The Strange Machine – Mark Rosenblum
How to Make Lavender Soap – Helen Chambers
The Final Decision – Amy Trakos
Expectations – Sian Williams
Where there are Pomegranates – Marjory Woodfield
My mother has dressed up for her outing – Sophia Wilson
Substitute – Gerard O’Brien
Twins – Claire Polders
Koukla – Lisa Wiley
Moulds – Brendon Stanton
How to Stop a Tank – Marc Littman
Always Fickle – Bart van Goethem
Pav Queen for a Day – Alex Reece Abbott
The Surfers – Kirby Michael Wright
Flies / Honey – Georgia Cook
We’re not like that – Evie Jay
Call me Pav – Trish Palmer
Grandfather – Anupama Spencer
Times never seemed so good – Keith Nunes
Sacrifice – Jenny Woodhouse
I Blame the Aquafaba – Nikki Crutchley
Suburbia – Gretchen Carroll
Dad’s Pavlova – Jane Bowman
Sugar baby – Michelle Howie
Serves All – Charlie Ellis
Interview: NFFD 2021 Judges Paula Morris & Diane Brown
Interview: Kerry Lane, NFFD 2021 Youth Judge
Kōrero: Vaughan Rapatahana and Reihana Robinson
Interview: Catherine McNamara, Love Stories for Hectic People
The marriage registrar bumped into me as he rushed in to prepare for the ceremony, and all the previous versions of me fell out.
Here is the five-year-old me with a toy truck she stole from a sand pit. She enjoyed being asked what she wants to be when she grows up.
There is me as a teenager who burnt her poems in the rusted barbecue grill at the back of the garden. Her face is dried tears and soot.
As we share our first kiss as husband and wife, the twenty-year-old mutters under her breath: “It’s just like Jimmy snogging Clara on my birthday!” but I stuff her back into my head pretending to rearrange my tiara.
The twenty-something has baked an apple strudel to appease my parents. She is presenting it to them now, but they are busy interrupting each other talking about my brother. The brother whose excuse for not turning up was that he was a little hangover.
The post-breakdown me is doing shots on her own at the bar.
Now that I’ve taken my seat, the nine-year-old plaits the flowers from the bouquet into my hair. She hums a tune I no longer recognise. Then she presses her finger to the sparkly ring.
“Does Nan know you borrowed it?” she says.
I suppress a smile.
My husband hugs me clumsily and I follow his gaze to the dance floor, where, sitting cross-legged by the dusty speakers, his teenage-self swaps mixtapes with my teenage-self.
About Anna Nazarova-Evans…
The Strange Machine
From his worn recliner, Grandpa eyed his six-year-old granddaughter’s slow, inquisitive stride across the room. He raised himself from the chair with his trusty cane and caught up to her as she stood and stared at the apparatus. He bent down and whispered, “I like hot swing, like Count Basie; your grandma liked sweet swing, like Glenn Miller.” With genial encouragement, he instructed her to move alongside the device and muster enough strength in her petite arm to wind the crank protruding from the ancient mechanism. As she cranked, Grandpa opened the doors of the cabinet below. “Duke Ellington said, ‘It don’t matter if you play sweet or hot, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’” He lightly pinched her cheek and asked, “What will it be for you?” Without hesitation she said, “Sweet.” He removed a thick disc from a tattered, age-yellowed paper sleeve. He placed it gently on a worn, green felt covered turntable, flipped a small lever and positioned a pivoting arm above the now spinning black disc. He motioned for her to stop winding and pointed her attention to the large, wooden horn where now – between the scratchy acoustics of a needle on shellac – the warm sound of a trombone began a gentle rhythm, rich and pure. She stood in silence, listening and smiling, her head tilted to one side like the little dog pictured on the trademark of the strange machine in the corner of Grandpa’s living room.
How to Make Lavender Soap
I haven’t heard from Cherie since dropping her off at the commune last year. But when I see the link to her new website, selling organic lavender soap, I place a bulk order.
In promotional photos, Cherie is clearly naked, but for strategically-placed lavender posies, lips and legs slightly parted, hair snaking over her shoulders.
