Piece Of Cake
‘When a Piece of Cake Is Not a Piece of Cake’
“Come on Ben. It’s only a small piece and it’s your birthday,” coaxed nursing assistant Gavin.
The ‘innocent’ slice of Victoria sponge cake waited expectantly in front of Ben, on a boring, white ceramic disc. The thin layer of jam holding the airy wedges together glistened and was slightly smeared over the marginally thicker layer of cream, which he estimated was roughly 0.6cms in width.
It was indeed a relatively thin slice of cake. But to Ben, it resembled a challenge more akin to trying to get to Everest’s base camp by rolling up the mountain with all vital limbs taped to his sides, whilst enduring someone kick dirt in his face and attempting to bury him alive in snow. Even if he made it to base camp, there was still a further journey to travel.
Ben had never wanted to climb Everest. He never wanted the cake. He had no aspirations to climb Everest and he certainly had no aspirations to eat the cake.
“Come on Ben. You’ve only got ten minutes left. Wouldn’t it be a great day if you were to start to try and get better on your birthday?” asked Gavin, leaning forward towards Ben, who was attempting to muster as much physical space from the cake as he could whilst still remaining in his chair.
Ben felt nothing but contempt for the cake and he treated Gavin’s idiotic suggestions as usual background noise. He sat silently as he tried to dare the cake to confess its sins. As far as Ben could tell, the cake probably had about 350 of them, but he felt safer rounding the number up to 400.
“Why would eating cake make me better?” inquired Ben.
“It won’t, but it’s a start,” hushed Gavin.
“A start to a life of obesity,” muttered Ben.
“Eating that isn’t going to affect your weight. It’s what people do as a normal custom in everyday society,” said Gavin.
“Maybe that’s why everyday society resembles people your size,” sniped Ben. He couldn’t help it. He knew it was mean, but feeding times at Besby Adolescent Eating Disorder Ward, were war. As long as the opposition attacked his Anorexia, his Anorexia would let out spiteful comments in defence. Having a birthday was no reason to show weakness as far as Ben was concerned, or at least his Anorexia was concerned.
“Look, I’m not talking to your Anorexia, Ben, I’m talking to you. Why can’t you eat this cake? What do you think it will do to you? Tell me and we’ll talk about it,” coaxed Gavin.
Ben sloped further down into his chair and tapped his feet. It wasn’t long to go. He was sure he could wait the time out.
“Ben, do you really want to spend the rest of your days in a room like this?” said Gavin, pulling his chair further towards Ben.
Ben could feel himself twitching. The cake was too close; Gavin was too close; and Gavin’s propaganda was even closer. The question enraged his Anorexia, because if he said ‘No’ then it would come back to eating the cake, and Ben did not want to eat the cake. Everything Gavin said came back to eating the cake. To Ben, it seemed ridiculous that his fate lay in such a gross concoction of human greed and calorific absurdity.
“I’ve got all day Ben. If you don’t eat it now then I will save it for snack time before bed. That will give you two and a half hours to think about it,” said Gavin, laying his palm flat on the table and nudging the plate over with his index finger.
It was too much for Ben’s Anorexia as his mind exploded into a silent and unspoken rage. All he could think of was his desire to smash Gavin’s interfering fingers. Ben hadn’t eaten any solid food in 2 months. He couldn’t fathom why this chancer thought a few caring nods and ridiculous suggestions might change his mind. If he knew how to change his mind he would. It wasn’t exactly like he had a decent quality of life any more.
“You’ve got one minute left. What’s the worst that could happen if you let me help you take a few steps?” said Gavin, picking up the fork and breaking off a thin bit of cake. He held it out towards Ben, but Ben was no longer looking. He had buried his chin against his chest.
Gavin moved in with the fork.
“Come on Ben, it’s just a little bit of cake. What could be bad about taking some control in your life?”
