Manuals won’t hold you in the middle of the night, books won’t dry your irrational tears at bus stops or the back of a supermarket queues, and pamphlets won’t tell you they love you when the whole world goes dim. Many things about being a single parent can only be learned by pushing through the pain and hoping you’ll come out the other side.
And in those snatched at moments between the clockwork routine of working, cooking, cleaning, reading, bathing, and putting him to bed, when she still felt the pull of love in her heart, Laura was determined to give Charlie all the things she never had. New toys rather than taped-up, chipped, charity cast-offs; new clothes rather than patched-up, oversized, hand-me-downs that were ten seasons too old.
She wanted to make his third birthday unforgettable. Time pressed on so quickly and if you didn’t bookmark it with treasured moments it would slip away unnoticed. She spent her evenings, after he’d gone to sleep, labouring over many books and websites to find the perfect cake recipe. The one cake to rule them all, that he would remember forever, that would burnish itself in his memory like caramelised sugar, that would lift him up on candy flossed clouds; a cake that would forever remind him of his loving, infinitely suffering mother.
After much despair, where the cakes were either too big, or too small, too decorative, or not decorative enough she found it in an old book she’d forgotten about. It pushed itself off the shelf where it had sat quietly suffering for years between Jamie Oliver and Gary Rhodes. It opened itself up in anticipation. And there staring back at her, with a coy smile and a finger pointed inwards saying: ‘Please pick me’ was the richest, dreamiest chocolate cake she’d ever seen. She sniffed the pages and let the luxurious buttery cocoa scent fill her senses. It contained just the right amount of chocolate chips and was finished off with just the right amount of buttercream. It was the perfect size, giving six modest portions that the two of them could enjoy over the week. Not too big that she would feel guilty he was overindulging, and not too small that he would be disappointed at her meanness.
Over the week she located the best gourmet shops and bought the finest ingredients she could afford: Swiss cooking chocolate; Belgian chocolate chips; organic South American cocoa powder; French unsalted butter from pasture-fed cows; and ethical eggs from inquisitive, freely foraging British hens. In the evening while Charlie dreamed of Avengers battling baddies in Chocolate Land, she dabbled in alchemy. She was determined to make the best cake in the world for the best son in the world, hoping it would make her the best mom in the world.
With memories of the dried, stale cupcakes that had bookmarked her childhood birthdays, she mixed, whisked, and folded herself into a frenzy. And then she cried. The first attempt came out with a soggy bottom, the second a burnt top. She slid into a defeated heap against the kitchen bin and blamed herself. Blamed herself for being so foolish, for believing she could bake, that she could give her son the things she never had. Then after three glasses of Pinot Noir silenced the doubt, she cracked the last two ethical eggs and baked the greatest cake in the world before going to sleep with a head full of cheap wine feeling like the greatest mom in the world.
The next day was his birthday. He spent ten minutes pushing the sausage and mash around his plate, spilling the gravy all over the table, until she finished hers and fed him. And now it was time for the great reveal, for the pivotal unveiling of the greatest cake in the world.
‘Close your eyes! Close your eyes!’ she said as she placed her masterpiece in front of him, ‘ta-dah!’
He opened his eyes to watch her sing Happy Birthday and closed them again.
‘Go on! Make a wish! What’s the matter darling?’ she said.
‘I don’t like it,’ he said. His palm propped up a despondent face. His castle of contentment had been cruelly wrecked by this ambush and all his troops were readied to unleash a volley of tears in retalliation.
‘What do you mean?’ she said.
‘I don’t like brown chocolate,’ he said pushing the cake away.
She felt herself collapsing like a rejected sponge sandwich hurled from a thousand feet, free falling momentarily before landing in a screwed-up pile of disappointment. Tiny globules of red melted wax accumulated in puddles on the expensive, organic buttercream and made her nauseous.
‘Since when? Won’t you just try a little bit? Mommy made it for you,’ she said.
