The beauty of her cakes was only surpassed at the first mouthful, like food more suited to heaven. She had always known her destiny was to bake cakes – cakes so beautiful even her own eyes ached with longing, invoking a paradox of decision: to preserve such loveliness indefinitely, or devour every crumb instantly?
The ingredients call to her as the page cries out to the writer and silence begs the musician to fill it. Her life was a quest for culinary perfection and nothing distracted her from reaching this goal.
She baked for royalty, celebrity, the rich and the powerful. She baked for birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. Her life overflowed with significant events, allowing little time for the ordinary. She could bake every hour of every day and still not fill her orders. And that is exactly what she did.
The pursuit of perfection urged her on, but satisfaction eluded her. She was obsessed with the idea of reaching cake nirvana, a destination without landmark, but one she was sure to recognise.
It was her vanilla cakes that made her famous. The scent of fresh vanilla coupled with a texture so divine it was like eating from the hand of God. The joy she experienced when she baked never waned, as though each creation were her first.
She was preparing a cake for a family who had experienced unimaginable loss. Her preparation was, as usual, a ritual of love. Every ingredient was inspected and praised. Instead of calling them eggs, butter and flour, she introduced them to each other as serenity, love and patience; elevating them to what they truly were: essential. With each sweep of her spoon she blended prayers of hope and contentment. As with every cake she made, this was the most special of them all.
Just as her soul was singing the song of an artist in the midst of creation, a single tear rolled down her cheek. It landed gently in the middle of the recently introduced ingredients. This had never happened before and she considered starting afresh, but decided instead to include this unexpected guest. She iced the cake with what she called ‘the final blessing’, and placed it in a plain white box, so inconspicuous it was hard to imagine the beauty, love and skill that lay inside.
In that instant, she knew she had made the most perfect cake. She had finally reached the summit and as she surveyed the view, could find no further mountains to climb. With nothing to force her upward she sat down instead and decided to savour the moment. She considered her achievement from all sides, weighing it gently, inspecting it from every angle. She soon realised she had surrendered more than just a single tear.
‘I no longer feel like baking,’ she thought with slow-dawning panic. ‘I have wept my soul into the most perfect of cakes.’ She prayed for a return on her immeasurable investment and then, with shaking hands, she phoned the courier.
The cake was duly dispatched and arrived at its destination with barely a dent in the glossy white box. It was left on a cluttered kitchen bench where it sat unopened.
Knowing she could never repeat such perfection she took off her apron and went home. The memory of her achievement would have to be enough. Overcome with an inexplicable mixture of sadness and joy, she stayed in bed for an entire week.
The man sat alone at a table set for four, his eyes as cold as his heart was numb. There seemed to be nothing left – no reason and no purpose. He acknowledged in that moment what his wife must have felt, only for her it was no mere glimpse, it was a battle without end and one she felt destined to lose. Fated, because she could not apportion her burden and it was too great to carry alone. The longer she kept it to herself, the more it grew. Until it crushed her.
The man knew that all truly dreadful feelings must take flight. If they remain inside too long they become a torture only their host can feel. He could not imagine being a victim of his own mind and was ashamed to admit he still did not understand. He had tried so hard, but had clearly fallen short. He was not to know it was an impossible task; she would never have let him shoulder her burden. She loved him too much for that.
Left behind were two children with more unanswered questions than was fair. Questions that would remain that way, because all he could do was face each minute.
Right now, in this minute, he could breathe. And he could feel. Because of this remarkable truth he considered it just possible that he would make it through. As long as it was minute by minute and no more. There was no escape. Each second was determined to make its presence felt.
‘Time’, they all said. If it was a healer, he had not had enough of it yet. It mocked him with days longer than any he had known and nights even longer. His only option was to survive, but what he didn’t know was how. Words had also lost their meaning, becoming nothing but invisible bullets. He knew they reached him, but he felt no pain. No nothing.
‘Your wife did not leave a note.’
‘Have you told the children?’
The moment between sleep and surrender still had hope. In those seconds he forgot why his head was empty; he could still roll over and smile as he waited for hers.
The insanity of it all, and soon it would be dinnertime. The worst time of all. He had always been a spectator at her dinnertime show. Now he had to find a way to perform while he sat alongside her empty chair. Would it be wrong to remove it?
Tonight they had been given a cake to mark one month since their world turned upside down. It was a milestone. Who’d have thought they could make it this far?
