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Cakewalk
Cakewalk
★★★★★

© Neelanjan Chakraborty

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20 Minutes   37.3K    476


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“See you later, Ice-Man!” Captain Rogers exclaimed as Stewart was about to leave. He returned a slight nod and disembarked from the ‘ATLANTICANO’, the fishing boat on which he was employed. Stewart was probably in his late forties but today, his face wore a much older look. As he made his way towards home, he was full of mixed emotions. Many questions were going through his mind which needed to be answered, but like his pocket, his mind too was empty. Five minutes later, his house came into sight, but instead of entering, he went into the house which belonged to his only friend, Matthew. 

“Rise and shine Matt!” Stewart called from outside. 

“Stu!” Matthew was quite surprised to hear from his friend, that too early in the morning. He hurriedly opened the door. “When did you came back? How is your trip? Has Joe seen you? Have you got those six pounds?” Matthew greeted his friend with an array of questions. 

“Let me breathe, will you?” Stewart answered as he settled on an upside down fish container while Matthew rushed to get a glass of water.

 

They lived in Charles Square, a small colony of fish workers located near the London harbour. Every house in the square was haphazardly constructed by wood which had blackened and curved with time and newspapers tried to cover the cracks between them. Boat anchors, fish containers, fishing rods and fishing nets decorated the interiors of each house. The children had a heavily damaged boat for their playground and every iron article in the square was heavily rusted due to the salt-laden winds from the sea.

 

“Bad trip, Matt! No profits! Global warming is hit the business bad,” Stewart sighed heavily. 

“Does that mean...” Matthew wasn’t able to complete the question. 

“I don’t know, Matt. I’m completely blank.” 

“Stu, you’ve returned after many days. Joe has been looking forward to meeting you. Go home.” Matthew suggested. 

“I can’t face him, Matt. What am I supposed to say? Tomorrow is the day.” Stewart informed him about his predicament. 

After a moment of silence, Matthew instructed him, “Go home and meet him. No need to tell him anything. Freshen up and come back here.” Stewart listened quietly, stood up heavily and dragged himself to his own house.

 

He paused for a few seconds before stepping into his small single room apartment. He found his son, Joseph asleep. “He is definitely looking forward to meeting me,” Stewart said to himself. Without disturbing his sleep he freshened up and was about to leave when he looked at his son and felt a sudden urge to talk to him. Therefore, in his usual grave approach, Stewart addressed him, “Get up Kiddo!” There was no movement from Joseph.  Probably he was in too deep a sleep, so he tried again, “Get up or you’ll have your bath in the bed.” He stirred this time. Joseph had heard him the first time itself. In fact he was up the moment Stewart had entered. He too had been longing to speak to him but didn’t want to make the first move. So he waited until Stewart had called him twice.

He seemed to have accepted Stewart’s cold nature as a part of his legacy and therefore, he greeted his father coldly, “Morning Stu!”  A motherless boy, living in a fish workers’ colony and brought up mostly in the neighbourhood, he always addressed his father as his other companions did. Although Stewart never liked it, he never opposed it openly in front of his son, but expected his son to understand his detest.

 

Both, the father and son had this very peculiar tendency. They never expressed any kind of emotion to each other but expected the other one to understand. Joseph was not as emotionally retarded as his father, but when both of them were together, this strange habit could be clearly observed in both of them.

 

“You early?” Joseph made a cold enquiry.  Stewart was accustomed to such treatment, but he was expecting some warmth this time. After all, tomorrow was the only red-letter day in his calendar; Joseph’s birthday. Joseph was twelve years old and for the past eight years, Stewart had been celebrating his son’s birthday as the only jubilant day of the year. Matthew was the only one to be invited over the last eight years. He was more like a father to Joseph because in his father’s absence, he was looked after by him. Given his age, Joseph could not discriminate much between the two of them and just like his father, he too addressed Matthew as ‘Matt’.