She arrives unannounced that weekend, in a dusty red van driven by Jimmy. “He’s very spiritual,” she says. Cigarette smoke laces his straggly hair and I know Mum wouldn’t approve either. “Jimmy’s misunderstood,” says Cherie.
They need somewhere to run the business.
“Not here,” I say.
Cherie sighs. “Well, obviously not. We’ll only stay a few nights.” Jimmy will sleep in his van, but Cherie declines to share my bed, preferring the sofa. Judging by the giggles through the night, Jimmy joins her.
Next morning, they unload oil, a phial of lavender essence and a bottle labelled lye: toxic, all of which are sloshed, unmeasured, into my bath. “You go to work, we’ll be fine,” says Cherie. “You look like mum when you frown.”
Later she texts. Jimmy says this batch isn’t taking.
Clean my bathroom, I reply.
Cherie texts: So hostile. You’re stressing me out. We’re leaving.
I gag at the noxious smell when I get home. Clogging my bath is yellow gloop, studded with bristles from my Mason Pearman hairbrush. I call the plumber, before adding one-star reviews to the website: Lavender too sweet, obviously synthetic not organic.
The Final Decision
Jean sits at her dressing table ignoring the ghost in the mirror.
She tugs the zip of her make-up bag, all liver spots and swollen knuckles.
“Jean! Hurry up!” Downstairs, Tony, her eldest, whom she never much liked.
The makeup bag gapes open, a stranger’s wound she skilfully stitched together years ago with needle and thread.
She peers in at the cosmetics and is suddenly back in the shop, indecisively standing in front of endless sweet jars.
Rubbing her temple, she tries to massage the names from the dark abyss.
Lenny watches her from inside the mahogany frame. She picks him up, opens the pesky clips and slides him out. He grins at his rescuer and climbs into her hands, holding a small paper bag, the scar on his forearm still fresh.
She carefully bends Lenny in half.
Barley sugar twists.
And slips him under her blouse, beneath a bra strap.
“Jean! Don’t take anything else! We’re going to be late!”
She pulls the make-up bag closer. Blusher. Mascara. Eye shadow.
Lipstick. Pale red.
She applies it slowly, realizing she’s looking in the mirror.
“Apparently I’m off to live with chrysanthemums and boardgames and … geriatrics.”
No response comes from the frowning ghost with the bright lips.
“You stay here and behave yourself.” Still no response.
Dropping the lipstick into her pocket, she leaves, certain that she should have chosen the mascara.
About Amy Trakos…
She slowly edges her walking frame between the dining chairs and the sideboard, its rubber-stoppered feet cling to the carpet. Resting for a moment, she lays her hand on the embroidered linen of her best tablecloth. Her fingertips leave dimples in the thin shroud of dust. The clock above the mantelpiece makes no sound, batteries flat, still twenty to nine.
Blowflies rise buzzing from the centre of the table. The sweet smell of decay fills the air. Vast and magnificent, there it sits, like Miss Haversham’s bride-cake, an enduring monument. Its domed crown is furred with mould filaments soft and grey, like an antique veil, like a curtain of cobwebs. Its nebulous edges – the palest of penicillium blues – undulate a little as the maggots move beneath the slimy surface. Once light and frothy, a confection of cumulus, now slowly dissolving, liquefying; progressing with putrid dignity, through all the states of matter.
Her speciality, their treat. A dozen egg whites, four cups of sugar (always caster, never granulated), a whole pint of cream, topped with kiwifruit. An extravagance on her pension but one of their Christmas traditions: a mandarin in Stella’s stocking, cricket in the backyard, and pav for desert. The grandchildren would be so excited. And there were more now. Phil’s new partner had two children of her own, apparently.
She’s sure her family will come home soon, after all, she’s made her special pavlova.
About Sian Williams…
Where there are Pomegranates
- Between branches of a pomegranate tree, we see the Temple of Aphrodisias.
- Among bells of gold, she works blue, purple, scarlet pomegranates onto the high priest’s garment.
