Short stories

 

Below, a few of my recent short stories and flash fiction.

 

A Real Keeper 

We are the last people in New York to know about the power cut. Thanks to Mrs Krupp’s cell-phone ban, we miss the calls from friends and lovers. Thanks to her insistence that we always work by natural light, our class remains serene as screens and striplights and traffic lights black out the length of Manhattan.

At the back of the studio, it’s me and Su-Lin. And Krupp has just confiscated Su’s phone.

“Do you imagine,” says Krupp, “that the bleep and chirp of your Bell Atlantic pay-as-you-go is somehow conducive to creative enterprise? Do you think that Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine Ceiling, if he was forever texting his little friends?” She whips her waist-length plait over her shoulder and ambushes me. “And don’t just put it on silent, Francesca!”

But I do put my cell on silent, and tuck it in the back pocket of my jeans, where I can feel each buzz. Three, four, now five. You, always you – checking where I have got to.

Although I’m aware there are more sirens than usual, howling beyond the windows, my painting is going well. I love this studio, the silent community of it. I let my eyes drift from the model, half-closed; easels and bodies and stools merge to a pattern of trees… In comes the scent of your lilies from the jar on my paint-stand, where I have left them since morning. Strong, too sweet. And I wonder whether you always do this – send lilies, the day after.

They remind me of my mother’s funeral. Too many, sent by the English relations. Rotting round the casket in that August heatwave in Morosolo, at a Mass my mother never believed in, in a small mountain village where she’d never meant to stay. When it came to men, she had not been a good picker.

Another siren, louder now. Then a male teacher with a paunch tip-toes into our class. Brogues squeaking on waxed parquet. He whispers something to Mrs Krupp who turns and announces: “The power is out all over the city.”

The man adds, “Most of the East Coast, in fact. But please, don’t panic.” He holds up a radio. “Homeland Security says there’s no sign at all of terrorist activity.  Just a power outage, is what they’re saying. Get yourselves home. Stock up on non-perishables. Find a torch with fresh batteries.” He pauses and looks at his hand, where something is scribbled. “They’re also saying something about duct tape. Don’t ask me what it’s for.”

Checking my phone, I see you have left four voicemails now. Six texts in all. The last: Coming to get U.

As the male teacher squeaks out, Krupp holds up an index finger. “I remember the Seventies outage,” she says. “It was a great time to be an artist.” She does her eye-contact thing with each of us. “The sketches I did that one night got me my first big show, and a spread in the Village Voice. Every single one of you is capable of the same.”

At the lockers, I find Su. She has a map in her hand and is fretting over her route home now there’s no subway. She asks if I can walk with her part-way to Spanish Harlem, but I say I want to go sketch downtown. I don’t admit that I no longer live on the Upper West Side. That I’ve moved in with you, instead. Into your slick Midtown high-rise with the doorman and glass wall, and the balconies with the East River views.

I ask Su how she’s getting home. She shrugs, points at her trainers.

“Are the cockroaches in your place any better?” I say. And she tells me her mother has finally mailed the magic bug-chalk from Hong Kong, with its poison like a million times stronger than anything the Federal Government will allow. Already, she has drawn an invisible line around her kitchen units. “Those fuckers are history,” she scowls.

We spin, together, out the revolving door, and the heat hits us first. We’re braced for the temperature, the humidity, but what we don’t expect is the noise. The joy. The whoops, the calls, the carnival. Radios blaring, beers in brown paper. Men in suits doing a little dance. Su jumps the steps. Gives me a twirl.

“Don’t go falling down any stairs!” she calls, as she goes. “That staircase in your block must be lethal!”

She bobs off, a happy cork among the revellers, popping up here and there. When she is gone, out of sight, I skulk on the steps hugging my rucksack and lilies, waiting for you. Like one of Su’s cockroaches, unable to cross an invisible line.

Su, who was magnanimous this morning. “You get flowers on a Thursday for no reason? Just, like, Happy Thursday? That doctor guy sounds like a real keeper.”

Once, at the start, she joked: “I found him first!” It was just a matter of minutes, she said. She was cleaning her brushes at that very sink, by those very lockers the moment before your evening class emptied out.

But I found you, didn’t I. Or you found me.

We smelled of turps and hygiene soap.

 

When you arrive at the steps, you eye the flowers poking from my backpack.

“So you got the bouquet?” you say. “I wasn’t sure, if you’d got it… before the outage.”

I put my hand to my eyes, a headache coming. You drop your baseball cap on my head and pull it down.

To change the subject I say, “By the way… what is duck tape?”

Duct.” You correct. Duct tape!” and laugh. I am exotic, adorable. You smile to yourself as we dive into the crush at 57th.

So many bodies! Crawling eastward, westward, like bees round spilt milkshake. Cars edge past dead traffic lights.

Inside the fug, you say: “I don’t think Cinzia and Martin will want us round theirs tonight. Do you? I mean, it’s not like she can cook dinner, right?

You gauge my mood with a sideways glance, but don’t wait to say: “I’ve sent a text.”

We walk on saying nothing, our silence on its own frequency, above the radios, the generators, the slamming of shop grilles, til we smack into Broadway where we stop abrupt. O dio. The avenue has burst its banks. A lava of humanity is flowing downtown, where it will sluice slow over the bridges: Manhattan Bridge, , Brooklyn. One woman is trying to forge her way uptown, regardless, against the crowd. She has mounted the corner-stone of a building in skirt-suit and heels.

“Let’s duck down this cross-street!” you shout. Your hand tightens round mine. But I want to slip away, and throw myself in where the current is fastest. You bark a warning – are you crazy?

You hoist me in a fireman’s lift down a side-street.

You put me down outside an Arab deli, where the owner is taping a note to the window: No Water. No Batteries. No Milk.

Outside the deli, you turn my chin, and pin me to the wall. We kiss, bravely, despite the smell from the doorway, of fridges melting and luncheon meats going green.

 

Your apartment is close now. Only two blocks away. You decide we should stock up on groceries at the Garden of Eden. The queue runs the length of the street. At the entrance, staff are piling milk cartons into buckets of ice, mopping meltwater from freezers. They look stressed but the people in the queue are having fun. A girl with corn-rows and teeny shorts skips down the line singing Wanna party? Wanna party? Wanna party? She is handing out flyers; a lino-cut of wild figures and drums and flames… There is something in the air: so free.

I ask you for my rucksack, for my sketchpad and charcoal inside. I tell you what Krupp said this morning, about sketching the city in the dark. But you lock your hands round the straps of my bag, and say: But I’ve already planned it: just us two.

