by Stephanie Hutton
You can’t have a baby if you live in foster care. They take it away and give it to a couple with two cars who knows how to cuddle without crying.
Baby’s daddy needs to drink to survive. And I might just be crazy when I cut my thighs in secret. So what’s that curled up prawn in my tummy going to grow into? But this baby is going to be sweetened. Nan used to leave chicken in a bowl overnight with the hot breath of garlic and chilli. Little star-shaped somethings made it taste of aniseed balls. Sweating under foil, the chicken sucked it all up and changed. I’m going to stew this baby in goodness. Then it won’t turn out like me. Or him. Just itself.
There’s no money for shopping, but I’m good at making do. The foster carer’s cupboards are rammed. She doesn’t like to throw things out. Good job really, else I would have been chucked out last year after that time with the vodka and the vomit. She has a whirly spice rack and a row of fresh herbs above the sink. I rub my fingers on furry leaves and sniff. This baby needs enough spice to protect itself, sweetness to be loved, and the kind of flavour that sticks around so it’s never forgotten.
I start to prepare the meal. I find floppy forgotten carrots in the cupboard. This child will see well in the dark, will spot any strangers who lose their way to the toilet and end up by the mattress on the floor. I drop them into a sturdy pan. Lifting each spice jar lid in turn, I pause at the hot smell of cayenne pepper. Cayenne – it sounds like a girl’s name. She will need the fire to say no when grabbing hands squeeze her like play-doh. His invading tongue will burn and his hot eyes will scream out. He will not touch her again.
I leave the birds eye chillies in their packet. Too spicy and she will end up kicked out of school. My baby girl will cut with her words – no knife needed. I open my foster brother’s tinned spaghetti in the shape of all the letters in the alphabet. She will swirl them into streams of sentences that get her heard. Teachers and social workers won’t walk away as she will have a voice as clear as a fruit seller.
Little frozen pellets of spinach like icy grass have the hidden strength of iron. When the tough times come, my girl will not slice her sweet skin, but roll up her sleeves to work harder. She will trust what she thinks, not the whispers of false friends. I swirl the mixture together and switch the flame on underneath the pan.
Next is dessert. This girl will be so sweet that no one will abandon her. She won’t get handed from aunty to neighbour to strangers that get paid to care. I make a line of all the sweet things I can find. Honey, chocolate spread, tinned custard and cream. Her smiles will be made of sugar and strawberries, not the sweetener grin of a girl whose mouth has turned bitter.
I layer the ingredients. My fingers tap the bottle of vanilla essence. Life would be easier for her if she were a little paler than me, not so in-between. But this strong, sweet girl will not need to hide her ingredients. I leave the vanilla and lay a spoon to rest in the pudding.
Finally, I cut a lemon in two. My real sister and me – back when we lived together – used to dare each other to lick the bitter flesh of mum’s discarded lemons from her gin. I scrape my long nails against the bumpy peel and drop some into the pudding dish. This girl will have a zest for life. She will never give up. She would never give up her baby. I touch my hair, my face, my bump. I feel her body swirl and press against my hand. I press back and chew.
“The Right Ingredients” won the Bibliophone 1000 Words Heard Competition 2016. As a prize, it was audio-recorded and can be heard on Bibliophile website below.