I sit in the café with my back to the cakes, which rotate endlessly in their round glass case. I pull my coat tightly around me and rub my hands on the plush seat of the booth for warmth. It’s soft yet crusty, like a three-day-old sponge cake when the icing’s just started to crack. Saliva burns in my mouth at the thought. I reach in my bag for the box of sugar-free jubes and rattle out a purple one. I can tell from the colour it’s meant to be blackcurrant. I sniff at it hopefully. Nothing. Nothing but the café’s syrupy smell of chocolate and coffee and caramel and cinnamon – a sea of sweetness you could drown in. I pop the synthetic jube in my mouth and gnaw at it.
The bell on the café door rings as it opens. I look up, and there she is. I swallow my jube with a gulp. This woman’s big. Huge. Enormous. No-one’s told her the rule about fat women not wearing stripes or she just doesn’t care, because she’s emblazoned with them. Wide rings of jaffa orange and musk-stick pink like a wobbly layered jelly from a 1950s children’s birthday party. I look away quickly as she manoeuvres her bulk up the aisle to a nearby table. She is so fat. Jelly Woman catches my glance and gazes back serenely. I develop a sudden interest in the raspberry-coloured swirls in the formica table top. Then I glance at her again. She smiles.
I look at my watch. The waitress, wearing a lot of lipstick and a bad attitude, strolls past again, determined not to see me.
“Excuse me,” I say. “Excuse me.”
The waitress stops, affronted. “You ’right?” she says.
“I’ll just have a cappuccino please.”
She moves to go.
“No, wait a minute, sorry.”
The waitress turns back huffily.
“Just a black coffee,” I say quickly. “And a glass of water, if that’s okay?”
“Splashing out today aren’t we?” she says, not quite under her breath, as she flounces off to the kitchen. I glance over at Jelly Woman and see that she’s heard. She raises her eyebrows, paws at the air like a cat, and miaows loudly. I smile, nod and return to my engrossing study of the table top.
I hear Jelly Woman rummaging in her bag. She puts on a pair of glasses, opens her menu and studies it, glancing up at the kitchen door every few seconds. As the waitress reappears, Jelly Woman clears her throat and begins to read aloud.
“Red velvet devil food cake,” she announces grandly. “Sell your soul, forfeit your figure, sacrifice your only child for this wicked temptation of glazed strawberries on a bed of crushed biscuit, sinfully glossed with dark chocolate and topped with a dollop of velvety cream.”
The waitress stares, open-mouthed. Jelly Woman summons her closer with a majestic wave. “Young lady, I shall sample one of your red velvet devil food cakes.” She raises her hand, as if expecting argument. “And I do not mean one slice. I mean a whole cake, uncut; perfect, like the sun, in its circular entirety.”
“What?” says the waitress.
“Never mind,” says Jelly Woman. “I see your menu is misleading and must thus withdraw my custom from this establishment.” She heaves herself to her feet. “I shall continue my quest for the elusive gateau elsewhere,” she declares. “Only the bravest may follow.” Then she sweeps toward me, pauses for a second as our eyes lock and sails out the door.
The surfies in the corner stare up from their milkshakes. The café is silent. I think for a few moments, then pick up my bag. “Cancel the coffee,” I call quickly to the shell shocked waitress before she has time to re-arm. Then I hurry outside.
The mall’s busy but I spot her at once, standing with her back to me near the phone booth, her unmistakable stripes brilliant in the summer sun. She moves off and I’m sure she’s heading for the chocolate shop opposite but no, she veers to the left, into the bookshop. I wind my way impatiently through a tribe of teenagers at the graphic novels, past the magazine racks and down the narrow aisles stacked with books. I bend down to peer through a gap in the shelves. Jelly Woman is surveying a display of cook books, picking up one after another and flipping through the pages. As I straighten up, the boy behind the sales counter eyes me suspiciously and I realise I’m skulking like a print-starved shoplifter. I try to look law-abiding by stepping back and scanning the books in front of me. I’ve stumbled into the self-help wilderness: title after title promising beauty, wealth, success and happiness. All from the comfort of your very own lounge room. I pick up a book whose cover features a leotard-clad stick insect with breast implants urging me to thin my thighs in 30 days.
“Hah!” booms Jelly Woman. I look up, startled. She’s holding aloft a cookbook, pointing to the title, and laughing. “Everywoman’s Guide to Fat-Free Dessert Cookery!” she guffaws, sharing the joke with her astounded fellow shoppers. “You can have your fat-free, or you can have your dessert,” she declares, setting the book back on the shelf. “Food, like life, is not an each-way bet,” she tells the sales boy, who’s cowering behind the counter.
I tear myself away from Miss Thin Thighs and follow Jelly Woman as she meanders out into the mall towards the shopping centre. At the entrance, a long-haired busker with an acoustic guitar yells that we’re wild things, we make his heart sing. Jelly Woman lumbers encouragingly from foot to foot for a few bars, her stripes quivering like a light show from the glory days of acid rock. She throws a few coins in the busker’s guitar case and then we’re heading up the escalator into the crowds and neon and muzak of the shopping centre. Jelly Woman turns left and this time I’m confident of our destination because unless she needs her watch repaired or she harbours a passion for computer cartridge supplies, there’s only the bakery.
“Greetings, Mr Lee,” calls Jelly Woman to the doll-sized Asian man standing behind the counter.
“Hello Frossie!” says the man, and I’m confused for a moment. Then I smile. Her name’s Flossie – “floss”, as in “candy”.
“Would you, perchance, have any red velvet devil food cake for me, this fine afternoon?”
