All afternoon, the kids are badgering me to cut the cake.
I keep chasing them out of the kitchen, scared that they will touch it, mess it up, but when i walk past I cannot resist tracing my finger along the iced edges.
Finally, it is time, I gather them up, cast an eye over them, they look ok, hair clean, clothes neat, if nothing else. Like I said, I want her to think well of me, of us,
We walk across the road, Mia bugging at me to be allowed to carry the cake, No chance. I don’t want to have to scrape over priced cake off the street.
When we get to the front door, I hesitate, not sure what to do, do i knock, walk in, go round the back ? The kids look up at me, sense my confusion and then take matters into their own hands. Haydon tries the door handle, expects it to be unlocked, most doors here are and when it doesn’t open, he bangs loudly and after a second or two, Mia joins in. Their tiny fists hammer on the door and the baby wriggles in my arms, wants to join in.
Nothing happens and the children become less sure, their knocking more tentative until we are all standing, silent on the door step.
I turn to walk home, clutching the stupid, waste of money cake and the door opens and there she is, baby in her arms and toddler clutching the hem of her t-shirt.
And she smiles, that smile and we walk in behind her.
The house is different already, it smells of perfume, of coconut oil, of nail varnish.
The lumpy sofa and scarred table have been transformed, covered in brightly covered throws, they have become magical
“Elmer” says Mia “that table looks like Elmer the elephant”
and she’s right, it does.
Saskia finally wriggles out of my arm and begins to explore, she is careful to stay near me, always poised for flight, for return to safety.
There are pink fairy lights all over the walls, pinned around the little draughty windows, twisted around the door frames, There are rows of scented candles on the coffee table and there is a photograph, huge, properly framed, hung in the middle of the wall – a young black woman, heavily pregnant, staring out of the photograph, expressionless, her hands resting on her enormous belly.
Mia sighs happily “It’s nearly as good as fairy land” and she carefully touches the mirrored fabric covering the back of the sofa.
Where-ever this woman has come from, there has been time to pack, to consider objects, to make decisions, There has been a space to think beyond flight, the immediacy of escape. I am impressed.
Haydon looks around and sees nothing to capture his attention, there are no visible toys, no games machines, focusses on the thing that has been the centre of his life all afternoon
“Cake, I want cake mummy, I want cake now”
I realise that I am standing in the middle of the room, still holding that bloody cake – I take a step forward and offer it to her – i was right, the icing is exactly the same colour as her skin.
WE sit on the sofa, a neat line, while she dishes up cake – her own toddler doesn’t once move from her, doesn’t want cake, wont look at us.
I’m not that surprised, a lot of the kids here have seen stuff, been places, it affects them, specially when they first come. You learn not to force the issue.
there are 5 children in the tiny sitting room and even with the silent ones, her toddler, my Saskia, there is a lot of noise, a lot of hand wiping, a lot of stickiness, but behind all of that there is something else , an awkwardness – I don’t know what to say really.
She mostly sits and smiles, her kids stay close to her, the toddler touches her continuously, pats and strokes her. It would drive me mad, I’d be pushing them away in seconds, but she doesn’t even seem to notice and I can imagine that its my hand on her shoulder, her thigh, the tip of her ear, the nape of her neck.
I could look at her all day, I try to be careful, make sure she doesn’t clock me, but inside I feel myself melting, I’m as gooey as that stupid cake.
On the surface our conversation is just normal, every day, chit chat. Nothing much really said, just passing the time, but inside, I slipping, falling, floating.
“I like what you done with your house” I say
She nods, smiles, she is pleased by this
“I can come over and do it to yours too” she says
I shrug, while my heart does a little back flip “Yeah, if you like” I keep my tone flat, disinterested.
The children are beginning to fuss. Bored and aware that they are not at the centre of my attention, they have started to prowl around the room.
I know its time to go.