“Everything,” whispered Ben. His psyche screamed out the other answers: ‘EVERYTHING! Nothing, maybe something. DISGRACE! Failure’. It was far more than just eating a piece of cake; it was buying into the idea that it was OK for humans to falsely occupy themselves with unnecessary calories; it was the idea of allowing the state to tell him what he should be eating like he was an uneducated child; it was like confirming that life was OK and it was perfectly normal to sit and eat cake - clearly it wasn’t, or Ben, wouldn’t be sat in Hell at Besby. Christ he wished he could just eat the cake, but he hated hypocrites and if he ate the cake, that’s what he’d become. He also despised the fact that these morons had thought a birthday cake an ideal gift for a person suffering with Anorexia.
He felt his teeth clenching as his temples pulsed. The thin slice of cake was just inches from his face.
“If you eat this mouthful now, then I won’t bring the cake back later. I just want you to see what you have to cope with in normal social situations. That’s why we have given you cake this dinnertime, because out in the real world, people give each other cakes on their birthday. You can’t run off, or people might think you’re a bit strange Ben. You don’t have to eat cake every day, you just have to be able to cope with it. Now come on, I know you want your freedom back.”
Every fibre in Ben’s body wanted to leap forward and stab Gavin with the fork. But instead he lifted his head to admire the persistence of his tormentor. The voices in his head screamed that he was too far ahead to quit; that Gavin was not a good enough role model to bother listening to; and that his Anorexia would torment him forever if he dared cede to the will of the hospital minion. He hated himself: he hated Gavin, he hated the room he had to sit in at meal times to receive intense supervision; he hated the tube feeds; he hated the organised pretend-to-be-happy time enforced in the ward activities; and he hated the fact he was cornered.
There was nowhere else to go and Ben, knew that either that day, or the next day, or a day not far away, he would eventually have to start taking control of his life. What he had to do in that moment would probably be reflected upon as a relative doddle compared to what he feared would unfold after.
He closed his eyes and allowed Gavin the responsibility of loading the slither of chaos into his mouth. It was like chewing sand and, Ben, quickly swallowed before he could change his mind.
“Well done Ben. You should be so proud of yourself. By the time you reach sixteen you’ll be forgetting about this little blip in your life,” enthused Gavin, as he patted Ben’s knee and removed the plate.
Ben, remained with his eyes closed while he tried to process his immediate sense of guilt and fear. All he could think about was whether the piece of cake was actually going to change his life or not. He was sure time would tell. The first steps to recovery were certainly not easy - they were maddening, terrifying, vicious, and uncertain.
A Piece of Cake
Eleanor had been finding things difficult for some time. However she looked at it, her husband was no longer the man she had married. He had become slobbish and sultry, drifting around the house aimlessly like a big, sad bear. He joined her only for meals, which she continued to prepare despite his increasingly infrequent grunts of thanks. He apparently took no pleasure in his work, counting down the years until he could take retirement. This Eleanor had inferred from his reticence to discuss the subject; but, in truth, he rarely wished to discuss anything at all.
Their meals were taken in almost complete silence. But while Eleanor maintained the impeccable manners she had learnt as a girl, eating slowly, meticulously, always as if the company of the queen, Albert’s decorum deserted him completely. He gorged himself hungrily, slurpily, never finishing one mouthful before stuffing in the next. Shepherd’s pie, lamb chops, steak and kidney pudding: each he took to with equal gusto, forcing down almost inconceivable quantities of that day’s dish. And then he would demand desert: crumble, tart or trifle, he never lost momentum when tackling the sweet course.
Daily, his appetite seemed to increase; and with it, her disgust of him.
She no longer desired him in the slightest. His middle-aged paunch had grown into a fully fledged gut, with that immobile thickness and heaviness setting in around his flanks and his neck. The definition between his chin and throat had ebbed away, concealed by drooping fat. The prospect of intercourse with such a creature was nauseating. But he no longer showed any interest in her. Of that, at least, Eleanor could be glad.
As she lay awake, curled up in her corner of the marital bed, listening to the monstrous snoring of the beast lying next to her, Eleanor realised that she hated him.
