Today’s topic is chosen by Bee fan & beautiful human, Fiona McBride, with whom I have shared many cups of tea and slices of cake.
The whole place smells incredible. That fresh-baked sweetness, tempting to anyone who comes near. Tanya stands back and takes in the light sponge honey-cakes, cooling satisfyingly on the rack, and for the first time in a few days, she feels….. like she’s not entirely crap.
She seeks out a bowl and mixes icing sugar, butter, lemon. No measurements, she goes by the feel of the icing, the sloppiness of it, the weight under the spatula. When it’s beaten enough in the bowl, she scoops a little on her finger and tastes…. The sensation hits her tongue and she assesses… more lemon needed. Two more squeezes, more mixing…another taste – perfectly fine. She leaves it to go hunt the decoration.
Bees. Tiny yellow-and-black bees made of icing. Arrived this morning off the internet. They look so cute. Just the thing.
15 more minutes and she knows the cakes are cooled enough to not-melt the decoration. She slathers the icing on each cake – more messy than the internet prefers – then adds one small bee to the top of each. Beautiful…even if she does think so herself for a second… then immediately remembers how they “should” look and how unrisen the cakes are and how she hasn’t coloured the icing like the recipe recommends. She is a woman without yellow colouring in her cupboard. Only blue & red, after the yellow colouring got spilled last week..One less towel in the house from that incident & a weird jaundice-patch on the kitchen surface. She really is shit.
But 12 cakes exist now. She takes off her apron & goes to wash the flour and icing from her hands and face. She takes 4 cakes and puts them carefully in a deep Tupperware container. Making tubes of kitchen roll, she places them between the cakes to secure them. The Bees swarm merrily. She smiles at them for a second as she puts the lid on.
Box carefully placed in a bag, Tanya checks keys-money-phone and leaves. 10 minutes walk, two flights up and along to the right, she knocks firmly on the door.
Sadie take her time, as always. When Tanya first starting visiting, when she was a kid, either Sadie was quicker or T had more patience… Back then, Sadie seemed invulnerable. Now each time she knocks on the old lady’s door, there is a possibly that Something Has Occurred. Tanya wonders when that shift happened.
But she hears the shuffling slippers and the pissed-off voice “Hold on. One minute. I’m COMING!!” like the door was being battered down. Three locks get unlocked..dark muttering from the other side as if Sadie had cast an unlocking spell. Tanya smiles to herself at that.
The door opens. Sadie glances at the girl and turns immediately, starting back into the house with no greeting, as if Tanya was expected all along.
“Take yer shoes off if you are coming in. I don’t need dog turd on the carpet”
The retreating figure doesn’t stop shuffling “what you doing here in the middle of the day? `You got no work to go to?”
Tanya ignores her, shucks off her shoes and makes her way through the magnolia gloom to the front room. Sadie’s kingdom. It smells like old lady. Decomposition and wee and clothes-well-worn. The TV is blaring out some crap gameshow. The room is covered in family photos. For all her slowness, Sadie has made it back to her throne and sits resplendent.
“If you want a cuppa tea, you’ll have to get the kettle going. And don’t forget to make me one”
“I made cakes, Sadie. We can have afternoon tea”
The old lady flashes a look of genuine pleasure for a second. Her eyes wolfish “What am I? The bloody Queen? Afternoon tea? When did you get posh, my girl?”
Tanya grins to herself and goes into the tired brown kitchen. She fills the plastic kettle and places two flowery china mugs on the side. Teabags are in 1970’s original stoneware containers. Tanya fancies these when Sadie has gone.. they are properly trendy now. She makes tea, adds milk and sugar-for Sadie. Finds the tray with the faded picture of a robin on it, puts the mugs on the tray. She finds a not-chipped plate and places all four honey-cakes, icing and bees still in place, proudly on it. Tea and cake.
“Maybe we are bloody Royalty, Sadie” she says loudly, coming out the kitchen with the tray.
The old lady eyes the goods on the tray and grins: “I won’t tell if you don’t, sweetheart” she coos. “Splendid”
She leans forward painfully, picks up a cake and studies it. “Whassis?”
“Honey-bee cake, with lemon icing. I made them this morning.”
