Custard Walker lived small and private, her life pent up inside self-made borders, pitted by absent dreams and a tough reality.
Custard Walker flickered with a worn beauty, her hair uncurling with time and its red fire fading gently into grey. Her eyes had paled to the colour of lime marmalade. But both eyes and hair retained a hint of spring and glow. And she still looked good in tight jeans and a loose shirt with one too many buttons undone at the neck – the way Custard Walker liked to look.
Custard Walker served beer and liquor and the occasional glass of wine in the Upstairs Bar, which was owned by Tom, who was a good man. The Upstairs Bar was perched on top of the Downstairs Diner in a small town where Custard Walker had lived for longer than any place else. She’d even taken the time to cosy up her one-bed apartment with colourful fabrics and sparkling lights. After years of moving from one place to another, Custard Walker had chosen that small town and the one-bed apartment and the Upstairs Bar to lock herself up tight and safe and away from the world.
Her apartment was over the top of an abandoned store, window boarded up and door permanently locked, except when the official from pest control showed up once a month. Custard didn’t like the abandoned store, but her rent was cheap. At night when Custard lay awake telling herself there was still time to fall asleep, she’d debate whether the pest man calling so regular was good or bad. Bad because he had pests to control. Good because if there were pests, he’d deal with them. There were nights she stayed awake till early afternoon.
The Upstairs Bar was lit by a traffic light that flashed red when the toilet was occupied and green when it wasn’t and sometimes yellow, which just messed with the customers. It was a late-closing drinking establishment for small-town Alberta. You could get served until 11pm most days and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. It was a friendly place made friendlier still by the presence of Custard Walker, who served drinks with grace and grit and a smile for the well behaved.
One day a stranger walked into the Upstairs Bar. He was one of those men who walked with a swagger and bounced like he owned the place.
‘Gimme a beer,’ called the stranger.
‘Just yourself?’ asked Custard.
‘Yeah. All alone tonight.’
‘No crime in that.’
‘Have one yourself?’ asked the stranger.
‘Thanks, but I’m not a drinker.’
‘Can I ask you a personal question?’
‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ said Custard.
But he did.
‘Are you Cressida Walker?’
And Custard Walker’s life went into reverse and replayed itself completely.
Custard Walker was officially registered as Cressida. It said so on her birth certificate. Who names an innocent baby in small-town Alberta ‘Cressida’? Custard’s mother, that’s who. She’d read it in a long-forgotten magazine in a long-forgotten doctor’s office. Her mother and that magazine had a lot to answer for.
First day of kindergarten. Cressida Walker was a glittering ball of excitement, all legs and copper hair and emerald-green eyes, a running and jumping and ready-to-please four-year-old, heart springing from one possibility to the next.
A seagull dropped a clam. Cressida looked at the gloopy mess leaking out of the shell. Were her insides like that? The clam had fallen from the beak of a gull. The gull swooped down and gobbled up the gloop.
By the end of that first day Cressida was a tightly curled, tear-sodden ball with a muddle of wet curls.
‘Where’s my girl? Where’s my smile?’ asked Grandma. Cressida hid her face.
‘Does she have a second name?’ asked the kindergarten teacher. ‘Something other than Cressida?’
‘Just Walker,’ said Grandma.
The kindergarten teacher nodded sympathetically, having known Cressida’s mom back in school.
‘Pity, but the kids will get used to it,’ said the kindergarten teacher, optimistic from four years of university and one day of teaching. Grandma nodded.
That night Grandma made custard. After Cressida had finished her burger and overbaked fries, her eyes shone as she gobbled down the sweet goodness.
Next day Grandma collected another damp mess of tears from kindergarten.
Back home Grandma said, ‘Today you’re going to be a big girl.’
‘You’ve lost your marbles, Grandma,’ said Cressida. ‘How can I be bigger than I am?’
‘You’re going to learn to make custard.’ And Grandma showed the little girl how to separate eggs, gently tipping the yolk from shell half to shell half.
‘First step,’ said Grandma.
