Martin and Isabel are in the kitchen. Isabel stands on a chair to reach the kitchen top, but still has to stretch just a little. She has a tartan apron wrapped high under her armpits to keep some of the flour off. Martin, too, is wearing an apron. The pinafore kind, yellow flowers, with a big pocket in the front for what, he doesn’t know. He watches as the little girl stirs the mixture with careful seriousness, the wooden spoon gripped in her perfect hand. It won’t be long now till she’s old enough for infant school; September’s just around the corner, and Martin feels a sudden knot in his stomach at the thought of her leaving. Of course, it’ll mean an end to the problems he’s been dealing with, the childcare, the dependency on the understanding nature of his boss. He’ll be able to go back to work, properly, like a … The word ‘man’ springs into place at the end of that sentence, but he pushes it away. It isn’t what he means. Isn’t what he wants to mean.
He stares at the cake mixture, watching as the loose flour on the top puffs over the edge of the bowl.
‘That’s right, Izzy,’ he says, because he has to, ‘keep mixing. We don’t want it all lumpy, do we?’
‘No, that’d yukky. Lumpy cake,’ she says and chuckles to herself. ‘Will I make cake at school, Daddy? Or is it just writing and things?’
He takes in a deep breath, as if giving the idea great consideration, but in truth has no idea. Did he make cake at school? He can barely remember the actual routine of it all, just the… No, he doesn’t want to think about that now.
‘I expect you will be able to make things like cake, Izzy. I’m sure of it. You’ll be able to do all sorts of things; painting, colouring, projects, music, all the things you love.’
She stops stirring for a moment and considers this. ‘I hope so,’ she says, I don’t think I’ll like doing writing all day.’ Then continues with her stirring, but Martin is beginning to feel apprehensive. He was sure she was looking forward to school. They’d talked about it -- even been to visit. That had been a minor victory for him, getting the time off work to take her. Just one afternoon when he’d had to be with her, not the nanny, him. Fulfilling his role as father and parent, and he’d had to battle to get it. ‘It looks wonderful, Izzy,’ he says, so he doesn’t have to remember, ‘Just like…’ and he almost says it; ‘like Mum used to make,’ but manages to not.
‘Like what, Daddy?’
Martin gropes for an idea. Who makes cakes that she knows? Good cakes? He closes his eyes, trying to picture all the cakes he’s ever known. There must be someone. Then it comes to him. His mother. Granny. Granny makes cakes. He opens his eyes.
‘Just like Granny’s.’
The little girl grins, pleased with herself.
Why is it always so hard? he thinks. And a flash of doubt sweeps through him; doubt at his own ability to continue. He’s fooling himself that he’ll be able to maintain this role. No, these roles. There are too many and he sometimes feels that there isn’t enough of himself to fulfil them all. Not properly. Not well enough for her, for Isabel.
‘Daddy,’ and he turns to look at her – her cheek smeared with flour, ‘when I go to school will I be able to come home and see you at lunchtime? I don’t think I want to stay there all day.’
He forces himself to smile, ‘I’m sorry, love, but you’ll have to have your lunch there. With the other children. I’ll make you sandwiches if you like, and you can have a Kit Kat. We’ll get a nice box, you can choose any one you like.’
She frowns. ‘Well, I like Kit Kats, but I don’t think I want to stay there by myself. Can’t I come back? Just for a little bit?’
‘You won’t be by yourself, silly,’ he says, in his jolly voice, trying to suppress the apprehension he feels for her, ‘all your new friends will be there.’ Be positive, that’s it, be positive and she won’t notice. But he has to turn away. His fingers grip the edge of the kitchen counter so hard it hurts.
‘I spect, they will. I wonder who they’ll be?’ she says, and for a moment is excited by this prospect - this potential for new friends is infinite.
But Martin can’t shake the fear that it will be horrible for her. He remembers his first day, or rather, doesn’t remember exactly, as it’s something he’s tried to block from his mind. They’d just moved house, and he was not only starting a new school but beginning again in a new area, knowing no one. The first few days were spent wandering alone around the playground, watching as the other kids got on with their complicated games. He was a shy child, he knew that, and perhaps had been a little odd. Kids pick that sort of thing up. Immediately. You have the wrong shoes and you’re an outcast; a different accent and you’re the central figure of fun for the class. Eventually, he’d dealt with it, made a few friends – not the cool kids, but at least he’d had someone to hang around with. He hadn’t looked like the sad lonely kid anymore. He frowns. Is Isabel like that? He looks at her auburn hair, bits of it escaping from the band he’s tied it up with, and knows she is like her mother. Exactly like Maria and Maria isn’t shy. Far from it. How they’d stayed together as long as they had was something he could never quite grasp. The clichés of chalk and cheese, opposites attract, all the usual things, came to mind. His friends had said the same at the wedding. Been surprised that this vibrant, creative woman with pre-Raphaelite hair (she’d even had to explain that reference) had decided to settle down with him. And for the first few years it had been wonderful, they’d balanced each other out, achieved things together he’d never imagined. Isabel, for one. But, deep down, he’d always known it wouldn’t last. Maria was too – well, different. Unusual. She was one of those women for whom motherhood was not a given. She’d loved Isabel; of course she had – does still. But, being a mother just wasn’t her. So she’d left. Gone off to travel the world, and you couldn’t take a slightly insecure husband and tiny baby with you to do that.
So she hadn’t. She wrote of course, to Isabel. Sent her marvellous things from fabulous places, and Isabel loved it. Her Mummy faraway like in a fairytale. But he can’t quite come to terms with the fact that they’ve been left. Abandoned. Men were supposed to do that, if anyone was going to. At least in his experience. But he isn’t going to leave. He knows he couldn’t – ever. He tucks a strand of Izzy’s hair behind her ear. So this is where he’s ended up. Standing in his very-unfitted kitchen in a pinny, making cakes with a young child who’s about to leave him, too, in a way.
‘Is it mixed right, Daddy? Can we put it in the oven now?’ He jolts back out of his reverie and puts on his bright face - nods. He tries to focus on the now, the cake. ‘Nearly, love. Don’t you want to put some fruit in it? Raisins and things?’
She stares hard at the mixture as if waiting for the answer from the cake itself.
‘Well,’ she says, in her grown up voice, a recent development, ‘I think I’d like to put something in. Something new. Can we put sweeties in? And jelly tots? Pretty colours so it’ll be nice. Raisins are too brown, like rabbit poo,’ and her eyes go wide as she realises what she’s said. She bites her lip and he knows she’s waiting for his reaction - testing him out. He waits for a moment, keeping his face straight, before answering.
‘They do,’ he says, echoing her seriousness, ‘they look exactly like rabbit poo, so jelly tots it is then. What about cherries?’
She nods, giggling; ‘I like cherries.’ And he smiles as he watches her struggle off the chair to get the sweets. Smiles at the thought of the unusual combination, but is secretly pleased with her creativity. It might even be nice, who knows? She’s bright. And gregarious, got her mother’s confidence and will make friends in no time. He’s sure of it. And he’ll go back to work and be absorbed into the routine of it, the normality of nine to five. Things will be easier. Maria will keep sending the gifts from her travels. She may in time come back - it’s possible. But he’s not going to fool himself, or Isabel, that she will. But they’ll be all right, Isabel and him.
Just the two of them.
An unusual combination