This is the winning story in the first Hysteria writing competition, Hysteria 2012. It is written by Jayne Thickett and you can find out more about her in the interview.
A Recipe for Solace
Tip the sultanas in the heavy-bottomed saucepan his mother, Valerie, passed on to you. “Cocoa is the best comfort-food, and this pan will keep the milk from scorching.”
Cover the sultanas with a good bourbon. Jack Daniels will have to do, because that’s all you have. Bring the liquid to the boil, turn off the heat and set aside.
2. Preheat the oven to gas mark 3. Lily was three years and one day old when the elderly motorist entered the motorway in the wrong direction. Three was never a crowd. Third time lucky for you and Christian because the third round of IVF emptied your joint account. Wonder when these little reminders will stop jabbing you between the ribs, leaving behind shards of bitterness.
3. Measure 175g of plain flour into the stainless steel mixing bowl. Remember how Lily would peek over the edge of the bowl and stare at herself, waiting for you to dab a blob of mixture on her nose.
Add half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and two teaspoons of baking powder. They’re out of date, but you don’t think it will make any difference.
Add half a teaspoon of salt and mix together. Remember how Lily sneezed inside the cloud of flour when she mixed it with her hands. Mix it with your hands. Wish you could stomach the JD because there’s a pain in your chest you want to burn away.
4. Melt 125g of unsalted butter, after scraping toast crumbs off the outside. Get another mixing bowl, a big one, and pour the butter into it. Add 150g of sugar. Beat it with a wooden spoon. Remember Christian building Lily’s crib from scratch, hours spent sanding the wood, back and forth.
5. Crack two large eggs into the bowl. Don’t stare at their sunny yolks. You were barren, and now you are bereft. Burst the yolks, and remember you were supposed to beat them in one at a time.
6. Mash four small, ripe bananas. Remember the shape of Lily’s hand in your palm when you helped her to mash bananas on bread. You cut the crusts off and sliced the sandwiches into triangles. When she bit into them, banana squoosed into her lap.
There was a dimple in her left cheek when she smiled, and you could fit the tip of your little finger right in there. Scrape the mashed banana into the mixture and stir well. Breathe away each contraction of pain.
7. Whizz 60g of walnuts in the blender because you can’t be bothered to chop them by hand. Stir them into the mixture. Christian was the only person you knew who ate the walnut from the top of a Walnut Whip. Take a walnut and slip it between your teeth. Bitter and sweet, it reminds you of nothing because it was his memory.
8. Drain the sultanas and stir them into the mixture. Remember the day you were hanging out the washing in the garden while Lily dug in the dirt at the edge of the shed. You realised she was too quiet and when you turned, you were dazzled by the sunlight sparkling around her blonde head. She crouched in the dirt, so still. You squatted next to her, and she turned up her face to you, speckles of dirt around her pale lips.
“Open your mouth Lily Mason.” She smiled, showing you two rows of tiny, white milk teeth, something black, fine as a hair, poking between her front teeth.
And then she stuck out her tongue, and showed you her prize. Christian called her Beetle-Breath for weeks after.
9. Add 1tsp of vanilla extract. Valerie makes her own by soaking vanilla beans in vodka. She told you it takes six months to bring out the flavour. You could make some of your own now all you have is time.
10. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients a third at a time, stirring in between. When you were carrying Lily, you puked for the first three months, so much it terrified you, until a doctor told you it was a sign of healthy pregnancy. Stir.
The following three months were filled with swatches of fabric and wallpaper samples, moments of heart-stopping wonder at the flutterings in your belly, Christian’s ear warming against you skin as he talked to her and told her about his day. Stir.
In the final three months you were confined to bed with swollen ankles and high blood-pressure. You took no risks, there were no more chances. Valerie taught you to knit, and you made three matinee jackets, all the arms unequal lengths. She brought you banana loaf spread with real butter, and Christian would brush the crumbs off the sheets when he came to bed. Stir.
11. Line a loaf tin with the parchment Lily used as tracing paper. Remember how her eyes shone when she copied Dora the Explorer.
Pour the mixture into the tin. Wipe the bowl with your finger and lick. Remember how she smelled. Don’t forget.
12. Place in the oven and bake for 1 hour 15 minutes. Sit at the table and wait for the scent of bananas to fill the kitchen.
Think of Valerie, alone in her own kitchen. You have avoided her because you thought your loss was greater. You both lost the two people you loved most in life. You each carried one of them in your womb.
13. Test the cake with a cocktail stick. It comes out clean. Place the tin on a wire rack. While it cools, go upstairs and shower. Get dressed for the first time in weeks.
Stand outside Lily’s bedroom door and rest your head against the wood. Maybe tomorrow you will go in. Maybe you will put away the dolls and the tea set, pack away the hairbrush, strands of silken, blonde hair wrapped around its bristles.
Today, wrap the still-warm banana loaf and call a cab. Knock on Valerie’s door and take it from there, one step at a time.
Meaghan Delahunt, one of our two final judges commented “This story was structurally interesting and had movement and tension. The narrative of grief was deftly woven into the concrete details of the actual recipe and the language in general was restrained yet evocative.”