It was my sister's birthday last week. 21. It's been strange because it's her last one at home, the last in a chapter. As the younger sibling I think you watch the older one near the end of the last page. You see that for them home slowly becomes - claustrophobic, heavy, too small. There's a sudden shift and they're ready for new cities, big adventures, different people. And maybe that's what you wonder the most. You wonder what more they're going to learn, where they're going to go, and with whom they're going to do it all.
Layla, remember that pink bedroom in the house on Burlingham Drive? Our first 'big girl' bedroom. We spent hours trawling the paint aisles of the hardware store with dad, looking for that shade of pink. We had those 3 lamps above the bed, the heart, the moon and the star. There were the paintings - ponies for you, piggies for me. Frames on the walls, with our drawings. We'd sit on the blonde wood floor and you'd teach me to draw people, all with crazy curls and round noses. There was our huge bookshelf and we'd sit cocooned in quilts in the bed on dark November evenings and you'd read me a book. I could read fine by then, but you could read better, and you'd read me the longer books, I liked to listen to your voice. There'd be a glow from those three lamps, hazy twilight outside. We'd play in the garden too, on those cold but crisp autumn days, in our corner sandwiched between the red brick walls of the house and the wooden fencing over which the holly grew. You taught me to spot the footprints of different animals in the mud; the night time cats and morning robins, you'd seen it on a wildlife program. We'd go out into our street, the quiet cul-de-sac, where our house was next to the little woods full of holly and big trees. Sometimes there were horses in the field that bordered the forest. You showed me how to climb the five bar gate to be right up close to the horses and taught me how to hold the sugar cubes so that only his velvety muzzle would touch my palm. In a way I'm not that surprised you want to be a teacher, you've always been teaching someone.
Do you remember how we used to take those trips back to Holland, on the ferry? And how at first it ways always dad who mum sent to take us out on deck, or to see the magic show, or wherever. But there came a time when it was just us. I remember us standing, totally windswept, on the deck; that was when we were older, once we'd moved out of the pink bedroom. The last few years in Malaysia, when we started to wish that we'd each had a non-pink room of our own. I was still a childish ten year old wearing sports shorts and Nike t-shirts but you'd somehow moved on to dark jeans and beaded sandals. You went to your first non-pool party, at the Hard Rock Hotel, in the evening. I remember thinking you looked so grown up . I'm not sure whether or not you wore eyeliner because you're lucky with those big dark eyes but I just thought you looked so fancy, I wanted to be like you. On that ferry, too, I wished that I could be like you, I was lost on that big ship, but you could somehow steer us back to the table where mum and dad were sitting. We went to the shiny duty free shop, you gave me sunglasses to try and you told me which ones you and your friends were wearing. We were looking at the maps of Europe and you knew where we'd be going, you told me places that we'd maybe go when we were older.
I caught up somewhere. Do you remember that cross country race - the home race, on a blistering hot Belgian summer's day? When for the first time, I left you behind, because I could go and you couldn't. I felt like I cheated you. You were the older one, always forging the path for me. But sometimes we stumble on the path; it was your turn to stumble and mine to overtake. I was suddenly more like you. It was me who was showing you the joys of shopping at Urban Outfitters, it was me who had tumblr and suddenly it was me who was calling the shots between us. Not as well as you did, but I figured it out.
Remember Latitude last summer? How we were the only ones at that boho festival not in hipster shorts and Docs? And then how we managed to lose the car and wander around in those hot fields all afternoon. People looked us at oddly, in our presentable sweaters and me with my camera. I'll always think of us, the warm sun, zipping through golden wheat and bucolic Suffolk countryside. Next somehow you brought us back from Newmarket, after midnight. Your first time driving on a proper motorway, the roads pitch black and only a few trucks for company. How during the concert we'd stood in a quiet corner of the stands watching the revellers go wild; how someone threw champagne over us and the crowd in general so the two good clean kids we are could drive home reeking of booze anyway. How we sang to old hits from circa 2013 and started a little rave of our own in the front seats of your Mini.
It's the countdown now. It's gone scarily fast, no? Maybe you feel like you're standing on that shaky bridge between curious excitement and the unknown. I'm supposed to be the younger one so I can't say much to help you. There'll be a new page, shiny cities, different people. But in your growing, you've done a lot of it before. The winning, the losing, the raves, the love, the loss, the teaching, the learning. You'll finish it with others but you won't forget, will you, that you did it first with me?
“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.” - Anais Nin
Happy birthday Layla, this year is yours xx
Layla didn't want a big celebration for her birthday. Just our mum, us, and the doggies. What Layla had asked me for, was a cake. Something like the fairy cakes of childhood birthdays - typically a simple, soft vanilla sponge, a layer of jam for the sandwich, and a vanilla frosting. Layla can be sensitive to gluten so I set about making a gluten free, whole grain version of a super airy sponge cake, which isn't so easy considering whole grain cakes tend to lean towards the 'hearty' side, and gluten free cakes are usually loaded with starches that aren't great either. So, almond meal! Almond meal cakes are often seen as the 'healthy' variety because they're grain free but tbh that's weird because most recipes then call for 5-7 eggs (!!!!!) and a few sticks of butter... does that sound very healthy to you? Anyway, to combat the dryness I just use yogurt, revelation. And 2 eggs which find themselves separated; beating the egg whites to firm peaks means the cakes turn out super light, airy and fairy-like. The cake is actually very simple to make - the instructions are very long because I give a lot of detail for beating egg whites, in case you've not done it before, I do it often
because it's fun for pancakes etc. so I thought I'd help the newbies out, just skim over it, and the assembly part too if you make fancy cakes often (also because I'm a pretty rubbish cake decorator. no patience). to bore you further, I wanted a simple & light but not coconut-based frosting, hence ricotta cheese which is very mild and cheese-sensitive types usually take it fine, but feel free to use something diary free if that's an issue for you. Last thing - I almost broke a cake taking it out of the pan, so let them cool for a bit because they're fragile. and then freeze them before you decorate to stop crumb problems. and use two pans exactly the same size, so unlike me, you do not have to go at them with a knife (which is why they look uneven in the photos, yours will be fine). Also, do use vanilla beans - I know they're not cheap but worth it for the beautiful flecks and the smell. Oh and you can also totally use a good, natural sort of store-bought jam/preserves (and any flavor you like) if making it yourself seems OTT. Only the best for my sistah though. Ok I know you didn't come here for me to talk and talk, so here's to little layer cakes and big birthdays.