Not Having Your Cake but Still Eating it

Submitted into Contest #7 in response to: Write a story where a chocolate cake plays a significant role.... view prompt




When Judith inherited her Auntie Lily’s cottage she was touched but not entirely surprised (Auntie Lily, who was really her great-aunt had told her she was considering leaving it to her twenty years ago when she was only seventy) and Auntie Lily had made it plain in her will that though she quite liked the idea of her (great) niece living in it she was also absolutely fine about her selling it if she chose.

    Judith still wasn’t sure in her own mind what she wanted to do. She was, as she put it, fooling nobody and least of all herself, between jobs, and her relationship with Kieran had broken down, amicably enough, but the two things combined left her feeling frayed and flustered and not in the right state of mind to make any decisions.

    At least she didn’t have any money worries yet (though she would certainly have to keep her eye on things, and finally get round to using apps that weren’t just for solving crosswords or keeping her supplied with pictures of cute kittens and recordings of music she had to discover but also related to Employment and Recruitment, not to mention updating her CV which was now so out of date it even referred to her qualifications in Word Processing). But what she did need was a breathing space, and where she would breathe would be at Florin Cottage.

    Both Florin Cottage and the Lincolnshire village where it was situated was what Auntie Lily herself, though oddly not referring to the cottage, not so far as Judith could remember, tended to refer to as “Neither ‘t’other nor which”. That was her way of saying neither one thing nor the other. Breezethorpe wasn’t one of those chocolate box villages that always look as if they’re shot in soft focus through a pink and sepia filter, but it wasn’t just a soulless commuter village either – the old stone church might not be the most historic or the most beautiful in the county, but it was genuinely old, and if none of the cottages, Florin Cottage included, were actually thatched, at least not now, there was still a fair number of them as well as the New Build development. To the best of Judith’s knowledge, there was no bad blood worth mentioning between the inhabitants of the “new” and “old” bits, or at least, not based on where folk lived! Breezethorpe had lost its school, but kept its pub, though the locals said that if Phil the Landlord got any grumpier, then its days were numbered.  It had lost its shop, but oddly, a mobile bank still came there once a week. As for Florin Cottage, as we have already established, thatch was not a feature of the village, but it did have eaves, and if there weren’t roses round the door, at the right time of year (which it was) there were lupins and hollyhocks and phlox (no lilies, though!) and Lily’s neighbour, Marvin Stockdale, kept them well-tended. 

    At first there was something a bit weird about being surrounded by Auntie Lily’s furniture (and equally eclectic mix of old and new, with shabby but comfortable leather armchairs and a TV that if not exactly state of the art was one you didn’t need to twiddle dials for, with a functioning remote control, and a kitchen where a genuine article oak table shared space with a microwave and dishwasher) when Auntie Lily herself wasn’t there. Judith couldn’t bring herself to sleep in Auntie Lily’s bedroom and used the guest bedroom, as she always had. But she still liked to go into the room, with the candlewick bedspread and the table-lamp with the fringed blue floral shade. There was, or she imagined there was, a faint aroma of Auntie Lily about it, but nothing unpleasant or musty – a hint of her favourite talcum powder (she never wavered in her devotion to Yardley!) and a lingering of the Earl Grey Tea that she had once confessed to Judith she could never really decide if she liked that much, but had got into the habit of drinking in the morning, when she lay in bed, listening to birdsong or the radio, as the mood took her. If anything, she preferred sitting in there to the lounge and it was a good place to indulge her hobby – whittling. She had seen an exhibition of it with a demonstration on hand, and it had immediately fascinated her. Though she supposed she would never be as good as Glenn, the self-styled “bird-whittler” who became a mentor of sorts, she had a talent for it and had been neglecting it lately.

    They didn’t exactly go out of their way to treat Judith like a long-lost adopted daughter in Breezethorpe, no hint of bunting or a banner, but most of them already knew her a little, and liked her well enough, and there was not the tiniest hint of hostility. She got the impression that if she did decide to live in the cottage, she’d be welcome, but that if she didn’t, nobody was going to go into a decline. 

    If she did have a special “chum” (one of Auntie Lily’s favourite words) in Breezethorpe, it would probably be Betty Arnold who lived next door to the church and was, as she proudly told people, one of the churchwardens. She and Auntie Lily had been close, though Betty was considerably younger, so in a way she was an inherited “chum” but the two women would have got on well anyway. They had the same dry sense of humour, weakness for ice cream, and addiction to TV quiz shows (not game shows. The difference mattered!)

    While they were having a natter over a cup of “regular” tea in Betty’s bright, pleasant lounge that wasn’t made at all gloomy by overlooking the churchyard, Betty said in one of those too studiedly casual voices, “I expect you’ll want to do Lily proud by entering one of your cakes at the village fete!” Plainly seeing Judith’s puzzled expression, though she remembered in time that Auntie Lily thought it was very rude to way “What?” and when it came to manners, in her Aunt’s eyes she was perpetually 10 years old! 

