Play time

Dad almost crushed Batman beneath his size ten boot, but managed to divert his foot at the last moment.

“Damn it. Not on the stairs Sammy. Why can’t you play in your room?”

Dad stomped down the stairs and straight out the front door, slamming it as he went. His phone had already rung three times this morning. Customers hassling him about jobs he hadn’t finished. Sammy even heard dad apologising while sat on the toilet.

Sammy listened. His two brothers were still arguing in the bedroom. He didn’t want to play there.

Mum was typing away at the computer on the kitchen table. Muttering as she did it about customers who hadn’t paid, exclaiming about customers wanting something for nothing, and telling Jack off for making such a mess with his breakfast. Sammy didn’t want to play there.

He could sneak into the front room. If he played quietly no one would notice him, but when they found him they would shout at him. He didn’t want to be shouted at. He wouldn’t play there.

He stayed on the stairs. Batman launched himself from one stair to the next, landing in front of the villains and knocking them to the floor. One of the villains bounced back up because he had a spring in his backpack. Batman hit him again. Batman hit him ten times but he kept springing up. Batman hit him very hard and the villain flew down the stairs, landing with a crash in the hallway.

“Sammy. Stop that.”

“Sammy do you hear me.”

“Sammy come here and help feed your brother.”

Sammy picked up the villain and went into the kitchen. His brother was playing with porridge. Porridge that came alive and jumped on to your face so that it could eat you rather than you eating it.

“What are you doing?”

Sammy didn’t reply.

“Oh give it here. And pass me the cloth. Look at the mess.”

Mum scrubbed porridge off Jack’s face. Jack didn’t like it. Jack’s little hand found the porridge bowl and pushed it off the table. Sammy caught it before it landed on the floor.

“Good catch.”

Mum gave him a smile. The phone rang. Mum picked Jack up and passed him to Sammy.

“Can you take him in the hall for a minute? And close the door. I need to get this call.”

Jack was happy to be carried. Sammy gave him one of the villains to chew.

Batman took off his cloak. He looked like an ordinary person. Only Sammy knew he was the best goalkeeper in the world. Batman went to watch Liverpool. The Liverpool goalkeeper got knocked out when he crashed into the goal post. The substitute goal keeper was so scared that he was sick. Batman had to become the goal keeper and Manchester United had a penalty. Ronaldo kicked it really hard but Batman dived to the side and caught the ball. He then threw it really, really hard all the way to Salah. He scored a goal and Liverpool won.

“Watch out,” said Thomas.

“Mum,” said Harry. “We’re going to the park.”

Mum didn’t reply. Sammy could hear her on the phone. Sammy moved up the stairs out of the way. Thomas and Harry sat on the bottom step to put their shoes on.

“Hey, what you got there.”

Thomas eased the villain out of Jack’s mouth.

“Look. Jack’s bit his head off.”

The two older brothers laughed. Thomas passed the villain back before Jack started bawling. Mum opened the kitchen door.

“And where do you think you’re going?”

“To the park.”

“What about your homework?”

“We can do that later.”

“Homework first. Then you can play.”

“But mum. We’ve got all weekend.”

“Homework.”

The phone started to ring. Mum looked back longingly.

“We’ll take Sammy and Jack,” said Harry. Thomas looked at him with a turned down mouth.

“Then you can get on with your work,” said Harry.

Thomas’s mouth turned into a smile.

“It would be nice and quiet,” he said.

The phone seemed to ring louder.

“Ok. But homework first thing this afternoon.”

Mum rushed through the door and grabbed the phone.

It was Sammy who made sure Jack was wrapped up warmly enough. It was Sammy who pushed the pushchair all the way to the park while his two brothers kicked the ball to each other. It was Sammy who was sent to the swings while his brothers took turns to be Mo Sallah.

Sammy plonked Jack into the sand pit and lay down on the spinner. He looked up at the clouds and kicked with his foot. The sky span. Sammy wondered is the planet ever got dizzy with all its spinning. He got dizzy if he span too much. He stopped kicking with his legs and let the spinner slow. He closed his eyes and turned his head in circles. It made him dizzy quicker.

When the spinner stopped he tipped himself onto his feet and took two wobbly steps before sinking into the sand. His arm wouldn’t go where his eyes wanted it to but after three attempts he managed grab the lolly pop stick before Jack could eat it.

