Christmas at the Cupcake Cafe: Chapter One
Come and celebrate
This is not for gingerbread men, which is more of a cookie recipe as it has to stay hard and crunchy. And it is not for gingerbread houses, unless you have endless time on your hands and (let’s say it quietly) are a bit of a show-off who would rather their cakes were admired than devoured. No, this is old-fashioned soft, sticky gingerbread. It doesn’t take long to make, but you’ll be glad you did.
NB Oil the container before you fill it with treacle. Otherwise you and your dishwasher are going to fall out really badly.
50g white sugar
50g brown sugar
300g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp powdered cinnamon
1 tbsp powdered ginger (or a little more if you like)
1/2 tsp ground cloves (I just threw in a ‘lucky’ clove)
1/2 tsp salt
60ml hot water
Preheat oven to 175°C/gas mark 3. Grease a loaf
tin or square baking tin.
Cream sugar and butter together (you can do
this entire thing in the mixer), then add the egg
and the treacle.
Mix the spices, baking powder, flour and salt.
Fold in to wet mixture. Add the water, then pour into baking tin and bake for 45 minutes.
You can sprinkle icing sugar on the top, or make an icing glaze, or just slice it like it is – proper yummy, sticky Christmas gingerbread. Serve liberally to people you like.
The scent of cinnamon, orange peel and ginger perfumed the air, with a strong undercurrent of coffee. Outside the rain was battering against the large windows of the eau-de-nil-painted exterior of the Cupcake Café, tucked into a little grey stone close next to an ironmonger’s and a fenced-in tree that looked chilled and bare in the freezing afternoon.
Issy, putting out fresh chestnut-purée cupcakes decorated with tiny green leaves, took a deep breath of happiness and wondered if it was too early to start playing her Silver Bells CD. The weather had been uncharacteristically mild for much of November, but now winter was truly kicking in.
Customers arrived looking beaten and battered by the gale, disgorging umbrellas into the basket by the front door (so many got left behind, Pearl had commented that if they ran into financial difficulties, they could always start a second-hand umbrella business), then would pause halfway through wrestling with their jackets as the warm scent reached their nostrils. And Issy could see it come over them: their shoulders, hunched against the rain, would slowly start to unfurl in the cosy atmosphere of the café; their tense, anxious London faces would relax, and a smile would play around their lips as they approached the old-fashioned glass-fronted cabinet which hosted the daily array of goodies: cupcakes piled high with the best butter icing, changing every week depending on Issy’s whim, or whether she’d just received a tip-off about the best vanilla pods, or a special on rose hips, or had the urge o go a bit mad with hazelnut meringue. The huge banging orange coffee machine (the colour clashed completely with the pale greens and greys and florals of the café itself, but they’d had to get it on the cheap, and it worked like an absolute charm) was fizzing in the background, the little fire was lit and cheery-looking (Issy would have preferred wood, but it was banned, so they had gas flames); there were newspapers on poles and books on the bookshelves; wifi, and cosy nooks and corners in which to hide oneself, as well as a long open table where mums could sit with their buggies and not block everybody else’s way.
Smiling, people would take a while to make up their minds. Issy liked to go through the various things they had on offer, explain what went into each one: how she crushed the strawberries then left them in syrup for the little strawberry tarts they did in the summer; or the whole blueberries she liked to use in the middle of the summer fruits cupcake; or, as now, making customers smell her new batch of fresh cloves. Pearl simply let people choose. They had to make sure Caroline had had enough sleep or she tended to get slightly impatient and make remarks about the number of calories in each treat. This made Issy very cross.
‘The “c” word is banned in this shop,’ she’d said. ‘People don’t come in here looking to feel guilty. They’re looking to relax, take a break, sit down with their friends. They don’t need you snorting away about saturated fats.’
I’m just trying to be helpful,’ said Caroline. ‘The economy is in trouble. I know how much tax avoidance my ex-husband does. There’s not going to be the money to pay for cardiac units, that’s all I’m saying.’
Pearl came up from the basement kitchen with a new tray of gingerbread men. The first had been snapped up in moments by the children coming in after school, delighted by their little bow ties and fearful expressions. She saw Issy standing there looking a bit dreamy as she served up two cinnamon rolls with a steaming latte to a man with a large tummy, a red coat and a white beard.
‘Don’t even think it,’ she said.
‘Think what?’ said Issy guiltily.
‘About starting up the entire Christmas shebang. That isn’t Santa.’
‘I might be Santa,’ protested the old man. ‘How would you know?’
‘Because this would be your busy season,’ said Pearl, turning her focus back to her boss.
Issy’s eyes strayed reluctantly to the glass jar of candy canes that had somehow found their way to being beside the cash till.