Coming out of the store, we bump into your ex-girlfriend. She’s pushing through the crowd, her head down, dragging a scrappy dog. You catch her arm.

“Wow, you look…” You do a little limbo to take in her blonde bangs, her silk top and skinny jeans… “Amazing.”

She tries to catch my eye, search my expression. Her gaze settling on your battered baseball cap, in recognition. She wraps the dog lead tighter round her fist.

You ask: “Enjoying the blackout so far?”

She nods, curt. Her little dog is shivering. It is wearing tiny yellow sunglasses like the ones people wear on tanning beds. The lead is digging into the flesh of her thumb.

I keep my head down under the cap, and point. “I’ve never seen a dog in shades before,” I say.

“He’s a rescue dog,” she says in reply. As if this explains it. “He has cataracts.”

We stand for a bit then make our excuses and when I look back and see your ex is watching us go. Watching me. She gives me a lopsided smile, her lip snagged on a tooth. He’s a Real Keeper, is perhaps what she’s trying to say.

 

We wait, out of habit, at the empty traffic lights.

“Wow, look at her now,” you say, as we wait for the Walk sign to appear. “All grown up.”

I press the button once more.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” you say.

“She is.”

I put my hand to my face. Wondered if I should get bangs, too.

 

We are one block east of your apartment now. You are starting to tell me more about your ex when it dawns on me.  This is the spot. Where the woman fell, from one of the new apartment buildings. Plummeted head first. From a high-rise, exactly like yours. The sidewalk was cordoned off with yellow tape, when I first moved in. The woman had gone outside for a smoke on the balcony, when she’d fallen. Twenty-one storeys – I’d read you the article over brunch. She liked to sit on the edge, it said in the New York Sun.

Fatefully, was the word they’d used.

I can still recall the smudge of her face in the photo. Fortyish, smiling. Her last words to her mother had been recorded in print, like those messages left on answer machines, by the people who jumped from the Towers.

I place my foot on the metal drain cover, over the grooves where there had been signs of blood for a few days after. And I know already how our night will play out, as the city whoops and parties way below.

How hard you will try to make our black-out dinner such a special one. Though the Chrysler has lost its frosted top and no lights dance on the river.

Tonight, the sunset will be better than ever, you’ll say. Those big, strong hands propping the lilies in a vase. Setting the three tea-lights in the triangle, exactly so. Slicing in neat diagonals the deli’s pollo Milanese. Cold chicken laid in stripes, on a white, oblong platter. And I know already how the pop of the cork from your best Barolo will sound like atonement, to you. Best wine for your best girl.

After I have cleared away our dinner, we will migrate to separate ends of the room. You stretched out in the blue light of your laptop till the battery runs flat. Me alert on my feet, as always, watching the sunset out the windows. Making a pact with my sorry doppelgänger in the blackened glass. And I think about Su-Lin, waiting alone for nightfall in Spanish Harlem with her candles, and her poisonous chalk. Better alone, Su Lin.

I will say I am tired, I think. Once I have stayed up long enough to seem grateful for the wine and the chicken, I will say I am tired. I will go to the bathroom and remove my makeup. Dab at the concealer round my eye. Apply witch-hazel to the bruise, and tease the wound til it opens again and stings, pink as a pair of lips.

Will it scar, later? There won’t be another.

In about half an hour you’ll go outside for a smoke on the balcony, as you always do after dinner, my keeper. First, from the sofa, I’ll call: Enjoying the black out so far?

There is a granite ashtray on the coffee table, but it is only for show.

 

————————————————————————————————-

 

 

Wrong on So Many Levels

 

When politicians boast about how their new laws have driven the low-lifes underground, they don’t literally mean under-the-ground.

They don’t actually think, for a minute, that’s where it’s all gone.

How could they know that 42 miles under 42nd street, there are thousands of low-lifes still getting high? Pimps, grafters, thieves, and not a few murderers, though I don’t like to ask. 42 levels of them. The world’s largest multi-storey car park, hoppin’ 42/7.

“Why all the 42s?” I quizzed Bryan my first day.

“The Devil is a Douglas Adams fan,” he replied.

In the other, more famous, Hell, I hear there is no barman. No bar for that matter. But down here, we have Irish Bryan. Skinny and small and kind of poetic in a wrinkled grey T-shirt and black drainpipe jeans. He’s not how you’d picture the fiend’s own barman. Bryan looks more like some guy you’d buy vinyl from in a charity shop, though he does try. He keeps his nails long and tapered, and lacquered petrol blue, and his hair is kind of cool, a high widow’s peak that’s blue-black too, but you can tell it’s a dye job because sometimes the skin on his temples has purplish-grey stains where he forgot to rinse.

Bryan’s Bar is strictly staff only. A No-Pilgrim Zone. Take the service elevator to Level 19, and hang a sharp left at the cast of Lucifer’s Legs. You’ll see – if you make it past the 42-headed dog – it’s kind of a dive, but Bryan doesn’t mind. He has plans for a franchise. Not a bad gig at all, he says, all things considered. If you can hack the 42-day weeks. That’s what I like about Bryan, he’s a sunny-side-up sort of a guy stuck in a dark place, putting up with a bad dye job, waiting for his moment. Not the type to grass you up for a little underage drinking. Still, I always feel for my fake ID in my back pocket before I pull up a stool.

“Hey Bry, how’s it hanging?” It always comes out too eager.

He nods, slow, both palms on the bar. “You know – stoked. Livin’ the dream, darlin’. Livin’ the dream.”

I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m green as they come. I’ve noticed the way he polishes the glass with an extra flourish when I’m sitting in front of him. The way he smiles to himself when I order my bubble tea ’n’ vodka, the way he pours it super high from the bric-a-brac teapot and takes extra care arranging the mat underneath the tea cup. He’s humouring  me. Maybe. Playing the barman to his best ability because he appreciates I’m playing the grown-up to mine. But he’s sweet –he’ll never ask my age. They don’t usually hire interns under 25, it’s actually illegal, but my cousin Oona used to date someone in Pimps and Seducers who got promoted to Treachery, who said he could do with a flame-thrower.

After a gig, Bryan chucks me the tea-towel he uses to mop the slops, so I can wipe the parafin from my hands and face. I rub my sweaty neck, the sooty streaks from my cheeks. “Better?”

“Smokin’,” grins Bryan.

