For Maddie it’s a constant battle against the monotony of a job she hates while her heart aches to follow her dreams of setting up her own cake-making business and turn her talent into a career. But will she escape to the world where she feels she truly belongs?
Clare's inability to banish the image of the ugly duckling she remembers hampers her ability to believe she is good for anyone or anything. After being coerced by well-meaning friends to sign up to an online dating site, she soon starts to realize that looks aren’t perhaps everything and that she is just as quick to judge a book by its cover.
Isobel has the looks, the figure and the confidence – or so it appears. After landing the lead role in a new play written and directed by the beastly Guy Edmundson, she follows her mother’s advice to find a gorgeous hunk in time to escort her to the after-show party. But it’s only when she cuts herself free from the ties of a fake persona and stops living up to other people’s expectations that the unexpected happens.
Sophie has the perfect job and the devoted boyfriend who worships the ground she walks on. But when she chooses to doubt her own worth and believes in a poisonous rumour, it tears her fairy tale world apart. Can she find the magic to piece it back together?
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I knew I had to keep the rhythm going if I was going to get that all important result. However, my wrist was already beginning to scorch under the pressure. I let out a huge gasp as the fire spread up my arm and into my shoulder but I disregarded the pain and continued to pump like hell.
I would not admit defeat easily but why was it taking so long? I usually had infinite stamina and succeeded within minutes – yes I was that good, the envy of all my friends in fact. But today that stiff peak eluded me. I had lost my touch.
My phone buzzed like an angry wasp trapped under a glass for the seventh time, its dull drone punctuating my grunts of frustration. Teeth clenched, eyes shut, I gave one last exerted effort and pumped like mad before letting every sinew relax with a dramatic huff.
‘Clare, I’m kinda in the middle of something,’ I snapped as I eased the cramp in my neck.
‘You’re always in the middle of something Maddie.’
‘Look, I’ll be there in ten minutes okay?’ I lied.
Ten minutes was my standard guestimation for any departure, whether I had hair to wash, nails to paint or clothes still to iron. Actually scrap that last one. I had never so much as picked up the bright pink Russell Hobbs iron my grandmother had bought me as a house warming present two years ago. I mean, why iron when you could dry clothes perfectly straight on the radiator? Anyway, Clare ironed things twice, including her thongs, so in reality I was merely helping to balance out the domestic equilibrium.
‘It will take you twenty minutes to get here at least,’ she said in a partly disappointed, partly pissed off tone.
‘Okay, I’ll be there in thirty minutes then.’
‘No you won’t.’
‘Yes I will,’ I protested feigning offence. My hair only needed a brush, my makeup was already done and although I needed to find some clothes to throw on, I could still be leaving in ten minutes. ‘No Clare,’ I asserted, ‘I promise I will be there in thirty minutes. Time me if you like?’
‘It’s alright. Just make sure you’re here. It’s Sophie’s big night and I won’t have you spoiling it.’
Clare was not just a perfectionist, she was an exorcist of all things unorganised and tardy and could make anyone’s head spin with her clockwork rituals and need for order.
‘How could I spoil her night when I’m the one who’s going to make it all the more special with my big surprise?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes! Is it as fabulous as I imagine?’ she enthused.
I sniggered as I listened to Miss Jekyll suddenly rip the phone from Miss Hyde’s grasp. Our friend Isobel was meant to be the actress, not Clare the neat freak. ‘You’ll just have to wait and see,’ I teased. ‘Besides, it’s an artist’s prerogative to be late.’
‘Yes well...finish whatever it is you’re doing and hurry up. Your thirty minutes start now,’ she ordered.
‘Can we make it thirty-two minutes please as it could take a while to scrub this stuff off my hands? This one is a lot stickier than I expected.’
There was a long pause, making me wonder if we had lost connection. ‘What on earth are you doing Madeline?’ Clare asked eventually, a hint of suspicion in her timid voice.
I sighed exaggeratedly. ‘What else would I be doing at this time on a Friday evening?’
She didn’t respond.
‘I’m making meringue of course! But I just can’t seem to get the mixture light enough. I must have lost my culinary mojo and the kitchen is in a dreadful state.’ I paused. ‘Why, what did you think I was doing?’