‘It’s November!’ said Pearl. ‘We’ve just finished selling our Guy Fawkes cupcakes, remember? And don’t make me remind you how long it took me to get all that spiderwebbing down from Hallowe’en.’
‘Maybe we should have left it up there for fake snow,’ wondered Issy.
‘No,’ said Pearl. ‘It’s ridiculous. These holidays take up such a long time and everyone gets sick of them and they’re totally over the top and inappropriate.’
‘Bah humbug,’ said Issy. But Pearl would not be jarred out of her bad mood.
‘And it’s a difficult year for everyone,’ said Caroline. ‘I’ve told Hermia the pony may have to go if her father doesn’t buck up his ideas.’
‘Go where?’ said Pearl.
‘To the happy hunting grounds,’ said Caroline promptly. ‘Meanwhile he’s going to Antigua. Antigua! Did he ever take me to Antigua? No. You know what Antigua’s like,’ she said to Pearl.
‘Why would I?’ said Pearl.
Issy leapt into action. Caroline was a good, efficient worker, but she definitely lacked a sensitivity chip since her husband left her, and now he was trying to cut her maintenance. Caroline had never really known anything other than a very comfortable life. Working for a living and mixing with normal people she still tended to treat as something of a hilarious novelty.
‘Well, it is nearly the last week of November,’ said Issy. ‘Everyone else is doing red cups and Santa hats and jingle bells. Frankly, London is not the place to be if you want to escape Christmas. It does the most wonderful Christmas in the world, and I want us to be a part of it.’
‘Ho ho ho,’ said the fat man with the white beard. They looked at him, then at each other.
‘Stop it,’ said Pearl.
‘No, don’t!’ said Issy. She was so excited about Christmas this year; there was so much to celebrate. The Cupcake Café wasn’t exactly going to make them rich, but they were keeping their heads above water. Her best friend Helena and her partner Ashok were going to join them with their bouncing (and she was very bouncing indeed) one-year-old Chadani Imelda, and Issy’s mother might come too. The last time Issy had heard from Marian, in September, she’d been on a Greek island where she was currently making rather a good living teaching yoga to women who were pretending they were in Mamma Mia. Marian was a free spirit, which was supposed to make her romantic, but didn’t always make her very reliable, mother-wise.
And then of course there was Austin, Issy’s gorgeous, distracted boyfriend with the mismatched socks and the intense expression. Austin was curly-haired and greeneyed, with horn-rimmed spectacles he tended to take on and off again a lot when he was thinking, and Issy’s heart bounced in her chest every time she thought of him.
The door pinged again, unleashing another torrent of customers: young women in to have a sit-down after some early Christmas shopping. Their bags overflowed with tinsel and hand-made ornaments from the little independent shops on the pretty local high street, and their flushed cheeks and wet hair meant they brought the cold in with them in a riot of shaken anoraks and unwrapped scarves. Perhaps just a quick chain of fairy lights above the coffee machine, thought Issy. Christmas in London. Best in the world.
Christmas in New York, thought Austin, looking up and around him, dazzled. It really was something else; as dramatic as people said. Early snow was falling, and every shop window was lit up with over-the-top displays and luxury goods. Radio City Music Hall had a tree several storeys high and something called the Rockettes playing – he felt as though he had fallen through time and emerged in a movie from the fifties.
He adored it, he couldn’t help it. New York made him feel like a child, even though he was supposed to be here very much as a grown-up. It was so exciting. His bank had sent him here on an ‘ideas-sharing exercise’ after the American office had apparently requested somebody calm and ‘not a bullshit artist’. It appeared New York had tired of its crazed, risk-taking bankers and now desperately needed anyone with a reasonably level head to hold things together. Austin was disorganised and a little impatient with paperwork, but he rarely made loans that went bad, and was very good at spotting who was worth taking a risk on (Issy had most definitely been one of those) and who came in spouting pipe dreams and the latest management jargon. He was a safe pair of hands in a financial world that, increasingly, appeared to have gone completely crazy.
Issy had helped him pack, as otherwise he couldn’t be rusted to keep hold of matching socks. She’d kissed him on the forehead.
‘So you’ll come back full of amazing New York know-how and everyone will have to bend and scrape before you and they’ll make you king of the bank.’
‘I don’t think they have kings. Maybe they do. I haven’t climbed up to those esteemed heights yet. I want a gigantic crown if they do.’
‘And one of those pole things. For whacking.’
‘Is that what those are for?’
‘I don’t know what the point is of being a king if you can’t do whacking,’ pointed out Issy.
‘You’re right about everything,’ said Austin. ‘I will also ask for fake ermine.’
She had gently pinged his nose.
‘What a wise and gracious king you are. Look at me!’ she said. ‘I can’t believe I’m balling socks for you. I feel like I’m sending you to boarding school.’
‘Ooh, will you be my very firm matron?’ said Austin teasingly.
