As soon as Romy and Will entered Clissold Park, she knew she’d made a mistake that she was now, still furiously, clutching. She shouldn’t have put her heart and soul into the gift. It had been a complete error in her brain. The heat, she cursed, it was all on the heat.
Romy and Will had been dating for a month now and it was about time she’d meet his closest friends, as he’d so confidently put it. She wasn’t too afraid to meet his friends. He was a tall, mousy haired man – architect – with a charming nose and great comedic timing. A good taste in people was a given, she thought. Even so, impressing them was a different story. It’s always harder to meet someone else’s friends than make your own, right? Romy had ferociously Googled and Facebooked Emily, the birthday girl, to see what she was up against. Not that she felt Emily would be a threat in any way, but some people are laidback and others are not. The woman wore her red hair short, to her shoulders. She hardly smiled in her pictures but still managed to come across as friendly, or at least approachable. Manageable, as far as first impressions went. A classic pear figure, but Romy couldn’t even explain to herself why she would notice that.
A picnic invitation! She envisioned a beautiful small garden full of purple and lilac tulips and one of those hip, unpolished wooden tables in the centre. The table was filled with the shiniest platters, dishes and old fashioned plates, overloaded with only the most delicious Belgian chocolate truffles, pieces of marzipan in the shapes of tiny animals, macaroons in all the pastels you could imagine, freshly baked scones that wept with nostalgia, a lemon meringue pie that would melt even the truly sceptical mouth and OH! Maybe a molten chocolate cake, so gooey she silently gasped at the thought.
In the park, the sun was up high, withering the air around them. True, a birthday picnic could mean so many different settings, but Romy hadn’t calculated for such blistering heat on any May day. She could feel the slight shuddering of the croquembouche in the box, as if it was eager to get out and present itself to its guests. She had been eager to show it off too, earlier that day. Three careful hours she’d spent in the kitchen, exclusively for Emily, a woman she’d never even met. It seemed ridiculous now. She should have just let Will buy a simple present they could hand over as a couple. A book, or something. Not even a particular good read, or a favourite. Any book would do.
From her Facebook profile, Romy had quickly found out that Emily was a custard & cream kind of gal. Immediately, she’d thought either pastel de nata – Portuguese custard tarts – or a big, old croquembouche with cautiously placed violets would seal the deal. She’d looked forward to stirring the ingredients together to create that beautiful blond thickness. Ever so gently she’d bring it to just below boiling point, adding the hot milk. Breathing in its aroma. Warm milk always made her think of autumn nights over at her American aunt and uncle in Oregon. Sitting on their uncomfortable porch chair with a thin blanket in her lap and a mug of hot steamy Organic Valley under her nose.
Nothing like that today. Although she couldn’t bear standing too close to the stove, she wanted to feel the custard get thicker. Very slowly, she leaned her sweaty forehead against the cupboard above the stove and lowered the wooden spoon into the pot. Yes. The creaminess started to solidify. Romy turned off the gas. No lumps for Emily.
It wasn’t hard to figure out whether someone was a cream kinda person or a fruit fanatic, but even the most stubborn lemon cravers would not reject a good croquembouche. She’d make the pastel de nata another time, overwhelm herself with memories of milk and vanilla all the same again. Will hadn’t rejected the idea of Romy making a home baked gift, in fact he’d said:
“Amazing effort, babe!”
But that was then.
“How far do we have to walk still?” Romy said, a knot of nervousness making her suddenly feel nauseous. She swallowed, but the back of her mouth was dry and her tongue dragged like an inert worm.
“It’s right there! I can see them sitting over there,” Will said, excitedly raising his arm to wave hello to his friends. “Do you want me to help with the cake?”
“It’s not a cake, it’s a croquembouche,” Romy said, slightly annoyed. If Will wasn’t able to distinguish between a cake and a piece of art, his friends would probably not be able to, either. Her tangerine sundress was stuck to the back of her legs with perspiration. The short, brown hair she’d pinned on her head in a hopeful attempt to make it look fancy and keep it out of her neck had freed itself. Romy couldn’t do anything. She’d just have to make her entrance less well-groomed than she’d imagined. Perhaps it would awake in Will’s friends a certain level of sympathy.
“Hi gorgeous, happy Birthday!” Will enthusiastically embraced Emily, while Romy stood behind him and smiled at the group awkwardly. It was a mess, she’d seen that now. In a tall box, she’d carefully shoved the croquembouche onto a flat platter and hoped the thing wouldn’t melt. She had thought it all through like an overbearing mum on her son’s first day of school. Her 13-inch birthday surprise could as well be a note on her forehead reading ‘Please Like Me.’
There were only three of them; Emily, who had so many freckles Romy wanted to tell her to get out of the sun, Sara, Emily’s very soft-spoken girlfriend, and Rob, a short and extremely muscular man who was in acting school and couldn’t talk about anything else than his failed auditions. Romy’d heard many of these stories before through Will, but Rob, a true performer, would tell them all with such poisoned self-sarcasm she would shake with laughter.
They were sitting on a lilac blanket in the grass, spread out before them were: some cheese and ham sandwiches, a jar of sweet and sour pickles, a bag of salt and pepper flavoured crisps, a box of grapes and some Tesco homebrand cupcakes. And beer. The three of them were already drinking and, from the looks of it, casually lazing about on the blanket and talking about life. Emily saw her looking at the nonchalantly displayed foods.
