For Laura Heffernan. Hope you’re feeling better!
6.00: I awaken. New. Fresh. Warm. Steaming slightly as the baker busies herself at the sink. Her name is Janice, I know instructively. Six others of my kind sit in a line beside me, and there are more on another counter: sponge, fruit, coffee and walnut, and one quite ugly lemon drizzle.
7:00: Janice smothers my surfaces with a mixture of cream-cheese and icing sugar. Pride spreads through me as I catch a glimpse of myself in her metal bowl. I’m perfect. She finishes off the others, doing what she can for the lemon drizzle, then packs us into boxes.
8:00: The door bell rings almost immediately, signalling the start of morning rush. It doesn’t take long for the cozy shop to fill with calls of ‘Morning and ‘How are you?’ punctuated by the sharp ding of the till. Janice sells two sponges, but most people are after bread. It’s not my time yet.
9:00: The rush dies away. Janice sweeps the floor, humming to herself. She’s flat, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be in tune when you’re happy; a smile carries the melody just fine. I’ll make someone happy today.
11:00: A trio of mothers come in and buy a selection of cakes for their coffee morning. One of them casts her eye over me, but her friend shakes her head.
“It’ll go straight to your thighs,” she warns. “The icing must be an inch thick.”
I can’t explain how little this matters and they walk out without me.
12:00: Lunchtime. I’m hopeful again. The queue stretches out the door for most of the hour. A policeman orders a ham sandwich with extra mayonnaise and looks at me hungrily, but holds up his hands when Janice offers me to him.
“I can’t. I need to watch my weight,” he says, patting his stomach with a grin.
15:00 Most of this morning’s batch are gone now. It’s just me, one of the coffee and walnuts, and the ugly lemon drizzle. Five minutes later, the coffee and walnut leaves, headed to cheer up an old man in hospital after a fall. What’s wrong with me? All I want is to bring happiness to someone. Why won’t anyone see that?
16:00 The bell rings. I try not to get my hopes up, but they soar when the diminutive old woman tells Janice she wants a celebration cake.
“Of course. Red velvet or lemon?” she asks.
“Oh, lemon please. I’m not fond of overly sweet things.” She goes on to tell Janice that she’s a great-grandmother now, and her whole family will be coming round. I imagine them, cooing at the new baby, reminiscing about when the older ones were young. Together. Smiling. Happy.
17:00: I’ve failed. Janice wipes down the counter and heads over to flip the sign. Perhaps she’ll take me home. Perhaps it’s Janice who I’ll make happy. Then I remember her talking to one of her customers about her husband’s diabetes and realise it’s unlikely.
The bell jangles as the door flies open, making Janice slide-step out the way. A woman stumbles in, breathing quickly.
“Are you closed? I…I need a-”
Her last word is cut off as the door opens again with a clang.
“I need a cake,” says a man. His words come out in a rush, mixed together like batter. He notices Janice and the woman for the first time and adds a muffled, “please.”
“I’m sorry,” the woman says. She’s short, a little dumpy, with curls of brown hair around her face. I’m sure I could make her happy. She doesn’t look the sort who worries about her thighs or dislikes overly sweet things. “I was here first and I need that cake.”
I can barely believe what I hear. Overlooked all day, and now there are two people who want me. The man frowns. “Seriously? There’s only one?”
“We’re closing,” Janice apologies. “If you would like to come back tomorrow, you can have your pick.”
“I’d prefer it today,” the woman says, wrapping her arms around herself. Despite the warm shop, she shivers. “Please.”
“Lady, it’s my birthday. It’s been a long day in a string of long, shitty days, and I want a birthday cake.” His voice rises as he speaks, like the high-pitched whine of something about to break. “I’m going to eat it, get drunk, and find a train to throw myself in front of.”
Her hand flies to her mouth and the man’s face turns red.
“I.. I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to… I… I’m sorry.”
They’re quiet. None of them moves; they don’t even look at each other. Then the woman looks at me.
“Perhaps,” she says. “Perhaps we could share it.”