With the older staff members, Bryan’s different. More serious. He huddles in to listen to their moans about rents, the lack of light, the rickets. His face is solemn when there’s news of a raid, or an accident in the Third Circle.

Lucifer is kind of a luvvie, says Bryan, but when you get to know him a true pro – two global empires, it’s no mean feat. Health and safety, says Bryan, he’s all over the details. A real stickler would you believe? And when the big L graces us, appearing on the velvet stool at the far end, Bryan’s right on script. “What’s your poison?” he demands, with a sneer. Later, he winks at me: “Observe and learn, darlin’. Observe and learn.”

“Job like this,” Bryan likes to say, as he lines up the bourbons. “It’s an art.” And he is the zen master. Even when the rangers are chewing his ear off about another outbreak of Dutch Elm’s in the Wood of Suicides, he’ll raise an eyebrow, concerned, pretend he’s interested. Or when the Corrupt Politicians (Deceased) are down from the 9th Circle, ranting eternally, how they would have swept the riff-raff underground themselves if only they’d had their chance – he just nods along. (And adds under his breath in my direction: including yourselves, I take it?) Or say the Schismatics are in getting leathered on Jagerbombs, and baiting the Heretics at the pool table, or the Thieves have barrelled in with a real life rattler, and have set it loose behind the Cask Ales. The most Bryan will do is roll his eyes in my direction. He’ll pull out his Wayfarers – purple, vintage 80s – and push them up his nose, and give me a wry nod.

“The only thing you need to learn in here, darlin’. In life, as a matter of fact,” and he waggles his sunnies for emphasis. “Is how to turn a blind eye.”

 

 

Drivetime

 

Alexa, turn on the radio. Be a doll.

Radio tuning.

Not Five, love. Not Five. Get me my Drivetime show.

Morten Harket, the DJ was saying. How does he still look that good? Faintly, under the chat, Morten was still singing. Hold me … he sang, Feel me. The sun always shines

And from the sitting room, the sound of the TV. The sound of cartoons. Over them: Milk, Mum, milk!

But they were coming to the strand she liked, where the DJ interviewed people about their jobs. Dentist, olive oil taster, astrophysicist? Who will it be today?!

Alexa, turn the radio up love. Turn it up one notch would you, be a love?

Radio: Volume 6.

Carpet layer, said the man on the line.

To the stars? said the side-kick.

Not that I know of, said the man. Line, crackling.

What’s it like, then, laying carpets? shouted the DJ. What’s the craziest carpet you’ve ever laid?

Milk, Mum! Milk!

In a minute!

The craziest carpet? Hmn. The man had to think.

Alexa love, turn the volume up one.

Radio Volume 7.

The craziest carpet, the carpet-layer said, was a carpet he’d laid, for a bloke who loved his local pub. Loved it so much, when the pub closed, he nicked the carpet from the skip.

Never!

Nicked it! Had it laid in his bedroom.

Noooo! crowed the DJ. Was it a squelchy one?

Squelchy, dirty, the man said. The days when people could still smoke in pubs

Noooo! Bet the Missus loved that!

It reminded her of that joke the husbands told, about being present at the birth of your child. That it was like watching your favourite pub burn down.

Alexa, set the microwave at defrost, would you? Two minutes? Pasta. Macaroni cheese.

Defrosting Pasta, Level 8.

The microwave whirring too loud, she couldn’t hear the show. The microwave beeped three times. She put on her oven gloves, took out the Pyrex dish with the boy’s macaroni. Put it in the oven. Left the oven door ajar.

She searched in the cutlery drawer for the clicker thing and couldn’t find it. She pressed the knob for the gas anyway, still rootling with one hand. She listened for the hiss with half an ear. The thin hiss that always brought to mind Sylvia Plath.

Time for some Factoids!

The smell reached her nostrils. Petrol-blue.

Just facts, really, Lexi. In case you were wondering. She let go of the knob.

Lexi find me the clicker would you? Be a love.

Do goldfish really only have three second memories? the DJ was shouting. Does anyone even know?

I don’t see how anyone can know that, can they, said the side-kick. How anyone can know … fish consciousness? And I think you’ll find that’s rather less Factoid, anyway, rather more Urban Myth.

It’s not true, Lexi, she said. About the goldfish. She opened the utensils drawer, second drawer down, and felt about for the clicker. Not true about the goldfish, and the three seconds. Side-kick’s right today, it is an Urban Myth. They actual have quite decent memories, for fish, she said to no one, to Alexa. I read it somewhere. Fact. And maybe three seconds is a long time, to them?

She had read a fact once, too, about Sylvia Plath. Or was it a factoid? Sylvia had killed herself after the au pair quit. No joke. Or maybe that was more Urban Myth.

See, Alexa?

She clung to it, anyway.

Sorry? Please repeat?

Even if you have an au pair, Alexa. Not everyone can stick it.

I don’t understand.

She found the clicker thing. It was in the earthenware pot. She pressed the knob for the gas, and listened for the hiss.

Click, click.

Whoof!

If Sylvia had listened to a radio show like this one, Lex. With a phone-in like this one. She might have gained a little perspective on Ted. Don’t you think?

Or gassed herself sooner, one of the two.

She imagined herself reaching, heroically, through the decades to save the poet. With Drivetime.

She opened the dishwasher and opened the cutlery drawer and began to take out the knives, forks, spoons and slot them into their slots. The teaspoons, the paring knife, she wedged in pele-mele. There wasn’t a slot for those.

We’re doing Thing in a Thing! the DJ was saying.

We are, said the side-kick. It’s that time of day!

That time when we ask! said the DJ.

What’s your best thing in a thing?

So far, in the lead, we’ve got Sunday in a Hot Tub! Sunday in a Hot Tub – is it a contender?

Controversial, said the sidekick.

Text us! Tweet us! Use the ol’ dog and bone!

I have to say, said the side-kick. At this juncture? I’m thinking Sunday should be disqualified.

She looked in the freezer, took out a tupperware container marked Casserole x 1.

Sunday’s a day, not a Thing, I’m sorry, said the side kick. It’s a period of time not an object. Not an actual physical thing.

Alexa? Set the microwave off again would you be a love? Defrost. Meat casserole.

Defrosting Meat: Level 6.

The microwave whirred too loud, she couldn’t hear the show. The microwave beeped three times. The last beep was always longer than the rest, when it ended the side-kick was saying: Unday, sorry. No way it’s a thing.

Alexa, is Unday, a thing?

Sorry? Please repeat?