I listened to her panicked twittering until it became annoying. She was the purist non-virgin I knew and would have looked quite comfortable in a twin-set and pearls and an elaborate up-do. ‘Look, I’ll be there as soon as I can,’ I told her.
‘Well good. Yes, hurry up, clean up and be here for eight o’clock.’
I knew an appeal to Clare’s cleanly sensibilities would make her cave in to my impractical unpunctuality. She hung up promptly while I gave my egg whites one more violent whisk. They would have to do and I put the mixture in the fridge before giving the worktop a quick wipe down with a soggy towel – the absolute epitome of hygiene.
I then adjusted the last few sugared flourishes on the two-tier masterpiece I had spent the last week making in honour of Sophie’s new flat, before encasing it in a rather pricey card box with a pearl sheen.
Just thirteen minutes later, I was ready to go.
The city streets were relatively empty for a Friday evening but that was probably because it was a week before payday and no one had the cash to splash. Well everyone except the herds of students who stumbled the streets dressed as Oompa Loompas, Wombles, Thunderbirds and various other cartoon heroes.
Checking my online account this morning at work, even I had been forced to shush the computer, which had scolded at me like a howler in Harry Potter. ‘Eleven pounds Madeline!’ it had chided. ‘That’s all? You should think twice next time before buying a pair of eighty pound shoes that are such an unusual shade of coral that they go with practically nothing in your wardrobe!’
I had blushed before apologising sincerely to the computer, telling it I had many items I could wear with coral but seeing as I no longer had a boyfriend, I had no one to dress up for. The computer had gone silent with pity.
Thirty-two days into the split with Jason - my boyfriend of two years, one hundred and three days and five hours - and my heart was eventually on the mend. My mantra of ‘it wasn’t my fault’ was beginning to work and in defiance of being single, I was wearing those coral dreams right now on my tired feet, even if the six inch heels did render them completely impractical to drive my little Lexemoto scooter in.
The teal vintage dress I had dug out was also proving to be a challenge as I tried to keep it and the net underskirt from flying about my ears. Although these city streets undoubtedly saw many a pair of knickers flashed about during the course of an evening, I continued on to my destination in a lady-like manner and I arrived with my dignity intact...just.
Hands full, I tapped the door of the brand new fifth floor apartment lightly with my shoe.
I tried again, angry at the prospect of having to ruin my accessories to be heard. Again, there was no answer. The door was quickly becoming a red rag to my bull-like huffs and I turned around before slamming my bum into the wooden barricade three times, knowing full well the occupants inside would hear the quaking.
I pictured parents in neighbouring apartments coaxing their children out from their hideaways, explaining the building was not falling down and that it was just Madeline Gilbert getting more and more pissed off.
A soft light suddenly flooded the hallway, illuminating my scowl. ‘I thought you were expecting me,’ I snorted as the draft unsettled my hair.
‘It’s three minutes past eight and you should learn to be on time,’ Clare retorted. ‘We found better things to do than just listen out for your stomping.’ She looked at me quizzically. ‘And you’ve dyed your hair again haven’t you?’ she asked.
I shook my head softly in a way that was worthy of a commercial. ‘I don’t like it when it fades.’
‘Don’t worry Maddie, it’s still very purple.’
At that moment, a loud whooping came from the next room. ‘Yeah! Clare, come quick, you’ll miss it!’ Sophie cheered.
I raised my right eyebrow with expert precision, a move I had mastered at the age of fourteen after being confined to bed for days with acute tonsillitis. ‘Wait let me guess,’ I said dryly. ‘You’re watching some reality show or a song and dance spectacle?’
A sluggish yet genuine smile stretched across Clare’s angular pale face. ‘Over the last two hours, she’s made me watch reruns of X Factor - some performances twice – as well as Britain’s Got Talent.’ She looked over her shoulder before whispering, ‘Why do you think I rang you so many times? I need saving.’
‘Oh, I thought you were trying to get me to hurry the hell up.’
‘Well that too,’ she added before becoming transfixed on the iridescent cuboid I was holding like a baby in swaddling clothes.
