Two days after Margaret Drood passed away, spirited off in the dense, buttery heat of late summer in her 85th year, the Galdon Country Women’s Association sent a solemn request to her husband. There was one thing, the CWA’s chosen representative wrote, that simply must be done for Mrs Drood. They must cook up a batch of her lauded cherry-and-almond pudding and serve it at the wake. In aid of this (slyly), if Mr Drood agreed, would he be so kind as to forward the recipe by return of post?
Graham Drood only read the letter a day before the funeral. Since Margaret’s passing, he had opened no mail, answered no calls. Her death had summoned a shroud of cloying weather down upon them all: humid February days and bloody sunsets. The baked, crenelated paddocks beyond Graham’s house, usually calming, made him fretful; they reminded him of his own skin, brown and lined as a ginger snap.
Graham and Margaret’s three children arrived that day, in the order that they were born. Laura first, of course, with husband George and their son, Nathan, just turned thirteen. Then Claire, though without her boyfriend Tom – he would arrive from California when he could. Henry came last, after work onsite, his V8 ute grumbling hoarsely up the driveway just as the light was fading from peach to dusty blue. The house, which had felt cavernous and indifferent to Graham all week, suddenly seemed too small to hold all the bustle and emotion now stuffed inside it; he felt jostled, poorly-packed.
Margaret’s passing had been sudden. The family had not gathered like this since Nathan was born: the kids didn’t get back much. If you asked them why, they would say something about work, or traffic, or in-laws. All true, yet underneath their reasons pulsed a diaphanous doubt: a mistrust of the unsteady, empty space and the dust, the bones of the brutish past under the scrubbed verandas and home renovations of Galdon. It was a small, fading gold rush town, an old place, and old places tend to make us rethink old thoughts. Graham, for his part, didn’t travel, and Margaret would not go anywhere without him.
A simple dinner was prepared and served silently by Claire, her large, dark eyes red-rimmed. The table was too small for them all. About halfway through the meal, Laura put her letter-knife down and pushed the missive from the Galdon CWA towards her father. She lifted her head so the family knew she was about to speak.
“The ladies want to make mum’s pudding for the wake.”
This statement, banal by most standards, caused a beat-long pause in the clinking and chewing sounds of six people eating dinner. The humid air thrummed.
By ‘mum’s pudding’, everybody at the table knew what Laura meant.
“Those bloody crones only want to nick the recipe,” Graham muttered.
Laura’s breath escaped her lungs in an exasperated little rush. As the death-related To-Do list unfurled in her mind and stretched away into the distance, her father’s resistance was a useless gospel.
“I think you’re being a bit ridiculous, Dad. Everyone in town knows that pudding. They’ll expect it to be there. I haven’t got time to make a batch that size, have you?”
Henry and Claire met each other’s eyes. The crackle in the air between Laura and their father was as familiar to them as the heat and the smell of the floorboards.
“Do we even know where the cookbook is?” Henry asked. “I haven’t seen her use it in years.”
“She used it all the time.” Graham replied, stiffly. “I’ll get it.”
He began the torturous process of levering himself up from the table, and Claire intervened.
“I know where it is. I’ll get it.”
The book was the size of a large paperback, dark blue, faded, with a false-leather finish and the word ‘RECIPES’ gold-embossed on the cover. A narrow pink silk ribbon, slightly frayed at the end, dangled from the central folio. There was no water damage, no bleary oil patches or dog-ears. The handwriting was meticulous, though fading in the earlier pages. Each recipe was categorised, the words ‘fish, or ‘starter’, or ‘dessert’ written in tiny script on the top right corner of each page. No recipe took up less than two pages, with the ingredient list on one side and the method on the other, and each page was double-sided.
The cherry-and-almond pudding recipe was on the sixth page, after the dedication (To my daughter Margaret, love Mum), a recipe for pancakes, a recipe for scones (fruit, plain and pumpkin) and a recipe for eucalyptus cordial (for colds).
