Ten Little Stars – A Freebie for You

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Ten Little Stars by Emma Baird

Your incentive to join my mailing list.

While I try to figure out how to add an email sign up pop-up to my website (it a) has to be free, and b) incredibly easy to do) this week’s blog is an invitation to you, dear reader, to join my mailing list.

On the goals list I set for 2018 way, way back in January of this year, I wrote ‘mailing list’. This, the gurus of self-publishing who all sell far more books than I do, promise me is a must-have. You can promote directly to readers, it doesn’t depend on a pigging algorithm which could change any second (a la Facebook, a la Amazon) and it is still the best return on investment when it comes to marketing, even though three billion things have happened since emails first arrived on the planet.

Apart from bull-dozing my family into handing over their email addresses (and I won’t even bother asking on the premise they’re unlikely to report me to the Information Commissioner for breaking the GDPR rules*), this will not be an extensive list. But you’ve got to start somewhere. And I’m keen to get to the end of the year and say, “Well, EB, you ticked off a lot of the stuff on that list. Round of applause and a glass of fizzy wine for you.”

Ten Little Stars

One is also supposed to offer an incentive to join the list, a freebie the price you pay to someone to hand over their precious email address. Sadly, my killer white chocolate and raspberry cake isn’t the kind of thing I can hand out this way. A pity, because that cake is the bomb. Instead, my freebie is Ten Little Stars, an e-book collection of short stories. Some of them focus on characters who exist in my books and add back story to give you a better picture of them. Others are ones I entered into competitions—one’s a winner and the other was highly commended.

Another thing I promise is that I’ll keep the content less sales and more chatty. No-one likes sales bombardment or bombardment by emails. I unsubscribe rapidly whenever whatever mailing list I’ve signed up for—wine, self-publishing and cats all feature—gets a little too enthusiastic with their postings.

So, if you’d like to join my mailing list in return for a free collection of short stories, email me at pinkglitterpubs@gmail.com. As I’m not yet ready to embrace auto-responders, I’ll be emailing you back to say thanks individually, so it might take a little longer than usual. If you want it, I’m happy to hand over the recipe for that cake so you too can embrace its delightful deliciousness.

And of course, the usual rules apply. I promise not to sell your address on, I’ll use it only for the purpose of sending out MY newsletter and I will guard your address as carefully as I take care of my beloved and incredibly spoiled cat. Promise, cross my heart and hope to die.

Thank you!

*Here’s hoping, hmm—or Christmas will be very awkward. 

January—cats, squirrels and libraries

Happy 2020—I’m far too late with my new year wishes, but the nice intent is still there. May the new decade bring you what you want (so long as that doesn’t harm others).

The bed is a bit crowded these days…

In Chez Baird-Birnie, we are adapting to life without Freddie and with two cats. One argument cat lovers always put forward for the adoption of new cats post the previous one’s departure is that cats all have their own unique personality. You don’t take on a new one, find yourself endlessly comparing its traits to its predecessor and finding the replacement wanting. Our new two stimulate endless debate, especially because we now have a boy and a girl.

I think Lucy is the smarter cat (feminist bias here, definitely), but William is far bolder and keen to venture outside whenever he can. He’s also much stronger, leaping higher, further and far more often. Ms Lucy, I sense, looks at him rather like modern-day baby boomers regard their grown-up children. “FFS, I thought I’d got rid of you ages ago, but you’re still at home/have returned here again?! Why, why, why…?”

The nippy sweetie

There is a Scottish description ‘nippy sweetie’, used to describe someone who is sharp-tongued or peevish. (And usually used in a faintly misogynist way just for women, but that’s a whole other conversation.) Lucy is a literal nippy sweetie in that she does bite. They are not painful or aggressive, but little nips to warn you to back off. William ‘proves’ my not particularly scientific theory that neutered males are more affectionate and softer than the ladies…

Feed me!

And she is the boss, except when it comes to food. With two cats, you usually need to supervise meal times to stop one stealing from the other. William gets super-excited at food times and once he’s wolfed his, his mother’s helping is fair game. She’s a much slower eater, a habit I find interesting as shouldn’t life with William have taught her to eat more quickly?!

