The Icing On The Cake

Cupcakes for Easter Illustration: Shutterstock


After years of the sweet highs and aching lows of motherhood, Alice’s dream was about to be realised

It had been a week of baking and icing cakes. Soft, vanilla sponge. Dark chocolate that crumbled deliciously against your tongue. Cakes peppered with raisins, glacé cherries, chocolate chips and walnuts. The delicious darkness of treacle sponge and the light tang of lemon.

“You really don’t have to go to all this trouble,” Mark said, sliding his arms around Alice’s back as she squeezed on an icing bag, determined to perfect a perfect butter icing swirl. “We could just get something in from the bakery.”

“No!” she said, hearing the snap in her tone and instantly regretting it. “No,” she repeated, more softly this time. “I want to make everything perfect. I want them to know how important it is.”

Mark shook his head, then leaned over, dipping a finger into a blob of icing.

“It’s not that I mind,” he said. “I’m enjoying being your guinea pig for the different recipes.”

She slapped his hand playfully.

“Yes,” she grinned. “A little too much by the looks of things.”

“Ah, what’s Easter for if not a bit of decadence?” he replied. “Especially when we have so much to celebrate.”

She rubbed her fingers on a tea towel and smiled. Mark was right, they had so much to be grateful for. When Robert had disappeared to Australia four years ago, they’d worried they’d barely see him again. They’d played the part of excited parents when he’d told them about his promotion to the head office of the bank he worked for; how it would mean moving halfway around the world. They’d told him he must go, not think about them, embrace this new adventure.

But in private, Alice had been devastated.

“He’ll be back in a few years,” Mark had reassured her. “It’s just a secondment. It won’t last forever.”

“What if it does?” she’d asked.

What if he meets someone? Never comes back?

He’d shushed her and pulled her close to him then.

“It’ll be fine,” he’d said. “Don’t worry.”

She’d wanted to ask how he could possibly know that, but had opted instead to allow herself to be reassured. After all, they were only in their early fifties; it wasn’t as if they couldn’t manage a trip to Australia now and then, if they cut back here and there.

Still, she’d been inconsolable the day Robert flew out – feeling the pull of her only child moving away further and further from her as an almost visceral pain. The tug of an invisible umbilical cord that still connected them stretching beyond its limits.

She and Mark had wanted a big family. Fantasised about it, even, when they were in their early twenties and as far away as imaginable from settling down.

Only when they’d started trying a few years later, things hadn’t happened as expected. Instead, their journey to parenthood had been a stressful tangle of injections and scans and hormones, followed by disappointment and grief.

Then, suddenly, two years after they’d given up, Robert had come along.

They’d hardly believed it when she’d bought a pregnancy test and seen two lines appear – so strongly it couldn’t be a mistake. She’d spent the next nine months barely daring to move, eating more healthily than she had her entire life, resting far more than was necessary. “This could be our only chance,” she’d told Mark. “I can’t afford to do anything wrong.”

Once Robert had been born, he’d filled the spaces in her mind where anxiety and longing had once lived. An active child, he’d filled their time; a whirlwind of energy, activity, laughter and trips to A&E. She’d never had a spare moment.

When he’d left for university nine years ago, she’d struggled a little; but he’d phoned regularly. And he’d only been an hour’s drive away. Then he’d moved home again when he’d first landed his job in finance. A man, but still her boy, rolling his eyes when she’d handed him a packed lunch each day.

Five years ago, when he’d rented his own flat near to the office, she’d felt if not happy, content that he was settled and just a half hour train journey away. They’d been proud: boasting to friends about his quick promotions, his achievements, and the fact he’d nearly saved enough for a deposit on a flat.

Then the bombshell. The promotion and a move to Australia that had shaken her world.

That first year, she’d counted the days until the role would end, like a prisoner marking days on a cell wall.

Then, Rose had come into their lives.

Alice’s heart had sunk when Robert told her on the phone. He’d had girlfriends before, but Alice could hear in his voice that this one was different; recognised before even he did that Rose might be “the one”.

“I’m so happy for him,” she’d said to Mark. “But… she’s Australian and…”

“I know,” he’d said, stroking her hair in the darkness. “But whatever happens, we’ll figure it out.”

It was hard, wanting so much for her son to be happy; but also, on a more selfish level, hoping that perhaps this relationship wouldn’t work out. That he’d return to London and meet a new woman there. Settle close to home. To her home.

Alice had almost let her guard down eight months later when Robert had told her Rose was pregnant and his job had become permanent. She’d covered her mouth until she was sure she could say the right words, in the right way.

“Congratulations,” she’d said, feeling her eyes ache with the effort of holding back tears, “I’m so happy for you both.”

The twins had been born in the June; Alice and Mark had saved up for a trip of a lifetime, taking three weeks each from work and sitting on a plane for twelve hours to step out onto the warm Tarmac and make their way into Robert’s new life.

Meeting Rose had been wonderful.

“It’s great to meet you at last,” Rose had said, embracing Alice straight away as if they’d known and loved each other for years.