There was the heading, Drood Cherry-and-Almond Pudding, the slanted script carefully spaced. There were a few itemised ingredients, the old imperial system of measurement. Claire smiled sadly, ran a finger lightly across the words. Her mother had catered for every contingency: if it was not the season for fresh cherries, use glace ones, at five-sixths the weight. In absence of baking powder, use self-raising flour.
Quietly, Claire turned the page for the pudding’s creation, and found herself staring at the method for mixing, layering and setting a sherry trifle.
She froze, blinked. She flipped the page back, confused. It was like the book had been wounded. She turned ahead, sure of what she’d seen but unable to believe it, then returned to the missing page and gasped. Her family jumped, Laura ejecting an irritable “What?”
A finely serrated paper edge, a cut unmistakeably made by fabric scissors, stuck out a few millimetres from the binding.
The page had been removed.
The shock around the table when Claire announced this was sudden and complete. Laura was temporarily speechless; Tom’s brows came together in a darkened ‘V’. The discovery was incomprehensible in its abruptness, its finality. Who had taken it? If it had been Margaret, why in God’s name had she done it? That pudding had been Margaret’s calling card, her source of pride: she had won a blue ribbon with it at the Bendigo fair in 1955; she brought it out at Christmas and when important or much-beloved company came round.
A great chasm of doubt opened now before Margaret’s family. They stopped abruptly along its edge: blind, uncertain, fully aware of a private world, a world of Margaret’s own agency in which decisions were made but not confided. Not anxiously whispered to Henry or Claire via the rear view mirror or outlined shyly to Graham in bed. Nothing.
The assumption that the recipe would be passed down had been so deeply ingrained that none of them had thought to ask about it. Only a couple of weeks ago, Claire had needed a dessert for a dinner party and had thought about calling her mother, but had run out of time and bought a cheesecake instead.
For Graham, the news of his wife’s reduced legacy hit him with the same dull thud that had greeted him on awakening each morning since her death. These impacts were all the worse for their edgelessness – he had ceased to feel acutely. Acuteness would come: the war had taught him that. But not yet. Tonight, there was only the dullness and the queasy fear of anticipation.
As Margaret’s husband, Graham’s life had been intertwined with the pudding for sixty-eight years.
The first memory he had of it was a smell.
His family only had cherries on Sundays in summer, a treat. He and Margaret got married in autumn, April, and in his euphoria and terror the day before the wedding (it was 1942 and he was shipping out to New Guinea in two months), he clearly remembered the hot, sweet smell of sliced cherries in his soon to be mother-in-law’s kitchen. An entire grocer’s box of them sat on the sideboard, waiting their turn to be pipped. Instead of cutting away the bruised sections, Margaret’s mother simply threw out the imperfect ones. The survivors glistened proudly in their bowl, visceral little globules like tiny harvest suns. In his life, Graham had never seen such decadence.
Graham had known he was marrying up. He’d had a scoured-down slap of a childhood, caked in cow shit and red dust. Margaret Buchanan was the daughter of a solicitor from Bendigo. He’d known it, but nothing confirmed it like those cherries in the bin.
The wedding day was such a long time ago, reduced now in his memory to a set of images and feelings – the steady gaze of dark brown eyes through a cream lace veil, a cinched waist under white silk, the chill of the evening, the deep pink bow of his new wife’s lips. The relief of a quick cigarette stolen behind Sacred Heart church in Bendigo. The pudding had smelled like amaretto and butter sponge, and the deep, plump tang of cherries.
Graham looked down at the table, not listening to the words flung across it by his children. While he was in New Guinea, thinking of Margaret had been a daily inspiration and a daily chore. She symbolised home. She possessed another quality common to symbols: as the years went by, she became abstract.
