The secrets of the universe

Category C: Highly Commended (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition

Author:  Tania Conway

Title: The secrets of the universe


She made sure to start every sentence with, “Remember when we..….”, yet somehow Jean knew the lights were flashing but the train just wasn’t coming.  

“It was a good story, “thought Martha staring back at her, but why was this strange woman telling it to her? 

Jean tried to find interesting moments in all this, rather than get upset and she did find something fascinating.  When Martha was reminded of what she had said or felt during an event of days gone by, and did on the very odd occasion relate, she could see Martha look thoughtful for a minute, check in with today’s self to see if she would still agree with those feelings now in the present. And she did. Those days were so rare. 

“Yes, that’s right,” Martha would sometimes affirm, and she seemed to find some kind of solace in that for a moment, as if the link to her former self was not totally severed after all. The cogs turned and sparked a moment of recognition and then they were gone again. Gone, like a lost radio connection but there are no knobs or dials to twizzle to try and get her sister back. Her dear one is lost in the fog and cruelty of this disease and she felt hopeless in the mist as she tried to be her lighthouse. 

Jean didn’t want to let the sadness of her last visit to fall into the cake she was baking for Martha, so she turned her thoughts away. It was Martha’s birthday tomorrow and she decided to do something special and make her one of their childhood favourites. Mum’s famous mandarin and blueberry cake. For their annual birthday tradition years ago, Poppa would put little Jeanetta on his shoulders to pick the highest and juiciest mandarins from the top of the tree in their garden while Martha picked all the ones she could reach herself. She had always been the strong, independent one. 

They would gather them up in the basket their nonna had given them and take them in ready to bake. The girls plopped the mandarins into the boiling water and waited like little sentries until the orange baubles were soft enough to turn into puree and swirl into the almond batter. Then they guarded the oven it went into like it contained the secrets of the universe. And it did. The secret to bliss, love, connection, tradition and history. It was their grandmother, nonna Sofia’s  recipe and her  grandmother, nonna Rina, had given it to her to make for their mother when she was a little girl. Now it was theirs. 

Martha and Jean had known this was a very old and special recipe they were taking part in. They were not allowed to touch the ancient-looking, faded brown collection of pages where it had come from, but their mother had taken the bundle down from the attic once just to show them.  They were tied up with string and so  fragile that the girls  were afraid  they would fall apart  but their mother told them not to worry. All the special recipes were now in her head and she would teach every one of them to the two sisters. Over the years and through many family gatherings, she did just that and the magic was now theirs. 

Jean smiled at the memory as she poured the mixture into the greased cake tin, sprinkled fresh blueberries all over and watched them sink into the batter just as they had done many times before. She thought of all the people in her family who would have seen this over many decades and the thought made her happy. 

“Food is love. Love is connection,” her mother used to say whenever she taught them a new recipe and Jean had known in her heart that it was true. 

They would help nonna set out the starched white table clothes on the trestle tables underneath the big, shady canopy of grapevines lovingly trained over the old trellis. They would lay out  the cutlery, glasses, pitchers of wine and cordials ready for the feast that was to come at their grandparent’s house. So much noise.  So much laughter. So much love and Jean missed it terribly but most of all she missed her sister that she had shared it all with. Her partner in crime. Her best friend. 

“How could all this be lost?” wondered  Jean as her thoughts strayed back to her dear sister. 

“Where do all the memories go?” she asked out loud to the kitchen quite suddenly. 

But the kitchen didn’t answer. It just stood there, almost empty except for one thing. The one thing she needed. 

The warmth of the oven and the aroma wafting out into the air was again taking her back to her childhood, back to happier times, to the many birthday cakes they shared, back to her original Martha and that is all that can be done at this moment. 

Moments. Life is made up of moments and these are the gifts of that life. We never fully lose them, she thought to herself. They are infused in us. 

“Bless you Kitchen,” she said as she realised what the fragrant oven had reminded her. 

Suddenly aware she was talking to herself and a vacant tiled room, she shook herself back to the task at hand. She had daydreamed so long that the cake was nearly ready to come out. She silently thanked all those women that had passed this recipe down to her and that she had some small piece of them with her always. She would never truly be alone as long as she had this to link them. 

