’s short fiction has been published in anthologies and literary magazines, most recently Riggwelter, Ellipsis Zine, and the Fiction Pool. She won the 2017 National Memory Day short story prize and has been shortlisted for the Fish Prize, amongst others. She is an alumna of the Faber Academy and lives in London. Twitter: @AngelBradn. Website: www.angelitabradney.com
Image via Pixabay