She took a fork from the drawer and broke up the chunks of casserole that were still frozen solid, despite the clear instructions to both Alexa and the microwave. Happy Unday, she told herself. Undays are for one’s Undoing. She tipped the mush into an oven dish and left it on the side. Time would do the rest. She looked at the oven clock and calculated the casserole would be defrosted, she was almost sure, by the time he came back at a quarter past six. What they didn’t say was: Time was a great defroster.

It would be defrosted, most definitely, by the time he wanted to heat it for dinner. Would he even be hungry? There was not a lot that could put him off his feed.

She peeled a post-it off, wrote: Put me in the oven! Gas 7! 30 minutes!

She slid the post-it under the oven dish and by then a man from Ashby-de-la-Zouche was on the line. A day is definitely a Thing, he said. It’s a Proper Noun. Isn’t it.

Ooh semantics, said the side-kick. I’m loving you.

She stood at the counter and said I think he’s right, Lex. But he was, wasn’t he, the man from Ashby. She turned it over in her mind. A day could be a Thing most definitely. A day could be quite as solid any physical thing, as solid as this microwave or this kitchen peninsula. As solid as this tiled wall with its scorch marks. Monday afternoons, Wednesdays, even Fridays. Very much a Thing. The school run, the five hours from school pick-up, could feel solid as a mountain, a whole range of mountains. Something to be toiled across.

Back shortly, said the DJ. Keep those tweets coming in!

She looked at the oven clock, red digits, and saw it was 5.28pm. Three quarters of an hour, just over, until he’d be home. She looked out the window, just to be sure, and still, in the driveway, was only one car.

She went back to the oven. Bent down and looked through the brown glass and saw the boy’s macaroni, bubbling up nicely. She opened the oven door and turned off the gas and thought, as she always did, of Sylvia Plath.

We should get an electric, now we’ve got a child, he’d said.

Let me run it till it dies, she’d told him. Of natural causes.

From the sitting room, the sound of cartoons, louder. He’d gone and turned it up the little rat.

Alexa, turn up the radio up would you. Be a doll? Just one more notch.

Radio Volume 8.

Quick recap, bellowed the DJ. So far today, people’s best things in things have been: Chicken tikka in the microwave! A lager in a Lazyboy! Sunday in a Hot Tub!

Woman in a kitchen, Lexi. Woman in an apron. How had it come to pass?

You should get him a combi oven, Lex. Next. You’re so good with the searches, the discounts. You’ll have to show him how.

But she herself liked lighting the gas. She liked listening for the hiss, that thin blue hiss that always sounded so very private. Their secret. She squatted down, and looked in the oven, through the brown glass.

Shall I crisp it up for him, Lex? I’ll crisp it for him, shall I?

She turned the knob for the grill. Took the clicker from the drawer.

Click, click.

Whoof!

The DJ gave out the 0800 number again. We’re doing Thing in a Thing, he chuckled. What’s your best thing in a thing? Keep it clean guys! No x-rated calls on my show!

She straightened up. Rubbed the back of her neck. Hot, sticky.

We’ve got Ian, calling from the M4, said the side-kick.

Chicken in a basket was Ian’s best thing in a thing. He was phoning from a jam, no thanks to the Traffic Report.

We’ve got chicken tikka on the shortlist already, Ian! yelled the DJ. Sorry! Don’t think we can allow two tikkas. You’ll have to think of another curry!

Chicken tikka, are you deaf? The Sidekick was outraged. Chicken in a basket – that’s what he said. Isn’t that right Ian? At least one of us is listening to you.

Basket, said Ian. Yes.

Do they still do baskets even? queried the DJ. By now it was 5.46pm on the oven clock. Ooh but chicken in a basket, guys! Brings back memories, doesn’t it? Chicken in a basket! Scampi in a basket! Where have all the baskets gone?

Hungry, Mum! The boy behind her, made her jump. He was returning his red plastic cup. He pointed at his mouth. Where’s tea?

She pointed at the oven. Crisping, see? Not long now.

She took his cup and washed it under the tap, she took the carton of milk from the fridge, filled a new cup. He was picky like that. I’ll just get the table laid, she said. You go back, watch your programme.

The click of the sitting room door. The cartoon up, louder.

Alexa?

Sorry?

Did I ever tell you? You are the wind beneath my wings. My helpmeet, my saviour. I don’t know what I would have done without you.

Sorry? Please repeat?

Oh you weren’t just for Christmas, Lex. She stood in front of the cutlery drawer, stared at the forks and knives.

I miss chicken in a basket, said Ian.

Still Ian. Still on the M4! The jam must be bad. Or was he hands-free?

Alexa, is there a traffic jam still, on the M4 motorway?

Searching Traffic News M4.

What about the M5?

Checking Traffic News M5.

They should bring it back, said Ian. Back on the menu I say.

She opened the oven and prodded the macaroni. Red digits, 5.52pm.

I’m starting a campaign, said the DJ. Right here right now. Bring back chicken in a basket! Nowadays it’s all pork belly with star anise, isn’t it? You go out to a pub for lunch and everything’s got jus.

Oh, Alexa!

Sorry?

He’s not really anti-jus, though. Is he, Lex! We all know he’s not anti-jus.

If anything, the DJ was probably more pro-jus than anyone else in the studio. Sometimes, on a Friday afternoon, he’d say he was looking forward to a nice glass of prosecco to kick off the weekend. Prosecco! To kick it off.

He’s just trying to be a man of the people, Alexa said, quite reasonably. Isn’t he? said Alexa. It’s his job, said Lexi. To chummy up to the listeners, isn’t it?

I suppose it is. It takes a professional to know one. She listened hard to see if Alexa would say anything more. Sometimes she did.

It’s the DJ’s job, Alexa only repeated. To reflect the listeners, as you are reflected now in the brown glass of the oven door.

The glass is speckled with fat and charred cheese. The woman put on her oven gloves. She took out the pyrex dish, put it on the side. She turned the knob for the gas.

But is this your job? Why is he out there, why are you in here?

Alexa? Open shopping list.

Shopping List Open. But why is it your job?

Alexa, add oven cleaner.

Adding Oven Cleaner. One unit. Why is he out at work, in the world, and you in here?

They had those little red plastic baskets, the mesh ones, said Ian on the M4. And the chequered table cloths. Gran used to take us for a treat on Sundays. The red baskets, I miss them.

She thought he said buckets, just then. Plastic buckets. Red ones.

Ian said, It’s a crying shame.

Alexa, can you search photos?

Searching photos.

