Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe – An Excerpt

Chapter One

Drop Scones
8 oz self-raising flour
1 oz caster sugar. Can be licked off spoon.
1 egg. Budget for four eggs if working with under-sevens.
½ pint full cream milk. 10 oz for recipe, plus one glass to be
taken with results.
Pinch of salt. This is a small amount of salt, Issy. Tinier than your little finger. Not too much! Not! Oh. That’s too much. Never mind.

Put the dry ingredients into a bowl and stir well.

Make a well in the centre – a well, that’s like a place you get water. Like Jack and Jill. Yes. Drop in the egg. Wheee! Yes, and milk.

Whisk everything together thoroughly. The batter should have a creamy consistency. Add a little more milk if necessary.

Preheat and butter a heavy-based pan. Grampa will pick up the pan. Do not try to lift the pan. Good. Now let the mix drip off a spoon. Don’t rush it. A few splatters on the side of the pan is fine. Now let Grampa flip them, but you can hold the handle … yup, that’s it. Hurrah!

Serve with the remainder of the milk, butter, jam, cream and whatever else is in the fridge, and a large kiss on the top of the head for being a clever girl.

 

Issy Randall refolded the piece of paper and smiled.

‘Are you absolutely sure about this?’ she said to the figure in the easy chair. ‘This is the recipe?’ The old man nodded vehemently. He held up one finger, which Issy recognized immediately as his cue for a lecture.

‘Well, the thing is,’ Grampa Joe began, ‘baking is …’

‘Life,’ filled in Issy patiently. She’d heard the speech many times before. Her grandfather had started sweeping up in the family bakery at the age of twelve; eventually he had taken over the business and run three large bakeries in Manchester. Baking was all he knew.

‘It is life. Bread is the staff of life, our most basic food.’

‘And very un-Atkins,’ said Issy, smoothing her cord skirt down over her hips and sighing. It was one thing for her grandfather to say that. He had spent his whole life skinny as a rake, thanks to a full-time diet of extremely hard physical work that started with lighting the furnace at 5am. It was quite another when baking was your hobby, your passion – but to pay the bills you were sitting down in an office all day. It was hard to show restraint when trying out … She drifted off, thinking about the new pineapple cream recipe she’d tried that morning. The trick was to leave enough of the pith in to give the flavour bite, but not so much that it turned into a smoothie. She needed to give it another shot. Issy ran her hands over her cloudy black hair. It went well with her green eyes but created absolute bloody havoc if it rained.

‘So when you describe what you’re making, you must describe life. Do you see? It’s not just recipes … next thing you’ll tell me you’re measuring in metric.’

Issy bit her lip and made a mental note to hide her metric scales the next time Grampa visited the flat. He’d only get himself worked up.

‘Are you listening to me?’

‘Yes, Gramps!’

They both turned to look out of the window of the assisted living facility in north London. Issy had installed Joe there when it became clear he was getting too absent-minded to live on his own. Issy had hated moving him down south after he’d spent his life in the north, but she needed him close enough to visit. Joe had grumbled of course but he was going to grumble anyway, moving out of his home to anywhere that wouldn’t let him rise at 5am and start pounding bread dough. So he might as well be grumpy close by, where she could keep an eye on him. After all, it wasn’t as if anyone else was around to do it. And the three bakeries, with their proud, shiny brass handles and old signs proclaiming them to be ‘electric bakers’, were gone now; fallen prey to the supermarkets and chains that favoured cheap white pulp over hand-crafted but slightly more expensive loaves.

As he so often did, Grampa Joe watched the January raindrops fall across the window and read her mind.

‘Have you heard from … your mother recently?’ he said. Issy nodded, noting as ever how hard he found it to say his own daughter’s name. Marian had never felt at home as a baker’s daughter. And Issy’s grandmother had died so young, she hadn’t had long enough to provide a steadying influence. With Gramps working all the time, Marian had rebelled before she could even spell the word; hanging out with older boys and bad crowds from her teens, getting pregnant early to a travelling man who had given Issy her black hair and strong eyebrows and absolutely nothing else. Too much of a questing spirit to be tied down, Marian had often left her only child behind while she went off in search of herself.

