Written by Bisha Ali

Arts

Short story: Let’s Bake!

To celebrate National Short Story Week, Standard Issue is running a selection of short and (not always) sweet fictions. A little girl isn’t too keen on her Nan in Bisha K Ali’s grim and creepy tale.

sinister Nana

Nana is rifling through the cupboard. Her back had been chewed by a big shaggy dog with yellow fangs when she was a young girl, that’s why it’s all bent and crooked now. That’s what Cousin Annie told me. She hums to herself while she looks through old cans and half-empty paper bags of powders and spices.

“You’re old enough to read now, aren’t you? I can never tell these things. When do kids learn to read? ”

I wonder if she’s talking to me or if she is asking herself. She never looked at you when she spoke to you. Or maybe she did, it’s hard to tell. Her eyes are milky and oily and I feel grey when I look into them.

“I can read, Nana.” She knows I can read.

“Then come read this for me, what does this say? Flour? It feels like flour. But is it self-raising?”

I like popping up when I come off the chair. A little jump to launch me out of it. Annie says I’ll always be a midge. A buzzy floaty nosy midge. I don’t think I buzz. I’m interested. I look at the round can in Nana’s hand. The label is old and the can smells like spices from the outside, but the faded label says TATA SALT. It’s a can of salt.

“Yeah, that’s the self-raising flour Nana.”

“You sure? It has to be self-raising.”

“I promise.”

“I feel her calloused fingers brush and scratch against the surface of the cabinets as she searches for a handle. My spine is dipped in ice.”

I sit back in my seat and watch her shuffle about, her crushed velvet slippers scuffing against the cold brown tile. Tiny black bugs race along the grout between them. Whenever I focus on her skinny, wrinkled ankles I feel a little acid in my throat. I imagine the bugs marching slowly between the folds of her skin to set up camp. She goes to the sink.

Above the sink, the cabinets that once had glass inserts are lined with oily old paper. The colour lacquer is peeling off the front, like rubbery skin from sunburnt flesh. She reaches up to pull out the weighing scales and I feel her calloused fingers brush and scratch against the surface of the cabinets as she searches for a handle. My spine is dipped in ice.

“Here we are.” She crawls over to where I sit at the table and puts the scales down, facing away from me. She gets the salt and begins to pour.

“Three ounces, let me know when the big hand gets to three ounces.”

Bright white salt courses out of the can and the crystals rattle in the dusty measuring bowl sat on the scale. The white meshes with grey and black specks of dust and I feel a tight twist in my stomach. Cousin Annie says dust is all people’s dead skin. Dead skin from dead people. These grey specks are flecks of Nana’s dying body. I wonder how much death she has trapped in the layers of her skin.

“That feels like three ounces. Pay attention kid.”

She goes to pat my head. Somehow she can hone in on where I am. Her hand always finds its way to the top of my head, for a pat or a smack.

“Not quite Nana, a little more.”

She taps out a little now.

“Enough.”

“Just a little more.”

She taps it out again. Now all the dust is covered up.

“That’s enough.”

Her hands search for the bowl and bring it back to the kitchen counter by the other ingredients she’s assembled. Her arms thin Twiglets. Like rat tails.

There’s a large mixing bowl on the table, it’s a muddy brown colour but still shiny. I remember this bowl from the old house. Cer-am-ic. Mom used to sound it out to me. “This is a cer-am-ic bowl, Hannah. Don’t drop it. Your Nana gave it to me.”

A thick, cream crack runs from beside the chip at the edge to the centre. Nana’s taped it up with brown Sellotape, but when you mixed in liquids they mushed out around the edges of the wound.

When I moved here, it wasn’t taped up. The crack gaped at me in the back of the car as Mom drove us too fast down the highway. It was filled with small knick-knacks that rattled and jumped at every pothole and slip in the road. My grey face flannel, my blue and white medium hard toothbrush, two rolled-up comic books and a Woody keyring Dad had got me and left next to my bed while I slept.

These were on top, bouncing higher and threatening to escape the faster Mom went. I wanted to pull it on to my lap, but I was pinned to the patent leather by boxes and bags and blankets and a suitcase at my feet. The passenger seat was eaten up by more junk.

“Yesterday when we baked a cake Nana said the sickness runs in our family. That her Dad had it and the man she married had it. She almost had it but she was a quick learner.”

Mom had been blasting The Who the whole drive. I was watching the bowl so hard I couldn’t tell how long it had been since she had muffled the radio and was chattering over the top of it. She kept saying how great my life would be at Nana’s. How Nana knows all about kids and kids’ stuff. How Nana knows better. Nana can do more for me. Nana will make sure I understand.

Cousin Annie said Mom left me there because I’m a dirty midge who’s always in the way. That Dad and Mom needed me to be away so they could fuck in peace. Cousin Annie didn’t sound like Annie from the movie. She had a deeper voice and black hair and mean eyes. I think she looks like the vultures from The Jungle Book. Annie the vulture – squawk! Squawk!

When we baked a cake last week, Nana said Mom would be back to get me. That her and Dad were sick. So sick that they couldn’t take care of me the way Nana could. That they had to go to a special place to get better and when they got better they’d come back for me. Last time I was sick I was better in a week. They’ve been sick for 98 days.

Yesterday when we baked a cake Nana said the sickness runs in our family. That her Dad had it and the man she married had it. She almost had it but she was a quick learner. I asked if I had it and she said we won’t know until we know. That we won’t have to find out if I stay away from liquor.

When she fell asleep I found a glass bottle full up to half of a half with clear liquid. It smelt like my room when we painted over my yellow walls and turned them dark blue. I took a sip and spat it out. I don’t know how this can make a person sick if you can’t even drink it. Nana’s a liar.

“OK now, kid, we almost got everything. We ran out yesterday but I got a delivery today. We just need to add the sugar.”

“Is this the sugar?”

She’s holding a small, squat can. It feels heavy and full of powder. ‘Kills mice, rats and other large rodents.’ Large rodents. Her murky eyes and wrinkled skin. Her arms like rat tails. That sounds right.

“Yes, Nana, that’s the sugar.”

Check out The Turtle Book Club: a podcast for unpretentious book worms everywhere. Hosted by Bisha alongside Sadaf Fahim.

@bishakali

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Written by Bisha Ali

Bisha K Ali is a writer and comedian. Off stage, she can be found under a duvet with a notebook.