In the Afternoon Sometimes We Bake
My daughter Flo is tall for her age and muscular. When she barrels into me I have to bend over or I fall. On our way home from school she runs ahead, backpack bouncing, so she can leap out from behind the bus shelter shouting Aaaargh.
I should say here that we don’t actually catch a bus. It’s just that the stop is on our way home.
On the afternoon I’m writing about I looked up from my feet and saw this elderly lady standing to one side of the pavement, holding onto the pole of a streetlamp with both hands while Flo ran up the hill towards her. Maybe I wouldn’t have decided she was shaky if she hadn’t had white hair. It turned out I was right so maybe it doesn’t matter. But I made a lot of assumptions that day and now I don’t know what to think of myself.
This lady smiled a wide, fixed smile at me and kept it going til I walked right up to her, though her eyes were focussed somewhere in the distance. Flo was at the bus shelter already.
The lady asked, Is this the way to the supermarket? She spoke like a newsreader.
I told her it was a twenty-minute hike in the other direction.
That’s fine, she said quickly.
One eye was half-hidden by a flap of skin, pulled tight between eyebrow and cheek as if a stitch held it in place. The iris of that eye was whitened. Her teeth were small and brown with large gaps between them, which seemed strange given the way she talked. She wore black trousers of some pilled, synthetic material, and a mauve chenille cardigan. Scuffed and dusty black loafers. And she carried a beaten-up black handbag. I didn’t see this all at once, the way I’m describing it now. In fact I hardly looked at her in all the hours we spent together.
She had got lost, she said. She had left her house and somehow missed the supermarket. She showed me her shopping list, written in wobbling black capitals on the skin between her thumb and forefinger.
The ‘DINS’ seemed humorous to me, and someone who could be funny was probably alright in the head.
Flo peered at us from behind the bus shelter and mouthed Mummy, but I was too caught up to wave.
I asked the lady where she lived. She recited her whole address. It was right on the other side of the next-door suburb. I began to walk with her, very slowly because of her limp, and in just a few steps it came to me that the only thing to do was to drive her to the supermarket myself - I was planning to go there anyway, to get supplies for my parents who live up the motorway and were too ill with bronchitis to shop. My mother, I had been thinking, might have got sick from the stress of looking after Dad, who does things like tries to pull on a second shirt over the first when he’s getting dressed. He has an appointment coming up at the hospital but we’re pretty sure it won’t be Alzheimers.
They were both sick though and I see now that my thinking didn’t make sense.
I told Ursula my plan - she’d introduced herself by then - and that I’d need to go home to pick up the car. And having made my offer which was more of an announcement, I realised that after our trip to the supermarket the next only thing to do would be to drive her to her house.
By now we were at the bus shelter, and Flo wandered out without her Aaargh. Ursula gestured at the sunny white bench and asked if she should wait for us there. I explained that I would be too long: I needed to get Flo a snack, and pick up the shopping list and Mum and Dad’s meal for that night. It wasn’t far to our house, I told her, even with her bad leg.
Do you know something? Your daughter is sucking her thumb.
She said this with a kind of catty satisfaction. Flo was standing about two metres away, sucking her thumb and stroking her upper lip with her forefinger.
Yes, I said, grinning like a politician. I spoke louder so Flo would hear me. It’s good to have a thumb to suck sometimes isn’t it.
My daughter Patricia is fifty-eight, said Ursula. She has a new husband. And he told me that in the night she still sucks her thumb. Shall I wait here for you? she asked, turning again to the bus shelter.
I’m used to that kind of thing from Dad. No, I said, you’ll be waiting too long.
I didn’t want her to wander away. I didn’t want to lose her.
Flo wanted to clutch both my hands while we crossed the road, which is to say that she didn’t want me to hold Ursula’s arm. Eventually she gave in, but she cringed and pulled back as we crossed.
It was a slow shuffle up to our porch. Ursula asked what we were doing there. Inside, Flo galloped down the hall and threw herself on the couch. Spongebob Squarepants. I thought Ursula, sitting very still in an armchair, might say something about the evils of children and TV. She didn’t. I offered her tea, or juice. She said no, but a few minutes later I put a glass of water on a sidetable without a word. She drank it all.
In our bedroom I looked up the general number for the police and took some deep breaths. I don’t want to be one of those people who gets excited by someone else’s bad luck.
