Bees & Butterflies – #21daysofWriting – Day 12

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”

“Afternoon, Sadie”

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?”

“What?”

“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.

Listening to Random People #21daysof writing – Day 3

This is day 3 of the #21daysofwriting Challenge

Thanks to Sarah Sniderman for the topic.. I don’t think this was entirely what you had in mind… but I thought I’d try a little fiction.

“Liam? Do you have something to say?”

Oh shit… his face has done something. An hour of sitting here, carefully keeping it all blank, purposefully not paying attention, yet looking like he was. Quietly laughing at this bunch of saddos. Thinking about his PlayStation game and the YouTube video he’d watched last night. About football. About what to wear to that club he and his mates were aiming for at the weekend. He’d nearly made it.. another 45 minutes or so and he would have been free for another week.

And now Evan, that weirdo hipster twat who carries a stupid man-bag and puts his coffee in a stupid recycle cup, has noticed him. 

“Me? Nah.” 

“It’s just…when Aisha spoke then…. You looked like there was something going on for you.”

He tries not to shoot daggers at Evan. Tries to smooth his face flat. Keeps looking at the centre of the circle.

“Nah.” He says, defiantly.

But everything’s spilling outward.

She spoke of her big brother. Aisha. Was that her name? There’s something about the way she told the story – something about her voice, about her. The rest of them are angry or stuffed grief-full, or they have given up and are just shells -empty, blank. Some come every week because they can’t believe what’s happened and are trying to..what? Fix it? Feel? Whatever.

Story after story. Stab after stab. Death after Death. Wringing hands over a thing that is done. Over. Walk Away. Wailing, sobbing, stuttering, fury… Like an endless f-ing repeat every week. Pointless.

It does his head in. He knows all this shit. They have nothing new to say.

But she…. She has ……Dignity. The word surprises him as he thinks it.

It’s a word he thinks of when he thinks of his Granma – his Granma with ferocious eyes and a wicked deep laugh. He can hear her saying: “Always conduct yourself with dignity, boy – for yourself and others. Straight back. Firm feet. Heart in the middle. Head without heat”

She would say it when he was little, sometimes sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a B&H, looking across at him like she could see through him. Sometimes, holding his face in her hands, her eyes sparking, her voice kind.

She would say it when he was in trouble or nearly in trouble.

She said it a lot.

He’d never really got what she meant.

Until Aisha.

“I don’t want my brother to be dead. But he is.”

She’s been coming for 3 weeks. This is the first time she has spoken.

Liam’s barely noticed her before – a Teenage Grief-Bag in the midst of a bunch of Adult Grief-Bags. He’d clocked that she wasn’t Fit and moved on.

She sits straight in the orange plastic chair, somehow taking up way more space than her skinny frame should. She is still as she speaks. Head up. Defiant. Not bent by this. 

Her voice is calm, clear. She leaves a silence.

Liam tries to drag his thoughts out of the room back to the weekend ahead…..but she is undeniable.

She brims with tears as she recounts her story. Brother stabbed. Wrong boy in the wrong place. The impact. The ripples. The tears magnify her eyes –pools of liquid colour that catch the crappy fluorescent lights and turn them into something alive and magnificent.

She brims, but she doesn’t tip over. No sobbing. No weeping. Steady. Containing a galaxy of emotion perfectly. He’s in awe of the power within this skinny thing. He can barely look at her. He can’t drag his eyes away.

She has moved so her hands are on her knees, she is still upright, but leaning slightly forward. Liam realises he too is leaning in. He adjusts himself back slowly, tries again to disengage.

She takes one hand off her knee, wipes the snot from her nose with the back of her hand and keeps going, without apology. Those liquid, lit eyes focussed on the middle-distance. The air around her seems to crackle.

She seeks no vengeance. No retribution. She seeks understanding. Compassion. Strength.

“What can we do to help the boys who stabbed my brother?”

Liam feels his throat constrict – it’s like she’s asking him directly – his belly knots, acidic and thick. She speaks with clarity – Her story, voice strong, even when it waivers – even when, at the end, she whispers “I miss him. Every hour.”

Then she just sit there. In silence.

And the rest of them – the ones who normally offer a hug or a tissue – sit in silence too.

Evan says something and Liam wants to slap him. Just shut UP, man. You can’t follow that.

“Liam? Do you have something to say?”

“Me? Nah.”

What the hell can he say? He reaches to find words, but none are there other than: Fuck.

He is physically molten – feet shifting, belly knotted, mouth dry, throat tightening, pulse racing. What just happened?

“It’s just…when Aisha spoke then…. You looked like there was something going on for you.”

“Nah”.  

He can’t look at her. He can’t look anywhere, but at the floor. 

Evan says it might be time for a break. the Grief-Bags begin to stand and move around. Liam can’t move for a second, pinned by the weight of something. 

He glances over and she has four or five people around her, making her tea, patting her shoulders. She is tiny.

Straight back. Firm feet. Heart in the middle. Head without heat…. Dignity

Alright Granma, he thinks, annoyed. I hear you.

He stands and moves toward the tiny girl. All lanky 6 foot plus of him.

He’s uncertain, hesitant.

She turns as if she were expecting him. The Grief-Bags also turn

All eyes on him.

He says  “It was me.”

Her face crumples for a second, questions and shock run rapidly.

He realises what he’s said, horrified and stammers “I mean… not your brother.. I didn’t stab your brother or nothing.. but I did that. Stab. I killed someone…”

She looks confused.

Evan steps in:

“Alright Liam, that’s good. This is a good step.”

Evan hands him a mug of pale tea. Liam takes it, automatically

“Shall we sit back down, everyone?”