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Buttermilk

February 3, 2018

He looked as though he may once have been tall. And although his salted hair was thinning, his eyebrows were still thick and a rich charcoal colour. One of them pointed to the ceiling, like he’d lacquered it into place. She imagined him sitting and twisting it while he was thinking deeply. He caught her eye with a stern look.

 

“Come in,” he said stiffly, pulling back the door.

 

They entered. The lobby was a cobbler’s workshop. Stacks of shoes were piled against the wall. From habit, Esme slid off her trainers, resting them beside a pair of well-worn black mules. Her mother paused, negotiating an inch between Esme’s shoes and the old mules. They both followed him into the house.

 

In the hallway was a mass of newspapers, bundled tightly together; a thick cable-tie wrapped around each stack. Her mother turned to face him.

 

“Have you cancelled these?” she asked sharply, frowning at the papers.

 

He mumbled something, continuing on into the living room.

 

Esme squeezed past the newspapers. She spotted one from 2004. It left a thin grey layer on her pinkie as she brushed her fingers along it.

 

There were three more newspaper stacks in the living room. But mainly books. A few in English, some in French, and the rest were mostly in German. Die Drei Musketiere lay open with its spine pointed towards the ceiling. Something of the book betrayed it was freshly read. She smiled. Otherwise, the room was a shrine. She dared not touch anything.

 

“Perhaps a coffee, Vati?” asked her mother, springing through to the kitchen.

 

Frowning, Esme’s grandfather waited in his armchair. He moved the book to the top of a precarious stack of paperbacks. He closed it, bending the corner of a page to keep his place. They sat together in silence. Esme played with the sleeve of her jumper, rolling it back and forth along the scar on her arm. Her mother returned with the coffee.

 

“Your milk’s on the way out,” her mother called, “So we’ll have it black. Would you like me to run out for some more?”

 

Esme’s grandfather grunted. Rolling her eyes, her mother placed a red mug on the edge of his armchair. She offered him a caramelised biscotti, the kind you find in airport hotels. He took it. Then she looked to Esme, pleadingly. Slowly, Esme lifted the biscuit between her thumb and forefinger. She felt the shiny plastic against her skin, barely covering the demerara slab beneath it. Slipping her pinkie underneath the flap, she peeled open the wrapper.

 

The biscuit felt rough in her fingers. She broke it into two, resting the left side on the armrest. Slowly, she raised the other half to her mouth. It smelt of treacle. Closing her eyes, she placed it on her tongue like a communion wafer. After seven crunches, she swallowed. Opening her eyes, she exhaled. Esme’s mother grasped her hand, giving her a supportive smile, and turned back to face her father-in-law.

 

“I thought we could start with the kitchen?” said Esme’s mother.

 

Her grandfather sat hunched, his fingers interlaced over his stomach. Esme noticed he still wore a tie. She liked that.

 

“Esme,” her mother turned to face her, “Why don’t you go and make a start?”


Esme looked from her mother to her grandfather. She remembered a few German curses from school, and she saw them waiting in the corner of her mother’s mouth.

 

From the kitchen, their argument was muffled. Esme closed the door behind her, softly. Unlike the rest of the house, the kitchen was tidy. Colour-coded plates weighted down the shelves. Oils and vinaigrettes were arranged like perfume bottles. All manner of unmarked spices decanted like an old alchemist’s studio. Were it not for the alkaline dust over everything, the kitchen may have still been in use.


Balancing her slim frame on the balls of her feet, Esme pulled one of the spices from the shelf. It was the same brown as the biscotti, but it smelt stronger; more acrid.

 

The cake was served with a cup of milk and a plastic fork. The nurse pushed the plate towards her, cutting a piece off it with the edge of the fork. Esme felt angry. She saw the pale, thin girl in her reflection trying not to cry. The nurse sat with her until it was finished. Her final sip of milk was warm.

 

“Cinnamon,” came a voice.

 

Her grandfather stood in the doorway. She was surprised to see he took up more of it than his small frame suggested.

 

“Sorry, Opa,” she smiled, “I was just being nosey.”

 

She made to return the bottle, but he craned his hand for it. She passed it to him, and with a surprisingly firm grip, he took it. He decanted a small pool into his left hand, placing the bottle on the kitchen table when he was done.

 

He pretended to lick his right index finger, motioning her to copy him. Esme licked her finger, and per his instruction, dipped it into the cinnamon. She hesitated, before raising it to her tongue.

 

Immediately, all the moisture fled from her mouth. Her tongue became a wood carving. She spluttered. Her grandfather offered her a sip of coffee, which she welcomed, gulping it down.

 

“Too much,” her grandfather nodded, “Bitter.”

 

This time, her grandfather raised his pinkie, indicating her to copy. She frowned.

 

Ein bischen,” he whispered.

 

Using her pinkie, she led a tiny dusting to her mouth. This time, the taste was sweet.

 

Christmas night. More snow than ever before, but somehow she was warm. She felt her father’s bony knees beneath her, bouncing her gently. Her mother played cards with Opa, occasionally lambasting him for cheating. Omi returned with a tray of biscuits. A few Christmas trees, two angels, two wise men, and a wise woman. Esme took an angel.

 

“Better,” breathed her grandfather, “Yes?”

 

Esme nodded, smiling. She took another spice from the shelf.

 

“What’s this one?” she asked.

 

“Remember,” he nodded, holding it under her nose.

 

Esme breathed in.

 

The cast dug in at her elbow. And it was itchy.She imagined ants crawling underneath it on her skin, and it made her cry. Her father brought her a bowl of rice pudding. She told him she hated porridge, folding her arms into a sulk. He laughed, and told her porridge was for bears, and this was for a lion. 

