Secret Cake

With the rest of the family at the gym after downing their pre-workout plant protein smoothies, the coast was clear. She couldn’t cook her favourite treat in the house. As soon as they got back in they’d pick up the delicious scents that had wafted from the oven. Instead, she grabbed a set of house keys from the dresser drawer. They were house-sitting for the Khan family, who were away on a twenty-eight day Caribbean cruise.

It was there in the Khan’s freezer that her secret stash resided. Letting herself in through the side door, she turned the oven on before giving the place a cursory check. Everything was where it should be, including the cardboard box she had hidden in their fridge-freezer.

After ten minutes of preheating, and twenty of baking, the smell had her licking her lips as she took the cake out to serve on a plate. Firm, golden-brown and moist. The first bite was heaven, full of rich flavour. Try as she might to savour it, the morsel melted away in her mouth. She lingered over each delicately seasoned mouthful. Each comforting, zesty, meaty mouthful.

Her husband and the kids had stuck with the Atkins diet for a month. As she whittled away at the fishcake with her fork, she could only hope their vegan vitality plan would be abandoned before the Khans returned.

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Jam Pudding

Her name was Hazel, and even in an apron and hairnet she was the most beautiful woman Blake had ever seen. Always polite and always friendly, her rich laugh often filled the lunch line at the cafeteria.

“What’ll it be today, Blake?” She’d always ask when he came up to get his dessert.

“Jam Pudding, please.” He’d reply, licking his lips as a slice of steamed sponge drizzled with raspberry jam was put on his plate. “Can’t beat a nice bit of stodge.” He always added that comment. “How’s the kids doing?”

The reply to that one always shifted over the course of the year. Today’s reply from Hazel was: “Katie’s got her mock GCSEs coming up, so she’s stressing about them. Custard?”

“Please.” A ladle covered Blake’s pudding in creamy yellow vanilla custard. With a cheeky wink she’d always add a ladle and a half for him. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for her.”

“How’s yours?” She’d ask as she passed the tray back.

There was no one behind him in the queue today, which meant he could go into a little more detail. “I’ve got the boys this weekend, saved up enough to take them to the cinema tomorrow.”

“Oh, it’s ever so expensive now.” Hazel said with a shake of her head. Dipping into her apron pocket, she took a couple of coins out as she moved over to ring Blake up. Dropping the coins into the till along with his cash, she grabbed a couple of Freddo bars from the small basket and put them on his tray. “A little treat for them both from me.”

Sometimes it was a finger of Fudge, or a pack of Jelly Tots that she’d buy for his two kids. They’d always bicker over the price, him insisting on paying and her adamant it was a present from ‘Aunt Hazel’, as the boys knew of her.

“Fine, fine.” Blake admitted defeat. “Thanks.”

“Now, you go and have your afters.” Hazel smiled. “Before it cools off.”

With a nod he walked off towards one of the smaller tables in the cafeteria to linger over his dessert as Hazel wiped the counters down and rotated the stock. One day, he would finally muster up the courage to ask her out.

Until then, he always had one and a half ladles of vanilla custard over jam pudding.

The Most Wonderful Time Of Year

An ice cream was just the thing she needed. It was a hot bank holiday weekend, the summer sun giving one last push before the school year would soon start up again and she’d be back in the classroom teaching teenagers.

After spending the morning in the park with enough factor 50 sunblock smeared into her skin to stop her from doing a lobster impersonation, lunch from the little snack bar that was always set up in the car park at that time of year consisted of a rather nice burger and a rather nice hot dog. She was having trouble deciding which to get so she went for both, with lashings of ketchup and some fried onions.

Then there was more lounging about in the park and even more sunblock, before it was time for an ice cream. The store she went into had the freezer near the tills, but there was a shelving display and one way system into the shop she had to navigate first. That’s when she saw them.

Christmas decorations.

Christmas decorations at the end of August!

Fairy lights, tinsel, ornaments, little candle holders. It was all there on the shelves. There wasn’t even any sign of Halloween decorations yet! They’d skipped the pumpkin buckets and plastic bats and gone straight to ropes of LED lights and itchy wool stockings for holding presents. She stood there with mouth agape as she took in the unnaturally early store display.

Finally rousing herself from shock, she snatched an Orange Calippo from the freezer chest and moved to the till.

“Before you say it,” the nice young man behind the counter said with a long suffering sigh. “I know. We all know.”