‘Don’t worry Clare, I washed my hands perpetually throughout the whole creative process and never licked the spoon,’ I lied. ‘I also made sure I removed the corkscrew and nails from the mixture. Toenails to be precise.’
‘Don’t joke. You’d be surprised what I come across on my health inspections. In fact on my last spot check –’
‘Do I really want to know? My list of places to eat out is becoming quite limited thanks to you and your need to close establishments down just because of dust.’
She ignored me. ‘Last week at a store I won’t name then, I found mouse droppings in the pick n mix.’
‘You’re only saying that to try and curb my pick n mix addiction,’ I sulked.
‘And has it worked?’
‘No,’ I laughed. ‘I don’t even think mouse crap could put me off, although I might be more scrupulous when it comes to selecting the chocolate raisins from now on.’
‘But all that sugar and fat Maddie,’ Clare groaned. ‘Talking of which, can I see the cake please?’
‘Oh no Clare, I couldn’t possibly expose you to all this sugar and fat! Just think of what one sniff could do? You’d put on a pound at least.’ My sarcasm failed to evoke even a flicker of expression. ‘Well is everybody here then?’ I groaned.
‘Everybody but Issie. But she’s rung to say she will be here soon,’ Clare said hurriedly. I dropped my head to the side like a puppy who failed to understand the ‘go fetch’ command. ‘Don’t worry,’ Clare said holding her hands up in surrender. ‘Issie got the same phone calls you did.’
‘All nine of them I hope.’
Ignoring me yet again, Clare ripped the cake box from my grasp and spun around sharply. ‘This way. I suppose Sophie will want to give you the grand tour.’
‘Clare, I found this flat for Tom and Sophie and I sold it to them. I’ve already given them the grand tour, remember?’
What none of my friends knew was this flat had been the first sale I’d made for Alfred Lambert Solicitors and Estate Agents in my five months of being there. My prospects were not looking good for long-term employment, but then again I suppose your heart had to be in the job to actually give a shit.
‘Maddie? Are you coming?’ Clare asked.
‘Yes mu’lady,’ I said under my breath.
I rubbed my upper arms to release the tension created by the sheer weight of the cake. Clare’s petite frame disappeared into the living room and I knew full well she would only allow herself the thinnest of slivers to celebrate with Sophie. She rarely ate any of the delectable treats I baked and instead preferred to stick to a diet of rice crackers, carrots and hummus.
She was also the type of girl who had conserve, not jam and nothing but filter coffee would do. She had even been known to redecorate her bathroom to match the colour of the shampoo bottles she favoured at a particular time.
I wrestled with the clasps on my shoes and kicked my left one off with a little more force than I intended. It landed around a metre away, hitting the floor with a sharp thud. I winced, but reassuring myself that both it and the laminate flooring were intact, I followed on before I was fetched.
Sophie and Clare were fixated on the TV screen as contestant number 40819 spun the judges a crocodile-tear-filled story about how music was her reason for living before breaking into a rendition of Adele’s Chasing Pavements. The three buzzes sounded systematically one after another – Sophie created a cross with her arms.
‘You really get into this don’t you?’ I asked, shaking my head.
‘I love it! You should see what the next guy can do with his earlobes!’ she said in awe.
I scrunched up my nose in disgust and clutched my ears. ‘No thanks, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.’
She laughed. ‘There’s a woman later on who does something similar! Except she hammers nails up her nose instead.’
‘Oh that can’t be sanitary,’ Clare squirmed.
‘It’s certainly insanity,’ I added shuffling towards Sophie to give her a huge hug. ‘Happy flat warming pretty lady.’
‘Thanks Maddie. Tom and I just adore the flat. I can’t believe we’re finally here.’
‘Is the champagne on ice then?’ I asked.
‘Of course it is,’ she clapped before her eyes landed on the cake box. ‘And omfg you’ve made me one of your legendary cakes haven’t you?’
Sophie had three teenage nephews and nieces and was constantly picking up new vocabulary. It was also why she was the only one of us that perpetually tweeted and put her life on Facebook. Clare might have had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but Sophie was definitely suffering from Obsessive Computer Disorder.
