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Thursday, 23 December 2021

The Great Monster Pie Off of 2020 (A bonus Christmas story for 'Hairy on the Inside' fans)

The highlight of my writing year for 2021 was the publication of ‘Hairy on the Inside’, my debut novella-in-flash (published by the wonderful Ad Hoc Fiction). It has some lovely reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and, hopefully has been making readers laugh. If you read and enjoyed the novella then here is a bonus Christmas story featuring all the ‘Hairy’ gang. And if you haven’t yet read it then this is your Christmas taster …

The Great Monster Pie Off of 2020

It was Frank’s idea. With news that we were moving into Tier 4 and tighter restrictions from Boxing Day, then why not try something new for our two household gathering. Frank is a committed fan of Bake Off, hasn’t missed a single episode since it began, and has proposed we undertake a Showstopper challenge instead of cooking the usual festive feast. He’s calling it a Pie Off. Everyone is keen to join in, even our blood-sucking live-in landlord, Julien, whose culinary skills are confined to heating up left-overs in the microwave, not a sight for the squeamish. We can create a pie of our own design, using whatever pastry crust and fillings we fancy. I’m drooling at the thought. Thankfully, my time of the lunar month isn’t till next week; paws would have been a baking handicap. A Cold Moon will sap my strength, meaning I have every excuse to stuff myself silly beforehand. A selection of pies, washed down with pints of Prosecco, sounds a perfect day to me.

“I can hear your tummy growling already, Chloe,” says Frank, winking at me.

“Do they have to be savoury?” asks Marlene. She has a sweet tooth (the others rotted long ago) and loves desserts. 

“There are no rules. Make your dream pie.” Frank tips his head right back with excitement, straining the fraying stitches around his neck to breaking point. He’s recently been banned from our local supermarket after his head toppled into the frozen peas. 

I’ve invited Gemma, my support bubble girlfriend, to join us. We met between lockdowns and this will be our first Christmas. I’m a little twitchy about how she feels, really feels about me, or even if we have a future together. She arrives mid-morning with bags of gifts and all the ingredients for her pie. She’s not like me, nor the rest of my housemates. Gemma has a pulse and doesn’t shed hair on the sofa, but she’s been invited in and accepted by all. She’s kept teaching all year, a key worker, and Julien calls her a hero for our times. I think he secretly has a crush on Gemma, since he’s abstained from drinking in her presence. Or rather he’s abstained from drinking her.

Gemma selects an appropriately festive play-list on her phone, then Frank declares it’s time to “BAKE.”

Short, puff or filo. Pastry choices sound more like dog breeds to me. Frank is a traditionalist and opted for a hot-water crust, with turkey, stuffing and cranberry layers inside. He’s even fashioned a home-made pie mould using his melted down spare set of neck bolts. “No chance of a soggy bottom with this,” he says. 

Marlene cheerily calls out “Bingo!” She’s just won the soggy bottom sweepstake for guessing Frank would say it before the Queen’s speech. There’s no prize, but she helps herself to a celebratory sherry, filling her schooner glass to the brim. Marlene is petite and still shrinking post-mortem, so it goes straight to what’s left of her head and she’s soon singing the original lyrics to A Fairy Tale of New York, which makes Gemma get the giggles.

“That’s cheating, Chloe.” Frank sniffs as I pull out the ready-made sheets of puff pastry from the fridge.

“If it’s good enough for Mary Berry,” I retort, then spoon in my filling. In deference to Gemma’s veggie tastes I’m using chestnuts, spinach and mushrooms. Technically, it’s a Wellington not a pie, as Frank is keen to point out, but it’s made with love (not lard) for the one I adore. 

My housemates snigger, and I realise I’ve just said that last bit out loud. I’ve never told her this before and Gemma blushes under the flour dusting her cheeks. She’s chosen a shortcrust recipe packed with all my favourite species. Holding her nose, Gemma tips out the innards into the dish and my heart swells as I watch her trying not to gag. In true Bake Off fashion, Frank loudly announces we have two hours left. I have no idea if that’s a short or long time, I rarely cook anything from scratch and often eat alfresco.

