Life Cakes

Sea Biscuits, 1906

Great-grandfather Joachim came on the boat. Though he wasn’t a great-grandfather then, just a young man in a long, dark coat. Each morning of the voyage he stood on the foredeck and searched the horizon for his future. Each evening he stood at the stern, saying farewell to his past. In his pocket were five round biscuits, wrapped in a piece of paper on which the words ‘flour, honey, ginger, cloves’ had been written in his mother Annalise’s neat hand. Joachim ate the biscuits one by one, then scattered the crumbs over the grey Northern sea. When he was finished, he crumpled the paper and thrust it deep into the pocket of his coat. He never did see his mother again.

Cinnamon Buns, 1941

Anna squatted under her father’s kitchen table, back from a hard day of bi-lingual encryption codes. Next to her she had a thick book, a torch, a flask of tea and a plate of biscuits – her own little German secret hidden amongst the paraphernalia of a typical English home. It had taken Anna months to save everything up: flour ration, butter ration, sugar ration, cloves. She substituted a sprinkling of cinnamon for ginger because it was all she could get, and told her colleagues she was making buns. In the skies above, Anna’s cousin Stefan squatted in the belly of his aircraft as it headed north across the Channel. He recited what English he knew, just in case. ‘Hello. How are you? Sorry.’ Down below people went about their normal business. It would be Christmas soon.

Gingerbread Hearts, 1976

‘This coat is like a hundred years old, man,’ said Lisa, huddled in the corner of the kitchen as her mother pressed star-shapes out of rolled brown dough. Lisa’s mother made spicy gingerbread stars for Christmas every year. They were famous at the local WI Bring and Buy. Everyone asked for the recipe.

‘Sorry,’ said Lisa’s mother, ‘it’s a family secret.’

She had instructed Lisa, though: plain flour, butter, dark brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon, plenty of ginger and a silky, white glaze to match the decorative shape.

Lisa was bored of making gingerbread stars. ‘Why do they always have to be that shape?’ she grumbled.

‘Because,’ said her mother.

Lisa wrapped the long, dark coat around her legs and fiddled with a piece of paper she had found in one of the pockets. ‘When I grow up,’ she said, ‘I’ll make them in the shape of hearts.’

Baby Cakes, 2011

They flew to Germany on Easyjet from Luton. It only took a couple of hours. Stephen held baby Joe all the way while his wife listened to her iPod. Between them was a Tupperware box full of little white lebkuchen – heart-shaped, star-shaped and round.

‘A bit like taking coals to Newcastle isn’t it?’ his wife had said while Stephen baked up a storm.

‘I suppose,’ Stephen replied. ‘But Mum insisted.’

The plane began to descend and Joe started to fret. Stephen leant over his son’s head and murmured to him, ‘Flour, honey, ginger, cloves.’

Then he began a new story, one he had been preparing ever since they first planned this special Christmas trip. ‘Great-grandfather Joachim came on the boat…’


Mary Paulson-Ellis used the following object and 26 words as inspiration:

Little white lebkuchen – sweet treats with unmistakeable Christmas spice. Dad said you couldn’t crack that hard frosting, so we all thumped our cakes. Competitive performance pudding with the family.

© Mary Paulson-Ellis, 2013