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

Ten Little Stars and Half-Marathon Recovery

This week, I’m…

Recovering from the Glasgow half-marathon

Ladies and gents, I did it. It wasn’t fast, and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but yours truly stumbled across the finishing line two hours and fourteen minutes after setting off.

Glasgow’s half-marathon is popular as the course is flat (ish, not quite as my rose-tinted ten years ago experience recalled) and many people achieve personal bests. I was thankful for its flatness, but speed wasn’t coming into it. Glasgow joggers run the gamut of weather types in late September, and the day was no exception – overcast and cloudy at first, then bright sunshine, heavy rain half-way through and repeat.

The crowds turned out to cheer us on. Little kids high-fived as many runners as were willing (me, every time), witty signs read Good Luck Random Stranger! This is great practice for the zombie apocalypse, and someone who’d drawn the poo emoji and asked if anyone needed one yet…

Grateful thanks to my support crew—my husband, my mum and her partner Neil, who cheered me on at the start and the end.

Eating pasta

A race always means a reward meal—I opted for a protein, carb and fat overload in the form of Beef and Mac ‘n’ Cheese. You can buy this, but have you ever eaten a shop-bought mac ‘n’ cheese that made you sigh in contentment? No, I thought not. Most manufactured versions stint on the best bit, when the dish should be more a case of, would you like some pasta with your cheese?

To continue the celebration theme, I washed the lot down with a decent helping of pink Cava.

Writing short stories

Ten Little Stars by Emma BairdIn an attempt to the ‘game’ the Amazon system, I’m putting out a book of short stories a mere thirty days after publishing the last book…

I’m not sure what this achieves, except that I’ve seen it written about in ‘places’. My search history* is too vast to revisit anything unless I remember to do so an hour later, so heaven alone knows where I read that or if it’s even viable. But I have read it a few times so here goes!

Book marketing experts also bang on about the importance of the mailing list—*sighs*—and this book might end up being my freebie incentive. Sign up to my mailing list** and you too could be the proud owner of this free book, kind of thing.

I’ve served up a mix of vampire tales, modern love dilemmas and a bit of historical fiction. The book is available for pre-order here and here.

Making spicy stuff

This year’s chili crop will outlast us. Good people, we grew a lot of chilies this year as you can see. And I’ve already made the rookie mistake—gosh, aren’t they small, better put a few of them in YEOWCH—so it’s one or two per recipe max. Thankfully, they freeze. Our house is about to become Curry Central.

Dieting the cat

Cat emotional manipulation expertise 1. Emma determined to hold out on number of feeding intervals 0.

Freddie’s vet visit and vaccination beckons, and I’d like to escape the annual lecture on the size of him. He’s bordering on moggie obese. So, a few weeks of strict portion control, no treats and definitely no sly helpings of ham.

Yeah, good luck with that one.

 

*And VERY confusing for Google.

**Which will of course be 100 percent GDPR compliant.

#amwriting Let the Right One In – a Short Story for Halloween

Humans always let their guard down at this time of year… Dumb of them, I know, but we all get to enjoy ourselves, so I don’t complain about it.

Meet me. Cordelia. Vampire extraordinaire. Even if I do say so myself. I’ve been undead for the last six hundred years or so (you don’t keep an exact score past a certain number of decades), and my motto is fun, fun, fun.

Admittedly, sometimes my pleasure comes at other people’s expense, but let’s not go into that now. We’ll concentrate instead on All Hallows Eve, or Halloween is as it’s more commonly called these days.

Trick or treat.

I don’t approve, this Americanised version of what was traditionally called guising in Scotland. (I’m not from Scotland. Just staying here temporarily, waiting for the heat to die down on another continent.)

No, the little people in Scotland used to get dressed up in home-made costumes and make their way to neighbouring houses. They had to tell a joke, sing a song or perform a magic trick. Then, they were rewarded with sweets, monkey nuts and sometimes money.

Now, the ungrateful little brats rap on doors and demand people hand over their stash of sweeties for no reward. If they don’t, then it’s the trick. Something nasty happens.

…which is where I come in. Trick or treat? I offer both. At the same time.

I choose carefully which doors I knock on. There might be households where there are happy couples, their faces beaming at me as they open the door. “Oh! Your costume is amazing! Where did you get that make-up and those fake sharp teeth?”

“A brilliant shop not that far away!” I said. “Shall I pretend to bite you for the ‘trick’ bit?”

Mrs Fraser said ‘yes’. She enjoyed it at first, but sadly Mrs, Mr and the as yet unborn Fraser didn’t live long enough to warn their neighbours of the perils of opening the door to women who look too much like the real thing.

This year, I plan to reinvent the guising thing. I will insist that every household that invites me in (you know what they say about letting the right one in, yeah?) should at least make me work for my reward.

I’m looking forward to it!

