THE SURPRISE PRESENT
It was while he was
having his breakfast that the idea came to Fenton. Having been
retired for a fair number of years that he would rather not think
about, in order to give himself something to be entertained with,
he had mad ideas. This time he had a strange desire to create a
surprise present for the women in his life. After being widowed
he had had no feeling of getting married again but from out of
the blue he had met, and become involved with, Cerise, a widow.
They had met in the Marazul hotel when on an autumn holiday in
Spain. He had exited the lift to see a middle-aged female
wandering around as if in a trance. Ever the gentleman, Fenton
had gone up to her and inquired if there was anything
"Yes, there is. I don't seem to be able to locate my room," the lady told him.
"In this hotel the door numbers start from one onwards on every floor, let me help you find yours," Fenton said.
"Thank you," the woman replied.
Fenton and the unknown woman walked around till they found her door.
"I'm really very grateful, my name is Cerise," the woman told him.
"I'm Fenton, are you staying here long?"
"For two weeks. I arrived the day before yesterday. So I haven't had time to see much yet. Have you been here long?"
"Four days longer than you. If you're not doing anything this evening would you care to have dinner with me?" Fenton asked Cerise.
"Yes, I'd like that. It would be a welcome change from eating alone."
"I'll meet you downstairs in the vestibule at eight o'clock. Is that all right with you?"
"Yes, fine," Cerise replied.
She watched as the tall, thin man in his long, beige raincoat turned round and went into the lift. Cerise didn't know why she had accepted the invitation after such a disagreeable time. There was something warming about Fenton that made her feel it would be a good thing to get to know him more.
After five more dinner dates, Fenton knew he fancied Cerise as more of an accomplice than a sexual partner. They both had experience and neither of them had to be told what life with a partner was like, they had both been there. For the rest of the holiday they went swimming together and he hired a car and they got as far away as they could from the hotel and the other guests.
That had been three years ago and now Fenton and Cerise were living together, with his mother, Elda, who was happy to see her son with someone, instead of being on his own grieving. Elda was cast in an old fashioned mould and loved cooking and bossing everybody about who was under her roof. Cerise who was basically a happy person was thankful not to have to be alone any more. The three got on very well because they all knew what it was like to be left all alone in a house, full of the echoes of happier times.
Fenton knew it had to be a complete surprise, so it ruled out Christmas and birthdays. That wasn't so difficult, any day of the year would do, or would it? Cerise and his mother usually spent the mornings tidying up the house, which was quite large, therefore it was the best time for Fenton to go searching. Twice a week there was a market in the little town, situated in the old town square. The stalls were protected from the rain by awnings that also at the same time stopped the customers from getting wet. The market was full of the rarest types. The most colourful stall holders were those selling china and other household goods. Where they got their energy from was a puzzle to Fenton. The stalls he preferred were the old clocks and small so-called antiques, which were most likely to be someone's old junk. He knew that sooner or later he would chance upon something that would arouse his curiosity.
On his first visit
to the market after making his decision about the surprise
present, Fenton didn't find anything that fired his interest,
till the elderly lady who had an unusual stall of small things
called out to him, "Good morning, looking for something?"
"Hello, June, how are you? Doing good business?"
"I can't complain. What are you looking for?"
Fenton stood staring at the things displayed on a rickety table. There were tatty looking pieces of china that must have made up tea sets a long time ago, but with one or two pieces missing. There was a lot of bric-a-brac, Fenton was a delicate man and June let him handle things that for others heavier handed would have been forbidden. He worked his way from one piece to another. Then he saw a small chest that appeared promising. "Do you like it?" June asked him.
"Well, it's not so fantastic in shape or in colour. Is there a key?"
"There is, but it isn't easy to open, even with it. The lock must be rusty. I'll give you a discount if you want it," June said, eager to make a sale.
Fenton stood and made a half-hearted gaze at the rest of the goods on display, and then said to June, "I can't see anything else that will serve my purpose, so I'll take it. How much is it?"
"I suggest putting some strong oil on it to see if it can be opened. You know, that stuff you put on bicycles and stuff. I suppose you'll be back if the chest can't be opened."
