by Elizabeth Smither
“Scintillating conversation,” said the voice on the phone. “That’s what I’m offering. I’ll be there in half an hour.”
There was hardly time to replace the phone before Magdalena was doing a dozen things at once. Pulling a bottle of wine from the rack—he liked Shiraz—moving a pile of books from the table and bringing two glasses, then bringing the books back because they were comforting. The little handful of washing she was intending to iron before she retired for an early night (she was re-reading Philip Roth) was flung into the linen cupboard. Just time to change her clothes, apply lipstick and perfume, brush her hair. And all the time, the panic. The last date had been so leisurely, so much under her control, or mostly under her control. What was coming felt like an invasion.
“I’m not feeling very scintillating,” she began before he laughed and said he had conversation enough for two. “It’s easier to seduce a woman in her own home,” a girlfriend had said to her once. “It becomes an extension of hospitality.”
In an instant she thought of the bed. Sheets two days old, tightly made. If she had not answered the phone she would have been turning the top sheet and the covers down by now, sliding in.
And then an idea came to her. A wicked idea. It would take more energy than scintillating conversation. Quickly she opened the drawer that held flour, sugar, raisins, coconut. Quickly she switched the oven to fan bake. She opened the bag of self-raising flour and dabbed a long streak on her forehead. She brought out her grandmother’s mixing bowl. The knock fell on the door, the shadow behind it.
“Darling,” she said, going to him. She could give him that now, barricaded as she would be behind butter and sugar, frothing eggs—she might ask him to mix something, he would have to take off his jacket and roll up his sleeves.
“I’d forgotten,” she said, with the tiniest wail in her voice. “I promised a gala some baking. Tonight’s the night. I tried to phone you, but you’d gone.”
Gone into the shower, he thought ruefully. Soaping himself, a second shave.
Though she was getting ahead of herself, Magdalena scattered a coating of flour onto the bench. For a moment she was a sower of seed, a barricade to seed.
From the fridge, she took the cold leftover mashed potato from last night’s dinner. There were flakes of garlic embedded in it, but her grandmother, who was not interested in purity—of recipe books or men—would have simply said it added to the flavor. There was the cheese to grate. She looked at Freddy’s face, but it didn’t seem to be volunteering.
“How long is this going to take?” he asked, sipping from the glass she had poured with floury hands. “I’m thinking about our conversation…”
“Can we have it standing up?” Magdalena asked. “Standing up or lying down, I should have thought scintillation could cope.”
“It’s not what I had in mind,” he said. It seemed a waste of time now to have dabbed on cologne. This flushed-cheeked hausfrau smeared with flour might enjoy something rougher.
“Will there be time between batches?” he asked. He presumed there would be batches. The oven was turned up to 220 C, and there were several racks.
Magdalena was cutting the scone dough into rough squares. With the grater, she rubbed a thick slice from the cheese block against one of the larger slits so that little golden squares fell on the bench. She pressed one or two into the center of each scone. When it melts, her grandmother had told her—they had baked together since she was seven—it will look like a little setting sun.
“Are you finished?” Freddy asked when the tray was safely in the oven. “Can we have our scintillating talk now?” He was thinking a hot scone after sex might be rather good. He smiled at Magdalena and stretched out a finger to touch a smear of butter on her nose.
“Oh no,” Magdalena said. “The scones will only take ten minutes. Scones alone are not enough for a gala. There are biscuits to do, and a cake.”
The scones behind the glass door of the oven could be seen rising like little bricks. The cheese at the top was melting as if someone had emptied a pot of paint over a roof.
The woolsack, Freddy thought. The cloth of gold spread over it, the Lord Chancellor sitting. He felt as helpless as a powerful man with his legs dangling. Perhaps there was some way of seizing the moment. Carpe diem. But the phrase that came to his mind was Festina lente, and that was how he intended to operate when he knew he was getting serious about Magdalena.
