The clock alarm on her cooker is going off. Loud, demanding, and aggressive – like the cry of the seagulls staking out her chimney pots while trying to protect their young. She rushes into the kitchen. She always feels bound to obey it immediately. Cautiously, she opens the oven door and, after allowing the steam to clear from her glasses, tentatively tests the top of one of the cupcakes with the tip of her finger, relieved when the sponge springs back. She carefully lifts out the tray and arranges her ‘fledglings’ in neat rows on the cooling rack. Now to make the butter icing.
The radio weatherman is predicting rain showers for this afternoon.
‘If wet, in the village hall.’ That’s what Brian would be saying, if he could hear it from the living room. He said it every year without fail, always following it up with that annoying laugh of his. Why did he do that? Probably because he realised that it no longer amused her and was trying to cover the ensuing stony silence. Anyway, it was a ridiculous suggestion. The village hall was at least half a mile away from the playing fields. And much too small to accommodate all the fete’s activities.
She’s forgotten to take the butter out of the fridge to soften. That was Brian’s fault, shouting the odds at her in his usual bombastic manner when her mind should have been on her baking. She’s proud of the way she’d answered him back – something she’s never dared to do before in all of the eighteen years of their marriage. But she’s nothing to lose now. Not after the bombshell he’d dropped yesterday.
Her knife slashes at the rock-hard slab of butter in an attempt to soften it. She stops for a second and tries to control her breathing. If she doesn’t calm down the butter will curdle. And she doesn’t have any more.
Of course, Brian’s dictionary is bursting with other equally annoying, and clichéd, truisms. What really antagonises her is the patronising way he refers to her at the Village Fete Committee meetings. 'The little woman.' 'Her indoors.' 'She who must be obeyed.'
She leans over the worktop and takes some more deep breaths. She’s whipping the butter too violently. You have to remain calm when cooking. Your mood always affects the results, and these cupcakes have to be perfect.
How did Brian always end up as Chairman of every Committee he was on? She remembers poor Alan and how he’d quietly tendered his resignation after only months of them moving here, allowing her husband to muscle his way in. It had been exactly the same the last time they’d moved. And why did he always have to propose her as Secretary? She hates taking minutes. He’d never once thought to ask her if she wanted the post. He probably just assumed that she enjoyed office work – she’d never had any other sort of job, after all. But that was typical of him. He always thought he knew everything!
The statutory Victoria sponge that Brian always volunteered her for each year is already baked. The butter filling has been added, together with the raspberry jam, and a dusting of castor sugar has been added to the top surface. But this year, after that one-sided conversation with Brian, she’d decided to bake something on her own account. Earlier in the week she’d been attracted by the display of cupcakes in the window of the new upmarket bakery in town. The assistant had told her how they were the latest thing – that people were even choosing them in preference to the traditional, tiered wedding cake. They had looked so classy, finished off with their expertly piped sweeps of colourful butter icing. She’d been particularly entranced by the blue ones. And after Brian’s revelation, she’d rushed out to buy both the deep paper cases and the appropriate food colour.
She sifts the icing sugar and starts adding it to the butter, trying to calm her shaking hands as she stirs it in. The icing must be creamy and lump-free so that she can pipe it into triumphant swirls on the top of each cake.
Why hadn’t her parents warned her off Brian when they had the chance? He’d been totally unsuitable – she only eighteen and him a married man more than twice her age. Not that she would have taken any notice of them. She was a free agent back then, in control of her own destiny – or so she thought. What would she be doing now if she hadn’t decided to defer her University place for a year? If she’d never gone to work in that office of his? She imagines the sort of job she could have got with a degree in Classical Archaeology. Something in the media perhaps, helping to make all her favourite TV programmes?
She hadn’t been surprised at Brian’s news, only that she hadn’t seen it coming. She remembers how Pam, his previous wife, had looked at that first Christmas office party – pale, faded and dressed in beige. She remembers the wistful look Pam had given her from across the room. She’d obviously realised that she was about to be usurped by a younger, fresher model. What image has Brian’s latest conquest – this nubile twenty-something-year-old Clare – formed of her? Pale, faded and decidedly beige, no doubt.
Her hands are shaking again as she begins to ice the barely cooled cupcakes. Much too soon, she suspects. The heat produced by the oven, together with the increasingly thundery air outside, is beginning to make her sweat, and she turns to the sink to wash her face in cold water. A vision of last year’s fete comes to her as the cool water drips through her fingers.
She’d been on her break from serving refreshments in the cricket pavilion when the heavens had opened, driving her, along with everybody else, into the Craft and Produce marquee. She’d been pushed behind Olive’s stall by a damp and confused dog, as both of them tried to escape the howling wind blustering around the entrance flaps. The rain was dripping from around the vertical timber roof supports, and Olive was around the front of her stall trying to protect her tapestry cushion covers. She remembers the musty smell of damp Alsatian. Not being a lover of large dogs, she’d felt stifled, scared and trapped that day – a feeling that sums up the whole of her married life.
The pips on the radio are going, reminding her of the time. She must get going. She wants to get to the pavilion before the other helpers today. She’ll wipe Brian from her mind – laying the paper cloths on the tables, busying herself arranging the cups and saucers on the serving counter, switching on the urns ready for the countless hot drinks they’ll be serving.
Carefully placing the cupcakes into an extra deep tin, she stifles a hysterical giggle at the sight of their large blue quiffs of butter icing. They look a dozen Marge Simpsons standing to attention. Hardly the sophisticated image she was going for. She sighs. The Simpsons are their sons’ favourite TV characters.
How will they take the devastating news? And how can she break it to them? It will be down to her to do so.
Loaded down with cake tins, she pops her head around the living room door on her way out. Yes, he’s still there, sprawled out on the sofa just as he’d fallen, the cushions tumbling about his head. Their last conversation reverberates in her head.
'You’ll still have custody of the boys… except for in the summer holidays when they’re back from school. I’ve decided to take them to Greece this year. With Clare, of course. We’re flying to Athens, taking in the Parthenon and the Museum, and then stopping off at Delphi before crossing the Corinth canal.’ He’d had his hands clasped together, straightening and relaxing his fingers. ‘From there it’ll be Epidaurus and then on to Olympia. The boys will want to see the birthplace of the Olympic Games, particularly this year, don’t you think?’
Suddenly, all her pent up frustrations had surfaced in a torrent of uncharacteristic fury. Why was he choosing this holiday now, when she was obviously not going to be included? Had he no idea that a holiday in Greece, exploring the classical sites, was what she’d dreamed of for more than half her life? He’d looked at her in angry disbelief before one side of his face had begun to crumble, then his body. He was beginning to choke. For the first time in his life he was unable to have the last word.
She supposes it had been a stroke. She remembers the short public information film shown on the television some time ago. How it was imperative for you to ring for an ambulance straight away. There’d been an acronym to go with it to help you detect its onset and how to react – FAST.
But then the clock alarm on the cooker had gone off.Should she see if he still has a pulse? No. There isn’t much point. Not now. Instead, she goes outside and puts her tins into the boot of the car before going back to close the front door.
She’ll ring for an ambulance later… after the village fete.
Author Notes: For more of my stories, please go to https;//www.janebean.co.uk where you will also find details of my novels currently on FREE promotion on the TRILOGY BLOG page.