On my fourteenth birthday I woke up in a strange bed in an even stranger room surrounded by cakes. They lined the top of the wardrobe and sat cheek by jowl on the dressing table and across the chairs. There was not a surface that did not hold at least two cakes and even in spaces on the floor Mrs K had stashed a plate filled with iced meringues.
My brother had driven me to Moe the night before so that I might be bridesmaid the next day when he and his already pregnant wife to be walked up the altar in the Newtown Catholic church to take their vows. There was to be a reception in the church hall nearby.
It did not take me long to recognise that the cakes in this room were not in honour of my birthday but for the wedding. Mrs K must have cooked for days. I climbed out of bed. The floor was covered with a circular coiled rug whose ridges rubbed against my soles. I lifted the covering from one of the cakes. Surely no one would notice one missing flower.
One was not enough. I looked around for more, from cake to cake, undressing each from its wrapper and scratching at the raised chunks of icing. Then I flopped back onto the bed, guilty. I wanted someone to find me? It was my birthday. I did not want to eat cake alone.
Finally, I braved the outside corridor where Mrs K greeted me. She waved a ten shilling note in front of her.
“For you. Happy birthday.”
I took the money and thanked her.
“Come now. Breakfast.” Mrs K led me down the hallway to the stink of fish.
“We have kippers.”
I had never heard of kippers before but the smell told me I would hate to eat them, more so with a stomach full of icing. I stared at my plate.
My brother arrived, clattering through the back door. He took one look at my face, another at the plate and accused his mother-in-law to be,
“Mutti. Don’t force her.”
Mrs K lifted my plate and passed it over to my brother. He emptied it onto his and then reached for more.
As part of a course in beginning poetry, Earl Livings instructed us to rote learn a poem. It's good for you, he said. Poets do it all the time.
The poems I learned as a child, even as late as a fourteen year old, I can still remember with ease, but these days it's so much harder to rote learn.
To commit Emily Dickinson's words to memory. Words I enjoy reading but remembering them is almost impossible.
'I cannot dance upon my toes/no man instructed me...'
How I wish I could have the rote learning capacity of my fourteen year old self, but not her predilection to cakes, her aversion to kippers and her timidity.