This is an extract from Queen of Puddings, a short story by Tricia Durdey published in Matter 10.
Authors comment: My mother-in-law told many stories about her life. One of her stories, concerning a jealous cook and special dessert, used to fascinate me. It made me wonder about the powerful emotions that drive people to extremes. This extract is from the second half of the story.
How hot and close it was even as the afternoon wore on, as if a storm were coming. Catherine opened the door of the larder and reached into the corner where the dried plants hung, feeling with her hands until her eyes became used to the gloom. Words pounded in her head, White Bryony, and its other names – Mandrake Root, Devil’s Turnip, most bitter of purges.
The root lay twisted in her hand. She grated it into a dish and poured on water. She had invited Martha for dinner, and she was preparing the dessert. She stirred in the honey and the breadcrumbs. She reached for the cut glass bowls she and Max had been given for a wedding present. She was careful to put the mixture specifically into the bowl she would give to Martha, the one with the ruby red rim.
It began with darkness over the ocean, and then the rain swept across in sheets, water swirling onto the veranda from the guttering. Just before suppertime Martha ran down the lane from her cottage. She had forgotten her umbrella she said, and her red silky dress clung wetly to her skin.
‘Oh I love the rain.’ She held out her arms and turned her face to the sky. Max brought her a towel.
Indoors Catherine lit the candles. The table was laid with the best linen and silver. The wine glasses were polished until they shone. They ate. Martha chattered, Max leaned back in his chair laughing with her. Catherine observed them. After dinner she cleared the plates and brought in the dessert in the cut glass bowls. She gave Martha the bowl with the ruby red rim.
‘Queen of Puddings, its bread crumbs mixed in an egg custard, and layers of berries and meringue.’ Her voice sounded distant, disconnected.
‘Queen of Puddings, I wonder why they called it that?’ Martha’s voice rang out.
‘I’ve no idea. It’s Elizabethan, the recipe said.’
Martha began to eat and Catherine saw the slight frown as she tasted, an uncertainty clouding her eyes. She watched her swallow.
‘Don’t eat it if you don’t like it.’
‘No it’s fine.’ Martha glanced at Max, saw him scraping his spoon around the empty bowl in satisfaction, and took another spoonful. Max pushed his chair away from the table.
‘Anyone for a brandy?’ he said. ‘I’m having one.’ He got up with an effort and shambled to the drinks cabinet.
Martha took another mouthful. Her bowl was nearly empty. She put down her spoon.
‘You’re very quiet tonight Catherine, what is it? Tell me,’ she said.
Catherine didn’t speak. Martha touched her hand.
How strange. There was such affection, no suggestion of Martha’s duplicity. For a moment Catherine was beguiled. She longed so much to rest in the possibility of love. She held her gaze, those eyes she loved, then looked away. The rain beat against the window. Somewhere a door banged. She must not allow sentimentality. What was done was done.
‘I’ve let myself go,’ she said. She thrust Martha’s hand away and stood up. Max turned, the brandy bottle in his hand. ‘I’m as cold and anaemic as skimmed milk, as mysterious as dark water. I’m frigid. Perhaps I’m even a lesbian! It’s what you both think, isn’t it?’
As Catherine backed towards the door she saw the look of bewilderment in Martha’s face change to one of dismay.
‘Whatever I am, you’ll find that where cooking’s concerned I know exactly what I’m doing.’
She left the room and ran out across the garden to the car. She started the engine.
Martha would start to feel the terrible griping pain soon. It would make her writhe in agony and there would be no relief. She would long to be dead. As Catherine backed the car out of the drive she saw Max running towards her through the rain. He was shouting. He looked quite mad.
She’d cut off the phone. There’d be nobody to help. Martha would be alone with him. She began to laugh.
She drove away into the dark. She drove through the night.