7. Leave to cool for six hours before pouring in the jelly stock
‘Six hours, they‘re having a laugh. That’d mean getting up at four o’clock. Sod that for a game of soldiers. There has to be another way.’
John had used his lockdown and furlough to embrace baking. In his tiny flat, with its Baby Belling cooker, he had set about producing baked goods enough to feed the entire neighbourhood. It started with banana bread. If all the celebs on TikTok could do it, then so could he. Sourcing the flour had been the most difficult thing, back in March 2020. He could not believe the smell that pervaded his home, and the resultant loaf that was light, yet gooey, sweet but nutritional in its content. As it cooled he shared pics of it on Instagram and, better still, shared actual slices of it with the actual people that he called neighbours. Socially distanced, of course, and on paper plates. Everyone loved it - he gained almost three hundred new followers and smiles and good mornings from everyone he encountered on his daily thirty-minute walks. Quite a change from sitting in a cubicle at a call centre.
At first, he concentrated on cakes and cookies. He binged old episodes of the Bake Off, writing down recipes he wanted to try. He spent as much time on research as he did on baking, but there wasn’t much else to do, other than watch boring press conferences. Each day a weary delivery driver would knock at his second storey door, and pretty soon John possessed every cookbook and baking utensil imaginable. He spent all his time, and dwindling salary, on ordering ingredients never once admitting he might be obsessed. Not only with baking but also with sharing. Actually and virtually. Every new follower, every new person that tried or commented on his macarons or florentines boosted his self-esteem and made him just a tiny bit happy. While the online news channels were reporting downturns in peoples’ mental health during Covid, John felt that his mood had actually lifted. Never before had so many people been interested in him.
His followers were desperate to see each new bake, and his neighbours could not contain their anticipation. ‘What’re we getting next, John?’; ‘Have you thought about Parkin, John?’; ‘Easter soon, John, you making hot cross buns?’ He would note down the requests, and set about trying new things. He was so busy, it never occurred to him that very few people were actually interested in him, just his baked goods. His neighbours (he liked to think of them as friends, but that wasn’t strictly true) would tell him he should sell his makes, said he’d make a fortune, but that didn’t really interest him. He baked because he enjoyed it, tweaking recipes and refining techniques. It was like a science project at school, but with an edible outcome, not a battery made out of a potato. And giving his cakes away made him feel unaccountably happy.
One day, he noticed a comment on his latest Instagram post. It was a photo of his iced carrot cake doughnut, a bake he’d worked hard on perfecting. Someone had written: I’m surprised your teeth haven’t rotted in your head #sugaroverload.
That gave John pause. He never baked anything savoury. He thought about adapting some of his favourite makes. Cheesy cookies, mushroom muffins. ‘Could he make a savoury doughnut?’ he wondered. He set about experimenting, with varying success. Cheese scones were popular with the neighbours and looked good in photos, but other bakes just looked brown and unappetising. Savoury doughnuts were possible, but no one really wanted to eat them and his marmite shortbread completely divided the crowd. Even he had to admit that they weren’t the best. He was trying to persuade a homeless man that ham and mustard flapjacks were just what he needed when the man said, ‘You wanna take a leaf out of Gregg’s book. Pies. pasties, sausage rolls. Don’t try inventing things that might not work. I’m starving, but I’m not eating those…’
John had to admit the old boy could be right. He made him some sausage rolls to show that he’d appreciated his advice.
Time for baking was limited now. His furlough had come to an end, and he was back at the call centre, trying to persuade people to renew their insurance at an inflated price. He missed lockdown and his community of baking guinea pigs. He was walking home, after his shift in the booth, when he noticed a poster for a local summer market. Amongst the many attractions was a baking competition. He decided he’d enter. Get his baking mojo back. He’d always wanted to try making a raised pie using hot water crust pastry. This was the perfect opportunity. If only he’d read the recipe to the end…
‘I can’t wait six hours. I’ll just pour it in now. It’ll be fine. Can’t think that it matters.’ John carefully poured his lovingly prepared stock through a funnel into a hole in the golden crust of his pie. It looked amazing. He’d had to rush it because he’d been late home from work, but he was confident it would taste as good as it looked. He put the pie into the fridge and went to bed.
Saturday, the day of the competition. John headed for the kettle and skidded across the floor. It was covered in a slimy jelly leaking from the fridge. He guessed what had happened before he opened the door. His pie had collapsed, the pastry losing all integrity when it came into contact with the hot liquid. ‘Bugger,’ he thought.
No one was surprised that John won the competition but they were surprised he didn’t seem more excited. As he smiled for the camera, they couldn’t tell that, while he had one hand on the trophy, the other held a wrapper… ‘Tesco Finest Melton Mowbray Pork Pie.’