Food Short Story Competition - Winner

Jodie Rose Carpenter

When Life Gives You Lemons
Food Short Story Competition


Jodie Carpenter lives in Birmingham where she works in marketing. She has been a winner, runner-up and shortlisted in several Writing Magazine competitions and has also had her short stories published in a variety of other places. She is currently editing her first novel for teens. When not reading or writing as much young adult fiction as possible, Jodie enjoys yoga, listening to rock music, watching anime and consuming copious amounts of tea. 

When Life Gives You Lemons By Jodie Rose Carpenter

Acloud of sweet-smelling, hot air consumes my face as Mom pushes open the front door. I breathe in deeply, anticipating the sweet smell of spices –
‘Is that lemon I can smell?’ I ask Mom as I follow her inside and dump my suitcase on the ground. The handle on it practically sighs with relief.
‘Alice is making a lemon drizzle.’
‘Lemon drizzle? As well as the chai sugar cookies?’
‘No, instead of them. She’s decided to try something new this year.’ My face falls but Mom doesn’t notice as she hangs our jackets up on the coat stand. ‘How does a peppermint hot chocolate sound? I think we need it after that monster of a journey.’
I just nod, concentrating on pulling my boots off by treading on the backs of the heels. Every year without fail since Mom and Alice got together six years ago, we’ve had those cookies. It’s been our tradition. Heck, the thought of those was the only thing that got me through the last few weeks of term.
As I’m placing my boots next to a pair of wellies that look like rubber ducks – I’m guessing they’re Alice’s. I can’t imagine Mom being caught dead in them – a loud purring fills the hall and something warm winds around my ankles. I crouch down and am rewarded by Comet dragging his sandpaper-rough tongue across my nose.
‘Hello, my little squishy pie. Have you missed your mom?’ Comet gives a pitiful mewl and curls his tail around my shin, leaving a trail of silver. ‘Thanks, mate. That’s the one thing I haven’t missed about you.’
‘There she is, our little cat lady,’ Alice appears behind me, wearing the Cinnamon rolls, not gender roles apron I bought her last Christmas.
‘Stop listening in on mine and Comet’s private conversations,’ I say as I bat at the fur clinging to my jeans before straightening up. ‘It’s rude.’
‘You shouldn’t talk so loudly then.’
I walk over to Alice and wrap my arms around her. The sweet and savoury smells of the kitchen cling to every part of her. I’m glad that hasn’t changed. I breathe in deeply and her hair tickles my nose.
‘It’s great to have you back, kiddo. Your mom doesn’t know what to do with herself when you’re not here.’
I barely suppress an eyeroll. ‘Tell me about it. She made up for lost time on the drive back – she literally would not shut up. I’m not even joking.’
‘I did warn her not to overwhelm you otherwise she’d scare you away for good.’
As if, I think as I smile weakly. To Alice though, I say ‘Her singing along to Christmas songs almost did it. And believe me, I use the word “singing” loosely.’
‘Well, it sounds like you need a distraction from the trauma of your journey,’ Alice says, leading me into the kitchen. ‘How does chopping some veggies for me sound?’
‘Great,’ I say but then I freeze. For a moment, I think I’m in the wrong house. Back in September, our kitchen was lime green – which was my favourite colour when Mom let me choose the paint ten years ago. Now the walls are crimson, broken up by grey cabinets. Mom looks up from where she’s pouring hot water into a mug and notices me standing there gaping.
‘Oh yeah, we redecorated the kitchen last month. It was time for a change. What do you think?’
‘Erm,’ I glance at the doorframe to see if the height markings Mom made every birthday are still there. But no, it’s been coated in stark white paint, all traces of my height through the years buried underneath it. It’s hard to ignore the pinching in my stomach.
‘It looks good. Very clean – you need a biohazard suit to even venture into the kitchen back at the flat.’
Mom tuts and places the promised hot chocolate next to me – complete with a candy cane – before disappearing into the living room to read her book. I take the knife Alice brandishes at me and begin hacking at the carrots. This is as close to cooking as Alice allows me to get – unfortunately, I’ve inherited Mom’s complete and utter inability to make anything edible. Seriously, it’s lucky Mom met Alice when she did – we were on a first-name basis with most of the takeaway drivers in the area until Alice moved in and introduced us to outlandish things like fresh ingredients and cookbooks.
I think of the Sunday dinners I’ve had recently – scrambled egg that was more scramble than egg, flimsy pasta and cheese, and the time when my flatmate Oscar convinced me it would be a good idea to make a sandwich using raw, instant noodles as the filling. Not my proudest moment, I must admit.
Soon – after several minutes spent rooting through all the drawers to find the new home of the cutlery – I’m setting the table and Alice is presenting us with a feast. She’s always been big on proper Sunday dinners: my plate heaves under a mountain of golden Yorkshire puddings, a rainbow of vegetables, a slab of stuffing and crispy roast potatoes all slathered in piping hot gravy. There’s a new addition hiding under a parsnip though. I prod it suspiciously with my fork.
‘What’s the nut roast done to you?’ Alice says, watching me.
‘Nut. Roast.’ I just stare at her.
Mom clears her throat. ‘About that. Alice and I have gone veggie.’
I laugh until Mom’s eyebrows knit together in a frown. ‘You’re not kidding, are you?’
‘Why would I be?’
‘How about the fact you ate meat for breakfast, dinner and tea before I left?’
‘People are allowed to change, aren’t they?’ Her words stop my next comment from leaving my mouth.
We tuck into our food, the scraping of forks and the occasional ‘Mmm’ the soundtrack to our meal. After a while, Alice turns to me. ‘So are you going to tell us anything about this fantastic new life you’re living?’
‘What have you been doing for the last three months?’ Mom says. ‘You haven’t given us any details at all.’
‘Oh,’ I shove a roast potato into my mouth and chew it thoughtfully. And slowly. ‘Just studying, really.’
‘How’s your course? And your flatmates? Have you made any friends?’
‘Mom, you’re bombarding me.’
‘I’m just trying to have a conversation with you,’ Mom gestures wildly. She’s in danger of sending a hunk of nut roast flying from her fork. Comet eyes it in anticipation. ‘I feel like we don’t know you anymore.’
‘Everything’s good. I don’t know what else you want me to say,’ I mumble to my plate, pushing peas through the gravy with my fork.
Alice places her hand on top of Mom’s. ‘We’re just worried about you.’
‘It’s like you’ve got this whole new life you don’t want us to be a part of,’ Mom chips in.
That makes me look up. ‘That’s rich, coming from you.’
They stare at me, mouths open. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Mom says.
‘Never mind,’ I push the chair back with a loud scrape as I stand up.
‘Ella,’ Alice says. ‘Stay here. We can talk about it over dessert.’
‘I wanted chai sugar cookies,’ I say as I go up the stairs. I’m being mean but I don’t care.
When I turn on the light, I see that even my bedroom isn’t safe. Any spaces left from things I took to uni with me have since been invaded – Mom’s mosaic tools and materials spill across my desk where I used to sit to do my homework and Alice’s vinyl collection is now tucked into my bookcase. There’s also a stack of wrapped Christmas presents in front of the TV. Just great.
I stalk across the room and flop onto the bed. The sheets are crisp and uninviting after not being used for months. I stare at the spiderweb crack in the corner of the ceiling, a pressure building behind my eyes. It’s been a struggle dealing with everything down in Brighton – new names, faces and places to remember and that’s not even counting the 638 things I’ve had to learn as part of my Psychology course. I thought it would be a relief coming home for a bit where everything was safe and normal and the same.  
There’s a small knock on my door. I push myself up against my pillows and scrub the back of my hand across my eyes. ‘Yeah?’
‘It’s only me,’ Mom pokes her head around the door. ‘You’ve just got to try some of this cake. Alice has really out done herself.’ She indicates the plate in her hand. It does look good. But I’m not over my sulk just yet.
‘Are you okay?’ Mom walks towards me and pushes her fingers through my fringe. ‘I’m sorry if I upset you with all the questions. It’s only because I’m interested in your life. You’re my baby, after all.’
‘I know,’ I say.
‘What did you mean earlier? About it being rich coming from us?’
I shrug and she sighs before sitting down on the bed next to me. I lean into her warmth. She still smells like her favourite rose perfume and hand cream. The coil of tension in my stomach unfurls slightly and my lips part, ready to tell her that I hate feeling like I’m being left behind in a life I’m not sure I want anymore, as theirs moves on without me.
‘Whatever’s upsetting you, I want you to remember that we’re so proud of you going to uni. Our big, clever girl is all grown up.’
And just like that I know I can’t tell her. That if I do, it would break her heart.
‘I know, Mom,’ I repeat, grateful that she can’t see the wetness coating my eyes.
‘Now here, this cake’s not going to eat itself,’ she holds the plate under my nose until I take it.
I slide the fork into the cake, pulling off a tiny triangle. When I bite into it, a citrusy tang floods my tongue. It’s nice, but I don’t know if I can get used to it. 