In the shower he had admired his own body and chastised it at the same time. Scintillating talk didn’t come into it; he had never been a scintillating talker. He meant foreplay. He could tell Magdalena would prefer easy stages. She was not a romance reader; while the scones were being pummelled and cut into squares, he had picked up a Philip Roth, Nemesis, from the table. He opened it at the bookmark and read: “His full lips were as well-defined as his muscles, and his complexion was tawny year-round.”
What biscuits could she do? Something with golden syrup or coconut, something fail-safe like a meal made in a single pot. Perhaps he would forgive her when he saw the baking soda bubbling in the milk and golden syrup and turning the soft golden color of hokey-pokey. She raised one floury finger to him and beckoned him over. He bent his lips to kiss her under the ear. He slipped his arm around her waist and attempted to drag her towards the old easy chair. An easy chair where guests could watch while they sipped coffee or a glass of wine was something she considered essential in a kitchen. A division but not quite a division, like the separation of the sexes. Cake, she thought wildly, for when the biscuits were out and the oven could be allowed to cool a little. Would he be soothed by something like a rainbow cake with the batter divided into three different colors?
And then it might be ten p.m. He had come, fresh and sweet-smelling, at seven. They could take their wine glasses and sit on the porch in the cooling night air. The scintillating conversation—the twenty or so minutes of it he had planned, steering her away from serious subjects—she was a reader of the Huffington Post—would have passed. She thought there might be a sad embrace. Or a fresh-baked hokey-pokey biscuit and a glass of milk. They could clink glasses. Freddy got up from the chair, covered in faded chintz and marked with dog hairs, and began pacing about the room. Magdalena—he guessed she was manic like his mother before a dinner party—was putting butter and castor sugar into her mixer. Then she reached into a cupboard and brought out a bottle of vanilla essence. This is how Napoleon must have felt, he imagined, invading a small country. Four strides and he was beside her, his hand on her back.
“Smell this,” she said, undoing the cap.
“I’d rather smell you,” he replied, nuzzling.
Luckily the mixer had completed its work and there was the creamy sugary blend to insert her finger into. “Remember,” she said, holding out a finger with a generous dollop at one end. “Remember when you were a child?”
Up to now all their contact, excluding scintillating conversation, had been in gestures. The ceremonious opening of the passenger door of the silver Jaguar, the holding of doors in restaurants, the pulling out of chairs and their equivalent weight in recompense: little touches to the sleeve of his jacket—his jackets were nice—a palm tentatively against a lapel, an admiring fingering of a tie. Her biggest return to date had been standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek when the car door was opened on the return journey, and she stood by his side. “What’s that in aid of?” Freddy had asked and she answered, “Nothing at all.”
He was such a large man; in his youth he must have been hulking, but in his early sixties he was still taut and strong. She felt, when he hugged her, as if he could lift her effortlessly. It excited her, and at the same time she didn’t know what expression to wear. Once, at his house, he had gathered her into his arms as she passed his chair—he was slow on account of crutches for a torn Achilles tendon—and she had felt engulfed and warm.
In her solitary bed, where she often woke and felt her way in the dark to make tea or read until she was sleepy, she had made a resolution to go slowly. There had been tumbles in that bed and quick flights from it; in a robe, she had followed a lover to the front door, smoothing down her hair, trying to catch but unable to make out a mumbled word. And then, though she admonished herself not to wait for a message, to be busy about her own life, she had been unable not to count the days, to wonder if there would be flowers—any flowers, she felt, would do. But there was something about physical love, however heartfelt and mutual it seemed, that brought reserve. She might be complimented and offer a compliment in return. Once she had been thanked and felt revulsion as she lay beside a body already withdrawing, returning to itself.
Of course she knew this was not fair to him. She could smell his aftershave, splashed on liberally. He had told her he sang in the shower. No scent of cheese scones with melting tops—she would tear one in half and offer it to him, with butter running down its sides, or syrupy biscuits or cake with colorful strata—could completely cancel the hopefulness of that cologne. And then she thought of the laundry she had hastily pushed into the linen cupboard; she had been folding the washing when he phoned in his light glancing voice with a hint of tease.
“What are you doing?” it had asked, and she had answered, “Nothing.”