- In the Banias nature reserve, we choose a trail following the Hermon Stream. Wild raspberries, sumac and capers. Ancient almond and pomegranate. Cacao. I break a pod in half. The sweetness lingers.
- We talk about our daughters. She plays me Avnik’s latest song. Her Syrian homeland. Sadness in every falling phrase. This empty earth. This winter season. In the Greek National Archeological Museum, I angle my camera in front of Demeter and Persephone.
- She has hung new curtains in my sun porch. The pomegranates are upside down.
My mother has dressed up for her outing
My mother has dressed up for her outing – lipstick awry, powder applied too thickly, hair released from rollers in stiff, white curls.
She is more fragile than last time, lost inside clothes that have grown too large, her skirt and petticoat held up with safety pins. But her blue-green eyes remain bright, flecked with vestiges of sky and ocean.
We inch around the gallery, arm in arm, pausing every few steps.
My attempts to explain the artworks are loud and futile. My mother sees only confused silhouettes.
Afterwards, I leave her seated in the courtyard while I fetch the car. When I return, a rose has released petals across her lap. She’s dozing.
“It’s so very different,” she says on the way home, of the town she’s lived in for almost a century.
Her gait picks up speed on the garden path. She hurries towards the familiarity of her front door like a child to its mother, her bladder giving way in relief. Urine flows down her stockings, fills her shoes and forms rivulets over the carpet.
She sits down in the nearest chair, attempting to hide her soaking garments, “Thank you. You’ve been very sweet.”
I kiss her cheek and tell her I love her. She squeezes my hand. “You remind me of my daughter.”
I’m not vegan, but I’ve got a new girlfriend. So, I rang Mum.
“It can’t be done,” she told me.
So, I messaged Paul – my friend that knows about these things.
“Aquafaba,” he replied, and sent a link.
I googled recipes and separated memoir mountains from useful instructions.
My flatmate told me about the overpriced organics shop. I browsed the aisles and bought chickpeas, coconut cream, caster sugar and a vibrant beetroot powder for colour.
I chilled aquafaba, preheated the oven, squeezed lemon, dripped vanilla and whipped stiff peaks.
It melted like the Wicked Witch and burnt on the edges.
The next one tasted salty.
The third one was a perfect introvert, retreating into itself when I opened the oven door.
So, I made a proper one – with egg whites – and covered it in cream. I ate it all, thinking of my ex.
I threw up.
I messaged Paul again.
”Persevere,” he advised.
I made hummus with all the chickpeas sitting in the fridge, and took a final attempt at the pav. It looked good.
On the way to Christmas dinner, my new girlfriend and I bought fresh strawberries from the back of a man’s car.
At Mum and Dad’s place, my sister smiled. My nephew smeared his face with it. My girlfriend said she liked it. Dad went back for seconds.
Mum stared at it. “It’s just not the same,” she said.
For the first time in his life, the house is sad on his birthday. The boy takes the cake he couldn’t eat to the building where the refugees live. He asks around for someone named Oscar. He knocks on doors, calls through open windows, and screams his question along the corridors. Residents must think he’s crazy.
One kid peeks out from behind a door. “My name’s Omar.”
Close enough. “How old are you?”
The boy takes out four candles before handing the cake to the kid. “From my brother. Enjoy!”
He flees before the kid sees him cry.
About Claire Polders…
A heart-shaped face is lucky, koukla, my yia-yia said. No one ever loved me quite the way she did, as she tucked my dark hair behind my ear or wove it into braids. She never wanted me to hide my forehead behind fierce, brown bangs. She’d brush them aside as if enchanted by my chocolate eyes.
She always called me koukla. “Little doll,” I translated for my friends. They seemed jealous of this foreign word, a shiny coin they didn’t possess. They were only called ‘Molly’, ‘Madison’, or ‘Sarah’. No nicknames, no doting.
I carried yia-yia’s superstitions with the evil eye she clasped around my neck with her painted nails on my first communion. The superstitions skipped a generation, for my mother always rolled her eyes whenever I nervously tugged the charm while facing challenging math problems or mean girls and teenage drama.
