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Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson

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BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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t was the sugar episode
that got Marble called into the CEO’s office. She hadn’t been up to George’s suite in months, since before she’d started dating the coffee guy. There was no need. They saw each other often enough in all those ways that the head of a media production company and one of his star presenters tended to see each other. Whenever she got back to London, she usually ended up getting lunch with him, anyway.

Sometimes, George’s wife Jenny would join them. Marble liked seeing them together. The teasing, the mock protests, the touch of a hand. George was one of the good guys, and Marble was sorry to see him feeling so uncomfortable. A
viewer of influence
had telephoned him about the sugar episode. In George parlance, that meant a big-money advertiser had dialed his personal line to complain about the show, bypassing the editorial group in the process.

“Was it the S-word?” Marble asked.

“I do believe it was the S-word,” George said.

Marble had simply reminded viewers of a few things that everyone already knew, and only then because someone had written in to the live program to ask why Marble didn’t profile more desserts made with cane sugar.

As many of my viewers know, I focus mostly on traditional, local foods. Many longtime recipes heralded as local traditions use cane sugar, but I prefer to talk only about recipes made with foods of local origin, indigenous
foods or foods under local production for at least one thousand years. This is why I tend to stay away from recipes that use cane sugar, unless they come from Asia, where, as far as we know, it originated.

Sugar cane has traveled far from its indigenous territories, having been taken from Asia to Africa and other areas of the world, including the Americas. By the 1600s, sugar cane and the sweet liquid pressed from its stalks had taken hold in the Caribbean, turning some men into kings of commerce and others into slaves.

Marble was proud of that episode.

“Now, don’t get annoyed, Marble,” George was saying. “I’m just letting you know, okay? It’s just that you already had that argument with the Italian coffee tycoon about the exploitation of producers. And now you say that anything made in Europe with sugar can’t be considered traditional.”

“Cane sugar.”


“Cane sugar. Not beet sugar.”


“And not just traditional.”


“Local. Traditional foods of local origin.”


“Plus, we didn’t have an argument, the coffee guy and I, we had a difference of perspective. In the end, he came to understand what I was really saying.”

There had, in fact, been only those few moments of tension between Marble and the coffee man until they’d talked it out on the show, until they’d gone to dinner together the following month, until they’d stayed out late, talking, until they’d met the following weekend in Milan, until they’d kissed a long, tender goodbye before taking trains back to their respective cities. But she wasn’t going to tell George any of that. She didn’t want to get him thinking about the fact that her late husband had also been Italian. She didn’t want him feeling sorry for her.

“It’s just that you’re supposed to be a food guru, not a political commentator.”

“What are you saying, George? That I should just share recipes and not tell people anything about food, about where it comes from? That’s not what I do, I’m not a chef. My specialty is where food comes from, you know that. And if you talk about the way in which food moves around the world, you can’t help but mention the social, economic, and political facts behind it. It doesn’t mean I’m
engaging in
political commentary.”

George stood up and walked around to the front of his desk and sat down in the chair next to Marble.

“Marble, I am your biggest fan, and you know that. I just loved that okra episode.”

“You are a fan of the money I make,” Marble said, raising an eyebrow.

“Money that allows you to do the shows that you want,” George said.

“Oh, now you’re just being mean.”

“And you are just being a diva.”

They both laughed. “No, George, really, I’m not sure what you expect me to do. Are you censoring me?”

“Oh, I don’t even know what I expect you to do. No, I don’t want to censor you, but perhaps you could think about the wording a bit more next time? Sure, we need to take a hard look at history, but we don’t want to have our viewers feel sheepish about using a spoonful of sugar.”

“Ah,” Marble said, nodding slowly.

“You know we’re aiming to sell distribution rights to international markets.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Marble said. She stood up, leaned over, and pecked George on the cheek.

“How’s Jenny?”

“She’s good. Misses the kids. Why don’t you come around sometime? It’s easier for her at the end of the day. Lunch is always a stretch.”

“I’ll do that. I’ll call her.” Marble wasn’t angry at George, but she was irritated about that phone call. She went back to her desk and clicked on a web link to the sugar episode.

I don’t believe that we can fully lay claim to a tradition if we are not willing to recognize what we have taken from other cultures over time, for better or worse.

Sitting there, watching herself on the screen, Marble realized what the subject of her next book was going to be. She would take a 180-degree turn. She picked up a pencil and wrote


he had always been a
lovely child, studious and charming, just mischievous enough to be entertaining, never getting herself into any real trouble. But later, Wanda Martin’s daughter was dealt a rough hand. She struggled to bring her pregnancy to term after her husband’s sudden death. Wanda and her husband pleaded with Mabel to stay in London full time, but Mabel insisted on going back to Italy with the baby. And she was still there, sixteen years later, even though their grandson spent much of the year in a boarding school here in the UK.

Thank goodness Mabel’s work brought her home from time to time. Wanda was happiest when she had her daughter nearby. She loved how ordinary this felt, being able to ride her bicycle over to her daughter’s flat, being able to sit down with her for a cup of tea, being able to add a few drops of water to Mabel’s orchids while Mabel squinted at her laptop. Just a few more minutes and Wanda would be on her way home, but first she leaned her hip against her daughter’s back and read a few lines on the computer screen.

“No, Mummy,” Mabel said, putting her hands up in front of the screen. Wanda loved it that her daughter, almost fifty years old now, still called her
She leaned in again to peek.