She began to make enquiries. Initially, she pretended it was on behalf of a friend. But the local women, the ones she know from church and whose children she had taught the piano, knew of Albert, and had observed at a distance the marked change in him in recent months. After a modicum of protestation, Eleanor was obliged to admit the truth: she needed to get rid of her husband; but discretely, swiftly, without the messiness of a divorce.
For several days, nothing came up. But having made the sure decision to do something about her situation, a warm glow began to inhabit Eleanor. She found herself smiling as she went about the menial chores that were invariably left to her, humming a favourite melody as she sliced parsnips for that night’s enormous roast, chuckling to herself as Albert’s otherworldly snores shook the windows in their thick lead frames. Eleanor took pleasure in the meaningless banality of her routine, somehow knowing that this was all about to end.
The following Sunday, Eleanor sat stilly in the bowels of the big, cool church. It was a time for private prayer. The sweet smell of incense wafted back from the altar.
She remembered the small village church of her childhood, sitting outside after the service in the dappled shade of an old oak tree. She had on her favourite dress, printed with big blue flowers. Sitting next to her was Jamie, in her class at school and her best friend. They had been giggling about an old man standing in the church yard, trying to speak with the vicar but who kept losing his hat in the wind. Then Jamie said ‘Can I kiss you?’ and, without waiting for a reply, planted a big sloppy kiss on the side of Eleanor’s cheek.
The priest began speaking. Eleanor opened her eyes, jolted from her reverie. She saw a small, white envelope, propped up on the narrow shelf of the pew in front. In tightly scrawled black italics were the words ‘For impossible husbands'. Inside was a white card, with only an address, written in the same hand. Eleanor looked around suspiciously. Who had put it there, just inches away from her clasped hands, managing not to disturb the still church air? But the congregants all faced forward, eyes on the priest, mouths moving as one like automata as they made their chanted replies.
Eventually Eleanor found it, hidden away in a den of alleys, in an old part of town that Eleanor hadn’t visited before. The street was so narrow that the roofs of the houses almost kissed above Eleanor’s head. The air was dank and chilly, even though it had been a warm day. The stone path was cracked and uneven, worn down in the middle from centuries of feet treading this way. At the edges of the path, and clawing its way up some of the once-whitewashed walls on either side, was a thick carpet of purplish-green moss.
Inauspiciously, the place looked very much like a tea shop, but this was certainly the address on the card. A striped awning, hardly necessary given gloom of the alley, hung out across most of the path. Inside was a single, tiny room, with just a couple of spare wooden tables and a small counter displaying scones and buns.
A girl of not more than fifteen was sat up on a stool behind the counter, and greeted Eleanor as she came in.
‘Have a seat,’ she said. ‘I’ll bring you some tea. Milk, no sugar, I think? And I can see you’re eyeing up those currant buns. No, I insist: they really are delicious. We know who you are, Eleanor,’ continued the girl, smiling and flicking her pixy-blonde hair away from her eyes. ‘Please, take a seat, enjoy your tea and your bun. Mother will be down shortly.’
Eleanor sat and sipped her tea. It was deliciously warming, not at all bitter, with a smoky flavour. The currant bun was fluffy and delicate, the sharpness of the berries offset by the sweetness of the dough. She noticed a theme running through the images lining the walls. What she had first taken for an eccentric style of decoration was, she realised, something of a shrine to the supernatural. There were tapestries of grand knights slaying terrible dragons, carvings of spirit-kings terrorising tiny villages, intricately painted plates showing giants fighting dwarves, and even a sketch of a wizard riding a unicorn.
‘I see our artwork interests you.’ A lady had sat down before Eleanor. Her hair was long and wild, wavy and greyish, her face a little lined, but her eyes matched her daughter’s: sharp and green. ‘I hope you enjoyed your tea. My name is Gabrielle. I’d like you to tell me why you are here.’
‘Oh, the tea was lovely!’ replied Eleanor. ‘And that cake... Thank you for having me here, Gabrielle. Well, the reason I’m here… I have a – a rather difficult husband.’
