Disaster Girl by Auriel Roe

An autobiographical story. Middle England. Late 1970s. Beleagured by a myriad of food allergies and epic cookery failures in middle school Home Economics, the author finally finds redemption in a sponge.


A steak and kidney pie squatted ominously in the middle of the table, its filling, flecked with diced carrots, seeped out from under a gravy-logged pastry top. I was under a curse to finish everything on my plate. Surreptitiously, I transferred the terrible morsels into the napkin on my lap from which they would later be deposited into the dog's bowl.


My parents had long since retired to the lounge to watch the Nine O'clock News and were taking turns, sentry-like, to observe me through the slots in the louvre doors, ready with vollies of berating if I put down my fork. The carrots in the filling were making my mouth spasm into an involuntary gape, like the skeleton in an urn burial that had recently transfixed me on a school trip to a museum. They told me to stop it but I had no control over it and, more often than not, it was a foreshadowing that the food in front of me was going to make me enormously ill. On the other hand, even food that tasted wonderful sometimes did that in the aftermath.


Against my better judgement, I'd once wolfed a slice of cherry pie. That night, I vomited it up the wall next to my bed. The line of pink stayed there for many years, blending in loosely with the carnation print wallpaper. There was another stain on the edge of a circular rug in the hallway. That one was a testament to my not quite making it to the toilet after scoffing a cocktail glass of Butterscotch Angel Delight garnished with a glace cherry. It was fortunate the rug happened to be woven, unusually, with roses in russet hues. Easter was always a difficult time with the alluring smell of chocolate in the houses of other children. I learned my lesson after sneakily downing half a chocolate egg and crashing into a door due to the dazzling lights of a migraine headache. I had been sent home after that under the suspicion that I'd been at the drinks cabinet.


Given the lack of variety in the meal repertoire, I'd get so hungry that I'd offer to clean the car for fifty pence then blow the lot on penny sweets at the corner shop. I knew what would turn my stomach so I avoided the pink shrimp and pungent bananas that had a texture like polystyrene. Thankfully, sherbet fountains and white chocolate mice elicited no adverse spewing reaction.


I was drawn to the idea of making food, of somehow taking control and censoring the ingredients. All my endeavors, alas, were ill-fated. On one occasion, I amassed some pastry offcuts which I rolled out and stamped into star shapes. There was soil under my nails from an 'al fresco' culinary venture making mud pies in the garden earlier in the day, causing the pastry to turn grey as I squeezed it into a ball. Despite their being on the grimy side, my 'biscuits' were baked and slipped onto a saucer before my father at the dinner table where, as he read The Daily Mail, he obliviously consumed the lot at which my mother raised a wry eyebrow.


When I started secondary school, I'd brace myself for the fortnightly cookery practicals which always seemed to go awry for me. I carried my ingredients the two miles to school in the obligatory wicker basket that bumped against my knees which were puckered and red because I could never get my socks to stay up. I was a good girl, I would never vulgarly eat what I'd made as I walked home, like I'd seen others doing, with chocolate mousse and such like smeared all over their hands. No, I wanted to impress my mother with what I'd created but I frequently returned home with an empty basket after yet another gastronomic disaster.


The Scottish Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Shackleton, was an older lady in an apple dappled nylon house coat that served to enhance the classroom's fruity colour palette of lemon formica work surfaces and lime green lino floor tiles. She ran a tight ship, with the saucepans polished mirror-bright and utensils organized alphabetically by function in the drawers. Pointy pink-rimmed glasses were balanced on her bony nose, their thick lenses magnifying her eyes to give her a look of perpetual enthusiasm. "We'll start off with something easy, girls – jelly!" Everyone else had brought in neat little round jelly moulds but all I could find at home was a foot long mould in the shape of a carp. With the grace of a teetering tightrope walker, I edged toward the fridge with my brimming carp, but suddenly and inexplicably found myself splayed on the lino, my school uniform coated in half-set jelly. I lay there a while, amid the tepid gelatinousness, in the thrall of a nauseous wave. "Disaster Girl!" Mrs. Shackleton had shrieked and the accolade had stuck for good reason.


The next assignment was mashed potatoes but I hadn't thought to add water, and stood wondering why everyone else was at the mashing stage when I was still waiting for the potatoes to become soft in the saucepan. Mrs. Shackleton's nostrils soon sourced the singeing smell but by then there was nothing to be done. "Surely everyone knows what boiling is!" Mrs. Shackleton had announced mainly to me, "Do I really have to say 'boil the potatoes in water', rather than just 'boil the potatoes'?" I walked home empty-handed again, taunted by popular girls behind me... 'Disaster Girl strikes again! Destroying all food in her path!' They were right. Like King Midas, any food I touched was turned into something inedible, only it wasn't pretty like gold.


