The key is where Erin expects it to be: Blu-tacked to the bottom of the highest rockery stone. Old habits. She unlocks the squeaky back door, stepping into the kitchen.
The sink shines. Three tea towels hang on the oven door, pristinely folded. Scarlet: like Clara’s favourite coat. The room smells of lavender and rosemary, as it always does. Erin runs her fingers along the cool counter, swallowing. If Clara catches her here.
The chrome mixer stands silent, empty. Ceramic mixing bowls are on the shelf in descending size. Erin remembers the clatter of the wooden spoons against their sides. The afternoon sun glints off the glass dome. She lifts the lid. Nothing. Beside it, the three-tiered stand gleams white.
Erin opens the fridge. A lone diet ready-meal. Clara never did eat her own cooking. Always watching her waistline. Could pile on three pounds while her sticky lemon cake rose in the oven, she always said. Not like Erin. Clara didn’t know where she put it. At one time, anyway. Try these, she’d say, taking a tray of spreading cookies from the steaming oven.
Slamming cupboard doors, Erin makes her way around the kitchen. Regiments of soup tins. A box of muesli. Caddies of green tea. But mostly, blank, vacant shelves. Not even a bag of flour. There has to be something, somewhere. Just enough to keep her going. It’s been eleven months, two weeks, four days. Five stone, nine pounds, three ounces. She deserves one last fix. For old time’s sake.
On top of the fridge, square tins are stacked like the Spanish Steps in Rome. It reminds her of that holiday when Clara fed her gelato for days. Until she couldn’t stand the spoon in her mouth. Until she couldn’t swallow. The ice cream just sat on her tongue, syrupy and liquefying. We’ll stay at home next year, Clara had said. Nothing had the lightness, the sweetness, the moistness of Clara’s cakes.
Erin drags a chair to the fridge. Steps on it. Reaches for the top tin. Hollow. She grabs the next. It topples, slips, crashes to the ground, smashes open. Erin stares. Empty. Just as well, Clara would find even the tiniest missed crumb.
Then the final tin. Weighty. Full of promise. She pauses, opens it, peeks inside. A whole fruit cake. It smells of their first holiday in Seville, the late night brandies of those early months. Erin shoves her fingers into the cake, seizes a fistful and stuffs it into her mouth. Deep, dark buttery sugar melts on her tongue. Juicy currants squish between her teeth. Morsels cascade onto her jumper.
A flash of scarlet passes the window.
Erin freezes on the chair, in front of the fridge, her hand in the tin.
There is a painful squeak as the door swings open.
The cake catches in Erin’s throat, rough and dry, and as the red figure comes into focus, she begins to choke.