He accepted the scone, but his eyes were severe, and she thought he might be thinking of his mother force-feeding him after school so he would not fling his satchel on the floor or shout with suppressed rage at some injustice. Still, he was so big it was unlikely he could have been bullied.
After the scone, Magdalena handed him a napkin, ironed and folded. There would be grace notes if they were to have a relationship. “He wants to sleep with you,” a close friend had said. “Then you’ll be able to tell if it is going to lead anywhere.” But after the last time, no flowers, no phone call, a head turned away when they eventually met, she was uncertain.
Baking day, when she was almost too tired to stand and longing for an early night, had come to her and she had summoned the last of her energy. “Not tonight,” she should have said. “Though your conversation always delights me. My brain is not receptive for your brilliance tonight. Store up your bons mots and witticisms. Twenty-four hours’ rest and I’ll be ready.”
The sweet scent of the biscuits was filling the room, the way the scent of ground coffee entices someone into a café or perfume from a tester surrounds a cosmetic counter. Without thinking, Freddy stretched out a hand and took one from the hot tray. Quick as a flash, Magdalena poured him a glass of milk.
His look was serious, displeased, as he bit into the biscuit, as if she had resurrected memories of his mother. He was an only child; she the eldest of three. That sort of information, glancing, sanitized, had been exchanged on their first date, arranged by a mutual friend. “A savage divorce,” the friend had said. “I won’t go in for savagery,” Magdalena had replied. So the facts had been like little mementos in a trinket box: a newspaper clipping of someone’s death, an old-fashioned ring, a colored stone. They had been spoken while they were driving to a football match, where they sat in the cheapest open-air seats. “Tight,” Magdalena thought to herself, unsure what conversation, if any, was expected between the shouts of the crowd, the mascot with his huge cat’s head, and the lumbering players that came close, steam rising from their jerseys, their faces smeared with mud and sweat. It was hardly a date, and she thought she appreciated that on the go-slow register.
The biscuits were on two racks and now the cake was rising. To prevent a crust, she slipped a square of tinfoil over the top and turned the oven from fan bake to bake. Behind her, she heard a sigh that not even biscuits and milk could assuage. Perhaps half an hour on the sofa? But she dismissed the idea; she would have to push her hands against his chest, pretending she was almost overcome but had just enough strength to resist. The timer might go off at an awkward moment.
“Coffee?” she said, and without waiting for an answer she gathered the cups and the sugar bowl, the milk jug.
“So it’s a write-off,” he said.
“Only if you don’t like my baking,” she said.
“How do you judge conversation?” she said, when there was a longish silence. She lifted two of the biscuits off the rack and placed them on a plate.
“No more biscuits,” he said. “Or cake either.”
“I can’t cut the cake,” she said. “Remember, it’s for a school gala.”
“Perhaps you believe the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I can assure you it isn’t. Only if a man has other things…”
“And the woman is expected to provide both. In the order the man wants…”
She thought of her bed, which she had been on the point of turning back when the phone had rung.
She opened the oven, lifted the foil, and poked at the cake with a long skewer. It came out with a little of the batter clinging.
“I asked you a question,” she said, breathing deeply, calming herself. “About this sophisticated conversation we have missed. That has been blotted out by butter and sugar, spices and vanilla. You were going to show me what scintillating conversation is.”
“We haven’t had it tonight,” he said, and his voice was low, harsh-sounding.
She wouldn’t mention Anne Elliott in Persuasion telling the obnoxious William: “My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation,” and his reply, “You are mistaken. That is not good company, that is the best.” She suspected he would not be interested. For him, conversation was a way of propelling things forward, a movement from room to room. He thought of the sofa with its deep cushions, the moves that he could have made in his sleep.
“Is there really a gala?” he asked.
“Really,” she said. Her panic had been real, her longing for bed. A night of reading and thinking, a small glass of wine, that was real.
“Good conversation,” she said, “putting aside scintillation for a moment, must be when men’s and women’s thoughts are in accord.”
But this brought no answering smile.
“I can only stay another half hour,” he said. “Heavy day tomorrow.”