‘No!’ he said, folding his arms around him.
Externally she was a deep-breathing Zen master; a bastion of peace and calm; an icon of loving, devoted motherhood. But inside she had already trashed the kitchen; inside, the cake was already smearing down the sides of window panes, and the plates had crashed against the door and now lay in tiny fragments at her feet.
‘Come on, just a little bit?’ she managed to say.
‘I don’t like it!’ Waaaah. Waaaah. Waaaah. That was the four-minute warning. The big red button had been pressed, and soon warheads loaded with tiny tears would smash themselves straight into her heart.
Rounding up every last surviving drop of strength and grain of patience she could find, she reached out through the dusty wreckage of her emotions, closed her eyes and said, ‘I’m sorry okay! I won’t bake it again. Okay?’
‘Okaaaaay,’ he said and sulked off and collapsed in front of the TV.
This is what manuals couldn’t prepare you for, the real pain that hits like a bullet splitting an artery when the devastating, mercurial moods of a toddler arrive like a flash storm. Nobody told her he would love milk chocolate cake one day and hate it the next, or that his favourite snack would be yoghurt covered raisins on Tuesday only for him to spit them out in disgust on Wednesday. All she wanted was to make him happy but it was like trying to hit a constantly moving target while blindfolded. She wished she had somebody else, somebody to offload him onto for those moments when all she wanted to do was cry on the bathroom floor, somebody to take her side and say: ‘Just eat the damn cake will you! Don’t you know your mom went overdrawn just to buy you the finest, organic ingredients?’
A glass of cheap Chardonnay later she joined him in front of the TV and, as Makka Pakka arranged and re-arranged his stones, she gave him his present. A cake was just a cake she managed to convince herself. Something scoffed down indulgently and forgotten about in an instant. But a toy will stay with him as a lasting memento, something he can hold and grow up with, something tactile that will remind him of her love. Charlie snatched and ripped at the small, lovingly wrapped package and immediately launched a second wave of missiles, laser-guided to take out what remained of her heart.
‘I don’t like Hulk anymore!’ he said, ‘I like Batman!’
Suddenly she hated everything, she hated the sight of Iggle Piggle’s strange aquamarine potato face, she hated the way her sofa slumped because she couldn’t afford a new one, she hated the pigeons that sat and cooed mockingly from the fence she couldn’t be bothered to paint, she hated how she failed at being a mother. She blamed her parents and her parent’s parents, blamed her boss for not giving her a pay rise, blamed the check out assistant for not smiling, blamed the postman for delivering her nothing but bills, blamed the cat who brought dead rodents to her door, she blamed Charlie for not eating the best cake in the world, blamed Joe for walking out on them and leaving Charlie to herself, blamed the cursed recipe book, blamed Jamie Oliver and Gary Rhodes for not warning her about the cursed recipe book. She blamed herself.
Then everything went dark and silent. Iggle Piggle stopped dancing and the Tombliboos stood still. She watched herself glide into the kitchen. She cauterised the stupid, grinning chocolate face and its nauseating dried on puddles of wax with a blowtorch. And then she came back and reduced the mocking figure of Hulk into a hot pool of green plastic soup and felt all her tension melt away in the heat.
She looked down over the precipice and all she could hear were the unfathomable waves of anguish and despair crashing and smashing against her fragile rock. And as Iggle Piggle commenced his dance, Charlie reached out his small, soft hand and touched her tears.
‘Why are you crying mommy? Can I have some cake now?’ he said, snatching up Hulk and guiding him over the cushions and up her arms.
In that moment, puffy eyed and perched on the edge of the sofa, not knowing whether the thing welling up inside her was a laugh or a cry, she watched the world fade back into view. And she realised that after all the cries and screams, amidst the disappointment and heartache, through the rejected cakes and cast off toys, after the late night tears had dried, and the early morning loneliness left, despite the overdrafts and the declined credit checks, everything would be okay because she could still give him something she never had: simple, unconditional love.