In order to be slowly dying, to be held in that strange unknowable state of decline where the fibres of what makes you whole are beginning to pull themselves apart, strands turning suddenly into ends tearing at the tension beneath them, weakening, flexing, held together only by trust or habit, like a sweater which has been worn too often and left in the airing cupboard too long, the kind of restful, recognisable sweater you put on as a symbol of your ease, or if not at ease then to feel easily at yourself in spite of clear evidence to the contrary, signals which you decide silently to ignore, as if to ignore them might make them in some way less than solid, no more than appearances, suggestions which you can choose to interpret or discard as the mood takes you. To be with each moment gently and unnoticeably less than you were, somehow, as if the ingredients which have combined over all this time have begun to separate, less added than before, more taken away, dissolving, evaporating, or to feel like you no longer can remember exact quantities and have taken to measuring by sight and touch, the way your mother or grandmother did when she mixed something from so many seemingly nothings, a form of magic or sleight of hand which you yourself might once have tried but now couldn’t begin to comprehend: to be all of this, first you have to be alive.
Helen Strickland, 62, a woman of means and resources, hazel-green eyes, fading blonde hair, standing in her solid kitchen, baking. It is night, the long fading hours between dusk and sleep, and she is making Dutch Apple cake for her husband. She whisks eggs into butter and milk. She sifts flour, adds cinnamon, baking powder. Bran will be home soon, she thinks, glancing through the doorway into the lounge. The phone is resting magnificently on its cradle, comfort in its antiquated shape and form. She wonders about calling the security lodge to see if he has left yet, but if he hasn’t then she will delay and possibly annoy him, if he has then she will get caught up talking to whoever else is on shift, Alun or Michael probably, and there are apple slices to arrange.
“Fancy forgetting to buy vanilla essence,” she says to the cake tin. It will have to do without. Bran won’t notice. Or if he does, he won’t say anything. She smoothes the batter and layers apple in concentric circles, harder to cut once cooked but prettier to look at. The oven is hot. The last shake of sugar on the top of the cake will burn nicely. She picks up the red, egg-shaped kitchen timer, a present from her two-year old grandson, or so the label said on the wrapping paper, and turns the dial past the wide segments of four and five minutes of egg-timing to the narrower bands of ten.
Time, counting down until she must reduce the oven temperature and let the cake rise and brown. She watches through the glass door as the apple slices sink through the batter, imagines them settling on the bottom like those lost, eyeless fish she and Bran had seen on the television, before he started his latest stretch of evening shifts. The first nights back were always the most difficult. She wonders how her eyes will look in the morning. If she was willing to talk to her reflection she would have been happy to confess, but only to the oven, that the waiting and the baking are for her, not for Bran.
She had told her sister in the familiarity of Tuesday afternoon in the Spinning Wheel Tea Room that she always stayed up out of routine, from wanting him to feel welcomed and loved when he returned in that smart, black uniform. “It’s nice to have someone to come home to. Heaven knows what he would think if he couldn’t walk into a warm home, hang up his jacket and hat and tell me about his work.”
“You spoil him, you do,” Mary replied, stirring too much sugar into the café’s weak tea. “Really, what man needs all that? He goes to work, he comes home: where’s the need for fussing over him?”
“I don’t know. It’s a habit, that’s all. He’d worry if I didn’t do it now.” Helen sliced small sections of butter and dabbed it onto her scone, changing the subject to why they had to serve such hard butter when its only purpose was to be spread. She would make him a walnut carrot cake with buttermilk glaze, she decided, despairing at how easy it seemed to be to get scones wrong.
Mary put her spoon into her saucer, careful not let it clink too loudly. “All I’m saying is that he doesn’t need such pampering. Surely even you can see that?”
Surely you. Always the pointless aside, rehearsed and restated. “You’ve never understood, Mary dear. It’s how we are.”
The egg-timer rings its familiar welcome chime. Helen resets it for twenty-five minutes and turns the oven down. Bran will be home soon. He’ll loosen the laces on his heavy shoes, never taking them off until it’s time for bed, just in case. She considers putting the kettle on but it’s still too early, so she concentrates instead on setting two side plates and forks on the tray with the handles.
She knows she will wake before him, will pass a happy hour or two tending to the dishes and the plants before he struggles, aching and sore, into the kitchen. The evening shifts don’t suit his body. Its muscles react with anger at the late exertions, the patrols and duty logs, the changes he needs to make to his internal clocks. By late morning he will be himself and they will share a few brief hours before he dresses again in the polished buttons and peaked cap.
Tomorrow, she thinks. It is almost quarter to twelve, too late to start now. Besides, she needs to buy nutmeg and vanilla essence. A quick check in the fridge makes her add butter and cream to the shopping list hanging on an ornamental wooden stand on the wall. She crosses out cinnamon, milk and eggs, jots down baking powder and half a loaf of wholemeal, using the ever-shorter pencil tied on with string. “Walnuts, of course,” she adds, “you can’t make walnut carrot cake without walnuts.” From where she stands at the shopping list she can see through to the phone. It is late. Midnight looms ahead of her, more like a hammer striking in the church tower than a carriage clock gently striking a rhythm. She wishes Bran would hurry up. Though she longs for the moments of respite after work she is tiring, and needs to feel the wisdom of sleep.
Slices of apple rest beneath golden, risen batter, an extra treat for Iwan when he comes to visit his grandparents in the morning. Helen lets the cake rest for exactly five minutes on the rack Bran bought her for her birthday. It had been such a thoughtful present, knowing how much she liked to bake for him. She smiles at the memory of feeling that perhaps the gift was a little selfish too. Still, its wide, strong spaces let the cake cool evenly and quickly. When the egg-timer rings again she slides the soft warmth onto an oval plate and half-slices it into squares. Iwan will like it as much as Bran.
As she dries her hands after washing the knife she notices a thread coming loose on her sleeve. “Another one,” she chirps, wondering whether she had caught it on the oven or the handle of the knife. She fills the kettle and puts cups and saucers on the tray along with the plates. He will be home soon.