Fourteen Minutes of Nothing | Short Story

Baking

Beat the butter and sugar until creamy, then add the eggs.

Sadhbh stared at her butter-sugar mixture. Was it creamy? She didn’t bake much, never had. Mam had always baked her birthday cakes growing up, and as an adult she just bought one from the shop. No matter how old she got, a caterpillar cake was the height of indulgence in her mind. Undeterred, she cracked an egg and dropped it in, fishing out the small pieces of shell that had gone rogue.

In the background, the song ended and the jingle for the midday news began to play. Sadhbh felt her stomach drop and ran to her phone, getting egg all over the screen as she tried to close her radio app.

“Fourteen more dead and two hundred and three more infected-“ Silence. She should have been more on top of it, Sadhbh thought to herself. She had known it was nearly twelve o’ clock, she should have just listened to Spotify. It didn’t matter though, she’d heard it. It had only been a second or two, but it was all she needed. Fourteen more dead, two hundred and three more infected.

Auntie Paula had always said that when everything turns to shit, celebrate the little things. If your life is falling apart but it’s International Doughnut Day, focus on the doughnuts. Paula had battled cancer for two years before she died, hosting a lot of strangely themed parties in that time. The balloon-themed party for National Static Electricity Day had been a particularly fun evening.

Sadhbh leaned against the wall, resisting the urge to slide down and sit on the floor. Stay focused, she thought. Make your cake, you don’t want the batter sitting out in the open. She walked back to the counter and cracked another egg, silently begging herself not to think.

Combine the eggs until smooth.

The mixture swirled around the spoon as she beat it, once again wondering how she would know when it had reached the right consistency. A small drop of water fell in the bowl, and Sadhbh realised she was crying.

“Jesus Christ, get a grip,” she muttered to herself, wiping her eyes. If anyone else had been around she’d have thrown the batter in the bin and re-started, but she didn’t mind if the cake was contaminated. One tear wouldn’t kill her. Most of it would probably go in the bin anyway, there was no way she could eat an entire cake by herself. She’d been alone for almost a month now; her housemates had all moved back to their family homes. She didn’t have that luxury, unfortunately. She was a brave soldier on the front line, stocking supermarket shelves and making sure helpless citizens had the supplies they needed. She understood the bread and toilet paper, but it felt weird restocking things like salted caramel ice cream. To be fair though, she was sure comfort eating was helping a lot of people at the moment. She herself had cried into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s just a few nights previously.

Sieve in the flour and baking powder.

Sadhbh opened the cupboard to find baking soda, but no baking powder. She had no idea what the difference was, so threw it in with the flour. Probably better than nothing. As she sieved, she couldn’t help but think about those people. The friends and family of the fourteen, who hadn’t been able to say goodbye to their loved ones. The two hundred and three, who were desperately trying to remember who they’d been in contact with, who they needed to warn. And of course, the fourteen who had died; alone, scared, and in so much pain. She looked down at her hands and realised she was shaking an empty sieve, a perfectly formed pyramid of flour already sitting in the bowl.

Mix until smooth.

Sadhbh had to assume that experienced bakers just knew the right consistency when they met it. There was no way people were writing recipes like this unless there was someone out there who had instinctive knowledge of ideal batter smoothness. She mixed dutifully, checking the batter every so often to see if there was a pocket of flour or lump of butter left to be uncovered.

Today was her twenty-fifth birthday. She never did much for her birthday, but always something. Drinks with some friends, dinner with a girlfriend if she had one at the time. She’d made plans a few weeks ago, but a lot had changed since then. Someone had suggested a Skype party, but she said she was working to get out of it. It was a nice idea, but she just couldn’t imagine getting through it without crying.

Twenty-five had never struck her as a particularly important birthday, but apparently it was noteworthy. “You have a big birthday coming up, don’t you?” someone at work had said. “Wow, twenty-five! A quarter of a century!” an uncle had said on the phone. It wasn’t a multiple of ten, like most big birthdays were, but Sadhbh supposed it could be considered significant. If there was ever a time to have a quarter-life crisis, this was it. Then again, being single and in a dead-end job just didn’t seem worth worrying about when the world was falling apart. Maybe the key to overcoming a crisis was being faced with an even bigger crisis. That could quickly spiral though, and Sadhbh hoped to God there wouldn’t be a bigger crisis than this.

She spooned the mixture into two tins and put them in the oven, sitting on the floor to watch their progress. She knew they wouldn’t look like anything other than tins of goo for at least ten minutes, and wouldn’t be edible for another ten, but she might as well wait. She didn’t have anything better to do. She took out her phone and turned on some music, careful to use Spotify this time. A song she didn’t recognise started to play, the sound of acoustic guitar slightly tinny through her phone’s speaker. She set a timer on her phone for twenty minutes, following what was probably the only clear instruction in that stupid, vague recipe.

