My kitchen is a wreck. I am a wreck. Used bowls and every wooden spoon that I own teeter in a tower of washing up on the draining board. Flour floats in the air and makes me sneeze violently. The dog, sporting a totally inappropriate white halo, sneezes in sympathy.
Regrets. I have had more than a few today and as I watch the tea-towel covered bowl for signs of life, my anxiety builds.
It had seemed such a good idea at the time. The ideal way to finally get one over on Caroline. Caroline the (allegedly) perfect mother and housewife. Caroline whose smug smirk has been irritating me for more years than I want to remember. Caroline whose hair and skin were perfect, whose dress sense was impeccable and whose children never, ever, ever misbehaved.
Calm down. This is nothing to get anxious about. Famous last words.
I cast an evil glance at the bowl before fighting my way to the sink.
The phone rings and it is my friend Sarah. Like me, she is in her kitchen and about to tackle her washing up too. We commiserate. We compare the mess level but neither of us is brave enough to lift the edge of the tea-towel and peek.
The call refreshes my flagging spirits. Both Sarah and I are more than aware that our skills are inferior to Caroline’s, and that we are heading for an embarrassingly epic fail, but we are beyond caring now.
I tackle the washing up with gusto, dry it all up and stow it away in the capacious kitchen drawer – ordered specially to accommodate such rarely used but necessary implements when we had the new kitchen fitted.
The fruit goes back into the big biscuit coloured bowl; identical to the one my mother owned but much less used. I really want to take a sneaky peek but I force myself to clean up the worktops first and shake the flour from my ‘Domestic Goddess’ apron out of the back door.
According to my watch I have only used up twenty of the allotted sixty minutes. How on earth do the professionals cope with such fettered curiosity?
Shutting the kitchen door firmly, I sit down on the sofa next to the dog, and try to lose myself in a banal quiz show on TV. Either the questions are very easy or I am the unofficial Brain of Britain. Either way, the contestants are making heavy weather of it and my tolerance for their stuttering replies has vanished.
The dog and I return to the kitchen. I pick up the grimy pieces of paper so recently printed off from the Internet. The rules stated that certain ingredients had to be used and both Sarah and I have spent hours researching recipes that contain them. We are using different recipes however, in the hope that one of us will have found the definitive way to finally vanquish Caroline.
Caroline always wins our Bake Off. It is only a small competition; open only to a group of women whose children have grown up together, but whether it is a Victoria Jam sandwich, profiteroles, apple pie or – this year – a wholemeal loaf, Caroline always wins our Bake Off.
The kitchen timer rings and startles me from another memory of crushing defeat at Caroline’s ever-competent hands. Her children were always the most imaginatively dressed – whether it was for the Christmas play or a children’s fancy dress party. Nothing ready-made; no straggly tinsel wings or halo, and definitely no tea-towel head-dress for the shepherds.
I gingerly lift the tea-towel’s edge and gasp at the dough-monster filling the bowl. It is HUGE!
According to the recipe it is time to give this beast another thumping before it can go in the oven.
The cooking times and temperatures on my recipe sheet don’t include those for a fan oven!
Calm down. You have already managed to convert the American cup used in the recipe to ounces – grams were too complicated.
You could just use the ordinary oven but then why did you buy an oven with a fan if you are too scared to use it? You love it when Mary Berry says ‘170 fan’. It makes you feel as if you are a member of her exclusive club.
You decide to risk things and go for the fan. Mary would – wouldn’t she? Caroline undoubtedly has a fan oven in her squeaky clean kitchen.
Oven on. Baking tin lined and ready.
Ten minutes of dough kneading and the beast is subdued enough to be put into the oven.
Timer set. Time to clean the worktop again and wash up the bowl before the remnants of dough set hard and have to be chipped off.
The dog has his head cocked to one side and gives a small but heartrending moan because I have forgotten his dinner. He can hear the sound of the six o’clock news and knows that I should be feeding him rather than messing around in the kitchen.
Thoroughly penitent, I give him his food and add a few treats to make up for my negligence. We sit down together to watch the news.
As time ticks on, the smell of freshly cooked bread creeps round edge of the kitchen door; an irresistible odour that reminds me of my childhood. I should have made two loaves, then we could have eaten one and used the other for the competition. This thought sparks a fear that someone may creep into the kitchen in the night and ravage my bread before it can be presented.
It will have to be hidden; not from my husband who can be relied upon not to touch it or the dog who is locked out of the kitchen at night, but my children…
The scent of my bread is being overthrown by a horrible acrid smell of smoke. I rush out to the kitchen and peer through the oven door. The loaf is cooking nicely. The smell is coming from outside the house.
Making sure that the dog is safely indoors I go into the garden where I can hear sirens and see a thick pall of black smoke on the horizon. The phone rings and I dash back inside.
It’s Sarah again and she isn’t checking on the loaf’s progress.
‘Did you see the fire?’
‘See it! I can still smell it, and I’ve been deafened by the fire engines. Where was the fire?’
‘It was at Caroline’s.’
‘Caroline’s here at mine. She went out to fetch some butter from the corner shop and her oven exploded. The fire brigade got there very quickly and put the fire out but the kitchen is totally gutted. So is Caroline.’
‘What was she cooking?’ I ask this although I know what the answer will be.
‘I think we should cancel the Bake Off – I’m ringing round to see what everyone else thinks?’
‘I totally agree. It wouldn’t be a Bake Off without Caroline’s contribution.’
There is a moment while Sarah has a quick conversation with Caroline. I take the opportunity to don an oven glove and remove my handsome brown loaf before it burns as well.
‘Caroline’s going back to the house now – a rather lovely fireman just came to get her. I’ve just taken my loaf out.’
‘Me too. How does yours look?’
‘Gorgeous. Too good to eat really. Not that I’ll be stopped by that.’
‘Me neither. I have plenty of butter too.’
‘Damn! I’m all out.’
‘Come round then Sarah, and we’ll compare loaves. We met the challenge anyway.’
‘I’ll be round as soon as I’ve made these calls.’
‘Make sure the oven is turned off…’