On Pancake Day, I accidentally brought in self-raising flour when it was "essential", Mrs. Shackleton had reiterated, that one's pancakes "turn out no thicker than a swatch of velvet, girls". Mine were the thickness of corrugated cardboard and, since I had also forgotten to add sugar, of a similar flavour too.


Scotch Eggs were the next disaster. I'd had a promising start, hardboiling the eggs in water and seasoning the sausagemeat while I waited. "Now, girls, when your egg timer goes off, plunge your eggs into icy cold water to eschew a nasty green yolk," Mrs. Shackleton warned from the front. I was sharing a table with Rachel Robbins, who always had her hair neatly tied back on cooking days in a crocheted band she'd made herself. Her parents owned the bakery in the village. I'd been to her house once, where I had experienced the wonder of freshly-baked bread for the first time. I devoured the best part of a loaf, whilst her mother looked on compassionately. Rachel was already poised to take over the family business within the next decade, and was quietly absorbed in culinary perfectionism, folding her microscopically chopped parsley into the pink, fluffy sausagemeat. When the egg timer went off and Rachel stood up to take her eggs off the heat and douse them in cold water, I did the same. Together we peeled our eggs and began wrapping the sausagemeat around them, a fiddly process. I gripped one of my eggs a little too forcefully and my stomach churned when an ooze of yellow yolk seeped out.


"You didn't boil them long enough," Rachel declared matter-of-factly, "You took them off when you heard my egg timer because you forgot yours at home."


I did my best to tentatively pat the sausagemeat, which had now become distinctly gooier, into place around my deflated egg, overcome by queasiness.


Mrs. Shackleton made another announcement from the front, "Once you've rolled your sausaged egg in the breadcrumbs, girls, ensure that the oil in your deep-fat fryer is scalding hot before immersing your eggs using the wire basket."


When I saw the oil starting to bubble, I dropped in my Scotch Eggs. It was all going so well apart from the minor mishap earlier. I watched my bonafide Scotch Eggs rolling around in the boiling oil at the bottom of the saucepan but, oh dear, they were starting to bump into each other and the breadcrumbs were falling away in large flakes. I saw Rachel remove her eggs in one fell swoop with a deft movement of her wire basket. Ah, the wire basket! I'd just put mine in loose and they were plainly doomed, whereas Rachel's hadn't lost a breadcrumb and were, as Mrs. Shackleton pertly observed, "uniformly golden and perfectly spherical".


"How do I get them out if I put them in loose?" I asked Rachel, hoping she didn't think me too much of an imbecile.


She was deeply absorbed in arranging her eggs on a rustic board with wafer thin gherkin slices to answer me straight away. She sliced one of the eggs in half and propped it up at a shop-window angle ready to receive top marks. "You could try a slotted spoon," she finally suggested with a discernible sigh.


I rushed to the utensil drawer labelled S and tried to think which implement there might be a slotted spoon. By the time I'd selected it and returned, my eggs had blackened on the outside. Still, I arranged them on a plate, sawed one in half and propped it up on a chunk of cucumber. "You appear to have lost your yolk," was Mrs. Shackleton's laconic judgement as she noted my mark in her book. I took them home all the same, picked the blackest bits off and put them on a plate on the table where my mother likened them to the frightful rock cakes of a spinster great aunt.


The final cookery class of the year involved Mrs. Shackleton's demo on how to make the perfect Victoria Sandwich, which we were to replicate at home and bring in for the school competition. She cut the finished cake up into tiny triangles and each of us got to sample a sliver of the perfect sponge. I tried to fix in my mind the exact hue of pale yellow the butter and sugar turned when the creaming was complete, and sought to learn by heart Mrs. Shackleton's admonition that it was, "Tantamount to sacrilege to tip the sponge domed side down onto the cooling tray first as it would thereby become blemished with an ugly lattice, thrown into sharp relief once dusted with icing sugar."


No one was in the house on the evening I made my Victoria Sandwich. I turned on the flourescent light in the kitchen and found my grandmother's cookbook in the drawer. The paper had worn thin on the pages of favourite recipes including the Victoria Sandwich. A colony of silverfish had taken up residence in the forgotten cake tins under the oven. Only two tins matched but, getting out my school ruler, I found they were exactly the right measurement for the recipe. I weighed the ingredients three times to make sure I had it right, and found just enough raspberry jam in the bottom of a dust-covered jar for the filling. While the cake baked, I crouched on the kitchen floor staring through the window of the oven and watched it swell up. Later, as the two halves sat on the cooling tray, I was astonished to see that they'd risen beautifully and were a perfect cakey brown.


