Banana. Banana is safe, surely. Or chocolate. Everyone likes chocolate. Except maybe little kids. How little is little, though? I mean, seven’s not that little. He’s big for his age. Not that it matters, when it comes to taste, I suppose. Maybe he’s big because he isn’t fussy. Does he mind? He doesn’t seem to mind me – that’s a start. But I want him to be delighted. His favorite ever might be asking too much…perhaps the best he’s seen so far?
Avoid the dark, I remember now. It has to be milk. Or white. How do you know? Maybe from the womb. Pumped back through the umbilicus, rich and sweet and satisfying – chocolate, chocolate, definitely chocolate, milk all the way – the knowledge that comes with being a mother. Mothers just know. I don’t know. Maybe I should listen more when he talks.
I need to make a decision. It has to be tonight; I haven’t got much time. At least I’ve got the shape sorted. He chose it specially, from a book in the confectionary shop. A benign laminated smile from the moulded tin advises me towards blandness. Instructions on the reverse explain how to bring it into being. Six cups of icing-sugar sounds a lot. Sweetness is clearly important. I’ve never been one for sweet. Maybe it’s something else I’ll acquire. Three bags full – important not to be caught short.
Banana chocolate chip! How’s that for compromise? A nod toward nutritious, but fundamentally a crowd-pleasure. I need those melting things that stay gooey even out of the oven. I’ve got everything else. I think. I didn’t plan for this. It’s busier than I expected – there’s no relief from the people and noise. Time to check out.
What about the bananas? Where are the bananas? Already on the belt. Keep calm. I’ve got it covered. Everything I could possibly need. Now I just have to wait.
That’ll be…better not to work it out. Plus the price of the tin, and the present, and the petrol getting all the way…no, better not go there. When people told me ‘an instant family comes at a cost’ I didn’t think…so don’t think. Just hand over the card and go home.
I know you’re supposed to start by greasing. Or is the first thing to turn on the heat? I’ll do both – multi-tasking, another mother thing. Cream butter and sugar. My grandmother has already advised me: do it the old-fashioned way, with a wooden spoon. (Also useful for discipline.) So – the disciplined approach. Hands and hard work. Fold the mixture together. Be gentle; at this stage you have to do everything softly or you’ll make it tough.
But it’s not enough. It barely covers the shiny smile; the ears are left empty. Too little…is it too late? I could try again. Maybe the second attempt can be blended with the first. Will they mix, or would the combination curdle? No way to know. Just have to try. Double or nothing…well, at least it’s not half-empty any more. Hopefully that’s good. I assume too much is better than not enough. Put it in the oven for baby and me. And pray.
Icing is easy by comparison. Behind the smile it’s all spelled out. Known quantities – six cups of…plus butter…water…beating. Mounds of proportion and colour. Four-sevenths egg yellow, two-sevenths plain, one-seventh blue… calculating, concentrating, mixing and transforming. It’s starting to go glossy.
Then there’s the smell – buttery banana, caramelising. Pleasant, until the undertone of carbon hits my throat. Smoke oozes around the edges of the door. Overflow. Too much of a good thing. I risk a quick look. Goop stalactites from the rack and puddles under the bottom element. I’m losing it.
Hysteria’s no use. Let the run-off burn. At least it’s rising, doing what it should. To hell with the oven; write that off as collateral damage. It’ll work out alright. Won’t it? All I can do is wait and see.
After eternity, the face is still wobbly in the middle. Surely the smile must have set by now? That cheerful expression should be firmly fixed, ready to cover with its sweet mask. How much longer do I give it? Should I just give up? Say: I don’t do that domestic stuff? No. I can handle the heat. I’ll hang in another half hour.
By the time the alarm goes off, the face has gone stiff – dried out around the edges, old before its time. Flipping it out is more than I can face. What if it crumbles? How do I hold it together if it starts to fall apart?
It doesn’t. It slides out cleanly, and smiles the way it should. Darker brown than I’d expected. Now what? Take it slow. Let it cool down. Give it time.
Icing. It’s hard at first; softening as I warm to it. There’s a rhythm – push, squeeze, release, lift. Time measured in sweet rosettes: eyes and ears and mouth forming, slowly, surely. God, I’ve worked till the witching hour. But it’s done. It sits on the bench in its travelling tin. I did it. I made that. Now I can sleep. Only one more sleep until the big day…isn’t that what you tell them?