Go to Favourites. Location, near Whitby, on the beach. Four years ago. Make it my screensaver.

Photo located. The laptop whirring, pinging, at the end of the kitchen table. She watched it light up, briefly, and darken.

Screen Saver Changed.

I’m glad you like it too, Lexi, she sighed. I love that photo.

By now the DJ was asking callers about their fave childhood memories. The lines were red-hot, he said. Red hot with memories. And how they wanted to talk! About prawn-cocktail crisps, and Top of the Pops, and all their Sunday Roasts, and somehow it all ended back at chicken in a basket.

Something burning, some residue still smouldering in the oven, smelled a bit like chicken in a basket.

Alexa, turn on the ventilation chimney hood, would you. Level 1?

Schjooooo went the hood, but she could still make out the DJ. Keep the calls coming in! If you’ve just tuned in … We’re doing ‘Thing in a Thing’!

Hungry, said the boy. He was standing again in the doorway. Get back to your programme, she said. She laid a plastic plate on the table, set out his small knife and fork.

Still cooling my love. Too hot, still, your mac and cheese. You’ll burn your tongue.

She opened the biscuit tin, took out a chocolate digestive, pushed the lid back on the tin. She put the tin away and pulled a plastic side-plate from the drawer. Put the biscuit on the plate.  Led the child back to the sitting room by his hot little fingers. She pulled the door till she heard it click snug.

Time by the oven clock: 6.08pm.

She looked out the kitchen window, saw the tops of the bins, the flaking gate, saw the roof of the car beyond. Sun glinting on silver, her hands forming fists at her sides.

She went to the sitting-room doorway and listened there, breath held. Heard the cartoons. Pow, pow! Smash, crash!

Tiddle-iddle! Tiddle-iddle! The sound of someone running in the air.

She went through the hall, and opened the front door, and leaned out. Heard birds, heard chatter of people walking further down the road, the whow whow of a car alarm far away. She heard herself gasp, suddenly, like someone coming up out of the water.

One last tune, said the DJ, from the kitchen. Voice faint now.

She pulled the front door to. Click. She couldn’t hear the DJ at all now. No radio, at all.

And in her ears now, no birds, no chatter, no car alarm far away. Only white noise, as she stands on the doorstep. Above the blood pumping, white noise. Coming from where? Somewhere inside her. A high-pitch whine, the sound of an untuned TV.

Slipping in her hand is the plastic key fob. She points it.

Bi-beep! Bi-beep! Headlights flashing.

Clunk, click.

Another click, her hand on the car door. Whuff, of the fake leather seat beneath her. Her fingers on the wheel now, shaky.

She hears the drrrumm of the motor waking and it sounds very far away. The radio starts up, the DJ saying, We’re going to play you out with one last…

Crunch of wheels. Squeak of rubber against kerb.

Then it’ll be good bye from us at …

Drive time.

 

——————————————————————————————–

 

 

The Sea Cave

 

“How can you feed baby?” the health visitor was asking.

Her name was Honey Somebody and she stood looking into Anna’s fridge, her eyes wide and solemn in its yellow light.

Honey shook her head and her ringlets shook. She looked back at Anna, who was slumped in her husband’s dressing gown at the kitchen table, nursing a mug of tea. Louder, she said: “How can you feed baby, if you not feed yourself?”

Anna rubbed her eyes. She heard beh-beh. How can you feed beh-beh?

Why was it always Baby, never the baby, with these women? Just Baby, on its own, like some creepy Hollywood film. She took a sip of tea, it was cold on her lips. She studied the table-top. It was unbelievable really – the cheek. That this health visitor had opened Anna’s own fridge, uninvited, and looked inside.

Honey closed the door of the fridge softly, sadly, as if something had died inside. She returned to Anna, and sat down next to her at the kitchen table.

She pointed at Anna’s breasts with her biro.

“Those,” said Honey, the tip of the pen now touching the lapel of Anna’s dressing gown. “Those – need to be making first-class milk. We’re talking double gold top!”

The joke, Anna could tell, was well used, too polished. Anna looked down at the table and offered a weak smile. She pressed the cold mug to her temple.

“So. What do we need?” said Honey.

“Protein,” said Anna, well schooled. But her thoughts were mutinous. As soon as you leave, she thought, I will put Baby on Bottle. Formula on the QT.

Would Honey sniff it out, the cheating? If she came tomorrow or the next day and the baby had suddenly gained weight? This health visitor who could not be more than twenty, and surely never a mother herself – might tut loudly on her next visit and shake her pretty curls till they bounced.

Breast is Best, the slogan went. Anna pictured Soviet worker women, hair in scarves, whenever she heard it. The midwives and health visitors all trotted it out daily.

When Anna had called at midday, and at 1pm, at 2pm, to see why this Honey woman had not yet arrived, she had been unreachable, always ‘out in the Community’, spreading the word. Breast! Best! Double gold top. Anna felt her cheeks flush. How could she not perform this one simple task, that women – all female mammals in fact – had performed since … whenever it was that mammals began?

Anna bent down under the table and pulled the moses basket closer to her feet. The baby was settling down again, after her ordeal on the weighing machine. Two round button eyes stared back from under the table. Eyes a curious navy blue.

“Do you have a name yet?” Honey asked Baby, as if she would answer herself. Honey glanced at Anna. “You’ve got only a week left to register her name, you know.”

“Yes,” said Anna, wearily, as Honey rose and picked up her coat.

First, they had been waiting to see what the baby looked like. An Honour would look very different from a Tabitha, they’d thought. There were Post-its on the fridge: Bea? Kitty? Delilah? But then Simon had been called away on a shoot. He couldn’t turn down work, you never knew, he’d said. Life as a freelancer.

“Let’s make a decision when I get back,” Simon had said, tapping the deadline for registration into his phone. But now his shoot had been waylaid by bad weather, and leaving it so late – it made her nervous. What if the baby were to die, one night, unnamed?

“She’s not going to just … not have a name, is she? Anyway,” said Anna. The thought of trying to get to the registry office, amongst the feeds and the visits was impossible. “If Simon doesn’t get back? And we miss the deadline? What’s the worst that can happen?”

Honey laughed. “Still, get it done.”