Here we are. I’m at my first house, tagging along with a small group of little people, dressed in…Asda costumes. Oh. God. Now, where’s the effort in that? They all swing plastic bags, full to the brim with sugary shit that will rot their teeth and small bodies.

To amuse myself, I puncture small holes in all the bags. As we walk on, the goodies drain out slowly, leaving a Hansel and Gretl-like trail.

Kids, you’ll thank me for this later.

House number one. The door is answered by… ooh, Mr Hot! This does make a pleasant change. Dark hair and eyes, tall and wiry of frame—just my favourite kind of guy. And also possessed of a pulse.

He meets my eyes above the children level. “Hey! Fair play to you, dressing up too!”

“I know! Jesus wants me for a sunbeam. I’ll get my reward at some point.”

He bursts out laughing at that, the sound of it attracting his significant other/wife. She stands right next to him and stares hard at me.

Oh-oh. Jealousy.

No need, love! My internal voice says, I promise you a sexual predator is the LEAST of your worries.

I pat the head of one the little things next to me. He glares in response.

“You have to buy so much for Halloween now, don’t you?” I say, making sure I angle my head, so my eyes can look straight at the wife. “In my day, there was none of this trick or treat nonsense. You went to your neighbours’ houses and had to work for your money!”

“Aye, too flippin’ right!” the wife says. “D’ye want to come in?”

Ah, the invite to enter. Always a goodie.

I shuffle the children in front of me. They are all whining about trick or treat, and I tell them, that sadly on this occasion, they will need to actually make an effort.

Handsome guy, jealous wife and I watch as the kids perform. Truly, it is embarrassingly dreadful. Do their parents find them entertaining? The triumph of hope over experience, surely. Nevertheless, we clap enthusiastically when they finish, me especially. I’m supposed to be the guardian of this group, after all.

Jealous wife stirs herself at the end. She leaves the room and comes back minutes later armed with so much sugar you could dissolve a canine tooth instantly.

Not mine, though.

The kids scramble for wine gums, drumsticks, star mix, Tangfastics and more.

Jealous wife starts to mutter. She did this home-made stuff. She bought the Sainsbury’s magazine and did the whole mummified sausage pie and spooky Halloween cupcakes thing. She proffers it on trays.

The kids don’t give a shit. The home-made stuff goes untouched.

We watch them leave the house, their holey plastic bags filled with sugary content which will spill out on to the path behind them as they walk home.

Jealous wife stirs herself. “Oh! Aren’t they yours, those kids?”

I shake my head, cheerily. “Not mine! But the poor little things were wandering around all by themselves. I thought they needed guidance.”

Handsome husband nods his head. “Bloody hell! That was good of you!”

The next bit is delicate. You need to approach it with surgeon-like precision. “Gosh!” I say, “you two are so… well, I don’t meet people like you very often.”

Always, always tell people they are special.

Jealous wife has drunk her wine in double quick time. Her husband’s mouth is hanging open.

I stand up, and I hold my hands palms up in front of me. “You’re like…open-minded, yeah?”

Both of them nod furiously. Close-minded. It’s the worst thing you can be accused of, right?

“I like boys AND girls,” I purr, and they do too. One hand is clasped by handsome guy, the other by jealous wife.

“Shall we have some fun?”

Handsome man and now not so jealous wife speed me up to their bedroom so quickly, my feet barely touch the ground. Once there, handsome man pulls off his tee shirt, while his wife struggles in an undignified way with her jeans. In no time, they are both naked.

I get rid of my cloak.

“Aren’t you going to get…undressed?” the man asks, disappointment clear.

I shake my head and move in on him. In no time, my non-naked state is forgotten.

“Hey!” the wife pushes herself between us. “My turn, I think.”

Goodness. She IS enthusiastic. Years of bi-curiosity, I guess, coupled with a sexually useless husband if my seconds-ago encounter is anything to go by.

“CORDELIA!”

The three of us jump at that, the sound coming from downstairs. I recognise the voice, and I curse.

The man and the woman are scrambling around for their clothes.

I put a hand out. “I know who it is. Er, would you like a little more company? We’re all friends here, right?”

The wife nods, her excitement palpable. The husband is no longer so keen. Probably because the voice that shouted its way upstairs was male.

I move to the door and yell at Arnaud to come on up. Arnaud grins at me as he climbs the stairs. I grimace at him. I was hoping to keep these two all to myself, but here he is again, muscling in on my fun.

The wife stares at him, wide-eyed. No wonder. Arnaud makes her husband look run of the mill in the looks stakes. He’s dressed as a ‘traditional’ vampire, or what people conjure up in their heads when they think of Dracula – tux, cloak and a subtle sprinkling of blood on his white shirt.

Real blood.

He’s male cover model material. And doesn’t he know it?

“So, where were we?” he asks, untying the lace that holds his cloak around his neck. He pulls the wife towards him, caressing her bottom and burying his face in her throat.

