Pic of home-made millionaire's shortbread

The Magic of Baking—a short story

As it’s now autumn and the Great British Bake Off is back on the TV, I wrote this short story to celebrate. Enjoy…

Caroline, what’s your favourite memory of Ranald?”

She did this sometimes. Pretended she was being interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland. Who took her seriously and sought her opinion on everything and anything. In this instance, material they could use to help listeners understand Ranald McLatchie better.

“Och, easy!” she said. Kay Adams interviewed her. Kay didn’t stand for any nonsense. Caroline liked her. If the two of them got together afterwards for a wee chat, she knew Kay would warm to warnings about the perils of the menopause. Kay wasn’t afraid to discuss dry vaginas, inconvenient weepiness or that wretched extra flesh that welded itself round your belly.

When Caroline said, “Coconut oil—the cure for everything!”, Kay nodded sagely. Even if she had trouble figuring out how oil might stop you greeting every time you saw an ad for a cancer charity on the telly.

“Here it is, my memory,” Caroline told Kay. “I have tae set the scene. We’re in a farmhouse kitchen. Have ye been in one, Kay? They’re awfy big. Draughty too. A table in the centre, a dresser to the left filled wi’ blue and white Adams cattle scenery plates and silver cutlery. To the side, a Raeburn stove, the wire shelf above it topped wi’ tea-towels and a chancer cat sleepin’ there to catch the warmth…”

“A lovely scene, Caroline,” Kay butted in, “tell me what happened.”

No nonsense, remember? Caroline had vanished into la-la-land memories, the look and the smell of the place whisking her back twenty years. She’d stumbled on it too, returning from a day at the university doing her medical studies course and there they were. Ranald and her son in that kitchen.

“No, no, don’t mix it too much!”

They hadn’t heard her come in. She’d lifted the latch on the kitchen door quietly, an old habit left over from Jack’s father’s days. If he got a fright when she came in, he lashed out first and asked questions later.

Ranald had pulled out the old milking stool. It gave her eight-year-old son the height he needed to stand at the kitchen counter. They both wore pinnies, aprons over their clothes meant to protect them from the splatter of flour. Whiteness dotted their cheeks and dusted their sleeves. She saw patches of it on the floor, the counters. Even in their hair.

“Can I try it?”

Jack’s question made Caroline smile. She was broad Scots. Ranald wasn’t. His own father had beaten elocution into him and his sister. And yet her own son picked up on Ranald’s proper speech and copied it. He said the odd ‘aye’ and ‘mebbe’ just like his mother did, but Ranald was the man he wanted to be. So now he emphasised the ‘I’, differing it from his mother’s ‘Ah’.

“Might give you a sore tummy,” Ranald said, spoiling the warning when he stuck a finger in, scooped up a bit blob of sugary dough and stuck it in his mouth. Jack copied him, his face lighting up.

“The rice flour makes it special, doesn’t it?”

Ranald took another bit of dough, worked it in his mouth thoughtfully and smiled. “Aye, I think so, Jack.”

The ‘aye’ was the sign he’d seen her. Speaking properly all the time made him self-conscious. “I don’t sound like anyone else around here, Caroline,” he told her. “And I dinnae care,” she said, and laughed. They exchanged their usual eyeball greeting over Jack’s head. If questioned about it, Caroline would say the eyes asked, are you okay? Yes? Good.

a plate of shortbread biscuits“Makin’ shortbread boys?” she asked, Jack twisting from his stool to look at her. His eyes shone.

“Yes, Mum! Ranald’s teaching me. The rice flour is the secret ingredient.”

She opened one of the drawers on the ancient dresser. Like everything in this old house, it was crammed with random stuff. Old pens, notepads, diaries, mouse pads and… here it was, the heart-shaped biscuit cutter she’d bought a year ago.

She gave it to her son.

“Mum!” he said, holding the thing at arm’s length. “We’re not making soppy biscuits!”

Ranald’s eyes met hers once more and then flashed away before Jack saw them. ‘Soppy biscuits’ referred to the chocolate ones she’d made a few months ago on Valentine’s day, the first one she’d spent with Ranald. Caroline didn’t believe in Hallmark rubbish but the joy of being with a soul as gentle and kind as Ranald sparked joy. She wanted to celebrate. Jack helped her, folding chocolate chips into dough and rolling it out. She wasn’t a cook. The biscuits were far too sweet. Ranald ate them anyway, toasting her in whisky and crushing her hand in his.

She scrambled in the drawer. “What about this one?” A circle cutter.

Ranald took it from her. “Oh yes. Jack, we could dip the shortbread in melted chocolate if you like?”

Her red-headed son did that thing—he clapped his hands, he turned his face, and he bestowed beatific smiles on both of them. He didn’t do ‘that thing’ often, but when he did Caroline experienced the closest she ever got to religious ecstasy. How to describe it? (Kay might probe.) “It’s like the truest, purest form o’ joy, and I believe in anythin’ and everythin’. Ma wee boy is happy, and that is all that matters.”