Her shoulders sagged. She was denied even the enjoyment of complaining about the premature seasonal displays. Grabbing the cash from her purse, she set the coins down after her iced treat was scanned.

“Anything else today?” The shop assistant asked.

The urge to make a glib remark about when the Easter Eggs were coming in died on her lips. “No… have a nice weekend.” She’d have to make do with muttering about it under her breath, and mentioning the flagrant disregard for the proper order of celebratory event displays to all her friends.

 

That Time Of Year

It was that time of year again, and the sounds carried from the Memorial Park through the roads and down the streets to his house. A blend of music from various attractions, sprinkled with with the sounds of delight and excitement, carried over the rooftops and reached his ears thanks to the favourable winds.

The trucks had rolled in the previous evening. After a night of rest and a day of set-up, the funfair was open for all. Bags of candy floss would hang from stalls, fresh donuts dipped into the fryers, hot dogs and burgers sold in paper napkins. Merry-go-rounds would twirl and dodge ’ems would duel. Spinners would reach skywards as they span the riders around, strapped to the inner walls of the device.

Games of skill were no doubt there, with hoops to toss, prizes to shoot and coconuts to topple over. Heading over to the windowsill, he opened the window a little more and perched on the white ledge listening to the sounds of leisure coming his way. It was still early in the evening…

Quickly slinging some trainers and a hooded top on, he tucked his wallet into the pocket of his hoodie and headed down the stairs, pausing only to grab his set of keys from the hook. The second his foot landed on the mat outside the front door, the waves of anxiety hit him. Retreating back into the porch halted the grip of the nerves on his stomach and slowed the flutter of his chest.

Pacing back and forth on the mat for a little, he gathered his courage and opened the front door again. Nausea came over him like a wave, and once back in the house standing in the porch wasn’t enough. Rapidly ascending the stairs, he locked the bathroom door behind him and sat on the white mat just by the tub as he waited for his stomach to settle.

With the bathroom window open, the siren call of the fair drifted through. With clammy skin and shaking hands he shut the window and curled up with the hood pulled up over his hair.

“Next year.” He promised himself. He’d deal with the issues, master the panic attacks, settle the anxiety and go up there next year to ride the rides. The only way his stomach would feel unsettled was from the motions of the ride and too many snacks from the stalls. “Next year.” He nodded to himself, though his legs still felt weak and his stomach still heaved.

“Maybe.”

Coupon Queen

Her scissors snipped away at the latest magazine to come through the door, clipping out the various promotional and manufacturers coupons contained within. Like all good clippers, she had a system. Like all coupon enthusiasts, she researched constantly to get the best deals. It had become a game to get the most for the least, her social media and forum accounts used to report her hauls to other clippers.

Each store in her vicinity had a folder. She would check the coupons she had against store offers and deals, then assign it to the folder. Her car had a cool box in the back, and in the space of a morning she could knock out at least three stores before coming home to stock the cupboards up. She didn’t need all that she bought, so some went to the church, and some went to the shelter. Pet food always went to the local veterinary office. They’d been so good to her when Boxer died.

The cupboards were always full. Stock was rotated in and out from there, her pantry, and the storage shelves she set up in the garage. She was always ready to receive, always had something to bring to local cook-outs and pot lucks. And there was always stuff for them in, ready for when they popped around. His favourite jar of jelly. Her preferred shower gel. The cookies he always liked. That cereal they always badgered her to get.

She’d box some of the stuff up to send out to them, handwritten notes in each one sending word from home and all the neighbourhood news. It had been a while since they visited, but there was always the chance they’d pop over and she’d be mortified if the shelves were bare and the fridge under-stocked!

There was no music blaring out from the rooms as she got in from the mega mart. No games consoles filling the house with explosions or football on the TV. She had coupons for everything, except for what she really wanted.

Coffee Conundrum

She’d seen them before in the little coffee shop by the mall, sat at the round tables with their laptops in front of them, typing away. What they were typing didn’t matter, but they seemed to be knocking the words out at a tremendous rate. So, she decided to try it out too.

The next day she had a battered old laptop in her bag, the tiny grooves on the machine trapping dust and the keyboard hot to the touch after just a short amount of uptime. With a large cup of caffeinated sugar purchased, she settled down into a nice window seat to watch the world go by.

Well, she wasn’t a fan of window seats and the way people seemed to peer in at her, but it was the only one with a free electrical socket. If she relied on the battery she’d get an hour of power at best. With the wifi off, the brightness turned down and some sort of ritualistic power dance performed to try and squeeze the last ounce of juice from the Li-ion cells.

