Donnie’s 40th birthday was on the 5th September. Her little boy a middle-aged man – who would believe it?
Jane hadn’t a clue what to buy him, but as she found tea often helped her think, she put the kettle on. Her father had always bought ‘useful’ presents – new saucepans for mother, a winter coat for Jane even though her birthday was the middle of August. He never bought luxuries for himself, so he didn’t see why he should do it for anyone else.
An oily slick had formed on the top of her tea by the time she had an idea. Her boy had had a tough time of late. He didn’t need something useful or practical, he needed something frivolous. He needed spoiling. She would make him a birthday cake.
The day before Donnie’s birthday, she gathered her ingredients together. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs, chocolate. She’d even tottered down to the supermarket with her walking stick and trolley to buy sugar strands and silvery balls and edible glitter to decorate it.
Jane never made cakes when Donnie was little. She’d been too busy working in the grocers or cleaning offices or serving behind the counter in the fish and chip shop. He’d been a good boy though, never complained even when he missed out on the best toys at Christmas. Even the year she forgot his birthday and he had tinned beans and pork sausages for his tea when she’d promised to take him for ice cream.
Making the cake was trickier than she’d expected. She didn’t know what some of the terms meant on the recipe and had to mix it in a saucepan because she didn’t own a mixing bowl big enough. Such a mess too – flour everywhere and a blob of butter on the kitchen tiles that she skidded on, bumping her knee on the cupboard door, making her heart hammer like a steam train.
Eventually it was done and she was so tired her hands were shaking. Thirsty and uncomfortably hot, she sat at the kitchen table and stared at her creation.
It was … beautiful. The sugary glitter caught the light like frost, the silvery balls like stars in a chocolate night, the icing deep and inviting as a bed of furs.
And suddenly she was crying, sobs breaking from her, shivering her narrow shoulders. Because Donnie would never taste it, would never sit at her kitchen table again, would not let his own mother visit him, not to see him in that place, with its smell of fear and its dark corners and its long, loud nights.
‘Happy birthday, son,’ she whispered, tipping the cake into the bin.