My daughter Liz’s teacher sits in our kitchen, sipping tea, and coos in a Newcastle accent, “Paul Hollywood, Oh yes!”
“Paul…,” I reply in a syrupy tone. “He just exudes manliness.”
“He can bake my cake,” Catherine quips and we both break out into giggles.
A few minutes later I will stomp out after she says “Where I come from, Yorkshire Puddings are made with beef drippings”, and wonder if I have just ruined Liz’s school year at school over an argument about puddings.
I think back to moments earlier when things were going so well. I finished recording a flawless introduction video for Youtube, "Yorkshire puddings are a baked pudding made from a batter of eggs, flour, and milk or water. In America they would be called dinner rolls or popovers. A class side dish to the British Roast, the first recipe was printed in 1737..."
At just about the right time, the doorbell rings and Brentford Manor School’s newest teacher, Catherine Thompson, stands at the entrance She looks proper in an educator's sort of way, yet friendly, with a warm welcoming smile.
I welcome her into my home and she takes a seat in my kitchen in Brentford, a suburb of west London. As Chair of the Brentford Manor PTA, my mission is to take our school's new Maths teacher under my wing and fill her in about life in Brentford and everything she needs to know to navigate the parents and teachers of our quietly striving upper middle class suburb.
“My daughter Liz says you are her favorite teacher!"
“Thank you,” Catherine laughs, “I love teaching Maths to A-levels students.”
“You are quite jolly about teaching. That’s nice to see.” It appears Brentwood has chosen their Maths teacher well.
“Inspiring young minds, you know,” she says, “Sophie, what are you passionate about?”
“I'm an agent for the music industry, or was, until things went south…so music. Music is my passion,” I remind myself that we are meeting today about planning the school bake off. “and baking!”
“Music, oh, that sounds exciting,” she says in a rising, tell me more, tone.
“Yes! We would sign up all those famous bands on 5 year contracts,” I smile about the good days. ”Now the young ones perform on Youtube to millions before they’ve even played in the local pub, and if they’re any good, they are already too expensive by the time we agents spot them.”
“The world keeps changing,” Catherine says, looking a bit sad, “I know a lot about that.”
We sip tea in awkward silence.
Catherine brings up something lighter, “How about Headmaster Collins?”
“I know it’s a cliché, but a socialist headmaster?“ I say, “Gobsmacked when he showed up at school last year on an electric scooter.”
“If I had a headmaster's salary, I would splash out on a Volvo at least.”
On Catherine's fingers, I don't see a wedding ring. Does she have her eyes on the headmaster? Well, that's none of my business.
“Have you talked to the music teacher, Mr Johnson?" I ask, "He's a few sandwiches short of a picnic." I smile knowingly.
“If you ever want to get back into music, I think the school might have a position,” Catherine says, and we chuckle together in conspiratorial laughter. She's obviously not interested in Johnson, thankfully.
“Now let’s talk about Sussex Secondary Student Bake Off,” I say, ”Being from a different part of the country you can share your knowledge and help give us a competition representative of the whole country.”
“Thanks you so much, Sophie,” she says, “I do so much love baking!
“As do I.”
“How about I have a gander at your oven?“ Catherine says and stands up. “You could bake a few quarantine florentines in that." She's gazing longingly at our Neff N70.
I have a flashback to cleaning the countertop and storing all the cookbooks in the oven. The oven hasn't been switched it on for months. Perhaps years. I grab a tin of cookies and insert myself between Catherine and the oven. “Let me show you the lovely cookies I received from Mary,” I say, “another mother in class.”
“Which child is Mary’s?” she asks.
“These Bourbon biscuits are amazing,” I press the cookie tin deeper toward her. She takes a cookie, and I stand in front of her until she is forced back into her chair.
“They are delicious,” she says, and puts a slightly nibbled cookie back down onto her tea saucer, “Now, the Bake Off. Our main challenge is the Yorkshire puddings. I’ve checked your recipe, but it needs beef drippings,”
“That’s not really possible in a school cafeteria.”