It was a little while after she finished the first cup that she noted problem number one. As much as she tried to ignore it, as much as she jiffled about in her seat, there was no helping it. With a sigh, she saved her work, packed her laptop away and headed into the bathrooms.

Her seat had already been taken by the time she came out. With little else to do, she broke out the notepad and jotted down ideas until the couple and their adorable toddler vacated the window table.

Problem number two came at the end of week one. Stepping onto the scales, the needle creaked up further than the end of last week. A steady stream of frothamochafrappelatteccinos, baked treats and store-bought sandwiches soon added up in pounds.

That tied in to problem number three. At the end of the second week she checked her bank account and winced. It was so easy to just tap her NFC card against the Chip & Pin machine for easy contactless payments. No fuss with change, no swiping or pin entry! It all added up though.

She found herself on the scales, alternating between staring at the needle on the dial and the mini-statement in her hand. The pounds she was gaining and the pounds she was losing were the wrong way around.

The next day was a Saturday. The city was heaving, the mall was jam-packed, and the coffee shop hectic. The same three men she had seen previously were in there. There was a uniform nature about them. Middle-aged. Glasses. Balding. Blue shirts and dark trousers. They carried their weight in the middle, and trimmed their beards in a similar Van Dyke style. Idly imagining herself in such an attire made her laugh. It also drew some stares from passers-by. Gripping her laptop bag under her arm, she headed back the way she came pausing only to stop off at the a supermarket. The coffee conundrum was resolved with a box of Earl Grey and a small plastic shaker rattling with sweeteners.

Maybe tea would be less trouble?

Wishing

The pinball machine sat gathering dust. It stood in the corner of the old break room, long since unplugged and with all records of high scores lost from its memory. Malcolm Conner wandered along, checking that the windows were secure before switching the lights off.

The factory had long since fallen silent, the product outsourced and the workers laid off. He was the last employer left, the caretaker making sure the building hadn’t been broken into before it was sold off. He had no idea what the buyer planned to do with the site. He flicked the light switch in what used to be the smoker’s room on to check that window too, and the board he put up to cover the broken one.

They had no need for his services. He’d get his redundancy package, and he had his pension pot he’d paid into for years. Flicking the light off, he carried on down the corridor. It wasn’t money issues that caused the cold knot of fear to wrap around his stomach. It wasn’t the certainty of redundancy that made Malcom twist about under his bed covers at night as he fretted about the future.

It was retirement. Malcolm Conner had started work at 14, sweeping the floor of the factory below. He’d met his wife, a typist, in the offices when he used to haul the mail cart up and back again. Between departments he bounced, picking up jobs in the building with ease and always working with a smile. 60 years later, who’d take him on? What reason would he have to clamber out of bed, ignoring the stiffness of his joints, and shave for the day?

He held his heavy torch with a confidence born of years of association as he made his way down the thick concrete stairwell. He could navigate this place in the dark. He had a few times, when the power went out and he was without a torch. The machinery was still, the factory floor quiet of noise and gossip. Vans no longer pulled into the loading bay to be filled with product or have materials unloaded. There would be no cup of tea alongside a plate of chips, beans and a beef burger waiting for him when he got home. No kiss on the cheek when he finally climbed into bed. No pints with the lads down the pub on a Friday.

The beam of his torch passed over the interior one last time before he grabbed the bundle of keys at his waist. As Malcolm Conner locked the doors behind him, he left the site of Garland’s Tools wishing for just another day’s work. Malcom was a practical man.

He wasn’t used to feeling useless.

Posturing

The pair squared each other up, circling around in the middle of the park. Nearby were a few onlookers watching the conflict brewing. Every so often, one would take a step forwards and the other would step back. Sometimes it would be more than a step, a leap forwards sending the opponent reeling back as they moved to get out of the way.

A fight would happen, but not yet. They had to size each other up, get a read on their skills and test their reflexes. They continued to circle with a confident stride.

This time both stepped closer, narrowing the diameter of their arena as they moved clockwise across the grass. Then one puffed themselves up and switched, gaining proximity before the other realized and moved anti-clockwise at a fair pace to regain their distance.

When they finally met?

When they finally crossed the floor between them to exchange blows?

There was a lot of ineffective flailing and flapping before they backed off to measure each other up once more.

