The Undertaker’s Cupcakes
Death was the heart of the town. He’d felt that often. From work, he could see Cedar Court care home in one direction and the church graveyard in the other. He was the centre of it. The funeral directors auspiciously situated between them. In fact, Holton and Son Funeral Services even outdated the church. Death had sprung up around them.
It had always been a family business. Arthur Holton had been apprentice to his father, who had been apprentice to his. It went back five generations. Arthur, though, had been determined to give his son a choice. His father hadn’t done that for him. Arthur’s apprenticeship had begun at fifteen. Nothing else had been discussed. So he asked Matthew, did he want to stay at school? Was there anything else that interested him? Had he considered college? But Matthew hadn’t wanted to discuss other options. In fact, he seemed insulted by his father’s questions.
‘Don’t you want to work with me?’ he’d asked.
‘I just want you to be sure that it’s what you want.’ Arthur had told him.
Matthew had been offended by that too. ‘It’s clearly not what you want. You don’t think I can do it, is that it?’
Arthur backed down. In truth, he did wonder how easy Matthew might be to work with. He was often so distant. He didn’t seem interested in very much, he didn’t have any close friends. Arthur found himself worrying over how well his son might cope with the living.
The undertaker wondered sometimes what else he might have been, had he had options. Something to do with food, he was sure of it. He loved to bake. It was his favourite part of the job. Perhaps he’d have been a chef. There was a certain irony in it, a job that made people happy. He imagined the two professions were polar opposites, one dressed all in black with a black top hat and the other, it’s negative image, head to toe in brilliant white topped with the tall white chef’s hat. He could picture himself in white, smiling, beaming even. As a funeral director, he so often had to wear a sombre face.
Matthew came to work not long after his sixteenth birthday. He didn’t seem happy, exactly, but there was a certain contentment about him, as though he was where he was supposed to be. He’d even put on the black suit and wore it with a certain amount of pride. The undertaker was pleased for him. It was no kind of life always wishing you were somewhere else, doing something else.
Matthew’s first day would be the same as Arthur’s had been. Day one was all about the recipe. Matthew didn’t understand at first, in fact he seemed a little annoyed to be guided into the kitchen.
‘I’m not just going to be making the coffee,’ he’d said to his father. It wasn’t a question.
The undertaker smiled patiently. ‘This is the first thing my father taught me and his father before him. We’re a local business and public relations are vital to keeping us going.’
Matthew was frowning at him. Arthur wondered had he pictured bodies and burials for his first day. There would be plenty of time for that. But the recipe came first.
‘Trust me. You need to know this,’ he said and Matthew, very reluctantly, resigned himself to a morning in the kitchen.
The undertaker attempted to teach his son his most basic cupcake recipe. Arthur liked to experiment in the kitchen. Perhaps one day Matthew would too but right now he couldn’t imagine it. Matthew watched and listened with little interest as Arthur talked him through the recipe as he worked. He explained why he used butter and not margarine (‘it’s got a lot of water in it, you know’), he broke the eggs and sieved the flour (‘makes them nice and light’). The flour sent a cloud into the air around them and Matthew coughed in annoyance. Arthur felt his heart sink a little. He especially liked that bit, the flour fog made him feel like a wizard working on some mysterious potion. He persisted though and chatted as he added sugar and vanilla extract to the mixture. And then he insisted that Matthew help stir. He tried to ignore the sighs and how heavy handed he was, suspecting it was deliberate, as if to say ‘I’m not suited to this, this is stupid.’
‘This is an important part of the job.’ Arthur kept saying, which was either ignored or replied to with a stroppy harrumph. Arthur tried to get Matthew to stand and watch the cupcakes rise through the oven’s glass door. He wanted Matthew to see the magic in it, the delight in watching a thing come to life while breathing in that delicious, homely scent. Matthew groaned though. It wasn’t bodies and dirt.
While the cakes cooled Arthur showed his son how to mix the icing. Adding the water gradually until he got the right consistency. ‘What colour do you like?’ The undertaker asked as cheerily as he could in the face of persistent apathy.