Gabrielle cocked her head, raising an eyebrow inquisitively.
‘Just – difficult?’ she asked.
‘Well,’ said Eleanor, catching the other woman’s drift, ‘more like impossible!’
‘Ah,’ said Gabrielle. ‘Then I think we can help.’
The single slice of chocolate cake stood proudly erect on the kitchen side. It was large and dark, reddish black, glisteningly moist.
Eleanor still wasn’t quite sure what would happen when her husband ate it – which he inevitably would.
After hearing Eleanor’s story, the kind woman at the shop had given her clear, simple instructions: take this slice of cake, and make sure your husband eats it all. Before the sun rises again, a great change will come over him.
Gabrielle has refused any suggestion of payment (apart from for the tea and the currant bun which were, in any case, very reasonably priced). Eleanor, unsure of what sort of solution would be presented, had brought all the money she could easily get her hands on. But Gabrielle had said no: what she wanted more than anything was for Eleanor to be free, and happy.
Eleanor watched her husband nervously over dinner. He ate his bangers and mash with the usual ravenous indiscretion, shovelling sausage after sausage into his slobbering, fleshy mouth, masticating furiously. But would he fill himself up, Eleanor wondered? Should she instead have presented the cake to him right away, when he got back from work?
She needn’t have worried. Belching, having seen away sixteen sausages, Albert nudged his plate away with his fat palm. His piggish eyes darted around gluttonously, before resting on the slice of cake perched on the sideboard.
‘Yes,’ said Eleanor, kindly, as if speaking to a child. ‘Yes, I brought you some cake home from a lovely tea shop I visited. Here you are!’ She slid the cake in front of him, taking away his used dinner plate with the other hand. ‘No, I’m not having any. I had my slice earlier, you see! Yes, it’s tasty, isn’t it?’ But Albert was paying no attention to her words, already gobbling down his gooey desert. In three more mouthfuls, it was gone.
For a few moments upon waking, Eleanor’s mind drifted in an elegant space, beyond recollection of the past few days. She was a little girl again, under a big oak tree, a cool autumn breeze touching her face, dappled sunlight on her arms…
Eleanor was suddenly very awake, and immediately saw the sun streaming in through a gap in the curtains. She turned over, feeling sick. A ghoulish image of Albert’s big, fleshy corpse, blue and cold, flashed before her eyes.
But instead, a sloppy canine tongue licked her, right on the cheek.
The dog was big, black and fluffy. It lay on the bed expectantly, watching her, panting slightly. It lay, indeed, precisely where Albert had slept – and of Albert himself, there was no sign. His moth-eaten slippers were still at the end of the bed; his shapeless brown dressing gown still hung on the back of the door.
There was no question about it: her husband had been transformed into a dog.
She named him Marty. No vet in the town was able to tell Eleanor quite what sort of dog Marty was. Healthy, yes, about seven or eight years old (they guessed), lively, happy, but otherwise unexceptional. Fortunately, it gave no sign of human intelligence; this had been Eleanor’s greatest fear, upon discovering the transfiguration: that Albert had become a freak, a man trapped in a dog’s body. There was, happily, no sign of this. Indeed, her new pal was quite unlike her husband in virtually every way. The dog had boundless energy, and showed her endless affection, licking her hand or her knee, constantly begging to be petted.
Marty resembled her husband only in two ways: in appearance, and in appetite. The dog was big and hulking, though muscular where Albert had been flabby, and had those same small, dark, piggish eyes. And Marty showed the same rapacious hunger as her husband had done in his last months (though the dog’s manners were, if anything, slightly better). But the vets confirmed that this appetite was nothing to be alarmed about: it was pretty normal, they said, for a dog.
Eleanor settled quickly into her new life. She sold their dreary terraced house, and bought a pretty cottage a little way outside the town, with a big garden for Marty to roam. She began her piano teaching in earnest once again, and was soon offered a post lecturing on music part-time at a new University nearby.