A heart-shaped face is open and transparent, always ready to serve, she declared.
I never doubted the power of my cobalt mati, small enough to pass for a blue pearl. It was a magical medallion, my yia-yia said, and I felt naked without it.
I clung to it with my left hand as I passed my boards and became all the things she claimed I could be: strong, heroic, a healer. She is with me as I attend to every patient who pushes through my ER in need of hope.
It’s been decades since anyone has called me koukla.
He works with moulds. Springform, bundt and tart pans. Creates cakes of fuzzy blue and white aspergillus, penicillium, mucor and acremonium. Meringues of mycotoxin, eukaryotic ganache, fungal fondant.
He doesn’t do landscapes. Portraiture. Nudes. Veduta. Rot is his leitmotif, fungus and mould his pigment and resin.
He is an artist. All agree. The delicate creations intricately cultivated.
“Few realise,” he says, slicing sections to serve atop Petri dishes, “even pavlovas go bad.”
He slaps at a fly on his cheek. He has itches, scaly patches. Circlets of raised, inflamed skin. Garishly gnarled and jaundiced nails. A white, clotted film atop his tongue.
But art does that, doesn’t it?
Diverse strains thrive in his studio, colonies of microorganisms, their mycelia long settled in the porous materials. Fungi sprouts along skirting board and sill; black patches darken corners.
Sometimes the mould speaks. “Eat me,” it says. And he does.
About Brendon Stanton…
How to Stop a Tank
My friend Billy’s tank had no tread or engine. It was just a large cardboard box masquerading as a tank and powered by a child’s rampant imagination. Lacking a cannon, Billy tossed water balloons as he feverishly pushed the box forward like a caged hamster on a wheel.
“This is war, you’re dead!” Billy barreled toward me. A water grenade hit my face, but I stood my ground. Less than a yard before impact, I picked up a brick and could have stopped Billy in his tracks. Instead, I jumped on the box and we gleefully tussled. War could wait.
About Marc Littman…
Bart van Goethem
“Do you know why cats purr?” she said.
Whenever a date was going south, Josy asked that question. It was her way of playing all or nothing.
Dave stared at her quizzically, his hand tight around the base of his pint.
“No, of course not,” she said. “No one knows for sure. This only adds to the satisfying experience of the rumble resonating all the way to my wrist when I am stroking my cat. Even more fascinating is the always varying tipping point, where she decides she has had enough and lashes out at my hand that is caressing the fur between her stretched out paws. Sometimes I think a cat is nothing less than life itself, wrapped in a ball of fluff: fickle. Always fickle.”
During her monologue, Dave had tilted his head a bit, part in growing disbelief, part in a difficult to define kind of admiration. Don’t You Want Me from the Human League started blaring through the pub. Dave chuckled. His hand relaxed and let go of his pint.
Pav Queen for a Day
Alex Reece Abbott
Check in with Tui and Alison, steadfast culinary Antipodean goddesses. Study your Edmonds gospel. Scan the NZ Woman’s Weekly for tips.
Get the inside track from your cuz.
Thank Kenneth Wood as your retro duck-egg-blue mixer beats whites till the glossy peaks hold. Thank Cuz when she phones and swears that vinegar is the only thing to stabilise the foam. Wrap your baking tray in foil. Yes, Cuz. Gas Mark One. Gentle heat.
Leave her cooling in the oven. Gotta get those edges crisp.
Use Tupperware to prep and store. Beat that cream stiff – go easy or she’ll separate and you’ll get butter. Yeah, dash of sugar and a splash of vanilla. Chill.
Decorate at the last minute – you don’t want a soggy mess. Gottit.
Don’t be mean, fuck the calories and slather her with cream. Okay, Cuz.
Crown her with wedges of ruby strawberries. Alternate with slices of glut-cheap kiwifruit – that chartreuse contrast makes her really Christmassy, right?
Hug Cuz when she comes round to yours and warns you not to go overboard with fruit or you’ll send the cream watery. A shower of chocolate hail? Stop tutuing! All good, Cuz.