He used it to dig a moat around a castle. The castle had a king. The king made the laws. One law was that mums and dads were not allowed to work on Saturday or Sunday. They had to play with their children.

Sammy though it was the best law in the world. He held the lollipop stick in both hands above his head. He was the king. He was the one making the laws. He snapped the stick. The stick could be broken but the law could not. Anyone who broke it would be put in prison until they promised not to break it again.

Sammy heard Jack gurgle. It was the noise he made when he was happy. He looked very happy and gurgled again while holding his hands out, which he did when he wanted to be picked up. Sammy stood up.

“Come on then,” he said.

“Don’t you want to play football?”

Sammy looked around to see mum. She scooped Jack up.

“Go on, I’ve got him.”

He heard Thomas shout and saw that dad was in goal pretending he couldn’t stop the ball.

Sammy ran over. Dad held his arms out and caught Sammy. He span him around once, placed hime back on the ground and gave him the ball.

“Go on Salah. Bet you can’t score passed me.”

Sammy kicked the ball. It was going to miss. Dad grabbed at it with one hand, knocking it back into the goal.

“Goal,” shouted Thomas.

“Salah. Salah. Salah.” shouted Harry.

Sammy laughed. There were three Salahs, and he was one of them.

Dad’s mobile rang. Dad held his hand up to pause the game. Sammy stood very still. Every sound in the park was silenced except for dad’s voice as he talked on the phone.

“No. Sorry mate. Did you get my message? Yeah. The van broke down. No, nothing serious. I don’t know, some sort of seal. I was lucky. I was right near the garage so just wheeled it in smooth as you like. It’s a five minute job but they can’t get the part till Monday. Yeah, well, anyway, I’ve got to go. Salah’s about to take a penalty.”

Dad laughed.

“Don’t be daft. They’re not even playing today. No. No. It’s just me and the boys down the park. Right. See you Monday.”

Dad turned the mobile off and chucked it onto the pile of jumpers by the goal post.

“Come on then. Who’s next? I’ll save this one.”

Recipe for success

She swore at the prime minister who had just announced a covid lockdown.

Like many people she’d been obsessed with the covid data and knew that lockdown made sense, but why couldn’t he have waited for a week. She started her new job on Monday and she hadn’t even met her work colleagues. How was she expected to work from home when she had no idea what she was doing or how to do it remotely?

At least her boss was understanding. She basically told Pippa to take it easy; join the video conference meetings and read up on the company website. They’d send her the IT equipment she needed. Until that arrived she could take the time to get herself settled in her new home.

She’d been so excited to move to out of her parents’ home and take up her new job. It was her first time living outside of London, first time renting a flat and first time she had ever lived on her own. Lockdown hadn’t been part of the plan. She couldn’t really get to know her new city when nothing was open.

The office laptop arrived quickly as the company already had home based workers even before covid made it essential. Logging in was easy as everything had been tried and tested by others before her. The problem was that having logged in she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She’d not only missed the office tour but also the induction and training. Once again her manager told her not to worry and to do what she could. They’d organise remote training and she’d soon be up to speed.

The training never happened. Instead Pippa was put on furlough. As the manager explained, it made sense for her to be furloughed as currently she was the least productive member of the team.

Pippa’s friends were jealous of her getting paid for doing nothing. It wasn’t as good as they imagined, not when she was in a strange city and only allowed out to exercise. She considered going home but she’d have to pay for the flat whether she lived in it or not, and it would feel like a failure going back to her parents.

She filled her time with computer games, scrolling through endless social media and obsessing over the covid data. When lockdown eased things should have improved. But that was the moment it really hit her. She went for a walk every day and managed to say good morning many times, but the only people she spoke to for more than ten seconds were ones delivering her shopping.

She was bored with computer games and couldn’t pester her friends with more video conference calls. That’s when the overripe bananas forced her to start baking. That first banana loaf came out really well. But Pippa didn’t post a picture – she’d seen too many on social media already and didn’t want to join the banana bread trend.

The shops started to reopen and in a charity shop she found a book on cake baking. It was slim with just twenty recipes. It took her less than a week to make every cake and apart from the pumpkin roll they tasted lovely.