As per instructions for new cats, we kept them both inside for two-plus weeks so they got used to the house. Thought to themselves, “Well, this is a nice place. Hot and cold running humans happy to let us sleep on the beds and not too cross when we decide the wallpaper is much better than a scratching post.”

I’ve always put collars on cats and I suspect Lucy and William weren’t collar wearers previously.  They don’t like them very much but the collars operate the cat flap. If it is not magnetically controlled, two of our neighbour’s cats would come in.

Cat invaders

In the Freddie days, I didn’t mind Mr Biggles and Loki visiting us because he wasn’t bothered. My new pets, on the other hand, are not confident enough to deal with that kind of encroachment on their territory. As they bicker among themselves in the house anyway, it would be silly to add another cat to the mix.

Mind you, neither cat has worked out how to open the cat flap from the outside yet. Next week, I’m going to have to squat in front of it waving something super-tempting. A bit of raw steak, perhaps…

Aside from cat caring, I’m in the midst of typical start a new year activities—yoga and sauna sessions, culling spending on silly things, reducing my meat and fish consumption, and going for plenty of walks. This post’s  featured image is a squirrel I encountered in the Kelvingrove Park. They’re bold fellows who will come within a foot of you, especially if you rattle a bag of sunflower seeds at them.

I’m attempting to write another book in the Highland Books series, number four… At some point soon, I’m going to run out of ideas for what I can do with the characters but I’m good for another 160,000 words (roughly two novels).

I published a box set of books one to three this week and I’ve already sold a few of them. A bonus—if the box-set sells in decent quantities, I get 70 percent of £7.49, instead of £2.99 and £3.99 and the only money I spent on it was the cover because the editing/proofreading had already been done.

Another January resolution was to use my local library more. In the last couple of years, I’ve grown lazy ordering far too many books on my e-reader. Libraries struggle for funding these days, so it’s important for them to demonstrate use in communities. As a lifelong voracious reader, libraries have provided me with tonnes of free entertainment over the years. I’ve been to Dumbarton Library three times this month already and picked up The Testaments by Margaret Atwood via the order service. (It’s much better than the TV series, which is now beginning to feel far too dragged out.)

A cool fact for you… I publish my books wide, i.e. not just on Amazon but through Kobo, Apple, Google Play, Barnes & Noble and more. Because of this, my e-books are available on OverDrive, an online repository for digital content. If you ask for one of my books in your local library, I’ll get a bit of money and you’ll get my books for free. If you’re so inclined, I’d be grateful if you could ask!

Highland Weddings and ginger cats

Highland Wedding, the third in my Highland Books series, is out now…

When you write romcoms, the wedding industry is an easy target. People queue up to offer you unnecessary rubbish, lending themselves to wonderful satire. What I never understood was the whole chair cover thing. You book a hotel, buy their wedding package—food, drink, number of guests, etc.—and they expect you to cough up a fee for white covers neatly wrapped over the bleedin’ chairs with a bow on the back.

Hopefully, I’ve managed to make it as amusing as I can. Here’s the blurb:

Ask a man to marry you and the rest is a walk in the park, right?!
When Gaby springs a proposal on Jack, he is happy to say ‘yes’. As are the Lochalshie residents, delighted at the prospect of a wedding instead of the more usual  funeral. They have ideas for the nuptials coming out of their ears…
With the local landlord piling on the pressure, their friends demanding hen parties in Ibiza, a would-be wedding planner too ready to criticise and a new guy on the scene who is easy on the eye, will Gaby and Jack get their happy ever after?

Highland Books box set by Emma BairdYou can buy the book on Amazon (I’ll put it on Kobo, Apple Books, Google Play, etc., in the new year). I’m also planning a box set of the three books and there’s the gorgeous cover for it, thanks to yummybookcovers.

The cat-shaped hole in our home

Finally, I wrote about the sudden loss of my cat earlier this month. Freddie was a special fella and he is in my thoughts a lot of the time. There are a lot of cats out there in shelters requiring a home and we had a cat-shaped hole in our house needing filled…

 

Meet Lucy and William, a mother and son ginger combo who are currently feeling their way around our house and into our lives. We got them from the local SSPCA shelter on Christmas Eve and whereas the charity’s policy is not to allow people to adopt animals as Christmas presents (rightly so), this was definitely the best gift I received.

