Whatever the problem is, the answer is cake…
The woman who taught me to bake used that saying all the time. Later, I found out that she misquoted it. The first four words should be ‘whatever the question is’, but I never minded. Hers was the better version.
Nan’s words, echoing down the years, struck me afresh as I put the finishing touches to my version of a banoffee pie turned into cake form—a banana-flavoured sponge sandwiched with cream, topped with caramel-flavoured icing and decorated with a spun sugar cage, the delicate golden-brown strands stretching over the surface.
From start to finish, the cake had taken me three and a half hours, the first half of which I’d spent wondering what it would have been like to make it in front of TV cameras. The doorbell rang as I was about to start the washing up.
“Someone’s been doing magical things in the kitchen!” Kieran said, as I opened the front door to my flat. His eyes crinkled and then widened again; blue-green irises shot through with bright flashes of white that always made me think of glass marbles.
“Come in, come in!” I tipped my face to the side for him to kiss my cheek. He caught me by surprise instead, wrapping me up in a tight hug and ducking his lips to meet mine. The disparity in our heights made the move awkward, rather than passionate, and his beard scratched my chin. I wriggled free as soon as was polite and took his hand to lead him into the kitchen.
“There!” I pointed towards the cake on the breakfast bar next to the window that looked out over the park. “The anniversary cake. Help yourself to the sample version I made for tasting purposes.”
He stuck a finger in the cloud of caramel buttercream topping the smaller cake, licked it and did the same again, something that would normally trigger an “Ew, Kieran!” from me.
Not today though, seeing as a) I wanted his opinion on the cake, and b) my cat Biggles had knocked the packet of butter on the floor earlier and proceeded to lick the entire top surface of it. I used it anyway. Waste not, want not, right?
“What do you think?” I asked, handing him one of the vintage porcelain plates with red and gold hand-painted decoration that I always used to serve anything baked, along with a cake fork and a knife.
He cut himself a generous slice, closing his eyes and letting out an involuntary moan as he bit into it. A blob of buttercream attached itself to his cheek. I brushed it off.
“God, that’s amazing!” he said once the slice of cake had disappeared. “What’s that over there?” He pointed at the Tupperware boxes stacked neatly beside the sink.
“Home-made sausage rolls for the party.”
He rubbed his belly. “Yum!”
I dumped the mixing bowl in the sink and swirled in hot water and washing up liquid. The window fogged up, obscuring the view of the trees beyond. Kieran reached behind him, using his finger to write Alyssa, Champion Baker in the steam.
I picked up the damp sponge and wiped the words away, leaving a soapy streak across the glass. “I’m not, though, am I? They knocked me back.”
On Monday, the assistant director of arguably the biggest televised baking competition in the western world, Best Baker UK, had emailed me to say that despite impressing the judges in my regional heat, I hadn’t made the cut.
The news floored me at the time, but by the Wednesday I told myself that the brilliant opportunity dangled in front of me and now snatched away would not have been that great after all, and as Nan had never known about it, what did it matter anyway…?
“Because they’re idiots,” Kieran said. “Absolute stupid, bonkers idiots.” He hadn’t been terribly keen on me entering anyway.
“Thank you.” I slapped his hand away as he attempted to steal more of the buttercream. I sliced him another helping of the sample cake instead.
“Why not start a YouTube channel?” he added between bites of slice two of the sample cake. “Alyssa Bakes Cakes or something.”
“There’s an idea,” I replied to Kieran, humouring him. “With the best digital marketer in the business behind me, those films would get millions of views in no time, right?”
Kieran’s eyebrows arched. “Steady on. Aim for the thousands first. A small, engaged audience online counts far more than huge numbers of followers who ignore you. That’s what we always tell clients.”
“Absolutely, though if I did set up a digital channel,” something I had no intention of doing, “would that cake be good enough? The decoration’s not that great.”
Kieran shook his head and showed me the picture he’d snapped of the cake on his phone. “Don’t be daft. It’s proper Insta-worthy. The flavour’s the most important thing anyway, and that cake is enough to make me want to drop on one knee and beg you to marry me.”
Uh-oh. His expression hadn’t changed, but the eyes studied me intently as I tried to think of a way to handle the situation with tact.
Ever-obliging, Biggles stepped in. Kieran uttered an outraged “Oi!”, as the cat took advantage of the distraction to jump onto the countertop via the other stool and help himself to some of the leftover buttercream.