She looked around her kitchen and wondered what to do. Monday’s cakes were stale, Tuesday’s were not great, but the rest of them were still good to eat. She couldn’t bring herself to bin them but she couldn’t eat more – she was sure she had put on several pounds already.

She picked up the lemon drizzle cake and took it to the door of her downstairs neighbour. An old woman answered and was so insistent that Pippa broke covid rules to share cake over a cup of tea.

The next neighbour she met was the woman from upstairs. She looked frazzled by home schooling and confined children. The chocolate brownie cake almost had her in tears. She quickly fed it to her twins and returned to the doorway to chat for almost five uninterrupted minutes.

Pippa still had too many cakes. She placed them in a large carrier bag and followed her phone’s directions to the local park where she fed stale cake to ducks and tried to give away fresh cake to strangers.

Finally she found someone willing to accept her gift. A woman called Maddy who was walking her dog accepted some coffee cake and that caused such an avalanche of interest that very quickly all the cakes were gone.

Pippa liked routines. Even when she worked flexible hours she always started and finished at the same time each day. With no externally imposed timetable she had to make her own, which meant she baked all morning and then took the cake for a walk to the park, where it would practically disappear before she was though the gate.

One of the regular cake eaters set up a social media account to post pictures of each cake. Pippa found herself watching the account all afternoon and evening to see what would be said. She started posting her own photo of each cake before it was cut up, and soon took over the social media account.

Her chocolate orange ombre cake earned over one thousand likes and resulted in her first cake sale. Maddy wanted one just like it for her husband’s birthday, and insisted on paying.

When Pippa’s six month tenancy was due to expire, her landlord asked if she wanted to renew it. Pippa didn’t hesitate to sign. Things were so much better than they had been at the start of the pandemic. She had a whole group of friends, a wonderful hobby and an active social media presence that she enjoyed managing.

The next morning everything changed. She received an email from her boss informing her that they were ending the furlough scheme and wanted Pippa to resume work the following week.

Pippa still made her banoffee gateau as planned and took it to the park. She sat on her usual bench. Maddy poured them both a cup of coffee from her flask.

“What’s wrong? You don’t look great.”

“Work are ending the furlough scheme. Back to boring office work on Monday.”

“What?” said Maddy. “I thought you were a baker.”

“Oh no, this is just a hobby.”

“Just!” said Maddy.

Back at home, Pippa sat in front of her computer reminding herself how to do her job. She was disturbed by the doorbell and welcomed the distraction of her neighbour’s children calling for the slices of cake she always saved for them. Once they’d gone she took a slice down to Gladys, the old lady who lived below her. Gladys made tea and told Pippa all the latest apartment block gossip. It didn’t take Gladys long to learn about Pippa’s imminent return to work.

“What should I do?” asked Pippa.

“You’re a cake maker. You should do that.”

“I can’t afford to do that.”

“How can you afford not to do what you love?”

Pippa returned to her flat and read through her social media. Without thinking she wrote about her dilemma and then turned the computer off, slipped into a hot bath and went to bed with no recipe planned for the morning. Maybe she should stop baking. She’d done a cake every day for six months, now she had to return to the real world.

Next day she booted up her computer and was overwhelmed by thousands of messages. Each one told her to ditch her job and set up as a baker. She stopped reading after the first hundred and turned to her work emails where there was yet another message from her boss.

She wanted Pippa to come to the office that day for a face-to-face meeting. Pippa couldn’t refuse; they were still paying her salary. She about to reply when she noticed a postscript asking if she could bring one of her cakes.

Pippa rushed into her kitchen looking for inspiration. She found it in a pineapple; an upside-down cake seemed very appropriate to her life at that moment.

It was late afternoon by the time Pippa returned from her meeting. She’d saved one slice of pineapple upside-down cake and took it to Gladys.

“My boss liked my cake so much that she made me redundant.”

“My dear, that makes no sense at all.”

Pippa laughed.

“She’d read my social media and only called me in to the office so that she could see if my cakes were as good as everyone said. She took one mouthful and then offered to make me redundant. She said I was wasted in insurance and she’d fixed things so that I would get a decent redundancy payment and could become a baker.”

“So you can pay your rent and do something you love.”

“For now, but it’s not going to be easy and I’ll need your help.”

“Me. What can I do?”

“You can be my taster and tell me if the cakes are good enough to sell.”

Gladys and Pippa clinked their cups together to seal their agreement.