Honey packed up her clipboard and pen in her bag. Anna peered down at the baby who looked back unblinking. She didn’t look like an Honor. Too unformed. Unstoical. Her cries too needy. She wasn’t a Beatrice, too serious and bald with her furrowed brow. She didn’t quite look like anything human yet, with her dark-blue eyes more like a marine creature, and her cries and shrieks, more like a macac than a human; a rainforest bird. The baby looked cosy in her moses basket under the table, under her holey blanket, and Anna envied her. Anna imagined herself slipping under the table to join her there. They would make a nest together among the toast crumbs. Escape Honey and her biro and accusations. The health visitor was packing up her scales now. Those instruments of judgement.

“You eat meat?” Honey asked brightly, as she shouldered her bag.

Anna nodded.

“Get yourself a nice steak, then. For dinner tonight. Treat yourself. That’ll help you get the Gold Top going.”

On the doorstep Honey put a leaflet in Anna’s hand. Her gaze drifted vaguely past Anna, back towards the kitchen door. “Your partner, is he bonding OK with the baby?” she said, still looking back to the kitchen, as if Simon might appear from the Tupperware drawer.

“Yes,” said Anna. “He’s been great. Just, you know. His work takes him away a lot.” Honey’s foot was still in the doorway. She waited for Anna to give more, but Anna pushed the door on the foot and gave a light laugh, as if she hadn’t realised it was there.

The chain was back on the door at last. She sank onto the hall floor and sat for a while holding the leaflet. A nice steak for dinner. Where would she buy it? The supermarket was too far to walk, and Simon had the car and their brand new baby seat with it. And the baby would need another feed before leaving, and Anna a shower, and then she’d be getting dressed while the baby howled, and she still had to fit in the trip to the chemist’s for the colic medicine before it shut. The idea thought of squeezing in the butcher’s too, before it closed.

She looked at Honey’s leaflet: Why is My Baby Crying? It was printed on pale pink paper, with text in Comic Sans. She skimmed through the various sub-headings: colic, hunger, pain, tiredness. She let the leaflet drop on the tiled floor and took out her phone from her cardigan pocket and flicked aimlessly through the names of busy people, her buttocks and thighs growing cold on the tiles.

“Where are you?” she said, when Simon picked up at last. The line was bad, and he was shouting over another noise. I shouldn’t have called him, she thought. “Off the coast of Shetland! What’s up? How’s the baby?”

“Nothing. Nothing’s up. It’s all fine,” she said. She could hear the outboard motor choking in the background, a growl, then a roar. A background noise, which must be waves.

“Just to warn you,” he shouted. “I might cut out in a sec. We’re about to recce the sea cave!”

The programme Simon was shooting was something about the early formation of the earth. They had to film in a sea cave, the longest recorded, he’d said. She tried to picture it, as she listened to the boat thudding on the sea: a craggy deep hole, in a rockface that went on and on, darker and darker. Simon and the programme’s bearded presenter and the divers would be skimming into this darkness any moment.

When the phone line cut, Anna was left holding the phone to her ear like a conch. She had the odd impression she could still hear the sea.

After her shower, she dressed in the maternity tunic with the ugly pattern and the leggings that were still on the bathroom chair from yesterday and went into the bedroom where the curtains were still drawn and the walls submerged in a greenish blue light. She listened out for the baby in the kitchen, but there wasn’t a squeak. She went to the little side table opposite their double bed, where the thin gilt charity-shop mirror hung on the wall. She rooted in her make-up basket. She found a red lipstick. Berry-red, merry-red, the most cheery of colours. She grimaced like a ventriloquist’s dummy, and drew a hard red line across each lip, top, bottom, and inspected herself up close. She had never quite suited lipstick. It made her look mean and tired and unhappy. You’ve got hormones, that’s all, said her mother from beyond the mirror. ‘Got hormones’, she’d often said when Anna was a teenager. As if they were measles.

Anna wished she had those men’s hormones now, instead of women’s. The ones that made you want to smash a bottle over someone’s head. Not the ones that made you want to weep and throw yourself off a bridge. She looked down at the lipstick in her hand, an expensive brand, that she’d bought when she had a job of her own. Back in the day, when she’d not thought twice about spending money on fripperies. She had bought it in a hormonal moment, probably. She had admired its shiny gold case, and felt she was worth it. She wound down the stub of the berry-red lipstick and picked up the gold lid, and slid it back on. When she pushed it home, it made a satisfying click.

Companies spent thousands of pounds perfecting that click, to sound just right, Anna remembered. She’d seen a TV doc once about the beauty industry. The click was there to make women like her feel better on days like this. It reminded her of the click that alcoholics were said to feel when they’d consumed just the right amount of booze. The Tenessee Williams click. The lipstick click was not quite as satisfying, of course, but even so, women would spend up to £20 on a certain brand of lipstick, the consumer research had shown, based on the click alone. Didn’t they put whale’s blubber into lipstick, these companies? Anna thought now. Sometimes even urine. Could that be true?

Today she would treat herself, because Honey had told her to. Not to lipstick but to a steak. She was worth it. Baby was worth it.

She was feeling hungry again. She was always hungry because of the constant breastfeeding. Whatever fuel she put in, it was never enough. She thought about the steak she would eat alone tonight.

She decided she would go to the posh high street, for the steak. Go to the smart butcher’s, really push the boat out.

Opening the front door she found the sun had come out, and she wheeled the pram past cafes with striped awnings and watched her reflection in the lovely shop windows, the bookshop, the gift shop, bouncing along with the new buggy. It was fun to be lippied up! And not for Simon, wherever he was, and not only “for herself” like some dumb cow in a magazine advert. But to be lippied up for the steak that she would soon buy – it was the steak that made her smile. She would bring it home and leave it out in the warm to relax the grain. Rub a little olive oil into its muscle. Light a candle to eat it by. I like you in lipstick, the steak would say, as she dished it out. It brings out the red in your eyes.

She decided she would go to the butcher’s first and leave the chemist till after. There was something about buying the steak which was making her anxious and she wanted it out the way. Still – when she got to the posh butcher’s, she hesitated outside. Looking in the window, she searched in vain for an indication of price and there was a lot of meat on show, but there were no prices at all. She was suddenly afraid the steak would cost a lot in this smart new shop by the park, and that she should have gone to the other butcher’s on the other high street, twenty minutes’ walk from here. One steak here – it might cost, what? As much as a tenner? Even more. What would Simon say if it turned out to be spending money like water? Simon had been between gigs for months during the pregnancy, and now that Anna had been made redundant, they had to watch the pennies.

