Dad is turning 70 during lockdown. We cancel the surprise family holiday to Craster.
Here’s what you could have won, I write in his card, including a picture of the beautiful Northumberland coast.
Then I go online and order a badge saying ‘70 effing hell’; a T-shirt with ‘born in 1950 — original parts mostly’ printed on it; and a book about dad cars of bygone years. There’s also a card with Boris Johnson on the front, saying ‘Don’t forget to wash your hands.’
‘It’s not much really,’ I say when everything arrives.
‘He’ll just be pleased that the country’s in lockdown so you can’t spring a surprise party on him,’ Chris says.
‘I know. But he can’t turn 70 with no fuss. We’ll have to do something.’
I phone my sister. ‘Any ideas for Dad’s birthday? Legal, without breaking government guidelines.’
‘I was thinking homemade afternoon tea,’ she says. ‘We can make it and drop it off.’
‘That sounds good. I’d kill for afternoon tea.’
‘I’ll make the sandwiches, quiche and scones,’ she says. ‘You make the cake.’
We form a plan: her on savoury, me on sweet.
‘That’s a winning combination,’ Chris says. ‘You and your sister in charge of catering.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ I say. ‘I’m sure we can rustle up some sandwiches and cake between us.’
The day before the birthday, I get to work on the cake. I double the ingredients of a normal-sized Victoria sandwich. ‘It’s going to be special,’ I say. ‘Think Bake Off showstopper.’
When I take it out of the oven, it looks impressive, bigger than any cake I have ever made.
There’s always a worry it’ll get stuck in the tin, but one quick flip and it’s out.
‘Perfect.’ I imagine Paul Hollywood admiring my scrumptious sponge. It’s bound to be a winner.
While it’s cooling, I make a batch of basic buns. ‘Who knew I was such a domestic goddess?’
Everything is fine until I try to transfer the cake from the cooling rack onto a plate ready for the all-important decorating. I lift, but it won’t budge. I pull harder. Part of the cake comes off; the other half stays firmly welded to the rack. And then the middle drops out.
‘Chris! Look what’s happened!’
Chris comes running in, that familiar look of panic on his face. Between us, we extricate the sponge from the rack and shove it back into the centre of the cake.
‘A bit of jam and buttercream and you’ll not be able to tell,’ he says.
I slap on the jam and buttercream — a bit here, a bit there. And then comes the tricky bit: putting the two parts of the cake together. I take a deep breath and quickly drop one on top of the other.
For a second it looks perfect, but slowly, the weight of the top layer presses down and jam seeps down the sides.
‘And it’s leaning,’ Chris says.
I straighten it up, but more jam oozes out. ‘It’s a disaster.’
‘Rustic. Your dad will love it.’
I look at the leaning mess of a cake. ‘He will, but my sister won’t. She’s got standards.’ I think of her scrutinising stare. ‘She’ll have something to say about it.’
There’s nothing else for it. On the morning of Dad’s birthday, I start again. This time, I abandon my grand plans in favour of a much smaller bake. I spread the jam thinly, add the buttercream, sprinkle some icing sugar on top. ‘Ta-dah!’ I proudly show off version two. ‘She couldn’t possibly say anything about this one.’
‘What flavour jam did you use?’ Chris asks.
‘Isn’t she allergic to strawberries?’
I look from Chris to the cake, then back to Chris. ‘Shit.’
‘One mouthful and that’ll kill her.’
‘She’ll have to eat the buns instead. I can’t go through the ordeal of making another.’
We load up the car with cake and buns, put the dogs in the back, and drive to Mum and Dad’s. On the way, we stop off at a friend’s and leave the first cake on her doorstep. It’s so heavy I can feel my biceps burning.
‘Is this an essential trip?’ Chris asks.
‘Yes! Cake is essential.’
We arrive at my parents’ house at the same time as Sarah and her partner. She’s carrying a tray of sandwiches (homemade), Yorkshire Tea, and quiche, scones and pork pies still in their packaging.
‘Didn’t you make them?’ I’m unsure what part of homemade afternoon tea she doesn’t understand.
‘No!’ She looks at me like I’ve just suggested the unthinkable. ‘I’m not Nigella.’
I hold up my cake and smile. ‘I made this. But I used strawberry jam.’
‘I thought you’d forget my allergy.’ She raises her eyebrows. ‘Actually, a traditional Victoria sandwich is made with raspberry jam.’
‘Nothing traditional about this one,’ I say, marching round to Mum and Dad’s back door.
We take our socially distanced places on opposite ends of the patio. Mum and Dad are in the middle but indoors, peering out of the open door.
‘Surprise,’ I shout, revealing the cake.
‘Surprise,’ Sarah shouts, holding up the tray.
‘Not today,’ Dad says. ‘We’re in lockdown.’
Mum elbows him out of the way. ‘You’ve made afternoon tea!’ She’s unable to hide the excitement in her voice. ‘Who’d have thought it? And Liz is cleaning now, too. She’s even disinfecting her door handles.’
Of all the things I’ve done in my life, it’s the door handles that seem to instil the most pride.
She turns to Sarah. ‘And have you put on any weight? Liz has.’
‘It depends which tile I put the scales on,’ Sarah says. ‘I’m the thinnest I’ve ever been, or not…’
‘Hold the wall,’ I tell her. ‘It takes pounds off.’
We spend the rest of the afternoon standing in the freezing cold, chatting and eating. It’s like the family is together again, just not actually within touching distance. The only thing missing is my niece, who is at her dad’s for the weekend. So we sit and talk about the funny things she says and does.
I don’t want the day to end but the temperature has plummeted, frostbite is setting in and the dogs need walking before we head home.
We wave goodbye and set off on our walk. I feel happy that we’ve seen them, but sad that we can’t do the things we usually do — like sit in the kitchen with the central heating on.
We’re a mile into the walk when a car comes towards us with a child hanging out of the window, shouting and waving.
‘Someone needs to get that child under control,’ I say before realising that the child in question belongs to us.
‘Auntie Liz. I’m doing a drive-by for Granddad’s birthday.’
I stand at the side of the road, trying to hold back my tears. ‘I’ve not seen you for eight weeks. Love you.’
She gives another wave.
‘What a lovely end to a lovely day,’ Chris says as we watch the car disappear into the distance.
‘Perfect,’ I say, letting the tears fall.
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