Kieran fell into the dog, rather than cat, fan group category and Biggles often proved himself a bone of contention between us.
I whisked Biggles up and placed him on the floor. He miaowed at me, swishing his grey-and-black-striped tail back and forth. As I rubbed his head, I noticed a bit of icing stuck to his whiskers that he had swiped from Kieran’s plate.
“If we got married, you would need to live with Biggles full time,” I said. “And anyway, what’s in it for me?”
The ‘jokey’ proposal may well contain a big thumping hint, but if I pretended that I believed it was a joke—and it might well be—we could both retreat from the situation with dignity.
“All my worldly goods, obvs, and this fantastic body, the one Men’s Health keeps pestering me to put on its front cover.”
He lifted his faded black T-shirt, making me laugh. Unless Men’s Health planned an article on ‘Getting your Best Dad Bod’, they wouldn’t be plastering Kieran all over their front cover anytime soon. Hair darker than that on his head and face covered his chest, tapering to a line that went right down his abdomen. The waistband of his jeans disappeared under the bulge of his belly—a look he sometimes described as “four months pregnant after eating three buckets of KFC in a row”.
None of which I minded. I’d once fallen for model guy looks. Never again.
Relieved that we’d successfully negotiated the dangerous waters of real or otherwise proposals, and he’d maintained that same sunny mood, I poked his belly button, making him flinch. “Have your worldly goods increased in value since I met you?”
He shook his head. “Nope. ’Fraid not. Especially after the last eighteen months.”
We exchanged rueful smiles. The blasted pandemic.
Unlike me, Kieran knew from the start he couldn’t work for anyone else, so he struck out on his own after university, setting up Digi Solutions, a digital marketing business that catered for small/medium-sized companies in the Manchester area, while I worked in the communications department for one of the big corporates.
In February 2020, I’d been offered a promotion by an even bigger corporate. I planned to conquer the world. Start a new chapter, fling myself into a new, brilliant career, blah, blah, blah.
BAM! A never-before heard of virus hit the world, killing millions and shutting down economies. The company I’d switched to didn’t offer to furlough me. The job they’d proposed disappeared and the mortgage on the flat I’d bought a year ago kept flashing in front of my eyes. Pay me, pay me.
Kieran stepped in after I approached every similar company I could find on the internet and begged them for a job.
“C’mon, Alyssa. You’re already in communications. It’s not that big a leap to digital marketing.”
“But is it a good idea for us to work together?” I asked, fearing the strain it would place on our relationship, only nine months old at that point, and wondering about spending that much time together. He insisted we would be fine.
We focused on every company offering any service or product still able to function in lockdown times, and we survived. Sometimes, I wondered if we were better off as boss and employee than boyfriend and girlfriend. I kept those thoughts to myself.
Kieran patted his belly. “Right, I better be off. Don’t s’pose you want to come with me?”
The tone to the question was breezy in an ‘I don’t care’ way, but underlaid with the big something else—say yes, Lissie.
It was a Friday, the one night of the week that popular culture designated as belonging to couples. Thanks to work, Kieran and I spent so much time together. Time alone was my drug; craved like other people yearn for walks around parks after a day spent locked up in an office where the air conditioning has conked out.
Tonight, Kieran was off to the campsite near Chester where his parents owned a static caravan. Tomorrow, they would celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. A belated party because the actual anniversary had been in March. Obviously, the party invite extended to me.
Kieran’s father harboured lots of dodgy views and he loved goading me with what he thought about immigration, claiming I was a “complete woke snowflake”, while his mother asked pointed questions about weddings.
I kissed the tips of my fingers and pressed them to Kieran’s mouth. “I’ll be down tomorrow evening. With the banoffee cake and the sausage rolls. There’s a train at four o’clock.”
“Four!” Kieran exclaimed, grabbing hold of my fingers in one hand and pressing them that little bit too tightly. “Lissie, it takes forty-five minutes to drive to the station from the campsite. You said yesterday you’d be on the two o’clock train.”
There was a definite edge to the ‘Lissie’. Most of the time, he stuck with my full name. About the only person left who did. My nan, and no, I didn’t want to think about her now, or I’d start howling, always called me Alyssa. Kieran used ‘Lissie’ when he wanted to make a point or when I annoyed him.
“But Jo wants us to go for a long run tomorrow morning,” I said, “so I don’t know if I’ll be back in time to leave here and catch that train.”
