In my better days the hands in front of me were used to gut fish and to keep the old lady steady on the waves. Now they shook viciously as I struggled to place the lit cigarette to my lips. Those were the good old days. Spending weeks on end at sea – working with the moving unpredictable mass beneath me – then returning home and showing Mary my often full creel. Mary. She lost her battle with cancer three months ago and I lost the love of my life.
Our children returned home briefly for her funeral only to swiftly disappear back to the mainland as they said “there is nothing left on this island for us.” Just one old man, sitting on the old armchair inside this old house. Perhaps they were right, it has been an age since this quiet house held the large, happy family it once did. Those memories fade with each passing day. However, there is one memory that shall never wither.
Mary burst through the door, face flushed and blonde hair as wild as the sea. In her hands she held a large, red rosette badge which proudly emblazoned the number one.
“I knew you could do it darling” I exclaimed in an instant.
In truth, I had spent the last few hours nervously pacing the length of our house but she didn’t need to know that. Mary simply shook her head, completely lost for words.
For years she had baked an enormous variety of scrumptious cakes, tarts, biscuits and pastries for our large family. Our neighbours were regularly treated with large plates of baking too. It soon became the village talk and Mary had transformed into the baking matriarch overnight. It took years to convince her into entering the community baking competition and in the end she only agreed so we would all stop harassing her about it. She had been up all night nervously inspecting her pistachio and raspberry pavlova drizzled with butterscotch sauce. Somehow, she had slowly managed to convince herself that it looked horrendous, and it would be an embarrassment to enter the competition. It took every bit of willpower I had not to devour the whole lot. It was a masterpiece and even now I am salivating just thinking of it. Over the years Mary amassed dozens of trophies and awards for her baking and even an extremely complimentary article on the local newspaper. Yet she was forever humbled by any praise she received. She was never proud or arrogant about her gift. That is what I loved about her. What I still love about her.
I put out the cigarette butt on the cracked glass ashtray that was precariously placed on the arm of the chair. My eyes watered as grief threatened to drown me in such a way that I never feared the ocean would. I miss seeing her enthralled as she carefully iced an empire biscuit. I miss her unnecessary panic the night before a competition. I miss the smell of warm oatcakes wafting through the house. I miss her fierce objections when I would quickly grab the jam tarts just out of the oven and her buoyant laughter when I burnt my tongue on them.
My tongue was still a bit burnt from the last batch of empire biscuits. They were not Mary’s creation but rather the young girl next door who has been occasionally dropping of her own baking since Mary passed. She seemed to be an oddly, energetic child although her family have been well liked in the village since they moved here. However, they do not know the island’s history nor do they attend church on Sundays. I suppose it is the child’s parents who are getting her to drop of the baking. I wonder what the next visit will consist of, perhaps a slice of Victoria Sponge Cake or a few Chocolate Rice Krispie Cakes. If only I had someone to share them with. If only Mary was here.
There was a knock at the door which barely managed to dam the tide of loneliness. It was far too late to be the postman and there was only one other person it could be. My weary body slowly rose to greet the visitor, bones aching with the movement. The shuffling of feet against the worn linoleum filled the silence. On opening the door, I found myself looking upon the young girl next door. She had long, brown hair that rippled like a current and a wide smile that one couldn’t help but reciprocate. I found myself smiling.
“So, what do we have today?”
“Jam tarts!” she declared proudly.
I looked down to inspect the small plastic container in her hands which were accommodating several large jam tarts. The tarts were a dark brown colour and bright red jam slowly seeped out several cracks in the overly thin pastry.
“What do you think?” she asked earnestly.
I frowned my eyebrows together and closely scrutinized the contents of the box. “Perfect.” I replied “You have outdone yourself this time. Paul Hollywood should be hiring you as his apprentice any day now.”
Her innocent eyes beamed like a lighthouse and that contagious smile appeared on her face for a second time. Once again, I found myself infected. I placed the jam tarts on a plate and returned the box to her gratefully. Then off she went. I watched her skip happily back to her house, each step fuelled by pride.
I poured myself a strong cup of tea and returned to the armchair, feeling younger than before. Suddenly our home had a whole new life to it as if I had been sitting in darkness for so long but suddenly someone had switched on the light. A darkness that had been fought off by the random kindness of that young girl. A darkness that had surrendered to a plate of overcooked jam tarts. I bit into one of the still warm tarts and discovered the centre of it piping hot. My tongue burnt and the warmth spread to my heart as my thoughts returned to Mary.