Ranald dipped his head, dark hair streaked with white which might be the grey might be the flour, and handed Jack the rolling pin. He dusted the counter with yet more flour.

“Roll it out one way only, Jack,” he said, “not back and forth or it the texture won’t be right.”

He stood next to Caroline, taking her hand in his. Fingers squeezed little messages. Ranald’s baking expertise was well known. Now he resisted stepping in. Jack pulled the lumps of sugar, flour and butter in the bowl into a clumsy ball and dumped it on the counter. He began to flatten it, the push of the rolling pin laborious. He moved it upwards, removing the pin from the dough carefully before applying it to the bottom of the rough circle once more.

Once he’d got it thin enough—and for ages he hovered at the edge of the dough before rolling it out in front of him—Jack took the round cutter from Ranald and started to push out circles of dough. Caroline found a baking sheet and greased it. They worked in a factory line. Jack punched out the circles, Ranald lifted them up, Caroline placed them on the sheet.

“In the fridge,” Ranald said, “that’s another secret. It stops the biscuits shrinking too much when you cook them. What shall we do while we wait?”

He winked at Caroline. After the soppy biscuits, they’d had an early night. As it was three o’clock in the afternoon and Jack was wide awake, that option wasn’t available today. Ranald rummaged in another drawers pulling out scraps of paper and a packet of crayons.

“Why don’t you do some drawings, Jack? I’d like to have pictures of the cows and sheep.”

Jack nodded. Drawings were everywhere in the kitchen, stuck to the fridge and pinned to the cork boards next to reminders about bills and business cards for NFU services. Her son drew a lot of pictures of the three of them and this was what he did now, adding a fluffy ball sheep and a Highland cow, rust-red and long horned.

Ranald took the baking sheet from the fridge and set the timer for twenty minutes. He didn’t need the reminder but Jack loved the excitement of the shrill bell. She sat opposite her son at the table and drank tea. Outside the skies had darkened, winter dragging on and on this year. For the first few years of Jack’s life they’d lived in a town. Farm houses could be lonely, isolated places. Or they could be somewhere you shut the door, shored the home fires and snuggled in with the ones you loved.

The kitchen filled with the scent of flour, sugar and butter coming together. Baking had a mysterious alchemy to it, transforming ingredients in a magical way.

Jack took a pen and wrote ‘Mum’ next to the figure he’d drawn of her, then ‘Jack’ under the boy. The pen hovered. He looked at them both, eyes darting between her and Ranald.

“Can I…?” He bit his bottom lip. “I want to write something.”

“What is it?” Caroline asked. Next to her, Ranald shifted in his seat, the habitual back pain giving him grief. He’d been lifting bales of straw the other week, exacerbating the problem, and the only thing that seemed to ease it was hanging from the door frames.

Jack pointed to the space under the Ranald figure. “Dad,” he said. Ranald’s shifting halted. About to jump in and say something, Caroline paused. The question wasn’t for her. The timer bell rang and Ranald got up, pausing to drop a light kiss on the top of Jack’s head.

“Of course you can,” he said. “Now, who wants a bit of shortbread made by the best baker in the world—my son?”

“Me!” “Me!”

©Emma Baird 2019

If you enjoyed that little encounter with Jack McAllan and his mum, Caroline McLatchie, you can read more about them in Highland Fling, available here—https://books2read.com/Highland-Fling

Location, location, location…

A rare sunny Sunday in Scotland—extra bonus points as it’s a bank holiday weekend too. We took ourselves to the Drovers Inn in Inverarnan for a late lunch, which got me thinking about the locations I used for Highland Fling set in Scotland as the title alludes.

20190825_152843185946377.jpgI made up the village Lochalshie, but it is loosely based on Arrochar which is located at the head of Loch Long and surrounded by hills. Please visit if you ever get the chance as the views will take your breath away.

Every good village has a pub and I romanticised mine, turning it into a community hub and making it the best place to get a wood-fired pizza in Scotland. Sadly, pubs are dying out at the same time as the UK’s drinking problem continues apace. A weird contradiction, hmm? But the decline is for a number of reasons but people staying in their own homes drinking supermarket booze and watching Netflix instead of going out is one theory. And the younger generations aren’t drinking as much as the baby boomers and the Gen X-ers.

rose wine and a pint

We Gen X-ers. Making up for the Y and Z lot…

Still, again I modelled my pub (the Lochside Welcome) on the ones that still exist in some of Scotland’s more touristy places such as The Village Inn in Arrochar, the Winnock in Drymen, and the Falls of Dochart Inn (below).

FallsDochart

The Falls of Dochart Inn, Killin.

