Two best friends. One big lie. The best bake off EVER.
Bella Bradley is the queen of television baking – a national treasure. Her Christmas specials have been topping the ratings for years and her marriage to Peter ‘Silver Fox’ Bradley is the stuff of Hello magazine specials.
But this year things are going to be different.
For Amy Lane, Bella’s best friend from school, life hasn’t held quite the same sparkle. And when Amy’s husband walks out three weeks from Christmas, it seems their lives are further apart than ever.
Amy has watched Bella’s rise to fame fondly, despite the fact Bella was always a terrible cook. But when she realises that Bella’s latest Christmas book is made up entirely of Amy’s mother’s recipes, the gloves are off…
After winning a competition to appear on Bella’s TV show, Amy is going to make sure that for Bella and her viewers, this will definitely be a Christmas to remember…
A hilarious, heart-breaking and feel good read about best friends, baking and the magic of Christmas.
Naughty Custard and Severely Whipped Cream
I was icing the Christmas cake when he told me.
‘Amy...I have to talk to you,’ he said.
I lifted the palette knife to create a snowy effect on the soft, mallow frosting and stood back, then turned to him.
‘What?’ I was gazing at my beautiful frosty white cake. ‘Silent Night’ played on the iPod, and it was just three weeks before Christmas. I glanced up at Neil standing next to me, and the look in his eyes scared me so much I put down the palette knife.
‘What is it? Are you ill...has something happened?’
He nodded, slowly, his eyes still cold, like they belonged to someone else.
‘I was going to leave it until after Christmas to tell you, but I’ve...I can’t go on like this. Amy, I’m sorry but it feels like a charade to go through the whole Christmas thing and...I’ve met someone.’ He was standing in front of me now, making eye contact, ensuring the message was clear and there was no room for misunderstanding. My mind went blank. The pink tie I’d bought for him was loosened at his neck. He’d just come home from work.There were pork chops in the oven.
‘Is this a joke?’ There were no words for this. I’d sometimes imagined a scene where we parted, but it was usually the other way round and me telling him I was going. I wasn’t ready for this, now –ever.
‘Because I can’t live a lie any longer, Amy,’ he said, his speech obviously well prepared, learned by heart. I could see by his set jaw and steady gaze he was damn well going to say every word without interruption from me.
‘You’ve been so busy with work, you’ve got your friends and your life and I feel like there’s no room for me...’ he started.
‘Oh no, Neil. You sleeping with someone else is not my fault, so don’t even try to pull that one,’ I snapped, moving swiftly from shock to anger, aware I was spitting in his face– not pretty...or festive.
‘I’m sorry, I’m not blaming you, but I just...I want to be with her. She loves me, she cares what happens to me, asks me about my day...I’m sorry, Amy...’ He stood there, ashen-faced.
‘So after twenty years you’re just walking out on your marriage because some other woman asks if you’ve had a nice day?’ I was becoming irrational, but who could blame me? ‘Perhaps I should have made more like an American waitress and said ‘have a nice day,’ when I ‘served’ you your evening meal.’
The panic was rising in my chest, I couldn’t deal with people leaving, the thought of being on my own scared me. Things hadn’t been great for a long time between us, but he didn’t have to go and throw it all away– not now, just weeks before Christmas. I glanced through the living room door at the Christmas tree, the lights twinkling, gifts from relatives and friends already underneath.This was a time for being together, for rekindling love and family, not abandoning it.
‘I don’t understand?’ I asked, trying to calm down and not to bare my teeth like a wild animal. I didn’t know how I felt about Neil, but I wasn’t ready for this and I didn’t want him storming off into the night and leaving me alone. I needed to keep everything on an even keel, especially myself. ‘I know we’ve had our problems Neil, but all marriages have problems, we just have to work at them.’
‘That’s what I thought too, but...she’s special.’
‘Special? More “special” than the woman you married, who you’ve been with for over twenty years,’ I snapped, losing any chance of staying calm at this.
‘No...of course you’re special too, but we both want different things, Amy.’
‘Yeah, you want someone else.’
‘It’s not like that...I care about her.’