Judges Comments

Food is used as motif for change and continuity in Jodie Rose Carpenter's bittersweet coming-of-age tale When Life Gives You Lemons, the winning story in WM's competition for food-themed short story.

It's a story that acknowledges the pain of growing up, of leaving home, of becoming distant from familiar things, and the realisation that nothing stands still. Ella, Jodie's central character, is home from her first term at university, where, it's suggested, she's slightly uncomfortable – not quite at home. But home has changed too. Alice, her mother's partner, has made a lemon drizzle cake instead of the cookies Ella associated with coming home. Alice and her mother have turned vegan. They're small changes but food carries an emotional weight in this sotry (as in life), and Jodie's compassionate, empathetic storytelling allows the reader to see Ella having to face the fact that she is not the only family member of the whose life is changing.

It's gently, carefully done. Jodie's straightforward, understated narrative style shows everything so the reader can create a picture. There's no telling. The reader sees the unfolding scenario through Ella's eyes, where hope, love, disappointment and the understanding that everything in life must change are all understood and filtered through the medium of food in this kind, touching story.



Runner-up in the Food Short Story Competition was Kevin Cheeseman, Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, whose story is published on Also shortlisted were: Vanessa Jarrett, Lymington, Hampshire; Katie Kent, Bicester, Oxfordshire; Pauline Massey, Osney, Oxfordshire; Jill McKenzie, Newton Stewart, Dumfries and Galloway; Laila Murphy, Woolton, Liverpool; AJ Reid, Heswall, Cheshire; Karmen Špiljak, São Paulo, Brazil; Veronica Swinburne, Westhoughton, Lancashire