Issy had spent most of her childhood in the bakery, watching Gramps as he manfully beat the dough, or delicately shaped the lightest, most mouth-melting filigree cakes and pies. Although he trained bakers for each of his shops, he still liked to get his own hands white with flour, one of the reasons Randall’s were once the most popular bakers in Manchester. Issy had spent countless hours doing her homework under the great Cable Street ovens, absorbing through her pores the time and skill and care of a great baker; much more conventional than her mother, she adored her gramps, and felt safe and cosy in the kitchens, even though she knew, of course, that she was different from her classmates, who went home to little houses with mums, and dads who worked for the council, and dogs and siblings, and ate potato waffles with ketchup in front of Neighbours and didn’t wake up before the sun, the smell of warm bread already rising from far below.

Now, at thirty-one, Issy had just about forgiven her troubled, untethered mother, even though she of all people should have known what it was like growing up without your mum. She didn’t care about the sports days and school outings – everyone knew her grandfather, who never missed one – and she was popular enough, rarely without a cast-off box of scones or French cakes to bring to school occasions, while her birthdayparty spreads were the stuff of local legend. She did wish someone in her life had cared a little more for fashion – her grandfather bought her two cotton and one woollen dress every Christmas, regardless of age, style or size, even when everyone else she knew was in legwarmers and Pineapple Tshirts, and her mother would swoop back at regular intervals with strange hippy-style garments that she was selling at festivals, made of hemp or itchy llama wool or something else equally impractical. But Issy never felt short of love, in the cosy flat above the bakery where she and Gramps would eat apple pie and watch Dad’s Army. Even Marian, who on her flying visits would strictly admonish Issy not to trust men, to stay off the cider and always follow her rainbow, was a loving parent. Nevertheless, sometimes, when she saw happy families larking in the park, or parents cradling their newborns, Issy felt a desire at the pit of her stomach so strong it felt like a physical gnawing for the traditional, the safe.

It was no surprise to anyone who knew the family that Issy Randall grew up to be the straightest, most conventional girl imaginable. Good A-levels, good college and now a good job with a thrusting commercial property company in the City. By the time she was ready to start work, Gramps’s bakeries were all sold: victims of his getting older and the changing times. And she had an education, he had pointed out (sadly, she sometimes thought); she didn’t want to be getting up at sparrow’s fart and doing hard manual labour for the rest of her life. She was set for better things.

But deep down she had a passion for kitchen comforts – for cream horns, balanced with the perfect weight of caterer’s cream and light, flaky pastry, set off by the crunchiest diamond crystals of clear sugar; for hot cross buns, baked at Randall’s strictly during Lent and Lent only, their cinnamon and raisins and orange peel spreading an exciting, sticky smell to half the road; for a perfectly piped butter icing on top of the highest, lightest, floatiest lemon cupcake. Issy loved all of those things. Hence her project with Gramps: to get as many of his recipes down on paper as possible, before, although neither of them ever referred to it, but before, or in case, he started to forget them.

 

‘I got an email from Mum,’ said Issy. ‘She’s in Florida. She’s met a man called Brick. Really. Brick. That’s his name.’

‘At least it’s a man this time,’ sniffed her grandfather.

Issy gave him a look. ‘Ssh. She said she might be home for my birthday. In the summer. Of course she said she’d be home for Christmas but she wasn’t.’

Issy had spent Christmas in the home with Gramps. The staff did their best, but it wasn’t all that great.

‘Anyway.’ Issy attempted a smile. ‘She sounds happy. Says she loves it over there. Said I should send you over for some sun.’

Issy and Gramps looked at one another and burst out laughing. Joe got tired out crossing the room.

‘Yes,’ said Gramps, ‘I’ll just go catch the next plane to Florida. Taxi! Take me to London Airport!’

Issy tucked the sheet of paper away in her handbag and stood up.

‘I have to go,’ she said. ‘Um, keep doing the recipes. But you can keep them quite, you know, normal if you like.’

‘Normal.’

She kissed him on the forehead.

‘See you next week.’

 

Issy got off the bus. It was freezing, with dirty ice on the ground left over from a short day’s snowfall just after New Year. At first it had looked pretty, but now it was getting a little ropy round the edges, especially poking through the wroughtiron fencing of the Stoke Newington Municipal Offices, the rather grand edifice at the end of her street. Still, as ever, Issy felt pleased to be stepping down. Home, Stoke Newington, the bohemian district that she’d stumbled upon when she moved south.

