This short story explores the relationship between a young boy and his Grandmother as they bond over weekend visits.
Taste for the Past
“When was the first time you ate apple pie?” William asked his Grandmother as she placed his portion on the dinner mat.
“There’s no chance of me remembering that boy”, she laughed.
“You don’t remember?”
“Too long ago, that’s when”.
He was spending the weekend at her house, only a few miles from where he lived with his parents. They’d gone away for the weekend, he imagined to some theme park or huge castle. They didn’t really explain what ‘a little time alone’ meant.
“I remember when I first ate it. I thought there was something wrong with the apples. They were all pale. The first time I ate it, I liked it though”, he wanted her to remember.
He watched as she sat down. Her legs wobbled and her arms stiffly gripped the table. Her brow was sweaty, but it wasn’t hot. In fact, the oven had been on for a couple of hours and the place had barely warmed up.
“I like this one too”, he offered. Maybe if he could get her to tuck in, the taste would remind her and he’d get to hear another one of her stories. He always enjoyed hearing how different things were, how much better. He didn’t believe any of it, but his Grandmother seemed younger when talking over the past.
“Just eat up boy before it gets cold”, she said.
If he wanted a story he would have to try harder. He took another bite: the sourness excited his tongue and he moved it across his teeth, took it to his lips before he swallowed. His Grandmother’s pies were always home-made. His Mum didn’t really do dessert. He over-heard her telling Dad she was worried about him eating too much sugar and becoming an obese child. Or worse, diabetic. He guessed that would be painful. As it was, he was slim, although currently snug in his jeans that strained to hold in the roast beef.
He took another bite. The best story his Grandmother ever told him was when she was growing up on a farm during the second world war. She got to catch chickens, fetch eggs and make bread from scratch. She lived there with her three sisters, but William hadn’t known them. One day, she was walking back from market and a boy from school, too young to fight, stood in the middle of the lane. His hair was slicked back with oil. She thought to turn around but carried on walking and said hello as she passed.
“Dorothy”, he’d said, “I’d like a word if I wouldn’t be keeping you. It’s important”.
After that, she couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said as he’d gone into a long speech about the war and being honest with yourself – but anyway – it had ended with him on one knee holding out a ring.
“He was a nice lad but I had no business with him. Kept the ring though, for a few weeks at least. Seemed better than a straight-forward no. I’d have kept it a bit longer too so he’d know I’d given it thought, but he kept coming by to check on my answer, disturbing the dogs something rotten.”
William’s favourite bit was when she told him how the school friend took the news.
“I was honest, said he wasn’t the one for me and he cried on the front step. Men didn’t cry then, although now it’s fine. My sisters all squeezed behind the door to listen and started laughing. He cried ’til his face was red. Then as he left, a bird did it’s business in his hair. He’d slicked it back again, I bet it took ages to get out. But you know what? It brought a smile to his face and my sisters stopped laughing”.
He liked all the animals. He’d asked her how long after that she met his Dad’s Dad; it was eight years later.
Today though, he couldn’t make her young again. She was half-way through her piece of pie but had mainly just eaten the apples. He slowed his chewing and took a sip of water. They always watched a film after Sunday roast together, but his parents would get back in about an hour and disturb them. They’d rung a couple of times each day but he hadn’t spoken to them. Granny had taken the phone into the kitchen; she could only just get through the door, and then only shut it a bit, because her phone had thick, cream coloured wires. It was enough to stop him hearing anything though.
No more steam came off the pie and it looked less appetising. It was almost frustrating as the freshly baked smell still lingered, making any more bites fall under expectation.
Through the closed curtains William could hear traffic go by, and two or three walkers in conversation. Given enough silence, he’d start to hear the mechanisms of the Grandfather clock.
“Do you think your parents will have had a nice weekend in Arundel?” Her words seemed loud, as if he had just recovered from brief deafness.
“Yeah, I think they thought it would be nice”, he replied.
“They looked forward to it?”
