Authors: Amanda Prowse
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary
A Little Love
is dedicated to the woman who never taught me to bake, but did teach me to climb mountains and reach for the sky. She is the person I go to for everything from a cup of sugar to good advice. She has had my back since I took my first breath and my life without her would be no life at all. My mum, Anne, who I love with all my heart.
As she paced the square room, her bare feet stuck to the wooden floorboards. The fire that burned in the grate seemed to heat the space directly in front of it, but little else. It was a tad too chilly in the room – at least, she thought it must be, as she was shaking. She wrapped her arms around her torso, but it made little difference.
She was in a state somewhere between panic and hysteria, and when morning finally came, she would be exhausted from trying not to succumb to either. The morning. It felt very far away.
The silky lotion she had rubbed into her legs made her skin shine where the lamplight touched it. It was a neat trick – one of many she had learned over the last couple of weeks, along with putting Vaseline on her eyelashes to make them seem thicker, and weaving a fat, loose plait to give her hair fabulous waves and make it look styled.
Perching on the patchwork quilt, she felt the aged mattress sag beneath her. She sighed, fingering the lace front of her nightie, checking that each little pearlescent button sat snugly through its buttonhole, and patting the front flat. She wanted to look neat, nice. She then studied her fingernails, using the thumbnail of one hand to scoop behind the nails of the other.
Dusk was falling and she was becoming increasingly agitated. Glancing at the clock on the bedside table, she wished she could turn back the hands to reclaim a couple of hours, give her longer to prepare. Not that more time would have made much difference; she would still reach this moment and feel exactly the same, with a churning sickness in the base of her stomach, the sound of her heartbeat loud in her ears and a layer of sweat on her palm that gathered like a little river in her lifeline. She licked it away, surprised that the salty residue wasn’t unpleasant on her tongue, then wiped the hand, slick with her spit, down her arm.
She stretched out her fingers and studied the palm-wide crease more closely. It made her heart beat faster. Mrs Stanescu, who was married to the rag and bone man and wore a thick black scarf around her hair whatever the weather, had insisted on reading her palm. Lowering her bulk from her husband’s rickety cart one day, she had grabbed her by the wrist, smiling with her stubby, dark teeth revealed as she twisted and then slapped to make her fingers open. She had to concentrate on every vowel to understand the woman’s English with its heavy Romanian accent. Mrs Stanescu said she saw a long life, then pointed at the tiny triangles that sat on the crease, dotted almost uniformly along it.
‘These,’ she said as she jabbed at them with her long, dirty fingernail, ‘are very interesting. There are two sorts of island on a palm and they can mean times of deep sadness or times of great joy. They define a life.’
She had looked up into the fixed eyes of Mrs Stanescu. Her lip trembled, pupils large. ‘Which sort are mine?’ she’d whispered, hardly able to listen to the answer.
The woman’s stare hadn’t wavered. ‘Yours are not the joyous kind. They mean a life which will be bound by a chain that you will wear around your heart and a sadness that will sit behind your eyes, filling your mouth with sourness. It will taint all you do. You will die old and alone and you will know deep fear.’
Crying, she had run to her mum, who petted her hair against her pinny and told her it was a load of old tosh and that she should take no notice of the loopy Mrs Stanescu, who probably said the same thing to everyone. It comforted her for a while, but still, most nights, in the seconds before she fell asleep, she would recall the old crone’s words. Her tongue would tingle with a bitter sensation and a wave of panic would wash over her as she wondered what it would feel like to live with a chain around her heart.
She gasped and turned her head as the top stair creaked outside her bedroom door, drawing her into the present. Her heart leapt into her mouth. This was it.
She didn’t know why these words left her mouth involuntarily or to whom they were addressed, but they were offered sincerely. Her palms ran with sweat once again and she thought of Mrs Stanescu. It might have been a load of tosh, but she knew the old hag had been right about one thing. Closing her eyes, she tried to smother the flames of deep fear that flickered inside her.
Pru donned her dressing gown over her pyjamas, stretched thick socks over her feet and crept out of the flat door, closing it quietly so as not to disturb her cousin Milly, who was sleeping soundly in her bedroom further down the hall. She slipped down to the basement. This she did on occasion when the bakery was closed, usually in the dead of night when sleep proved elusive, and always with the snap of excitement at her heels as she did so, covertly.
Her alarm would not pip-pip for another three hours, yet instead of resting her head on her plump feather pillow, here she was, wandering along corridors and punching alarm codes into locked doors, looking over her shoulder and tiptoeing like a thief.
Using only minimal lighting, eschewing both the elaborate machinery around her and the complicated recipes that she and Milly had honed over the years, she did what she always did on these night-time jaunts. She set about running up a batch of fairy cakes with nothing but a wooden spoon and a ceramic bowl, just as she had been taught.