Then they whisked the egg whites along with caster sugar. Grandma heated milk on the stove, poured a little into the eggs and stirred, then poured it all back into the saucepan. Cressida liked all the pouring back and forth and the whisking. It was like playing in the sand box, except no one threw sand at her or called her ‘La de dah, Cressi-dah’.
Next day, when Grandma arrived at kindergarten, Cressida peeked out of her heap of tear-sodden hair and folded arms.
‘Are you and me gonna make custard?’
‘Absolutely,’ said Grandma.
For her first show-and-tell, Cressida brought custard for everyone. Her classmates grabbed for the custard. Like a flock of angry gulls, they gobbled it down. Some barely breathed between bites; others swallowed everything in one gulp.
‘Custard!’ said a voice.
‘Custard Walker!’ said another.
‘Custard! You’re good enough to eat.’
The class stared at Custard Walker. Fifty beady eyes. Her insides turned gloopy. She hardened her outsides for safety.
When Custard Walker was nine years old, her grandma died and a social worker took her to live with her mother.
‘Cressida!’ shrieked her mother, excited.
‘People call me Custard. I make it really good. Do you want some?’
Custard’s mother looked confused.
‘Didn’t I name you Cressida?’
‘You did. But people call me Custard.’
‘You’re not Custard!’
‘Yes, I am!’
‘Remember what I said?’ asked the social worker. ‘Is there any reason she can’t be called Custard?’
Custard watched her mother think long and hard.
‘No,’ said her mother.
Custard headed to the kitchen.
‘Where are you going?’ asked her mother.
‘I’m not called “where are you going”!’ said Custard, laughing.
‘Don’t talk back!’ said her mother.
‘Is she really talking back?’ asked the social worker.
‘Where do you keep your eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla?’ asked Custard.
‘Milk’s in the fridge and sugar’s on the table. No vanilla and no eggs.’
Custard paused to wonder how a person lived without eggs in the fridge and vanilla in the cupboard. Was such a life even possible?
‘I have to go shopping,’ said Custard.
‘Shopping’s good!’ said Custard’s mother.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ said the social worker. ‘She’s precious, but children are a mystery. Call me when things get tough.’
Custard pulled on her pink coat.
‘Don’t you look lovely,’ said Custard’s mother. ‘I helped pick that coat.’
And Custard had to admit that the coat was kind of flattering and maybe her mother did have some idea of how to look after her.
Later Custard separated eggs, added sugar, and gently whisked milk while it heated on the stove and her mother watched.
‘I’ll say one thing for that social worker,’ said Custard’s mother. ‘She was right when she said children were a mystery. How come you don’t play with dolls?’
‘Don’t got any and don’t want any,’ said Custard.
‘I guess I’ve got my work cut out with you.’
And Custard thought maybe she had her work cut out too.
Custard and her mother ate custard that night. And for several years to come. Custard watched her mother eat. She had the feeling all over again of feeding a wild animal or bird.
Years passed. One day Custard’s mother didn’t come home, so Custard looked after herself. She figured it was for the best. Maybe her mother had found someone to look after her. At school Stringy Pete’s son waylaid Custard in the hallway.
‘You mom’s living at my house now,’ said Stringy Pete’s son.
‘So?’ asked Custard, examining her soul and the rock that filled the spot where her heart was meant to go and wondering if this bothered her and deciding it didn’t.
‘Kinda makes us brother and sister.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Custard. Then Stringy Pete’s son kicked Custard Walker and without thinking Custard Walker kicked him back.
‘I’m sorry!’ yelled Custard.
‘You kicked me? Seriously? You kicked me!’
‘You kicked me first!’
‘Doesn’t make it right.’
‘Makes it a little less wrong, maybe,’ said Custard.
‘Custard Walker! Did you just kick that boy?’ yelled the teacher.
Stringy Pete’s son eyeballed Custard. If she ratted him out, if she said he’d kicked first…
‘I guess I did,’ said Custard Walker.
‘Why?’ asked the teacher.
Stringy Pete’s son stared Custard down. He made her think of a gull, dropping clams on cement to break them and lap up their gloppy insides.
‘Have you anything to say for yourself?’ asked the teacher.
Custard Walker knew she should apologise and more importantly mention that she had been kicked first. Instead she said nothing, standing there silent and awkward. The teacher looked confused.
