Yellow speckled cushion in sweet pastry. Compared to shop-bought, it is impossibly bright: a set skin of buttercups and sunshine.
She first made it so many years ago, vaunting her skills to her freshly hatched husband, homemade custard and all. Now, every time, she berates herself at the same point for not using instant the first time around.
She had wanted to show she had listened closely to the mention of a favourite dessert. She glowed with pleasure and anticipation at the happy surprise on his face when she had offered it as a love token one autumn-leafed afternoon, when he got back from work.
She had sat at one side of the formica table, almost managing to effect casual disinterest while she watched for his reaction on the first taste; unaware her constant toying with her hair gave the game away to him.
His eyes had gleamed. He had, mock-solemn, put the spoon to his mouth and sucked at the still wobbly custard freckled with nutmeg, then slowly pursed his lips, eyes turned sideways to her.
He had sat back, rolling his eyes to the ceiling as he savoured this first bite. He exhaled in pleasure, declared it better than anything even his mother had made. ‘There’s love for you, right there,’ he had exclaimed, pointing at the rest of the tart and she had flushed with pleasure, shoving him on the shoulder, a muttered, ‘get away, you soft sod,’ the only display of her joy.
Her daughters long remember the seething Saturday mornings that followed in the fullness of time and repetition, but she is as intractable as an iceberg in the face of their protestations and appeals.
‘If you don’t like it, stop doing it,’ they said; if in hearing, he called out, ‘I don’t ask for much’. She said nothing to either side on the matter, not any more.
Once she had snapped, ‘love is doing things you don’t like, sometimes’, at one daughter, feeling the supportive tone an intrusion on her marriage, a criticism of her sense of duty. Both felt bruised in their understanding of each other, then. But that was years since, before the daughter became a mother herself.
Today, he comes back in from the garden, bringing fresh air and a whiff of the compost with him. He’s in his short-sleeved shirt, slacks and old cracked shoes for gardening; she in the polyester dress with a back-zip kept for cooking in.
He returns the washing up bowl he’d taken up the garden with the vegetable peelings in to the sink. Now it’s filled with cooking apples, ready to peel for crumble everybody else will eat for ‘afters’. Only he eats the custard tart.
She shuffles under a black cloud, pointedly ignoring him whenever he chats. She repels any attempt at mutual conversation by keeping her back turned to him, while he ignores her silence, and continues to relate his thoughts on the garden, the weather, next door’s laziness about replacing the fence.
Bustling in a nimbus of affronted energy, she pours regret at her cooking ability in with the milk. Her shoulder blades crackle with irritation as she separates the egg yolks. The whites are kept to mix into the dog’s food – nothing wasted.
The quiet balloons about her as she mashes the flour and fat between fingertips, rubbing out golden crumbs – some split off for the apple crumble, the rest for the tart. She drips in water to make the pastry in careful trickles from the ancient pyrex jug, translucent with years of tiny scratches.
All morning the dog has laid nearby, glum, jaw on his paws, an odd whistling whine escaping in his impatience for future scraps. The sound of cars out the front and the jostle of voices pass through him like a current and as the door opens once, then twice, he scrambles in a bristle of claws, barking and yelping. He slides around legs in a frenzied crouch of joy and submission, yowling when a child steps on his tail.
She doesn’t look up at the circus of family arriving, but continues, hmm-ing at the cuddle on her back from a daughter, saying, ‘watch, there’s flour, you’ll get covered’, to a grandchild at her legs, but gently, and with a smile.
The day unfolds in jokes and pleasantries, loud chuckles and the same stories, the usual row about ‘the liberals’, the whiff of pipe smoke, and shouts at the pipe being lit and expiring over and over again.
After tea, the puddings come out. The apple crumble is demolished by the adults, while the kids, full of ice cream and sweets, race around with the dog on the lawn.
The egg custard tart sits in the centre of the table, one slice broached in its glowing perfection.
One of the daughters says something along the lines of, ‘is that all? Go on dad, have another slice,’ under the guise of loyalty to her mum, while also hating the waste of it.
Their father demurs with, ‘No that’ll do me, there’s all the love I’ll need for now,’ patting his belly as he grins at his wife. She stands up to clear the plates, giving no impression she has heard him, but the corner of her mouth twitches and he knows she is pleased.