Each morning she awoke and baked a cake.
It gave, she said, a meaning to her days.
The cakes she baked she stored in air-tight tins.
When all the tins were filled she took the cakes
and fed them crumbled to the ducks and drakes.
Then baked more cakes to store in air-tight tins.
Cakes none but undiscerning ducks would taste.
With all this baking, it is no wonder that she has become good at baking and the other day, someone, someone who sometimes tastes her cakes, that someone said that she should be baking to live and not living to bake, and when she did not understand his words because she was living to bake and baking to live and she wondered what the difference was and he said he meant that she should be making her living with baking. She knew that was not possible because baking was too important to her and when something is as important as baking is to her, you cannot turn it into a commercial activity but some people only think of cashing in on everything and for her that was not possible, it certainly was not possible with baking because if she had to bake to sell she could not bake, she would get bored and even before she became bored all the cakes would fall apart or turn into crumbs as there would be nothing to hold them together if she were baking to sell. And that someone who said she should be baking to live – or was it the other way round? – she cannot remember, that someone who actually said that she should be baking to sell, as if baking to sell and baking to live were the same things, that someone also said that she should not be baking to get it over with, only he did not use such words, for they are her words and people do not use such words, even people she knows, even people who would say they are her friends, except perhaps one or two of them use such words. And he was not the first person to say that she could bake for a living, that is how good she was, yes, others have said that over the years but they don’t understand that that is not what baking is about for her. She needs to bake in the same way that some people need to go for a walk, for a spot of fresh air, like some people need to have a drink, or a puff, or a spliff but she has never said that to anyone because even she did not understand why she was baking. The other day she heard someone say that baking a cake was about love, that baking a cake was about giving love and she almost laughed for how could it be about love if you had no one to whom you could offer a slice, let alone a whole cake, she said. When her children were younger, when they were still children, she was a Jewish mother, she was a cliché of a Jewish mother, her children said. She was a Jewish mother without being Jewish, because she was always baking, always offering cakes and then, in those days when her children were children, baking was about love, about giving love. But those days when her children were children are gone and she is not a Jewish mother anymore, she is not a cliché Jewish mother feeding her children and so there is no one to eat her cakes, no one who would say to her more than those ducks she sometimes feeds her cakes to, no one she could watch eat her cakes, eat them with pleasure, with gusto, smacking their lips as they bite into her cake and that would give her pleasure, as it used to once, but that feeding, that feeding with love, that is no more and so baking cakes is no more about love. Those days are gone and for her baking cakes is about not having love, not getting love, not giving love. But don’t get me wrong, she said, she does not wish for those days to come back but if there were someone she could bake a cake for, if there were such a someone, she would bake it with love and when they ate it, perhaps they could feel the love she had put into it and perhaps she would get their love too. But why would she do that, why would she put love into a cake for someone, for someone she does not love? No, she does not mean this last bit, that last bit about putting love in a cake, she said, she most certainly does not mean that, she said, for the fact is that sometimes she gets all sentimental and thinks of the days when she was a Jewish mother and she liked being a Jewish mother because that is what her children used to call her because her children said in those days when they were still children, they said that she had taught them the importance of education, the importance of improving themselves and she had fed them, she had always offered them food, cakes and biscuits, breads and rolls, stews and bakes, she cooked and taught them and that was love, cooking and teaching her children. But baking for just anyone or baking for no one, as is her case now, that is not about love, that is not special or not very special, although it could be just a bit special, as with that woman, that woman she did not know very well but has met a few times, the woman who had tasted her cakes because she knocked on her door to ask something about parking regulations, or something like that, because she did not know what they were but perhaps that was just an excuse to knock on her door because no one would come in and ask for an explanation of parking regulations because everyone can read the signs on the pavement. But that woman said that she did not know the parking regulations because the woman said, I do not live in the street and I stay here only from time to time with a friend, a male friend, a gentleman friend, the woman said, and my friend lives down the road but he is not in now and so I cannot ask him but I need to wait for him and I do not know when he will be back and so I need to park and I need to park in this street, the adjoining streets will not do as I have lots of bags to deposit in his house because we are preparing to go on a trip round the world and we need to take lots of clothes with us and we need to take comforting items, the kind of comforting items one needs on a long trip, a trip around the world, such as my favourite bedside lamp – the light of hotel lamps is always too poor for night time reading or for making crochet – and I am taking my patchwork quilt too, the woman said. I could not be without my patchwork quilt for a long time, the woman said.
