Baked with Love… a romcom with cakes
“Marry me, Alyssa. I’m serious this time. Hop on the back of my bike and we’ll take off for Gretna Green, grab two witnesses off the street and swear undying love to each other over that weird black metal thing. What do you call those things, something beginning with A?”
“Yeah, that, and live happily ever after.”
Kieran stuck a finger in the cloud of caramel buttercream that sat on top of the cake I’d just made, licked it and did the same again, something that would normally trigger an ‘Ew, Kieran’, from me. Not today though, seeing as a) Kieran was my long-standing best bloke friend stroke boss, and b) my cat Lucas 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’s in it for me?” I asked, my standard reply to the all-too regular jokey proposal. We were in my kitchen. There was no room to swing a cat (an unproven statement as Lucas would bite my hand off if I tried) but I’d installed a breakfast bar next to the window that looked out over the park, which was where Kieran perched on a stool now, the cake in front of him, and taking up far too much space.
He gave the stock answer. “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, and we burst out laughing. Unless Men’s Health planned a feature on ‘Getting your best Dad Bod’, they wouldn’t be asking Kieran to feature on their front cover anytime soon. Dark hair 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 “three months pregnant after eating three buckets of KFC in a row”.
I poked his belly button, making him flinch. “I don’t want the caravan, thank you very much, and I know nothing about gaming, so the Play Station 5’s useless to me. And as I don’t have a motorbike licence, the Kawasaki Z750S should remain in your capable hands for the time being. Have your worldly goods increased in size since the last time you asked me to marry you?”
He shook his head. “Nope. ‘Fraid not. Especially after the last eighteen months.”
We exchanged rueful smiles. The blasted pandemic. At one point, we thought the business would go under. It hadn’t, thank God, but it had been a close call.
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 held crossed fingers up.
“Anyway,” I said, slapping his hand away as he attempted to steal more of the buttercream. “You’ve got a job to do. Critique what I’ve done. Is it good enough for a TV show?”
We looked at it. My version of a banoffee pie turned into cake form—banana-flavoured sponge sandwiched with cream, topped with caramel flavoured buttercream and decorated with spun sugar, delicate golden-brown strands stretching over the cake.
“I proposed to you. Again. Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?”
“No. Comment on the lightness or otherwise of the sponge. Tell me if the icing is too sweet. And what do you make of my sugar work?”
Kieran rolled his eyes. He picked up the knife and cut himself a slice, tipping it onto the bone China plates I’d put out especially for the purpose. I handed him a cake fork. He dug it in, scooped himself up a generous portion and parked it in his mouth.
A blob of buttercream had attached itself to his cheek. I wiped it off.
“Really, really nice.”
“Kieran! That’s a shit adjective. You’re in charge of a marketing agency, for crying out loud. Come up with something better, you useless git!”
He glared at me. “C’mon, Lissie.”
Most of the time, he stuck with my full name. Just about the only person left alive who did. My nan, and no, I didn’t want to think about her now, or I’d start howling, always called me Alyssa. ‘Lissie’ meant I’d pissed him off. The useless git insult made me sound super ungrateful, given what he’d done for me. Or maybe I shouldn’t have laughed so hard when he made that joke about his body. Fair enough, he’d started it, but he might be sensitive about his body shape after all.
“Sorry,” I said, sticking the now clean mixing bowl in the drying rack. “Kieran Thompson, you’re the greatest. And I haven’t thanked you for a while. THANK YOU, KIERAN. Did you get the capital letters there? I couldn’t have survived the last eighteen months without you.”
His cheeks flushed a dull red. My friend stroke boss found soppiness uncomfortable, but my words were heartfelt. In February 2020, I’d been offered a new job, which filled me with excitement about the challenges ahead. I planned to conquer the world. Start a new chapter, fling myself into a 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 want to furlough me. The job they’d offered me disappeared and the mortgage on the flat I’d bought a mere three years ago kept flashing in front of my eyes. Pay me, pay me.
All I had was buttons.
Kieran stepped in. We’d been friends for a long time, after having met at school and then ending up at the same college studying marketing and PR. Unlike me, Kieran knew from the start he couldn’t work for anyone else, so he struck out on his own, setting up a digital marketing business that mostly catered for small/medium-sized companies local to our area.
He listened to my tale of woe, and said, “Do you want to join me?”
We honed in on every company offering any service or product still able to function in lockdown times, and we survived.
“Yeah, well,” he said now, “the first whiff of a book/TV deal, and you’ll be off. No backward glances at me.”
“Not true,” I replied. Lucas wandered in, eyeing the bowl of leftover buttercream on the kitchen counter. Lucas’s love of butter extended to buttercream. Try Googling ‘what happens if your cat eats too much sugar’ and see where that gets you. He leapt up onto the top. I whisked the bowl away, and he miaowed at me, swishing his ginger-striped tail back and forth.