 

“Nutmeg,” she exhaled, smiling.

 

Her grandfather nodded.

 

“Dad used to put it in the rice pudding,” she said, simply.

 

She paused.

 

“It had a top layer,” she continued. “The best bit. I forget what he called it.”

 

“Skin?” offered her grandfather, replacing the stopper to the bottle.

 

“That’s it!” Esme laughed. “It was always my favourite bit. But mumsaid I should scrape it off.”

 

She paused, picking at the scar on her wrist.

 

“Wasn’t healthy,” she continued in a whisper.

 

Her grandfather clasped his hand over her wrist. She was reminded he was once strong. He guided her over to the stove.

 

Above the cooker, lay a stack of cooking books. Some as thick as bibles, others merely pamphlets or cuttings from magazines. Esme counted twelve volumes, each well broken in. None were ‘kept for good’. Her grandmother had no room for sentiment when it came to cooking. If a book were not good, it was not kept. And if it were good, it was used. It made sense to Esme. Still, she smiled to see that one of the twelve approved volumes had a Birthday sentiment on it, written in her father’s broken scrawl.

 

Her grandfather took a maroon volume from the shelf, walking the book and his granddaughter to the kitchen table. He opened it, laying it in front of them. The page was the faded yellow of demerara sugar with a recipe for rice pudding written in gold. Her grandfather pointed to the notes in the margin, etched in her grandmother’s thin print.

 

“My German’s not that good, Opa,” she apologised, as her grandfather pointed to one particular scribble.

 

He frowned, arguing with his throat to allow the words.

 

“Extra skin,” he tapped the annotation, “For him.”

 

Esme smiled, giving her grandfather’s arm a grateful squeeze.

 

“Did he always want to be a chef, Opa?” she asked, running her fingers down the page.

 

Her grandfather looked puzzled. The word ‘chef’ had fallen from his mind with much of his English. Esme searched back through her school-German.

 

Koch?” she queried.

 

“Ahh!” he smiled, tapping his forehead twice with his index finger.

 

He traced his finger along the shelf. She noticed his ring finger permanently flexed into his palm now, his ring still on it. He paused between a red dessert book and a smaller purple volume. From the space, he pulled a sheet of paper, pressed between the books like a flower. He handed it to his granddaughter.

 

The recipe breathed like cigarette paper. Esme held it steady with both hands. It was in German, a child’s handwriting. She recognised eggs, sugar, milk. Somehow, recipes had always been easier to translate. She’d grown up with them the way others were raised with fairytales.

 

“Scones?” she confirmed, tapping the sheet.

 

Her grandfather smiled.

 

“Favourite,” he nodded.

 

“Yours?” she quizzed, grinning.

 

He paused again, pushing his mouth to form the word.

 

“Theirs,” he tapped the sheet again. “Wie der Mutter, so der Sohn.

 

“Must have got it from his mum,” guessed Esme.

 

She looked down at her grandfather. His jaw gaped a little to the left, and his neck shook slightly like at the start of a nod. He’d lost almost all of his English, and she knew he struggled to hold a fist. But he was stronger than they knew, she thought. Esme took her grandfather’s slim wrist in her hand. He took his other hand and slid it over the top of their clasp. They stood together for a minute or so.

 

“Shall we have a go?” Esme whispered, tapping the recipe.

 

Her grandfather’s brow deepened.

 

Omi stood beside him, her hand in his. It was a simple gesture, but if he were to let go, he knew she’d collapse. He stood taller, letting her rest her weight into him. Esme didn’t blink much, he thought. Her mum looked broken. He was reminded of how champagne flutes smashed; absolutely, and all at once. The caterers brought round plates of sandwiches and scones. He felt he might have laughed at this absurd afternoon tea. He picked up a scone, buttering it. And then he crumbled.

 

Opa?” Esme nudged.

 

Her grandfather ran his pinkie along the page.

 

“Not without them,” he exhaled.

 

Esme paused, considering this. On the recipe, she spotted an amend from her grandmother.

 

“We’re not, really,” she shrugged, pointing at the note.

 

Her grandfather frowned, debating it. He looked at his granddaughter.

 

“Yes,” he nodded, simply.

 

Esme grinned. She ran around the kitchen, finding bowls, whisks, ingredients everywhere she expected and everywhere she didn’t. There was flour, sugar, and salt in one of the perfume decanters. She found a jar of sticky sultanas in the cupboard by the cook books. And she found star shaped cookie-cutters hanging under the sink. In the fridge, there was just enough butter. 

 

But the milk was off. She took a sniff, and it hit the back of her nostrils with a mix of strawberry and alcohol.

 

“Uh-oh,” she laughed, pointing it towards her grandfather.

 

He took it from her.

 

“Oh no,” her smile ceased, “It’s no good, Opa!”

 

He batted her hand away, swishing the milk around the carton.

 

“Old milk,” he nodded, “Better.”

 

Esme blinked, frowning.

 

They’d asked her to bring something important. Something no-one else had. Or, at least, something no-one else loved as much. She brought his note. He’d written it on a menu from their favourite bakery. It had little reviews that he’d written under all the cakes. They’d tried all of them, except the carrot cake. It was always sold out; they never got up early enough. Beneath the devil’s chocolate sponge, he’d written ‘heaven approves’. Beside the apple crumble, he’d added ‘he who orders without ice cream, orders alone’. And to the left of the scones, he’d put:

 

The best scones are made with buttermilk.    

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