In January, when snowdrop tips burst through the solid earth and frost fringes branch and bough, when Christmas merriment is done and the last mince pie is swallowed down, folk are drawn to making New Year’s resolutions.
Mine were too numerous to name but generally centred on eating less and exercising more. With the latter in mind, I decided I would begin the day with a brisk walk to the local post office to fetch the morning paper. An advertisement in the steamed-up window caught my eye.
Is the credit crunch biting?
Are you planning to cook more from scratch this year?
Then join the cake-making course with local chef, Harry Tretower.
Starts Monday evening at 6pm in the village hall.
Well, well I thought to myself. The celebrity chef wants to give something back to the community. Perhaps a baking course doesn’t constitute ‘eating less’ but in times of financial drought such as these, self-sufficiency is an equally admirable aim. A very worthwhile resolution – less waste, more cooking from fresh produce. Very noble indeed. It couldn’t harm to wander down and meet the chef in person. He had moved to the village a year ago and lived behind electric fences which only seemed to open for his odd foray to the recording studio or when the TV crews galloped in to record the latest episode of ‘At home with Harry’. I was tempted by the chance to see the TV demigod up close. Gossip had been rife but few ever got to see him in person.
Monday evening came around and I headed for the village hall. There hadn’t been a contact number to call to reserve a place and I didn’t know what you take to a baking course, so I just took myself. Opening the door, you’ll never believe who had also turned up.
The Peer was sitting on a wooden chair, his belly bulging over his tweed suit trousers. He looked in danger of breaking the chair legs as he leant heavily on his ram’s head walking stick, his bottom better used to a fine, leather armchair and a roaring fire. Was it a Churchillian look of stoicism or a bad case of gout reflected in his face? He certainly looked in need of a cigar and a glass of whiskey but the village hall only stretched to tea from an ancient urn which was already whistling in the background. His thinning, wispy, grey hair had been thoroughly ruffled by his flat cap, now nestling on his knee like a favoured pet. He lived life by his family motto, vincit veritas – and truth can indeed conquer most things apart from the bailiffs banging on the door.
He was muttering something to The Newspaper Boy, a thin, lanky, gaunt boy with pale hair and blue eyes who’d fought off fierce competition to secure the local paper-round from the newsagent. He had the power to win over any guard dog, cat or tortoise with those hypnotic eyes. Quite the entrepreneur, he managed to combine the paper round with flyer dropping for the local business park – killing two birds with one stone, he counted the pennies at night and hoped the pounds would take care of themselves.
The Investment Banker was also one to see pound signs in front of his eyes. He had tasted success and got drunk on it. A penthouse flat in London and a cottage in the country. Did he care if he pushed the housing market up for the locals? Not when he justified it as a type of community service bringing money to the region. The sports car would have been parked outside tonight but since the downturn he had had to sell it. He had noticed the dates were becoming less frequent too, but, if all other options failed, he had his eyes on the buxom nurse who lived next door. She was his bound to accept him, wouldn’t she?
I had noticed The Yummy Mummy’s 4×4 half blocking the road outside and there she was, stick thin, perched on the edge of a seat like a tiny bird, huge sunglasses, almost disappearing into her over-sized Prada handbag. She’d asked Range Rover for a special bolster cushion to see over the steering wheel, for all the help it did. Rummaging around the glove compartment for a lipstick or her mobile was more important than obeying the rules of the road. She would have had baby sick on her new chiffon blouse if the nanny didn’t deal with all that. Her husband was big in latrines or something to do with plumbing – she always tried to forget that their fortune had been made from funneling s***, but that would be uncouth of me to say.
The Vicar was setting out brown cups and saucers on a trestle table. A young, rather good-looking fellow, dark hair, fine eyes and tall stature – he had put new life into the community and had increased numbers at Sunday worship. He would have been a dream for the parish council, except for the fact that he was as yet unmarried. The village twittered with excitement about the prospect of a wedding on the horizon and the vicar looked very desirous of pleasing but surely had his own reasons for failing to set the church bells peeling.
Then there was The Gardener of course. With muddy fingers, ruddy cheeks and his scraggy clothes, he could have scared away his own crows. First prize in the marrows, outstanding in the roots and an honourable mention in the brassicas was last year’s haul at the village fruit and veg show. He wouldn’t have dreamed of injecting water into his pumpkins or cucumbers to make them grow, so it must be something in his soil that produces such large and bulging gourds.
The Magistrate was a well-dressed, upright member of the community, if ever there was one. She would tell people off on the bus for playing their i-pods too loudly and rightly so if you ask me. An avid Agatha Christie fan and a Daily Mail reader, if you came up for trial in one of her courts, you could be sure of an unbiased verdict.
Right in the corner was The Old Sea Dog, the captain. Weathered and bearded, you’d find him propping up the bar at the Coach and Horses of an evening and he’ll always have a tale to tell. If he’d faced as many storms at sea as he made out, he would have been carried off to his maker many years ago. What he hasn’t seen, you can’t even imagine. He would swear blind he had seen sirens, serpents and mermaids in the village pond as he staggers home.