“Where I come from, Puds must have drippings.” Her Newcastle accent becomes stronger.
Does being from the North give her authority over Yorkshire Puddings? I’m the one who knows how things function in West London.
I put my foot down, “It’s just a student competition, Catherine.” In business meetings, using people first names let them know you mean business.
“Sophie. We will have to agree to disagree. But where I come from, Yorkshire Puddings must be made with drippings.”
I don't like being told what to do, and suddenly feel I want to shout “Fuck off with you and your beef drippings!” but parental judiciousness overrules, and instead I stand up and say, “I need to check the laundry I left in the garden.” I make a beeline for the back door.
In the garden tool cabinet, I keep my solitary pack of cigarettes for situations like this.
When I return, I see Catherine stooping in front of my oven, peering in at the cookbooks. She turns around and says, "Jamie Oliver's 15-minute meals?"
"Yes. Catherine, 15-minute meals."
I look out the garden window. The neighbor is peering out his curtains again, and I catch his gaze. With a flourish, I close mine tightly.
“Up yours, curtain twitcher,” I say toward the now unseen neighbor, and give him the middle finger from behind my closed curtains. “Sorry,” I say and sit down and try to give Catherine a pleasant smile.
“I’d just like to say again for our school bake off, I think you are missing the mark with the recipe for the Yorkshire puddings,” she says, hammering at that nail again. My face flushes as I recall all the times Jack ordered me around while I was cooking something for him.
“I think I need to check the laundry again,” I say and march back out the door once again.
People should learn not to repeat themselves. In the garden, I kick our ceramic garden gnome over. By ours, I mean it was purchased by Jack. So now it’s mine. He didn’t take much with him when he moved across the pond.
Doing good deeds always seems to backfire on me. My simple mission was to take my daughter's new Maths teacher from Newcastle under my wing. Good teachers are rare these days. Now in my garden having the second unplanned cigarette of the morning, I’m considering if my mission is, an impossible one. Cue Tom Cruise leaping over the garden wall, taking a look around, and then leaping back out again.
I mull things over and have a realization. I make my second return from a self-imposed time out, and go back inside.
“Sophie, you smell like cigarettes," she says, in a school teacher sort of way.
I ignore her olfactory observation.
She looks at me tensely.
“I have a confession. My ex-husband Jack just hated beef drippings in his Yorkshire puddings,” I say, “He told me not to use them. How about we add them to our bake off.”
“You will do that for me?” she asks.
“Absolutely. I will find a way.”
“Brilliant,” she says. "I will make it up to you." Catherine is now beaming.
I remember Jack had never once said that after I changed something for him. Maybe I've been too defensive, I don't need to hold my ground on everything.
“Think about it,” I say, “Brentwood Manor's first annual Bake Off!”
“It will be great fun,” Catherine says, then takes a moment to really catch my attention. “Sophie, you are the only person I’ve really talked to since coming to London.”
It feels like a naive thing to say, until I self reflect. "It's shameful to admit, but you are the first person I’ve had over for tea since leaving the music industry. I'm glad we will be working together, Catherine."
“It has been tough since splitting with my husband, but it's getting easier now. Coming to London has really helped take my mind off of things.”
“Oh,” I say softly, absorbing this new information about Liz's teacher.
“Do you remember the song?” Catherine says and starts to hum a familiar 70s disco song of a woman being afraid to be left alone, learning how to live by herself and surviving.
She stands up and starts snapping her fingers and moving to the song that she is singing.
I join in with the chorus, “I grew strong…”
I haven’t danced in a long time. I stand up, and for the first time since Jack and I stopped getting along, begin to dance in my kitchen. The nosy neighbor might be able to hear us, but I don’t care now. Next week will be the best bake off that Brentford has ever seen.
When the song is over, I invite Catherine into the garden and show her the ceramic garden gnome. She has an idea. Together we pick up the heavy piece and side stepping with an accelerating pace when she shouts now, with a heave we launch it over the wall and hear it smash into a million pieces.