“I want to bake a cake”
Covidella turned from the heaving sink of breakfast debris to face her stepsister, teetering warily on the top of the kitchen steps. An unusual visitation this, and one that Ella was having difficulty processing. She paused the music and removed her headphones.
“Nigella’s dark and sumptuous chocolate fudge cake” the visitation continued in a querulous squeak, whilst flapping the torn page of a Sunday supplement food special.
It was Lockdown at the castle. Ella hadn’t thought of it as ‘home’ since her mum died. Mum had always been accident-prone; walking into wardrobe doors, falling on the stairs. Funny really, ‘cos Ella never saw her trip, not even when wearing her old platforms for a laugh. They would skip and dance all around the house, making light of work and life. Until they heard her father coming.
The Stepmother appeared awfully quickly after that last fatal accident, dragging her two delightful daughters along for the ride. Stepmother promptly had a lift installed so she could avoid the stairs. Ugly thing. The lift too…. Looked like a plastic Smart car someone had parked in the ancestral hall. Still, for all its aesthetic lackings, Ella pretty soon loved it. She could chuck in all the laundry and the vacuum cleaner and mop and bucket and then sail off up through the floor like Willy Wonker in the glass elevator. Made life so much easier. Meant Ella could avoid those stairs too.
Ella missed her mum, and avoided attempts to play happy families, preferring instead to stay in the kitchen. She loved the peace down there, her mother’s presence was strong in the ping of the microwave and the sizzle of deep fat fryer. Dad had always been softened by a good plate of food. Well, not always, obviously.
Stepsister No.2 now appeared over Stepsister No.1’s shoulder. “It is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that is super squidgy, the sort of cake you want to eat the whole of, and even the sight of it all chocolaty and gooey, comforts”.
Quite. Well, do you know what? That actually sounds like a damn fine idea. Now she was out of her musical cocoon, Ella could hear familiar sounds storming around upstairs. Maybe Nigella’s chocolate comforter was exactly what this castle needed, right now. She’d had a food delivery only that morning, and had ordered plenty of chocolate as her own special treat. So, she’ll be eating it in cake form instead, no matter.
“Okay, I’ll make it” Ella announced, thinking it would save a lot of mess, wasted ingredients, and possibly a super pissed off Dad at the end of it all. The Stepsisters scooted across the room glued to each other, wild-eyed and eager, clearly without a clue but very determined. They wobbled their heads frantically from side to side, no no no. “We want to make it. It’s very important. We want to make it and we want Him to eat it, and we want Him know that we have made it.”
Oh for goodness sake, who cares? She was getting sick of this lockdown baking mania. None of her friends had anything interesting to post on social media – it was all just bloody cake. She sighed. “Go on then….” She started to say. Then she looked at them, which she tended to avoid doing. Oh. “Is your mother alright?” The heads wobbled up and down, a little shaky, but generally affirmative.
Ella whipped out her phone and googled the recipe. She wasn’t touching that torn and blood splattered cutting. No.1 was put on washing up duty, No.2 on … on …helping No.1. Actually, no, lets clean her up a bit, and, um, a bit more, and then just prop her in the corner with a large brandy.
Plain flour, caster sugar, light brown Muscovado… hmmm, nope, damn, have to be Demerara and hope for the best. Not as moist, but it will have to do. Corn oil? Corn oil? Who the bloody hell has corn oil knocking around in the back of their Covid cupboard, sunflower shall have to do. Yup, Nigella says that’s ok. We’ve got this!
Two hours later, rather longer than the recipe generally requires, the kitchen was clean (ish), and three satisfied and rather chocolaty faces were admiring the thing of beauty they had created. The Stepsisters had mixed and stirred, and made a wish as they added their own special final ingredient. They were sure Nigella would understand. For good measure, they added extra chocolate and a lot of Amaretto. Just in case he noticed any undertaste. He’d watched far too many Agatha Christies to let that go without hilarious comment and tapping of his little grey cells.
Together, they made tea, gathered plates and cutlery onto trays, and lifting the gooey chocolaty comforter, headed for the tv room.
Dad loved it. He gorged on it, taking great drunken handfuls. His chocolate fudgy hands trying to grab the Stepsisters or their mother, any one, he didn’t care. Oh he was a happy man as he fell asleep in front of Tiger King.
The women were gutted and regrouped in the kitchen with the gin and the rest of the chocolate stash. “Well, it’s for the best really. I mean, you didn’t really want to kill him, did you?” said Ella cheerily as she broke out another bottle. Stepsister No.2 was rereading her ceramic glaze book. “But it says here it’s terribly poisonous. He should have been in agony by now. Maybe we just didn’t use enough.” She took one of her own brightly coloured earthenware bowls, poured it half full of gin, and went in face first. Ella looked on her quite lovingly. Really this Stepfamily wasn’t half bad.
After the Lockdown, the women opened the castle as a hotel. Nothing boutique or fancy, more a bed and breakfast with dinner sort of a place. Occasionally some guest would mention the whole Covid thing, mention the loss of a loved one before their time. The women would agree, and tell of their own experience – that awful coughing and long long weeks of waiting.
Mostly people just wanted to move on and forget about it though, and have another slice of that delicious, comforting chocolate cake of Nigella’s that featured on every single review.
This short tale popped into my head last week, when Nigella’s chocolate fudge cake was filling my social media feed as I read a Guardian report on the femicide numbers under Covid lockdown. Always like for my Cinders variations to have their revenge.
The picture was obviously inspired by Aubrey Beardsley – the exhibition is in lockdown, but there is a short Tate film of the curators talking which is better than nowt.