‘Maybe you better go home for the day.’
‘Aw shucks,’ said Stringy Pete’s son. ‘I don’t think she meant anything, did ya, Custard Walker?’
‘It’s okay,’ said Custard. ‘I’ll go.’
And Custard Walker turned and left the school.
At home that evening Custard pricked her skin with a sewing pin, trying to toughen it up. Didn’t work. She figured her skin wasn’t tough enough for school the next day so she just stopped going.
If her mother could up and leave with Stringy Pete, why couldn’t she leave too?
Custard separated and whisked and worried about rent.
Next week she got a job waiting tables and making tips in the local diner. Hank the cook smoked while he over-boiled the vegetables and fried everything else. One day he caught Custard soaking up the grease on a pair of breakfast-fried eggs with a napkin.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ asked Hank.
‘Just mopping up a little grease,’ said Custard.
‘Hoity fucking toity.’ Hank smiled.
Some days kids from school came in.
‘Hey Custard, heard your mom’s doing Stringy Pete.’
‘Hey Custard, heard the one about your mom and Stringy Pete?’
‘You want serving?’ said Custard, surprised and a little happy that she was toughening up. ‘Then quit talking shit about my mom.’
One day no one talked to Custard. Kids she’d been to school with came in and stared. She tried to serve them and they just looked through her and called their orders out to Hank. When she brought the food, they thanked Hank like she wasn’t there.
‘Don’t you worry, Custard,’ said Hank. ‘Things always get better. It’s not you they’re mad with, it’s your mom.’ He put an arm around her shoulders, and it felt like a ton of bricks.
‘I don’t understand,’ said Custard Walker.
‘Last night Stringy Pete and your mom were drinking and they got in a fight and your mom pushed Stringy Pete downstairs and now he’s dead and she’s in prison.’
‘How come no one told me?’
‘I’m telling you now. Maybe people figured it was better to leave you be. It’s kind of what you want, isn’t it?’
Custard kept on serving greasy food for a while, but it became increasingly difficult as more and more customers refused to talk to her. One week she served two plates of food with cigarette ash cuddled up with the eggs. Was Custard Walker off her game? Normally she flicked the ash onto the floor before she left the kitchen.
Next week she had two pimples on her chin. Her pores were clogging up. Custard figured it was maybe a sign. It was time to move on. Hank didn’t want Custard to leave. She was a good little worker and he’d kinda grown attached to her silent presence. Still, he needed a waitress who customers would talk to. He smiled and waved as she walked away.
Custard Walker figured she needed to leave town, but first she went to see her mom.
‘It’s not so bad in here,’ said Custard’s mom.
Custard couldn’t figure out if she meant that or was just saying it to make her feel better. Maybe Mom really didn’t mind it.
‘At least I killed a man,’ said Custard’s mother. ‘People kinda respect that here. Heard you quit school.’
‘Don’t give up on your dreams, Custard. Not because of me.’
‘What dreams?’ asked Custard.
‘You know. Finish school. Go to college. Get married. Have a family. Make me a grandma.’
‘Those aren’t my dreams,’ she said.
‘People aren’t your enemy, Custard. Just give them a chance.’
Custard left the jail when visiting hours were over, and then she left town.
In her new town Custard got a job in a bar. The tips were better and there was no food or grease. Bar life suited her just fine. Her skin cleared up and when customers got mean, Custard Walker dealt with them.
‘Hey!’ said Blue Coveralls Guy.
‘You talking to me?’ asked Red Flannel Shirt.
‘I ain’t listening.’
‘You’ll fucking listen to this,’ said Blue Coveralls, hauling back his punching hand only to feel the softest butterfly fingers on his arm and a swathe of red curls flicker across his face.
‘Something up, gentlemen?’ asked Custard.
‘Nah,’ said Blue Coveralls.
‘Nah,’ said Red Flannel Shirt.
And they sat and drank their beer, and that night they both had dreams with long red hair.
Custard Walker rented a small room with everything she needed. A bed, a chair, a table, a mini fridge, and an assortment of appliances collectively labelled a ‘kitchenette’ by the landlord.