She spent her days busy with her pupils, and her evenings contentedly sowing dresses or reading old novels, Marty’s head resting in her lap, a fire crackling in the grate, Debussy or Bach trickling smoothly from the record player.
Occasionally, she thought of Albert; but when she did, she remembered the good times, in the early years of their marriage. And though she knew she was largely responsible for what had happened to him, she felt no guilt, only freedom.
It had, after all, been easy.
The Director of the Auction House thrust his hands into a pair of white gloves and took a deep breath. He steadied himself, and then, very delicately pulled undone a once-white ribbon tied in a scrambled knot on top of a small box.
"The ribbon," he said, "isn't, of course, contemporary. It's simply a convenience to secure the box-lid. It's probably been replaced several times. I expect this one dates from the fifties."
The assembled company held its collective breath as the Director began, with elaborate care and gentleness, to remove the lid. You could have heard a pin drop ...
Something over a hundred and fifty years before, there had been a baby prince waiting to be baptised. He lay in the middle of his royal Mama's silk-swathed bed on a thick cream-coloured rug, woven in Wales, to protect her precious brocaded bedcover from baby-damage. He looked around him with interest, a little puzzled that every time he turned his head the lace-edged rim of his slippery satin bonnet obscured his view. He was dressed in a pin-tucked, embroidered, appliqued, and gathered ancestral christening robe whose skirts, longer than twice the length of his whole body, were heavy enough to restrict the joyous kicking of his fat little legs to the barest minimum. He sighed, examined his thumb and slid it into his mouth.
Several floors below, his elder sister the Princess Eliza, watched anxiously by her attendant nursery maid, tugged at the skirts of Mrs Bellman, the Palace pastrycook.
"Belly, Belly, please can I help? Can I stir it? Just one little stir?"
Mrs Bellman swatted the child's hand away.
"Give over, your highness, I'm that busy, I haven't time for your shenanigans ... oh, go on then - here, I'll lift you onto the stool."
She wrapped a glass-cloth around the child's middle and let her stir the stiff white icing. She only had a couple more roses to make and apply to the lowest tier of the christening cake, and then she was finished.
"Oh Belly, look! Such lovely flowers! Oh, you are clever! Can I make one? Just a little one? Oh please ....."
Mrs Bellman knew the quickest way to get rid of this untimely interruption was to let the princess do as she wanted. She showed the child how the roses were made, and helped her make one. It was a bit crooked and lopsided, but the child was satisfied. She watched while the cook made another and put in onto the cake, and then she stuck hers on beside it. Mrs Bellman didn't mind; she meant to whip it off and replace it when the child had gone skipping back to the nursery; but just then a scullery maid dropped a handful of newly washed spoons, and by the time she got back to the cake the lopsided rose had set firmly into place.
Mrs Bellman shrugged. What did one little rose matter on a cake five tiers high and designed to feed hundreds?
The baptism ceremony was splendid, and afterwards there was a party on the Palace lawns. The top tier of the christening cake had been one tier of the Queen's wedding cake; it was sliced and distributed to the most significant of the visiting guests, the closest of the ducal uncles, aunts and cousins, and related European royalty. The bottom tier was cut into narrow chunks to be wrapped in crested paper table-napkins and given to the lowest members of the royal household both indoors and out, and their families. The middle tiers were cut into slightly larger chunks and nestled into boxes decorated with the royal coat-of-arms, to be distributed to everyone else.
By chance, the piece decorated with Princess Eliza's icing flower was given to the scullery maid who had dropped the spoons; and because she had seen Princess Eliza making it, she decided not to eat it, but to keep it. Mrs Bellman gave her one of the coat-of-arms boxes to store it in; carefully she wrapped it in its table-napkin and tied the lid on with blue ribbon unthreaded from her nightdress. She rose in the Palace kitchen hierarchy to the post of assistant parlourmaid; but then she was noticed by the young man who delivered the Prince Consort's cigars. They married. Her husband was going places. The family had a long established tobacconist's in the City; when his father died he took over the shop and expanded into the West End; and he made sure their only child, a son named George, was as well-educated as was possible.