They did not notice anything special. Their recently shattered dreams still held centre stage. The plates were mismatched, and no one cared who got the largest slice. They ate the cake in silence, each tasting their own memories.
They did not notice the subtle flavour, or the way it dissolved without effort on their tongues. Nor did they acknowledge the gentle hint of lavender hidden deep within the layers of icing. Instead, with each mouthful came another memory of the one they had lost. The little girl spoke first.
‘Do you remember when she pretended there was a power cut, so we could live by candlelight for a night?’
‘Or the way she read stories in such funny accents that we laughed so hard we forgot to finish the book?’
Their father nodded. He too remembered these things, and instead of feeling the great surging need to scream and shout and run far away, he took another bite of cake, and smiled. Not a smile that could be seen on the outside mind you, but one that still existed deep within.
‘I remember how happy she was when you were born. How she didn’t want anyone to hold you. Even Grandma had to wait.’
The cake had begun to work its magic. They all tasted a hint of sweetness. Even though it was hiding in the darkest of corners, the fact it appeared at all seemed a small miracle.
The cake maker cleaned her kitchen and packed away her equipment. She climbed the stairs to the flat above and went back to bed. She wondered what else to do with her life now she had reached her personal summit. The memory of her achievement was a constant companion as she questioned why the reality of perfection was strangely lacking.
The father made a decision. He must make a new tradition, something to cling to as they drifted. He decided they would share cake once a week and let the conversation take them wherever it willed. He visited the cake shop to place an order and found the shop was empty.
He returned each day, refusing to abandon his tradition before it had even begun. He decided to try the back stairs. He knocked and waited until the sleepy cake maker eventually opened the door.
She did not recognise him. All she saw was a sad, tired man. She looked at him as if into a mirror, he reflected the fact that she too, had only memories to look forward to. The man needed a cake and knew hers were the best. She tried to tell him she no longer baked and that having achieved all her goals was now waiting for life to present something worthy of her time. The man closed his eyes. She did not seem to understand that her cakes were worth much more than time.
‘If you would just agree to make me one more, I could get through another week.’
She felt sorry for the weary man and because she had nothing else to do, she agreed. She reminded him it would only be an ordinary cake, a poor copy of the perfection she had recently achieved.
The man smiled his diluted smile. He did not care about the taste or the texture, the icing or the fragrance, and he cared even less for perfection. Just bringing it home in the smooth white box was all that mattered. He already knew that conversation was all they would taste. All he hungered for was that.
Now that he could see again, everything looked different. He had changed so much since that day. It was true his wife had stolen from him, but now he could see what began to replace it. He wished more than ever that someone had shaken him sooner. Shaken him so hard he’d have no choice but to wake up. He could not recall whether anyone had tried. Perhaps it hadn’t been hard enough.
He had been too busy making plans; too consumed with reaching his goals to realise they were within his grasp all along. He didn’t even need to stretch.
He wished he had said yes more often than maybe.
‘Start now,’ said the small voice deep inside him.
‘There’s no point,’ he replied.
‘Are you sure about that?’
He sighed. ‘Yes, quite sure.’
‘Are you certain?’ the voice asked again. ‘Or do you need another shake to help you understand the point?’
He thought for a moment and felt fear rise until it rested at his throat – a shallow breath of warning.
He knew there was a point. Somewhere, somehow, he had to say yes more than maybe. Even now. Especially now.
He still had a choice after all and one only he could make. He cut the cake and called his children back to the table.
‘It’s late,’ they said.
‘Not that late,’ he replied.
As they shared the cake, sweetness edged its way in once more, melting into laughter. The man marvelled. He had thought they would never laugh again.
He returned to the cake shop the next day. He told the woman that even though the first cake had lavender icing of a kind he’d never tasted before, nothing could compare with what he had eaten last night. The second cake had been even better than the first.
She stared at the man, knowing that what he said couldn’t possibly be true. He assured her the second cake was superior in every way and asked her for another.
She had thought she would never bake again, especially not ordinary cakes. She had no time for anything less than a special occasion. She looked around her, barely recognising where she was and wondered just how long she had been a guest in her own life. She knew it was her small flat, but a stranger was living there. An ordinary stranger, but one she would like to meet.
She looked at the man, only truly seeing him for the first time. He was no longer a mirror.