Jo, aka Joanna, and my best friend.
“She hasn’t got that long to go until the half-marathon.”
“You know how disappointed my parents were when they had to postpone their party because of lockdown. It would be nice if you could be there right from the start. Jo can run on her own, can’t she?”
“Okay, okay.” I clasped his hands. Relationships need a lot of compromise, and mine was not heading down to Derby tonight. “I’ll skip it.”
Kieran pressed his lips together, the bottom one pushing up the corners of his mouth into a delighted smile, those marble-like eyes now shining in approval.
“Fab!” His face clouded over once more. “Though neither of us is going to have a comfortable night’s sleep.”
Only two of the caravan’s small bedrooms contained double beds. Darla, Kieran’s married older sister, had already claimed the other double bed, while Kristie, the younger one had bagsied the converted sofa bed in the living room, leaving us to squeeze into the room with the single bed.
“We’ll cope,” I said. “Maybe one of the other caravan owners will take pity on us.”
Biggles butted his head against Kieran’s shin and miaowed. Kieran ducked down and tickled him under the chin. “Hey, wee fella! Be super nice to my girlfriend tonight. That’s an order.”
As he overcame his instinctive dislike for cats by sucking up to mine, I reminded myself afresh that Kieran’s heart was in the right place. Biggles purred, buoyed up by the knowledge Kieran’s absence meant that tonight he would be sleeping curled up next to me on the bed.
“Remember, you’re the best baker in the world!” Kieran flung his arms out. I stepped into them. Men’s Health might not favour Dad Bods, but the owners of them hugged like they meant it. The proper squish of flesh on flesh that seemed to imprint itself on a body and the arms that squeezed my shoulder blades close enough for them to seem to touch each other. We clung together two seconds too long, the disentangling bit awkward.
Kieran had turned brick red. The colour highlighted the chestnut brown hair shorn close to the sides of his head and sticking up in tufts above his forehead. He held his hand up—thumb and forefinger splayed in the ‘phone me’ gesture.
“Yup,” I nodded. “Will do! See you tomorrow!”
As he jogged down the stairs—the lift, as usual, wasn’t working—I leant against the door frame and wondered if I would be able to keep my mouth shut when his dad started up his usual spiel on immigration and lefty lawyers. Tomorrow, the alcohol would make him ten times as awful.
Probably not. The answer came straight back at me, but is that such a terrible thing? And maybe Kieran will stick up for me… I closed the door as Biggles tried to make a run for it—the speed of him surprising for a cat of his age. He yowled at me, sulky teen-style.
“Too bad, you,” I told him. “We’re spending the night in.”
My phone buzzed, the beep-beep of a WhatsApp call. Biggles scuttled off towards the bedroom when I set him down and I retrieved my phone from the kitchen counter.
“Yo, yo, yo, yo!” the voice at the other end sang out. Jo. “You’ll never guess what… There I was, minding my own business on Insta, busy drooling over KJWorksout and BibiBody and this notification pops up, announcing who this year’s competitors for Best Baker UK are.”
“Really?” It came out as a screech. “Already? If I’d known this was going to happen, I might have done something.”
Jo tsked. “Like, what? Sent a pigeon with a note tied to its leg to all your friends? ‘Behold, dear chums, Alyssa Mordant shall not be appearing on TV screens in front of you. Please, I beg of you, bombard the Best Baker UK’s production company with objections.’”
I blew her a raspberry down the phone. “C’mon, I’m not a total Luddite.”
Jo viewed my social media refusenik status with bemusement. That same status had also astonished the Blaze Productions team, but had it counted against me when Blaze Productions compiled their original contestant list?
It was tempting to think yes, it had. You saw it all the time—the book and record deals, TV shows and other opportunities that fell into the hands of people who built huge online followings.
“Guess who one of the contestants is…?” Jo said, stretching out the words, a hint that I wouldn’t like the next bit of news.
I wandered back into my living room. I’d left the curtains open, reluctant to give up the view before darkness obliterated the hills in the distance, the silhouetted trees and the pink-orange tinge to the sky as the sun dropped.
“@ScottishCakeGuy. Aka Rob McAllister.”
“What!” I almost dropped the phone as Biggles, not a fan of loud noises, bolted for the bedroom.
@ScottishCakeGuy. Rob McAllister.
And my ex-boyfriend.