Put the air-con on, low and cold. Settle Cuz in the passenger seat with no seatbelt across her ample bosom; balance your perfect baby on her lap. Drive across town. In the car-park, near the front door, take the tray from her as she does the careful transfer to your arms, gives you the once over, clicks her tongue and tilts her chin.
Breathe. Smile when Cuz gives her nod of approval. You might make it.
Strut into the hall, arms outstretched with your foil-lined tray, your festive centrepiece. She’s pretty fucking gorgeous. Put her down, careful now, so she doesn’t crack and seep.
Savour the nods and the ka pai-ing, mmm, crunchy edges, squidgy marshmallow centre. See how nobody’s picking foil from their teeth. Enjoy the compulsory dissing of bloody Aussies, trying to nick our national dessert.
Banish that lingering epic domestic science class disaster from years ago: this pavlova is completely demolished in under five minutes. Sweet.
Chill. Toast your cuz. Toast this rite of passage.
About Alex Reece Abbott…
Kirby Michael Wright
The surfers float on their asses waiting for one sweet wave. Wetsuits bob like croutons on mud-green soup. Is that a swell approaching from Hawaii? No. It’s the morning light igniting something between the kelp and a blue lobster boat dropping traps a mile out. The boat isn’t moving. Sometimes people and things seem anchored but will drift given the right currents.
Small waves sweep in. Hands stroke churning water. Watermen stand and dance toward shore, their fiberglass carving paths beneath the flying pelicans. The boat’s outboard belches black smoke – it swirls toward shore. Two surfers paddle in. Smell burning diesel? The boat chugs west for deeper water.
About Kirby Michael Wright…
Flies / Honey
There’s a fly in the kitchen window; a fat black bluebottle, buzzing angrily each time it hits the glass.
The kitchen is warm. The air smells of tempered chocolate and sweet vanilla. A sheen of sugar hangs in the air, dancing through the shafts of sunlight like dust in an old attic. The chef ignores the fly and gives the mixing bowl a final stir, watches the chocolate gloop pleasingly on the end of her whisk, and sets it down.
There is an art to confectionery; more than aesthetics – although she agrees that chocolate must be as much a feast for the eyes as for the tongue; there is patience, there is care, there is the importance of fine ingredients.
The chef takes a bottle from the cupboard and opens it with a practised twist. She adds a generous amount to the mixing bowl, gives it a stir, then puts the bottle back. A faint smell of almonds lingers in the air.
Up at the window, the fly has stopped buzzing. It rubs its legs, tasting. Soon it will fly, it will land, and it will eat.
The chef once heard that flies are caught more readily with honey than vinegar. She disagrees: you catch flies by making them believe they were never trapped at all. By letting them take their doom willingly.
Humans and flies are very similar in that respect.
We’re not like that
Paul bought our muffins, his usual choice of spinach and feta.
“Not very romantic. Isn’t this a day for something chocolatey?” I said. Paul said, “Are you going sentimental on me?” and ranted about Valentine’s Day being an artificial construct and a commercial hoax.
The group at the next table looked at us. I burned with embarrassment. Trying to sound playful, I said, “Still, isn’t it good to have one day that’s officially focused on, well, the sweeter side of life?”
“You weren’t expecting a dozen red roses from me, were you?” Paul asked. I shook my head. Then he exclaimed, “Wait a minute! I do have something for you!” and handed me a tiny plastic bag. My heart leapt. But he went on, “It’s the battery you wanted for your remote.”
My smile faltered. He snapped, “What did you think it would be? A ring?”
“No,” I said. “One of those little candy hearts … with a message on it like Be Mine.”
“What’s the matter with you? We’re not like that,” Paul said, and left.
The group at the next table got up. One came over to me. “I don’t have any candy hearts with me,” he said, “but if I did, I’d give you every one of them.”
“Jeremy,” called the others, and they all wandered off.
I’d never seen him before.
Jeremy. I rolled his name like a sweet berry around my mouth.