Ah, yes… we blood-suckers get off on the smell of pulsing blood. It’s strongest there. Arnaud’s eyes close, but not before he shoots me an infuriating wink.

In retaliation, I pull the husband to me and do the same. Arnaud and I face each other, the man and the woman between us. He signals with his eyes, and we bare our teeth. Synchronicity is what you aim for in a two-vampire situation.

He holds a hand up behind the wife, two fingers bent down. Three, two…

The door opens again, and the four of us turn in astonishment. Stood there are two of the little shits that I brought here earlier, their arms folded and their eyes narrowed. The man and his wife are scrambling for clothes once more, no doubt fearful that the foursome story will make it all the way around the neighbourhood and back again.

“You put a hole in my bag!” the boy points at me.

Honestly! What a single-minded young man, coming all the way back here to shout at me for saving him from dental decay and obesity.

“And you’re real vampires!” the girl says.

Bloody hell, where did that come from?

Too late, I realise they are pointing guns at us. The model is the one that fires silver bullets. It looks as if this time, I was the one who let my guard down.

Great.

©Emma Baird 2017

 

Global Warming – Friday Flash Fiction

A little Friday flash fiction for you…

“I’m still waiting for global warming to kick in.”

“Not half. It’s been a long winter.”

British weather offered conversation for every situation. Our new neighbours—four small children and a dog—moved in last week. We watched, half-hidden behind curtains, as they installed a trampoline in their garden.

It had been cold and wet ever since.

“How old are your wee ones?”

“The twins are three, Alex is five and Karly’s six.”

The four of them had appeared, fanning out behind their dad. They regarded me coolly, shaking their head when told to say hello.

War was silently declared.

©Emma Baird 2017

A Meeting

Here’s a little flash fiction…

A Meeting

The tutor looked familiar. It took her ten seconds to remember – the sofa in her flat, ten years previously.

Did he recognise her? Hopefully not. She made sure to look at him when he talked, the way someone who has no history with another person would.

Maybe she waved her left hand about a bit too, waggling the fourth be-ringed finger. His own left hand was bare.

Nonetheless, when he said ‘good’ in response to a point she made, she glowed. At the end, she thanked him – glad that his attention was taken up by others anxious to talk.

Exes.

Flash Fiction – Two Examples

For more than two years, I wrote a flash fiction story every week. As I love alliteration, I wrote the story on a Friday so I could call it Friday flash fiction.

I stopped because I wanted to concentrate on writing books. My imagination is finite. If I use it up on short stories, there’ll be less left for books!

However, last Friday a member of a group I’m part of wrote a lovely little tale about the founder of a flash fiction group on LinkedIn. I couldn’t resist it… Here’s the original story and my response.*

The Painting Problem, by Russell Conover

The painting club was enjoying a weekly meeting, with one exception.

“Great to see so many faces here,” Bob said with a smile.

“Yeah, but I miss our founder Jill,” Ted lamented. “Wonder what happened to her?”

The painters looked at each other and shrugged. Jill had occasionally been in touch with brief updates, but compared to her flawlessly regular masterpieces before, she’d all but vanished.

“Hey–why don’t we work together on a tribute painting for Jill?” Betty suggested.

“Awesome!” Tanya exclaimed. “Then she’ll know we miss her.”

“Let’s do it. We owe our founder a shout-out.” Ray smiled.

The Wobbly Glass, by Emma Baird

“Jill? Jill? Are you there?”

In extreme circumstances, Ouija boards served a purpose. The glass whizzed across the board to the letter Y.

Ray smiled. “Okay, so she went over to the other side.”

Betty looked puzzled. “She sounded perfectly well the last time I spoke to her.”

The glass wobbled ominously. It moved from letter to letter so fast, it was impossible to keep up.

Ray nodded slowly. “I think I know what this other side is. Clarity and precision are no longer our founder’s watchwords. I think she’s been kidnapped by the stream of consciousness crew.”

 

For more Friday flash fiction, see the WordPress site, Friday flash fiction, and the website of the sane name.

*I’m duty-bound to report that there was a typo in my story. I wrote “steam of consciousness”, rather than “stream”…

Deep-Fried Marshmallows

If you’ve ever worked with clients, you’ll probably know what I mean by this short story.

Fish_n_chips“The thing is with clients… they know for sure what they don’t want, but seldom know what they do want.”

“Too right! You’re expected to be part magician/part mind reader.”

“My mind reading skills have failed me of late.”

“Well, the usual trick is to give them the opposite of what they asked for.”

“Mmm, might work. When I gave them what they requested, they hated it.”

“Oh – they really didn’t like the battered, deep-fried marshmallows with ketchup?”

“Not one bit of it.”

“You could try fish, and maybe serve it with some fried potatoes?”

“I’ll give it a shot.”

 

©Emma Baird 2016