So this really was it? After several years of our relationship hanging by a thread, one of us had finally decided to do something to end it, but now it was finally here I felt sick. I was about to throw up, but swallowed hard to prevent it. Whatever I might think about him, I didn’t want my husband’s last moments with me to be infused with the sight and smell of me vomiting noisily in the kitchen.
‘Who is she?’ I heard myself croak.
‘Someone at work, she works in the Legal department...you don’t know her.’
‘Well I do now, don’t I?’I started. ‘Because it looks like this woman who I “don’t know”has been playing quite a big part in my life without me even realising ...’
He just stood there with his head down like I was reprimanding him. He reminded me of one of the teenagers I taught at school who’d been found smoking or downloading porn on their iPhone.
‘Neil, the kids will be home from Uni in three weeks...and I made a cake...’ I gestured towards the snow-topped, perfectly iced confection like it would make a difference to his planned departure. Three minutes ago this beautiful fruit cake had, along with the Christmas Tree, been the centre and beginning of my pre-Christmas world. We both stared at the cake as though it held the answers and if we stared for long enough all the bad things would go away. But they didn’t, and when I looked back, the eyes staring out of my husband’s face were a stranger’s eyes.
‘When are you going?’ I asked, trying to bring myself round.
He shrugged, ‘Tomorrow...?’
I suddenly couldn’t bear another minute of this and as another wave of anger engulfed me, I called his bluff. ‘How about now? Go now,’ I said.
‘You think I should go now?’ He looked almost relieved, which hurt and angered me even more.
‘You can’t wait to leave, can you?’ I spat incredulously.
‘No, no... I don’t want to upset you...neither does Jayne; she’s so upset and feels terrible about everything.’
That did it.
‘Oh poor, poor Jayne is upset? Why didn’t you say? You must go to her, how selfish I am thinking only of me when she’s the one who’s devastated...I feel awful for keeping you.’
He made an awkward move towards me and I picked up the palette knife in a threatening manner like I’d seen crazy people do in crime dramas on TV. In that moment, with the panic rising in my chest, I felt just as mad as those wild murdering types, slashing around with a cleaver. It was just as well my weapon of choice was only a round-edged, blunt decorating tool and not a big, sharp chef’s knife,especially when I started waving it at himaggressively.
He edged back along the kitchen wall like the wimp he was, flinching as I punctuated my harmless but dramatic palette waving with swearing and ridiculous threats.I couldn’t stop and the more he cowered, the more I flailed my ‘weapon’ around while starting on a detailed personality assassination. As therapeutic as this was, I had to stop because I was reaching volcanic levels and could feel a panic attack coming on. I stood back, put down the knife and leaned against the kitchen unit to get my breath back. Just as I put my head in my hands and he thought I wasn’t looking, the little coward made a bid for freedom. He weaselled his way out of the kitchen and ran upstairs to pack his pyjamas and toothbrush, without even asking if I was okay.
‘I could have died,’ I yelled at him as I heard his tentative steps on the stair carpet before he put his head round the door like a rabbit in the headlights.
‘I’m going to go now, because I think you need to calm down and me being here might just make things worse,’ he said, like he was dealing with a petulant child.
Too late. I had a brown paper bag over my mouth (which I always kept at hand in the event of a panic attack) whilst continuing to ladle a thick layer of snowy frosting on the cake on auto-pilot like a woman possessed. In my state of shock all I heard was him mutter something about calling me ‘tomorrow’, and as he walked out of the front door I cracked, picked up the cake and blindly chased him down the hall. Halfway down the drive he turned back and I saw the fear in his eyes as he spotted my frosty confection coming straight for his head accompanied by my season’s greetings; ‘Happy bloody Christmas’, I screechedalong with other non-festive expletives I would rather not repeat. He ducked of course, but as the cake frisbeed past him and across the street the whole thing was witnessed by Alfie Mathews, the son of my neighbour, who also happened to be a pupil of mine. There was frosty icing everywhere, a large cake sliding down the garden wall, me standing in the doorwayscreaming like the madwoman in the attic ...and one of my pupils filming the whole spectacle on his mobile.
It was all very surreal and I was so distressed and disorientated I couldn’t face tackling the film-maker sojust staggered back indoors.