Better put it in the front seat. No, the back might be safer. Should I put something over it, try to stop the sun? It’s not like it’s going to burn now. Belt it in, though, strap under the invisible chin. We’re off to see the wizard.
Unfortunately there’s no yellow brick road. I don’t know the way by heart yet. She’s moved recently. New house, new suburb, new man – the winning trifecta. I guess she’s happy. I wonder if he likes it here too. I wonder if he likes the new man. I wonder why it matters. I wonder where we’ll end up.
Where am I now? Oh God, I’ve lost the road. No sign of the fiery roof that marks the turn. No bird-of-paradise on the corner. I don’t recognise this place. Try the map book…nothing. There’s no map for here. When these pages were published, none of this had happened. Not these streets. Not this house. Not this family. Not even him. I’m driving off the edge of the known world. All I can do is keep going. The houses circle. They’re all the same.
Another forever. Where in hell? Try left. There’s the feeder road! I see what happened. No wonder. The bird-of-paradise rooted out – only a hole where it used to be. But I know that Give Way sign. It’s nice to be sure. Better stop, though. Might be someone coming – it’s a blind corner. While I wait I’ll take the lid off the tin. I want to see his face when I get there…
It’s too late. There’s a car behind me. Swing left again. The cul-de-sac yawns. Dead end.
Present, card, tin – all in order. On the threshold. How do I balance the damn thing? Juggle a hand free to press the bell. A dog barks. Once. Twice. Three times. The windows are frosted. I can’t see anyone inside. Stare down at the sugary smile. Four-sevenths egg yellow.
She opens the door. She’s always smaller than I think. He’s so big, I forget.
‘Hello,’ she says. A rising gabble of voices from inside. Someone shrieks.
‘Is that Dad?’ He comes fast down the passage and stops behind her. Looks at me carefully.
‘He just had to…he wanted to be here.’
‘Oh. But why did you…?’
‘Why don’t you go and get some chips?’ she says. He runs off. I’m left on the doormat. The tin begins to tip and the smile slides sideways.
‘Bring it through here,’ she says and walks away. I follow down the passage. An unfamiliar living room; in a corner the television is on. Soap bubbles forth. What’s it called, that one? Home and Away? Another world I don’t know. In this one is a box full of faces. As I pass, some turn, some smile. Some don’t. I know enough to press on.
I’m in her kitchen.
There is a cake already on the bench. Shaped like a heart, dyed nearly-red, its delicate glaze cracked around the seven proper silver party candles plunged into its centre.
‘Put it there, beside mine,’ she says.
‘It’s alright.’ She picks up a bowl of something green and viscous and goes out. My arm hurts. Let’s get rid of this. The heavy Disney smile clatters down awkwardly. Is it alright? Almost. The journey has bruised the icing flowers, squashing an ear smooth. Need a knife – emergency surgery. What’s in here? Tea-towels. A pot holder bearing a grinning devil in a bikini, emblazoned with the words ‘Hot Stuff!’
Behind me a can pops.
Shit. Take it easy. Nearly lost a finger to the drawer. ‘I was looking for a knife.’
‘That good, huh?’ he says, rummaging in the crisper. ‘Some party.’
‘No, I wanted…the cake.’
‘Yeah, I know. Next drawer across.’ It sticks. Jerk. He’s right – knives in neat array. My drawers aren’t this tidy. Go for a solid blade, no serrations.
‘You know your way around.’
‘Could say that. I live here. I’m what you call the “significant other.”’ He takes a belt of the beer. ‘Haven’t seen you before. You one of her mothers’ group friends?’
‘Not really. I’m…I guess I’m a significant other too.’
‘Righto. What’s your poison?’ Waves the can at me.
‘I don’t think… I have to drive a way.’
He shrugs. ‘Well, your loss. Make yourself at home.’ Laughs as he closes the fridge. ‘You know where we hide the knives. Be seeing you.’
‘Yes. I mean, you will, actually…my name’s…’
But he’s already calling, ‘Hey, Damon, save some cheerios for me! Host needs some compensations…tell the kids it’s nearly cake time. That’ll stop them hitting the savouries.’