Hello? I’ve just met an elderly woman on our street. Ursula someone. She was lost so I brought her home and I’m taking her to the supermarket. I thought I’d better let you know in case someone’s looking for her. She seems alright though.
Do you know her last name?
I hadn’t asked for it. Ringing the police felt like a just-in-case, good citizen sort of thing, not really necessary. I have vague days myself.
I rang Mum afterwards, to say I would be late with the shopping and dinner. I have to take her to the supermarket, I said. And then I have to take her home before I come to you.
Have to. That’s what I say to Flo when I want to say No. No I can’t help you dress your doll because I have to get dressed myself. No sorry, I can’t be a parent-help in your classroom, laminating empty clock faces and listening to beginner readers, because I have to work.
My husband is a plumber: I don’t really have to work. And I’m only a general dogsbody in a car-hire place, but they’re very friendly. We have a good laugh.
When I went next door to ask if Flo could play because I had to take this elderly lady to the supermarket, my neighbour raised her eyebrows. Very nice of you, she said.
Too nice, did she mean? I wonder, now, did she realise I couldn’t be stopped?
I kissed Flo goodbye and hustled Ursula back down the porch steps. She tried to walk off down the road but I steered her towards my car and fastened her seatbelt myself.
Outside the supermarket Ursula murmured something about a trolley. I pulled one out of the stack.
Very big, she said. All easy breezy I said, We’ll share it. But inside the sliding doors she picked up one of the green shopping baskets and swung it into the front of the trolley, giving me a triumphant glance. Though to be honest I might be making that up about the glance, I don’t know. I think I said, Oh yes I’ll put my shopping in there.
All that week, like every week, I had risen at six, made sandwich lunches for Flo, my husband and myself, coached and nagged Flo though breakfast and teeth-brushing and bag packing while sorting myself out, walked her to school and fortified her at the classroom door with hugs and kisses, run for the bus which terminates twenty-five minutes’ walk from my work, logged four and a half hours on my timesheet, and at two o’clock raced along the waterfront for the too-early train that has me loitering in the playground fifteen minutes before the bell. That’s the first half of my day. In the afternoons I usually set out to sweeten Flo’s tired grumps while I do the laundry and make dinner. I never know in advance what we’re having. Maybe that makes me sound relaxed about cooking. I’m not. Even so, I often let Flo put on her polka-dotted apron and get up beside me on her little blue chair to cut butter into flour for scones or beat an egg for pikelets.
All that week, though, Flo couldn’t bake next to me, because I cooked late at night instead, doubling the recipes for the next day. After school I’d force her into a quick turn-around at home, pull the cooked food out of the fridge and drive to Mum and Dad’s, Flo keeping an eye on the pot from her seat in the back. Home by five to give Flo her dinner, then the bedtime routine, and back to cooking double for the next day.
I wanted to do it all but I am not like those women who wrap themselves around extra tasks, gala duties and road patrol and all that, and the extra disappears inside them and they stay glossy and brisk. In the supermarket my thoughts chased down the aisles, trying to plan dinners, wondering what would become of Ursula, and me running late with Flo needing dinner in an hour. Underneath it all, I wanted to dump my green basket and drive to the south coast to sit beside the waves. But I didn’t really want to. You can’t leave the people you love and expect them to keep loving you.
I caught up with Ursula in the cheese section. She had chosen a frozen Italian dinner, a loaf of whole grain bread and two packets of grated Parmesan. BREAD and DINS. At the checkout she pulled out a red leather wallet and matching checkbook holder, stitched in white. Against her worn, cheap clothes they looked like loot smuggled from another life.
I paid for the contents of my basket and we went out to the carpark. Ursula hesitated. I pointed at my car and we began to walk towards it but before got there, she asked me twice more where it was.
She gave me directions to her home. It was down a drive in the crease of a hill, one of three small and sunless townhouses shoved close together. She pointed to some striped curtains in her front window. That’s handwoven material. I bought it in Paris forty years ago.
She opened her handbag and poked around inside it. Oh - of course... She gave me that toothy smile again. I left my key behind. I often leave the house open. She tried the door handle. It didn’t budge.
I tried it too. It’s funny how everything changes in that little moment when you realise you can’t open a door. I knew, then, what I had to do next.
She sat down on the damp and shadowy front step. Oh Patty, I could wring your neck. She looked up at me. My daughter Patricia has been here and locked the house. She knows I don’t take keys. Oh, Patty.