And the baby girls, so fragile and weightless in Alice’s arms, had almost taken her breath away.

“We’ll have to find a way to visit more,” she said to Mark on the flight back, once her tears dried.

We’ll save up. Move somewhere smaller. Whatever it takes.

He’d squeezed her hand in agreement and given a single nod. For the first time Alice had realised how much he felt it too: the distance between him and the people he loved being stretched unbearably.

They’d sold the second car a few months later. “It’s only gathering dust,” Alice had said. “I can cycle to work.” They put off plans for doing the bathroom. They even booked the tickets. But they hadn’t been able to use them. The world had changed suddenly; travelling was difficult.

“We’ll get there soon,” Mark had said. But even he had seemed uncertain.

They’d call every week, see the girls on screen, almost close enough to touch. But it wasn’t the same; they all felt that.

“I wish we lived nearer,” she’d say. “We’ll visit again as soon as we can.”

When Robert had rung a month ago and said he had news, she’d thought perhaps Rose was pregnant again. The twins were toddlers now – sturdy and giggly and heart-achingly cuddlesome – it was around the stage when some parents tried again.

But it hadn’t been that kind of news.

“Mum, I’ve got another job,” he’d said.

“Oh yes?”

“In London.”

She was glad nobody else had been there to see her knees give way.

Oh, Robert! Does that mean…?

“We’re moving back. All of us.”

When she’d heard that they’d be arriving in just three weeks (“things move quickly in the banking industry, Mum”), she’d been beside herself.

“I’ll throw a party,” she’d said. “It’s close to Easter. We can have an egg hunt for the girls –”

“No need for all that,” Robert had laughed. “We’ll just pop in for a cuppa once we’ve recovered from the flight.”

She’d agreed, but since then had been hard at work creating the perfect party spread, baking love into each recipe. Testing and trying to find the perfect flavours for the girls, for the adults. She’d picked daffodils and bought a yellow tablecloth, a new teapot.

“We don’t even use a teapot!” was all Mark had said.

“I want them to know how much they mean to me.”

“Oh, I think they know,” he’d smiled.

The three weeks of waiting had shrunk to two, then one, then just days. Now half an hour before they were due to arrive Alice felt almost translucent – an ethereal thing made up only of emotion: love, fear, excitement, nervousness, longing.

She’d set the table in the garden to make the most of the spring sunshine: iced yellow sponge under a glass cloche, the tea service – white with yellow flowers, each plate garnished with a folded napkin. A vase of daffodils the centrepiece. And the pièce de résistance – a three-tiered stand of cupcakes, each one perfectly iced.

It was time. Her heart somersaulted as the doorbell rang; she froze, barely breathing with anticipation.

She heard Mark answer the door; the mumble of voices; waited for her grandchildren, her son, her daughter-in-law to appear, as if they’d stepped through the screen on her iPad. When she saw the flicker of figures behind the bevelled glass of the back door she stumbled slightly.

Alice had never understood it when people had said they’d watched something as if in slow motion. But now she did. She was aware of the table knocking her hip, each tumbling teacup shattering on the patio tiles, the perfectly ice cakes shedding their topping as they rolled into the grass.

The daffodils that scattered, chasing the shards of glass and water from the vase. Her cry of disappointment as her perfect welcome became a heap of crumbs and broken china; a sticky mess on the newly power-washed concrete.

“Mum?” Robert, browner than he’d seemed on screen, taller than she remembered, rushed forward and pulled her into his arms. “Are you OK?”

“My table,” she said into his shoulder. “The tea.”

Tiny hands grasped at her legs.

“Gwanny!” she heard.

“Oh dear,” said Rose’s kind voice.

Alice opened her mouth, expecting to let out a cry but to her surprise, she was laughing. Giggles bubbled up from deep inside – the kind of infectious, unconscious mirth that takes over.

“Mum?” Robert held her at arm’s length, looking concerned.

“I’m… I’m fine…” she said, looking again at the smashed perfect table. “It’s just…” and she was overtaken with giggles again. The girls laughed along delightedly and, more uncertainly, Robert allowed himself to smile.

“It’s just,” she said. “I’m so, so stupid.”

“Mum, you’re not…”

Her son, daughter, grandchildren and husband looked at her, bemused.

“All that time,” she gasped.

All those ridiculous cakes. All that… icing…

“Oh Mum,” Robert said, his mouth curling up in response to her giggles.

“It seemed so important. But it’s not… it doesn’t matter.”

Because she didn’t need melted chocolate, water icing, fondant rolled from a packet. Didn’t need sprinkles or marzipan or colourful chocolate drops.

Here, these people; her family was back together again.

She didn’t need a bit of buttercream; she already had the icing on the cake.

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Allison Hay

I joined the "My Weekly" team thirteen years ago and, more recently, "The People's Friend". I love the variety of topics we cover both online and in the magazines. I manage the digital content for the brands, sharing features and information on the website, social media and in our digital newsletters.