Pru fastened the apron around her waist, then laid out her ingredients and tools in a row on the counter top. She got the familiar jolt of happiness, knowing she had everything she needed to execute her plan. It felt exactly the same now as it had all those years ago. She cast her eye over the white flour, the bowl of sugar and the greasy lump of margarine splayed on the saucer next to the shiny clean bowl, awaiting her attention.
She hummed to herself as she tipped the margarine and sugar together and began creaming them into a thick paste. She savoured the gritty crunch on the back of the spoon as it smashed the crystals against the crackle-glazed side of the china bowl, pushing and churning until the mixture billowed with tiny bubbles of air and her fingers ached. Next came the spoonfuls of plain flour, a drop of essence, baking powder, the egg and gradually more flour. Pru couldn’t fully describe the lift to her spirits or the bounce to her step as she watched the dry ingredients transform themselves into a pale golden batter. There was no great science to knowing when the mixture was ready; instead she used the tried and tested dropping method, lifting the spoon and watching to see how the cake mix fell. Too quickly meant it was too thin, calling for more flour and more mixing. Whereas a blob that refused to shift from the back of the spoon required more liquid and a light mix. When the batter acquired the perfect consistency, it dropped into the bowl with jaw-clenching slowness.
As the fairy cakes baked, the anticipation filled her stomach with butterflies. While they cooled, she made a strong cup of coffee to go with them. Then she decorated them, exactly as her nan had instructed: sparsely, sprinkling hundreds and thousands on to a tiny misshapen pond of white icing. Both of which had been a luxury in her nan’s house. Finally, she popped the soft, vanilla-scented sponges into her mouth, allowing the sugar to spread its warm, satisfying sweetness across her tongue and the icing to stick to the roof of her mouth. She gobbled them greedily and quickly, all of them.
‘I know you are shaking your head and tutting at me, but don’t judge me, Alfie! I could have far worse habits.’ This she uttered into the ether with her eyes raised skywards and a smile about her mouth as she licked a stray blob of icing and a couple of sprinkles from her lip.
As proprietor of the world-renowned Plum Patisserie, Pru had access to any number of delicate iced fancies and exquisite sugar-dusted morsels each and every day. Yet none of them gave her anything like the pleasure she got from eating a warm fairy cake made to her nan’s exacting recipe and wolfed down illicitly in the wee small hours. The parcels of moist cake not only made her mouth water, but if she closed her eyes, she was back in their grotty kitchen in Bow, a little girl again, working diligently at their wobbly enamel-topped table. Back to a time before she knew anything of the world beyond their front door, before drive and aspiration had yoked her to a winding uphill path. Her nan, standing at the shallow china sink dressed in a pink wrap-around overall that had worn thin at the seams; and her three brothers, with pinched cheeks and rings of grime against the backs of their necks, hovering around the large china mixing bowl, their dirty fingers scooping at the fine lines of cake mixture residue, which they deposited into their eager mouths. The smell of the fluffy little ingots baking would almost drive them to tears. Clustering around the stove, unusually silent, they waited.
Her nan would then turn the cakes out of the bun tin on to a wire rack on the sideboard. The scented steam that they gave off hypnotised them. And it would feel like an eternity before she would allow them to take one each. When they finally got one of those little cakes in their mitts, round-eyed and with a mouthful of sweet crumbs, it was a moment of bliss in an otherwise bliss-free life and it was wonderful. For Pru, nothing symbolised her success as much as her ability to eat a whole batch made in the kitchen of Plum Patisserie. She never told anyone about her trips down to the big kitchen; it was another little secret for her to keep.
Pru laughed to herself as she perched on the edge of her bed a couple of hours later and applied the Crème de la Mer moisturiser to her face and throat. It was 6 a.m. but she had the alertness of someone who had been up for many hours. Fancy! She touched her fingers to her temples, where her once lustrous locks had now thinned. It was one of several habits she had acquired now that she was sixty-six, along with pushing up her eyebrows with her finger so that she could, for a second or two, re-create the wide eyes of her youth, before gravity had done its job and given them a hooded appearance.
‘I was lovely once, wasn’t I? Not that I really thought so at the time, despite what Trudy said. I never had her confidence – blimey, who did? She was something else, wasn’t she? So very long ago. I don’t know why I’m thinking about that, Alfie; our little flat in Kenway Road, my life in Earls Court. We had some fun: tough times, but happy times. A lifetime ago. You’re the only one I tell everything to, but I know you’re a secret-keeper, aren’t you, my love?’
This she addressed to one of several silver-framed photographs on her bedside table. This particular snap was of a man astride a moped. He was looking over his shoulder, a roll-up hanging from his bottom lip. It was a black and white shot, and even though it had been taken decades later, it could have come straight out of the sixties. He had the air of James Dean about him, or maybe that was just how she preferred to think of him: an anti-hero rather than a hopeless, drug-addicted drop-out.