‘Of course I’ve made you a cake,’ I smiled. ‘But no peeking until Issie’s here,’ I demanded, trying to shield the box from her. ‘She could be hours.’
‘Minutes,’ Clare objected.
‘Exactly, all one hundred and twenty of them,’ I sniggered.
I plonked myself in between my two friends on the plush cream sofa. Refusing to watch the dull spectacle on television, I cast my eyes over the long narrow room, which was completely bare except for the glass coffee table, the television set and the wall of cardboard boxes in the centre of the dark laminate flooring.
Every wall was magnolia and every window was bare. I appreciated Sophie had literally just moved in but it was still all too new for me and lacked character. But it was what she and Tom had wanted and it was a blank canvas waiting for the happy couple to make their mark on it.
‘There’s a lot of work to do yet,’ Sophie whispered in my ear as if hearing my silent criticisms. ‘I have quite a few ideas in terms of colour schemes, which I will probably run by you seeing as you’re the arty one. But Tom and I want to start next Saturday, so I’ll talk you through them before you go.’
‘You’re starting next Saturday?’ I asked in a tone only dogs could hear. ‘You mean Tom’s not at the restaurant?’
Sophie’s arms exploded up into the air victoriously, nearly hitting me in the jaw. ‘He’s going to have a weekend off! Can you believe it?’
‘I can’t actually,’ I snorted – unintentionally of course. ‘He’s worked practically every weekend since you got together?’
‘I know! I can count on one hand the number of weekends we’ve spent doing couply things.’
My mouth fell. ‘Seriously? But you’ve been together ages.’
‘Nearly two and a half years. In fact, didn’t we start seeing each other about the same time you and Ja –’
I winced as his name was thankfully cut short.
‘Anyway, Tom’s confident that the kitchen can manage the more hectic shifts without him,’ Sophie continued, ‘Albeit just this once. The next weekend he has off will have to be for something really important.’
‘Like a wedding?’ Clare hinted.
The word wedding, with all its connotations of love and happiness, had more of an impact on me than I was prepared for. Unable to take a breath, I forced myself to mirror Sophie’s grin.
‘Well who knows what’s going to happen?’ Sophie said, shrugging as if trying to dilute the remark. She rubbed her finger where an engagement ring should sit. I couldn’t help but mirror that too, forcing the knot in my stomach to constrict even more.
‘Oh but you two are destined to get married, I’m sure of it,’ Clare added insensitively. ‘I mean Sophie Anderson has quite a ring to it.’
The knot exploded and I felt sick.
Sophie must have noticed the pale green hue on my face because she immediately prescribed a cure. ‘Glass of wine anyone?’ she said chirpily. I raised my hand and tried not to think about white dresses and ‘I dos.’
Staring back at the blank walls, my train of thought went from nothing, then to paint, then to Sophie and Tom with brushes in their hands before finally thinking about Sophie and Tom having sex. I wish I had stuck with weddings, however my train of thought had derailed and would not budge.
Tom and Sophie – or Toffee as we often called them to save two syllables - were one of the most sexual couples I had ever met. Due to overlapping work schedules they had ‘it’ whenever and wherever they could and I knew they had no intention of wasting a perfectly good weekend on paint alone.
Sophie returned with a bottle of rose and three glasses. ‘What about Issie?’ I asked.
She sniggered. ‘Her highness won’t want this – it’s only from the Co-op. She’s bound to stick with the bubbles.’
‘Oh right,’ I muttered. ‘Well I can only have a spot because I’m driving.’
The glug glug glug of the wine cascading into my glass soon relaxed me. It was a sound synonymous with happy times and laughs with my girlfriends. It was just what the doctor ordered. ‘So do you think you’ll get the rooms done in two days Soph?’ I quizzed.
‘Defo. Why are you offering to help?’
‘If you’re paying?’
I could have done with the extra cash actually as I had my eye on two textured rolling pins I’d seen on ebay. It would make my cake icing look amazing and it was Mum’s birthday soon. I would try out the new design on her.
‘Don’t joke Maddie. It might come to that,’ Sophie said seriously.