‘Are you obsessed with whacking today, or what? Have I just had to wait all this time for your disgusting perv side to come out?’
‘You started it, perv-o.’
She had driven him to the airport. ‘And then you’ll come back and it’ll be nearly Christmas!’
Austin smiled. ‘Do you really not mind doing it the same way as last year? Truly?’
‘Truly?’ said Issy. ‘Truly, last year was the best Christmas I’ve ever had.’
And she had meant it. The first time Issy’s mother had left – or the first time she remembered clearly, without it getting muddled in her head – she was seven, and writing out a letter to Santa, being very careful with the spelling.
Her mother had glanced over her shoulder. She was going through one of her rougher patches, which usually corresponded with a lot of complaining about the Manchester weather and the dark evenings and the sodding leaves. Joe, Issy’s grampa, and Issy had exchanged looks as Marian paced up and down like a tiger in a cage, then stopped to look at Issy’s list.
‘My own piper? Why would you want a piper? We’re not even Scottish.’
‘No,’ explained Issy patiently. Her mother had no interest in baking and relatively little in food, unless it was mung beans, or tofu – neither of which were readily available in 1980s Manchester – or some other fad she’d read about in one of the badly mimeographed pamphlets about alterative lifestyles she subscribed to. ‘An icing piper. Gramps won’t let me use his.’
‘It’s too big and you kept ripping it,’ grumbled Grampa Joe, then winked at Issy to show that he wasn’t really cross. ‘That butterscotch icing you made was pretty good, though, my girl.’
Issy beamed with pride.
Marian glanced downwards. ‘My Little Pony oven gloves . . . My darling, I don’t think they do those.’
‘They should,’ said Issy.
‘Pink mixing bowl . . . Girl’s World . . . what’s that?’
‘It’s a doll’s head. You put make-up on it.’ Issy had heard the other girls in her class talking about it. That was what they were all getting. She hadn’t heard anyone wanting a mixing bowl. So she’d decided she’d better join in with them.
‘You put make-up on a plastic head?’ said Marian, who had perfect skin and had never worn make-up in her life.
‘For what, to make her look like a tramp?’
Issy shook her head, blushing a bit.
‘Women don’t need make-up,’ said Marian. ‘That’s just to please men. You are perfectly fine as you are, do you understand? It’s what’s in here that counts.’ She rapped Issy sharply on the temple. ‘God, this bloody country. Imagine selling make-up to small children.’
‘I don’t see too much harm in it,’ said Grampa Joe
mildly. ‘At least it’s a toy. The others are all work tools.’
‘Oh Lord, it’s so much stuff,’ said Marian. ‘The commercialisation of Christmas is disgusting. It drives me mad. Everyone stuffing themselves and making themselves ill and trying to pretend they’ve got these perfect bloody nuclear families when everybody knows it’s all a total lie and we’re living under the Thatcher jackboot and the bomb could go off at any moment . . . ’
Grampa Joe shot her a warning look. Issy got very upset when Marian started talking about the bomb, or made noises about taking her to Greenham Common, or forced her to wear her CND badge to school. Then he went on calmly buttering the bread they were having with their turnip soup. (Marian insisted on very plain vegetables; Grampa Joe provided sugar and carbohydrates. It was a balanced diet, if you included both extremes.)
Issy didn’t bother sending the letter after all, didn’t even sign her name, which at that point had a big loveheart above the ‘I’ because all her friends did the same. Two days later Marian had gone, leaving behind a letter.
Darling, I need some sun on my face or I can’t breathe. I wanted to take you with me, but Joe says you need schooling more than you need sunshine. Given that I left school at fourteen I can’t really see the point myself but best do what he says for now. Have a very lovely Christmas my darling and I will see you soon.
Next to the card was a brand-new, unwrapped, shinyboxed Girl’s World.
Issy became aware, later in life, that it must have cost her mother something to buy it – something more than money – but it didn’t feel like that at the time. Despite her grandad’s efforts to interest her in it, she left the box unopened in the corner of her bedroom, unplayed with.
They both woke early on Christmas morning, Joe from long habit, Issy from excitement of a kind, although she was aware that other children she knew would be waking up with their mummies and probably their daddies too. It broke Joe’s heart to see how she tried so hard not to mind, and as she unwrapped her new mixing bowl, and her lovely little whisk, all child-sized, and the tiniest patty pans he could find, and they made pancakes together before walking to church on Christmas morning, saying hello to their many friends and neighbours, it broke his heart all over again to see that some of her truly didn’t mind; that even as a small child she was already used to being let down by the person who ought to be there for her the most.
She’d looked up at him, eyes shining as she flipped over a pancake.
‘Merry Christmas, my darling,’ he had said, kissing her gently on the head. ‘Merry Christmas.’