Oh, The Places You'll Go

Strong Wrists

Notes: Written for the livejournal challenge, picfor1000. This is the first piece of original fic I've written in years and is possibly cheating (you'll see if you read). The whole thing made me very nervous and I'm extremely grateful to villainny for giving me confidence and helping me to make it better.

Picture prompt is here.

Peanut butter jars were the toughest, she said. It meant nothing to me; I'd been at war with the stuff ever since I found out my mum mistook my insistent knocking to clamber out worldwards as indigestion brought on by a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich. Smooth, of course, not crunchy. Still, peanut butter jars were the toughest, right enough.

We had a jar opener, cheerfully orange-handled and all serrated edges and strange lumps that my uncle had brought us one year from his excitingly inventive German home, but we didn't need it. Not when we had Gran and her wrists.

In desperate need of a gherkin? Hand the jar to Gran. Raspberry jam clinging on to its lid in an attempt not to get eaten? Pass it over to Gran; she'll have it open, lickety-split. What did it matter that she was bent and twisted with frail old age and the arthritis gnarled her knuckles into tree knots? She had wrists of steel, that one.

"It's all the babies I caught when I was a midwife," she used to say. "Strong wrists."

And I'd stare all wide-eyed and cross my legs worrying about how far the babies flew across the room and what would happen if the midwife didn't manage to grab the little beggars before they hit the ground. I didn't dare ask and it never came up in sex education. I remained suspicious.

It wasn't always babies. My gran's strength wasn't just in her wrists, but in her spine, too, threading through her like a silver ribbon. She gave up the babies and her career and the green valleys and everything that defined her and gave it all to her little sister. To the lively, pretty one who had the husband and the home and the happiness until she didn't any more. Until the disease took hold of her and pulled her away from herself, coughing and grasping for the next breath, inch by inch, day by day. My gran, who loved her fiercely, cared for her until the grinding, inevitable, horrible end.

And then, as if to keep her here, keep her memories and hold them about herself, my granny took both the husband and the home, and later there was the tiny little girl who should have been her sister's, but was hers instead, a bond between two people who loved someone else with all their hearts. She needed her strong wrists for making a home and a family that was never meant to be hers.


"You don't know how to make a poultice?"

My friend, a nurse in training, shook her head. "We don't do those these days. Infection control, you see."

"There's nothing couldn't be soothed by a nice, hot poultice," she said. "Warming, they were. Good for what ails you."

It wasn't true, though. The dark days that came and sucked at the soul of my red-cheeked granny, that made her scared and ashamed and wondering how she could see the next sunrise and the one after that couldn't be soothed by a bit of mustard slapped on a bandage. Couldn't be soothed by anything, not even the triumph of a well-risen cake or a perfectly realised jam tart. Not even the soft hair of her granddaughter under her hand as they sat in silence watching actors strut and fret across the small screen.

There was nothing that could pull her out of the hole she plummeted into. Nothing except drugs and time and her own strong, strong wrists.


"It's in the wrists," she would say as I watched her at the table, pinny covered with dusty handprints, cake mixture being beaten into submission in the bowl, not a single drop spilt. "You need to get the air in or it won't rise. It's not for the faint-hearted, cake-making. You can't be frightened to get stuck in."

I'd nod and ask if I could try. She was particular about her baking, my gran, and it only occurs to me now how much she must have loved me because I never saw even a flicker of doubt on her face. No, nothing except soft indulgence, even though she must have known she was risking her near-perfect record by putting the wooden handle in my clumsy hand.

She would come and stand behind me, wrapping her hand round mine, and murmur, "Like this, like this," as the pressure of her fingers encouraged me to move.

I could feel the power in her flowing into me as we worked, me staring in fierce concentration at the renegade lumps in the mixture. She'd release her grip and step back, letting me fly solo. I would beat and beat, my cheeks flushing and chest heaving with the labour of it, supported by the power she'd lent me. Soon enough it would run out and I'd turn to her, smiling and dotted with cake mixture and say, "My arm hurts."

"It's just practise, dear," she'd say. "You need to build up your strength."

"Catch some babies?"

My gran had a beautiful smile.

The cake would go in the oven--not the Aga, can't trust the temperature, dear--and come out perfect. Still, Gran would tsk and narrow her eyes and rub her wrists and wonder aloud if her powers were waning.

They weren't. Not then.

I went away and she stayed, with her programmes and her large print books and her, "I say, there's no need to shout!" when you called her up. She stayed and got older and the knots in her hands swelled and it was too hard to stand up to bake so she did it sitting down. When I came home, years later, she'd made my favourite cake. It hadn't risen.

"It's lovely," I said, truthfully, but there was no consoling her. She didn't bake again.

I remember taking her wrists in my hands and wondering how the strength had seeped from them. I remember her wanting peanut butter and how I opened the jar.

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