Thanks for reading, liking and commenting on my blog in 2019 and all the very best to you and yours in 2020.

Love, loss and extraordinary kindness

Unless you’re the lucky (unlucky?) regular receiver of booty calls, the phone that rings in the early hours of the morning rarely signals good news. The one I received last week no exception to that rule.

The small animal hospital in Glasgow—a request to phone them message left on voice mail, as my phone is on don’t disturb mode through the night. I pressed ‘return call’. The back shift had left for the day; the on-duty vet said she’d find out and get back to me.

The second she spoke to me again, I knew what was coming. My cat, the fabulous and super-spoiled Freddie, had been brought to the premises in the early hours—no sign of life on arrival. Her colleagues had checked and there were no obvious indications of cause of death, but cats struck on the road (where he’d been found) often die from internal bleeding. I live near a busy dual carriageway. We knew he crossed the A82 from time to time late at night. On Friday the 13th, his luck ran out.

Final goodbyes

We drove to the clinic, umm-ing and ah-ing. Should we see him? I said no. Over the years, I’ve seen my fair share of road kill; a different prospect entirely when it’s your pet. My husband said yes. He wanted to say a final goodbye. We arrived. Positions reversed; Sandy now worried that the sight of our poor dead cat would trigger tears in front of strangers. I can tell him plenty of times that it is okay for men to cry. But too many years of west of Scotland masculine culture will beat the message, Thou Shalt Not Weep, into a man.

The vet, a kindly soul, took us into a consultation room and explained what had happened. “What does he look like?” I asked. “I know he’ll be stiff.”

“He’s okay,” she replied. “There are no obvious injuries, apart from a small wound on his chest.”

We gave our assent. Bring him in. She returned, cardboard box reverentially held, its exterior decorated in a funereal fleur du lis. I jumped up, compelled to witness its opening and the revelation of precious content.

Hey, darling boy. Look at you, all dirty…”

The Good Samaritan

I stroked his face and tickled him under the chin. Freddie adored a chin rub. I ran my hand along his body. As the vet said, no obvious signs of what killed him. I leant into the box and kissed his little face.

Goodbyes said, could the vet let us have the phone number of the person who brought him in? She checked and returned with a name and phone number.

Later that day, I spoke with the Good Samaritan. He and his wife had been visiting her parents who live further up our street. They came across Freddie, who was alive at that point but spasming. They moved him off the road and wrapped him in a blanket her mum supplied when told. An ambulance stopped, said they weren’t able do anything but provided another blanket. Another woman appeared; she researched vet services. The small animal clinic in Bearsden—25 minutes away—was identified. The man and his wife phoned them and the clinic said they should bring Freddie in.

He died on the way there.

Pictures and promises

My little cat—one, two, three, four, five, six people all doing what they could to save him. Later that weekend, there was a knock on the door. The Good Samaritan and his wife, Dave and Laura, armed with a huge bunch of flowers, Laura in tears. “Our cat,” I told them, “had a brilliant life up until that twenty minutes before he died. We promise you.”

“Show Laura the pictures!” I instructed Sandy. True, my husband has always had far more pictures of Freddie on his phone than ones of anything else. Laura saw Freddie at his worst. I wanted her to see him curled up on our bed, sprawled on sunny spots in the garden, perched on the sofa and doing his best to open packets of Whiskas by himself.

(He could, you know.)

Acts of kindness

My other promise to Dave and Laura? I will remember your act of kindness for the rest of my life.

They don’t even live in my town.

And others’ too. My mum cried when I broke the news. My sisters phoned; animal lovers both. Our sister-in-law delivered a card and flowers. The friends I told came up with lovely words of comfort. My neighbour burst into tears as Freddie had visited her house regularly, mooching for food. A work colleague listened to the tale, glassy-eyed.

Human interaction and love never ceases to astonish me—the powerful together pull of it when you ask really matters.