Sugar cane. A grass with stalks as thick as bamboo, squeezed to produce a sweet liquid that, ultimately, changed the world.

“I really don’t want anyone reading this right now, Mummy.”

“What’s it for, dear?”

Without looking up, her daughter said, “I’m thinking of writing another book. These are just notes I’m making for when I get back home.”

Did Mabel say
? Or did she say
to Rome
? No, she didn’t say
was her home, near them, here in London. This was the center of everything that their daughter and grandson needed in life, wasn’t it? Wanda and her husband had dedicated their lives to making it so. Because, more than anything, this was who they were. They were Mabel’s mum and dad.

ecause money talks, a sallow
infant girl born in the winter of 1969 to an unwed secretary from the West Indies was not given up for adoption through the official channels but was transferred instead directly into the hands of a well-off London couple who had paid the home for unwed mothers handsomely for the privilege. Wanda and Ronald Martin did not think of it as buying a baby. They thought of it as speeding up the process. They had filled in the applications. They had done the interviews. They had waited and waited. They had held out hope. They had nearly lost hope.

By the time the girl reached adolescence her adoptive parents, who were both white, could see that their daughter was likely what some would call a child of mixed race, but they pretended not to notice. Wasn’t race an outdated concept, anyway? But it was true that their daughter looked very different from them. Darker, taller, thickset. They told her she resembled one of her grandfather’s people. They told themselves that she had always been theirs. They told themselves that she was their baby girl and that nothing and no one would ever change that.


t was only when Mabel
Martin’s body had fully bloomed into adolescence that she had begun to worry about the fact that she did not resemble her parents. It was sometime after that gamey-smelling American boy at school had groped her and called her
brown sugar
but before her growing discomfort with her bust and height had evolved into a more specific agitation over the fact that she was taller than the Randall boy, who lived two houses down and with whom she had fallen, suddenly and desperately, in love.

By age seventeen, Mabel was also taller and softer than both of her parents. Her mother pointed out that she had gotten her heft and nose from her maternal grandfather, whom she had never known and who could only be seen in a pockmarked, browned portrait on her mother’s dresser drawer.
Mabel’s mother said, smiling. No, Mabel did not see, but she, too, smiled and nodded.

Nearly thirty-five years later, Mabel, now Marble, would feel her phone buzz as she sat under the helmet dryer at a beauty shop in Rome. She would see the words
Estate of
pop up on her screen and understand, instantly, that the email from an American legal firm, whose name she had never seen before, had something to do with the fact that she was six feet tall and had none of the pinkish tone about her face that both of her parents did. Marble would realize then that she had been waiting for this message for most of her life.

By then, she would be old enough to understand that if her mum
and dad had lied to her about her origins all these years, it was out of either love or fear, or both, because, in that moment, these were the very feelings that washed over Marble and drenched the soft folds of her waist. A love of her parents, a fear of what she might learn, a fear of what she might feel. Yes, mostly fear.

Because no matter how much her parents had loved her and coddled her and invested in the dreams of her youth, their presence in her life could not extricate the tiny burr that had lodged itself somewhere under her rib cage and, bit by bit, had expanded over the years, poking at her from the inside. A feeling that someone else, a long time ago, may have decided that Baby Mabel hadn’t been worth loving and coddling and investing in.

Her doubts about her family tree had ballooned when her son was born and his doughy, newborn face began to take shape. His ruddy, veiny skin gradually took on a more even, deep-olive tone, and his hair grew into a soft, brushy silhouette.

“Your grandson doesn’t look a thing like you, does he, Mum?” Marble blurted out one day, when she was feeling catty.

“No, he doesn’t, dear,” her mother said. “You’ve got a little Italian boy on your hands there, is what you have.” Which might have been a reasonable argument had Marble’s husband not been a blond man born to pale-skinned parents. As her son Giò blossomed into adolescence, all he had to show for his father’s side of the family was his freckled nose.

After Marble sent Giò to boarding school back in the UK, she continued to live most of the year abroad. She suspected that if she were to spend too much time around her mother and father, they would pick up on the growing doubt in her eyes. She had hinted around the subject enough times to see that her parents were not going to let her discuss the possibility that she might have been born to anyone but them.

On some days, Marble felt deeply resentful. On others, she looked at her mum and dad, thinning around the shoulders with age, and felt guilty. Her own son was the most beautiful thing in her life. Did her parents feel the same way about her? They might worry that they could lose her. As if such a thing were even possible.

Or was it?

B and B, after fifty years, you’d think it was time for me to accept that I would never find my firstborn child, but I couldn’t do it. Or, what I mean is, I couldn’t live with that, not on top of the sense of isolation that had come over me after your father’s death. As you know, I was feeling so low about it that I took that surfboard out to the peninsula and nearly broke my neck. A foolish thing, I realize that, but I can’t say that I am completely sorry I went out there because, strangely, that is what led me to your sister.

If I hadn’t ended up in the hospital and needed those follow-up tests afterward, I might not have found out so soon that I was sick. I was feeling fine at the time of the diagnosis. So if they hadn’t started the chemo, if I hadn’t been sitting at home one day with two bottles of pills in front of me, too tired to do much else but watch videos on the computer, I might not be here today, telling you the whole story.

B and B, you know that I’m making this recording because I don’t think I’m going to live much longer. I won’t lie to you, I’m sorry to go so soon. But in this short period of time, since that day when I came up with that stupid idea to kill myself, I have lived a lifetime’s worth of happiness. And now, I get to share it with you.

BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
5.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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