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Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Day 3 - Messy Cook - a short story by Katie Wood

            After fighting my way through the mug-debris of breakfast, I get to the sink. I hear the warped cheer of an ice cream van on this autumn morning and sigh at the last signs of summer. But the noise soon melts into the sickly mess of wasted time and not-quite-there memories. The air has a chill in it and the leaves keep falling. As do I.
            I’m a messy cook; I have been ever since I first stuck my podgy fingers into the butter and flour and sugar for Mum’s blackberry crumble. I don’t like having packets and tubs lined up in a death row. I much prefer to have them circle me and I can spin round and pick the one I want.
            I love following recipes: I love their precision, and how you just have to do what it says and it rewards you with a glorious fudge cake at the end. No decisions of my own. I leave trails of goo as I go, crop circles of icing sugar, marking my territory.
            As I slide it into the hot oven, I seal its fate, and lick the sticky mess from my fingers, the bowl, spoons, whisks, but not the tabletop. At least I have that much restraint. And I revel in the chaos I’ve created: the piles of bowls and cups and cutlery and scales and the splatter of my labours.
            Running a bowl of hot, bubbly water, I plunge my hands in, purging, restoring my utensils to their original purity. Out from the fire will come the cake, born again from the raw, messy ingredients, in all its newness of life.
            The doorbell rings, bringing with it a sigh, and the need to step out of myself. I have the sudden urge to turn on the Hoover and pretend that I didn’t hear it, but then, it could be something exciting, It could be my separated-at-birth twin sister, or a man who has watched me form a distance for so long now and has finally summoned the courage to tell me that, to him, I’m perfection.
            It’s the postman, bringing a parcel for next door. I take it up to the spare room and put it in the corner next to the bin holding a few crumpled, half ticked off to-do lists and a decomposing apple core. It once showed so much promise, that apple. Shiny and green, polished and smooth like the floor of a ballroom, then crispy and tangy against the tongue, surprisingly bitter, though.
            Yet it takes too much to chew through the whole thing, and no one can ever reach the other side, but one has to go incessantly round the core. Always missing the seeds. The point. Now it lies discarded and rotting and sullying the crisp envelopes I’d half-written my near-plans on. I am that apple.
            I’m in that kind of mood where I pick up a book, absolutely determined that I won’t be happy until I’ve read it, am gripped by the cover, the blurb, the way the spine smells, and the print stands out at me… until I read the first sentence. I put it down and start another, doing exactly the same. And another.
            I’m in the kind of mood where I eat chocolate, because I’ve broken into my emergency bar despite the lack of emergency, but feel sick at the sweetness of it. I put it down and as soon as I swallow I know I need more. And again I cringe at its sweetness.
            That’s when he walks in. Perfect—for me. He’s tall, dark, handsome (obviously). No, actually, he isn’t. He’s tall, yes, and dark, but in a fair sort of way. Bright eyes: piercing and intense, but soft and melting. Handsome… how could he not be? But I make sure that he is so only to me. Everybody else would admire him, of course. He’s more perfect than anyone else. But they wouldn’t want him. No. That would be threatening to me. I know he’s perfect for me, because he isn’t real; I’ve made him up just then, bored with my books and my chocolate.
            He rushes into the room and sweeps me out of the broken swivel chair that I sit on out of habit. He holds me to his warm chest and gushes at me that I’m the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, that he couldn’t possibly imagine his life without me and that he won’t let me out of his sight for as long as he lives. But not in a desperate way.
            He kisses the top of my head and breathes in the smell of my hair and tells me again and again how much he loves me. But not in a repetitive way. Then I ask him his name, and he fades… flickering at first, and blurring at the edges, but soon enough disappears entirely, as I try to pin him down to something as concrete as a name.
            What’s in a name anyway? I’m sure it can’t be much. Why is a bottle called a bottle, and would I still drink overpriced water from it if it was called a globdue? I feel the need to do something useful and so I check my e-mails, a lame attempt to distract myself from nothing.
            Work is checking up on me, making sure I’m getting there with the article they want. It’s coming in short spurts; it will happen in its own time I suppose. Mum’s sent me some holiday photos; I click ‘mark as unread’ intending to look at them another time.
            What would it be like if our brains could function in that way? If you could go to a memory and mark it as unread, then next time you looked at it, it would be completely new to you. Would that be a good thing? Could you mark something as unread and then never made it read again, ignore it as though it never happened?
            Ideas well up inside of me, but I can’t get them to materialise, or not into any tangible form, that is. They’re like jelly that’s running through my fingers, constantly eluding me and refusing to take shape and set. But then, even when jelly does set it’s wobbly. Maybe jelly isn’t a very good analogy. Doesn’t that just prove that my ideas are wobbly? Even me trying to grasp what my ideas are. Maybe my whole life is jelly… no, probably not.