We walked around the back. Ursula looked at a sign, No Junk Mail, glued to the letterbox. That’s new, she said, Patty’s glued that on today. She pointed to some damp patches on the drive. See, she’s watered the plants. Oh Patty.
It’s true it looked like water had run down the drive. You couldn’t really tell if it had come from the rain that morning, or someone with a hose.
The neighbours weren’t at home. I had no choice but to take her with me to Mum and Dad’s. In the car going up the motorway, Ursula asked and I explained for the third or fourth time the reasons for our journey. I tried not to stare at her gappy brown teeth. In all the hours we were together, I didn’t stare, not wanting to seem bossy or threatening. But now her teeth come back to me as if I’ve dreamt them. That whole afternoon I acted like a dreamy child, like Flo and her friends playing Let’s Pretend: Now let’s pretend, let’s pretend the only thing to do is to take you to my parents’ house, my parents who are ill and won’t want to meet a stranger. Just like Flo can forget that her robber’s dungeon is made of cushions and sheets, I let myself forget.
Ursula talked about ringing a locksmith to let her in. To distract her, I asked her what she’d done before retirement. She replied first that she had not worked, then said that because she was fluent in several languages she had done some interpreting in the law courts.
That sounds like work to me, I said. You must have seen some interesting things there.
I’m only thinking about my house key. I’m feeling so upset... there are little tears coursing down my cheeks.
She traced a line with one finger from the corner of her good eye, except - I glanced sideways - she had a little smile, and no tears.
As I led Ursula through Mum and Dad’s garden I was convinced they would hear us from their bedroom, which looks out onto the path. And then, as we got up to their front door, that one or both of them would be watching through the tall thin window in the hall. I fully believed that they would be up-to-date with the change of plan, even though I hadn’t rung them, just as when I had stood outside Ursula’s mildewy front door while she searched for her key, I knew I was bound and tied to her until she was safely inside. No one could argue that I was doing the wrong thing in driving her up the motorway to my parents’ house, taking her further and further away from the street where I’d found her. Even though it turned out not to be the very best thing to have done, and I lost an afternoon with Flo.
Mum had left the front door open for us and I led Ursula into the lounge where they were wrapped up under mohair blankets on opposite ends of the couch, newspapers spread between them and the heater running full blast.
This is Ursula. I waited for them to welcome her - they’re very gracious people. Dad’s smile blurred a bit as he looked at Ursula. I knew he was wondering if he should recognise her.
Where’s Flo? Mum asked. Isn’t she with you?
I tried to explain, but the creases around Mum’s mouth deepened and she began to cry, dropping her face into her hands. Sorry. Sorry. It’s just I’ve been feeling so awful and I was looking forward to seeing a bright face.
I began to smile, ready to make a joke: my face isn’t bright enough for you? But I stopped. We all know that nothing compares to Flo’s cuddles.
This is Ursula, I repeated. Remember I rang? She’s locked out of her house.
Dad patted Mum’s hand. Is she collecting you for your nightclass, dear? Embroidery, isn’t it? He tries so hard to know what’s going on.
I left Ursula with them and rang the police again. It was a different man this time. When he looked up my previous call, he was amazed I had driven her so far away from her home. I had to, I said. My elderly parents need me. Are you saying I should have left her outside her house?
You should have phoned the police in your area. They would have picked her up.
You don’t understand, I said. I have to bring food to my parents and get back to my child. It was the only thing to do.
He said to take her to the big police station in Mum and Dad’s area. He tried to tell me that I knew where it was, and then when I asked him for the address, he had to go and look for it.
Mum sighed when she heard the new plan. Can’t they come and get her,
she said, quietly so Ursula wouldn’t hear. It’s a lot for you to do.
I rang my neighbour. She was happy to give Flo some of her own kids’ pizza. I left instructions with Mum for reheating the casserole, and promised to bring Flo the next day.
The foyer in the police station was cold and large, the only furniture a narrow metal bench along one wall. Ursula sat on it while I went up to the counter and told the whole story again to the duty officer through little holes in the perspex screen.
The officer asked whether Ursula had any relatives.
A daughter. Patricia. She might have been at Ursula’s house today and locked it.
Ursula muttered and shook her head.
The officer raised her voice. What’s Patricia’s last name, Ursula?
Patricia remarried recently, I said. Her new husband says she sucks her thumb at night.
The officer looked at me. What?