The glass of the butcher’s window glared in the bright sun. Anna rocked the pram with one hand, rubbed one eye viciously with the other. I will just ask for a skirt steak, or stewing beef, she decided. But in her mind’s eye there was a rib-eye, or a T-bone, shrinking in the pan. Marbled fat browning and spitting. But – why were there no prices? Only steel hooks glinting in neat rows on steel bars, pinning neatly trimmed haunches and hunks in pinks and rubies that seemed too pretty to be meat. The cuts were spaced with clinical precision, the display more like an art installation than a butcher’s. To the far left there hung a pig’s head, as if for honesty’s sake. But even this was bloodless as marble, eyes closed beneath peaceful lashes as if it had died in its sleep.

Anna paced with the buggy up and down. Why was she so anxious about this simple thing? Hormones, said her mother in her head. It’ll be daylight robbery in there, her mother said. You should go to ordinary butcher’s. Quite good enough. The other butcher’s had discounts, in capital letters on white boards in thick blue marker. She would go there, she would … if only it didn’t have so many heads. Heads, stacked in the corner, and the occasional fly too. Animals that had died awake and bleating, not sleeping. What if the baby woke and saw them? They were stacked in great untidy piles, slipping over. Goat’s heads and cow’s heads with their thick tongues stuck out in a last gasp. Each packed tight in cellophane with tongues squashed to the side and eyes rolled back in their sockets. And the smell in there of congealed blood and death, which also smelled a little like birth whether your baby was alive or dead.

Anna told herself she was being silly, her mother told her too. But still she shrank from taking the baby to the other butcher’s. It would do no harm to ask the price of steak in here.

‘Ting!’went the old-fashioned bell just then. So loud it made Anna jump in her skin and clutch at the pram handle, but the baby slept through. A tall, broad woman was going up the step and through the door. Anna could see the back of her disappearing. And didn’t know her personally but she recognised the woman’s funny tartan coat as she went, like a dressing gown from a 1970s sitcom, and her funny Brillo-pad hair. She knew her from somewhere but couldn’t place her.

If that woman with the funny old coat can afford it, Anna reasoned. And she made up her mind and followed her into the shop, backwards, hoiking the buggy over an awkward step. The tall woman turned and held the door for Anna to come through. And when she smiled, Anna recognised her from the park: the crazy cat lady. She was there most afternoons, feeding stray cats from a plastic bag. It seemed odd to come across her here at the posh butcher’s, in her fuzzy old coat – which she wore always, even in this sunshine – and her wild, wiry grey hair. Seeing her here, though. It made Anna more confident about buying the steak. How expensive could it be, if the cat lady shopped here?

Inside, the butcher’s shop was cool. Dried chillis and springs of herbs hung overhead. There was no smell of blood, only the vaguely electric smell of clean ice, and grassy rosemary. Behind Anna the shelves were full of pickles and mustards and wheels of Brie, and in front of her there was the counter and a curved wooden mirror that looked Parisian and below this a wall of drawers with wooden fronts that looked like old fashioned ice boxes.

The cat lady beamed at Anna as they waited for the butcher to appear from behind the curtain at the far end. They were both treating themselves today. She beamed down at the baby too. The cat lady’s eyes were bright blue and clear. She didn’t look crazy at all. Though from here Anna could spot two fierce whiskers poking from the side of the woman’s chin, as if she couldn’t afford a mirror or tweezers, and across her nose there were the purplish tell-tale starbursts of someone who drank heavily and slept rough.

The butcher said: “What’ll it be then, Pat?” and the cat lady turned briskly to face him.

“Liver I think, today, Ron.”

“That’ll feed ’em up,” he said. “Back in a tick.” He did a little dance back to the velvet curtain and disappeared once more.

Anna stared at the cat lady’s back as she waited. Liver, she thought. Nice and cheap. That could not be an expensive cut, even here. And when it was her own turn – what should she get? A rib-eye, she could ask the price first. She looked about for a price list, but there was none.

The butcher danced back, holding the largest piece of liver Anna had ever seen. Draped across both palms, like a big fish. His bald patch shone in the Parisian mirror as he stood there.

“Ooh, calf’s liver.” said the cat lady. “Lovely. I’ll take half.”

The butcher slipped a knife down the middle of the liver, and even the half was enormous. A huge brown sting-ray.

“Don’t worry about slicing it,” said the Pat. “They like it thick.”

The butcher laid it on a sheet of brown paper and ferried it to the scales and punched in some keys, peep peep. When the price flashed up on the till, Anna’s eyes widened. £12.85!

The butcher squinted at the scales and sucked his teeth. “That’s quite a bit you’ve got there, Pat. But remember it’s organic. All hormone-free.”

The cat lady nodded. “Got a lot of mouths to feed, Phil. You know how it is. End of the week treat.”

The butcher let out a little grunt. Anna looked at him, thought he might smirk. Organic liver for stray mogs! Imagine. When you could barely put a roof over your head or even spring for a pair of tweezers. Pat might not look crazy but she obvously was a bit soft in the head. Anna felt like taking her by her tartan shoulders and turning her round and shaking her hard. You crazy old lady. They’re only cats! Anna watched the butcher’s face for signs of a joke, but he was serious, concentrating, slotting the liver carefully in a large candy-striped bag, and a plastic bag after that. And in the mirror, there was Pat, tired old face and her red nose, smiling. Hands held out. It made Anna sad.

Before the cat lady left, the butcher ducked down and bent down beneath the counter and when he stood back up he was holding a brown paper package. He passed it over to her and gave her a wink and she added it to the plastic bag. When Pat left, Anna saw the plastic bag was dripping blood, on the butcher’s pristine tiles. When Anna left the butcher’s herself she let the wheels of the buggy follow the trail of blood down the street, down to the park, and found it petered out at a side-entrance where the wood-chip path began.

 

She started up the path. She followed it to the top end and expected to see the cat lady there, beneath the willows where she usually fed her cats. But Pat wasn’t there. This was Anna’s favourite corner of the park. Beneath the trees, the grass was allowed to grow tall and there were a few wildflowers.

The baby was sleeping still in the pram. One paw curled up by her ear, palm out, like those good-luck kittens you see in the windows of Chinese restaurants.