She shook her head as she watched the bravado on show. “Posturing pigeons.” She sighed, not even bothering to throw them the crust from a sandwich quickly scoffed before work was due to resume.

Shortcut

The night out had been an enjoyable one. Perhaps a little too enjoyable, given her head was filled with a fuzzy sensation from all the drinks she’d been knocking back. Still, the night air was cutting through the alcohol fog in her brain, and home was only a quick shortcut through the park. Wrapping her jacket tighter around herself, she passed through the gates and only got a meter in before someone was calling out to her.

“I don’t think this is a good idea, human.” A droll voice intoned.

Quickly looking about, and feeling her head swim from the rapid movements, she could see no one except a bony-looking cat perched on top of an illuminated bollard.

“Yes, I said that.” The cat spoke, peering up at her with eyes glowing a bright green.

“My apartment building’s just five minutes that way.” She said, pointing off down the park. The cat tilted its head as it regarded her. “Well, ten minutes. It’d be half an hour walking around.”

“Oh no, a whole half hour?” The cat gasped, rolling its head in derision. “And you humans call cats lazy. I really suggest you go the other way. The long way.”

“Oh yeah, well why… why am I listening to a talking cat? Cats can’t talk.” She blinked, stepping closer to look at the moggy. Its tortoiseshell fur was lit from the light from the bollard underneath it.

Leaping from its perch, the cat started to batter at her bare legs with his head. “Go.” Batter. “The.” Ram. “Long.” Another headbutt. “Way.” A whip of the tail. “Home.” Then the claws came out to scratch at the unprotected flesh.

“Ow!” She backed off a bit, only for the cat to come and claw at her again. Further and further back she was driven before she was back on the well-lit street, the animal hissing at her with its heckles raised. “Fine, fine, I’ll go the long way home. Stupid cat.” With an annoyed grunt, she followed the pavement around. It took just over thirty minutes for her to get home, down a glass of water and fall into bed.

She was awakened by the blaring ring of her phone. Grumbling to herself, she rolled off the small double bed and picked it up. “What?!”

“Oh thank god you’re okay, Bex!” It was her colleague, Natasha.

“I know I had a bit to drink last night, but of course I’m-”

“You haven’t heard?” Natasha gasped. “There was a murder in the park last night. I know you cut through that way sometimes, like an idiot.”

Bex felt her stomach drop. “I almost did but some cat told me not to.”

“… A cat told you not to?”

“Don’t laugh. It…” With a pause, she looked down at her legs. There were thin red lines running down her shinbones. “… It just scratched me, that’s all. So I went the long way instead.” Her stomach felt like there was a massive weight in there. “I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

“Okay, Bex. Just, call if you need anything, okay?” Natasha said before hanging up.

Bex quickly showered, applied some antiseptic cream to her shins, and dressed before heading off to the park. Police cars and vans were dotted about, all the entrances sealed off with police tape as reporters said their pieces to camera with the park entrances as a backdrop. Walking the half hour around to get to the other side, she saw the tortoiseshell perched up on the wall, chin resting on its front paws and ears flat.

Crossing the street, Bex popped into the corner shop and bought a pack of boneless salmon flakes. Checking both ways, she headed back to the cat and opened the pack. “I brought you some fish. To say thanks.” She said, looking up at the cat.

After a moment, a pair of eyes fixed on her before the skinny animal leapt down to circle around her legs. With careful fingers she held out a chunk of pink fish for the hungry animal. “I won’t take any more shortcuts.” She said as the animal ate. “And I won’t drink as much either.”

The cat meowed, licking its lips before going for another piece of fish.

“You didn’t have to scratch me so much though.” She smiled. The look the cat gave her was one of doubt before swiveling its head to look up the road. “Okay, maybe you did have to.” She said as another set of police cars came past.

Criminology

The bathroom was the focal point of investigation. The handle of the implement was coated in a fine powder to reveal the fingerprints on it.. Tweezers were being used to carefully extract hairs from the tangle knotted in the working end of the tool. Her hands were covered in blue nitrile gloves as she examined and gathered evidence, a determined look on her face.

“Aren’t you being a little bit ridiculous?” Her father asked.

“Someone keeps using my hairbrush, Dad.” She replied, sorting the hairs out by length and colour on a sheet of white A4 paper. “And I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”

When she wanted to study Criminology, it was more CSI he had in mind. Not Anatomy of a Hairbrush Theft.