And finally… behind the happy pictures can lie a very different story. We’d just finished our late lunch at the Drovers, and I’d sent Sandy off to snap some pics of the front of the hotel when a loud crash and the squeal of brakes sounded nearby. Close to, traffic accidents are visceral, shocking things. Your heart sinks and your hand goes to your mouth as you bargain with the deities, luck or fate. Please, please, please let whoever be okay…

A car had pulled out of the Drovers too quickly, another coming the other way hit it and a biker travelling along the road had no way of avoiding the cars. Cue—bike on the road, man down.

Luckily, he wasn’t injured badly and no-one in the two cars got hurt. Communities come in all shapes and sizes. Motor-bikers are one such and watching them rally round warmed my heart.

They pulled over, they got his bike up off the road and took pictures of it. They stopped and waited to see if he was okay. They shook their heads at the car driver who’d pulled out without due care and attention. And they said to themselves, there but for the grace of the universe and all that…

We took the motorbike up to the Drovers because it was such a beautiful day. As it was roasting hot, I elected not to wear the heavy leather trousers. It could have been me on that bike with only a thin non-protective layer between my skin and hard tarmac. Lesson learned? You betcha.

Summer sale – Highland Fling

advert for Highland FlingNeed some light-hearted, fun reading for your holidays? Highland Fling is now on offer at £1.99/$1.99 in a e-book shop near you… Or it will be once they put my price changes in place. I’ll be running the price promotion until the end of July.

Here’s a little excerpt:

That’s Christina the Dating Guru. Haven’t you heard of her?” Katya says.

Well, no. But then I haven’t needed dating advice for a long time. Ryan and I got together while we were still at school and we were together ten years so I’m bound not to be familiar with a dating guru. And what does that even mean?

Have you used her advice, then?” I ask, “and if so, does it work?”

Nope. I’ve just heard of her. An influencer and all that, and you’re not going to believe the weird co-inci… Oh, never mind. Her website address is datemate dot com. Look it up.”

And with that she hangs up. I tap out the name on my keyboard. Wow. This woman is all over the internet. She’s got a blog, podcasts, YouTube tutorials and everything. Curiosity piqued, I read through some of them. They include guides to using dating apps, what to do the first time you go out with someone so that they ring you back (guaranteed), the best profile pics to use and what make-up you should wear for a first date.

I’m half-way through an article about what will make you a sparkling conversationalist capable of capturing his attention and keeping it when someone clears their throat behind me.

Ahem. Not interrupting anything am I?”

I whirl around on my chair so quickly, I fall off and land in an undignified heap at his feet. I had no time to minimise the screen either, and the site’s header—a riot of hearts and stars complete with the tag line, How to Go from Dating Loser to Loved Up, flashes there. I’m about to get up when another thought strikes me—he’s got the Dating Guru’s portrait upstairs, and he’s caught me looking at her website! I’ve just signalled loud and clear that I sneaked upstairs and had a good nosey. I might stay here, face down on the floor and praying the ground will swallow me until he goes away.

Do you want a hand up?”

No, no!” I straighten up slowly, keeping my eyes on that calming moss-green carpet until the last minute. Heavens, I’d forgotten just how… divine Jack is. Last week, his hair was army buzz cut, and now it’s grown in a little. Still short enough to show off those eyes and cheekbones but the extra millimetre of length emphasises its bright copper colour. The eyes regard me with amusement. Or perhaps it’s irritation. I’d better check with him that it’s okay for me to use his office.

Er… I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow. Doctor McLatchie said I could use your house as the broadband connection is much better here,” I say, dismayed when he rolls his eyes and says, “She would”. Oh heck, didn’t the blasted woman warn him? And what right does she have to offer strangers the use of someone else’s home? I should have asked her to find me somewhere else to work.

He heads for the kitchen, asking me if I want another coffee.

Yes please,” I follow him through. “Though I can make them, least I can do…” I trail off. He hasn’t actually confirmed I can use his house as my office.

In the kitchen, sunlight makes a brave attempt at cutting through the grey clouds to bounce off the redness of his hair. He leans against the kitchen counter, one foot up and his arms folded—one of those guys whose face gives nothing away. Does he ever crack a smile? I remember that photo Katya and I saw of him online when he’d worn this wide grin, the upturned mouth creating a dimple on one cheek, and how lush the smile made him seem.

Now though, those dark eyes remind me of the stand-offs I have with Little Ms Mena when she and I argue over how much smoked salmon she’s going to eat. Who will blink first? My wretched imagination peels clothes off him. He lifts his arms above his head and the tee shirt disappears. Before I know it he’s in front of me wearing only that white towel, neatly knotted over a perfect six-pack torso. I blink twice to dislodge the image.

The face in front of me cracks, a tiny upturn to the corners of the mouth signalling amusement. The change in expression is welcome but (ye gods) did he just read my mind?