The house creaks, empty and incomplete. I glance at the spare room automatically when I walk past, looking for Freddie who used to sleep in there. The draught from the front door moves the living room one and our eyes dart there, waiting for him to walk in. I take ham out of a packet, pole-axed with longing for my little cat who’d jump up if you held small pieces of meat above his head.

We will get another pet, one I’ll speak to in a silly voice, over-feed and assume uncomfortable positions in bed so he or she can sleep on me. Like Freddie, his predecessor Corrie, and Jazz the one before him, I’ll adopt from a shelter and shower him or her with love.

For now though, we rest, we reflect, we look at pictures of cats needing their forever home, and tell everyone we know about the extraordinary kindness people have shown us, and the comfort we have taken from it.

Wattpad – the algorithm kicks in (and why I’m bitter-sweet about it)

Oh readers, where art thou? I finally got to experience a bit of the ol’ algorithm magic (does anyone else always get that word wrong when they attempt to spell it?) on Wattpad. I’ve been on the story-telling and reading platform for four years, drifting along mainly unnoticed.

This week, reads of my book Highland Fling leapt from 3.5k to 11k* in six days and every time I open the app, I have 50-90 notifications awaiting me and my phone beeps all the time. (This is why, I guess, many people who experience online popularity burn out. It’s overwhelming. Either that or they hire a virtual assistant…)

The success is bitter-sweet. If only I was getting that many reads on Amazon, I would be raking money in! But it is gratifying to the ego.

Writing failures

As I’m British, I’m now duty bound to tell you about my many writing failures to make up for the above boastfulness. Social media often creates an unrealistic portrait of people’s lives—their successes and triumphs held up there; failings hidden from sight.

Highland Fling by Emma Baird

Here are mine:

A) My first book sold less than 70 copies, with about half of them coming from sales to my mum. Boxes of that ruddy book still sit clutter up my house. Always, always opt for print on demand as a self-publisher and concentrate on the e-book.

B) I have spent so much on advertising Highland Fling, my profits on the book are titchy. It feels like running to stand still. (Unfortunately, it is now almost impossible to sell on Amazon unless you advertise.)

C) The stand-alone books I wrote get very few sales. Mainly, this is due to a lack of advertising but stand-alone books are notoriously hard for unknown authors to sell.

D) I keep trying to carry out all the steps ‘proper’ self-publishers do—setting up a mailing list (mine, 11 subscribers, killing it), being active on social media, hashtagging left, right and centre, having a professional-looking website, etc., and am useless at them all.

E) I have been rejected by numerous agents.

F) I have entered a good few writing competitions and got nowhere.

G) Whenever one of my manuscripts comes back from an editor/proofreader, I am horrified by how often I repeat myself and my ignorance of correct comma use.

Why it’s worth it

So why continue? I love writing and have harboured the desire to be one ever since I won a national poetry** competition when I was seven years old. As I got older, writing books seemed like an impossible dream. I chose jobs I thought would be about writing—journalism, contract publishing and press and PR management, the latter absolutely not, and bumbled along. My 40th birthday came and went and I took stock. Emma, you can work in unsatisfying jobs for the rest of your life or you can take a chance…

I quit and started writing on a freelance copywriting basis, scribbling my first novel in between times.

Full disclosure. I’m married and I have a husband who is happy to shoulder the bulk of the bills. And I inherited money when my beloved dad died, so the path I’ve chosen isn’t available to everyone. I recognise that privilege and I am thankful every day.

I do not make a lot of money and it is supplemented these days by a part-time job at a university. The odds of writing success are stacked against me as it’s such a competitive industry. Finding your readers is difficult and exhausting. I’ve netted myself a fan club on Wattpad, who send me lovely messages. Will that translate to sales? Most likely, it won’t.

On the other hand, I grew up with optimists. My parents were/are sunny-natured folks who tended/tend to look on the bright side. A lot of that happiness rubbed off. And realising a childhood dream is… amazing, fulfilling, exciting, glorious… I plan to write for the rest of my life successful or not.

Thank you for reading.

 

*In Wattpad terms, 11k is nothing. The popular books on there have hundreds of thousands even millions of reads. I’ve a long way to go before I reach Wattpad star status.