"Where did you get it from?" Fenton asked her, but not expecting an honest answer.
"This came from an old customer of mine who was throwing things out and instead of giving it to a jumble sale thought it might be of use to me," June stared at Fenton's face. "I know the story sounds a bit thin but it's the truth. I've known her for years and if you need to find out anything more I can ring you and let you know when she'll be here the next time."
Fenton said, after listening to June's explanation, "I'll have the chest and see what I can do about the rusty key and lock. You don't need to tell your supplier about this, only say that you managed to sell it."
Fenton duly handed over his money and June wrapped up the chest in creased brown paper. A new customer arrived and wanted to ask June questions about certain articles on the table. Fenton moved off and opened a rucksack and put the chest inside. He spent the rest of the morning wandering around the market, and bought some fruit and vegetables, and a sticky cake for himself, secure in the knowledge that Cerise and Elda wouldn't touch it, saying that it was fattening.
Fenton got back home
and went straight into the kitchen and put away the fruit and
vegetables. Elda was cooking the lunch and Cerise was upstairs in
the bathroom having a shower. "Where've you been?" Elda asked
Fenton as she put some salmon under the grill to cook.
"I've been to the market as you can see by what I've brought back. I see we are having fish for lunch. What's with you and Cerise and fish?"
"It's very good for women, the fish oil is a help to hold off old age," Elda declared.
"Very well, if you say so. I hope you take into account I'm a man and not a woman when deciding on the meals in this house. I fancy a steak once in a while, even though you two might not."
Elda smiled at Fenton's words, she never listened to these small complaints from her one and only son. She was his mother and she knew best.
Cerise made her entrance into the kitchen and brought with her a smell of lilac body milk and shower gel, which didn't go with the smell of the food being cooked. Fenton wasn't all that keen on strong smelling women and had persuaded Cerise to tone down her toilet water and deodorants before coming to live with him and his mother. At first Fenton thought Cerise might be offended but then he reasoned that his nose was more offended by the artificial smells that form part of the day to day toilet of the majority of people. His mother had told him not to be so fussy and get on with the relationship and forget about his phobias. He understood that with Cerise he had the opportunity of being happy and accompanied, which was far and above what he had expected when he had met her.
"Where are you going after lunch?" Fenton asked, as the three of them sat down at the kitchen table.
"I'm going to visit Mrs. Black, she's having a few of us round to play cards and have tea and cakes this afternoon. I don't think I'll be too late home and anyway she's only up the road," Elda told them.
"And you?" Fenton turned to Cerise.
"I'm going to a sale of bedding and furnishing fabrics. The bedroom needs tarting up, I'm bored with the same old colours, OK?"
"Yes, of course. Do what you like," Fenton answered, thinking about the chest.
At two o'clock the house was empty and Fenton took out the chest from his rucksack. The exterior was very dirty and had once been brown, he supposed. The key was in a shocking state and he got out some old cloths and cleaning materials and began to work on the chest and the key. He rubbed and rubbed till he could see that the natural colour of the wood was lighter than he had first thought. The key was put in a rust removing liquid and after several attempts he held a clean metal key in his hands. The next thing he did was to put oil in the lock. Whatever was inside soaked up the oil. Fenton carefully put the key into the lock and turned it. There was a lot of resistance and then he heard the tumblers moving and then stopped. Careful, so as not to cause too much damage to the chest, Fenton oiled the two hinges at the back of the lid, which he slowly raised.
The interior of the chest was empty but smelled of a faint perfume he couldn't put a name to. Fenton lifted up the chest and shook it gently. He heard the sound of something loose. Putting it back onto the table, Fenton tapped the sides and the base of the chest. Then he took a torch and investigated the interior and realized that the base was just resting. With a slim-bladed knife he lifted out the base and saw there was a piece of paper under it. The paper was old and the writing faded but it was still possible to read what was written on it. The light from the torch lit up the writing and Fenton saw that it was a recipe with a picture, for a cake that he had never heard of, and that it had to be of some middle-eastern origin. Leaving everything on the table, Fenton got up and put on the kettle. He would wrap the chest up and leave everything as it had been before he had opened it.
