Honey Versus Custard
She seems still, except for the shuddering of her shoulders. The beach is the colour of her kitchen cupboards: a delicious shade of purest honey – at least in the showroom. In her house, they turned definitely – sickeningly; yellow. People talk as if yellow is cheerful, but tell that to Sylvia Plath. You ask a roomful of five-year-olds for their favourite colour, and not one of them will ever say yellow. Guaranteed. Ten years in teaching and no-one ever wants to be on the yellow table. Remember that, next time they’re playing up – if there’s a ‘next time’.
They wouldn’t take the cupboards back to the warehouse, so she keeps the kitchen blinds half-shut and the slats collect dust. Another job for the list. They aren’t quite as custardy at night, now they’ve swapped to bluish bulbs and Dave’s installed a dimmer. And he did, when the football season was over, though they still disagree about what constitutes ‘nagging’.
Her head shifts slightly, as if she is inhaling the white powder that scurries across the beach’s surface. Vim, scouring and scratching. The tide has left behind ripple marks, filled with shallow puddles. Remind Dave to fix the shower tray in the en-suite. Slightly off-kilter. Never completely drains.
As watery as the pools which reflect it, the sun forces its way through the steely clouds in gentle dabs. Then, it’s gone again and she’s under a shadow. On and off. Flick. Flick. Flick. On. Off. Off.
“I said ‘Off!’”
You’ve got to be careful about raising your voice, or Daddy will be on to the Chair of Governors. If only their times tables would sink in like the Childline number. Warm air. Biting breeze. Inconsistent performance. Improvement Required.
The sea is the colour of slate, stippled with off-white, where the wind is whipping it into uneven peaks. She has never made a meringue from scratch. She fits baking into her quality time with the twins, at least once a month – once every two months, definitely, even if it all comes from a packet. That smell, full of promise – just before they prod the sponge tops to see if they’ll spring up again: it almost makes the kitchen alright.
But usually they’ve misjudged it, one way or another, and the fairy-cakes have to be biscuits. Or they collapse in on themselves, imprinted with the twins’ not-quite-identical loops and whorls. Try to make biscuits, and they come out like Yorkshire puddings. There’s only so much that icing can disguise. And, you’ve got to wonder whether the sugar-highs are worth it.
There’s a problem with attention-span on Dave’s side of the family, and the twins only really join in when it’s time to lick the mix from the spoon. You couldn’t do that with raw egg-whites, could you? Or maybe it’s just the yolk that gets infected. Google ‘salmonella’. Don’t forget. Don’t. Don’t. Her ‘to not do’ list – does that count as a split infinitive? – is in her car, back at school, ever-lengthening. She’s pretty sure that split infinitives are still a no-no. What if the Inspectors rummage in her glove compartment? There seems to be no limit to their right to poke their noses in. She thrills, for a moment, at being discovered, all grammatically incorrect. Oh God, the boxes of half-completed files in her boot! She is not good at on-the-hoof. Best stick to packets.
A group of seagulls peck around her feet. Four of them – a perfect, nuclear family, waiting to pounce on anyone prepared enough to produce a picnic. They don’t cover alliteration for another couple of years, and, even then, you mainly get gormless gawping. A stray ray of sun glances off the power station across the bay. It looks like a Fairy-white sugar cube from here, but, close-up, it will be stained, like everything else. Why look so closely, then? Stop scrutinising. Stop analysing. Where has it ever got you?
Dave’s mother says people just used to get on with things, and people survived, one way or another. More or less, if the bombs or the deadly diseases didn’t see them off. People didn’t worry about being fulfilled, and Dave’s mother lost two sets of twins without dwelling on it. Dave’s mother had three jobs, but no career pipedreams. Why can’t you just count your blessings? Dave has never laid a finger on you, and he didn’t bat an eyelid at the price of that kitchen.
Her hair thrashes around her head like snakes. No-one cares what she looks like, anyway. Good old Mrs Invisible. Dave didn’t notice when she had her hair semi-permanently relaxed. Or, maybe he did notice, but he hated it, in which case it was sensitive of him to keep schtum. He is not a bad man. To be fair, he hardly had time to notice, before she was riddled with curls again. Donna at Canny Cutz is a lot less friendly when she’s already got your money. Then, Citizen’s Advice confirmed that ‘semi-permanent’ can indeed mean ‘less than a day’, and there was nothing to do but to suck it up. As usual.
She thinks about the twenty-seven children she has left behind. Will they have opened their eyes yet? Will it have dawned on them that Miss doesn’t actually have disappearing superpowers? Surely they are too savvy to have actually swallowed her fib. ‘Fib’ sounds so much nicer than ‘lie’. At Christmas, only Danny Dunn would admit to believing in Santa, but everyone knows Harry Potter is real. How long before they grass her up to the Head? She fumbles in her flapping jacket pocket, checking that her phone is in flight mode.
Funny what finally tips you over the edge – that stupid strip-light flickering away over her desk, like a cheap disco. Fits and starts of flashing, at first. Then, it stopped stopping. The Head reckoned he couldn’t see it – too mean to call out Maintenance. But, whenever she looks directly at a child – pupil or twin – she sees a blank, green circle where the face used to be. Like looking directly at an eclipse, in spite of the warnings. The doctor’s guess is ‘stress’, though he’s prepared to put ‘migraine’ on a sick note, as a favour. The Head does not believe in shelling out for supply staff. Which is why she was lying on the floor, teaching handwriting in the dark, when the Inspectors popped in.
The delicious, disgusted look on the Head’s face. His attempts to pass it off as Innovative Practice. The ominous “I’ll see you later.” The muffled sneck of the classroom door and a forgotten lump of happy rising in her throat as she abandoned the class and car and school and town. Gay abandon. She is not completely irresponsible – if she’s not fit to teach, she’s not fit to drive. She walked, until the ground ran out. This is the limit. She is not so sure of what comes next.
The twins will dawdle home by themselves, after rugby practice. By themselves, but together – that is the agreement. You can see that it’s embarrassing to wait for a lift home from your Mum-who-is-also-a-teacher. Not that she needed much persuasion. Ten whole minutes’ of uninterrupted adult conversation on Radio 4, five days out of seven. The twins have already lost three sets of house-keys, so they have an elaborate system of hiding-places. The key under the stone – where any right-minded burglar would look – is just for her shed, and the shed is disconcertingly empty, apart from a mattress and her favourite blanket, cunningly draped over the garage-key.
The garage is full of bags of clothes waiting to come back into fashion or for her to lose the baby-weight. Charity. Remember. Don’t forget. Don’t. Her hand twitches towards the phone, then pulls back again. She might give out a signal and get herself found. In the garage, there’s a stack of mildewed, favourite books from her childhood and other adulthood. There’s still a tiny chance that the twins might show some interest in them. If not, more for charity. The key to the house is hidden between the yellowing pages of The Bell Jar.
There’s no actual legal age for leaving them to their own devices – the twins, that is. She admits there are probably rules about classes of twenty-seven. Reasonable competence. The twins have never had a formal diagnosis, so nobody can quibble. If she chooses not to re-materialise, they will eventually ring Dave’s mother when they can’t find any more crisps in those kitchen cupboards. Dave’s mother will eventually ring Dave, if he’s got good reception today, and Dave will be…inconvenienced.
Disappointed. She places one foot on the top of the concrete wall in front of her, like a court-shoed marathon-runner, limbering up. She leans in to the spray, toying with the grit on her tongue. People live worse lives. But, if you’re promised honey, you should get it. SLQ
Honey Versus Custard by Helen Victoria Anderson won Second Prize, Sentinel Literary Quarterly Short Story Competition November 2014.