I’m not a big fan of surprise gifts at work, but I am a big fan of Nancy, so I took a birthday cake in. Nothing as fancy as home made, but there’s that new place that opened up, Have Your Cake, and they personalise stuff. I had some words in mind, “Happy Birthday Nancy” – it’s not going to win any literary awards, but I’ll settle for a smile.
I stepped into the lair of cakes, row upon row, their presence magnified with mirrored backs and sides to the display cabinets, and separated by militantly glossy pictures of what could be done for real money. A poster of a perky baker in an apron proclaimed that I could have my cake any way I liked.
“What would you like, sir?” And there was the perky baker from the photos.
“What have you got?” Other than a smudge of flour on her nose, so perfect and artful that I was sure she applied it with the help of a mirror. “I want something to say Happy Birthday.
“So we have chocolate. Lots of people choose that. And this is vanilla, and this is lemon. And this…”
I just wanted a cake, not a life-choice. Forget flavours, let’s just go with looks. “What about that one?” A sort of patchwork rainbow decoration of red, yellow and orange with thin veins like the darkest chocolate to keep them apart. Or join them together. A heavenly stained glass window of a cake. “I like that one.” It looked just like Nancy’s face, if I squinted.
“Oh… the… um… special…”
“Patchwork swirly multi-coloured one.” Actually, absolutely spot on, a gentle and admiring caricature of Nancy.
“Yes. Party Colours. Excellent choice. What was the wording again?”
“I thought I was getting the cake…”
There is nothing worse in office politics than messing with a birthday surprise, other than messing with Sharon over a birthday surprise. At least we were in the conference room, with no other audience for my humiliation.
“Bugger. Sorry. Harry said…” Absolutely anything can be blamed on Harry, but this was for Nancy, so best to own the ‘mistake’, even though I’m sure that on this occasion Harry really did say… Never mind. Own it. “I heard him wrong, didn’t I. Stick mine at the back somewhere. Hey…” I finally saw Sharon’s cake, simple pink and blue that somehow painted a picture of an alpine lake, with Happy Birthday From Everyone reflected in the water. “Is that from Have Your Cake?”
“Brilliant choice, Sharon…” Which, to be fair, it was, but I’d never let truth get in the way of proper grovelling. “That’s really amazing.”
“Mazing, mazing, what’s mazing?” Harry bustled in, bright on the outside, dim on the inside. “Got that cake, Shaz. Pretty as pretty. All iced and whatever. Here you go.” He presented a large and plain chocolate cake, dusted in icing sugar so that it was like a black and white photo. In fact, the exact same photo Harry took and pinned up all round the office the day Nancy came back after passing her driving test – arms raised, smile wide. “Hey, guys, I thought I was getting the cake.” And seriously, he thought Happy Nance was a good message to have piped across the top?
Sharon glowered, but at least Harry was now deeper in the shit than I was. In fact, my bullshit about thinking Harry told me to get the cake got me another few steps higher. And I really am sure he said I was to get it.
“Right.” Sharon put her cake front and centre on the table. “Yours can go there, Harry.” Back right corner. “And yours…” She moved mine to the back left.
“Did you move it?”
Sharon got in my face, almost literally. She’s lean and pale, with tight and understated muscles from a rigorous workout schedule, just built for leaning and reaching with implied threat. More to the point, I’ve seen her stacking copier paper boxes – those understated muscles are not there just for show.
Sharon doesn’t have favourites, just colleagues she despises less than others. Sometimes I think it’s just me, but across the office I saw that Harry’s external shine was dulled, so someone had been in his face recently.
Nancy glanced up, gave me a smile, a hint of a wink – office birthday surprises are never actually a surprise, except to anyone who missed the email warning them about the surprise and not to mention it to the surprisee. I didn’t dare wink back, not with Sharon poised to reach down my throat.
“Someone moved the cake.” I said the words, like counting to ten. “Wasn’t me. Just move it back.”
A slender finger crooked in my face, a clear threat that eye-balls could be poked rather than tongues pulled out. “Come see.”
I went, I saw, I tried not to shrug. My cake was now front and centre, Sharon’s at rear right.
“So you pick up that one and I…” My cake, the stained glass window of Saint Nancy Ascending, now bore the message Happy Nance. “Wait. That’s not right.” Sharon’s cake had a bit of a chop on the waves of the alpine lake, blurring all the words except Everyone. “That’s crazy…” Blame Harry, that’s the default, except… “Can’t be Harry. He’s not that clever.”
We both looked at the Harry cake. It was still a black-and-white photo of Nancy, but now undressed like the models in the calender they made him get rid of. And when I say they, I mean Nancy and Sharon, but mostly Sharon. Or perhaps more honestly, the frightening double-act of Militant and her friend Violent. It was an utterly tacky, tasteless and inappropriate calendar.