‘Don’t care.’ Matthew said.
‘Come on. I’ve got yellow, pink, blue…’
‘Black.’ Matthew said.
‘We’ll go for blue.’
He showed him how to mix it in so that you got a nice even colour. ‘Try to pay attention,’ Arthur said. ‘You need to know this.’
The undertaker set one cake aside and iced the rest. Matthew watched indifferently.
Arthur carried on until there was only enough icing left for one cake. ‘Pay attention Matthew’ he said and he reached behind the tiny bottles, containing food colouring and flavourings for a little bottle with no label. Matthew stood a little straighter as though he sensed the danger.
‘Did you know that when this business began, arsenic was used as an embalming fluid.’ Arthur told his son as he held the bottle up for him to see. ‘Something of a Holton tradition grew up around it.’
Matthew gaped at the bottle, a look of fascinated awe in his eyes.
His sudden interest startled his father ‘It probably seems a little old fashioned these days but honestly, it’s still the best. Frankly, it’s the perfect poison, odourless and tasteless. The cause of death will be heart or respiratory failure. That doesn’t look suspicious in an old person so it doesn’t warrant thorough investigation.’
Matthew had managed to shut his mouth and was looking alert and interested, as though someone had turned a light on.
‘I always use the same supplier. Trust in these matters is of the upmost importance. I’ll tell you about him later.’ Arthur continued.
He added a good splash to the icing mix ‘You can be generous with it, a bit more icing sugar to thicken it back up’ he said and was surprised when Matthew actually handed the bag to him, suddenly keen to be helpful. ‘It’s a bit paler then the others now, maybe a drop more colouring but it’s as well if it’s a little different, easier to keep track when it’s with the others.’
Matthew actually chuckled ‘Why didn’t you tell me there was a point to all this?’
The undertaker looked at his son sternly. ‘It’s important to only do the one cake, any more is suspicious. Are you taking this in Matthew? The games up the moment we arouse any suspicion.’
Matthew nodded eagerly. ‘Can I do this one Dad?’
Arthur was surprised but pleased to hand over the bowl and watch while his son iced the last cupcake. He was careful and neat as he did it and Arthur thought that perhaps his son would make a good embalmer. He’d get his first crack at it soon enough.
‘The old ones, and it must be an old one,’ Arthur emphasised, ‘will often only lick the icing. People digress as they age, they’re like children when they’re old. Some of them don’t even have teeth. That’s why we put it in the icing. Got that?’
‘Got it,’ Matthew said.
‘Good. You’ll take them over to Cedar Court.’ He indicated in the direction of the care home. ‘But don’t just drop them off. You’ll have to insist that you want to give them out. Say something like you enjoy making them happy.’ The apprentice was nodding eagerly but the undertaker felt a little flutter of regret. He really did enjoy making them happy. ‘That way you can make sure the special cake goes to one of the old ones, not one of the nurses or a visitor.’
‘Does that really matter?’ Matthew asked.
‘The autopsy is likely to be more thorough on a young one.’
‘Of course,’ said Matthew, genuinely interested.
‘Now Matthew, we can’t do this too often. It’s a little trick to help the business along when the work’s slow. You might find it fun but don’t overindulge.’
Matthew nodded that he understood. He was staring at the cupcake intently ‘There’s something missing,’ he said at last.
His father raised an eyebrow and looked at the cupcakes. ‘Sprinkles?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, sprinkles would be good,’ Matthew said. Arthur had some on the shelf. He got the jar down and passed them to his son. He watched as Matthew added them to the cakes and apologised for making a mess.
‘You’re supposed to make a mess in the kitchen, that’s half the fun,’ Arthur said.
The Undertaker marvelled at how good it was to see his son animated. Interested in something. ‘I’ve got lots of other recipes,’ he said carefully. ‘Other…tricks,’ he said, thinking the word might ignite Matthew’s interest more. ‘I can teach you?’
‘Yes, thanks Dad. That would be great.’ He gave his father a warm smile ‘I think I’m going to like working here.’
by Jess Doyle