I carried the assembled sponge to school the next morning in a Tupperware container inside my wicker basket, and dropped it off in the room set aside for the cake competition. Victoria Sandwiches of multifarious shapes and sizes lined every horizontal surface. I found that overnight I'd developed a discerning eye as "the faults" in many of the others jumped out at me: that one didn't have the domed side facing up, this one had the dread marks of the cooling rack upon it, someone had even forgotten the baking powder and had basically made a jam-filled frisbee.


Rachel strolled in and set down the largest and most miraculous Victoria Sandwich I had ever laid eyes upon right in the middle of the room. It was on a blue china plate, perfectly domed and dusted. "That's a nice little one," she said with a tinge of surprise when she noticed mine, "Don't forget to write your name on a scrap of paper and stick it under the plate."


At the end of the day, I went to collect my cake. It was one of twenty or so that had a little slice cut out of them and I was thrilled to realize it had got through the first test. "The Victoria Sandwich must have a pleasing appearance, girls," Mrs. Shackleton had said, and the judges were only going to sample those cakes that met this criteria. I couldn't see any rosette on the winning cake. It must have been taken away already and, as Rachel’s had gone, I concluded that it was the likely winner.


I carried my sponge back home and placed it in the middle of the dining room table. I had made it all by myself and it contained no ingredients that turned my stomach. I had followed the recipe correctly and hadn't dropped or burnt anything. It was a perfect cake. The meal that evening – broiled liver with a topping of overly sauteed onions – was made slightly less unbearable with the wonderful dessert to look forward to. There were occasional comments about what a pretty cake it was and did I really bake that on my own? My father even said it was excellent and should have won. I was no longer disaster girl and my baking prowess prompted Rachel to invite me round to her house again for more fresh bread and to see some kittens.


In the library a fortnight later, I overheard a group of girls asking Mrs. Shackleton whose cake had won the Victoria Sandwich Competition. I expected to hear Rachel's name but instead heard my own, followed by Mrs. Shackleton's expostulating that it had been "Most unexpected!" when she saw my name on the slip of paper under the plate.

As published in memoirist.org 


Descent, a short story in the horror genre

From her window, Olga watched her husband's naked white body sink into the lake.  She held her breath until he surfaced, then her eyes followed his heavy progress through the reeds and under the ornamental bridge.  


In all weathers and on most mornings, the older men silently appeared, one by one, on the banks of the lake in the Kiev Public Gardens.  Ponderously, they would remove their clothing, which they would neatly fold, as if delaying the plunge into the frigid water.  She told him he shouldn't do it, that the cold or the weeds might kill him one day, but he was adamant.  He said it kept him fit, kept him alive, as if the lake contained an elixir of youth, drawing in the older men.  There were four swimming this morning, pale and slow as belugas.  She waited at the window until she saw her husband emerge from the water and wipe the algae off his round stomach.  


Olga tidied the stray hairs behind her ears and smoothed her pallid cheeks as she passed the mirror in the hall. She was looking much older these days.  In the kitchen, she prepared his breakfast: some bread, thinly sliced, and a little bit of cheese.  She carefully cut off the stale crusts and set them to the side to make into breadcrumbs to coat the chicken livers for their meal that evening. There would still be enough bread left over, she thought, for a little sandwich for him before bed.  She carefully wrapped the leftover heel of bread in a square of waxed paper and placed it in the cupboard.


Max was tired after his swim and didn’t have anything to say to her as he ate.  She sat opposite him for a while in case he wanted to tell her about something he was reading in his newspaper. His jaws moved slowly as he chewed his bread and, from time to time, she picked the flecks off her skirt.  Eventually, she decided to go to the kitchen to busy herself with preparing the livers, but paused, listening at the door, when she heard him speak.   


‘Hello Demetri, it’s Max. I’m sorry to call again so soon but I’m going to have to ask for another extension.  I cannot make the payment this weekend.  I’m sorry, I wish I could…Come now, Demetri, you know I always cough up in the end.  You don’t need to get angry…Thank you.  Thank you.  I won’t disappoint you this time.  You will get it on Wednesday.  No later.  I promise.’  


Through the crack in the door, she watched him put the phone down and the smile drop from his face.  She knew, as his eyes searched the room, he was looking for more things to sell.  She had worried when he’d first become involved with Demetri, that she’d see him in the lake one morning, floating face down.  She then worried for herself, if she should live to old age with no one to support her.   