 

The birthday preparations included a special lunch consisting entirely of sea food. That is because it was his specialty and he cooked it just once a year. But the only element which the birthday boy looked forward to, not only on his birthday but the entire year was his birthday cake.

 

Stewart’s earnings left them barely from hand to mouth, but throughout the year he saved enough from his meagre income to purchase a ‘Pound Cake’ from Dream Bakers, the best bakery within their financial reach. Joseph liked this cake so much that he ate the entire cake himself. Nobody ever asked him as well as it was his only gift in the year. Therefore, neither Stewart nor Matthew ever had a taste of the cake. Stewart willingly spent his entire savings on this cake just to make his son genuinely happy once a year and on the other hand Joseph accepted the gift gleefully but also felt guilty because his gift used to cost them an entire year’s savings. But both of them, very much like each other, never expressed their feelings towards each other.                    

     

After receiving the expected cold reception, Stewart left for Matthew’s residence. Although Matthew’s residence was situated beside Stewart’s, he had to spend most of his time in Stewart’s house. But it wasn’t a burden to him as he was very fond of Joseph whom he lovingly called Joe. He repaired the damaged boats and therefore, always stayed in the colony. He lived alone and Stewart and Joseph were like his family and he too looked forward every year to Joseph’s birthday. Joseph too was quite affectionate to him, but for the past few years he had deeply felt the absence of his father. Stewart had also felt this, but his work had made him quite helpless.     

 

For the past few years, however, the problem of global warming had deeply affected the fishing business. The boat, on which Stewart worked, hunted tuna and for the past four years, their annual catch has reduced substantially. With each passing day at the sea, Stewart was growing desperate, not because of the fewer catches but because of saving less. Last year, Stewart had somehow managed to buy the cake but had had to sacrifice the special sea food lunch. When he got off the boat today, he was empty-handed. He had a total saving of twenty-nine pounds and he had hoped of making the remaining six-pound on that trip. When he entered his house today, he may have worn a blank look, but he was very angry at his helplessness which he tried to hide from his son. But Joseph was too sharp to miss such a thing and could very well guess the reason for it. Matthew had informed him about the problem of global warming and how it had affected the fishing industry. Due to this, Joseph too had compromised on his sole object of desire and wanted Stewart to save the money instead of spending it on the cake. But again he never expressed this.

 

Stewart knew that this year, he won’t be able to buy the cake. But he decided to test his luck anyway. So instead of going to Matthew’s residence, he redirected his path towards the Dream Bakers. On his way, he imagined that the bakery might have miraculously reduced the price of the cake or he might become the lucky customer to enter the bakery on a particular time and hence get the cake for free. All his fancy imaginations shattered as soon as he entered the bakery. Unlike his over-optimistic thoughts, the bakery had increased the price of the cake by five pounds. This may sound silly, but he felt as if his world had come to an end. Although he never openly expressed it, he loved his son more than anything else in the world and now his son was going to be deprived of his only desire.

 

He stormed out of the shop and began a brisk journey towards Matthew’s house. He was the only one to provide Stewart with consolation and refuge, the two things he was seeking for at this point of time. He had almost reached the square when all of a sudden, he stopped. It would have been quite normal except for the fact that he stopped while crossing a busy road. He found all the answers he had been looking for since morning right in the middle of the road, and would also have found himself lying on a hospital bed if the driver of the car which was coming from his left had not pressed the brakes with all his might. He took a U-turn and made his way back to the Dream Bakers. One of the bakers working there was Earl and belonged to Charles Square. He was well acquainted with Stewart and his annual visit. On reaching the shop, Stewart asked for him. When he came out, Stewart began a casual conversation with him. This took Earl by surprise as he knew him to be a very reserved person. After talking to him for a while Stewart took Earl to a secluded street behind the shop. 

“I need a favour from you,” Stewart told Earl in his usual manner. “I need the ingredients, the recipe and all the necessary details to make a pound cake.” 