“Sorry for the pickles,” she said smiling, “I’m obsessed with them. I could eat a whole jar right now, but I’m trying to behave.”
“Don’t behave!” said Sara, “it’s your birthday!”
“Well..” said Emily.
They all started to chant the word ‘pickles’ until Emily finally opened the jar and ate one. Will had sat down and after the pickle chant looked up at Romy, like he’d forgotten she was there too. It was a disaster, she thought. How could she have known it was such a low maintenance get-together? Should she have raided her local Sainsbury’s too?
“Oh I’m sorry, love, sit down!” Will said, and motioned her to sit down. But for Romy to do that, she’d have to hand over the croquembouche first.
“I err, have made something for you, it’s no big worry,” said Romy, to hopefully close the distance between her and the blanket. The group all oo-ed and aa-ed when she put the box down and carefully removed the carton. The croquembouche was still intact! Honestly, she’d almost hoped it had all fallen apart so she wouldn’t look like she’d been trying so hard. It could have been a box full of lovely profiteroles. No spun sugar. And for god’s sake, no flowers.
“Romy!” Emily gasped and took Romy’s hands into her own, although that was a gesture better suited for colder weather. “Did you create this from scratch?”
Romy said back onto her lower legs and felt the clamminess come over her. She nodded shyly. Emily proceeded to let go of her hands and very carefully touched the croquembouche.
“Wow,” she said. “Wow.”
“It’s quite magnificent,” Sara said, which felt good to Romy’s soul until she noticed a very quick side glance between Sara and Emily. There we go, she thought. But now that the croquembouche was out, she felt a certain pride and obligation towards the tower of profiteroles. If Will’s friends wouldn’t like her because she was a bloody great pastry maker, that was all on them. Their loss. A definite, foreseeable loss.
“How do we eat this?” said Rob, clearly unaware of any change of mood. He rummaged in a bag of plastic cutlery and lifted a tiny plastic knife, but Emily put down his arm.
“Rob. We’re not going to hack into this thing with plastic knifes. We’re not savages.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Rob.
Romy smiled. “You break off the top profiterole first and go from there. No worries if it gets a bit messy.”
“Romy’s a pastry chef,” Will said brightly.
Once again, there were obvious glances between the women. Romy didn’t understand their mixed signals. They looked like they were genuinely impressed with the croquembouche. They’d praised her. Back in her kitchen, no one would judge her and she could build as many grand gestures of pastry as she wanted to.
“We thought so,” Sara said, breaking the silence.
Rob tried to break off the first profiterole neatly, but failed miserably and instead separated a mini tower from the piece. He seemed extremely pleased with this.
“Am I going to be the one? Alright, alright, I am Dutch after all.” Emily sat upright and stretched out her arms. This is it, thought Romy, she’s going to announce my removal from the group. She didn’t know what being Dutch had to do with anything, but suddenly really disliked all of the Netherlands.
“Emily,” warned Sara.
“No!” Emily said fiercely, “it’s weird, okay?”
Rob sat silently clutching his mini croquembouche. Romy looked at Will, who stared ahead bewilderedly. She wanted to punch him in his sweaty armpits and violently close his open mouth for not defending her.
“It’s MY birthday, I’ll tell him,” said Emily, which in all fairness, Romy hadn’t expected from a Team Chocolate kinda gal. All of the ferocity that now clearly sprung from Emily’s animated face made the entire picnic group feel stressed.
“I’m sorry, Romy.”
Romy sweated with a blank face, her hands open and vulnerable on her knees.
“Don’t you think that it’s a fair bit strange,” continued Emily, “that ALL of the four women you’ve introduced to us have ALL been pastry chefs?”
Very calmly, Romy turned her head towards her passive boyfriend.
“I mean, we weren’t sure whether you had even noticed yourself. It’s like you’re unaware of the fact that you only bring women home who are masters in the dessert kitchen.”
“Thank you,” Romy said.
“I’m not –” Will tried to defend himself, but Emily put her hands up. She wasn’t finished.
“You are fetishizing them, Will. It’s not OK. We’re all a hundred per cent sure these are not your intentions, but you need to be made aware.”
Emily lowered her arms. Sara looked away as if she was in pain. Clearly not one for confrontations, that one.
Romy had slowly stood up. What she’d wanted to do is hit the croquembouche really hard. Hit it so hard a piece of solid caramel would fly into Will’s face and leave his fine cheek bloody. Was this even his first croquembouche or had he received a diet of profiteroles throughout his life?
As she pulled her dress from her sticky legs, she thought of herself standing in the kitchen, licking custard from the wooden spoon. The amount of pastries she’d made him flashed before her eyes and she thought it better, even if it were just for dignity’s sake, to walk away. Looking into his eager eyes, hungry for pudding, would readily disgust her from now on.
Romy felt a little sad about the fate of her croquembouche, proud in its box this morning, now suddenly the décor of a bad soap series. Luckily, she’d given it to Emily and not to Will. Had he truly fetishized her cooking skills? Head held high, Romy left Clissold Park. She wondered what Will would miss most; his loving girlfriend or her warm treats, so famous for spilling over the edges of their puffs with passion. So unashamedly, she’d baked them.