With care and organisation and patience Custard cooked meals on her assortment of appliances. First unstacking the hotplate from on top of the microwave so the microwave vents were free to vent. Then microwaving potatoes. Setting the microwave on the floor, she’d put the hotplate on the counter. She’d chop an onion and gently steam it with garlic. Once the onions were soft and smelled just right she’d add the chopped microwaved potato, white beans, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots and basil. She’d stew it all together. It was her favourite meal.
Later, when the dishes were washed and the appliances all cooled down, she’d stack them back up on the tiny counter no bigger than the size of a small microwave. Her tiny kitchen for one. All back together, neat and tidy. It was like she’d never cooked anything. She hugged her secret to herself as she fell asleep.
At work, sometimes customers got close.
‘What’s your name?’ asked the guy with the soft brown eyes and long hair to match.
‘It’s really Cressida. But I’m called Custard.’
‘I’m Phil. Cressida’s kinda pretty though.’
‘Not at school it wasn’t,’ said Custard.
‘I getcha. Maybe I prefer Custard anyways.’ Phil had a book of poetry in his back pocket and a summer job in a local factory.
‘Want to go for a walk after work?’
‘Sure,’ said Cressida.
Cressida walked and talked with caution.
The next day her and Phil went for lunch. That summer they swam and ate and laughed and played. They even went to the fair. Sometimes they’d sit by the river or in the park and Phil would read poetry.
At the end of the summer Phil’s job ended.
‘Come back to the city with me, Custard.’
‘I’m not a city girl,’ said Custard.
‘You could work in a bar or anywhere you want,’ said Phil. ‘Or stay home and cook custard and sell it at the market. You could have a business selling custard, Custard.’
The factory Phil worked in made cardboard boxes. All different sizes, from boxes for thimbles to boxes for freezers. They were shipped all over the country. Phil gave her a paper bag.
‘Thank you,’ said Custard Walker and looked in the bag. Inside was a box – a cardboard box from Phil’s factory.
‘They allow us as many boxes as we need or want. Within reason,’ said Phil.
The box was covered with words in different coloured inks. Custard read: I am a man like any other man, but I found an angel. I love you, Custard Walker. I am a man like any other man and you are the key to my happiness. I love you, Custard Walker. Over and over again, in different colours.
‘I decorated it myself,’ said Phil.
‘I can see,’ said Custard.
‘Do you like it?’
For a moment all things felt possible. Custard’s gloopy insides stretched up tall and she thought to herself, I can do this, I can stand beside Phil, I can leave my room and this town. And then her gloopy insides let her down. They dropped to her feet, to the tips of her toes. Safe behind her toenails. Her insides were empty and echoey. It all felt wrong.
Custard smiled and Phil left town and Custard felt almost happy. She didn’t know why she didn’t want her life leaking into other people’s lives, but she knew she had to keep it all her own, locked tight in her skin, with a giant boulder pressing down on her heart.
And that became the pattern of Custard’s living. She figured sooner or later she’d work out a goal for her life. But she couldn’t see how a goal could involve other folk who weren’t her. There was always another town and another bar.
When men took her eating, or dancing, she was kind and polite and thanked them for the night. When men got close, she’d make them custard. And when men got real close, she’d invite them to dinner and after the custard they might stay a night or even two. But it wouldn’t be long until Custard Walker wrapped herself up tight, packed up her belongings and left town without a trace. She always knew when it was time to move on.
Time passed. Language and fashion changed, but the bar fights stayed the same. And so did Custard.
‘Yo!’ said the guy in the low-slung pants.
‘You calling me out?’ asked the kid with the skinny black jeans.
‘You staring at me?’
‘Maybe I am… bro!’
And low-slung pants hauled back his punching hand only to have Custard slip her curls between them and lay soft fingers on his arm and ask, ‘Is there a problem, gentlemen?’
By the time Custard Walker turned fifty, the dancing and eating men bothered her less and when they did come calling, they didn’t want to stay. She enjoyed her tight-closed life. It was then that she moved to the town with the Upstairs Bar. One more move in a life crowded with new towns.
