Saturday, 23 June 2012

Cake Challenge

This was my entry for the second challenge on my other blog, The Master and Margaritas. The only person to finish her entry on time was snappyfish but I'm sure we'll all get something up eventually.

She plonked the cake down in front of me and prompted me to dig in. “Dig” was an apt word choice. I was sure that the rich chocolate strata, stretching miles deep, contained paleontological evidence of walnuts. I hate walnuts. My grandmother is too old to understand such pitiful excuses as “dislike”, or even “allergic”; she’s always been a firm believer in you-get-what-you’re-given.

I can’t blame her for forcing the cake on me though. It’s an inherent instinct in our family to feed people at times of high emotion, and this was definitely one of those. My cousin Louise had just announced her marriage to a woman called Charlie (a brilliant scientist who’s promised to take me on her next field trip. It’s only gonna be to the Isle of Arran, but it’s still a legitimate reason to miss school in these harsh economic times, when experience is everything in the job market.)

The fact that Charlie’s a woman wasn’t the issue. My grandmother’s old, but that doesn’t mean she’s old-fashioned – she lived through the sexual revolution of the sixties and she’s sensible enough to recognise that it’s not a big deal any more. What had caused the uproar was that they had gone and gotten married – horror of horrors – in Las Vegas. I mean, how tacky can you get? Louise had claimed that they didn’t want to make a fuss, and that they’d have a big party soon. My Nan was having none of it.

“You’re meant to have family at your wedding. That’s what it’s for, to share your happiness with your loved ones. It’s just selfish.”

My aunts and uncles were nodding emphatically. Charlie caught my eye and her glasses flashed in quiet amusement. She and I both knew that they were all just annoyed at missing out on a free booze-up. I smothered a snicker with cake and nearly choked on a fossilised walnut.

“Come on, Nan, you know we couldn’t have afforded a big wedding. Besides, the idea of flouncing up the aisle in a meringue didn’t appeal to me.” Louise was getting snippy, but she had a point. If they’d stayed in Leeds she’d have been forced into the white wedding, complete with a meringue dress, and that just isn’t Louise. She’d have been miserable. Who wants that on their wedding day?

The argument went on for hours. It was completely pointless of course; they were married now. That couldn’t be undone, at least not just to appease an 80-year-old matriarch. Well, that was two weeks ago. Today is the “big party” we were promised, and it does look set to be a roof-raiser. I’ve got the tux out, because Louise has booked my band. I wish I could say that I played something cool like guitar or drums, but alas: at eight years old I was under the delusion that the trumpet was what got the girls to like you. Can’t say I’ve done too badly, but it wasn’t until my late teens that I started to meet girls who appreciated how cool Louis Armstrong was.

Anyway, the sound check’s done and we’re just milling about in the tent. Louise and Charlie have gone all out on the decorations (within a small budget), and they managed to enlist help from everyone in my family under the age of 23 so the rented gazebo is looking amazing. I spy the buffet table and make a B-line for the cakes. More homemade fare, but it’s the best in town; I avoid the chocolate monstrosity onto which my grandmother’s piped “Happy Non-Wedding Day”. It sounds spiteful, but at least she’s coming.

I select a little jam-and-cream delicacy and turn around to lean on the table while I survey the tent. Guests have been arriving steadily for about an hour, and everyone looks amazing. Charlie looks especially beautiful. She’s wearing a dress (a rarity in itself), but it’s covered in delicately swirling flowers that undulate around her curves.

I feel the tell-tale swell in my trousers and turn around again to stare at the gaudy streamers behind the buffet. It’s not the first time I’ve had that reaction to Charlie. She and Louise are a bit older than me – she’s 26, Louise is 25 – and I’m still waiting to do my A Levels. I always got on well with Louise, but I’ve started to resent her for having a girlfriend like Charlie. No, she’s her wife. The word helps to quell the uprising. I hold on to that thought: it’s permanent. Charlie loves Louise completely. I’ve seen the way they are together, especially when they’ve had a few too many. Touching each other...buggar, that’s making it worse. I stare so hard at the streamers that I’m sure they’re about to catch on fire. I think about geology, about layers of rock. Layers of cake. I shove another one in my mouth.

“Steady on, mate, you don’t want to blow chunks down yer trumpet.” My bandmate, Jamie, who still quotes Wayne’s World constantly.

I’ve calmed down enough that I feel safe to back away from the table. “Haha, yeah.”

