by Reshma Ruia
Things happen that Sunday in October. I turn forty. I decide to bake myself a birthday cake. I lose my wedding ring.
Bill my husband sleeps next to me. I nudge him and he turns, grunting, his morning breath sour and full of last night’s dinner.
‘Remember the date?’
‘Nope,’ he replies and rolls away, when all I want is for him to open wide the cave of his arms and for me to tip toe in, his grizzly chin tickling the top of my head.
A little later he is up, showered and ready in his smart Marks and Spencer blue checked shirt, the one with buttons on the collars and cream chinos. The buckle on his belt glints in the buttery autumn sunshine.
‘I’ll be working late today,’ Bill tells me. He stands near the door, one hand gripping the handle, squinting towards me. His naked eyes look pink and defenceless without his glasses.
‘You don’t teach on Saturdays.’ I keep my voice friendly.
‘There are some extra classes I offered to teach. You know what with exams next semester…the university wants us to step up.’ He swallows and his Adam’s apple dances up and down.
Bill is a lecturer in medieval philosophy. He spends his days preaching about the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to bored students who’d rather be in the cafeteria updating their insta profiles.
It sounds clever on the CV but doesn’t do much to one’s bank account. He has to find ways to compensate.
‘Still don’t remember the date?’ I try one more time.
‘It’s not Christmas.’ He shrugs, throws me a crumb of a smile and shuts the door behind him.
I picture him entering the kitchen, opening the fridge, the cold blue light bathing his face as he grabs a slice of cold pizza. He will eat it standing up, one hand busy tapping love letters into his mobile. He’ll leave the coffee percolating for me. He’s considerate like that but he will be gone on my birthday.
Gone to the Holiday Inn near the airport. The one with the faded flowery-carpeted corridors and rooms that sigh to the sound of lonely salesmen jerking off. There will be a girl waiting inside a room. A slip of a girl from his first year intake. He will feed her chocolates and fairy tales about his unhappy marriage. She will look at him with wide, puppy soft eyes and let him unhook her lacy bra.
The only reason I know about the girl is that my best friend Marge phoned me at work, her voice breathless with the juice of gossip she was about to spill.
‘I saw Bill at that fancy French restaurant,’ Marge said. ‘Chez Pear.’
‘Chay Pierre. The Z is silent.’ I have a B in GCSE French and I correct her, my eyes fixed on the sea blue computer screen where tax returns of failing businesses roll down like ticker tape.
She continues. ‘Bill was with a girl. Cute little thing with a head of bouncy curls. There was a bottle of wine on the table.’
‘Oh that girl?’ I speed up my talk. ‘Yes, she’s Special Needs. Needs one to one.’
‘Are you sure? Does she need hand holding too?’
I hang up before she can destroy me more.
Every birthday until I left home, my mother baked me a three-tiered cake, chocolatey and gooey, with a soft marshmallow centre that melted in my mouth. There was pink and green icing and a silver flag shouting my name and candles brighter than the Blackpool lights. Even the Queen would envy such a cake. My mother let me eat the first slice and then before I could reach for the second, she’d pack the rest in shiny cellophane. We’d spend the rest of the evening driving around town finding drunken tramps and one-legged soldiers slumped in shopping arcades. My mother would nudge me towards them and say, ‘Go share this cake and the love it holds. Go share it with those who need it most.’
And today on my fortieth birthday, with my mother long dead and gone, I decide to bake myself such a cake. I drive to Waitrose and load my trolley with organic flour, a dozen eggs and all the trimmings to make the perfect cake. Rolling my sleeves, I set to work. I have my mother’s recipe memorised back to front. Three hours later and the cake is ready. I slip into my red party frock, crayon my lips in red lipstick and tease my hair into an artful mess. Sitting at the table, ready to feast, my mother’s words come floating back. I must share this cake with those who need it most.
Gently I ease the cake into a box, tie it with a ribbon and drive across town to the hotel near the airport. It is easy to find him. Like most lecturers in medieval philosophy, Bill doesn’t stray far from the truth. The room is booked under his own name. ‘A special birthday delivery,’ I assure the harassed receptionist who is fielding questions from a group of Americans brandishing maps. She waves me towards the lift.
I knock on the door of room 215 and shout, ‘room service.’ There’s sunshine in my voice. A young girl opens the door and sticks her head outside. Her mascara has left footprints over her cheek and her curly hair is a tangle.
‘We didn’t order anything,’ she says in a thin, high pitched voice. It’s easy enough to push her aside, she’s feather light and I walk into the room, carrying my cake like a crown. There lays my husband, propped up against pillows on the bed his pale thighs and face flushed in post-coital bliss. ‘What…what the hell are you doing here?’ he stammers. His hands rush down to pull up the beige checked duvet to cover his nakedness.
‘Just thought I’d share my birthday cake with you,’ I tell him, as I place the cardboard box on the bedside table and bring out the cake. Bill’s eyes move from the cake to my face, his mouth opens and shuts like a door but no sound comes out.
I lower my knee on his groin and keep his mouth open, my fingers wedged tight against his palette. He is sputtering something, his eyes are watering, but I am intent on feeding him my cake. One slice, then two, and then a third. I feed him quietly with my free hand. He’s making clown faces at me now round-eyed in fear; his mouth jammed with cake. Green icing dribbles from the side of his mouth. The girl stands by the side of the bed, wringing her hands and sobbing. ‘Please stop, please stop,’ she repeats in her schoolgirl voice. She looks needy. I feed her some cake too.
Later that night, while showering and getting ready for bed, I notice that my wedding band is missing. Somewhere in the frenzy of rushing about, it must have slipped from my finger. I don’t really care. I am satiated and complete—the warm feel of my mother’s cake snug in my husband’s belly.
Reshma Ruia is a novelist, poet and short story writer based in Manchester. Her first novel, ‘Something Black in the Lentil Soup’ was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy.’ The manuscript of her second novel, ‘A Mouthful of Silence,’ was shortlisted for the 2014 SI Leeds Literary Prize. Her short stories and poems have appeared in various British and international anthologies and magazines and commissioned for Radio 4. She has a PhD and Masters with Distinction in Creative Writing from Manchester University and post graduate and undergraduate degrees from the London School of Economics. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani, a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers.
Learn more at @RESHMARUIA and www.reshmaruia.com.