The smell of hookahs from the little Turkish cafés on Stamford Road mingled with the incense sticks from the Everything for a Pound shops, jostling next to expensive baby boutiques that sold children’s designer wellingtons and one-off wooden toys, perused by shoppers with Hasidic ringlets, or headscarves; crop tops and patois; young mothers with buggies; older mothers with double buggies. Despite her friend Tobes once joking that it was like living in the bar in Star Wars, Issy loved it all. She adored the sweet Jamaican bread; the honey baklava sitting out by the cash registers in the grocers; little Indian sweets of dried milk and sugar, or dusty slabs of Turkish delight. She liked the strange cooking smells in the air as she came home from work, and the jumble of buildings; from a handsome square of pretty flat-fronted houses to blocks of flats and red-brick conversions. Albion Road was lined with odd shops, fried chicken joints, cab firms and large grey houses. It was neither commercial nor residential but lay somewhere in between; one of the great winding thoroughfares of London that once upon a time had led to its outlying villages, and now connected its suburbs.

The grey houses were stately, Victorian and potentially expensive. Some of them remained grotty sub-divided flats with bicycles and damp wheelie bins cluttering up the front gardens. These boasted several doorbells with names crudely taped to them, and recycling boxes piled high on the kerb. Some of them, though, had been reconverted into houses and gentrified, with reclaimed oak front doors, topiary trees on the steps and expensive curtains leading to polished hardwood flooring and stripped-back fireplaces and big mirrors. She loved the area’s mix of shabby and new, traditional, rough and ready and smart and alternative, with the towers of the City on the horizon, and the tumbledown churchyard and crowded pavements … All types of people lived in Stokey; it felt like a microcosm of London; a village that reflected the city’s true heart. And it was more affordable than Islington.

Issy had lived here for four years, since she moved out of south London and on to the property ladder. The only downside had been moving out of range of the tube. She’d told herself that didn’t matter, but sometimes, on an evening like this with the wind cutting between the houses and turning noses into red dripping taps, she thought perhaps it did. Just a bit. It was all right for the posh yummy mummies in the big grey houses, they all had 4×4s. She did wonder sometimes, when she saw them out with their huge, expensive buggies and tiny, expensive bodies … she did wonder how old they were. Younger than her? Thirty-one wasn’t old, not these days. But with their toddlers and their highlights and their houses with one wall covered in smart wallpaper … she did wonder. Sometimes.

Just behind the bus stop was a little close. It was lined with tiny shops, older places that had been left behind by the Victorian development. Once upon a time they would have been stables, or costermonger’s; they were quirky, and oddly shaped. There was an ironmonger’s with ancient brushes round the door, old-fashioned toasters for sale at inflated prices and a sad-looking washing machine that had been sitting in the front window for as long as Issy had been coming to the bus stop; a telephone/wifi/internet office that stayed open at strange hours and invited you to send money to places, and a newsagent that faced on to the road and was where Issy picked up magazines and Bountys. Right at the very end of the row, tucked into the corner, was a building that looked like an afterthought; somewhere to use up the spare stones. It was pointed at one end, where a triangular corner of glass stuck out towards the road, widening into a bench, with a door coming out on to a small cobbled courtyard with a tree in it. It looked quite out of place, a tiny haven in the middle of a village square; something absolutely out of time – like, Issy had once reflected, an illustration by Beatrix Potter. All it needed were bottle-glass windows.

Wind blew up the main road once more and Issy turned off towards the flat. Home.

 

Issy had bought her flat at the very height of the property boom. For someone who worked in the property business, it hadn’t been very astute. She suspected prices had started to decline about thirty minutes after she’d picked up her keys. This was before she began dating her boyfriend, Graeme, whom she’d met at work (although she had already noticed him around, as had all the other girls in the office), otherwise, as he had said several times, he would certainly have advised her against it.

Even then, she wasn’t sure she’d have listened to him. After hunting through every property in her price range and hating all of them, she’d been on the point of giving up when she got to Carmelite Avenue, and she’d loved it straight away. It was the top two storeys of one of the pretty grey houses, with its own side entrance up a flight of stairs, so really it felt more like a little house than an apartment. One floor was almost entirely an open-plan kitchen/dining room/sitting room. Issy had made it as cosy as possible, with huge faded grey velvet sofas, a long wooden table with benches, and her beloved kitchen. The units were going cheap in the sales, almost certainly because they were a very strong shade of pink. ‘Nobody wants a pink kitchen,’ the salesman had said, slightly sadly. ‘They just want stainless steel. Or country cottage. There’s nothing in between.’