He’d seen cherries only once in the mud-choked shithole of New Guinea. In August 1942, they were barely surviving on half-rations. Somehow, as fantastical as if Margaret herself had walked out from behind a tree, one of the officers had sauntered past, preposterously spitting a small reddish pip out onto the ground. It had happened in an instant, like all horrendous things. The unfairness had sent a white-hot streak of rage ripping through Graham’s body, curdling in his screaming, empty stomach. He remembered it clearly. It had sickened him that even there, in a place that wore friendships into you, down into your bones, past any suggestion of rank or station, there was exclusion. Privilege. He had never forgotten it.
His battalion had been waist-deep in mud for weeks holding off the Japs. The unspeakable, ragged stink of rotting bodies had been in the air for days before the retreat; he felt that it would never leave his nostrils, that it was melded with the cells.
Now, in his memory, those weeks in Kokoda were subtly laced with the smell of cherries, their resistance and squelch in his mouth nothing but a reminder of the mud.
He could never, after he returned to Galdon, eat more than a couple of bites of his wife’s pudding. Even when she’d welcomed him home with it. Even when she’d won the blue ribbon in Bendigo with it, when Laura was a baby. Even when she’d proudly presented it to the partner from Laura’s law firm or the people from the bank when they came to inventory the farm, he’d had to push it away. It wasn’t that he didn’t like it – he still dreamed of the perfection of that dark syrupy cake, the lift of the toasty almond meal and the sweet-sour cut of the cherries – but he could not eat it.
The first time this happened, the hurt in Margaret’s eyes had wounded him to the core. As was the habit they had formed after his return, he hadn’t said anything, and she had never asked. Such was marriage.
Graham tuned back into the conversation just as Laura said to Claire, “How did you know where the book was, anyway?”
“It was in the same place it’s always been,” Claire responded gently. “She never moved it.”
Laura was silent, longing to launch into an argument with someone, anyone, that Laura’s years of practising law had equipped her to win. Winning would calm Laura down, would stop her drinking her wine quite so quickly. Claire had hardly touched her glass, Laura noted.
The truth was, the missing page hurt, as though its captor had cut it from Laura’s living flesh. Of course, Claire would know where the cookbook was. Of course, Claire would be the one to remember; she had used the book many times. Claire was interested in all that crap, baking on the weekends and learning to needlepoint and making Christmas cards while Laura put in long hours at the cheap pine desk in their bedroom.
It had occurred to Laura, many years later after she was admitted as a solicitor, that her need for absolute quiet whilst studying meant that Claire had no choice but to find something to do elsewhere. But the realisation was too late and had seemed too trivial. So Laura put it out of her mind. It came back to her now, carried by the unwelcome creep of guilt.
As far back as Laura could remember, her father hadn’t liked that pudding. He always forced down a couple of mouthfuls and then left it, the remaining ice cream pooling in a sad, vanilla moat.
Laura couldn’t understand why her mother had just kept making it for him, why he just kept leaving it: why hadn’t he simply told her, look, I love you but I just don’t like this pudding, can we please have something else? What level of repression did you have to suffer from to enact that hellish little vignette every weekend for sixty years? The whole scenario smacked of the old-fashioned notions of husband and wife, straight from the backwardness of country over city, of ritual over reality, and it drove Laura crazy. Weekend after weekend, watching her parents’ sad pudding dance had convinced Laura that her own life, her own marriage would be different.
How characteristic of her mother, therefore, to use the recipe as a passive-aggressive form of punishment. Laura felt a familiar bolt of almost panic-level desire to escape, back to the anonymity and openness of younger people, more educated women and men who knew how to say what they thought, who weren’t afraid, who bought ready meals from David Jones’ Food Hall and desserts from organic bakeries and understood that this didn’t make them lazy or sub-standard people.
Laura looked over at her son. Nathan was quiet, watchful, as usual. For the millionth time, Laura wondered whether she and George should have produced a sibling for him, someone to help him out of his shell. But she had had Nathan late, and George had been up for Managing Director at the bank….she had just been made a senior partner, and even with the nanny it had just seemed too difficult. Truthfully, in an inchoate, not-quite-admitted sort of way, Laura associated the crush and tumble of brothers and sisters with the same sort of childhood that contained regular homemade pudding. Outdated.
