"You look happy this morning," Mrs Giles sounds surprised. I can't say I blame her. I have been a bit morose of late. Winter never agrees with me and this one has been worse than most. It's exceeded it's sell by date by at least three months. In March I froze, in April I turned the heating up, by May I was still shivering. It's not made me very sociable, I have to admit.But that's all changed today. Today the sun is shining. Today I feel warm for the first time in months. Today my bones don't ache, my knees aren't sore. And today "My Ginny's coming home." I tell my neighbour, "She'll be back in time for tea."
"No wonder you're looking so pleased with yourself," she replies. "It's been a while since she's been back hasn't it?"
She's right, it has been a while - that useful catch-phrase which round here means anything from a month to a decade. Four years in Ginny's case. Four years in which my only contact with my only child has been the odd postcard or phone call. She often tells me off for not having a computer: it would be so much easier to be in touch if I had email or Facebook, she says. I want to reply that if she'd only move closer, we wouldn't need computers to keep in touch, but I never do. Instead I nod as if she could see me, and promise I'll look at the catalogue she sent me in the post. We both know I won't, but preserving the fiction we understand one another is important . It helps us avoid dealing with the questions I never want to ask: Why has she been away so long? Is she ever coming home?
Today at least, the second is answered. "She'll be home by 4," I say, "I'm going to make a Victoria Sponge."
"How lovely. I hope you have a nice visit."
I will, I know I will, as I head to the village shop where I purchase the necessary ingredients. It doesn't seem so long ago that we used to take this path together. I used to love the feel of her tiny hand in mine, the way she bounced with excitement at the thought of an afternoon spent baking. In the old days we'd race back to the house anxious to get started, so we'd have the cake in time for tea. Just the two of us, the perfect pairing. Today, I move at a more sedate pace, enjoying the surprise of the sun on my back, the smell of mown grass signalling the possibility of summer.
In the kitchen, I unpack the shopping, take out a plastic bowl, put on the pinny she bought me one Mother's Day years ago. Chief Cook and Bottlewasher it says, though the blue writing has faded over the years and after all this time without her, I no longer feel I own the title. Still, I won't let myself think about that, as I cream the butter and sugar together. In a couple of hours, she'll be here sipping tea, eating warm sponge cake, just like she used to when she was a child.
I'm humming as I break the eggs in a bowl, Tea for Two, and Two for Tea. We always used to love singing that song as we worked, and this was always her favourite part. The tapping of the egg on the side of the dish, the crack as it broke open, the yellow yoke plummeting into the centre of the bow. Finally the joy of pouring it over the butter and sugar, watching it liquefy into a gooey mess. I smile at the memory, stirring the flour in. Soon I have two tins ready for the oven.
Ginny would always beg me to lick the bowl afterwards. I can still see her sitting on the step, wooden spoon in hand, cake mix round her lips, grinning from ear to ear. I think about keeping the bowl out for old time's sake, but it would make the kitchen messy. Besides, she's probably too grand for such childhood nonsense now. I take the bowl, rinse it under the tap, tidy up the kitchen and put my feet up until the cakes are ready.
At a quarter to four I take the tins out of the oven. They have risen beautifully. I smear jam on the inside of each cake. The sponge has the perfect consistency, springy, crumbly, it will melt on the tongue. The perfect cake, for the perfect tea with the daughter who has been missing too long. I try not to get too carried away as I put the kettle on and warm the pot. But it's difficult. It's been so long since I've seen her. I can't help wondering what she'll be wearing, whether she's changed her hairstyle, what we'll talk about. The kettle bubbles away feeding my excitement. She'll be here soon.
At four o'clock I listen out for sounds of the car approaching. But the road brings no-one, and all I can hear are the swallows chirping as they swoop overhead. I put the kettle on again. Warm the pot again. I want the tea to be ready as soon as she gets here.
At quarter past four. I touch the top of the cake. It is still warm. Though I suppose it won't really matter if it's cold when she comes. So long as she does come. The kettle has re-boiled four times now. I'd better not boil it again. It's such a waste of electricity.
At half past, I step out onto the lane to see if I can catch sight of her. After I've watched a blue Citroen, a black Ford, and a red Micra go past without stopping, it strikes me that this is pointless: I don't even know what car she drives. The sun has gone in, and I am beginning feeling cold. I return to the house. The cake is cold.
It is nearly five o'clock. I put the sponge in the fridge. Ginny hasn't said she'd be staying for dinner, but she's so late now, she'll need feeding won't she? I'll cook something special and we can have the cake for pudding. I root through the freezer and come across two steaks. Lovely. I'd never have these normally.
Just as I am placing them on a plate, the phone rings.
"Ginny, where are you?"
"Look, I'm sorry, but I won't be able to make it today after all. The conference ran over and I have to get back to town."
"There was no signal at the venue, so I haven't been able to call till now."
"You didn't put yourself out did you?"
"No of course not."
"I'll check my diary, find a better time."
"I'll look forward to it." But she has hung up, driving off to her mysterious life in the city, that has no place for me.
I return to the kitchen. I look at the steaks. It's not worth cooking them just for me. I put them back in the freezer. They can wait for that better time, when her diary is clearer and her conference won't over-run. Tonight, as usual, I will prepare supper for one. Omelette, I think. It's easy and I am tired after the days exertions. And perhaps, afterwards, if I can stomach it, I might help myself to a slice of cake.