It would almost certainly come to that as Sophie never finished anything without being pushed. That’s why Clare as the domineering and demanding character she was, had been the perfect housemate for her before the move – a ying to her yang. Jason used to say that about me....oh stop it Maddie!
‘So,’ I began. ‘Remind me again how many times you’ve seen this particular episode of Britain’s Got Talent.’
Sophie looked up with eyes the size of golf balls and bit the corner of her lip. ‘Well...erm...this is just the second time.’
I deepened my stare.
‘Okay the third,’ she confessed. ‘Look I can’t help it! It’s my Achilles heel alright! I love Deal or No Deal too. And I have a couple of episodes –’
‘Sophie,’ I groaned.
‘Okay, five episodes recorded ready to watch. The television is my BFF!’
‘Your best friend forever?’ I laughed. ‘You need help.’ I promptly marched over to the remote and began flicking through her saved items. ‘Oh my god, your Sky Plus box is full of these programmes, some from two seasons ago! And what’s this? Homes Under the Hammer? Cash in the Attic?’
‘But I get addicted to them during the school holidays.’
‘And that’s why I’m here to help.’
‘No please don’t delete them Maddie, wait – noooooo!’
The static on the screen crackled furiously and Clare sat up in protest. ‘Hey! I really wanted to know what the guy was gonna pick up with his ears!’
‘Dustbins,’ Sophie said without hesitation.
Our chorused laughter banished my demons from the room and my chest felt much lighter. Sophie hid behind her wine and curled herself up into a small ball.
‘I didn’t delete them just so you know,’ I said with a smirk. ‘But you really should. How does Tom cope?’
‘He has Sky Sports and sex to balance things out.’
‘Ah I see, the old sport and sex card. Nice combination. Although I wouldn’t advise them together as it would be a relatively one sided game wouldn’t it?’
‘Actually there was this one time when it was a cup final or an important league thingymajig and we harnessed his passion for the beautiful game to –’
A rhythmical rap came from the front door cutting Sophie short thank God. I wasn’t really in the mood for another of her sex stories. Not tonight anyway.
As I stood, Clare pulled the cake box towards her.
‘You leave the lid on understand? I want to do the big reveal,’ I barked. Clare nodded fervently as I headed towards the front door, picturing the undoubtedly immaculate face behind it. Although I felt over dressed for our small gathering I was sure to be outshone by Isobel, who like many a Disney princess, managed to melt the hardest and coldest of hearts with a fluttering of her jet black eyelashes and a swish of her long golden locks.
‘Maddie sweetie!’ A pair of arms wrapped around me, cutting off my airways slightly. ‘It feels like an age since I last saw you,’ Issie trilled.
‘If five weeks is an age, then absolutely.’ She loosened her grip and I inhaled deeply, taking in her rich flowery scent.
‘It’s four weeks too long anyway. We used to meet up every week at least but I suppose that was before I started getting all those auditions. They can take it out of you, you know?’
It was amazing how Issie could do that. She made a suggestion or a criticism and within seconds she had made it sound like you were the one lodging the complaint about her.
Before I could even offer to take her jacket she had vanished and from the groans and gasps next door, I knew exactly where she had gone.
Isobel Harris was no stranger to being the centre of attention and we all lapped up the exuberance and vivacious energy she bought to the group whenever we were together. She was destined to be an actress, ever since giving quite an impressive performance of Mary in labour during the school nativity at the age of five. It had been unrehearsed and quite unexpected. I had seen the footage myself of teachers frantically trying to get her to merely cradle the baby Jesus but instead, Issie announced she was ‘simply going for realism.’
Retrieving the champagne flutes and the rather large bottle of bubbly from the kitchen, I demanded space on the sofa and wedged myself in between Issie and Clare. Issie grabbed the bottle and popped it open delicately. Then, sliding the cake box towards me, I felt three pairs of eyes follow my every move.
‘Ladies,’ I announced in my best theatrical voice. Isobel nodded with approval and we all raised our glasses. ‘We are gathered here tonight to celebrate our wonderful friend’s sparkling new apartment. May you and Tom revel in every minute you spend here together Soph.’
The sound of chinking glass resonated above us.
