Spinning Sugar—Fija Callaghan

Content warning: miscarriage, bereavement

The trains that rumbled up to Knaresborough station were rattly, conservatively-dressed things, not unlike the people who disembarked there. Nadia watched them from behind the window of the little shop. It was nestled on the open-air platform between the ticket window and a minuscule café that served American-style pancakes. She recognized most of the faces coming off the train. Many of them had come in when the shop had first opened, surreptitiously, ashamed of their indulgence, hiding behind words like ‘the train’s running behind is all, won’t be a minute…’

It had taken time for the staunch, stalwart Yorkshire people to trust a divorced woman running a business alone, and to trust the silky silver letters that spun across a banner the colour of midnight:

La Confiserie des Rêves.

The Candy Shop of Dreams.

Something more appropriate to a city like London, perhaps, than a little train station by the riverside. But the smells of sticky red fruit and smoky caramel were seductive, and besides, the trains were often late. 

Two passengers slipped into the shop. One was a retired teacher named Charlotte; she had moved north to be near her daughter, who was studying at a university in Leeds. The other woman was unfamiliar, a relative from out of town, probably. Nadia kept herself unobtrusively preoccupied as the women perused the displays nearest the counter, which were filled with mostly-harmless delights: melon and marigold pâtes de fruits to dream of childhood memories; bramble and hawthorn-berry for dreams of lost love. On a delicate glass stand, rose and lemonbalm caramels to mend discord as one slept. That had been a difficult recipe to get just right. There were some things even spun sugar couldn’t fix. 

Charlotte and her friend leaned over the sparkling array of pâtes de fruits, lined up like jewels in a treasure chest. Pale lemon and elderflower squares through all the shades of the rainbow to the deep, dark, blackcurrant and clove. Nadia cautioned against eating that one at bedtime. 

The woman gasped. “These look just marvellous! Do you really make them all yourself?”

Nadia smiled. “I do, yes.”

“However did you learn?”

“My grandmother taught me,” Nadia said. It had been her father’s mother, Mamie Antoinette, who had taught her the art of confectionery. Her mother’s mother, Nana Edith, had taught her the other things. 

They bought a box of the multicoloured fruit squares to share, and two caramels—maple syrup and tobacco flower, and golden apple kissed with lapsang tea. Later, in the safety of their own beds, in the in-between place just before dreamland, they would remember autumn sunsets and long-forgotten kisses by the bonfire. 

“It’s very peculiar,” Charlotte was saying, as the door drifted shut behind them. “Last month I remember eating one or two of these before bed, and I had the most extraordinary dreams.”

Nadia broke into the yawn she’d been stifling all day. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d properly slept through the night. She shook herself awake and went into the little storage room that served as her workshop. A cracked wooden kitchen island housed bowls, jars of light and dark sugars, and the harp cutter that dominated the cramped room. She’d been surprised to learn, years ago, that other candy makers called the stringed slicing apparatus a guitar, in English as well as the French guitare. But to Mamie Antoinette it had always been la harpe, the harp.

Nadia’s husband had never liked the obnoxiously awkward thing taking up space in their kitchen at home. When she had gotten pregnant she’d used it to cut up trays and trays of salmonberry pâtes de fruits with orange blossom and thyme, trying to elicit dreams of the daughter they’d soon be meeting. What would she be like? How would they spend their summers? She didn’t tell Michael what she was doing, or how she couldn’t understand why she dreamt only of darkness. 

She’d heard once that very, very few marriages managed to survive the loss of a child. By the time Michael left she was already too numb with loss to hear him go. One day there was simply a second hole beside the first, where her daughter and the love of her life should have been. 

All she had left were dreams. 

From the island she pulled out pots and bowls for the morning’s project: pâte de fruit of rosemary and juniper berry. It was the only thing in the shop that brought forth no dreams at all; rather, it welcomed a night filled only with gentle oblivion, sweet shadows that put aside the pain and memories until the light of morning. The recipe had come to her one night as she lay in bed, watching the moon wind its lazy way across the sky. 

The ground beneath her feet hummed. The front door rattled as another train pulled up to the platform, then stilled under the murmur of voices. Nadia mixed golden sugar into crushed juniper berries and stirred. The scent tangled itself in her hair. The train had moved on and the sounds of the station were still before she heard new footsteps in the shop. 

Sighing, she lifted the bubbling mixture off the heat and stepped out onto the floor, pulling the workshop door firmly closed behind her. Slick black loafers clipped against the old floorboards. The shoes met immaculately pressed trousers, then a blazer with broad shoulders that made the compact space look even smaller. He might have been the tallest man Nadia had ever seen. She tried to compare him to Michael in her mind and felt hollow all over again. 

“Welcome,” she said, brushing her hands on her apron. She had to tilt her head back to look up at him. “Can I be of assistance?”

The man turned, nearly too big for the room, and his shoulder caught the shelf against the wall. The stand with the rose and lemonbalm caramels shuddered, then leapt. Glass exploded on the wooden floor.