Earl began to laugh. He laughed for the next couple of minutes before looking at Stewart. He stood with an expression which stopped his laughter at once. “What! Are you serious?” Earl asked in horror and took a few steps back. Stewart was casually asking him for something for which he could lose his job. Stewart, on the other hand had expected this and whispered in his ears, “I’ve a five pound bill in my pocket, Earl. Get me what I ask for and its yours.” A moment earlier, Earl had received the shock of his life, but money, being the greatest shock-absorber ever invented, helped him to shake it off. He asked Stewart to wait for a few minutes and cautiously went into the shop. Ten minutes later, he returned with a folded sheet of paper. He also gave him a few instructions regarding the cake. Before leaving, Stewart shook hands with him and in the process, handed him the five pound bill.

 

On his way back to Matthew’s house, he decided to share his plan with him. Matthew, who was expecting him sooner and serious, was surprised to find him happy and excited. Never before had he seen him so energized. In fact, he was so full of energy that even before Matthew asked him anything, he spat out his entire plan. Matthew patiently listened to everything and quietly said, “I’ve got one word for you Stu; insane. How in the name of God are you going to accomplish it? It is not possible!”  Stewart wore a smile as he listened to all this. He was expecting a similar reaction from Matthew. Instead of answering him, he explained the part which he had to play in the plan and strictly warned him not to breathe a word of this to anyone, especially Joseph. He wanted to keep Joseph entirely in the dark. In fact, he wanted to keep everything the same, same as the last eight years. Therefore, leaving Matthew in a state of shock, he went to fetch the ingredients which would serve his ambition.

 

The cake was called ‘pound’ cake for a reason. It required a pound of each of its ingredients, other than the eggs, to bake the cake. Therefore, Stewart had to buy a pound each of self-raising flour, icing sugar, white butter and half a dozen of eggs. Earl had also disclosed the secret ingredient of Dream Bakers which was ten grams of nutmeg powder. Stewart had anticipated that with the remaining twenty-four pounds, he would be able to purchase all these ingredients and he was not wrong. After obtaining all the necessary components he was still left with three pounds. It took him a while to procure all the necessary items. By the time he reached the square, it was evening and just as he had anticipated, there were very few people outside. He used the darkness as a cover and without attracting anyone’s attention and as per the plan, entered Matthew’s house to hide all the things he had bought. Matthew was still not in favour of Stewart’s master plan, but his pure determination and dedication changed his opinion to some extent. In any case, Matthew still had to do his part. He was assigned the job of keeping Joseph out of the house for a few hours the next day, that is, his birthday. Stewart, while coming out of Matthew’s house, handed him the remaining three pounds saying that he may require these while he was out with Joseph.

 

Stewart was too excited to sleep that night. He had gone through the same level of anxiety for the last eight years on this very night and this year was no different. This anxiety was different from the ones he had had every night on the boat concerning the catch of the next day. In fact, he had never felt anxiety at the sea. In all these years, he had hardly ever shown any kind of emotion among his working circle. According to speculations, his wife’s untimely demise had traumatized him for life, but his colleagues differed from this idea. He had always been the silent type, even when his wife had been alive. But after her death, it seemed as if along with her body, he had buried his emotions as well. His cold behaviour had earned him an unusual reward. The people on the boat addressed him as the ‘Ice-Man’. But the actual reason behind this icy cold behaviour was the concern for his son, Joseph. Although he loved his wife dearly, after her death, Joseph’s upbringing became his chief cause of concern. If it had not been for Matthew, probably Stewart might have had to choose between his son and his job and he always knew that he could never repay Matthew for what he had done. But he had always felt a sort of emptiness in Joseph’s life, probably because his life was tantamount to that of an orphan, considering the amount of time he spent with his father. Due to this reason, from his fifth birthday; Stewart began celebrating his birthday every year. Joseph had apparently grew a weakness for the pound cake from the day Stewart had given him a slice of it, which was given to him by the captain of his boat, on the eve of Christmas. Stewart was totally convinced that this would be the ideal present for him. His captain had almost fallen from his chair when the ever-so-quiet Stewart had asked him the name of the bakery. Probably Stewart thought that this compensated for all the lost time which he ought to have spent with Joseph and initially, he was proven right as well. Like his son, he too waited eagerly for this day and each year, he tried to improve his arrangements. But his pocket never permitted him. It was always the same; a pound cake and a sea-food platter. But everything had turned upside down this year and as per his wish, Stewart was given an opportunity of a lifetime and this made him all the more anxious.