‘Awww, thanks you guys.’
Issie cleared her throat. ‘I hope none of you mind, but I have some news of my own to announce,’ she added swiftly.
Although an outsider may have deemed it wholly inappropriate for someone to try and outdo their friend on her special night, this was Issie. It’s what she did and we loved her regardless. I looked to Sophie who smiled, encouraging Issie to reveal her secret.
‘Well it’s just that I found out today that.....’ A dramatic pause ensued. ‘I GOT THE PART!’
We all squealed with delight. Issie even put her glass down to clap herself. Despite graduating from university with a First Class Honours in Theatre and Dramatic Arts, she had only managed a few commercials, voice overs and chorus parts so far. This could be her big break.
I drummed my glass with my fingernails calling for everyone’s attention. ‘In that case, may I also propose a toast to someone who in time, will be recognised as one of the finest stage actresses in Britain – ’
‘Britain’s favourite actress,’ Issie corrected.
‘Sorry, “Britain’s favourite actress” and her debut role in the anticipated production of...’
‘Love’s First Kiss,’ Issie said filling in the gap.
‘Is set to be one of the finest plays this city has ever seen,’ I continued without faltering. ‘And we are all delighted your dreams are becoming a reality.’
‘Oh Maddie stop it! You’re embarrassing me now,’ she squealed, checking her cheeks to see if they were flushing, which of course they weren’t. ‘It’s being directed by Guy Edmundon,’ she explained. ‘He’s written several plays for the West End and launched the careers of actors including Wayne Morris, Chris Seardon and Scarlett Moore.’
‘I’ve never heard of any of them,’ Clare whispered to me. I smiled as neither had I.
‘I’m so excited!’ she squealed again.
‘So you should be,’ I grinned as I pulled the cake box towards me. ‘This is a masterpiece after all.’ Three pairs of eyes followed my every move, only to become transfixed on the lid as I slid my fingers underneath it. ‘And I made it for all of us.’
I lifted the lid as if it were the top of a music box, but the only sounds to emanate from anywhere were the gasps of awe as I revealed my creation. I relaxed, delighted to see the bumpy journey over here had not undone all my hard work.
‘Oh Maddie it’s amazing,’ Clare sighed.
‘Omfg Maddie. Your cakes are just getting better and better,’ Sophie cooed hypnotically.
The butterflies danced in my chest with gratitude, particularly because Clare very rarely bestowed praise on anything or anyone. I lifted the intricately decorated cake out of its cardboard prison so every inch of it could be appreciated. The four figurines were just as I had left them, busying themselves around the confectionary cottage in their fantasy world.
‘They’re us!’ Issie laughed.
‘Of course they’re us. I knew Sophie wanted us to share her fairytale and it seems highly appropriate now that Issie has her happily ever after too.’
Issie pulled us all in for a group hug and I felt Clare’s arms turn to stone, desperate to regain her personal space.
‘So Miss Issie,’ I said in my best Queen’s English. ‘Long gone are the days of haemorrhoid cream and constipation commercials.’
‘It was a thrush cream ad actually,’ she scowled.
‘Shame, you do the constipated face so well,’ Sophie giggled, turning her gaze back to the cake.
‘Everyone has to start somewhere,’ Issie said defensively. ‘It may well have been those commercials that got me noticed.’
Clare folded her arms. ‘Well just as long as you all know there is no such thing as a happily ever after.’
‘Always the optimist aren’t you Clare?’ I said shaking my head softly.
‘What I mean is that Isobel has worked hard for her dream, she wasn’t just handed it on a plate. It was nothing to do with fate, or that serendipitous stuff.’
‘Who knows how the cosmos works? Maybe that’s exactly what it was,’ I said, desperately trying to top up my half-full glass and wishing Clare would have a swig. I twisted the cake around so that each of my friends could get a better view of their iced counterparts, covered in edible pink and purple glitter.
Issie peered forward to scrutinise her miniature Marilyn-like self in a blue dress with a frog on her shoulder. She seemed particularly pleased with the luscious pout I had given her.
‘Who knows what fairytales are out there for each of us,’ I sighed.