“Oh gosh, I’m terribly sorry.” The man knelt down and hit his head on the shelf. He muttered something slightly more colourful than gosh and put his hand to his head. “Sorry. Really.”

Nadia bit back a smile. Michael had sworn like a sailor. “Don’t worry. I’ll fetch the dustpan.” She maneuvered against the large man, rustling his blazer, and retrieved the small brush from behind the counter. The caramels had been on their way out, anyhow. She’d tried one earlier that day to see if it was getting too dry. 

“So what can I help you with?” she asked, as she swept up the glass shards and the caramels. Even in their wrappers, the ethereal scent of lemonbalm and rose reached for her, caressed her, whispered stories of forgiveness and peace and mornings full of promise. She brushed it impatiently away.

“I was looking for something to bring my daughter.” The man looked around at the glittering confections. “She’s been having bad dreams.”

Nadia looked up, startled. “Oh?” 

“Yeah. I thought a nice surprise would help her rest a little easier. You must know what children are like.”

She bit her lip. Not trusting herself to speak, she just shook her head.

She put the dustpan away and wandered over to the array of pâtes de fruits. A few of the last batch of juniper berry were left. Certainly they would help still the nightmares. Or perhaps loganberry and sea salt, for dreams of languid summer days by the sea. 

“How old is your daughter?” she heard herself asking. Hers and Michael’s would have been three now. Three last month. 

“She’s three,” the man replied. Nadia glanced over sharply. “And you?” he asked, “have you any children of your own?”

She hesitated, her fingers on the worn wood table. It wasn’t the first time someone had asked her that. Consider yourself lucky, a local woman had said, grinning at the gangly preteen she dragged along behind her. They both knew she didn’t mean it. 


When she’d felt the sharp snap in her stomach and the wet between her legs, she thought she was going into labor. She looked around for Michael. Then she saw the blood. There was so much blood. 

“I see,” the man said. And he did, somehow. “What was her name?”

It didn’t occur to Nadia to wonder how he knew it was a her. It seemed as natural as her own understanding that it was a daughter that grew inside her.

“Anne,” she said. After Michael’s grandmother. Nadia liked it because it sounded like her own grandmother too, Antoinette. “She nearly made it. It was almost time, but she… I… wasn’t strong enough.”

The man stepped towards her. He smelled of Michael’s aftershave, and roses. Roses and lemonbalm. The tears in her eyes made the sharp lights blur. 

“Strength has nothing to do with it. It wasn’t her time yet. She knew it and just didn’t know how to tell you.”

“But I miss her,” Nadia whispered. Everything she could have been. Their family. The life they would never have. She wrapped her arms around herself and was surprised to see that her fingers were bloody. She looked at them curiously. They smelled like strawberries. Strawberry was Michael’s favourite. 

“Of course you do. She misses you too. And you’ll see her again one day, after you’ve lived a long, full life. But you’ve got to live it first. You need to collect all the stories you’re going to tell her.”

She squeezed her eyes closed, willing herself to stay standing. Tears escaped and rolled down her face. One sunk into her lips. It tasted of sugar-water. 

Nadia opened her eyes. The man wasn’t as tall as she’d thought, or maybe it was the shop that wasn’t so small. The corridor stretched out past the train tracks, over the river, out beyond the confines of North Yorkshire and towards Mamie Antoinette’s garden in Fontenay-aux-Roses. The confiserie was the entire world. 

The man brushed a tendril of hair out of her eyes, just as Michael had done so, so many times. Her heart broke all over again.

“It’s okay, Nadia,” Michael said. “It’s okay to start living.”

He might have said something else. She wasn’t sure. Whatever it was was lost in the rumble of the next train.

The light hurt her eyes. She had fallen asleep awkwardly at her work table, sitting on something that might have generously been called a bar stool or, less generously, a small coat rack. Something crinkled in her hand. It was an empty candy wrapper, still smelling of lemonbalm and rose. 

She came out to the front of the tiny shop, staggering on legs that hadn’t quite woken up all the way. The little glass stand piled with caramels still stood on the shelf, glittering invitingly. She decided she’d give the caramels a few more days. 

Nadia went to the front door and looked out. The air was cool and fresh. A train idled on the platform and commuters passed in and out. Some of them waved to her. 

Once the train pulled away, Nadia retrieved her keys and locked up the candy shop. Just beyond the hill the River Nidd sparkled. It was a lovely day for a walk.

Fija Callaghan is an Irish-Canadian writer who believes in embracing the magic of everyday moments. Her work has appeared in numerous venues including Bandit Fiction, Nightingale & Sparrow, The Caterpillar, Eucalyptus & Rose Magazine, Dodging the Rain Poetry Journal, Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, Steam Ticket, littledeathlit, Crow & Cross Keys, and Wyldblood Magazine.

photo by De an Sun (via unsplash)