It begins, and ends, with sourdough bread.
Ellis is in the kitchen, baking. He’s been kneading, stretching, folding, repeating. He holds the dough to the light and stretches until it’s almost translucent, then proves it, watches it slowly double in size. Clara comes over and they’re shaping and tucking it into the perfect round ball. He lets her slash the top after a second proving- a single cut down the middle- then bakes the bread until it’s golden brown.
The nutty homely smell wafts through his flat as he brews some tea. He holds his breath in anticipation as Clara takes a bite, chews as crumbs from the crispy crust fall like tantalising confetti, goes: ‘Christ that’s good Ellis. Sourdough’s my favourite,’ and Ellis beams.
He’s feeling giddy. He can hardly believe he’s here, with this stranger in his home, completely out of his comfort zone.
Clara goes: ‘I have to say, when you suggested this as our first date, I did think it was a bit… different.’
Ellis raises his eyebrows. ‘Oh?’
‘Like, I’d have preferred dinner in a posh restaurant with you treating us to bottle of Moet,’ Clara says as Ellis’ face drops, ‘but d’you know what, it’s actually been lovely.’
Later, she pulls her arms through her coat, stands on her tiptoes and kisses him quickly on the cheek, says, ‘Let’s have another date soon. I like you Ellis. You’re… really sweet.’
Ellis closes the door and exhales, relaxes, and retreats into his kitchen; scrubs the surfaces until they gleam.
Time passes- days, weeks, months of dating.
‘But you’re twenty-nine,’ Clara says when he tells her he’s a virgin. He’s sitting on the bed, his pale skin exposed, as a blush spreads up his neck like a flood.
‘I am,’ he says, and there’s no denying it. That is his age. These are the facts. ‘There’s just…’ he scratches his neck. ‘I’ve just never met anyone and so…’
And then she waves her hand dismissively, tells him she hopes he’s a fast learner because she’s a cracking teacher.
Clara moves in. She clutters his flat, swaps his books for her photographs, leaves her clothes over the bedroom floor.
‘Oh, are you really wearing that?’ she asks as they’re heading to a club to meet her friends.
‘You’re so clueless, it’s adorable. Here, let me choose something more stylish. I don’t mind.’
The club makes his skin crawl; the music’s too loud, there are too many people, he doesn’t drink.
‘Lighten up babe, live a little,’ Clara goes, and Ellis thinks perhaps he should, but just then, a colossal man crushes on his foot and he thinks he wouldn’t mind returning to his quiet little life.
When they get back to his flat, Clara’s vomiting in his bathroom. He brings her water with a slice of lemon, ties her hair back and tucks her into bed. He watches her fall asleep, then bleaches every inch of the bathroom, showers until he’s clean again, washes every part of himself, winces as the shampoo falls into his eyeballs and stings, scrubs them anyway, every part of him, and then he’s mixing, stirring, piping, baking, reaching perfection until he feels tired enough to sleep.
Christmas changes too. Before Clara, he’d wake mid-morning, go for a run, cook a small lunch, fall asleep on the sofa underneath his favourite tartan blanket, wake early evening to eat some crackers and brie with cranberry, savouring every last bite, then soak in a bubble bath, his narrow limbs practically floating in the silky water and then head to bed with his novel: the perfect day.
Now though, he’s at Clara’s family home on Christmas day. He brings homemade fudgy cappuccino crinkles and cottage cheese pogi’s as a gift, nervously hands them over in Tupperware boxes, but they’re tossed aside without thanks; wine would been better received, he thinks. Ellis finds himself gorging on a three-course meal which is overcooked and makes him feel sluggish, crushed at the dining table with strangers all talking over one another, vying for their voices to be heard.
‘Oh Ellis, you must come to Italy for Sally’s wedding,’ Clara’s mother says, clapping her hands.
Ellis blushes and flattens his shirt with his palm. ‘Oh, no thank you. I don’t even have a passport and I don’t think it would be for me. Thanks for asking me, though.’
‘What? Everybody’s got a passport surely. Haven’t you ever been abroad?’ Clara asks. ‘Not even as a child?’
‘Christ. We’ll have to change that.’
‘I didn’t have a typical childhood…’ he says, but the conversation has moved onto politics.
Ellis doesn’t think it is going to work out with Clara after all.
Still, he wants to make her happy, doesn’t like to think of anyone unhappy, and so when she’s gone to bed on Boxing Day, although his limbs feel heavy like cement, he’s somehow kneading, and exerting every ounce of energy, and then he’s crying, salty tears mixed with the imperfect dough underneath his insufficient kneading, ripping and tearing, unable to hold itself together, yet he continues because sourdough bread is Clara’s favourite and when she comes through the next morning, all sleepy eyed and takes a bite, he watches with anticipation- as though sourdough may mend her, him, them- and when she says, ‘Urgh, that’s so fucking dry Ellis, I thought this was your thing,’ with her face contorted and spits out the rest in an unsightly splodge on the gleaming kitchen top he scrubbed for forty nine minutes at four this morning, he internally curses himself for his imperfect bread, and he wonders if two people on earth can actually know each other at all, or if we are all just strangers, muddling along, trying our best, failing.
He thinks you can never really please somebody completely.
He wipes his eyes.
Takes a shower.
Hannah Sutherland is a writer and teacher from Scotland. She placed 2nd in the Writing East Midland’s Aurora Prize in 2020 and recently won Cranked Anvil’s first Flash Fiction competition. She’s been listed for Retreat West’s Short Story and Flash Fiction competitions, the Flash 500 Short Story Award, The Phare Magazine and Strands International Flash Fiction. Her stories have been featured in The Common Breath, The Phare Magazine, (mac)ro(mic), Fahmidan Journal and others. Her Novella-in-Flash was shortlisted for the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in late 2021. Hannah tweets at @HannahWrites88.