That woman had knocked on the door just as she was about to prick an apricot and almond brandy cake still in the oven and there was a chocolate sponge, freshly iced, and a lemon cake, already drizzled, cooling on a rack on the table and an apple pie, still in the tin next to the cooling rack and the woman made a comment, the woman said something but she could not remember what it was, perhaps something about the lovely smell and then the woman said have you just baked a cake, and she did not say anything to a question like that – because what could one say to a question like that? – and the woman smiled and the woman was looking at the cakes cooling on the rack and so she had to offer a taste, just a tiny taste of something, and she did not mind offering the woman a small piece of lemon cake, although the woman did not interest her and her lack of interest had nothing to do with the woman, that had more to do with her because in her days, she said, not many people interest her, in fact very few people interest her and, to be precise, hardly anyone interests her. The woman said something about the lemon cake being good, very good indeed, the woman said and the woman made one of those horrible noises of appreciation and immediately, while the woman was still masticating the last mouthful of the slice the woman had been offered, the woman glared at the chocolate sponge cake cooling on the rack on the table and the woman glared at the apple pie still in its tin and the woman made a comment, something about them looking good or yummy, yes, the woman used that infantile word, the word that rhymes with tummy, and the word she cannot stand and so it surprised her that she offered the woman a slice of the chocolate sponge and of the apple pie as well. Perhaps that was excessive but she felt, she said, that she had to offer the other two cakes to the woman to taste and that is not quite right because she is past the days when she felt that she had to do anything that other people expected her to do, she said, because that is the privilege of old age, the privilege that you can scupper conventions and you can be as eccentric as you want to, not that she thinks that offering a small slice of cake to a woman who wanted to know about parking regulations in her street was eccentric. Sometimes she wonders whether this rule – or is it a convention, or an expectation? – sometimes she wonders whether this expectation may be of her own making only, and so she wonders whether this privilege of old age to scupper conventions is true for everyone and whether other old people follow it but she has never asked anyone and so she cannot tell whether she alone has thought of this rule and appropriated it for herself but if the former were the case and the world allowed older people a certain amount of leeway to depart from social norms, then, she often wonders, would that be because society does not take old people seriously, or are there some other reasons such as that old people have earned the right to do as they please, she said, earned the right to do as they please by kneeling down in corners of kitchens when they were children, misbehaved children, and facing blank walls, kneeling down and facing a lifetime of blank walls. That is something she will have to ponder on, she said but to get back to the woman in her kitchen that day, it so happened that the woman tried all three cakes on that occasion but not because she felt that she had to offer her to try the cakes after the woman had been glaring at them and smiling at them, and smiling at her, and commenting on the cakes, but something inexplicable happened and she who does not like other people or has not liked other people for some time now, felt that that woman was not too bad and that was the reason, that was the sole reason why she offered her the cakes. Nothing else was on her mind, nothing else at all, there was no thought of giving cakes and getting love from the woman, none at all, absolutely none, she is certain of that because she is past the days when she offered love and she is past the days when she wished for love from others.
And then there was a next time, oh yes, she said, there was a next time as the woman knocked again on her door and the woman said my friend, my gentleman friend is not in and I wonder if you would do me a favour and let me use your phone so that I could check when he would be back and so that I can collect my bags from him because our trip around the world has been postponed – only for a month but still postponed – and I need to get back my patchwork quilt and my favourite bedside lamp and my clothes and my shoes. So the woman came in and again there were cakes in the kitchen, as there often are, freshly baked cakes and there were scones too, a dozen or so herb scones and half a dozen of sweet ones and again the woman made a comment on each cake and each bake and she offered the woman to taste of each cake and each bake and the woman did taste them all and the woman did not even make that phone call, and it was not clear to her whether the woman had forgotten about the phone call since there were so many cakes and bakes to try or whether the woman had only come in to taste her cakes and bakes or perhaps, and that is not completely impossible, perhaps the woman came in to talk to her and the woman did talk to her and while the woman talked to her, the woman said that her cakes, yes the woman said that, she definitely heard the woman say that and the woman referred to her by name – and how did she know her name? – the woman said, V, your cakes make me happy. Your cakes make me happy, the woman said, she said. And she did not know what to say not because the words surprised her, and that is not surprising, that is not surprising to her because nothing surprises her these days but the real point of those words was that there was something definitive about them, something that did not allow anything else to be said. That is why the words stayed with her and she thought they were good words, undoubtedly good words, the words that were about her, the words that were prompted by her cakes and so she thought that perhaps after all, cakes, or at least her cakes, could be about love. A few days after the woman had said V, your cakes make me happy, she was baking cakes, trying out new recipes, the cakes the woman had not tried before and she thought the woman might come in and try those new cakes, those new cakes the woman had not tried before, and she even thought that those new cakes would make the woman