Now, at the close of her mother’s life, Laura faced the startling fact that she had achieved her life’s goal of having very little in common with Margaret. Margaret must have noticed, but she had supported Laura from the beginning, had paid for books and tutors, baked for countless school fundraisers, beamed proudly from Laura’s graduation and admission photos. Now, in this small act of defiance from the submissive, the country war bride, the housewife who had left school at sixteen, never worked and participated in a weekly tableau of pudding-based complacency, it occurred to Laura that her mother might have minded. At the suggestion that the woman had carried around a hurt like this, unexpressed, for so many years, a well of grief the depth of Galdon’s abandoned gold mines sank silently through Laura’s heart.
The tears that suddenly formed in the corners of Laura’s eyes shocked Claire. She was saddened, truly saddened, by the loss of the page. That page had presided over happy, companionable mornings with her mother, sharing inconsequential little stories, humming songs. They had made the pudding together only a month ago. Claire had basked in the relief of doing something unassailably good, something the family would like – particularly Henry. She had loved her little brother with a sobering ferocity since his confused, newborn eyes had first met hers when she was seven, and Henry adored that pudding.
Claire had watched her elder sister closely – watched her struggle and push against the life that most people growing up in Galdon prepared themselves for, wittingly or unwittingly. The money, the plaudits, the big house in Melbourne never seemed to sate her. The lines of Laura’s face had deepened quickly, despite the endless hours she spent indoors, and behind them, Claire knew, stretched a constant desperation that Laura viewed as her own greatest strength. Claire had wanted only to help her sister, always; to remove what she could of that horrible anxious strain. She had felt fortunate, relieved that she simply hadn’t ever seemed to need as much.
Claire’s mind skipped back to the mundanely violent beginnings of her own career, first as a nurse in the burns unit of Bendigo hospital and then in the hyperbaric chamber in Melbourne, requiring special training that she’d surprised herself by completing with honours. She’d considered training as a doctor for about ten seconds. Instead, she had met one: an anaesthetist who loved her cooking and had since dictated the course that their lives had taken.
Now, staring at her mother’s tiny paper battlements, for the first time Claire felt the burn of accusation. Of all the children, she believed she had the most right to that recipe. She was the one who had spent hours removing cherry pips, had dreamed of a family for which she was the lynchpin, the source of all that was warm and good as her mother had been. She had imagined cooking the pudding for Tom and their children when he eventually, finally, finished his fellowship in California and they could get married.
But, a little voice inside her now whispered, he’s never moving home. Thirty-seven is too old now, really, to have children. There is no just reward for labour; kindness is a blunt weapon. You make less of a dent in the world than you think.
Henry, shovelling potatoes into his mouth, was glad that silence had fallen. He was glad that dinner had been on the table as soon as he’d come in; glad he’d remembered to duck as he came through the front door and glad that page had gone missing. Although he loved that pudding, he wouldn’t mind if he never saw it again.
His mother had usually made the pudding in the morning, so it had time to rest before dinner. If he was at home she or Claire would always let him lick the bowl for morning tea, but woe betide him if he so much as touched the finished product under its tea-towel after it came from the oven. It sat, soaked in Amaretto, on the kitchen bench for hours before it was baked again with extra butter to form the sauce, an almost impossible temptation for a boy with a hunger like a giant rat knawing interminably inside him. Occasionally he would wake in the morning so light-headed from lack of food that he barely made it down the stairs. It wasn’t that they hadn’t fed him, Henry mused, helping himself to seconds. It was just that they were young in the war, they couldn’t comprehend the amount of food he’d actually needed. When he’d left home to go to TAFE, he’d often bought cheap Black and Gold loaves of bread, bananas and a jar of peanut butter, assembled eight sandwiches and eaten the lot in the middle of the afternoon.