 

The big day arrived. Stewart and Matthew together awakened Joseph and wished him in their trademark style. “Happy birthday, Joe! My god, with each birthday you are growing taller. I wonder in how many years you will surpass us,” Matthew cheerfully greeted him and followed it with a tight hug whereas it was a simple “Happy birthday, kiddo!” from Stewart. All of them had a light breakfast and after that, Joseph went out with Matthew, to the former’s delight as well as surprise. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Stewart locked his house and went into Matthew’s house. The cake was supposed to be made in Matthew’s house because all the ingredients were secretly kept there and more importantly because it was Matthew who possessed the pressure cooker in which the cake was supposed to be baked. Accumulating all his courage and optimism, Stewart began.

 

As per the recipe, the first step was to sift the flour, twice. Stewart sifted the flour repeatedly for ten times, even though the flour passed smoothly through the sieve in the very first attempt. The next step was to mix the sugar and the butter. As per the recipe, both the components had to be beaten together until they looked like whipped cream. The recipe stated that it was essential as in the process of beating, air will be incorporated in the mixture which will make the cake lighter and fluffier. Mostly, in bakeries, this process was carried out by the machines as it required a super human effort to achieve the desired result by hand. Although his excitement and determination had turned him into something beyond human, he was still not able to get the ‘whipped cream’ texture. Time was running out when once again, his innovative mind came to his rescue. He devised a new technique to incorporate air in the mixture. He took the mixing bowl and the hand-beater and resumed the procedure beneath the ceiling-fan. About half an hour later, after a point where he wished that his hands never existed, he felt that he had achieved the needed result. After that, all the eggs had to be beaten gently before mixing them with the butter and sugar mixture. Stewart found no difficulty in this step as scrambled eggs were his favourite breakfast. In the following step, the flour was supposed to be mixed in that mixture. But this had to be executed carefully. The flour couldn’t be mixed all at once. It had to be mixed in small portions and with a particular technique which Earl had referred as the ‘circle and cut’ technique. Earl had demonstrated the technique to Stewart who just replicated it, without using his genius. In the final step he had to add the nutmeg powder. The cake mixture was now ready. It took him almost two hours, two most challenging hours of his life, to complete it. Now all he had to do was to find a suitable metal container, fill it with the cake mixture, put it in the cooker and wait for about twenty minutes. In case of the container, fortunately, he was shown some leniency as the Dream Bakers never used any fixed shape for their pound cake. For the last eight years, Joseph has received his gift in eight different shapes. Once, Matthew had even placed a bet, determining the shape of the cake. Today, Stewart decided that the cake would be round in shape, not because Joseph preferred it but because it was the only container which would fit in the cooker. The pressure cooker was a very poor substitute for the baking oven but Earl was an expert baker and he had instructed Stewart on the perfect temperature of the cooker and the amount of time it would take for the cake to bake. He had also told him that the lid of the cooker must not be opened before the required amount of time. He followed Earl’s every instruction to the letter and then waited impatiently for the next eighteen minutes. He checked his wrist watch nearly a hundred times in those eighteen minutes.

 

At the end of those eighteen minutes, Stewart took the cooker off the flame but he could not find enough courage to open the lid. It suddenly struck him that if the cake was anything less than perfect, it would not only expose his secret but also deprive Joseph of his yearly present. With mixed feelings in his heart, he began taking out the lid. His hands were still, but his heart and mind were in a state of flux. As soon as he took off the lid, his nostrils were filled with the aroma of nutmeg and his eyes beheld the sight of a perfectly baked, round, pound cake. For a moment, he forgot everything around him and was lost in its beauty. He felt relief, pride and happiness at the same time. But the next moment, he was concerned about its taste. He could not taste it and in any case, it wouldn’t make a difference as he never knew what it tasted like. All he could do now was to wait until Joseph had cut the cake. He stealthily carried the cake to his house where he placed it on the table just in time to find Joseph and Matthew returning.