The thought of a ‘happily ever after’ was enough to make my eyes sting. The break-up was still too raw. I had not really spoken about it yet with any of the girls and they knew not to press me for information. However, now was as good a time as any seeing as we were all together.
‘I’ve decided what happened between me and Jason was for the best,’ I said still sounding composed. ‘I know it wasn’t my fault and I’m fine...honestly,’ I squeaked to myself rather than to them. I swallowed back the plum sized knot forming in my throat, knowing full well if someone hugged me or said anything nice then my eyes would flood. But I was sat next to Clare, so there was no risk of that. Instead, I folded my arms and stared at the chipping varnish on my toe, which had flaked into the shape of the Mona Lisa.
‘I suppose there’s no prize for guessing which one’s you Maddie,’ Issie said with impeccable timing. ‘But your hair isn’t that bright a purple.’
I gulped, preparing my vocal chords for words. ‘Yes, I know but I couldn’t make it any darker. They don’t have the right shade of aubergine food colouring, but I thought it still looked funky.’
‘And you’ve made me a lot slimmer than I really am. In fact I’m positively skinny,’ Sophie added. ‘Didn’t you have enough icing?’ she laughed as she brushed her small iced waist with her forefinger.
I hadn’t got the heart to tell her she was right. The first version I had made of her was a little rounder, but was involved in an unfortunate feline related incident. I had managed to recover her head from the jaws of Mr Fezziwig - my fat, ginger and slightly effeminate cat - but her body was irretrievable and I didn’t have enough icing to remake her exactly how I had before.
‘I never did have an eye for proportion,’ I shrugged.
‘And I need to keep an eye on my portion sizes, so you really don’t do me any favours with all your baking you know. And I can’t believe you made the red dress I wore for my twenty-ninth birthday!’
‘I was working from the photographs we took and thought it would be rude not to. It was a beautiful dress after all.’
‘So why are all of us sitting pretty and upright rather than being slumped on the floor looking green?’ Issie asked. ‘Clare certainly didn’t end the night on her feet.’
‘Well if Maddie had been going for realism Isobel, then your frog would be that random guy from the restaurant who you couldn’t seem to put down and the mirror that Sophie is holding would be her mobile, which was glued to her palm for the entire evening because she was twitting all night long,’ Clare scolded.
‘Tweeting sweetie,’ Issie whispered.
‘Oh that reminds me!’ Sophie dug around in her hoodie pocket to retrieve her mobile. ‘I need to check us all in at mine on Facebook.’
‘Wonderful, let the world know my house is free to be burgled,’ Clare scowled.
‘Don’t be silly Clare, it simply shows people you get out every once in a while,’ Sophie laughed.
Clare grimaced. ‘Ha...ha...ha.’
‘Besides, you’re good entertainment when you’ve had a drink or two,’ Issie added.
‘Yeah, so get drinking.’ I pushed her glass to her lips. She smirked.
‘Oh no you don’t.’ Clare pointed towards the cake. ‘I remember that night. I drank so much it made me forget about the dangers of sitting down on filthy disgusting pavements. Do you know how many billions of bacteria are on city streets? I had to wash that dress four times just to be sure it was safe to wear again.’ She looked back at the cake, her eyes tracing the contours of each figurine. ‘It’s truly beautiful Maddie. I think this is your calling. You could make a lot of money if you were to do this professionally.’
‘Nah, I just play at baking,’ I said with a wolfish grin aimed at Sophie.
‘Maddie you know you’re good. Tom’s told you himself countless times. I’m well jel about what you can do.’
My smile widened. ‘Well perhaps I’m quite good at it.’ I rubbed my knees together like a nervous teenager on a first date. ‘Anyway, this cake won’t eat itself you know so –’
‘I’ll get a knife,’ Sophie screamed jumping to her feet. Within seconds we were all hovered over my work like witches around a cauldron.
‘Where are the plates?’ Clare demanded.
‘No need for plates,’ Sophie ordered. ‘Do as I do and cut out the middle man completely.’ She looked around at us individually before pausing on Clare, her green eyes sparkling. ‘Just stuff it in your mouth and forget about crumbs. Go on. I dare you.’