Call me Pav
My name? Pavlova. Mum said it’s cos I was made from beaten eggs and sickly sugar, hidden under peaches and cream. Grandma says it’s cos Mum dreamed of pavlova while she was under the knife having me.
Mum’s other kids are called boring names, like Tom, Dick and Harry. Grandma laughs that it’s cos of who their fathers were, but I don’t get the joke. At school, the other kids call me Pav for short, which is cool. My boyfriend – he’s 12, a whole year older than me – he calls me luv, like a lover but without the er bit; that stuff we can’t talk about. Mum wouldn’t tell me about the er bit, so I asked my teacher. She gave me a book. The pictures were gross. Why would I let a boy touch me with his wee thingy? My boyfriend and me, we go hunting rabbits instead. Then we have rabbit stew. If Grandma’s in a good mood, we have pavlova after. The nice kind, with fresh eggs, sweet sugar, lots of cream, and bright orange peaches from our tree. That’s the best.
One day Mum’s coming home and she will like pavlova too. She’s inside. It wasn’t even her fault. My Dad came back – he wanted the er bit, so she shot him, like a rabbit. Grandma says that’s fitting, ‘cos they’d already had a shotgun wedding. I promised my boyfriend not to shoot him, because he doesn’t want the er bit.
My name’s Pavlova, but you best call me Pav.
I see the packet of gulab jamuns – those golden fried berry-sized balls submerged in a sea of sugar syrup. These were the kind you liked. You didn’t like the variant without the syrup, served with sprinkled sugar crystals. Perhaps, you have passed on your tastes to me. I too dislike them.
You went for a walk every evening to a newer path around the apartment. You returned with updates on the neighborhood. And of course, a dozen of gulab jamuns from another sweet shop. I couldn’t wait for you to change your clothes, so that we could devour those sweets. You would then carefully remove the knot on the transparent plastic cover in which they parceled it. It had to be surgical, to not drop the sugar syrup on the table or on the floor, inviting fury from mother.
You tell me you have met me twenty years ago, when I am only eighteen. I refuse to believe you don’t know me in the present. I tell you of your love for gulab jamuns and how we used to eat them in my room. You nod and play along, chewing the milk sweets between your teeth. The way you offer me the sweets, I know you don’t remember me.
I hand you the packet of gulab jamuns. You accept it with a smile. You have not forgotten these.
Times never seemed so good
She’s dropping in and out of the conversation like intermittent internet.
Her pupils are pins.
When she stands on the coffee table and starts singing ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, I reach for my ginger beer and plan to be patient. Much like the other times.
But this time she starts shouting, “I’ve got Bette Davis eyes, that’s why they don’t want me.”
Then she’s threatening to throw the sherry bottle that’s in her hand, at me.
Some of the sherry is pouring out.
She stops shouting and guzzles at the escaping liquor, then starts screaming likes she’s fleeing from the Babadook.
I stealthily reverse out the door.
In the hotel corridor, I head toward the elevator.
She comes out of the room, bare feet, hair wild and black-sequined dress askew, the sherry bottle in her hand, singing ‘Sweet Caroline’.
She told me years ago that she slept with Neil Diamond and he originally wrote the song for her, calling it ‘Sweet Claudia’.
But he dumped her after she slept with his road manager, so he changed the song’s name.
I wave to her and climb into the elevator, hoping the doors close before she gets to me.
My mother, the struggling actress, resembles her idol Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
I can’t understand why she hasn’t got her big break yet.
“Georgie, your boots are disgraceful. Go and black them at once.”
“I won’t black my boots anymore, Mamma.”
“Goodness, child, whatever will our visitor think?”
“I think he’d be pleased, Mamma. He said sugar is worked by slaves. And there’s sugar in boot blacking.”
Mrs Fox looked steadily at her son. He held her gaze.
“And I won’t let the servants black them, either. Servants are like slaves.” His mother sighed. He marched out of the room, a hero.
Once outside, he scuttled down the back stairs. Was he pleased to have defied her or scared of getting a beating? Though he did mean it. About slaves, though maybe not about servants. He loved sitting in the servants’ hall. It was his best place in the house.