**I went through a period of writing turgid poetry in my early 20s. Luckily for the world, the internet was in its infancy then so they can’t be found anywhere online.

 

 

 

Highland Wedding cover reveal…

Can you believe it’s December already? Me either. I’ve drawn up an ambitious to-do list, determined I will buy all my cards and pressies next week. And also book a haircut which is long overdue. Hopefully with a hairdresser who knows how to handle curly (frizzy) hair.

Highland Wedding by Emma Baird book coverAnyway, I thought I’d share the cover to Highland Wedding—the next book in the Highland Books series. Enni Tuomisalo created it for me. I always develop a weird crush on the male characters she draws and Jack in a kilt is no exception. Isn’t he gorgeous?! That’s a McAllan tartan he’s wearing, by the way.

I’ve written a short blurb:

Highland Wedding

Ask a man to marry you and the rest is a walk in the park, right?!

When Gaby springs a proposal on Jack, he is happy to say ‘yes’. As are the Lochalshie residents, delighted at the prospect of a wedding instead of the more usual funeral. They have ideas for the nuptials coming out their ears…

With the local landlord piling on the pressure, their friends demanding hen parties in Ibiza, a would-be wedding planner too ready to criticise and a new guy on the scene who is easy on the eye, will Gaby and Jack get their happy ever after?

Book number 4

Next up… I’m toying with a few more ideas in the Highland Books series. I use a website called yasiv.com to see what other books people who buy mine purchase. Judging by their tastes, the next book should be called Highland Cornish Christmas at the Cupcake Cafe.

I could juggle locations by making Jack and Gaby go on holiday to Cornwall, say, visit a cupcake cafe there and decide to open one in Lochalshie. Or another story could star the Lochside Welcome—the hotel everyone in the village loves. I’ve got a feeling Jack and Gaby could be part of a plan to save the place from ruin if Ashley has a non-fatal heart attack…

Finally, Highland Heart is currently on a Kindle countdown deal and will be until Thursday, so it’s 1.99 instead of 3.99. You buy the ebook on Amazon.

#NaNoWriMo

Image result for nanowrimoAre you revving up for #NaNoWriMo?

Probably not–the bulk of my blog readers are not authors so this annual event means not a jot to them. Unless they are reading the products… (And here is the one I wrote last year, Highland Fling.)

HFAdvertHiNaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month (international, more accurately) where would-be and already published authors attempt to write a novel in 30 days.

When I say novel, again the more accurate description is 50,000 words (novel length ish). But International 50,000 Word Writing Month does not scan as well so NaNoWriMo it is!

To finish 50,000 words in 30 days, your daily word count is 1,667 words a day. I LOVED the exercise last year. It made me fall in love with writing again. The book I wrote has since grown arms and legs in the form of a follow-up, Highland Heart and another book in development, Highland Wedding. Maybe in due time I will end up with Highland Divorce, swiftly followed by Highland Funeral.

Stats and targets

If you sign up to NaNoWriMo officially, i.e. by creating an account on the website, you get to add in your daily writing word count and the system presents you with stats—time to target and that kind of thing. Personal stats make me drool as yes, I am that OCD-person, clicking refresh and sync all the time and deriving intense satisfaction from every update.

Thirty days is often cited as a ‘magical’ tool. From exercise (100 squats a day for a month) to abstention (Dry January and Sober October*), four weeks of doing something consistently is reckoned to lead to better habits.

I concur. I was already writing extensively prior to NaNoWriMo, but the exercise turned me into a writing MACHINE. Since then, I can count the creative writing days off on one hand.

Write, write, write

A year of writing Monday to Sundays, taking my laptop on trains and planes, getting up early to write before work, writing in the evenings in front of the television (appalling habit, I know), and telling myself constantly writer’s block does not exist. Push on through and the words come.

Having said all that, I am not doing NaNoWriMo this year. A sad sentence to type, but I am in the middle of revising two books. I love the lure of the shiny new, and would much rather start a brand new book than rework an already created manuscript. Discipline, the better Emma Baird growls at me, nothing new until you finish what you have already started. 