happy and that there could be something, something a little bit like love in that and she had many more cakes, and many more varieties than ever before when the woman had come round but the woman did not come. And the woman did not come a week later and there were so many cakes, too many to take to the ducks at the pond in Putney and so she threw them out. She threw the cakes out, lots of cakes, many different cakes. That was some time ago and she had not seen the woman for a while, for a year or two even, yes, two years it must be and she wondered what had happened to the woman, whether the woman’s gentleman’s friend had moved away or whether the relationship had not survived and so the woman had no reason to come to the street, she said, for really the woman came for the man, the man who was the woman’s gentleman friend and not for the cakes and now when she thinks about it, it occurs to her that that whole episode, that whole episode had a possibility of something, a friendship even, a possibility of cakes giving love. Did she mean giving love or getting love? She is not sure but there was something about love and those cakes. Now that she looks back to that episode she thinks of it as a failure – cake baking as a failure? – but even that is fine for she no longer needs to get love and she could never get love from women, the treacherous Eves, always pushing her in the paddling pool, like those girls when she was not yet four years old, women always luring her in, always that same pattern of turning up, calling attention to themselves, chasing her with love and then when she wants to give it back to them, when she wants to give love and have love, have their love, they take off, they disappear, they do not return her calls, they cut her out, they cut her out without a word. But not anymore, she will not fall prey to their friendship, their false friendship, their temptations of friendship, and now her baking is about her, she tells herself, her baking is about her without love and without the need for love, her baking is about leaving that dark room, that room that always stays dark even when she remembers to put the light on and when she can be bothered to open the shutters. And the woman is not coming back, she is sure of that, the woman could have been run over, she could have had a heart attack, she could have been kidnapped, she could have emigrated, or perhaps she was one of those women who goes around sniffing in front of people’s front doors and knocking on those doors when she could smell a cake and that woman must have been in the habit of doing that and perhaps there was no gentleman friend and all of that is possible but not important to her just as it is possible but not important to her that the woman simply got bored with the cakes and bakes. She does not care what the reason might be for the woman not coming back, nor does she care that she will never again see the woman for she knows that she does not like most people, in fact she doesn’t like almost all the people, except for a very few, very few who know better than to meddle with others, with their baking and their cakes, she does not like people except for a very, very few who keep themselves to themselves, she does not like people with their habits and with their lack of habits. She bakes and bakes and she makes all those scones, sweet and savoury, herby and fruity, all those cakes and all those tarts that are too much for one person, she makes and bakes for no one, she makes and bakes to get it over with.
I found this story beautifully written, breathlessly creative, and very poignant. A piece full of interesting imagery and narrative, with autobiographical hints, it could happily be read out loud in a ” Talking Heads” manner- I would gladly listen to it!
What a wonderful story and elegantly told. So many works these days sound like they were all made from the same batch of flour and sugar and milk — to keep to the baking theme. I rejoice when I find a refreshing, unique voice.
This is brilliant writing. It could only be written by one who understands the mind/soul, of an aging crone, caught-up by force of habit or fear of stepping beyond her known past. Vesna Main captures the poignant rumination of an old woman who feels but chooses to rationalize her own sense of diminishment, as her world closes down into a self-centered, but manageable reality.
I don’t think Janet House is crazy – this story isn’t the easiest one to read. It has a slow start, and the repetitions of its prose in the first paragraph are overdone. But in the second paragraph, and thereafter, it hits stride, and becomes a lament for what used to be in the narrators past, while the repetitions bear witness to the emptiness of her life. I don’t agree with Ann St James that the narrator’s crazy, either. The final sentence summarises exactly what she’s soldiering through.
Am I crazy? I tried to read this story but just couldn’t hack it. It is a mess. The writer sounds like an interesting person but is this literature? I remember about 60 years ago when my college freshman English professor reminded me that not all literature is to be enjoyed But even with that in mind, I could not read this work. At 78 years old, I know there are so many things to read, and so little time, that I can choose from hundreds of experimental, imaginative works that will stimulate me to think, laugh, cry, and respond in myriad ways. I don’t have to stay with those I don’t like. Does anyone else share this response?
I like Rabinovitch’s poem, however, and will read more of her work.
I enjoyed this story in the same way one might consume a piece of cake. Carefully, greedily, with delight.
I found it both compelling and frustrating. It reads even better out loud; I tried a few phrases and was quickly caught up in it all over again.
This is a beautiful story about loneliness and rejection, disliking others because she has so often been rejected. The ducks don’t reject her.
Oh yes! I loved the style, the way the sentences went on and on, just as obsessive thoughts persist and persist in one’s head. Brilliant and sad. Thank you.
I love this piece. I identify with the narrator’s craziness. At times, I burst out laughing. The world traveler needing her quilt and bedside lamp – brilliant. And the dark room that stays dark even when she remembers to put the light on. From beginning to end – I was dazzled. As I said, I love this piece.
Lovely story! I think the visiting woman was real and confirmed the baker’s negative feelings about other people. Sad.