“Yeah, they said it was a long time coming”.
“Well, best things are”.
He watched her take his empty plate and put it on her own.
“I can take them out”.
“No boy, I’ll be a use while I’m here”.
He swung his legs under the table and held his hands together in his lap. His eyes followed her into the kitchen with the dirty plates.
“Shall we move to the living room and watch a bit of tele?” she called.
“Yes!” he jumped up and passed her in the kitchen to reach the sofa in the next room.
Once they were settled, he decided to make her an offer.
“Granny, you know how you cook me things? Can I cook for you next week?”
“Oh really?” her eyes narrowed, “You’ve not offered before”.
“I just thought of it now”.
“Can you cook? What would you like to cook?”
“What’s easy? Is cake good? I don’t want to do apple pie”.
“Cake is good – I could teach you how to bake a plain one, or a lemon one. They’re simple”.
“Yeah, I think lemon”.
William was gently shaken awake by his Mum. He must have gotten too comfortable amidst the cushions.
“OK, we’ll bring him round Saturday. We’ll go shopping. Don’t let him be a handful though”, he heard his mother say.
He must have fallen asleep again being carried to the car as he woke in bed the next morning,.
He stayed excited all week. There was no way his Grandmother could refuse him a story if they were waiting for a cake to be ready, with the squidgy smell filling the kitchen with anticipation.
Saturday arrived and William stood outside his Granny’s front-door. His parents sat in the car on the drive-way with the window pulled down a crack. They all waited for her to answer the clack-clack of the letter-box, and William’s greeting posted with a shout through the gap in the door. In his right hand he held a lemon, but couldn’t feel it through his rainbow style mittens.
“Try knocking”, his mother suggested through the window-crack.
He knocked and accidentally loosened his grip in the other hand, dropping the lemon; it left an indent in the snow that looked like the side of a flying-saucer.
“It’s too cold to just sit here Lorraine”, his Dad whispered to his Mum.
“I don’t know what you’re telling me for. This is your Mother’s house, not mine”, she crossed her arms and looked in the rear-view mirror.
William knocked again. He didn’t trust his small hands had made much noise..
Through the letter-box, he heard soft footsteps.
“She’s coming”, he turned to tell his parents.
The door opened and he noticed she wasn’t wearing her watch.
“Good-morning all. Look at this snow”, she greeted.
“Yes, everywhere. Enjoy baking, we’ll try some after shopping”, Lorraine replied.
By this point, William had already gone inside and removed his mittens and coat; he reached up and put the lemon on the kitchen counter, seeing how the snow drops turned to water.
Dorothy slunk in after waving his parents off, “Keen to start are we?”
“Yeah”, he said, “I’ve brought the lemon and put it there. Will we do it now?”
“We’ll start now if you like boy, need to wash our hands first”, she moved to the sink and washed her hands, then moved a chair for him to stand on. He appreciated being able to reach the taps without straining.
William watched as she measured out the flour, butter and sugar on an old iron weight-set. He wondered if she had used it on the farm. He’d like another story set on the farm.
“So get your hand in this lad”, she had put the ingredients into a ceramic bowl and mixed them together with her hands. It looked like pancake paste, “You can finish it off whilst I grate the lemon onto a saucer”.
He loved the slick feel of the mix, the smell of almost cake. Once the lemon was grated, he took the saucer and added the small pieces of rind. With a wooden spoon, he stirred in the flavour and got ready to set her up to tell a story.
“Smells like summer, or when you get lots of people together in one place”, this was his hook.
“Probably from parties. Always cake at parties”.
“Or like on tele when it shows people outside with cake, like in a field. I remember it because you’re not meant to eat outside. Bugs want your food too”, this was his bait.
“Oh nonsense, of course you can eat outside. Can’t defend yourself from a few bloody bugs”, he raised his eyebrows, she pursed her lips, “I mean, bugs are no harm. It’s people you need to watch for”.