Once inside I slammed the door, sat down on a chair, and marvelled at how in less than thirty minutes my life had melted like snow in hot hands. Everything I thought I had, everything I’d thought I was, had gone in a whirlwind...along with the now smashed Christmas cake.
Eventually, I stirred and picked up the TV remote without moving from my seat in the kitchen, and turned on the TV.
‘Ooh you have to have squidgy ones,’ the voice purred from the screen on the wall. Neil had put it up there a couple of years ago because I liked to watch cookery shows in the kitchen, particularly Bella Bradley’s shows, and the ‘squidgy ones’ to which she was now referring were chocolate brownies, which as always looked perfect – but then she had no need to throw them at anyone did she? I stared at the screen numbly. It seemed as though as my life was collapsing, while Bella’s was going from strength to strength. Each year she and her lovely home seemed to be glossier, more expensive, her Christmas cakes more ornate, her tree taller. Bella’s eyes glittered from her fairy lit kitchen, colour matched in red and green with a hint of classy sparkle. The long dark hair, luscious red lips and happy marriage made her look at least ten years younger than she was and despite loving her show I couldn’t help but sometimes feel a twinge of resentment. I wished my life had been as glamorous and successful as Bella’s and felt the envy and regret even more keenly after what had just happened. I found vague comfort in watching Bella add mixed spice to a bowl, stirring vigorously, causing the reindeers on her tight red ski jumper to frolic across her full bosom. I wondered for the millionth time what it would be like to have Bella’s Christmas, her marriage – her life.
What made the contrast in our very different lives so painful was that Bella Bradley used to be my best friend. We’d once shared everything, from secrets to perfume to clothes, we’d been best friends from our first day at school and watching her now on screen I found it hard to reconcile this well-groomed, accomplished woman with the crazy, funny friend I used to love. When we were kids Bella was the one who took risks while I stood on the sidelines watching in awe, and sometimes horror, while she got herself into the most horrific scrapes. Throughout her school days she had been involved in smoking, playing truant, swearing and writing obscene words on the gym wall – yet still she seemed to charm her way out of it all. I didn’t have her charisma or her daring; I suppose that’s why Bella’s a TV star and I’m a maths teacher, I thought, absently watching her whisk up a batch of chocolate brownies with the kind of noises one would associate with an orgasm.
‘Ooh that’s very, very naughty,’ she was saying, her eyes looking into the camera, a tight close-up of just her tongue licking chocolate-covered fingers I assumed were her own. Mind you, from the sounds she was making one had to wonder if her delicious husband was somewhere off camera reaching into her red-lipsticked mouth. Who knew what was going on behind that soon to be batch of warm bad boys?
Just thinking about Bella’s husband reminded me of my own, or sudden lack of - making my stomach churn. I tried to shake the thought of Neil having sex with another woman from my head while pacing around the house, wondering what to do, asking myself so many questions. Had I known, or at least suspected he was having an affair? Had I become lazy and complacent, not necessarily wanting Neil around, but not brave enough to make any changes? There were times when I’d doubted if Neil and I would make ‘forever’, but they were just blips weren’t they? Didn’t everyone go through times when they wondered if they’d married the right person? You just got on with it, which is why I was so surprised to find myself suddenly single. I wandered into the living room and stared at the Christmas tree I’d put up the previous week. It had been decorated with hope and anticipation for the season ahead. I’d hung each bauble imagining the four of us sitting round a glistening turkey on Christmas day lit by the glow of that tree. But looking at it now, days later, I felt nothing–just sad and disappointed.
It was an ancient white tree, and even the sparkly white fairy now looked less like a sparkly young girl and more like Miss Haversham, the ageing bride whose groom had left her on her wedding day.
