IT’S always been a challenge finding the right combination of ingredients for Olivia’s birthday cakes. Over the years I’ve experimented with numerous recipes, following instructions diligently, some more successful than others. This year I abandoned the cookbooks altogether.
Olivia and I packed the van and headed off to our favourite national park on the north coast. Our campsite was shaded by the leafy overhang of the scribbly gums and peacefully quiet in the off-peak season. The ocean whooshed constantly in the background, but it was a plodding, sandy trek along the narrow beach track that revealed the natural beauty.
I heard the early morning call of a blue wren as I tossed the wooden spoon into the tiny sink. I glanced across at the frosted cupcake sitting on the oversized pink cake stand and hoped I’d remembered the recipe. At least it looked stable. I leaned back on the veneer kitchen bench and wiped my sticky hands on my apron and waited for Olivia to wake.
It wasn’t long before she peeked out from behind the floral curtain and clapped her hands in delight. She jumped down from her bunk bed and slid into the turquoise bench seat and smiled at her birthday cake. A gentle breeze floated through the window. I tilted my head back and savoured the moment. Olivia gazed into the cupcake for ages. She looked a million miles away. I imagined she was in a world where fairies flitted and sprinkled magic dust, where anything was possible. She looked happy.
Olivia’s birthdays weren’t always happy. One year I invited 10 pre-schoolers. I knew it would be risky. I just wanted her to make some friends but Olivia was more interested in the cake I’d promised to make than the party I was planning. She studied the cake book endlessly, pulling herself up onto the stool at the kitchen bench, visually devouring the brightly iced novelty cakes decorated with colourful lollies. Finally, she poked her finger repeatedly on the chosen page.
‘‘What? A castle! Mummy can’t make a castle.’’
Her chin trembled.
I sighed. ‘‘Well ... maybe mummy’s cleverer than she thinks.’’
Olivia jumped from the stool, her tulle ballerina skirt flounced as she twirled.
Baking the cake was fun. Olivia wore her new pink apron and I wore my old one. We measured the exact amount of ingredients, sifting and blending them together. Olivia licked the wooden spoon and giggled as I wiped a blob of batter from her freckled nose.
‘‘It’s time for the Mixmaster,’’ I warned.
Olivia clapped her hands to her ears and ran to her bedroom. I waited until the door banged shut before switching on the whizzing beaters. When the cake was mixed to the perfect consistency, I turned the Mixmaster off and tapped gently on her bedroom door, presenting her with a sticky beater. We sat together on the lounge licking off the batter, enjoying the aroma wafting from the oven.
‘‘Oh no! The bi-carb!’’
The next day the children squealed and jostled around the cake table. When I lit the candles, the cake seemed to wobble slightly. The turrets had been the trickiest, supported by flimsy toothpicks. I prayed that it held together, at least for that moment.
‘‘Where’s my birthday girl?’’
I held my breath when I saw Olivia caught in the middle of the crowd. Her mouth twitched and her hands flapped by her side. I blew the candles out with one big breath then reached out and grabbed her hand. I led Olivia to her bedroom, feathered the venetians and held her hand whilst she rocked back and forth on the edge of the bed.
When I went back out, the cake had collapsed and the party was over.
Salty tears brought me back to Olivia, still daydreaming over her cupcake. I slid in alongside her. She shuffled along happily.
‘‘Mum, can we go to the beach today for my birthday?’’
I gently stroked her hair. ‘‘Sure.’’
I must’ve looked silly carrying a cupcake on a pink cake stand along a beach track. Olivia flip-flopped ahead in her thongs, carrying the beach-bag full of goodies. We stepped over creeping fig vines and ducked under drooping branches. I saw an elderly couple in the distance, walking toward us. Olivia doubled back and retreated behind me. We stood still as they brushed past.
We found a shady spot under the banksias fringing the beach. The ocean shimmered as we ate fairy bread and drank pink cordial. Olivia decided to save her cupcake for later so we went to the water’s edge and built a sandcastle. We watched pipis wash in with the tide, colourful but shy, burying themselves in the sand when exposed. I turned toward our sandcastle. The incoming tide threatened to erode our temporary construction.
‘‘It’s time to go.’’
Olivia looked toward the narrow beach track.
‘‘There won’t be many people around now.’’ I tried.
I shook the remnants of fairy bread and sand from my beach towel and motioned her to follow. She lowered her head and plodded bare-foot behind me. There was no mistaking the voices of teenagers further along the track. I slowed down, hoping we could maintain our distance, but the voices got closer with every step. I turned to Olivia, her mouth twitched. My stomach churned, but we continued.
A tree had fallen across the track. The teenagers heaved and shoved on the other side, attempting to clear the path. Olivia’s hand flapped against my side. I reached out and briefly squeezed it. Then I let go.
I gripped the cake stand tightly and strode forward. I tried to balance the cupcake as I scrambled over the tree, but it slid around on the plate.
Olivia was right behind me. I kept going, and we reached the other side.
The cupcake teetered precariously on the edge of the plate. It looked a little worse for wear. But it did not fall.
Entrants were asked to write a short story inspired by one of four photos. Short-listed stories will be published every day in the Newcastle Herald until Friday, January 23.