The Captain was already deep in conversation with the star himself, Harry Tretower, The Celebrity Chef – definitely shorter and older in person than the TV suggests and a stronger West Country accent than he lets slip out on his prog. With long hair swept back off his face, he had a rather Gallic looking nose, which maybe gave him the authority for gastronomy. I realised why the camera always went for the full frontal shot, when he turned to one side to smile at The MPs Wife.
Slick and flawless, she had had her own moment of fame with her husband’s minor indiscretion with a secretary from Dorking. She stood by him while the cameras were rolling and was no doubt set to remain faithful, just as long as his place was secure in Parliament. She had been on some minor chat shows and there was talk she might appear on ‘Celebrity High Jinx!’, but if truth be told she was further down the wanted list than the women who taught dogs to dance on ‘My Neighbour’s A Superstar’
I wondered why The WI Lady need show her face. With the accolade of having the lightest sponge in the village, she was as airy fairy as one of her cakes. She spent a year choosing between duck egg and cloud blue for her new front door. She could turn a heel for the boys in Afghanistan and knitted tea cosies like they were going out of fashion, or maybe I’m mistaken and they might actually be hats.
Now as a rule, I wouldn’t trust a female doctor, but our local physician was so frugal with the NHS’ coffers, you could die from begging for antibiotics. The Doctor’s diagnoses were always spot on though – I went in once for what I was sure was athlete’s foot and came out with some herbal remedies for a sore throat I never realised I had.
You might wonder how I know the aforementioned crew so well and all I can say is that when you live in a village, people talk. That such an unlikely band had gathered for a cake-making course is perhaps a surprise, but in the village of Marlington, these folk would be what you call run-of-the-mill.
With everyone settled with a teacup in hand, we waited for the great man to begin, to impart some words of wisdom that would unlock the secret of how to bake. The lack of ingredients and more than one working oven in the tiny village hall kitchen were gradually being noted and it slowly dawned on the assembled group that we weren’t going to walk out of the evening with a freshly baked cake. The stack of books showing Harry’s face might have given us a clearer idea of just how Harry intended to impart his wisdom that evening and accrue some more money into his off shore bank account.
The Peer piped up as the local photographer captured Harry beaming in front of a beautifully manicured Victoria sponge.
‘When are we going to begin the lesson?’
‘I wanted to demonstrate just how much you all know already,’ The Celebrity Chef began. ‘I thought each week you could take it in turns to introduce the group to a cake recipe and teach it to the rest of the class.’
‘But you’re the expert,’ said The WI Lady looking very confused.
‘You’re all experts. And to spice things up, I’m going to ask you to tell a story to go along with your recipe. It can be true, or made up, connected to the recipe or maybe an ingredient in the cake.’
‘We’re here to learn about baking, not tell stories,’ replied The Investment Banker.
‘Open your minds, I don’t need to stand here and lecture to you. Trust me, this is the way to teach these days. It’s like discovering a new land. Isn’t it better to find Newfoundland yourself, rather than hear about it from someone else? Find the recipes and the stories behind these recipes within yourself.’
Well I was set to give him a few choice words, as were a number of us. But then the Peer suddenly burst out in approval at such a superlative and innovative idea. None of us wanted to sound narrow-minded at this new style of tuition, so we all rather meekly went along.
And it was The Peer who said he would be the first to take up the challenge to devise a recipe and tell a story at the next session.
‘Well, what will it be about?’ asked The MP’s Wife. ‘Are you going to give us a tale from The House of Lords? Should I be shaking in my boots in case you reveal something about my husband?’ she said, trying to sound ever so knowing and accepting.
‘I wouldn’t worry about that, darling. After all the newspaper publicity surrounding your husband, I doubt there is anything left to tell,’ The Doctor retorted sharply.
The two women eyed each other cautiously, like two lionesses circling around each other.
‘I don’t think you’ve a right to comment about my husband’s affairs, Doctor, when the creative accounting that goes on at your surgery might be of interest to the local hacks. And the salaries you GPs get is verging on scandalous.’
‘Your husband’s affairs – well we all know what kind of affairs those are,’ replied The Doctor.
‘Ladies, ladies, please, no one should worry about any scandals being revealed,’ The Peer interjected. ‘My story is one of a higher order. My recipe is Marmalade cake, made from that wondrous confiture which has graced the Englishman’s breakfast table for over two hundred years. Strange, since oranges are hardly native to this isle. Perhaps that is why the condiment has become such a favourite.’
‘Perfect, thank you Peer, I knew I could trust you,’ The Celebrity Chef jumped in before anyone else could say anything. ‘You’ll be the first to share your recipe and tale next week. I look forward to seeing you then. Let’s use the rest of this week as an informal ‘getting to know you’ session. Just let me tell you that as you leave this evening, you can purchase my book on your way out for a very reasonably reduced rate of £19.99.’
This is the latest draft of a story idea I’ve been working on so it is still a little rough and ready and may have some typos. I hope Chaucer can forgive me!
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