I couldn’t take it in, I looked at the sad fairy seeing myself reflected back - Neil had gone and my Christmas was over before it had begun. Then my eye caught the icy blue bauble we’d bought together on a trip to Paris one Christmas. Carefully plucking the bauble from the tree I held it, feeling the cool Christmas roundness in my palm. There was a raised hand-painted picture of a glittery, snow-covered Eiffel Tower, a lovely memory I hung every year and went straight back to the French Christmas market where we’d bought it. Holding the bauble, watching it sparkle, I was on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, more than twenty years before, a cold wind was swinging the lights on the stall and heavy rain splashed our faces. Neil and I had been so young and in love back then we only saweach other in the twinkle of fairylights in the rain. It was bustling with noise, festive music played and the air was heady with Christmas as we held hands and chose our special souvenir of our first holiday together. I was eighteen. Looking into the bauble now, watching the glitter change from white to pink to blue as I twirled it I felt sad for what we’d lost. Then I remembered with a jolt how later on that evening we’d argued about something trivial and Neil stormed out of the hotel. He came back very late and quite drunk and I cried all night while he slept soundly next to me. We barely spoke to each other all the next day, despite it being Christmas Day, and my dreams of Christmas in Paris floated off down the Seine. Funny how I’d forgotten about that, perhaps Neil’s leaving had made me more cynical, more aware of what we were, and not what I’d wanted us to be? I should have known then we wouldn’t last; if a couple fall out in the city of love on Christmas Eve then cupid’s trying to tell them something. We were such different people, Neil and I, and in those early days I’d naively thought he would change, but he never did.
I thought of all the Christmas Eves since then that the kids and I had waited for him to come home. They always wanted to wait for Daddy, but he was usually ‘caught up at the office,’ and I was so busy making Christmas for them I didn’t have the time or the energy to worry where he was. I did everything without him, not just Christmas, but days out, barbeques in the garden, even parents’ evenings - it was usually just me and the kids. I lived like a single mum, with Neil working away, late at the office or on a golf course somewhere (though there were times I queried his ‘night golf’ sessions, which went on way too late for my liking). Suddenly, it dawned on me, perhaps he wasn’t busy or golfing – perhaps he just didn’t want to come home to me? While I was imagining pitch black golf courses and heavy late night meetings he was ‘going home’ to Jayne from the legal department. As my thoughts drifted back over my marriage to Neil, I realised I had stripped the Christmas tree until it was bare and everything was packed away. All trace of Christmas gone.
I was now alone, I had no husband and all I could think was ‘How will I tell the kids?’ My only consolation was that the twins were now both away at their respective universities and though the break-up of their parents’ marriage would hurt, it wouldn’t impact on their lives as it might have when they were younger. Resentment rose in my chest and I was glad Neil wasn’t there with me because I had a whole block of kitchen knives and who knew what might have happened? Neil and I didn’t have an idyllic marriage, we didn’t ravish each other passionately every night of the week, life got in the way. Neil needed new friends, sparkly objects and flashing lights in his life – whereas I was happy with the status quo and a nice cup of tea.
I returned to the kitchen, my Christmas was over, but Bella was still on the TV creating a Christmas heaven in her home.
‘People laugh when I put bananas in my trifle,’ she was saying, making her eyes wide, her mouth forming a soft O. ‘But I implore you, if you do nothing else this Christmas –have a go with a big banana.’ This was breathed into the lens rather than actually spoken, and was pure cooking porn. ‘Whisky soaked, damp with alcohol, crushed nuts, a scattering of sour cranberries to cut through that icky-stickiness and snowy peaks of cool, white, severely whipped cream. Oooh,’ she was now dipping her finger in the cream, eyes closed, licking slowly, she was no doubt engaging more viewers than just the country’s amateur chefs. Every straight male and gay woman in the UK must have been transfixed by Bella’s culinary Christmas spectacle. I bit my lip, she was too much. Even Nigella would baulk at ‘severely whipped cream’ to describe a bloody trifle.
‘Bella’s Christmas Bake Off’ always started in early December and for years had prepared me and the rest of the country for the culinary season ahead. Bella basted beautiful, golden turkeys, cooked crispy roast potatoes, baked magnificent cakes and biscuits, causing power surges throughout the country as people turned on their ovens and baked. She would sprinkle lashings of glitter, special olive oils, the latest liqueurs and all in a sea of Christmas champagne bubbles.
Bella’s style was calm, seductive, and gorgeous. Her very presence on screen made you feel everything was going to be okay and Christmas was on its way. She didn’t just stop at delicious food either – her tables were pure art and her Christmas decorations always the prettiest, sparkliest, most beautiful. Bella Bradley had an enviable lifestyle and she kept viewers transfixed all year round, but her Christmases were always special. Her planning and eye for detail was meticulous, from colour-matched baubles to snowy landscapes of Christmas cupcakes and mince pies – and soggy bottoms were never on her menu.