Henry had kept silent for the simple reason that even discussing the pudding made him uncomfortable.
It must have been school holidays, Henry mused, because he had been at home without his sisters in the late morning. His mother had been uncharacteristically tense, even snappy. Someone very important, someone from the bank, was coming that night for dinner, and even at eleven Henry could tell that both his parents minded a great deal how the evening went. His father wasn’t there, probably out on the farm, working.
His mother was going through the familiar motions of pudding creation. She’d unpacked her groceries and laid out all the ingredients on the bench when her shrill cry of ‘Oh, damn it!’ made Henry jump as though he’d received an electric shock. His mother never swore. Never.
She stood for a moment with her hands on her hips, her back to him. He could hear her breathing steadily, taking deep inhalations and short, sharp exhalations. After a while she turned around. She seemed surprised to see him.
“Henry. I need to you to go and get the cherries. I’ve left the box on the counter at the shop. I’ve already paid for them, you just need to go and pick them up and bring them back here. Now.”
Henry remembered whining a bit, tipping his head back and squirming. It was hot outside and he hadn’t wanted to go, hadn’t wanted to face the shop lady with her triple chin and her embarrassing sweaty fatness. His mother’s eyes had gone cold. She had gripped his upper arm firmly and hoisted him off the chair.
“Son, you go and get that box. Now.”
It had only taken him fifteen minutes to ride his bike to the shop and fifteen minutes back despite the heat, the box of cherries lashed to the basket. He had gone straight round the side of the house towards the kitchen door, but on the way, he’d paused to look at a brilliant red ladybird, rare in such hot weather. It had only one black spot, right in the centre of its back. It was pausing on the windowsill of the living room, and he could see through the net curtains to his mother in the kitchen.
Even the memory produced a reflex reaction in Henry. He put down his fork and looked away from the table.
He saw his mother in profile, in her light blue cotton dress and pinny, standing quite still in the corner of the kitchen, facing the wall. In the shade between the shafts of sunlight that lit up the room, she looked like an animal hiding from view, trying to blend in with the pale green cupboards and colourless linoleum floor. Her dark hair stood out against the pastels.
Slowly, she moved forward, and before he knew what he was looking at, Henry saw his mother ease herself ever so slightly up onto the highest wooden drawer knob, which was level with her hipbones. Her feet were still on the floor. She rocked back and forth, tiny movements, gently, her hands braced against the bench. Her head was thrown back slightly, he remembered the movement of her hair. Instinctively, he knew this was not something he was supposed to be seeing – his stomach contracted, his nose felt hot, he forgot about the ladybird – but he could not look away. For what felt like a long time, but what was probably only about thirty seconds, she moved against the drawer knob, until a bird chirped and she stopped, startled. She stood there, absolutely still. She began to turn towards the window and Henry immediately ducked away.
He waited a few minutes, then went inside and delivered the cherries. He couldn’t look at her for the rest of the day.
Henry had always eaten that pudding, but it was a ruse – he had loved it so much as a child that any change would have meant questions.
Since he had begun to approach women, in the back of his mind he had retained his image of that day. He found himself unreasonably resenting his father: what quiet desperation had his mother lived with? They had never slept in separate beds, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. In his own relationships he had been particularly solicitous in the bedroom, so much so that his current girlfriend had told him one night, in gentle exasperation, that he was allowed to finish first occasionally, that she was sometimes just too tired to keep going and that that was OK. Henry was thirty-one.
Henry looked over at the only non-blood-relation at the table: George. George had finished eating and was surveying the scene with polite detachment. He could see George’s fingers moving over his smartphone’s screen under the table. What sort of liberation had Laura won for herself, he wondered. As far as he could see, George was outwardly no more attentive a husband to Laura than his father had been to his mother, but what did that prove? Henry had learned that when it came to sex women had an interior narrative, redly illuminated by a depth of desire that was different to the blind, brilliant urges felt by men. He did not feel nearly as surprised as his sisters at the mystery of the missing page: for Henry, his mother, like all women, had always been ultimately unknowable, a person as close to him as anyone could be but still with a closed, private universe to which he would never have and did not want access.