“What do you mean? People have their own foods but bugs need to get more”, he said. He knew that she must be thinking of something specific as she had used a bad word.
“Oh, I just mean that animals, you control them – tie up a dog, keep a cow in a field – but people cause trouble even with the best of intentions. Too much faffing around and not being simple”.
She had been sat down but now stood to take the spoon from William for a final stir, “Right, this is ready. Pass me the tins”.
She poured the mix into two eight-inch cake trays that he held still.
“Can you lift them to the oven? Here, I’ll open it. It’s heated, be careful”, he followed her words and slipped the tins in, leaving the tea-towel he carried them with on the counter.
“They’ll take twenty minutes”, she said.
They both sat on the table in front of the oven; through the window, snow was starting to fall like icing sugar as their cake began to rise.
“I remember”, William’s heart raced at his Granny’s prologue, “When your Grandfather Bill got into a scrape with his cousins outside. This’ll teach you not to worry about bugs!”
“A scrape?” he said.
“Oh yes, a bit of a disagreement, a bit physical”, she moved faster than he’d ever seen, punching the air with both hands.
“Oh”, he said.
“That’s right. We’d been at a friend’s birthday party one summer, out in a field behind their house. Neighbours they were of the farm, so we had time to look real posh heading over. Your Grandfather wore a grey suit. There was a full spread on, sandwiches you know, meats, but everyone wanted the chocolate cake her parents had paid for. It was three tiers, dark, oh, it was beautiful.
“Our cake will be beautiful”, he said.
“It will be! So your Grandfather’s cousins, the two boys, wanted to go out with this girl and were squabbling over who would go up, talk to her, try and charm her. Bill went over as they were getting louder, making a scene whilst everyone else was quieting down. Her parents were about to make a toast before cutting the cake, it was her birthday after-all. Oh, it could have been lovely. The sun was starting to set and it was still warm”.
“It wasn’t lovely?”
“Well, the cousins were loud and Bill”, she opened her arms out wide and smiled, “Put his arms to their shoulders to separate them. They didn’t like that. They weren’t like him, both rough and ready and I mean, this girl was beautiful so they had reason to quarrel. Separated, they seemed to calm and Bill told them to both talk to her and let her decide.”
“Did they do that?”
“’fraid not my boy, as soon as your Grandad turned away, the youngest one started shoving the other, screaming something rotten about how the other one always had to win, all like that, so the other started shoving too. Everyone turned to them”, she put her hand up to her face, “I covered my mouth!”, she laughed.
“Bill couldn’t stop them from fighting, he ended up getting his top torn before, oh it could have been lovely”.
“The boys were stood by the food table. They got closer as they swiped at one another until they knocked it.”
“Hmm-hmm. It went down, all three tiers squashed on the grass like a giant cow-pat.”
William giggled, “Cow-pat, eww!”
“People talked about that for weeks. Can you guess who ended up eating the cake?”
“No one, it was all dirty”.
“Bugs, birds, rabbits. All that found it. That wonderful three-tier birthday cake went to the animals, all because those boys acted like ones”.
“Well, what a waste. Neither of them married her, she didn’t speak to them after”.
His Grandmother had set a timer, which started beeping them back into the present; twenty-minutes had passed. He hadn’t noticed, but the whole room smelt of lemon and satisfaction. He watched her take the bases out, glow in their heat. Her skin looked thicker, smoother – she was younger.
She took a knife and pierced the cakes. Both times it came out clear.
“Come over here then my boy, we’ll make the icing whilst they cool”.
William leapt up to help, although he had already gotten the story he came for. He’d tell it eventually, copying her words. Not to his parents, not soon, but some day. He didn’t know with whom, but figured it would be over dessert. Probably cake.
When his parents got in, they’d already finished icing. They sat at the dining room table to each try a slice. He tried to stop himself, but he couldn’t resist, not as the lemon taste filled his mouth and encouraged him.
“Granny, when was the first time you ate lemon cake?”