‘I’ve never seen a pink washing machine before,’ Issy had said encouragingly. She hated a sad salesman.

‘I know. Apparently it makes some people feel a bit queasy, watching their washing go round in one of those.’

‘That would be a drawback.’

‘Jordan nearly bought one,’ he said, momentarily perking up. ‘Then she decided it was too pink.’

‘Jordan decided it was too pink?’ said Issy, who had never thought of herself as a particularly pink and girly type of person. This, however, was such an endearingly full-on Schiaparelli pink. It was a kitchen that just wanted to be loved.

‘And it’s really seventy per cent off?’ she asked again. ‘Fitted and everything?’

The salesman looked at the pretty girl with the green eyes and the cloud of dark hair. He liked rounded girls. They looked like they would actually cook in his kitchens. He didn’t like those sharp ladies who wanted sharp-edged kitchens to keep their gin and face cream in. He thought kitchens should be used to make delicious food and pour lovely wine. He sometimes hated his job, but his wife loved their annually updated discount kitchens and cooked him wonderful meals in them, so he soldiered on. They were both getting terribly fat.

‘Yup, seventy per cent off. They’ll probably just throw it out,’ he said. ‘On the scrapheap. Can you imagine?’

Issy could imagine. That would be very sad.

‘I would hate for that to happen,’ she said solemnly.

The salesman nodded, mentally locating his order pad for a sale.

‘Seventy-five per cent off?’ she said. ‘After all, I’m practically donating to charity. Save the Kitchen.’

And that was how the pink kitchen had arrived. She had added black-and-white-chequered lino and implements, and after guests had first screwed up their eyes and rubbed them to get the spots away, then tentatively opened them again, some were surprised to find that they actually quite liked the pink kitchen, and they certainly liked what came out of it.

Even Grampa Joe had liked it, on one of his carefully choreographed visits, and had nodded approvingly at the gas hob (for caramelizing) and the electric oven (for even heat distribution). And these days, Issy and the sugar-sweet pink kitchen seemed made for one another.

In it she felt properly at home. She would turn the radio up and bustle around, gathering her vanilla sugar, her finest French patissier’s flour that she bought from the tiny alimentaire in Smithfield and her narrow silver sieve, and selecting which of her trusty wooden spoons she would use to whip her lighter-than-air sponge into shape. She cracked eggs perfectly two at a time into her large blue-and-white-striped ceramic mixing bowl without even glancing, and used her eye to measure out the exact amount of creamy, snowy Guernsey butter that never went in the fridge. She got through a lot of butter.

Issy bit her lip sharply to stop herself beating the cake mix too hard. If it got too much air in it the mix would collapse in the oven, so she slowed her arm right down and tested to see if it would peak. It would. She had squeezed in fresh Seville orange juice and was planning to attempt a marmalade icing, which would either be delicious or quite peculiar.

The cupcakes were in the oven and she was on her third batch of icing when her flatmate, Helena, pushed open the door. The trick was to balance out the flavour so it wasn’t too tart or too sweet, just perfect … She noted down the exact combination of ingredients that would give just a delicate edge in the mouth.

Helena never arrived subtly anywhere. She simply wasn’t capable. She entered every room bosoms first – she couldn’t help it; she wasn’t fat, just tall, and extremely generously proportioned in true fifties style, with large creamy breasts, a tiny waist and a wide bottom and thighs, crowned by a towering mass of Pre-Raphaelite hair. She would have been considered a beauty in any period of history other than the early twenty-first century, when the only acceptable shape for a beautiful woman was that of a hungry six-year-old who had inexplicably grown solid apple-shaped tits out of her shoulder blades. As it was, she was constantly trying to lose weight, as if her broad, alabaster shoulders and luscious curved thighs were ever going anywhere.

‘I have had a terrible day,’ she announced dramatically. She glanced up at the cooling racks.

‘I’m on it,’ said Issy hurriedly, putting down her icing sugar nozzle.