“I’d like that,” the man replies.
Janice closes the lid on my box
17:30 The woman sets me down on a sideboard, over-looking a faded blue velveteen sofa. There’s a photograph of a young boy on a tricycle next to me. He smiles at the camera, the grin affecting every inch of his round face.
“I’m Kate,” the woman says, holding out her hand.
“Jacob.” He takes it cautiously, as afraid she might slap him, or he might hurt her.
“Take a seat.” Kate points to the couch. “Do you want tea or coffee?”
He doesn’t move. “Maybe I should go.”
“Nonsense. No one should be alone on their birthday.” She pauses in the doorway. “Did you mean that, about killing yourself?”
“I don’t know,” he says to his shoes. “I don’t think so. But sometimes I wonder what’s the point, you know? I’m thirty-seven. I have no friends, a job I hate, and my mother loves my ex-wife more than she ever loved me. So what’s the point?”
“I don’t think there is a point,” Kate says. Her voice is muffled by the sound of the kettle boiling. “Not to life. We just are, that’s all.”
“Maybe.” Jacob looks at the front door, then the kitchen door. He sighs and sits down on the sofa, his hands clasped together. A few moments later, Kate comes back with two cups of tea on a tray. She sets them down and sits on the other end of the couch. Jacob picks up a cup and stares into it. There are no knives and plates, I notice with disappointment.
“I don’t know how it got to this,” he says suddenly. “Threatening suicide and drinking tea in a stranger’s house. I know I haven’t been happy since Rebecca, though.”
Kate takes a sip of tea.
“Rebecca was my wife,” Jacob continues. “I don’t think I ever loved her. Loved the idea of her, maybe. Lusted after her, definitely. She did her best to make me miserable, make me doubt myself. She was a cold-hearted manipulative bitch, but I didn’t see it until we were married.”
“How did you get out?”
He blushes, colour creeping up his neck and settling in his ears. “I fell in love with a man. For a while, it was great. Sneaking around was exciting. Then we got careless and we got caught. Turns out he was more in love with the thrill than he was with me. Rebecca dragged me through divorce court. Took me for everything I had. I never had many friends and those who were mutual all took her side. So did my mother.” He sniffs and Kate hands him a pack of tissues from her handbag. “Mum’s the sort of person who thinks gay is something you catch from dirty public bathrooms, and I’ve never even bothered to try and explain bi to her. I might as well have leprosy.”
“I’m sorry,” Kate says. It’s a small phrase, but Jacob sits up straight, as if a weight has been lifted.
“No, thank you. You never told me why you wanted that cake so badly,” he says, looking over at me.
“It’s my son’s birthday, too,” she says, and her voice trembles slightly.
Jacob blushes harder. “Oh, shit, sorry. I didn’t realise I was taking cake away from a kid.”
She smiles, but her eyes are wet. “It’s okay. He won’t be needing any. He died, when he was two. Every year, I buy a cake, light two candles, and go through my photographs.”
He reaches for her hand. “I’d like to see them.”
18:00 The photograph albums lie discarded on the table, by the now cold cups of tea. Kate has finished crying, those loud, painful, yet cathartic sobs. They’ve moved from opposite ends of the couch to the centre, and Jacob has his arms around her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and blows her nose.
“Don’t be. I feel like I’ve done something good for the first time in years.”
She smiles and it reaches her eyes this time. “I’m glad you wanted to buy that cake. I’ve missed human contact so much. It’s funny, how you never notice something missing until you find it again.”
They continue talking, about unimportant things now. Things on TV, the weather, their favourite foods. They don’t go back to opposite ends of the couch.
21:00 I’ve been forgotten again, left on the sideboard by the photograph of the smiling toddler. But I don’t mind this time. Kate cooked dinner. Jacob did the washing up. Now they’re sitting in the middle of the couch together, not watching some nature documentary. Kate’s fingers entwine with Jacob’s, her head against his shoulder. Things might be different in another hour, another day, another year. But at this moment in time, thanks to me, they’re happy.