Marlene’s baking her pastry case blind. It takes both Frank and me to pop her eyes back in. Her entry is a mulled wine apple pie (her own concoction). She may have gone overboard with the Rioja, but the kitchen smells divine, a heady scent of cinnamon, cloves and pure alcohol. Now we’re all singing along with Wizzard.

A tuneless whining accompanies us from under the table. “Who let the dog in?” says Gemma, as she bends to scratch behind the spaniel’s crinkly ears.

“That’s not a real dog,” I tell her. “This is Malcolm, from Julien’s Book Club. He’s monstrous, don’t let him look up your dress.”

She steps back, as Malcolm, in spaniel form, rolls over to offer his belly for a tickle. I’m not sure when he snuck in, but his presence contravenes the two-household rule and I wouldn’t like to be in his fur if Julien catches him here. When I open the back door to shoo him out, he’s shifted into a posh pink poodle, lips puckered as he poses under the mistletoe. 

“No chance, Malcolm.” I drag him outside by his satin white bow and scold him for being a “bad dog.” That was cruel of me, but he’s been shifting his shape and trying it on all year, never getting the message.

Gemma smiles at me, the way that makes me want to dance. She knows not to sing Last Christmas by Wham! – it brings back painful memories for Frank – but mimes the words to me, then leans in close to whisper, “This year I have found someone special. I baked my pie with love too.” Now I know exactly how she feels and I can’t stop grinning like a love-sick Labrador.

At sunset Julien flies in for the climax of the competition. True to form, he slips his pie (“one I made earlier”) into the microwave. Julien is simple in his tastes, O positive usually. I warn Gemma not to try his entry. 

With all five pies steaming on the kitchen table, it occurs to Frank that we haven’t got a judge. As competition bakers none of us can pick a winner, so we call up our friend Dottie for a video chat on WhatsApp. Dottie is our neighbour, the same age as the Queen (and Sir David), currently shielding until she gets her second vaccination. Unable to sample any of the entries, she unhelpfully decrees they are all winners, which puts Frank into a sulk. Julien saves the day, and Frank’s mood, by unveiling his surprise gift to the household. He’s downloaded every series of Bake Off, a virtual box-set we can enjoy all year round.

Against my better judgement, and with Julien’s permission, I whistle Malcolm back into the kitchen to name the Star Baker for our first Pie Off. He’s now a sleek grey wolf with golden eyes. Okay, he’s getting closer, but I wouldn’t fancy him if he were the last canine on earth. I take Gemma’s hand and she squeezes mine back. Leaping onto the table Malcolm tentatively sniffs and licks each entry, then snatches up Frank’s “turkey with all the trimmings” pie and scarpers.

Gemma climbs onto a chair to crown Frank as the winner. The yellow paper hat, salvaged from a cracker, sits unevenly on his odd-shaped head. “Shame your ears don’t match,” she says, suppressing a laugh.  

Frank beams proudly. “Did I tell you that I once met Mary Shelley? Though she was known as Wollstonecraft Godwin at the time.”

In unison we shout: YES. Then pelt him with cranberries.

Later, we all cram into the lounge to begin a Bake Off binge. Frank brings out a plate of warmed mince pies. “This year I made my own mincemeat,” he boasts.

I notice how several of his fingertips are missing and advise Gemma that the pies may not be suitable for vegetarians. We also share the last chocolate orange, Gemma brought one for each of us but the others have mysteriously disappeared. Marlene refuses to confess when I quiz her about the four empty boxes in the recycling bin, it’s a good job she’s already dead as right now I could kill her. 

Everyone agrees the Pie Off has been a success. We may have begun a new annual tradition. Julien makes a round of snowballs, with a glacĂ© cherry hidden at the bottom as a final treat. Gemma and I exchange a shy smile that reassures me we have a future. Clinking our glasses together, our two households toast what is to come. Old habits aren’t necessarily good ones, it could be the perfect time for change. 

If you enjoyed this story then why not treat yourself to the original novella-in-flash ‘Hairy on the Inside’ featuring these characters. Available from Ad Hoc Fiction and Amazon

Thank you to all my readers and followers. LitPig and I would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a creative, healthy and happy 2022!