Short story published in the Sunday Express



‘LemonPoppy Seed Cake’ was published in the Sunday Express in the UK on the 2nd of October 2016.

The cake is going to fix everything. It’s going to be lemony-sour-sweet with a hint of almond, so that when THEY bite into it, they’ll think of the smell of summer gardens after rain.

Last night, whilst her parents and her younger siblings were staring, glaze-eyed at the telly, Janey Tillerman sat at the kitchen table paging through the old cookery book that once belonged to her gran. She turned the yellowed pages, squinting at her gran’s twisty handwriting, until she found the right recipe: Lemon Poppy Seed Cake.

And now, in the Sunday morning quiet, she’s ready to bake.

Twelve-year-old Janey Tillerman is confident in the kitchen. Biology lab? Not so much. Tennis court? She’s hopeless. In the classroom, Janey’s spelling is a disaster, almost as bad as her ability to choose which jeans to pair with which top, or how to tie her ponytail so that it doesn’t look ‘dorky’, but give her a mixing bowl, a chunk of butter and a cup of sugar, and Janey can make magic.

‘What’re you baking?’ Janey’s little sister marches into the kitchen and slaps her hands on the countertop.

‘None of your business, Izzy. And keep your gross, snotty fingers away from my ingredients.’ Janey scowls at the ring of lurid purple around Izzy’s mouth.

‘You had a grape ice-lolly,’ Janey accuses, ‘We’re only allowed them after lunch.’

‘Why do you care? Last time, you said you were too old for ‘kiddie treats’.’

That’s true. Janey had only to imagine what THEY’d have to say if they saw her eating a lolly like a little kid, tongue all purple and chin all drippy, to make her decline.

Lemon poppy seed cakes, however, are very grown up. Janey checks the recipe, and then measures out the baking powder.

‘A cake?’ Izzy persists. She’s kicking her foot against the baseboard of the kitchen island. Janey grits her teeth.

‘Obviously a cake.’

‘For tea?’ Kick kick kick.

‘No. For the girls at school. For Tania, Kelly and Madison, so don’t even think about having some.’

‘Oh them.’ Izzy scowls. ‘They’re horrible. Why would you want to give them anything?’ Then Izzy’s eyes light up, ‘or are you going to put poison in it?’

‘Course I’m not going to put poison in it.’ But for a moment, as Janey pours poppy seeds into the milk she’s been warming in a saucepan on the stove, she imagines doing just that. Then there’d be no one to tell her she was dressed wrong, or to tease that her new boobs were a weird shape, or to convince her to try bright orange eye-shadow in the bathroom during break and snort with laughter when they thought she wasn’t looking. But death is not the point of this cake. This cake is to cast a spell on Tania, Kelly and Madison, and make them realise that Janey is one of them, that they’ve liked her all along. When THEY bite into it (and none of them will be able to resist, even Kelly, who keeps banging on about how fat she is, which is really just her way of getting everyone to say she’s skinny), they’re going to be forever changed. Because Janey has a plan.

She’s already written it out, on a clean corner of paper torn from her special notebook. With her back turned to Izzy, who’s using a licked finger to pick up spilled sugar grains from the countertop, Janey eases the prepared piece of paper out of her pocket. ‘You will love Janey Tillerman’ is written, over and over, in tiny pencil script, on both sides.

Janey closes her eyes, takes a breath, and tears up the paper, first into squares, and then into smaller and smaller bits, before scattering the lot into the milky poppy-seeds. A thrilled shiver darts through her as she watches the scraps disappear into the mix.

Later, when the cake has baked and cooled, and Janey’s drizzled its speckled top with a glaze made from fresh lemon juice and icing sugar, she lowers it into her mum’s plastic cake tin and carries it upstairs. She hears Izzy and Michael giggling together in the next room, and tightens her grip on the cake as she walk past. She’s going to have to keep an eye on it till she takes it to school tomorrow.

Janey pushes open her bedroom door, and then stops. She stares at the posters she’s tacked-up to try and cover as much of the walls as possible. Baby pink was fine when she was nine, but now it’s just all wrong. Janey’s fairly sure that her posters would make THEM sneer, too. She can just imagine Tania, Kelly and Madison, shoulders hunched, hands covering mouths, trying to choke down another of their unfathomable laughing fits.

Janey surveys the rest of her bedroom. Harry Potter collection? Most likely not on. Lip gloss in petal pink? She probably should’ve chosen cherry red. Her old teddy with its patchy belly fur? Janey fights down a sudden, fierce sob.

The cake, with the incantation baked inside, feels heavy in its plastic box.

‘You will love Janey Tillerman’ the cake commands.

So, what if I eat some? What if I love Janey Tillerman? Janey’s head feels light and buzzy at the thought.

Janey peels back a corner of the plastic lid and inhales delicious, fresh-baked lemon-y air.

If I love Janey Tillerman, she imagines, then Tania, Kelly and Madison can do whatever they like, laugh at whatever they want, and it’ll make no difference to me.

Janey grins, and heads towards her siblings’ chatter. Maybe taking a bite of cake won’t really change anything, but it’ll mean one more day where it doesn’t matter if her outfit is wrong, or if she can’t remember whether she’s supposed to like Jessie J or not. One more afternoon of sitting on the floor with her siblings and sharing out treats.

‘Hey guys,’ Janey knocks on Izzy’s bedroom door, ‘who wants cake?’

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