Not long after Custard started working in the Upstairs Bar the beer cooler stopped working. For good. Repairmen came and went and shook their heads and stomped their steel-toed boots and played with compressors and assorted bits of metal and still the cooler wouldn’t work.
Come payday Tom, owner of the Upstairs Bar, looked Custard straight in the eye. ‘Can’t guarantee there’ll be one of these next week. If you want to look for work somewhere else, be my guest.’
‘And if I stay?’
‘I’ll pay you whatever I can and make up the difference when I’ve got it.’
Custard Walker gave the beer cooler a long and fierce look.
‘Drug store’s hiring,’ said Tom.
Custard weighed and added some numbers in her head and considered. ‘I’ll stay.’
Custard Walker went home and made a giant batch of custard. She took some to work with her the next day.
‘That’s the best custard I’ve ever eaten,’ said Tom. ‘Can I have the recipe for my wife?’
‘I’ve got it right here,’ said Custard. And she gave him a copy of her recipe, with one slight alteration so that while Tom’s wife’s custard would be really good, it wouldn’t be quite as good as Custard Walker’s.
Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months and months turned to years. The beer cooler was replaced and paid for and Custard Walker’s pay bumped back up to normal.
Custard Walker was almost happy. Her gloopy insides were all shored up inside a boulder-hard outside. Sometimes she felt the pressure of her outsides pressing down on her insides, but these days her gloopy insides won out, rooting her to the earth of a small town in an even smaller corner of a large map.
Custard Walker thought it might be time to set herself a goal. Maybe she’d finish high school. She turned up to the open house for the town’s high school completion certificate. She stood in the doorway of a school gym and looked at the little tables with signs behind: Math, History, English Literature.
She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t go in. She hurt. She needed a script. A ‘How’s it going? What can I get you? Nice weather today, don’t you think?’ kind of script.
Sure, Phil had been kind and Tom was kind, and some of those barely remembered men who she’d made custard for were kind too. But there was only so much kindness in the world and maybe she’d used all hers up.
When a new bar with music, the BBQ Ribs & Chicken, opened up down the road, Tom figured there was some hostile writing on the wall. Custard Walker watched him bang numbers into an old calculator, his face making wishes, or maybe just praying.
Some nights it was just Custard and Tom, leaning on the counter, watching their empty bar.
‘New bar’s hiring,’ said Tom.
‘Nah,’ said Custard.
‘Tips’ll be good.’
‘They’ll come back, all the customers, just you wait and see.’
‘Hope they come back soon,’ said Tom.
It turned out there was only so much BBQ ribs and chicken that beer- and liquor-drinking professionals could stomach, and before long customers came back. Tom and Custard were back on track.
Over time the Upstairs Bar and BBQ Ribs & Chicken learned to live together, with a lot of give and take and the occasional trimmed pay cheque.
Custard Walker figured she lived life with a million strangers and that suited her just fine.
The gloop stayed right where it needed to stay and her skin had become a strong and leathery shell. Sometimes pressing in too hard, but most of the time keeping her insides in place in the right kind of way.
Custard Walker looked at the stranger.
‘I’m Custard Walker.’
‘Been here long?’ asked the stranger.
Custard almost said, ‘Long enough,’ then decided she wasn’t ready to move on.
‘It’s home,’ said Custard Walker.
‘I need to ask a personal question,’ said the stranger.
The air sagged out of Custard’s lungs and fear flooded in. Why had he called her Cressida? Strangers using old names couldn’t be good news.
‘I guess it’s less of a question and more of a request. Do you forgive me, Custard Walker?’
Custard looked at the man who wasn’t a boy but who years ago was maybe part of a pack who’d mocked her or given her a mean stare or gobbled her custard down or kicked her or wrongly accused her. She didn’t recognise him and she didn’t want to know his name. She didn’t need to know.
‘I forgive you,’ said Custard Walker and went back to the bar with a bounce in her step.
‘Hey Tom,’ said Custard. ‘You know what we need to sell in this bar? To keep these guys coming back?’
‘Chicken and ribs?’ asked Tom.
‘I was thinking homemade custard. Custard Walker’s homemade custard. In little mason jars with a label saying Custard Walker.’
(The one she gave Tom and his wife)
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