When everything turns to shit, celebrate the little things, she thought again. She repeated it like a mantra, hoping it would make her happier if she embraced it as much as she could. She felt like she was barely holding together, like a fancy vase that would break into pieces if anyone tried to pick it up.

When everything turns to shit, celebrate the little things.She told herself this was important, that even when it seemed like everything was falling apart, there was always something that could still make you smile. Sadhbh remembered hearing about “laughter therapy”, where you made yourself laugh to feel happier. Did you do it during yoga? She couldn’t quite remember. She paused for a moment, wondering if she should try it. She felt the laugh bubble up in her chest, coming out abruptly and completely devoid of joy. It was the saddest noise she’d ever heard, so pitiful and ridiculous that it earned a genuine snigger when she heard it. It didn’t seem like she’d done it exactly right, but it still cheered her up a little.

Sadhbh stared at the oven, taking in the inviting golden glow that shone from its little window. She could see the cake tins, but the batter hadn’t yet risen to peek over the top. For a minute or two she sat there, listening to the hum of the oven and watching what appeared to be nothing, but would soon be a cake. She remembered the last time she did this, and the exact date. The sixteenth of January: Nothing Day.

Paula had only lived about fifteen minutes away from Sadhbh’s family, so visits between the two houses were frequent. Sadhbh remembered lots of casual cups of tea, and just stopping in if they were walking by. Even if everyone else was busy, Sadhbh and her mam always attended Paula’s obscure holiday parties. She never fully realised the other reason it was important to be nearby, just memories of the phone ringing in the middle of the night and Mam hurrying out the door.

Nothing Day wasn’t like that, though. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad; it was just nothing. That was the whole point. When Sadhbh’s mam asked what they would be doing, Paula looked at her as if it were obvious.

“Nothing, Anne. What else would we do?”

And so the three of them sat side-by-side on the couch, doing nothing, saying nothing, embracing as much nothingness as they could. It had been boring at first, Sadhbh’s eyes searching for something in the room that could occupy her mind. But after a few minutes, the restlessness dissipated and it suddenly felt as if doing nothing was exactly the right thing to do. She felt relaxed but not drowsy, just enjoying the moment in a way she wasn’t sure she ever had before. She wanted to break the silence and tell the others how great this feeling was, turning to Paula on her left.

Paula had had a big personality for as long as Sadhbh could remember. She had a loud voice and an even louder laugh, both of which were almost constant sounds whenever she was near. She was the centre of attention, the one to watch, the life and soul of every party. But in that moment, Sadhbh caught the purest glimpse she’d ever had into who Paula really was. She was as still as a stone, hands clasped in front of her, staring forward. Her breaths were slow and slightly laboured, as they always were by that point. And her face… Well, Sadhbh thought it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Pure serenity, a comfort in her surroundings that Sadhbh had never seen before. She wondered if anyone had ever felt so at home in themselves as Paula did in that moment. The smallest smile played on her lips, and Sadhbh felt love well up in her chest as if they were tears in her eyes. She wanted more than anything for Paula to hold on to that moment, to feel the way she was feeling and never have to feel anything else. It was then that Paula saw Sadhbh looking at her. She didn’t move, just glanced over and gave her a little wink, in classic Paula fashion. Sadhbh didn’t respond; there was too much to say. She simply faced forward again and returned to her nothingness, the only difference this time was Paula’s hand in hers.

As the golden light of the oven window washed over her, Sadhbh remembered the things that had happened since that day. Some good, some bad, all leading her to exactly where she was, sitting on her kitchen floor on her twenty-fifth birthday. She checked the timer on her phone: fourteen minutes until her cakes were ready. She leaned back, the coolness of the wall seeping through the back of her t-shirt. Fourteen minutes of nothing might be exactly what I need, she thought. Fourteen minutes of absolutely nothing. Because that was the beauty of nothing, not a single other thing in the world was a part of it. Fourteen minutes of nothing meant it wasn’t her birthday. It meant she didn’t need to pretend she wanted a party, or that she would have to go to work tomorrow and pretend she did something. Fourteen minutes of nothing meant no happiness, no sadness, no fear, no grief, no worry. She couldn’t be sad about the outside world, she couldn’t grieve her favourite person or the unnamed numbers delivered to her in the clinical tones of a radio newsreader. Fourteen minutes of nothing meant nothing, and that was the best celebration Sadhbh could think of. She put her phone on the floor beside her and let it all drift away.


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