The oven dinged. Issy had dreamed of an Aga – a big pink Aga – even though it couldn’t get up the stairs, or in any of the windows, and even if it did there wasn’t room to plumb one in, and even if there had been the floor wouldn’t have been able to take the weight, and even if it had she couldn’t have stored the oil, and even if she had, Agas were no use for making cakes, they were too unpredictable. Plus she couldn’t afford one. Nonetheless she still kept the catalogue hidden away in her bookcase. Instead she had a highly efficient German Bosch, which always was at the temperature it said it was going to be, and always timed everything perfectly to the second, but it didn’t inspire devotion.

Helena looked at the two dozen perfect cakes emerging from the oven.

‘Who are you cooking for, the Red Army? Give me one.’

‘They’re too hot.’

‘Give me one!’

Issy rolled her eyes and started squeezing on the icing with an expert flick of the wrist. Really, of course, she should wait till the cakes had cooled enough not to melt the buttercream, but she could tell Helena wasn’t capable of waiting that long.

‘So what happened?’ she asked, when Helena was comfortably ensconced on the chaise longue (she’d brought her own chaise longue when she moved in; it suited her. Helena never liked to expend more energy than was absolutely necessary) with a vast vat of tea and two cupcakes on her favourite polka-dot plate. Issy was pleased with the cakes; they were as light and fluffy as air, with a delicate sense of oranges and cream; delicious, and they wouldn’t spoil your dinner. She realized she’d forgotten to get in anything for dinner. Well, they were dinner then.

‘I got punched,’ sniffed Helena.

Issy sat up. ‘Again?’

‘He thought I was a fire engine. Apparently.’

‘What would a fire engine be doing inside an Accident and Emergency department?’ wondered Issy.

‘That’s a good question,’ said Helena. ‘Well, we get all sorts.’

Helena had known she wanted to be a nurse when she was eight years old, which was when she’d taken all the pillowcases in the house and arranged all her stuffed animals in hospital beds. At ten she’d insisted that her family start calling her Florence (her three younger brothers, all of whom were terrified of her, still did). At sixteen she left school and went straight into training the old-fashioned way – on the wards under a matron – and despite much government meddling in the system, now she was a Grade B ward manager (‘Call me Matron,’ she’d said to the crusty old consultants, who happily complied) and practically ran the busy A&E department at Hemel Park, still treating her trainees as if it were 1955. She had almost been in the newspapers when one had grassed her up for carrying out a fingernail inspection. Most of her girls, however, adored her, as did the many junior doctors she had prodded and guided through their first anxious months; as did her patients. When they weren’t off their heads and throwing punches, naturally.

Even though she made more money, got to sit down all day and didn’t have to work ridiculous shifts, Issy, in her safe corporate job, sometimes envied Helena. How lovely to work at something you loved and knew you were great at, even if it was for a pittance and you occasionally got punched.

‘How’s Mr Randall?’ asked Helena. She adored Issy’s grandad, who admired Helena as a damn fine woman, accused her of continuing to grow taller and opined that she wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a ship. She had also cast her formidable professional eye over every care home in the district, an act for which Issy felt she would be forever in her debt.

‘He’s good!’ said Issy. ‘Except when he’s good he wants to get up and go baking so he gets cross and starts cheeking that fat nurse again.’

Helena nodded.

‘Have you taken Graeme in to see him yet?’

Issy bit her lip. Helena knew full well she hadn’t.

‘Not yet,’ she said. ‘I will though, he’s just been so busy with stuff.’

The thing was, Issy thought, that Helena tended to attract men who worshipped the ground she walked on. Unfortunately she found this incredibly annoying and spent most of her time crushing on hot alpha males who were only interested in women with the BMI of a small shaky dog. Nonetheless, anyone looking for a normal – or normalish – relationship couldn’t hope to compete with Helena’s admirers, who wrote screeds of poetry and sent roomfuls of flowers.

‘Mmm,’ said Helena, in the exact same tone she used to teenage skate punks who came in with broken collarbones. She popped another cake in her mouth. ‘You know, these are divine. You really could be a professional. Are you sure they don’t contain one of my five a day?’

‘Definite.’

Helena sighed. ‘Oh well. We all need something to aspire to. Quick! Telly on! It’s a Simon Cowell day. I want to see him be cruel to someone.’

‘You need a nice man,’ said Issy, picking up the remote control.

So do you, thought Helena, but she kept it to herself.