“You alright, mate? Getting nervous about the set?”

“Nah, I’m ok, Jamie. Let’s go nab a seat with the others before they’re all gone.”

The tent is steadily filling and we manage to cram ourselves into a corner near the dancefloor, close enough to the stage that we can run up once the speeches are over. Oh god, the speeches. Of course I’m not doing one – it’s Uncle Pete, Louise’s dad, Charlie’s mum and Charlie’s best mate Matthew – but I’m still nervous on their behalf. Luckily I’ve still got a couple of cakes to keep me going through them.

“Hi guys, you’re up next.” It’s Charlie, standing right by my shoulder and looking tired and happy and beautiful. I nearly choke on my jam tart.

I must have been staring because Jamie shoves me half out of my seat. “Move, bro.”

The set goes well, and I manage to get through ‘Crazy in Love’ without keeling over. The CD player is out and we’re all having our one permitted alcoholic beverage (mine’s a homemade cider) when Charlie appears at my shoulder again. Her eyes are shining and her cheeks are flushed; it’s corny but it’s true, happiness does make you prettier. I start gulping the cider for all it’s worth.

“Great job, guys, really great. I’ll be recommending you to everyone I know.” She’s smiling her gratitude and it’s making my chest ache. Then she touches my arm. “Wanna dance?”

I somehow manage to nod and glide over the dancefloor with her. Luckily it’s not a slow song – if I’d been pressed up against her I think I might have died – but even gyrating near her to some old ‘90s trash with a bellyful of strong cider made me feel invincible.

“I love you, Charlie!” It slips out before I can control it, but Charlie’s just laughing.

“I love you too!” She kisses me on the cheek. That’s when it happens, that I make my big mistake: I turn and try to kiss her on the lips. Charlie backs off quickly, embarrassed, and I can feel my face flushing red.

“I’m sorry,” I mutter, and I run off towards the back exit of the tent, grabbing a handful of French Fancies on my way past. Once I’m outside in the cool air of my grandmother’s back garden everything hits me and I can feel myself start to cry. What a baby. I try wiping away tears and eating a cake instead, but the sickly sweetness just cloys in my mouth. To my left I can see the old swing set that we all played on when I was little, and Louise used to push me so hard that I felt like I could fly.

I sit down on the swing and begin to rock. It’s comforting, hanging my head and just swaying gently. Why did I try to kiss her? Why did I say I loved her? I don’t really, it’s just a crush I have on a beautiful, intelligent older woman, and I’m not so young to think that I actually have a shot with her. I’m happy for her and Louise. So what is it?

“Are you alright?” It’s Charlie. It takes me a little while to lift up my head, but when I do it’s too painful to see her worried, pitying face, so I hang it back again and mumble, “yeah, I’m fine”.

“What was that about?”

“I don’t know.” It’s the truth, I don’t. “I needed a breather.”

“It is pretty stuffy in there.” She sits down on the other swing next to me, and I just wish the ground would swallow me up. “You were drinking my mum’s homemade cider, weren’t you? I think it’s nearly 10%, it’s lethal.” I keep staring at my feet as she rambles on. “It’s a good shindig though, isn’t it? You guys have been so accepting of us, and taken me into the family really easily. I’m really grateful.”

She starts to sound a little choked up. I turn to see that she’s crying, just a few tears rolling down her cheeks. I reach out and take her hand, her left hand, feeling the wedding ring warming to her skin, becoming part of her.

She wipes her cheeks a bit and giggles. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”

“It’s the cider,” I hear myself saying, and start laughing as well. “It really is lethal. And I’m sorry. I meant what I said – I do love you, and so does everyone else. We can all see how happy you and Louise are together and that makes us happy. Of course you’re one of the family now.”

Charlie’s smiling properly now. “You’re such a sweet boy. Looking forward to our trip to Arran?”

“Yeah, it’s gonna be great!” I can feel the and strength coming back to my voice.

“You gonna be ok?” Charlie’s smiling at me and I know that the answer is “yeah, I’ll be fine. I just need a bit more time out here.”

“OK, see you in there.”

As she walks off it’s like a weight is being lifted off me. I got to be the grown up, just for a little while, and that was enough. That was enough to make me feel like...what? That I’d repaid Charlie’s kindness? I guess that must be it. But that’s enough introspection for one evening. I reach into my pocket and find a rather squashed French Fancy. I might actually enjoy it now.

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