Other mothers with older children drifting out of the park through the gates, to turn on their ovens, Anna supposed. To dole out whatever it was that children with teeth ate for dinner. Which made Anna feel strangely free. She had nowhere else to be. The next feed wasn’t due yet. And she had no one to be gettig back for. She parked the buggy at the edge of the long grass. A small breeze was blowing, riffling through the chestnut trees, and a siren cried very far away. I’ll just lie for a minute, she told herself. She lay on her back in the grass and listened to the leaves. The sound of the trees reminded Anna of a song her mother used to play late at night, on the record player when she was little: Why do you whisper green grass, why tell the trees that ain’t so? The men singing so high and looking so old-fashioned in their bow-ties on the cover. It would make a good lullaby for the baby, she thought. I wonder if we have that record still, I could put it on. Maybe it’s in one of the boxes from Mum’s. I mustn’t sleep, she told herself. Still she felt sure if she did doze off, that her special mama senses would wake her if a stranger came by. She let her eyelids drop, and it felt good. The leaves of the trees began to sound like the sea; she was picturing Simon off a craggy Scottish coast, where the water was grey and choppy. What did the sea cave look like inside? Was it always full of water? Did it have a beach, at the back, at low tide?

If there was a motor, it has cut out, because she finds she is slipping quietly through the water, in a skiff, and Simon is not here either, but she can see now the sea cave has stalactites growing from its roof, or are they icicles? And there is a beach at the end, she sees.

There must be a hole in the roof or a crack because the beach at the end is flooded with light, and on the sand she can make out two figures sleeping there, large and small. A whale and its pup, she thinks at first sight. The skiff drifts closer and she thinks she has seen those animals before but can’t remember where. And as she gets closer, she sees it isn’t a pup but a baby. Naked and new. Lying so still, with long strands of seaweed strewn around. He is perfect, though, isn’t he? His lips dark. His face, his body pale as marble. Two days in the water and you couldn’t tell. Not really. Only a small patch of his cheek was peeling away. The skin of his cheek, falling away from being too long inside. Then the big man who she knows somehow is there once more, lying next to the pup. He sits up on the sand and leans forward he’s shaking, crying, and it’s Simon and there’s that dreadful dry groan, echoing round the cave. A sound like a tanker going under. The sound of steel tearing, the groan of it keeling on its side, and water rushing in that echoes round the cave and frightens her this man, crying, and makes her turn her head away, and press her cheek into that paper pillow in shame.

Anna woke with the sense of something important forgotten. She rolled over and put a hand out and found the grass was wet by her face. She felt her face and her cheek was damp. The light in the park had turned golden. She scrambled to her knees and up to the pram, breath caught. She checked inside the hood. The baby was there, still sound asleep.

“What’s she called, your baby?”

Anna started at the woman’s voice. It was the cat lady, maybe a foot away by the trunk of a tree, peering at Anna, holding in both hands, her plastic bags.

“Maybe not my place to say, but you shouldn’t sleep and leave her unguarded,” said Pat. “Such a beautiful baby. Someone might take her. I’ve been rocking the pram now and then. I hope you don’t mind. I thought you could do with a nap.”

Anna nodded and blinked and checked her her phone: 6.15pm. “Thank you.” Panic rising. Another feed due. No steak eaten yet. No Double Gold Top made. The chemist’s would be closed already. No colic medicine bought. Another night of Baby’s howling.

“The park will be closing in a mo,” said Pat. She wandered to the edge of the path and stopped at a bin. Anna watched her push up the coat sleeve of her right arm back to the elbow and reach into the bin. Pat rummaged for a moment and pulled out a yellow styrofoam carton and bent down with difficulty and flipped it open on the ground.

Pat picked out a leg of deep-fried chicken, picked off the meat, delicately from the bone, laid each morsel on the grass. She clucked her tongue softly and looked around, expectant. Anna looked around too, her hand on the handle of a pram, rocking the baby. In less than a minute, cats began to come running. The first demolished the chicken. Soon there were fifteen, maybe twenty cats, begging for more. They were rubbing up against Pat’s ankles and calves, weaving round her feet and each other, mewing and whining. Some batted each other out of the way and looked like strays, others hung on the edges, the well fed lap cats. Pat’s face was a picture of peace, as the cats pooled around her. She cooed over one, whose skin was broken with sores. She stopped to tickle another one under the chin, a ginger one whose eyes were set too wide. She was talking to them now. Her lips moved, and Anna listened hard and heard a Blizzard, a Shadow, a Sammy among the names. Her babies. Soon she will let them have the calf’s liver.

Anna waited for Pat to take out the pink-and-white striped package from her plastic bag. She will leave the best til last, thought Anna – like Jesus at Canaan. The mad old bag.

But Pat reached into the plastic bag and pulled out a brown paper package, not a pink-striped one. Stiffly she bent down to the ground to unwrap it, but before she could step back, the cats were on it. Some of them scratched at her as she crouched among them, some hissed. One black cat nipped at her hand with bared incisors as she tipped the meat out of the paper. She cuffed the animal sharply round the head and stood up, abrupt, out of the mewling mass of fur. She waved at Anna before she turned to go, and Anna watched her leave the park, out of the gates. They would be closing them soon, any minute, she thought, and flipped the bugy brake up with her toe. The baby’s eyes opened, the blue-black eyes met her own. As she left, she caught sight of the thing the cats were eating. Not a liver. But a rabbit’s skull. Blooded and glistening. She could see quite clearly its white parts, as the cats began to leave it, almost picked clean: its grinning teeth and milky cataract eyes.

 

When Anna got home the house was dark and still. She flicked on the light above the cooker, and boiled the kettle and mixed a bottle of formula to top up the baby’s feed. A top up for Baby. Honey would never know.

Once the baby was full and quiet in her Moses basket under the table, Anna went to the hall and took her pink-striped paper bag from the bottom of the buggy. She opened it out on the kitchen table. Liver. A quarter calf’s liver for £6. Protein, iron, maybe better than steak. She sliced it thin and found she got three large slices from the piece, which would do three meals.

She lit the gas and wondered who Pat had been buying her liver for, if not for the cats. And melting butter over a flame, in her ridged skillet, Anna tried out the name: Patricia. Patty. My Patty pan. She took a Post-it and wrote it and stuck it on the fridge. A baby named for the woman who’d watched over her. Where was Pat now? Anna could picture now a horde of children: grown-up daughters and sons, nieces, nephews, growing grandchildren. A lot of mouths to feed, she’d said. A Friday treat.

The liver frying in the butter gave off a sweetness that filled the kitchen. The hot fat of the butter meeting the sugars in the meat. Anna took tongs and turned the liver, admiring the pretty brown stripes. She heard the baby wake – Patty waking – snuffling in her Moses basket below the kitchen table. Snuffling, chuntering only, not yet crying. She would feed herself first, she thought, before picking up Patty. She was salivating, hungry. The whole kitchen smelled of cake.