He looked at his boots. He wouldn’t black them, not even for church. They prayed there for the abolition of the slave trade. Maybe he should wash the mud off, though. He didn’t want to be mistaken for a rough boy who begged for pennies in the street.
First, he stopped for a chat with Cook. He sat by the range and watched her hack lumps off the sugar loaf. She was making a fruit tart for the visitor. He hoped there would be some left over.
“Well, if it isn’t Master Georgie,” said Cook.
She picked up a piece and held it out. George stuffed his hands into his pockets.
He knew what he should say. But it wasn’t easy.
I Blame the Aquafaba
My mother-in-law sees her new daughter-in-law as a coup, a step up from me.
My new sister-in-law is vegan — not a quiet one taking out her pre-prepared food at family gatherings, politely declining sausage rolls and chips and dip, but a loud one, extolling to anyone who would listen the magical benefits of a life of veganism.
I nod, learning, taking in her glossy hair (coconut oil, she says) and glowing skin (coconut oil, she says). She smells like a piña colada and speaks so easily, inserting herself into her new family with ease and confidence.
The pavlova, every Christmas, is my thing – my time to shine in a year that is mostly filled with disappointment.
And so, this year: a vegan pavlova. Made with the liquid from a can of chickpeas. A substitute for egg whites, I read. Your family won’t know the difference!
On Christmas Day my sister-in-law declines dessert. “I’m starting my New Year’s resolution early,” she says. “I’m losing five kilos in five weeks.”
When I unveil the pavlova, they look shocked, horrified. “Looks weird,” they say. “Tastes funny,” they complain.
My mother-in-law blames me; tells me I’ve aimed too high. I blame the aquafaba, it was clearly trying to be something it wasn’t.
About Nikki Crutchley…
Our house’s ghost is from the 1970s. I’m not actually sure she’s dead, she may be, or simply residing in a rest home. I call our ghost Eileen. I don’t know her real name, but it seems fitting. When she lived in our house, women were mothers and wives, or soon-to-be one of those, or unfortunate spinsters.
I chose to be the ‘stay-at-home’ parent.
Her husband Bruce had monumental sideburns, and her hair rollers stayed firmly in place every night. They lived in a new subdivision of modest family homes with welcoming front lawns that are now million-dollar homes, protected behind electronic gates. Special occasions drew the families together when cheese and pickled onion hedgehogs were served, and in summer, pavlova for dessert.
Pavlova promises so much but always disappoints me.
Otherwise, each day was much like the next: washing to deal with; meals to prepare; and recipes to swap. The kids drained Eileen’s energy, and then Bruce came home to relax in the evenings.
My husband says he’ll be home for the kids’ bedtime from now on.
Eileen didn’t question their arrangement openly; her friends were the same. But when Susan went out to work in a shop each morning once her kids started school, Eileen’s resentment grew.
Recently I’ve been thinking about getting a part-time job.
This morning, in the quiet of my kitchen, I heard her whisper, “Don’t end up like me.”
I drape the tea towel over my shoulder and snort, “Leave me alone. We’re nothing alike.”
About Gretchen Carroll…
I remember we were picture-book pages, summer beach days, home-cooked meals. You holding her hand and me high on your shoulders. You sipping imaginary tea with my soft toys and letting me stay up past my bedtime to perfect the chocolate chip cookie.
I remember it broke down slowly. The late-night discussions when I was supposed to be asleep. The animosity building until it wasn’t sugar and spice anymore.
I remember that final fight, bitter as vinegar. The day you took me and left her. I didn’t really understand, but I was Daddy’s little girl.
I remember the divorce case thickened her anger like corn starch.
I remember salt in the air the day we moved to the beach house. We went for a two-hour drive along the coast in your Spitfire with the top down. We played volleyball on the cream-coloured sand.
I remember the first time I made pavlova for your birthday. The kiwifruit juice dribbled down our chins before the pavlova was even out of the oven. We were having too much fun to care that we missed out on the fruit topping.