“No devil’s cake today!” Mr Lee shoots back, beaming, and I can tell this is a set-piece they’ve staged a hundred times before, unlikely partners in the vaudeville of buy and sell.
“Never you mind, my friend,” says Flossie. “I shall have one of your superb blueberry muffins instead.” He hands her the muffin in a white paper bag, and then we’re heading for the exit and back onto the street. It’s crowded, so I keep my eyes fixed on Flossie’s stripes as she wanders past the bus stop.
And then my path’s blocked. Curses, curses. It’s Mrs Edwards, emerging from the drycleaner’s. I smile and move to step past her but she rounds me up and corners me against the big sign of a tuxedo-clad man staring delightedly at a bag of laundry.
“How are you, love?” she yaps. “I ran into your mum down the post office the other day and she tells me you’ve been in the hospital again.”
I say nothing. Mrs Edwards glares at me. “Your mum’s very worried,” she says accusingly.
“I’m better now,” I say, glancing away to check on Flossie. And she’s gone. I scan the crowd. I can’t see her.
Mrs Edwards has launched into a moral fable about the selfishness of children, somehow involving her chooks, a bicycle and the next-door neighbour.
I scan the crowd again. Nothing. I pull my coat around me, tugging at the collar. I feel hollow with cold and tiredness and disappointment. Mrs Edwards pauses for breath so I mutter that I hope the chooks are okay and escape toward the corner shops.
Outside the appliance store with its window display of taps and a toilet cistern I stop and try to settle my thoughts into a state of pre-Flossie equilibrium. I look at my reflection in the window. I look at my watch. It’s getting late, and I must get to the gym. I set off for the car park, past the bank, across the intersection. And there she is, leaving the grocery store a few doors down, carrying a new and maddeningly opaque blue plastic bag. I look at my watch again. I can spare a few more minutes and besides it looks as though Flossie’s also heading for the car park, abandoning me to the gym’s stationary bike and stair-climber to nowhere.
But no. She’s turned off early, and now I realise we’re going to the rest park, a handkerchief-sized patch of green in the centre of town owned by a flock of fast food-addicted seagulls. Flossie goes through the gate, disappearing behind an overgrown hedge. My heart pounds but I keep going and then she’s there, facing me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You must think I’m following you.”
“You are,” says Flossie. She smiles. “Let’s sit down.”
“Come on, I’m not a dragon.” She takes my hand and leads me to the nearest bench. We sit.
“Let’s feed the birds,” says Flossie. She rustles open the paper bag, takes out the muffin, breaks it and passes half towards me. I hesitate for a moment, then take it gingerly, trying not to look at the floury golden segment studded with blueberries. Flossie pops a small piece of muffin in her mouth.
“Just testing, my loves,” she reassures the delegation of seagulls already assembled at our feet. We crumble off pieces and throw them to the birds, and I see Flossie’s aiming hers at a one-legged outcast on the fringe of the group. He hops forward, pecks up a crumb and squawks in triumph.
“Aha!” cries Flossie, echoing him. “You’ve been in the wars, little fella, but you’re feisty!”
We brush the crumbs from our fingers. Then Flossie turns to me. “And now,” she says, “let’s feed you.” She pulls the blue plastic bag onto her lap. I stare at it and my mind’s whirring and my blood’s pumping because whatever it is – the red velvet devil food cake, a pot of caviar, or the Queen’s own cucumber sandwiches – one thing is certain. I can’t eat it.
Flossie reaches in the bag and lifts it out. An apple. Big, red, shiny. Like in a fairytale.
I shake my head. “I can’t,” I say, and my voice trembles. “I can’t.”
“I know,” she says gently. “I know you can’t. But you must.”
And that’s all it takes. I’m wiping at my tears with my coat sleeve, like a child. “I’m so cold,” I wail. “I’m so tired.”
“You’re so hungry,” she says. And I nod.
“Here, just hold it,” says Flossie, and she takes my hand and places the apple in it carefully and it’s a miracle how neatly its small, solid roundness fits in the cup of my palm.
“The forbidden fruit,” she says. “But who forbids it? And why?”
We look at the apple for a moment, silent. Then Flossie reaches in her bag for another.
“Let’s take the plunge together, shall we?” she says. “On a count of three.”
I lift the apple to my face, close my eyes and inhale.
“One,” says Flossie, “two … two and a half … three!” and we bite into our apples and the juicy crunchiness bursts in my mouth and nothing, nothing, has ever tasted so sweet. We linger in apple heaven for a while, just munching. Then I remember.
“The red velvet devil cake,” I say shyly. “Does it really exist?”
“Buggered if I know,” says Flossie, laughing. She dabs a bit of apple juice from her chin. “Maybe I saw a picture in my grandma’s recipe book, maybe I read about it in a novel. Maybe I even dreamed it.” She pauses, wiping her hands on the plastic bag. “It doesn’t stop me looking though,” she says. “Or demanding it from impudent waitresses.” We smile at each other.
I lean back on the bench. “I hope you find it one day,” I say.
“Thank you,” says Flossie, “but it really doesn’t matter. The quest is all,” she proclaims to the birds.
“The quest, and the places it takes you.”
About The Author: Katrina Samaras
Born and raised in Wollongong, NSW, Samaras has worked in public libraries for more than 30 years. She writes light verse to amuse family and friends, as well as the occasional short story. She would like to shed her perfectionism and do more.Samaras is fascinated with the age-old concept of the quest, especially the way we use them to help us navigate life. Her current quests include ballet, yoga and sourcing the world’s best neenish tart.