She disappeared behind a partition. I sat next to Ursula and thought of Flo eating pizza in my neighbour’s house. Usually, after dinner, I read her a story and then my husband comes in smelling of plastic tubing and stagnant water and a sneaked ciggie, and tickles her for five minutes before teeth brushing and lullabies. I don’t know what the routines are at my neighbour’s house. Long after Flo’s tucked in, we see the kids running around next door.
Ursula asked, Where am I?
At the police station. They’re going to help you.
Let’s ring a locksmith. I want to go home.
We have to wait.. The officer’s gone to get Patricia’s number off their computer.
Patty. Oh Patty, I could wring your neck. She slumped.
I wanted to know why her eye was droopy like that, I wanted to know about her teeth. But it was the same feeling I get after a long day when I just want to find out, without really caring, who’s going to be America’s Next Top Model.
To be honest, maybe I’d had enough of the whole thing by then. We sat some more. I wondered how Mum and Dad were getting on with the casserole. Dad, always the gentleman, would incline his head and compliment Mum’s cooking. By now he’d have forgotten that I’d even visited
The officer returned with Patricia’s cellphone number on a slip of paper. She rang but there was no answer. We’ll keep trying her, she said.
I went up to the perspex. My daughter’s being looked after by my neighbour, it’s her bedtime soon. You’re going to take Ursula back, right, let her in with your skeleton keys or something? She really wants to go home.
The policewoman shook her head. Ursula doesn’t live in our zone. You’re better off taking her back to your house. We can get an officer from your own suburb to meet you.
Walking out into the chilly carpark, I felt dislocated, as if I was the one locked out and couldn’t remember my place in the world. I wanted to scream and flail my arms and key the gleaming cars.
We drove back down the motorway in silence. It was dark by the time I settled Ursula onto our couch. I could see Flo’s head through my neighbour’s kitchen window. At last I felt free to ask whether I could check in Ursula’s handbag for the key. I knelt in front of her and emptied it onto the carpet. The red wallet and chequebook holder, a pair of glasses on a chain, and a plastic rain-hat tied into a neat package. No key. It was a relief.
I rang Patricia’s cellphone. Still no answer. But a few moments later, there was a knock at the door. It was a policewoman with another woman in a smart brown suit.
Hell-lo. I’m the daughter. I’m so glad it was you who found her.
She comes from Sunview, the officer said. The home down the street.
I showed them into the living room where Ursula sat tilted on the couch, staring at her hands. Patricia flung an arm around her shoulders. Mama, I’ve looked for you everywhere.
The officer said, The home reported her missing this afternoon but we only put two and two together when the other station got hold of Patricia.
Do you remember where you live now, Mama?
Ursula didn’t say Patty I could wring your neck. But she said, I need the bathroom.
Oh down there, I said, that door Ursula. I smiled like a crazy woman.
We watched her limp down the corridor. Patricia sighed. I am so glad it was you.
It was nothing, I said, though I was glad to hear it.
She hasn’t been at Sunview long. Before she moved she’d write cheques for strangers who came to her door, they delivered a load of sand and told her she’d ordered it, or they pruned her trees without being asked and charged her three hundred dollars. She might have met someone like that.
I thought of the supermarket basket.
The officer said, I’ll be in the car. She let herself out.
I leaned towards Patricia. I rang the police as soon as I found her, you’d think they’d have a database or something.
They do a good job, she said. They did their best. She seemed less pleased with me then. We stood without saying anything. Ursula came back from the toilet.
Well, thank you again, said Patricia. Come on Mum.
I waved from the porch and sang out goodbyes. Goodbye Patricia. Goodbye Ursula.
She didn’t turn.
Later when I kissed Flo goodnight in her bunk, I said, I’m sorry I didn’t see you all afternoon.
I missed you.
Ack-shilly it was fun.
Not arguing with me, just telling.
We made a castle and then we had a princess wedding. I was the prince.
That’s good. How about next week when Gram and Pops are better we can make chocolate crackles after school one day.
I kissed her again. Sleep well kitten. Love you.
She turned over. I touched her smooth cheek with my finger. I sniffed her hair.
Sorry love. Night.
But still I’m standing there, looking so I remember at the shine of her hair, and her sucky thumb. Looking and looking so I never forget.
Susan Pearce is the author of one novel, Acts of Love (VUP), and quite a few short stories. While not autobiographical, ‘In the Afternoon Sometimes We Bake’ draws from life in the Wellington suburbs.
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