Sadie considers the cake a second longer, then looks straight at Tanya “Whasswrong?”
Tanya tries to laugh to off “What? What do you mean, what’s wrong? I’m all good, Sade. Baking cakes is all”
The old girl is having none of it. Tanya looks at the decrepit body, the terrible polyester skirt, the baggy wool tights, the pale blue jumper and whatever that bobbly bloody grey cardigan is and feels unafraid. Sadie is old. She holds no power. It’s only when she looks at the wrinkled, angular face…. Sadie’s dark eyes bore into her. Two small windows, more alive and alert than T’s whole body feels. Bollocks. There will be no secrets today.
Sadie turns the cake round slowly, looking at it from all angles, muttering at Tanya, “ “Baking cakes”, she says. In the middle of the day. And her with a fancy job and a boyfriend. Coming here on a Tuesday. Like nothing’s happening. “I’m all good, Sade”.” She looks at T, “ You’ll have to do better than that, Sweetheart.”
“Try the cake, will you?”
“I will in a second. Pass me m’tea?”
Tanya watches the old girl slurp her tea and unwrap the little cake from its delicate paper wrapping. T’s focus grows intense….the world slows down. Sadie regards the cake for a moment. Sniffs it, impolitely and then takes a bite, chewing thoughtfully…… No reaction…. Nothing..Then…..
“Oh. My. Saints” The old lady looks 20 years younger for a second as she looks at the remaining cake in her fingers, grinning, eyes glittering with glee. She looks at Tanya.
“That. Is. Heavenly, my girl. Heavenly, you hear?”
Tanya, who has been holding her breath, feels tears rising. Her face crumples and she hears herself sob.
Sadie is aghast. “Oh Darling… darling… what’s happened? What’s the tears for, eh?” she coos. “I said the cake was good…”
“I know!” T wails, surprised at the noise she just made. “I made it on to the Great British Bake Off, Sadie”
“Oh My Saints! Tanya my girl that’s… that’s…. Oh My Saints…” Sadie seems unsure what to do with her tea-and-cake filled hands. “brilliant, sweetheart… bloody bloody brilliant.”
Tanya cries harder. “AND I found out Matteo has been shagging…that…ugly cow he works with….. I KNEW he was. I got home from work early when I found out about Bake Off…. She was sitting out in our garden.”
Sadie is baffled by this piece of information “That doesn’t mean he’s been shagging her”
“She was in his dressing gown, naked underneath”
“Ah. Well in that case…… yes. He’s shagging her”
Tanya cries harder. Sadie puts down the cake and taps the side of her leg, making the sort of “come here” gesture you make to a scared animal. T moves toward the old lady, sits on the floor to her left and cuddles in, awkwardly at first because of their size difference, but the two women seem to meld into each other as Tanya sobs. Sadie strokes her hair and mutters unintelligible things.
“What’s he DOING shagging her?” Tanya asks.
“Do you need me to explain the bees and butterflies to you, my girl?”
“The ways of the world. Men’s needs.” Sadie says.. then in a faux whisper “Sex”
“Oh Christ Sadie, no.…. and anyway… it’s birds and bees.”
“Bees and butterflies makes more sense.” The old lady declares. “ A bee would sting a bird. A bird would eat a bee. Stupid idea if you ask me – wrong sort of couple. They’d kill each other.”
“And bees and butterflies work because….?”
“They’d fly about happy. Nice colours. Hang out in the garden pollenating and things.”
“Why would the bee not sting the butterfly?”
“It’s go no beak.” Sadie says, authoritatively.
Tanya recognises Sadie’s tone, one of stubborn correctness.. the conversation, in the context of everything else, make no sense..she gives up. Stays cuddled in.
After a moment or two Sadie says, “Great British Bake Off” reverently.
Tanya wipes her eyes and looks up at Sadie.
“I know, right? I need to practice my Crème Pat.”
“ I’m thinking about the tea party at the end.” Sadie says. She squeeze T gently “When you win, Sweetheart. When you win”
Then she starts to giggle, “Anyways, I don’t know about crème pat. The only pat I’m interested in is the one I’ll put on Paul Hollywood’s Bum!”
The two women collapse into laughter, holding each other, in the midst of cake crumbs and tea and snot and tears.