However, the beauty of NaNoWriMo is… YOU CAN DO IT ANYTIME. Dry January and NaNoWriMo in one fell swoop to begin 2020? 

Why not? 

 

*All the better for leading up to Bender December, right?

Mists, mellow fruitfulness and books

This week I’m…

Revelling in autumn. You can keep spring. Autumn is GORGEOUS—the trees turning such beautiful colours and the spiders webs you spot on hedges, doors, railings (everywhere, really). Plus, we get to wear more clothes (always a bonus), dig out boots and feel less guilty about getting into bed with a book at 7pm just because. (For much, much better outdoor autumn pics, check out Sunshine and Celandines post about Strid Wood here.)

Wishing I was braver. This ties in with the paragraphs above. Enjoying nature means you automatically worry about the future, and the lack of action governments and businesses are making to ensure Planet Earth remains habitable. I’ve been following the Extinction Rebellion revolts, applauding as ordinary people glue their hands to pavements, deliver climate change lectures on planes and ultimately get themselves arrested. I love the ‘uncooperative crusties’ and what they are doing. “Emma,” I said to myself this week, “you could handle an arrest, couldn’t you?” Promise, promise, promise next year I will carry out action.

Eating more plant-based. See above! Most of the time, I follow a low-carb diet because I have type 1 diabetes and that is the way of eating that works best for me. It’s never sat well with how I feel about animals. (Love ‘em!) But I’ve been making more of an effort to explore alternatives such as tofu and Quorn and reduce how much meat and dairy I eat.

Eating at a Glasgow institution. Despite having lived in Glasgow or nearby for seventeen years now, I have never visited Rogano’s—Glasgow’s oldest restaurant. As the great Cunard liner, the Queen Mary, was built on the Clyde in the 1930s, a restaurant was refitted in the same Art Deco style and a Glasgow stalwart was born. The 30s feel is delightful and the food delicious. (I, er, veered away from plant-based, too tempted by the Stornoway black pudding topped with a perfectly poached egg and chorizo crumb.)

Publishing books. Ah yes! Highland Heart, the second in the Highland Books came out this week. Funnily enough, it begins in autumn…

Highland Heart – out October 10

Ah, the modern world! Fabulous in so many ways… where once upon a time if you wanted ad images for anything you needed a ginormous budget, nowadays cheap tech solutions will rustle you up something in no time at all…

These images for Highland Heart are via BookBrush.com – you upload your cover and voila! Seconds later, there’s the image. My favourite one is the picture above left because I love the hardback version. But the featured image also appeals because who doesn’t love the idea of a cosy autumn night in, slippers on, hot drink nearby and book in hand?

Highland Heart is the second romcom book in my series set in the highlands of Scotland (as the title suggests), and it explores what happens when the honeymoon stage of a relationship wears off… It’s out October 10.

Wishing you all a great week!

The digital nomad life!

Here you see me (just) pretending to be a chic, hipster digital nomad*… sitting on a balcony in Crete tapping away on my keyboard as I put together the finishing touches to Highland Heart.

It is a treat to be able to sit in the sunshine and type. Even if cheapskate me didn’t bother splashing out the extra twenty quid on a glare-proof screen for my laptop when I bought it six years ago. *Sighs.*

And in Crete, factor in slathering yourself in insect repellent as well as sun cream. Those beasties are vicious. And they hone in on wherever you are unprotected. *Squirms from a bite in a delicate place.*

It is fitting to be a writer in Crete, seeing as the early Minoan populations that lived there were among the first in Europe to read and write—writing systems referred to as Linear A and B, mainly developed to help them document the sheer amount of olive oil, wine, honey and crops those civilisations had.

The writing system is thought to date back to the second millennium BCE.

But yes, dear chums. Highland Heart is now on pre-order on Amazon and is out October 10th, when I hope it will spring to the top of the charts and make me a goodly sum of money. Sprint? I’d settle for a gentle stroll so long as those sales figures always head in the upward direction. It’s the follow-up to Highland Fling and the third book, Highland Wedding, will be published in time for Christmas.

 

*Two weeks away from home a year do not make me a digital nomad.

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