She is back beside me. Goes straight for the matches. (Spit and flare: smell of sulphur.) Picks up the neatly plated heart, burning, and carries it off. The crowd squeezes around her. ‘It’s a heart!’ someone says. Boy in the centre, grinning. He waves fingers through the candle flames and grins wider during the singing. The TV jingles low volume counterpoint: ‘Happy (need a way)…birthday (to deal with)…dear Rudy (those problem areas?)…happy birthday to you!’
Seven candles go out with a blow. Should he have that knife? Well, at least someone’s with him. An adult, I mean. He’s doing okay. Pokes right down into the centre, pushes all the way through. Even hacks some slices. From here it looks like chocolate. Devil’s food cake? Definitely dark.
Just stay out of the way. Kitchen’s probably safest. On the edge of knot of mothers talking about their sevens. A kid calls for lemonade. The knot unties and strings across to fridge and bench.
‘Oh, look, there’s another one here!’ one of them says. ‘I guess we should put this out too.’ She picks up the knife. Plunges it into the smile. Half, quarter, eighths, fragments. ‘Right,’ she says. Passes it skillfully over heads to the table. Gone.
‘What was that one?’ a kid says.
‘Pooh Bear. I think. It’s all squashed up.’
‘Pooh’s for babies,’ another kid says.
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘I’m not that little.’ He turns away from the mangled face. The dog barks three times. More people arriving. Still too soon to leave. Just hold out for another eternity. Or at least half an hour.
‘Time for games,’ someone says. Think I’ll sit this one out. Everyone hides. Seeks. Passes. Sneaks. Freezes.
Eventually it’s over. Someone’s boiled the kettle. Lukewarm tea and sticky heat. The thing gets eaten. Mostly. Pieces here and there, crumbed into carpet, mashed with half-chewed cheerios, drowned in lemonade. The smell of stale sugar and burst balloons. At least the kids are outside. Sounds like they’re crashing the new remote-controlled robot into the wall. A cheer each time it falls. Tune out. Start picking up the pieces.
‘Bloody hell,’ a mother says. ‘Who was the idiot who put gooey chocolate chips in that cake? We’ll never get them out of the sofa.’
‘Probably the same person who bought him the electronic musical thing with no batteries,’ someone else says. ‘Spot the ones that don’t have kids of their own, eh.’
Better scrabble under the sofa. Surely there’s more down there. Torn paper, already discarded gifts, crushed greeting cards stained with red glaze. Head buried, I don’t see her coming this time.
‘You alright? Look a bit flushed.’
‘Yeah. Just the heat,’ I say. ‘I have to get going, anyway.’
‘Already?’ she says. ‘Hang on – you need to take…he’s got some stuff. By the door.’ Down the passage together. There’s a black garbage bag, spilling clothes. Teddy bear perched on a tattered cardboard box. Better go for the box. Balance it at the belly, sway-backed against the weight. She loads me with the rest. Just make it across the welcome mat.
‘Hey, Mum!’ Better stop. But he has come only to find her. Sees me – a pile of his things. Says something, low. Can’t hear him. She goes down to his level, blonde hair brushing his cheek. He mutters again.
‘It’s okay. She’s just going to take them to Dad’s house.’ Smoothes his face. “Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
‘Bye,’ he says. And runs away.
‘Well, I guess that’s it,’ she says. ‘No – wait.’ She disappears. I should do as I am told. Ease against the wall for balance. The dog inside starts to bark. I’m leaning on the bell.
She comes back. Brandishes the empty tin. ‘Got it all?’ she says. ’Looks a bit of a balancing act.’ She wedges the tin under my arm. Waves me away. The door closes. I stutter down the steps.
Have to look back. Know I am not supposed to. Think he’s standing at the window with his arms raised. The frosting hides his expression. Maybe it’s not him. Maybe he is already turned away from me. Facing into the room, into his family and his celebration, waving his arms in excitement.
Maybe he says something. No words I can hear, though.
Back to the path. On the last step, I put a foot wrong. The whole lot comes crashing down. The bag splits. Clothes spew. Teddy somersaults down the drive.
Just pick it up. A skivvy. Well-worn Tigger pyjama bottoms. Stuff it all back. Last the tin, upside down. A trail of crumbs leads back to where I’ve come from. I have to keep going or I’ll lose it all again.
Birds gather on the guttering, eying the crumbs.
Hope I can find my way home.