Jean grabbed her favourite quilted mitts, opened the oven to get her prize out then she sat it carefully on the wooden board ready to turn out onto the wire rack to cool. She watched as the last centimetre of the cake eased smoothly  out of the round tin and sat beautifully on the rack, all golden and bursting with blueberries. Beaming to herself that it was  looking just as perfect as it always did, she cleared away all the ingredients back into the pantry, washed the dishes,  stored the cake away and went to bed satisfied. She never understood why, but Jean noticed that always slept more soundly on those days she baked from her mother’s special recipes. 

Jean woke bright and early the next morning with the sun streaming in through the gap in the curtains but still reluctant to get out of bed. Instead, she lay under the covers, doona pulled up tight under her chin, refusing to budge. She knew this feeling. She knew exactly what this was. She knew that guilt would eventually win over and that this  guilt would  morph into shame the longer she lay there. Ashamed that she was dreading the visit to her sister’s care unit and to have to once again put on another Oscar winning performance like she always did. It was no act that she cares, for she loved Martha more than anyone else on the planet but the happy face she had to put on for her, the staff and herself when faced with a blank, expressionless stranger dressed as her sister was exhausting. Visit after visit, it was always the same. She always tried hard to keep the conversation going but stony silence was often all that was returned after each comment, shredding every attempt poor Jean made and still she kept on trying. 

Jean regaled the beautiful woman in the  handmade day coat with every piece of family news she could find. From cousin’s weddings, new births in the family, hideous school reunions and old town gossip, she tried everything to raise a smile but it was always to no avail. Sometimes, they would just sit in complete silence and hold hands until visiting hours were over and it was hard to watch her sister look relieved that the uncomfortable encounter had come to an end as if she was the one that had been labouring to entertain this stranger that had come in.  Jean never ever begrudged the time she took out of her day to visit, only that her efforts to find a road back to the sister she once knew had always been in vain and she felt like such a failure. 

She let out a final sigh of resignation, gave in to the inevitable and swung her legs out from under the covers, slid out of bed ready to make her way to a warm shower and breakfast. As she made her espresso from her pride and joy espresso machine though, she struck upon a good idea. Jean got out her flask from her picnic kit, filled it with boiling hot water, emptied it and then poured a few espresso shots into the newly warmed vessel. 

“Coffee and cake today, my love,” she said as she packed the mandarin cake, plates, cutlery and serviettes up ready and headed out for her visit. 

Jean had stopped by the florist on the way so her arrival at Martha’s room was as bright and cheerful as it could possibly be. She intended to make a grand entrance with the massive bouquet for a reason. She had hoped it would  prompt Martha’s memory that today was their special day that they had shared all their lives. They were both born on this day only minutes apart. A bond she once thought could never be broken.

“Happy Birthday,” Sis, Jean said, hoping to jog Martha’s memory with that little hint thrown in. 

The sight of the big bunch of colourful flowers did not quite have the desired effect of raising a nice smile from Martha, so Jean tried to up the excitement by showing the cake she had made as well. 

“I bet you know what this is!” exclaimed Jean as she unveiled the dish. 

A faint flicker of something passed over Martha’s face. 

Jean, cut a big slice for them both, plopped a dollop of double cream on top, poured the coffee and placed one of each on her sister’s expectant tray.  As they both tucked in, Jean looked  out the window as her attention had been taken by the lovely family visit that was happening  just outside in the communal garden. They seemed to be having a nice time and she was happy for them. She was still gazing lazily out the window and about to take another bite of cake when she suddenly heard it.  

“Mmm. “

Jean looked up, fork suspended in mid-air, hoping that sound would turn out to be what she thought it was. 

A few seconds past with breath held.

“Mmmmm,” came the sound again, this time even longer.

“Our favourite nonna recipe!”

Jean breathed out. 

“Food is love. Love is Connection, “ said Martha smiling. 

And suddenly there she was. Fully.

“Hi Darling,” said Jean eagerly.  “Happy Birthday!”

“Happy birthday Jeanie bean,” said Martha shining.

They clinked coffee cups and, in that moment, Jean realised her grandmother’s oven was no ordinary oven. It really did contain the secrets to the universe for her. The love, passion  and care that always went into it, somehow transformed the contents into something even more magnificent. It was a portal. A portal that created a connection that could at least for a moment, bring her family back. 

“Next week, I’m bringing the cannoli,” Jean promised. 

“I’ll be there,” said Martha. 






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Last updated: 02 September 2021