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.
“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?”
©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