The Birthday Cake
The newcomer approached our party from the west, a kamikaze presence coming out of the setting sun.
We had been at the beach all afternoon, messing about in our little boats, the sun metalling the muddy grey water to pewter. The tide ripped in and out of Burnham fast, the racing ebb laying the mud flats bare as far as the eye could see.
The surge of it churned up the sludgy bottom, obscuring limbs beneath its opaque surface. Mud caked to your toes if not rinsed away, forming alien brown-grey lumps at the end of your legs.
We kids had made Dad a birthday cake after mass that morning. The priest had raised his eyebrow at Dad again, but he didn’t ask where Mum was. Mum had never let us before. She said Dad would like it, a gift from the five of us. The cake was dark chocolate sponge, the two halves married together with buttercream icing, more rich, creamy frosting on the top. We had used alternating orange and green Smarties to make the ‘50’ in the middle, and carefully placed it in an upside-down cake tin, the sponge sitting in the lid so as not to crush the top. Tommy sat and watched and ate the spare chocolate.
Our whole clan was there. Gran and Grandpa had brought the “tea wagon”; their campervan a mobile travelling kitchen for sailing weekends. The kettle whistled on the two-burner stove in the back. In a wicker basket, bottles of squash and bags of doughnuts from Curtis the baker, overburdened with sugar, the grease soaking through the white paper. A special bag for Mum with a custard tart in it perched on the top of our treats.
Dad helped us put our boats away, the rigging clanking as we hefted the trolleys up the steep slipway, two kids to each side and Dad up the front, tall and strong. Then he wheeled his own into the compound. Gran helped Mum with the picnic pouring mugs of tea and cups of juice.
I put the cake tin on the sea wall and we all gathered round, Dad in the middle, the centre of everything.
Mum produced a knife from the picnic basket. We huddled in closer to form a wind-break, spreading our stripy beach towels out to block the south-westerly breeze. Dad struck a match, his shock of white hair standing up in the wind, bright against the blue of the sky. His lean, tanned face looked happy, the leader of his tribe of brine dusted, grubby children.
Dad blew out the candle and everyone sang, except Mum; she had been quiet for days. Dad cut the cake into triangular slabs, three quarters of it gone in one go for the nine of us in the ring around him. Sugar coated, crumby mouths licked salty, sticky fingers.
“You did a good job on this cake girls.” Dad’s smile was replaced by a sudden frown. A tendril of cold caressed my spine. Mum, seeing the look, turned and glanced behind her. A thin finger of shadow stretched toward our celebration, the low sun elongating the shape into an alien being, long, long legs with a tiny pin head.
Dad pushed through the wall of us and headed straight for the slender blond woman whose challenging, blue eyes seemed focused solely on him. He reached out and grabbed her arm, the intensity of the movement so fierce it reverberated through us all. I felt it, felt the pinch in the skin of my own right arm, reached up with my left to rub the imagined bruise. Gran gasped, Mum just followed him with her eyes, the lid of the tin with its quarter cake cargo forgotten in her hands.
Dad wheeled the woman away from us, back the way she had come. His head was bent towards her ear, harsh mangled sounds spitting like daggers from his mouth, back rigid with tension.
The tin lid clattered to the sandy bitumen. The two halves of the cake split apart, orange and green Smarties scattered, smeared and melting on the warm tar. The noise shattered the silence, snapping us out of our frozen tableau. Mum started to run. Tom tried to follow her but Gran grabbed him and held him firm.
I wanted to follow Mum, to somehow throw them both a lifeline, pull them to safety aboard the ark our family was, but it was too late. With every step, her momentum was widening the breach in the hull of our craft and we were sinking.
“Isn’t that Sheila?”
“Joe, not now.”
“But what’s she doing here?”
“Joseph!” Gran’s mouth set fierce. “Let’s take them home.” She started to stack the beakers, tossing dregs of juice and tea over the seawall onto the sand below.
I pulled my towel tight around my shoulders, and, aware of the cold dampness of it, shivered. Theresa leaned against me, big eyes scared.
Mum’s back was toward us, hands pulling at Dad’s sleeve. The woman broke free of Dad’s hold on her elbow and stood, feet apart, hands on hips, chin up, defiant. Mum got between them, her back now to the woman, arms spread wide. Tom’s face crumpled in on itself.
“Gran, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know love. Come on we’ll take you home.”
“Why is Dad being so angry? Can’t you do something?” Tears tracked through the dirt on his face. Gran got down on her knees and wrapped her arms around him pulling his head close, her fingers smoothing the golden curls back from his forehead. She pressed her lips against his skin and started to rock, eyes squeezed shut, leaking tears.
Tom’s pain galvanized us. The youngest of us all we looked out for him, our baby brother. All of us girls drew close to them forming a new wall, arms around each-others’ shoulders, Grandad sentinel behind Gran. Still rocking, Gran started to hum, a memory.
Theresa found the words and started to sing, broken. “Wynken, Blynken and Nod one night, sailed off in a wooden shoe… sailed in a river of crystal light, into a sea of dew.’
A shadow fell across us. Dad stooped and lifted Tom from Gran’s lap. Gran looked up.
“John, what the dickens is going on?”
“Ask Bernadette. Come on kids, we need to get home.”
“What about Mum?”
“I don’t know…” his eyes slewed back toward her. “She won’t come at the moment. Help me with the things.”
With a bundle of towels clamped against my chest I looked along the sea wall towards my Mum. Her hands rested on the top of the parapet looking across the dried-out estuary to the sun hovering above the horizon. The woman was standing between us and Mum, her arm around Mum’s stiff shoulders.
Dad strapped Tom into the car and the younger two climbed in beside him. Theresa and I rode in the boot of the Volvo in rear facing seats, the towels and picnic things packed in around our feet. As Dad swung the car around the silence compressed, thick and cloying. Our mouths blocked with glutinous questions and the knowledge of Dad’s tears. Up by the seawall, seagulls swooped and soared, squabbling over the carcass of the cake.