    “You know, I don’t believe you’ve been here at fete time! Such a shame you couldn’t enjoy it with Lily. You might have known she’d keep her light under a bushel. But her cakes – love, they were legendary! Her lemon drizzle was lovely, just hit the spot if you didn’t feel like something too fancy, and I’d defy the strictest dieter not to give in to her scones. But for the fete – well, it was almost always a chocolate cake. I can feel my mouth watering just thinking about it.” Judith could have sworn it was true, and not just a turn of phrase! “She did variants on it – sometimes with cherries, her own take on a Black Forest gateau, or with vanilla icing but they were just – well, I know you’d say it more often about turkey – the trappings. The cake itself was what mattered – light and rich at the same time, and a chocolate addict’s dream but not a bit sickly.”

    Judith could certainly remember having scones at Florin Cottage, both savoury and sweet, and they had, indeed, been decidedly tasty. But she couldn’t remember a chocolate cake and felt vaguely resentful, even though she wasn’t actually that wild about chocolate cake, being of the opinion that chocolate was chocolate and cake was cake, and they were both delicious, but best kept separate. 

    But the point was – let’s just say she was never likely to trouble the judges on The Great British Bake-Off. If needs must she could rustle up an edible tuna bake or roast a chicken, though she still secretly thought ready meals were much maligned, but baking was another matter. It had been the same since school cookery classes. For many of the girls, even those who weren’t that keen on it, the annual Making of the Christmas Cake was looked forward to with delight. Judith’s Christmas cakes ended up either burnt or overcooked (or both at the same time) or went down in the middle, and one year, when she had used a square tin, ended up, despite her careful spreading, two inches taller at one end than the other. The long suffering cookery teacher, Mrs Leyton, said they could make it into a ski slope, it just needed some of those little figures and it would be the most original of the lot. She meant well, but neither Judith nor her classmates were fooled. 

    She couldn’t remember  exactly the eye-watering and mind-blowingly precise odds that killjoy statisticians said were the odds on winning the Lotto, but was fairly sure they would fade into insignificance compared to hers of baking a MOUTH-watering chocolate cake. “When is the fete, Betty?” she asked, weakly.

    “You must have seen the signs! A fortnight on Saturday.”

    Well, at least I have a stay of execution, she thought, bleakly. Time to practise, though she was pretty sure that if she practised until every last bovine inhabitant of planet earth wended its homeward way she would not produce a chocolate cake Auntie Lily would have been proud of. 

    Betty turned the conversation to other matters, and Judith hoped she said yes and no and how lovely and what a pity in the right places.

    Listening to The Archers – which she rarely did at home, but Auntie Lily had been a devotee, and somehow it was just part of life at Florin Cottage, she thought this is silly. I’m under no obligation whatsoever to make a chocolate cake for the competition at the village fete if I don’t want to, and I ought to just come out and say, thank you, but it’s not my thing, though of course I’ll come to the fete and am more than willing to help out at the stalls or with the washing up or whatever.

    Yes, she would most definitely get round to saying that. 

    The trouble was, that the next day she went along with it when Betty brought up the matter of the fete and the cake. It was easier. Except, of course, it was only easier for the few seconds when she said, “Yes, I’m thinking up my variant,” and then wished someone had taped her mouth shut.

    Judith liked to think of herself as a realistic person (though not without an imagination, of course) but we all have our comforting fantasies. Maybe just living in Florin Cottage will do the trick, she thought. Maybe I’ve just been lacking in confidence since that business with the Christmas cake (fair enough, a few plurals would have been more accurate) and it’s time I got over it. I’m a grown woman now. I’m even, Lord help me, almost a middle-aged woman (and intending to leave it at almost for as long as possible!) and I’ve never been a quitter. Well, she wasn’t quite sure about that, and thought there was a deal of sense in the cynical variant if at first you don’t succeed, give up. But there could be no harm in trying. She wouldn’t set her sights too high and wouldn’t try to run before she could walk, would break herself in gently, and any other appropriate if somewhat hackneyed phrase. That very afternoon, on a shopping trip to the out of town supermarket, she purchased a cake mix for what they termed a Chocolate Loaf Cake. She was pretty sure Auntie Lily would have a loaf tin (though it seemed the legendary cake was always round) but picked one up from the hardware section just to be sure. Milk she already had, eggs were easily purchased and even she could manage to scramble the ones that were left over. If she got round to it. Oh, and though she didn’t for one minute she thought there were any “Bin Bennies” in the village, she wouldn’t put the packet in her own recycling bin but in town. Absurd she thought, wondering why she bothered summoning up a wry smile when nobody was there to see it!

    She made sure all the receptacles were laid out ready (and she needn’t have bothered buying the loaf tin) and that she took exactly the right period of time mixing in, and that the oven was strictly at 220 degrees – not 219 or 221! She left the mixture (which did smell nice, though probably more like cocoa than chocolate) in for the exact period of time specified on the packet. She remembered reading somewhere (not in a cookery book but one of those were someone opens a cupcake café and it leads to romance) that though cooking was an art, baking was a science. Everything had to be spot on.