The little box of cake from the baby prince's christening became a family heirloom. George wrote out its history and folded it into the box. Several generations passed. Along the way the cigar business was abandoned and sold, and George's great-great-grandson, another George, became a prosperous stock broker. He married a daughter of minor aristocracy, bought a six-bedroomed old rectory in the Home Counties, and sired four children, three girls and finally, a tail-end Charlie, the longed-for boy.
By the time Charlie was seven, he was spoiled rotten. His father was pleased as punch to have a boy and referred to him as 'my son and heir'; his mother adored him and called him her 'little man'; and his sisters had treated him since babyhood as their living dolly. He was delightful to look at with curly blond hair, enormous blue eyes, a wicked grin, and the charm of the devil. But one day he discovered that his father, determined to give him the best that money could buy, was planning to send him away to the foremost boarding preparatory school in the country.
Charlie was not impressed. He liked his life at home. It suited him. There was no way he was going to give it up. He liked the village school, and he liked playing with his father's dog Fancy who was a deaf old yellow retriever with maternal instincts, and he particularly liked his best friend Luke whose father was known to be the local poacher although officially he was gamekeeper at the manor. He spent a lot of time with Luke, catching rabbits on the common with Luke's Dad's ferrets, learning how to pluck pheasants, and once he was allowed to aim Luke's Dad's air rifle at a crow. He missed.
Charlie decided he would play fair and talk to his father, man to man, before taking action to avoid being sent away to school.
"Daddeee ...!" he cried, swinging from his father's arm as he struggled to remove his coat having just that minute returned home from a long day in the City.
"Gedoff you infernal imp!" was the fond response.
Charlie was unmoved. His feet left the ground, and his father almost toppled over as he dumped his son onto his bottom on the floor and finally succeeded in freeing himself from his coat sleeves. He bent over his son and tickled him relentlessly. Charlie squirmed and giggled, and eventually managed to say, "Daddy, I need to talk very importantly to you."
"Do you my boy? Very well, let's go and have a drink together, shall we?"
Charlie's father poured himself a tumbler of whisky and water, and blackcurrant juice for Charlie. They took their drinks into the study and settled into armchairs.
"Daddy, I need to stay at school here 'cos of Fancy and Luke, and not go away to that other school where you have to sleep and wear funny clothes and ..."
"Charlie!" His father sounded unusually firm. "Stop! I've arranged for you to go that school because I think you will love every minute of it, and because going there will enable you to attend an even better school when you are older. There is absolutely no chance of you staying at school in the village. None at all." (And a good thing too, he thought privately to himself, Luke is not a suitable friend for him ...)
Charlie was outraged.
"But Daddy!" he cried, "I don't want to go ..."
"Enough Charlie!" said his father sternly. "The subject is closed, Understood?"
In his heart Charlie knew his fate was sealed. But he wouldn't go without protest. His busy little mind thought long and hard. What was the worst he could do, to show how much he minded being sent away? He didn't have to think for long. What did his father regard as most precious, most special, most important?
Some decades later the Director of the Auction House paused in his lifting of the lid on the little box. The gold of the royal coat-of-arms was faded now, but still discernible.
"If this really is a piece of christening cake from the baptism of one of the old Queen's children, intact and identifiable, it will be enormously valuable, not only for its historical and antique value, but to scientists. How has it kept for so long? Might it still be edible? Whatever its state, the auction price will be huge."
Under the lid was a piece of paper covered in spidery writing.
"Ah yes - this must be the provenance. Yes, I thought so. Very satisfactory."
He set is aside and began to undo the rather untidily folded table-napkin with its golden crest in the corner. The tiny parcel seemed curiously light; he had expected it to be heavier. He spread the napkin flat; inside were some tarry-looking crumbs and another folded sheet of paper. With a sinking heart he unfolded it. On it was written in large badly-formed capitals:
'Ha ha har, its eeten up, Fancy et it, it wos disgustin.'