Elda and Cerise
arrived home at more or less the same time there was nothing left
of the chest and its contents on the table. Fenton was eating
crumpets and drinking tea when they got in.
"Had a nice afternoon, dear?" Elda asked.
"Yes, Mother, very nice, and you with cards and cakes. Did you win any games?"
"I never do, it's Greta who always wins. I reckon she's got x-ray eyes."
Cerise asked him, "What have you been doing? There's a smell of oil in here, don't tell me you brought your bike in here to mend."
"No, of course I didn't. What do you take me for?"
"I can smell oil too," Elda added. "You've been up to something. I know."
Fenton got up and went to the hall where he had hidden the surprise present in a drawer. He picked it up and went back to the kitchen with the well-wrapped gift in his hands.
"Here's what I've been doing all afternoon. I wasn't sure who I would give this to, so it has to be a toss up or for the two of you. Who's going to open it."
Elda and Cerise exchanged a long silent glance, then Cerise stepped forward. "I'll open it."
Cerise saw the chest and showed Elda the gift, "What's this for? It's nobody's birthday nor is it Christmas."
"It's a surprise present, but if you don't like it, I'll return it to the lady who sold it to me."
"Who said we didn't like it?" Elda said.
"Let's take a good look at it," said Cerise, who began examining the interior. "The bottom is loose. Is this thing broken?"
"No, it isn't. Just shake it a bit and you'll see something fall out."
"Diamonds?" asked Elda, staring at the chest.
"No, Mother. Cerise, why don't you remove the base."
Cerise removed it and found the piece of paper with the drawing of a cake and the instructions.
"Well, this is a surprise. How are we to understand the instructions when they are in a strange language," Elda said.
Just then the doorbell rang. Fenton opened the front door. It was his mother's friend, Mrs Black. "Sorry to bother you, but Elda left this round my house this afternoon." Mrs Black handed a brightly coloured shawl to Fenton.
"Please, come into the kitchen." Fenton showed Mrs Black into the kitchen.
Cerise and Elda smiled at Mrs Black as she entered the kitchen. "Fenton's got the shawl you left behind after our little do this afternoon." The kind lady glanced at Elda and then caught sight of the object on the table. "Where did you get that chest from?" Mrs Black's eyes were wide open.
"I bought it this morning from a lady called June who has a stall in the market," Fenton offered.
"That chest was sold to her by me last week. She didn't give me much for it. I don't want it back. I've seen too much of it in my life for it to hold any interest for me now. What's that?" Mrs Black pointed to the piece of paper on the table top.
"It like a recipe but it's written in a foreign language," Elda said.
Mrs Black picked up the paper and stared and stared at it, "My mother was always looking for this recipe. When she came to this country after marrying my father she used to make this cake - at least I think it was this one."
"Why would she have hidden the recipe in this chest?" asked Fenton.
"So that she, and no one else, could make it. I remember her telling me that she was sad because she had lost it. She used to make it from memory and said there was some ingredient or other missing."
"Do you understand the language it's written in?" asked Elda.
"Written, no. But I'll go to the university and ask there for someone to translate it for me, and then I'll make it for the group and, of course you, Fenton and Cerise, will both be invited to sample the cake, too," Mrs Black told them.
It took Mrs Black a
couple of weeks to get the recipe translated and buy the
ingredients for the cake before she was able to invite Elda,
Fenton and Cerise round to her house. The trio were anxious to
find out what the surprise in the chest had been about. There
were; Mrs Black's children and grandchildren present, and the
card-playing group, when Elda, Fenton and Cerise entered. They
had all heard the story and were eager to try the famous cake
Tea was poured and Mrs Black brought out a splendid looking cake on a cut glass stand. Everyone gasped at the sight of such a lovely thing. The cake was cut and served, "Fenton, as you were the one who found the chest and therefore the recipe, you have to be the first to taste it," declared Mrs Black.
Fenton put a piece of the cake into his mouth, then spat it out, "I'm sorry, Mrs Black, but it's inedible. Are you sure you followed the instructions?"
The others tried it too, with the same result.
Mrs Black was the
last to put a piece into her mouth.
"Now I know why my father must have been the one to have hidden the recipe in the chest - so that my mother could never make it again!"