“Harry is that stupid.” I said it, but we were both thinking it. “That has to go. Before Nancy sees.”
“Yes.” But no, not really. Sharon was the offended party; Nancy just the notionally unsuspecting surprisee. “I’ll put it…” She gestured. The bin was the obvious choice, but just because Harry was an arse didn’t necessarily justify binning his cake. “No. Pass me the knife.”
Really, it was quite blunt, so nothing to worry about. I handed her the knife and she did the catering equivalent of photoshop until Naked Nancy was a blur from the neck down.
“Now…” She brandished the blade smeared in icing. “I’m going to have a word with Harry. Another word with Harry.”
“Right. Yes. Do you just want to move your cake first?” I pointed, she looked, we both paused. “Um…” There was nothing but wild water now – no mountain, no lettering, and more of a feel of a stormy sea than alpine lake. “I…”
“Shit.” Sharon waved the knife uncertainly.
“Wait.” I pointed to where a boat appeared, just an outline, clearly listing and in trouble. “Did you see that?”
Sharon took a step back – I can’t say I blame her – and the icon of Saint Nancy on my cake winked.
“Are those cakes…? I mean, are they…?” Sharon had the knife ready to stab any of them if the icing made a sudden move. “It’s just… like… an optical illusion. Right?”
I squinted at Saint Nancy, looked from different angles, but there was no doubt the picture was changed. The caption now just read Nancy, and the saintly figure was crawling with angels and cherubs, all showing a disturbing resemblance to me.
“I think it’s real.” But let’s not say alive. “Perhaps something clever in the food colouring they used for the icing…” Harry’s cake had recovered. Did Nancy really look like that with her clothes off? “We have to get rid of all of them.”
“Not touching them.” Sharon took another step back, and then ran out of the room, knife in hand. Any other time and I would have laughed.
I took a step back myself.
“What’s going on?” Nancy, drawn to the sudden commotion, had her half-frown of accusation in play. “Can’t you do a surprise birthday without starting a fight?”
“No. It’s just. We have a… presentation issue.”
“Right. Move over. Just don’t tell Sharon. She hates it when someone spoils the surprise. Why are there three cakes?” And she looked more closely.
“Bastards.” That was for Harry’s cake.
“Seriously?” And mine.
“What the fuck?” Sharon’s.
“Uh. Presentation issue.” I stepped closer again. The Harry cake was definitely a ten for vulgarity, whilst mine had gone very strange, a cascade of cherubs riding down a helter-skelter of Nancy, and Sharon’s had frozen into an Arctic wasteland. “But… it’s hard to explain.”
“It’s like… um… that green dress of yours.” That Sharon said made her look fat, that Harry said made her look ill, and that I really liked but didn’t say. “A point of view thing. Depends on… on…. oh, fuck.” I pointed at my cake. “Um.”
Saint Nancy was now dressed in green. I couldn’t remember what she had worn two minutes ago. Neither could Nancy, but she looked and did the frown again.
“And… and… remember that… um…” My cake, my choices, obvious right? “That silly Christmas thing you did…” The Santa’s elf costume with the top-button problem… “See.” Perhaps the cake was exaggerating the top-button thing, but the real point was… “You saw that, right?”
“I think…” Nancy took a step back. I matched her. We were together in this. Or running away in formation. “I think… yes… I saw that. Let’s just forget about my birthday.”
“Yeah. Sorry.” My cake faded to a uniform pale yellow.
Nancy stared at it, waiting for another change. “I like that.”
Neither of us wanted to look at the Sharon cake – wild storms, sinking ships, tentacled sea-monsters with jagged teeth and mad eyes. As for Harry, that was just embarrassing, unless you’re into that sort of thing. Nancy draped a paper napkin over it.
“Ignore the cake.” I had an idea to make the best of the situation. “Tell you what… That Italian place on Market Place. After work – I’ll buy you a birthday pizza. Just no cake. Right? No cake at all.”
Nancy nodded. My cake smiled, but fortunately she was looking at me.
It would still be there in the morning, I was sure of that. Normally, cake does not last in the office, but this was different. Three strange chameleon cakes that defied all sense. Perhaps they would be edible if someone shut their eyes and didn’t know…
My cake grinned. And winked.
And gained lettering.
Mark Huntley-James is the author of the Demon Trader series on Kindle, a space-opera Streamrider and won the British Fantasy Society short story competition in 2013. He has shorts and flash published through Lore Magazine and stories in several anthologies. He has read four of his dark sci-fi stories at Virtual Futures events. He can be found on line at his blog (https://markhuntleyjames.wordpress.com/), or on Twitter as @MarkH_J. He guests blogs for the One Million Project.