You know where you are with cake, Kath thinks. Warm room, dry hands, a Yanni CD playing in the background, and the quiet becomes, for a short while at least, less violent, less disturbing.
She sips her coffee, studies the cake’s smooth white curves, the fragile petals and dainty stems, the frosting like fairy dust and the fine letters Happy Anniversary. She envies her friends their anniversaries, their celebrations, their futures. She thinks of her parents who met at school, who were inseparable until her father died, and who even now are together in her mother’s bedroom, where a box containing his ashes is propped behind a framed photograph of the two of them on the old wooden bedside cabinet. An ache forms behind her eyebrows like the onset of a cold or migraine. She thinks of the old couple who live in the house across the street, of the way he holds the shopping bags when they walk back from the corner shop, and how he ushers her into the house first, his hand on the small of her back. That future should have been Kath’s. She should have been growing old with Mick.
Behind her, in a drawer, unopened mail glows red and livid, brown envelopes hiding nasty, demanding bills. Her counsellor said it was a normal reaction to be scared of the post. She said this approximately seven minutes before she said there was nothing she could do to help.
Kath’s mobile phone remains cold and silent.
I want my mummy!
Her stomach twists the way it always does these days, the smell of fondant making her gag. She pours the coffee into the sink, runs the cold tap and squirts bleach into the plughole. She sprays anti-bacterial onto the counter and wipes the surface with a cloth. The scouring doesn’t erase the smell of the past that clings to her skin like bad breath or bonfire smoke.
The voice won’t leave her alone. The flesh on her arms and the back of her neck still squirm at the sound in her head, at the memory of the car journey. It still feels surreal. Alien almost. Supernatural, if you believe in that sort of thing.
Put my mummy on the phone!
She removes a flat-packed carton from the top of the refrigerator, straightens corners and tucks in flaps, leaving one side open. Carefully, without breathing, she lifts the anniversary cake from the kitchen unit and slides it inside the prepared box, easing it in gently until the box is solid and she can release the board. And breathe.
The arrangement was for Pauline to collect the cake herself, but the garbled message she left on Kath’s phone was that the kids still needed new shoes for the party, and Bill had agreed a last minute p-j so could Kath deliver. ‘Pretty please, hun, I’ll make it up to you.’
Kath places the lid on top of the box, rejecting the final waft of sugar. She could switch on her phone, call Jess and ask her to take the cake to Pauline and Bill’s. But she knows what Jess will say. ‘Mum you need to get out. You can’t stay in the house forever.’
And she is right. Kath can’t stay in the house forever. She just needs a little longer.
I know my mummy is there!
It is strange how mothers react to the word ‘Mummy’. Jess was in the passenger seat of the car when Kath took the call on the cheap pay-as-you-go phone, and Olivia was in the back, reading The Hunger Games for the fifth time, patient, oblivious. The child on the phone was pleading, screaming to speak to Mummy. Kath could have ended the call without speaking, shoved it inside a metal cupboard in the back of her mind and turned the lock, forgetting it had ever happened. But instead she had crumbled, tried, ‘Mummy isn’t here, sweetheart.’
Her finger hovers over the mobile phone on button. It has been six months since Mick’s last call. He said he wanted to talk about Olivia. His voice was puny, not her husband’s voice at all.
‘How is she?’
‘How’s her new school?’
‘Where are you?’
She had wondered if he was tracing the call. It happened in movies. There would be someone, a private investigator or dodgy ex-cop with headphones on, staring at a computer monitor pinpointing her position.
‘I miss her, Kath. I miss both of you.’ He’d almost had her. She’d almost let go, almost forgiven the sounds drifting downstairs from their bedroom, the open bottle of champagne, the videos on his phone.
‘You should have thought of that before—’
My mummy is in the car, and she’s driving home.
Jess was there. She heard the voice, caught the phone when Kath dropped it in the passenger foot-well, listened for a few seconds, her face pale and ghastly before cutting the call dead. Much later, when they were back at Kath’s mum’s house, Jess told her friend Gizmo, tried to describe it without trembling. He wasn’t fazed, said it could have been some kind of app, happened all the time, he said.
But he wasn’t there.
‘It was a new number,’ Jess had persisted. ‘Mum hadn’t given it to anyone in case someone told my father. He’d already had her last number disconnected.’
‘She gave it to you,’ Gizmo had shrugged. ‘Anyone can find a random number.’
Kath presses the on button. While the handset powers up she slides open the drawer, riffles through brown envelopes, closes it again intact. She feels nauseous. Her phone vibrates making her jump; a pale blue flight flickers in the top left hand corner.
Leaving the phone on the counter, she goes to the back door and tests the handle, checking the garden through the window. A bird preens in last night’s puddle. A butterfly floats gracefully around the Buddleia dipping onto the heavy lilac panicles before drifting away. The world is tranquil and light, a universe away from the days following the telephone call, days spent cramped in the BMW, using the shopping centre loos and eating food from packets. The deadly bitterness. The solid lump of fear like a brick in her stomach.
When my mummy gets home she’s going to die!
Another message. And a third. Kath doesn’t pick up her phone. She stares out of the window. Her mother says she can’t let him ruin her life. She can’t be scared forever. ‘The Cow-son! What goes around comes around. He’ll get his comeuppance.’ She wonders where these sayings originate from. Did someone wake up one day to the news that their nemesis had been pushed from a cliff, or eaten by a shark, or buried alive, and think, well they got their comeuppance?
Jess insists that Kath’s life isn’t ruined – if none of this had happened she wouldn’t have her cakes.
Kath breathes deeply. The smell of fondant is everywhere. She loved Mick enough to give up on her dreams in pursuit of his. No question. Not like some wilting primrose from a Jane Austen novel, but pushing, encouraging, praising. He always said the thing he loved the most about her was the fight. The tenacity.
Outside, the bird, having completed its ablutions, has flown. The butterfly is decorating someone else’s Buddleia. If Mick had traced her whereabouts he’d have shown up by now, she is certain of it. On reflection she has two choices: she can carry on killing the hours inside the house with daytime TV and repeats of Friends for company, or she can man up. She sees the lemon cupcakes she made for Olivia in the Tupperware tub on the side. She remembers Jess’s face, pink and wide-eyed, when she was presented with her One Direction birthday cake, and imagines Pauline’s face when the anniversary cake is delivered later. A spark of life swells inside her chest like a candle illuminating a church in winter. A tiny flicker of a notion that in setting her on this unstable path, Mick hasn’t wholly ruined her life, he has given her the opportunity to make something of it, be the person she would never have been in his shadow.
The key is in the back door. She is going to walk around the block. Breathe. Live. She will deliver the cake herself and take the girls out for dinner. They could go to Luigi’s, their favourite, and stuff themselves with pasta and meatballs and tiramisu.
Smiling to herself, Kath turns the key in the lock, opens the back door and steps outside.
Going to die!