I pulled up outside my ramshackle of a home, the Johnny Depp of all properties as it was rather scruffy and mismatching but absolutely gorgeous up close. I switched off the engine and noticed that outside my neighbour’s equally crumbling house, was parked a blue Ford Fiesta.
My recently elated spirits plummeted. Terraced houses were renowned for having paper thin walls but I hadn’t quite appreciated the concept until the night I moved in.
And here I was again, facing the prospect of another night listening to my neighbour and his latest catch ‘ooohing’ and ‘ahhhing’ their way into the early hours of the morning.
Then there were the kids next door. The eldest was six-years-old and the twins were nearly three. Sandwiched in between screams of both pleasure and tantrums – usually of equal decibels - evenings at home were not the most relaxing.
I poured myself a glass of wine and slumped into the folds of the sofa before looking at my mobile. A weight dropped in my stomach as the realisation hit. No messages, except one from Facebook telling me Sophie had checked me in at Sophie’s new apartment.
This time five weeks ago it would have been plagued with texts from Jason. Right now we would be texting each other about the competition we could provide to Gary and his blonde, or brunette or ginger bombshell next door – he really wasn’t fussy. But now the only thing my phone told me was that it was nearly eleven o’clock. I was alone.
A scream from next door fired up my pulse rate. It was one of the twins, Kyle I think. His scream was a little higher than Ashley’s. Anyway, Jason had severed all communication within days of the break-up. That really hurt because I’d always thought even if we couldn’t be lovers anymore, we could still manage to be friends. So I had been left with no option other than to de-Jasonify my house. There were still a few things he had to pick up if he had the guts. A couple of CDs and t-shirts.
As I clambered the stairs it appeared the cake I had unceremoniously stuffed down my throat hours earlier had already manifested itself on my thighs. I was certain they had a little more wobble than usual – but then again I had replaced sex with Gu puddings for the last month.
I collapsed on my bed, the springs creaking under the strain. Then, before I could stop them, they struck. Those things I had successfully kept at bay all evening. Memories.
The one that always exploded into my thoughts the second I let my guard down was the day Jason and I had spent at the beach in Brighton. It had been a really beautiful day and so like a spirit returning to a familiar and comforting place, I allowed the memory to replay itself scene by scene, like an old-fashioned movie reel that skipped and jumped to the points I remembered more vividly.
We held hands as we walked and we kissed all day long. We collected shells and stones like children, competing to see who could find the most unusual and the most beautiful only to give it to the other as a memento. I looked across at my bedside table and felt my stomach wrench as my eyes fell on the taupe rock with grey freckles. I would not get rid of it.
Jason had professed himself the winner that day, not because of that rock, but because he said he had found me.
The noise that escaped my lips surprised even me. A banshee with laryngitis would have sounded more demure. But I needed to release my frustration and I allowed myself to wail piteously a few more times before deciding there was nothing for it but to plunge my face into the pillow...on his side of the bed of course.
I cried so hard my chest began to hurt.
‘Stop it Maddie, stop it!’ I shrieked coming up for air. I felt my cheeks begin to cool instantly as the air clung to my damp skin. Flashes of more memories appeared from nowhere. Those ‘just because’ gifts he’d bought me, the films we’d enjoyed together, the laughs we’d had till we cried.
Lost in my thoughts I hadn’t even heard the events commence on the x-rated side of the wall. I only realised the fun and frolics had started when I caught my reflection in the bevelled edges of my mirror, which bounced against the Laura Ashley floral patterned paper.
The image of my distorted self commanded my full attention. To become a whole person again, I had to accept the reality that my relationship with Jason was over. As soon as I did that, it would not be long before little pieces of my fragmented self fused together again to form Madeline.
I mean, there was no doubt I had loved Jason. However, I had known since the beginning I was not in love with him. We were pieces of the same jigsaw, but just not ones that fitted together. So you see it really wasn’t my fault. Not really.
I inhaled deeply, banishing the trembles from my chest before wondering which side of the looking glass I was on; reality or the back-to-front version. And then I began to wonder if Jason and I would still have been together in that alternate life...
... if only he had never asked me to marry him.