 

Stewart decided to wash his face, which was flushed with excitement and sweat, so as to return to his all time grim look. Joseph entered the house to find a hot cake and a cold father waiting for him. “You got the cake? And that too a fresh one?” Joseph asked trying to suppress his ecstasy. 

“You need not worry about the cake, kiddo. That’s my responsibility,” Stewart replied in an over-serious tone. He added in an indifferent manner that this year again there wouldn’t be a sea-food lunch due to the lack of money. Matthew entered the scene a minute later. 

“Wow, the cake smells delicious!” He commented as Stewart raised an eyebrow. “As usual, of course,” Matthew made an attempt to complete his earlier comment. He also informed him that they had bought a packet of shrimp balls with those three pounds he had to spare. This solved the problem concerning their lunch.

 

With everything sorted out, they decided that it was time to cut the cake. There was nothing grand about cutting the cake. Each year, Joseph used to cut the cake while both of them watched and both of them watched while he devoured the entire cake. This year, however, after he had cut the cake and as he was about to eat the first slice, Stewart and Matthew fixed their gaze on his face. To their very relief Joseph gave an expression similar to the last eight years.

 

Stewart felt something which he hadn’t felt in years. This feeling was similar to what he had felt at time of Joseph’s birth or the first time he had caught a fish. He felt happy and contended and did exceedingly well to hide these emotions from his son. After this Joseph did an unexpected thing. To the surprise of both of them, he offered them a slice each. “What’s the matter, Joe? Grew tired of your favourite cake?” Matthew asked jokingly. 

“I’m too old to eat an entire cake and get away, Matt.” Joseph too answered on a comic note. 

Matthew, after taking a bite of the cake, said, “Joe, I want to make a confession to you. All these years I found it quite silly of you to demand a cake as your present. Today I know the reason why. This cake is amazing.” After saying this, he gave a wink to Stewart.

 

“I’ve go to admit it that the cake tastes better when its hot and fresh,” Joseph, the pound cake expert made a comment. “But Stu, how did you get a fresh one this time?” he asked as Stewart shifted uncomfortably in his chair. 

“Earl helped me out. He baked a fresh one for me,” Stewart gave a bad excuse in his usual tone. Joseph also knew Earl and at the time he was carrying a message from Earl for his father. Earl had asked him to tell his father that there was a mistake in the recipe and to use five to six drops of vanilla extract in the cake instead of the nutmeg powder.

 

Matthew had gone to buy the shrimp balls, leaving Joseph alone on the streets when Earl had caught hold of him. He knew nothing about the secret plan and thought that it was his duty to inform Stewart about the mistake. When Joseph received this message, he understood the entire setup and stood stunned for a minute. He had always felt the unexpressed love of his father, but he could never imagine his father going to such extent for his happiness. He decided that he would spoil their entire setting by giving him this message, just for the sake of fun. Due to this reason, he intentionally kept on asking his father about the cake. The look on his face, after eating the first slice, was premeditated but he was surprised to find the cake genuinely good, even without the vanilla. But when he saw his father’s face after this, he changed his mind. He had never seen such satisfaction, such relief on his face and he decided that there was no need to tell the truth and spoil his happiness.

 

Therefore, after eating his share of the cake, he stood up to go outside. But before stepping out, he stopped at the door, turned and in the most somber manner, addressed his father, “Next year onwards, no more cakes, save the money. And thank you, thank you for all my birthdays…Dad.” He smiled innocently after saying this and turned his back on a most bewildered father who had heard the word ‘Dad’ for the first time in his life from his thirteen year old son. 

#father#son#cake#baking

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