Flippin’ heck, I hope not…

You buy Highland Fling on Amazon here.

Spoiled cats and Jamie Fraser lookalikes – all in a #romcom

Highland Fling

A fabulously spoiled cat

Do you like character lists at the start of a book? I do most of the time, though sometimes it’s hard to work out why they are there. Jilly Cooper did it a lot – probably because latterly her books contained so many characters it was hard to keep track of them.

I didn’t put a list in my romcom Highland Fling, but then added it to the version on Wattpad because I wanted to set the right funny note from the beginning.

Read on and tell me if the following list of characters intrigues you…

Gaby—the heroine of this story, fleeing a relationship gone wrong and too fond of the fictional Jamie Fraser.

Jack—an attractive Scottish red-head who frowns too often and refuses to take advantage of his resemblance to Jamie Fraser.

Mena—a fabulous, and fabulously-spoiled cat.

Katya—Gaby’s long-standing friend and an expert on Vitamin C and the signs that signal a person is lying.

Kirsty—the fabulously spoiled cat’s owner. Annoying and far richer than anyone her age ought to be.

Mhari—an about-to-be ‘friend’ of Gaby’s. A woman who has turned nosiness into an art form.

Dr McLatchie—a GP with an unhealthy interest in other people’s genitals.

Stewart—part-time coder, full-time bore and dog walker.

Scottie—his dog. Loves food, walkies and sitting in the pub, which is just as well given it’s his owner’s favourite place to be.

Jolene—a surprise in more ways than one.

Jamal—owner of a general store in which you can buy anything and everything, including over-priced smoked salmon, organic chicken and venison.

Dexter—an American, fond of hyperbole. Able to do the downward facing dog AND put his feet flat on the floor at the same time.

Ashley—the owner/manager of the Lochside Welcome, and maker of out-of-this-world pizzas. No-one is better at the 12-inch than this guy.

Big Donnie–a chap tall of height and big of berth. Wears a Barbour jacket at all times and displays an unhealthy interest in paintings of women.

Lachlan—an international man of mystery. Dodgy.

Ryan—a douche-bag. End of.

Guest appearancesAlex Jones and Matt Baker of The One Show. Also, Caitlin Cartier, a reality TV star and ‘self-made’ billionaire at the age of 21, thanks to the beauty company she set up. Some of you might think she is based on a real-life person. The author refers you to her disclaimer where she tells you everything in this book is fiction and any resemblance to real-life characters completely co-incidental.

Highland Fling is now available on Amazon – UK here, and US here.

 

Characters and what they look like #amwriting #Scottishromance

I don’t know what my characters look like. That sounds daft, I know, but my idea of them is vague. Rough height and the space they take up is there, but the rest is hazy. Eye colour, hair texture, shape of face and all those other physical characteristics refuse to make themselves known.

It was interesting, therefore, when a graphic designer created a cover for me for Highland Fling. I described the male love interest as resembling Jamie Fraser, aka Sam Heughan, of Outlander fame, but I still didn’t know what he looked like. And as for my protagonist, I knew her heart and head but little else.

cover picture of Highland FlingAs you can see from the cover, Enni Tuomisalo of Yummy Book Covers fleshed them out for me. If you read Enni’s blogs on cover design, she explains the ‘rules’ of chick lit design thoroughly. Illustration is most commonly used, as photographs unless in the hands of an arty designer will scream self-published (though props often work well). But another rule is that faces aren’t shown—unless the book is turned into a successful film or series and then the cover is re-released with the actors’ faces in place.

‘No face’ rule

Enni has drawn my heroine with her back to us—a common convention in chick lit because of the ‘no face’ rule. Why is this rule in place? The argument is that romance readers want to imagine the main character themselves. Seeing their face imposes someone else’s interpretation of the character. And if you’re writing chick lit in first person as I tend to do, then I want my readers to be able to imagine themselves as my main characters. Easier if they don’t have a picture of what her face looks like.

And the male character? Again, it’s common not to show his face. Years ago, I remember watching the TV adaptation of Jilly Cooper’s Riders book and being disappointed with the actor who played Rupert Campbell-Black as he looked nothing like I’d imagined. Many of the books that do choose photos for front covers use ripped torsos with the head cut off—perhaps for that reason. Put your own blond, dark-haired, red-head interpretation on top*.

Enni’s cover shows a rough approximation of my main characters and I’m delighted to find out what he looks like. That isn’t contradicting all I’ve just said because as an illustration and one in the background, he’s still vague enough for people to let their imaginations run free.

Highland Fling is due out summer 2019. To keep up to date with launches and giveaways, please consider joining my mailing list – pinkglitterpubs@gmail.com. Thanks!

*One thing I’m conscious of here is the lack of diversity on covers. White men and women—and usually young and very glamorous ones—dominate, which must alienate an awful lot of people.