Sophie sat with her legs swinging over the edge of her chair, watching her Grandmother carefully as she moved about the kitchen. Grandma was a big lady, for a lady, Sophie thought. She was tall and broad – taller than Grandpa. She pictured the photograph in the living room of her Grandparents on their wedding day, Grandma towering over her husband in a smart skirt suit, clutching her modest bouquet. They were stood in the doorway of a church.
It must have been sunny that day as they were both squinting slightly as they smiled in glorious black and white to the faces on the other side of the camera.
Grandma hated people invading the kitchen while she cooked but everyone gravitated there all the same. Sophie knew that if she sat quietly she would escape eviction, and if she really played her cards right she would get to lick the bowl. Grandma was making her famous chocolate coffee cake. It was hard to sit still though. Too many factors went against her; the hard wicker seat of the kitchen chair was cutting into the backs of her thighs; it was hot and her little legs were sticking to the wicker; she was starting to get hungry; she was 6.
Sophie could hear the low drone of the lawn mower outside. Grandpa was busy mowing the lawn, tidying his already immaculate garden. The kitchen door sat open, letting the scent of freshly cut grass waft in on the warm breeze. A fly buzzed against the window, its body making a constant tap tap tapping sound on the glass. Sophie longed to jump up and swat it.
Grandma was too busy to notice the fly. She bustled up and down the kitchen counter, weighing out the flour on her old wrought-iron weighing scales with the brass weights. She took the butter from the fridge and cut it into the flour. She grabbed the cocoa and the coffee granules from the cupboard, then one of her famous wooden spoons for mixing. All these simple movements Sophie had seen a thousand times. She loved to watch Grandma cook.
She marvelled at how Grandma never used a cook book; those old, crooked hands of hers so skilled. Those hands that had nursed so many patients, dressed wounds, changed beds, pinned hair, mended clothes, even painted a little. Now they had become brown and knobbly like an old tree branch. Soft, paper-thin skin stretched over bony fingers swollen with arthritis. Hands that still felt so strong when they held Sophie’s.
Grandma began to beat the cake mix with an energy that defied her thinning limbs, resting the old, heavy mixing bowl on her hip. The movement made the thin, brown skin under her arms swing back and forth. She always wore an apron and never made a mess. It irked Sophie that Grandma always scraped the mixing bowl so thoroughly.
She wriggled in her seat. Oh the beautiful torture of watching a cake being made!
Grandma poured the cake mix into two tins and plopped the empty mixing bowl into the sink. As she moved to put the cakes into the oven, Sophie swooped! She grabbed the wooden spoon and returned to her seat, smiling as her tongue found a large dollop of cake mix. Not like Grandma to leave that behind. She sat happily swinging her legs and licking the old spoon so hard she could feel its rough texture on her tongue, almost tasting the wood.
The door of the oven clicked shut. Next job – icing. Sophie knew this ritual wouldn’t begin until the cakes were cooked and cooled, so she jumped down from her perch, hopped the two steps at the kitchen door and ran helter-skelter along the side of the house. As she rounded the corner, the full glare of the sun dazzled her momentarily. The smell of cut grass and petrol was hanging on the warm air. Grandpa was working his way methodically round the lawn, smartly dressed as always in a shirt and trousers – an echo of his old military routine.
Sophie walked slowly along the garden path that meandered around the edge of the lawn, past the fuschia bushes, under the washing line and up to the veggie patch where Grandpa’s green beans were in full bloom. That fresh, crunchy, almost grassy taste of a bean just picked from the vine. That popping and cracking of the pod as the delicious, sweet peas peeped out. Heaven!
Grandpa’s lawnmower rumbled to a halt and the air fell still. Sophie thought she heard a noise but the clatter of the mower on the stone path crashed across it. Grandpa disappeared into his lean-to shed, a cornucopia of tools, clippers, brooms and rakes hanging in the smell of varnish and warm plastic. This was a definite no go zone for visitors and, unlike Grandma’s kitchen rule, this one was obeyed!
Sophie decided to go and sit in her den – a sheltered little patch in a far corner of the garden, hidden from eyes and sunshine. It was cool in there, lying on the soft, mossy grass, listening, dozing. And smelling. Smelling cake. Cake! Sophie sat bolt upright. It must be ready! She got to her feet and retraced her steps past the veggie patch, under the washing line, past the fuschia bushes, around the lawn and back to the kitchen door. The smell of chocolate wafted out to meet her.
A little too acrid, too sour in her nose. Not how it usually smelt.
Something felt wrong. Sophie felt an uneasiness settle in her tummy. What was it? That smell was getting stronger. And the silence. The kitchen was too still. Where was the sound of coffee icing being whipped? Where was the clunk and rattle of the oven door and cooling racks? Why was nothing moving…?
Sophie saw the top of her head first; her soft, grey/brown hair falling gently onto the kitchen tiles. Then the little blue and white striped mixing bowl, splintered across the floor in smears of sweet coffee icing. Her body was crumpled on the floor at awkward angles.
“GRANDMA!” shouted Sophie, as she leapt forward. ” Oh Grandma! No…” She reached out and grasped her Grandmother’s hand, desperately trying to squeeze life back into those precious fingers. Those gently gnarled hands that had lifted Sophie so many times, that had clutched handkerchiefs, handled well-worn rosary beads, caressed evening mugs of coffee and morning cups of tea. Now they held nothing.
They had let go.
Sophie sat back on her heels and wept with every piece of her broken heart.