I remember my footsteps echoing down the stairs. I remember I found you. Cold to touch, paler than egg whites. I remember I kept asking you to wake up. I remember we buried you on a Thursday in autumn.
I remember the first time I baked after the funeral. I remembered to not eat all the fruit. I ate a whole dad-sized pavlova in one sitting, just for you.
“Her outfit is so sweet!”
Everyone always says so. It must be true. Some comfort to Jen that she is able to dress her baby well. So little else is going well. But clothes, headbands and tiny socks are sweet as.
Sweet outfit. Can you taste the icing sugar on Jamie-Kay playsuits? Does the delicate ribbon disappear on the tongue like an edible garnish? Is the soft pink mitten just the colour of a sugared almond, or can you crack off one tiny finger and smash through to the nutty core?
Jen jumps. The waitress gives her an odd look, then turns to the prize in the pushchair after the cup hits the table. Jen is left staring at her bent back, stranded on the couch where mums sit, separated from her baby but not that worried.
She knows the coffee group will soon hold session. She knows it is favourable that she was here early to secure the couches. Time to assume the position of new-mother-who-is-coping-fine-thanks. Time to ease off the disturbing thoughts about sugared-almond baby fingers.
Her baby is back in view. Eyes travel the café walls and ceiling, jerky neck movements rub the headband this way and that. It slips down, a licorice blindfold. Jen smiles involuntarily. It is funny. Little hands strike forwards as if they’d like to solve this problem on their own. She reaches forwards to gingerly tug the band upwards. Their eyes meet briefly.
Then the other mums arrive.
- Egg whites – 6, according to Grandma Betty, 5 if you get cornered by Great Aunt Agatha. Lie to them both when they ask.
- Sugar – 175g, 2 cups or 1½ cups. Or, stuff it, use a mug.
- White wine vinegar – generous tsp. Apple cider vinegar will do in a pinch. If all else fails, I’m assured a splash of week-old Sav Blanc works quite well.
- Cream of tartar – possibly 1tsp?
- Cornflour – maybe 2tsp? Or none? Who knows anymore?
- Fruit and cream for topping.
- Whisk egg whites to a fine froth. Imagine your nan in that Wii Family Boxing Grand Final, circa 2012. Tip the bowl over your most annoying child’s head. If they remain froth-free, you’re sweet.
- Slowly add the sugar, continue whisking. No one cares about your tennis elbow.
- By some sinister magic, you will now have glossy stiff peaks.
- Add the vanilla essence and fold in. No one knows what this really means. No one.
- Remember the white wine vinegar. Swear profusely. Try to sneak it in without the egg whites realising. They’re a temperamental bunch.
- Spread the mixture evenly on a baking tray. You remembered to grease it and lay out baking parchment, didn’t you? Thought so.
- Place in the oven at 150 degrees for an hour. Do not ask me about Gas Marks or Fahrenheit.
- Prepare the whipped cream and fruit. Kiwifruit, obviously.
- Once cooled and prised – sorry, lifted – reverentially from the baking tray, layer the whipped cream and sliced kiwi fruit. Ett wallah! Serve to appreciative family and friends. The ungrateful ones can bloody wait.
Made correctly, the pavlova should be gooey and chewy and stick to your teeth like your favourite summer memories: serve alongside the joyous, the horrific and the downright awkward. Your best friend’s 8th birthday down at the beach. The one when she threw up over your joint hermit crab collection. Poor Sebastian. Your dad’s retirement party. Your son’s wedding, to the love of his life. The funeral of your favourite uncle, where Cousin Denise was being inappropriate with the vicar and ended up leaving in the hearse. Your 50th wedding anniversary. Your son’s divorce party which turned into an all-night rave (with the love of his life).
Sneak a taste off someone else’s spoon. Devour a heaped bowl to yourself, hidden under the table, with a large rum over ice. Serve a leftover slice by the light of the fridge, tears running down your face.
Serve grinning as you fall in love.
Serve alongside stale sandwiches and fine cuisine.
Serve with love, panic and last-minute tweaks.
It’s Pav: just serve.