Kieran rubbed his head. Lucas licked the remaining icing left on the bit of cake Kieran had critiqued for me. Ah, well. As Lucas would blow out the candles on his 15th birthday cake next month, the sugar didn’t seem to do him that much harm.
“Most of the contestants on Best Baker UK disappear back into obscurity once the competition’s over,” I said. “Do you remember anyone who came second or third in the previous competitions? You don’t need to answer. It’s only ever the winner.”
“Which will be you.”
Kieran’s loyalty touched me. “Are you going to manage without me? Not that I’m indispensable, but 3DSellers are a pain in the backside.”
One of our long-standing clients—a firm that offered companies software tools to increase their products’ visibility online. Nice people, but boy did they demand their pound of flesh. Kieran and I had worked out that their communications officer responded more positively to suggestions from me.
“Will be fine,” Kieran said, flapping his hand, “seeing as they’ve been one of the pandemic’s success stories.”
True. As lockdowns had forced more and more businesses online, they’d all wanted tools that brought products to life the way 3D modelling software did.
“Good. I’ll be on the end of the phone as much as I can.”
He nodded. “Right, well. I better be off. Bye, Lucas.”
Lucas, on one of those rare occasions where he decided humans were worth sucking up to, butted his head against Kieran’s elbow and miaowed. Kieran ducked down, tickling Lucas under the chin.
“Hey, wee fella! I’ll be in to see you tomorrow morning, first thing.”
I saw him to the door, by now oddly nervous. For the past year and a half, my life had been so-so. Drafted in at the last minute to Kieran’s business, the two of us working most of the time over Zoom, the steady rhythm of it soothed and bored at the same time, interspersed with the body blows that had me lying on the floor sobbing my heart out. For the next eight weeks, my world change beyond recognition. Was I ready for this?
“Good luck!” Kieran flung his arms out. I stepped into them. Men’s Health might not favour Dad Bods, but boy, the owners of them gave hugs like they meant them. The proper squish of flesh on flesh that seemed to imprint itself on a body. We clung together two seconds too long, the disentangling bit awkward.
Kieran had turned brick red again, the colour highlighting his dark brown hair. He held his hand up—thumb and forefinger splayed in the ‘phone me’ gesture.
“Yup,” I nodded. “Will do!”
Lucas weaved his way around my legs as I shut the door, reminding me what I would also be saying goodbye to for the next two months. I scooped him up. “Sorry, baby. If I win, I promise you’ll spend the rest of your life eating the finest tuna instead of shitty cat food, okay?”
He burrowed his head under my chin, a gesture I took to mean agreement. My phone buzzed, the beep-beep recognisable as a WhatsApp call. Lucas scuttled off as I set him down and retrieved my phone.
The words were another familiarity. Jo, aka Joanna, my best friend, and I established this primitive form of greeting early on. When I called her, she answered with, ‘Lissie, let’s go!’
“So,” she said, “there I am minding my own business online, too busy drooling over KJWorksout and MonsieurBody and this bloody notification pops up in Insta, announcing who this year’s competitors for Best Baker UK are…”
“What!” I screeched, startling Lucas so that he bolted, heading for the safety of my bed. “I didn’t think they were going to do that until tomorrow! If I’d known, I might have done something.”
Jo tsked. “Like, what? Send a pigeon with a little note tied to its leg to all your friends? ‘Behold, dear chums, Alyssa Mordant shall soon appear on TV screens in front of you. Please, I beg of you, vote for her every week’.”
I blew her a raspberry. “Oy, mate. You joined forces with Kieran to take down all my social media accounts. An intervention, you said at the time. Don’t complain now!”
Mutterings at the other end. Most of the words were indecipherable, but I heard the odd ‘ungrateful’ and ‘for your own good if only you knew it’. I wandered back into my living room. I’d left the curtains open, too reluctant to give up the view before it was necessary. The hills in the distance, the changing colour of leaves dying on the trees, the pinky-orange tinge to the sky as the sun dropped.
“The other contestants,” Jo said, “you won’t have any idea who they are?”
No, I wouldn’t. After Kieran and Jo’s intervention, I steered clear of social media. When I entered Best Baker UK, first they asked for pictures of pies, puddings, cakes I’d made, then they presented me with a fifteen-page application form, I received an invitation to a regional heat (socially distanced, of course), and after that, the official invite to take part in the competition.
Along with a lot of paperwork. Lateral flow tests left, right and centre. Proof of vaccinations certified by at least two doctors, but now at last I was ready to take part in a TV cooking challenge and doing my best not to get overexcited.
“One of them,” Jo said, “you need to check out. At ScottishCakeGuy. It’s Rob. Your ex.”