“Just a moment,” she said, opening the oven door again and re-inserting the skewer. This time nothing stuck to it, not even a cooked crumb.
“It has to cool before I ice it,” she said, hopefully. “Perhaps…”
“Oh, I think you should mix the icing now, not waste a minute.”
“Thank you,” she said. “For being so understanding.” She touched her cheek, hoping the smear of flour was still in place.
“I’ll see myself out,” he said. “Just in case you want to mix up anything else.”
“No, I think that’s enough.”
She walked to the door with him and called to his back. “Have a good day tomorrow. I hope it goes well.”
Then she stood for a moment looking at the stars.
In the sink there was a pile of dishes. The cake on its rack could stay un-iced. She might give it to the neighbour, a widower. On her way to bed she scooped up the pile of laundry she had hidden in the linen cupboard. Old worn lingerie that felt soft against her face.
In the morning the scones, the biscuits, the cold cake were still on their racks. The scones were rock-like, the biscuits had softened; only the cake was still appetizing. Without hesitating, Magdalena scooped up the scones and biscuits and threw them onto the lawn. Soon a crowd of birds had assembled and the evidence was destroyed.
A week passed, and there was no phone call. “Men don’t like to be chased,” Magdalena’s mother had told her, but that was another generation, almost another century. She could hardly phone and offer scintillating conversation of her own. “With or without baking?” he might ask, for he had a tendency to sarcasm.
Slowly, over the next week, Magdalena cleaned her house. She ate the cake and shared it with her neighbour; she gave two slices to children who were selling raffle tickets. When only a quarter was left, she threw it out on the lawn. She thought she might not bake again for a long time. Her nature was excessive; where else would the energy have come from? When an effort wore off, she was exhausted. She went to the library and took out a pile of books. She retired to bed and read a modern take on the body in the locked room mystery. She found it hard to concentrate.
Friends had tickets for the orchestra. They sat in the circle, elbows on the plush padding, and she saw him in the gods with a woman beside him. The concert began and she darted surreptitious glances in his direction. The woman seemed too old to be a date. Perhaps a relative? She knew family was important to him. Then she worried that he would notice her leaning towards her friend’s husband and think she was on a date. She thought she could hire a small plane with a message trailing behind: I AM NOT IN LOVE WITH ANYONE ELSE. But would he see it from his backyard? She walked between her friends down the staircase to the foyer, but he had gone; she remembered that the gods had its own exit.
Another week passed. Deliberately, she calmed herself. She remembered the evening they had gone to a little Italian restaurant and he had held up the bill in front of him—it was long and detailed like the list of Don Giovanni’s conquests—and scrutinized each item. She had felt hurt because she had chosen one of the cheapest mains: entrée-sized lasagna. She took out her diary—she scorned to keep such a thing, but it contained useful notes. She noted the dates they’d had as if some secret was concealed in them. Two dates in a week and then nothing for a fortnight. She felt more bewildered than ever.
The desire to cook had deserted her entirely. She grilled a tiny piece of steak and ate it with bread and a glass of wine. She dare not confess her baking evening to the friend who had urged her to go to bed with him. She didn’t think she was prudish, going by past experience. Was it wrong to want something like the opening of a flower on a nature program? A film, a meal (even if there was a bill to be scrutinized at the end), and alongside this superficial procession, another involving touchings of the hand, kissing in all its stages, a familiarity to lay the groundwork for whatever followed. Her parents had met on a blind date organized by a friend. The friend and her fiancé made up the foursome. And although the other couple were far more advanced in intimacy, her mother’s friend had seen to it that the date had its innocuous elements: a little Greek restaurant with a blackboard menu and a walk on the beach. The friend and her fiancé, who soon lagged behind, deliberately pushing her mother and her partner forward, took off their shoes and paddled in the shallows, but her mother kept hers on although when they turned and walked back towards the car which was to drive her home, she did permit the man to hold her hand and kiss her cheek. No doubt he murmured some innocuous phrase: “Thank you for the evening. I’ll be in touch, if I may,” but Magdalena thought it might have had more meaning then. Then she told herself it was probably a code, the same as today, and it was she who could not read the signals.