            In any case, I can feel that ideas are there; I can see their hues, their outlines, blueprints, but they always swim away before I can grasp my hands around their slippery gills. Still, it’s comforting to know they’re there. I’m not quite sure what they’re ideas for though, whether they are poetry or the beginnings of a novel, or indeed not creative in that way at all, but a speech that I should make, somewhere or other, or my political manifesto.
            I would try to write them down, but what good would there be in that? Sometimes I do give in to them, I let them have their way with my pen, but I always feel that they are using me for, well, for my body—my ability to hold a pen, at least. I’ll give life to them, conceiving them with one part pen and two parts paper and they leap to life, judder out of me, and leave me spent.
            Then I become a shell, bereft of the ideas that once lived in me. No, I’d much rather keep them locked away, safe inside of me, where they keep me company. And anyway, they change. They always shift. They turn from a sonnet to a play, or they’ll leap from the past to the present, or suddenly want to discuss marmalade. I don’t even like marmalade.
            My ideas don’t even belong to me; it’s like a séance. They morph. Shape-shifters. Words flash up in my mind’s eye like neon bar signs; although some are more like flashes of lightning, brief glimpses of life. Sometimes they are words I don’t understand. But I enjoy them anyway, savouring their rhythm and the feel of them rolling off my tongue, should I choose to say them out loud. Micawber. Dubiety. Quidam. I am at liberty to do that, at least.
            I hear the flap of my letterbox and am startled out of my reverie. I shake my head, hoping the words will shuffle themselves around and fall into the right places, like an etch-a-sketch. Reaching the stiff, painted window I peer through to see what had disturbed me. It was just the paperboy putting something unnecessary into my house.
            As I watch him slump back down my path again, I feel drawn to the bulky headphones that frame his teenage head, hugging his ears: a halo, or something to keep his emotions from escaping. I long to climb into them, to feel the heavy throb of the fashionable beat, and to immerse myself in his thoughts that bubble away just below the surface, much like the stubble that is soon to pierce through his skin.
            Opening the window, I find myself leaning out of it like a cork ready to pop from a shaken bottle of champagne. I call out to him, ‘Boy! Talk to me. Are you angry, or sad, or trying to contain the glee of a new relationship?’ But nothing comes out of my mouth. In fact, I don’t even open it, but continue to stare at his retreating head from behind the closed window.
            I make my mind up to attempt to do something useful and so turn around, crouch down and lie face down on the hard floor. The scratchy carpet presses into my nose. The smell of dust and furniture polish creeps up my nostrils so that I can almost taste it. I have my best ideas on the floor. Closer to the earth, I guess; yet I’m on the first floor of my house. I don’t like the phrase ‘first floor’ because it seems as though the ground floor doesn’t count.
            I wonder if I would have better ideas if I went and lay on the ground near my front path, so that I was really close to the earth. But that might be a strange thing to do. And boys with big headphones and florescent sacks of news might come and kick me or poke me with sticks. I’m not dead.
            The earth comes in through my ears and packs itself in tightly, tighter, tighter, until it suffocates my cells. They swell for oxygen and then burst, exploding inside my brain and each fragment of cell turns into a tiny seed. These seeds bury themselves into the earth and sprout, grow and bloom into flowers; flowers that grow and grow until they just have to escape, and they do. Escape, that is.
            My cake. How could I have forgotten? I raise myself into a kneeling position, and then stand up; creaking out my knees after the floor has bitten into them. I place one foot in front of the other and purposefully make my way out of the room, then along the hallway, and finally down the stairs, each foot landing on a stair before I proceed to the next one.
            The kitchen is clean, aside from tea-stained mugs, a bowl from breakfast, some crumbs on the floor and a hint of mould starting to creep up the wall by the fridge. The air is chilly and I resent it, as if it is a personal attack on me. Perhaps it is. Maybe every other kitchen in the world is one degree warmer than this one, but mine has decided to forsake me that extra bit of heat so that my bones must ache,
            My cake. Is it mine? I made it. But I didn’t make it. I just assembled the ingredients and put them in the oven. I didn’t lay the eggs or grow the sugar or grind the flour. I didn’t create heat to cause the reactions that spark off growth and change. I was just the movement involved. It used me for my limbs, just how my words use me for my pen and the boy with the headphones uses me for my letterbox.
            I bend over to the oven to pull open the heavy door. It’s cold. I struggle with it and finally release the tomb. It’s empty. I didn’t bake a cake after all. 
© Katie Wood 2012

You can find out more about Katie's novel Girls for God at the end of the week. If you're interested in finding out more about Katie please come back here tomorrow. In the meantime, if you need to read more of Katie's work, please visit her blogsite at Lose Yourself Book Reviews


  1. What I enjoyed most about this story was that the narrator gets right into your head. I love the flow of consciousness stream of words; it feels so real to me. By the end of the tale I thought I was the person talking to me. I like the way Katie messes with the reader's mind; blurring fantasy and reality, making them mingle. Thank you Katie!

  2. A wonderful free-flow piece full of unique imagery, coming round full circle!