    At the very least it would be edible, she thought. Which it was, although the ever-hungry birds didn’t seem in any great hurry to risk their beaks on the burnt bits and overload their bellies with the leaden bits. And she only put it down in the back garden, of course, warily running her tongue round her mouth and hoping she hadn’t really chipped a tooth.

    Her tooth survived undamaged, but her spirits did not. After a couple of days she told herself she had convinced herself that it served her right for being lazy and packet mixtures never tasted right anyway. In one of Aunt Lily’s cookbooks (she only appeared to have 3 and one of them had come with an old cooker long since replaced) she found a basic cake mix recipe. And tried to make a basic cake. The only difference from the packet chocolate loaf cake was that it was harder to get the caked (!) on residue off the tin.

    Pouring herself a glass of red wine long before her usual self-imposed red line (8pm, though interpreted flexibly on high days and holidays) she weighed up her options and beyond doing a runner or breaking her own arm, neither of which exactly appealed, she couldn’t find any. There was, of course, the option of owning up and saying she was useless at baking and had tried, but next door’s cat would have more chance at the fete than she would.

    Even as she mused on this, that TV ad for the MacMillan Cancer Relief coffee mornings came on, which reminded people they could “bake it or fake it”. Momentarily, Judith’s spirits lifted- and fell as quickly. Even leaving the morals aside (and when it came to the MacMillan coffee mornings it was – well, honest faking, if that wasn’t an oxymoron, with people willingly owning up to it, and no prizes, and nobody minding) she’d never get away with it. A “bought” cake never looked the same as a homemade one, no matter how much you embellished or “distressed” it. It might – just – work with a chicken fillet or mixed vegetables, but not with a cake. It wasn’t a case of necessarily better or worse, just different.

     She might never have been that wild about chocolate cake, but suddenly the very thought made her feel vaguely nauseated. 

    Although she couldn’t have known it, Betty chose about the worst time she could to “pop-in” – and Betty wasn’t one of life’s “popper-inners”. She knocked, of course, but she knew Judith was at home – it was a dull late afternoon, and the light was on, as well as the TV. She was too stressed-out to even care about Betty seeing the wine-bottle, and offered her one. To her relief (even if it meant less wine for her) Betty accepted at once, and didn’t purse up her lips and say it was too early for her and couldn’t she have a cup of tea instead? “That hits the spot,” she admitted, “I’ve had one of those days! Trying to organise things at that church is like herding cats sometimes!”

    “You and me both,” Judith admitted, and wished she hadn’t. Or did she?

    “You do look troubled,” Betty said gently, and something about her gentleness (okay, she supposed the wine played its role too!) broke through Judith’s fragile defences, and she certainly wasn’t past grieving for Auntie Lily either. She burst into tears.

    “Lovey, what is it?” asked Betty. “No, don’t try to tell me yet. You have your weep – I think you need it, and I promise you I won’t pig out on your plonk!” Something about her use of the slangy “plonk” – which was a bit out of character – made Judith laugh through her tears, and it all came out in a rush. “And I just went along with it and I have tried and now I feel such a fool!” she ended, a tad breathlessly.

    “And you’ve been worrying about it ever since? Judith, I’m the one who ought to apologise, for making assumptions, and putting you in an awkward situation. It’s true you have the look of Lily – on the pictures of her when she was younger, of course! – and some of her little ways – like the way you do that,” (she made a steeple of her hands) “when you’re thinking, or – even turns of phrase you have – but you’re not a Lily clone and nobody should expect you to be, me included. Trust me, we’ll survive perfectly well without a chocolate cake and nobody will think the worse of you for it. If I’ve given that impression I was in the wrong.”

    Relief coursed through Judith more sweetly than the wine ever could. Giving her a bit more time to collect herself, Betty carefully picked up a little wooden finch. “That’s pretty – I thought I knew all of Lily’s knick-knacks by now, I’ve dusted them often enough!”

    “I made it,” Judith said, trying to sound proud and modest at the same time, “It’s my hobby.”

    “Is it really? You have a real talent – I love it ….”

    “Not nearly as much as Glenn,” she said. “My – teacher, I suppose, though it’s less formal than that.”

    “But he has a very able pupil. And though it might be a bit late for this year, I can see a lovely NEW institution developing – that’s if you want to stay of course! And you know I wouldn’t wholly blame you if you didn’t.”

    Judith decided three things that night – or almost. She would probably stay, or at least live in the cottage part of the time. She would certainly make a couple of birds as raffle prizes, even though there was obviously not enough time to set up a stall.

    And now the pressure was off, she remembered the good bits, like the mixing and the nice smell. She might even, in her own time, have another go at baking cakes!

September 20, 2019 06:46

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