Olga opened the brown paper packet of chicken livers.  There were more in there than she had paid for.  Had the butcher made a mistake or had he seen how thin she’d become? She coated the livers in egg and breadcrumbs, frying half of them and placing the others in the refrigerator for tomorrow.  Then, looking in the cupboard, she didn’t see the left over bread for supper.  She asked Max if he had eaten it but he was irritated by this question and asked her why he’d take bread when he’d just had his breakfast. She searched the kitchen but couldn’t find it, then wondered if this spare bread had just been a dream in her hunger.  


The next morning, Olga resolved to take the train to the catacombs at Lavra to pray at the tomb of Saint Pimen, the Faster.  A babushka in a faded pinafore dress decorated with a dusky pink geranium pattern, sat on the steps that led down to the subway stop, a dead chicken, still covered in feathers, draped over her knees.  Olga shuddered at the sight, more at the woman than the lifeless bird, with the thought that she may spend her final years so.  She would have liked to have bought the chicken from her because it would be cheap, but couldn’t face the plucking of it.  Another babushka sat opposite selling black sausage she had probably made in her little kitchen in the ramshackle dwellings on the banks of the Dnieper.  She had seen this woman going through the rubbish at the end of the road.  They had probably had husbands who had drunk themselves into the ground and now they had to fend for themselves. At least they wouldn’t have to buy vodka for their men any longer.  


In the catacombs, Olga moved through the tunnels in a line of hushed worshippers, the darkness fractured only by the occasional flickering of the priests’ candles.  The martyrs were dressed in their finery in glass sarcophagi.  Finger bones stemmed from disintegrating silk sleeves dotted with beads.  Embroidered vests sunk into the crevices between the ribs.  


As she rounded the corner, a spiteful voice hissed into her ear, ‘You have no head covering, you heathen.’  She turned and squinted through the darkness at a priest, in black robes and tall hat, towering over her.  His beard, which had grazed her cheek when he spoke, was a vivid red tangle and his small round glasses threw out two pinholes of light.  His eyes fixed on her unkindly.  ‘You can buy this,’ he demanded as he pulled a package wrapped in plastic film from a pocket in his robe.  ‘Two hundred hryvnia.’  


Without disputing the high price for the headscarf, Olga took the only notes in her purse and handed them to the priest.  Moving on quickly, she took the scarf out of its wrapper.  In the semi darkness it appeared to be orange blossom on a purple background.  Not suitable for her fair colouring, but she did not have the nerve to ask the priest for a different one.  She placed it on her head and tied it under her chin.  She mustn’t tell Max how much she’d paid for it.  


Returning home, she quietly registered the absence of some things in the sitting room.  Max must have pawned the gilt frame of their wedding photograph and now the image of their thirty years ago nuptial was propped up on the mantelpiece behind his packet of cigarettes.  In the photograph she and Max were sitting at a table laden with dishes. She looked at each in turn, naming it under her breath and trying to remember the way each one had tasted… ‘yushka, kovbasa, salo, ryba, koravai’. The photograph would drift onto the floor in the lightest gust, she thought, so she brought a teacup from the kitchen to hold it against the wall.  She went upstairs and put the headscarf from the catacombs in the drawer in the dressing table in her room so Max wouldn’t see it.  
Dinner would be the livers again but the bowl where she had placed then in the refrigerator was now empty, just a few smears of egg with a scattering of breadcrumbs showing where they had been.  She looked around the kitchen for evidence that her husband had cooked them, but could find none and besides, he had no idea how to cook anyway.  


When Max returned to the house, she tried to be as casual and calm as possible when she asked him about the livers but he looked at her as if she had lost her mind.  ‘I went out just before you.  Don't you remember?  I haven't been home until now.  Alex gave me a cup of soup for lunch.  Maybe you will need to retrace your steps.’


That night, her dream upset her.  The figure of an old, ragged woman was in her room standing with her back to her in front of the dressing table.  She was looking in the mirror, trying on the headscarf.  Olga fancied she could hear her breath rasping as she struggled with the knot under the chin.  In the reflection, in the semi darkness, Olga could make out a face like a celeriac root: ingrained dirt in the deep lines and thick pale root hairs sprouting from the chin.


She woke, alone in the bed, and leaned over to open the dressing table drawer.  When she saw that the scarf was not there, she made her way to the top of the stairs and saw that Max had filled a cardboard box that he had placed by the front door ready to take to the pawnbroker.  She went down the stairs as quietly as she could and tremulously moved through the items in the box.  


‘Olga, Olga,’ Max called over to her gently from the kitchen table where he was sitting with his coffee.  She straightened herself up and he walked towards her, his brow glistening from the effort he had taken to pack the box.  He put his hand tenderly on her shoulder.  ‘You know I must pay Demetri. This won't go on much longer.  Just a few more things, I promise.  When I get back on my feet, I will buy them all back for you or get you new things, okay?’