So in an attempt to forget my own life and fill myself with something like Christmas cheer, I watched Bella now, as she poured the whipped cream on ‘naughty’ custard. Oh if it were only the custard in my life that was ‘naughty,’ I thought as she added edible pearls for decoration, fingering each one as she pushed them firmly into the cream. I sat in my little kitchen just waiting for the Christmas sparkle to land on me, the frisson of Christmas baking, the preparation, the anticipation that always came with the first ‘Bella’s Christmas Bake Off.’ But this year I just couldn’t get excited by her baking or her beautiful, twinkly home or her magnificent tree. She had everything – and I had nothing...which had always been the case, but now I didn’t even have a husband anymore.
Bella’s husband, Peter Bradley, or the Silver Fox, as Bella affectionately referred to him, was gorgeous. He was a foreign news correspondent who, when he wasn’t making ‘impromptu’ appearances in Bella’s busy kitchen during the show, could be seen on battlefronts across the globe. He’d wander into Bella’s kitchen all five o’clock shadow and war-weary as she iced her voluptuous buns or titivated her tarts. He always looked quite out of place in this domestic idyll after doing a piece to camera in a war-torn city, but he was obviously happy to support his wife’s career by just being there. Unlike my husband, he hadn’t left her alone at Christmas for another woman – he’d stayed by her side, happy to brush the flour from her décolletage and stick his finger in her buttercream.
‘The Silver Fox loves my plump, tasty breasts,’ she was now saying while tearing at tender white turkey flesh with a knowing look. Peter was there in all his war-torn glory, taking her proffered morsels with a twinkle in his pale blue eyes, a crinkly smile on his well-worn features. He was so handsome, fit for his late forties, and no doubt, given his career, very strong, intelligent and brave. He was the perfect accessory to Bella, bringing just the right amount of rough masculine charm and good looks to her glossy girlishness. And as a delicious bonus, the Silver Fox wasn’t afraid to show his feminine side judging by the previous year’s Christmas special, when he’d flown in from Iraq to whisk cream in nothing but combats and a tight vest. I was transfixed - trust me, Christmas had come early!
Bella was now informing us that we had to rehearse for Christmas Eve. Rehearse? As if one Christmas stress-fest wasn’t enough? She was wearing silk pyjamas and a girly grin which, given my current state, seemed to me like she was bordering on smug.
‘So, imagine it’s Christmas Eve – the turkey has soaked in something fabulous, and so have I, and now I’ve put my jim jams on,’ she giggled, shaking her breasts for no apparent reason – she did that a lot. I noted with envy how her chocolate brown eyes matched the chocolate brown silk of her pyjamas and considered my own nightwear, a pair of frail pyjamas, once pale pink now edging towards grey after too many washes. If I needed any proof that her life was completely different to mine – it was all there in those ancient pyjamas.
‘Me and the Silver Fox just love a pyjama party at Christmas,’ she twinkled, a little wink and a sip from the crystal flute. ‘But then, don’t we all?’
‘Speak for yourself,’ I said, turning off the TV and finishing the last of a bottle of cava I’d found in the fridge. Oh yes, Bella Bradley had always been the lucky one, even when we were kids – but it didn’t stop me loving her – she was my best friend. Then, when we were eighteen I did something stupid which affected her life so profoundly she left the area where we lived and I hadn’t seen her since. I tried not to think how our friendship had been destroyed by what I’d done all those years ago. I still felt guilty about what had happened and longed for her forgiveness. Watching her on screen was the nearest I would ever get to her, and despite the odd twinge of envy I found it therapeutic to see her in a wonderful new life, knowing she was okay... even if I wasn’t.
Sue Watson was a journalist on women’s magazines and national newspapers before leaving it all behind for a career in TV. As a producer with the BBC she worked on garden makeovers, kitchen takeovers and daytime sofas – all the time making copious notes so that one day she might escape to the country and turn it all into a book.
After much deliberation and copious consumption of cake, Sue eventually left her life in TV to write. After a very successful debut novel, Fat Girls and Fairy Cakes, Sue signed with Bookouture and has gone on to write four fabulous books.