George, itching to look at his smartphone under the table, would have given anything right then for better access. There was no wifi out here (although he had tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Margaret and Graham to use the broadband node installed at the end of their street), and the radio signal was awful.
They were rare, these moments of disconnectedness. George felt deep pride in what he had achieved. His family would want for nothing, not just in Nathan’s generation but for generations after that. With such success, and in the absence of cruelty or dependency, adultery or emotional abuse, surely any small error in the head of a family was forgivable? Hadn’t he earned it? George would never have articulated that feeling, but it was the truth. It was the mark of a real man: it was what his father had done.
George sighed inwardly as he watched his wife and her sister. It was incredible, just incredible the way that even when siblings were grown, family members reverted to their old roles when they were back under the same roof. Laura was taking charge now, cross-examining Claire as to how this could have happened. Claire was mediating, talking her down; Henry was silent, eating, the old cutlery made tiny by his big workman’s hands.
He looked over at Nathan, finished now with his dinner and sitting quietly, a beautifully-behaved teenager. He felt a rush of pride. He had to give Laura credit for that, George thought: their son was respectful and observant, tried hard at school, was well-liked and rarely bad-tempered. Nathan, feeling his father’s eyes on him, looked up. George smiled, and the boy smiled back.
Nathan kept smiling, even after he’d lowered his eyes and his dad had looked back down at his phone. He’d been very sad when his mother had sat him down and told him, gently and with tears, that his grandmother had died. Granny had always been wonderful – she’d laughed at his jokes, let him skip piano practice, and even after he was much too old for it she’d read to him in the evenings, sometimes for hours.
Nathan thought about her stories, always a variation on the theme of the importance of thinking about others as well as himself.
Nathan had helped Granny make her pudding while he was in primary school, when he’d stayed with her on the weekends. She hadn’t minded if he ate the cherries before they went in the pudding, and she’d let him lick the spoon and the bowl (his mother didn’t bake, so this was a longed-for luxury). At dinner, Grandpa hardly ever touched his pudding, so Granny would clear the plates and let Nathan eat Grandpa’s serving in the kitchen. Even if his mother was there, Granny’d do it without Laura seeing. Grandpa caught them at this early on, smiled at Granny then winked at Nathan. Granny’s eyes had always twinkled when she handed Grandpa his plate. Nathan had always loved having that secret, just the three of them.
The last time Nathan had seen Granny was a few weeks ago, when his mother went to a spa weekend. He remembered it vividly, as though it had happened at school that day. She had told him that she might have to go away soon. Only he and Grandpa could know, because she didn’t want to upset his mum and his Auntie Claire and Uncle Henry. Nathan had known immediately what she meant. He would never forget it; it was the first time he’d felt like a man, not a boy. She had said she wanted him to have something very special to her, because it reminded her of him. She’d carefully cut out a page from her blue cookbook with her zig-zag scissors (as a child, he hadn’t been allowed to use them unless she was in the room with him) and gave it to him.
“I don’t want you to show this to anyone,” she’d said, her crinkled brown eyes looking directly into his, holding him still. She was using her ‘important’ voice, the one she used when she told him he couldn’t do something and he knew she meant it. “Put it in your room, somewhere your parents won’t find it. Then wait until the next time you see your mum and Dad and Auntie Claire and Tom and Uncle Henry together. Then you can all make Granny’s pudding together, OK? And remember all the fun times we’ve had making it. I trust you, Nathan.”
So Nathan kept smiling, even after the adults started to shout at each other and his mother knocked over her wine and burst into tears. It could be years, he reflected, before his wait would be over. It was hard, because Granny had taught him he should help other people if he could, but she had been very clear about this particular thing. He wasn’t to tell, not yet.