She nodded quietly.  He kissed her on both cheeks and went out with the box under his arm.  She stared after him and kept gazing down the road long after he had disappeared from sight, still trying to fathom where the headscarf might be because it hadn't been in the box.   


Olga wondered if a thief had been coming into the house.  She started keeping the windows locked, looked for gaps in the fence around the garden and bolted the outside doors.  She didn't say anything about it to Max because he had enough to worry about.  
She finally resolved to try to catch the thief.  She would set a trap.  She had heard that some out-of-date tinned food was being sold off for next to nothing at the local grocers and had gone to get some.  Max was out.  She left the front door ajar and made a tempting arrangement of the tins of chopped ham and potted radish on the counter in the kitchen.  She positioned herself in the pantry, sitting on an upturned zinc bucket, with the door open a crack giving her a view of the tins.  If the intruder was indeed the frail old woman she had seen in what she thought had been her dream, Olga felt she could overpower her.  


After a few hours of sitting, barely breathing, Olga’s head began to nod and she was awoken by a metallic crash.  She had fallen from her bucket and it had tipped over.  Crouching, she peered through the crack in the door.  Like the bucket, the tins were upset over the floor.  The sound of the bucket had probably disturbed the thief.  She came out of her hiding place and saw the door under the stairs being slowly pushed shut.  The door led to the coal cellar, a tiny room she hadn’t been in for years.  She disliked the low ceiling and the smell of damp mortar.  She tried the door but it was locked so she fetched the bunch of keys from the bureau drawer and eventually found the one that fit. It turned stiffly in the lock.  She nudged open the door, swollen with damp, and broke through ragged webs.  Sandy-coloured grains of wood dust fell into her hair.  Hesitating, she peered down the cellar steps.  She could see a pile of flattened cardboard boxes with heavy curtains, like the ones in her front room, layered up on top of them.  She moved closer to get a better look, clinging to the banister, and then it dawned on her that someone had been living there.  Food packaging was strewn on the floor.  The smell of urine emanated from the zinc bucket in a corner.  She walked to the curtains and examined them closely:  they were identical to hers upstairs, apart from being spotted with mildew.  And the dressing table under the window was also very like her own.  Then she saw her.  The old woman stared back at her, looking as frightened as she was.  


‘What are you doing here?’ Olga’s voice came out strained and frail.


‘What are YOU doing here?’ the old woman’s voice echoed her.  


‘I live here,’ Olga said, attempting assertiveness but unable to hide her fear.


‘I live here,’ the old lady mimicked her and Olga felt she must be in the presence of a mad woman.


She backed away towards the stairs and the old woman did the same, backing away with a horrible, twisted exaggeration of Olga’s own terror on her face, a cruel imitation.


Gathering courage to turn her back on the old woman, Olga stumbled back up the stairs and out of the door. She thought she must have come out of a different door as what she entered was not her house, but one with broken glass, fallen plaster and empty vodka bottles strewn over the floor.  She tried to calm herself and looked around for a way out.  Then something caught her eye in the room in front of her:  her wedding photograph on the floor, partially covered in grit.  She picked it up and automatically looked for the mantelpiece to put it on but where that had been, there was now a gaping hole revealing a chaos of brambles outside.  She looked at the photograph again and then the hand holding the photograph— covered in liver spots and with chilblained, swollen finger joints.  She put her hand to her head as if she were waking and felt sparse strands of tangled hair sprouting from a balding scalp.  ‘Max, Max,’ she called weakly.  She was glad there was no reply because she didn’t want him her to see her like this.  


And then she remembered watching him swimming, it must be more than twenty years ago now, and he had stopped, just stopped, as if taking a rest, but his face was in the water, and she had gone down there and the other old men had pulled him out and lain him on the bank.  His eyes were looking upwards and she had wiped the algae off his stomach.


Slowly, she recited the Prayer to the Guardian Angel to steady herself and walked back down the cellar steps to confront the apparition, clinging to the banister. She crossed the dimly illuminated room and opened the drawer of the dust-covered dressing table where the scarf from the catacombs lay neatly folded.  She looked into the shattered mirror of the dressing table, its cracks fragmenting her face, and placed the scarf on her head and tied it under her chin, her breath rasping with the effort of it and condensing into mist.               


This is my first and only foray into the horror genre, published in Horla Horror http://www.horla.org/descent-by-auriel-roe-short-story-2019/  Not sure if I can write more of this kind of thing as I find it quite unsettling! Weirdly enough, I DREAMT the ending after struggling with that.

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