When the phone call came it was insouciant, cheerful. He had been away; his voice sounded refreshed. There was a presumption she would be pleased to hear from him.
“Just thought I’d touch base,” he said. “Perhaps you’d like to take in a movie?”
She could hear the newspaper rattling as he read out some titles. Far too meekly, she agreed.
Again she marveled at his perfect manners as he opened the car door on her side. She remembered not to say “thank you,” as she had on earlier occasions. Sophistication meets scintillation, she thought. They conversed easily as he drove, and soon a feeling of comfort spread over her. It will be all right, she told herself. Everything will be all right.
The film was disappointing. The subtitles barely warranted a glance. As usual, the actors spoke far more lines than were translated. A bus collected suicides and relocated them to a utopian village where they resumed their careers as accountants, interior designers. Conversation consisted of what furniture to buy. In the end someone tunneled toward the scent of an apple pie cooling on a windowsill.
Magdalena was ravenous when they came out. There was a pizza parlor opposite, one she frequented, but no invitation to prolong the evening came. They drove home, discussing the movie, the week ahead. In the driveway, a kiss on the cheek ended the evening. Magdalena realized her fists were clenched with the effort of not inviting him for dinner. The effort of improvising was beyond her, though she had already thought of pasta. She made herself a pot of tea and two slices of toast with honey. In an odd way, she thought she was being punished. Or was it starved?
A wedding invitation arrived, and she bought a new dress, thinking it might be useful. It was a third marriage for both, held at a vineyard. The groom told the guests he had made a list of all the eligible women in his hometown and eliminated them one by one. He had employed scouts and questioned his secretary. The men seemed to find this hilarious; the women were more doubtful. As she drove home, Magdalena wondered if Freddy had a similar list. The bride had lowered her eyes and fiddled with her bouquet while her husband talked of pros and cons and the laughter rose. Baking, she thought, would be one of the pros.
She heard rumors that Freddy was a player, that she was not the only woman he was dating. One night he had asked her how old she was and she had answered, unthinking. The gap between them was six years. Another time he told her she was more liberal, less right-wing, than he was. Perhaps there really was a list. After her husband’s speech, the bride had recovered her equilibrium. She turned her back, showing the pleated peplum of her cinched waist, and thrown her bouquet of roses and gypsophila high into the air. No one leapt for it—that would have been undignified—but it had landed in the grateful hands of Magdalena.
Another week passed, and still Magdalena did not bake. She took a bought cake to her book group. When she got home, flushed and weary from All the Light We Cannot See, there was a message on the answer phone. Would she care—it was always the word “care” he used, as though he had corralled it for his own use—did he care, could he be made to care?—to accompany him to a business dinner? She agreed too hastily, but she hoped her voice sounded light, preoccupied. Then, as she put the phone down, she realized that that was something she could never tell: the impression she, or anyone, made on another. For the first time it seemed a calming thought.
The car door was opened again, the light pleasing conversation which she wished he could see might lead somewhere. But she thought he couldn’t see this, that conversation could begin in something like an English lane, narrow and bordered by hedgerows, and grow into a broad and swift highway. Nonetheless she was determined to enjoy it, for she felt they talked well. They glided over her supposed liberality, his solid conservatism. The dinner was at a vineyard, and as they came in, she heard a gasp from several of the women who were standing near the door. Quickly she separated herself from Freddy—he was already moving towards a group of prosperous-looking men—and attached herself to a woman with a friendly face.
The meal was served, there were speeches and presentations, and afterwards they spilled out onto a lawn. On the drive home, Magdalena was lost for words. Beside her, Freddy hummed softly. Finally, as they were turning into her street, she thought of a book she had been reading and began to outline the plot. I sound like the Reader’s Digest, she thought. She leaned sideways to peck at his cheek, but he caught her hand and held it, sensing she wanted to withdraw. Neither spoke, and a few seconds passed.
“Tell me,” he said, his face in shadow so she could not see if he was smiling. “Are you baking tonight?”
Published on December 2, 2015