Once Upon A Time in the West . . . Country (5 page)

BOOK: Once Upon A Time in the West . . . Country
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Unbeknownst to me, Fran had ‘volunteered’ me to bake a cake when one of the ‘fête committee’ members had called round to our house asking us to donate books and buy raffle tickets. We were now a few weeks into our new life here and at the end of the arduous but ultimately satisfying period of unpacking and creating order in our new home, which we couldn’t have done without neighbour Ken. He’d helped me carry furniture from room to room, he’d fitted the washing machine, and he’d lent me countless tools (and then showed me how they worked when I’d got stuck). Fran looked on in wonder as I mounted shelves the wrong way up, and erected bookcases that fell down (pulling sections of the wall with them). Each time Ken happily rectified the situation in a kindly, avuncular way – and all the time I kidded myself that I was a man who could get things done without recourse to handymen and professionals. However, I made no such claims in the culinary department.

‘But I’ve never cooked a cake before,’ I protested to Fran, when she explained to me about my future baking commitments.

‘It’s easy,’ said Fran. ‘We want to make a good impression and show willing, don’t we? I’m doing one. You should do one, too. Just follow the instructions in the recipe book.’

Indeed, this is what a lot of cooking is: following instructions. However, the cook must be careful not to deliver the line of the Nazi war criminal serving up their fare to a guest:

‘I was only following instructions.’

I’m not comparing cake preparation with death camps. There are significant differences – not least the amount of eggs and sugar in each – but hidden within the respective processes there is a certain amount of obedience required. The truly creative, rebel cake-maker has the potential to make a name for him or herself, but the experimentation will almost certainly require a number of failures along the way. No such luxury for me. I had fête committee members to please, and I wanted this cake to be OK. Not brilliant. Not outstanding. Not sumptuous. Just OK.

The next two hours saw me doing all sorts of things I’d really only ever witnessed from a careful distance in the past. When cakes had been made by my mother, I had learned that close observation could lead to being hauled in as an assistant, or ‘sous chef’. Now here I was, doing all of it myself. It seemed to involve an inordinate amount of whisking, measuring, and adding sugar. Boy, so
much
sugar. No pun intended here, but there was something distinctly unsavoury about tipping a huge measure of sugar into a bowl and then mixing it in. Why had no one ever told me that cakes had this much sugar in them?

I laboured on, frustrated by the size of the task, thinking to myself, is this what people have to do
, every
time they make a cake? Finally, having concentrated hard for well over ninety minutes, and not having experienced any disasters, I reached the easy bit. I put my unbaked cake into the oven, sat in the garden for an hour, and ‘hey presto’, I’d made myself an OK cake.

‘What do you think?’ I asked Fran, holding the finished product under her nose.

‘It looks OK.’

Hurrah.

***

The day of the fête, 13 July 2013, was a very hot day in Britain. After a series of rather hopeless summers, the UK was experiencing a heatwave that many were comparing to the one we’d had in 1976. The British, playfully lambasted by foreigners as being a nation who discuss the weather conditions relentlessly, were reverting to type. The general verdict, as gleaned from short exchanges on the streets and in shops, was that it was currently
too hot.

It’s not so much that the British discuss the weather, it’s that they complain about it. To them, the weather is like Tim Henman or Andy Murray. There’s always something wrong with it. It’s never quite right. In the case of Tim Henman, he was
too nice
, and Andy Murray – well, he wasn’t nice enough (although winning the Olympics and Wimbledon has possibly now placed him above this criticism).

‘That’ll be one pound each,’ said one of the four elderly men who were manning the trestle table at the entrance to the field where the fête was being held.

Four men seemed a lot for this role, but I assumed they were there for security. Significant sums of money could change hands at this location and any potential burglar would be deterred by the possibility of four octogenarians shouting ‘Oi!’ as they ran off with their sack of pound coins. Unfortunately for the village, the sack would be lighter than all had hoped. The third man told us that numbers were down this year.

‘It’s too hot,’ explained Man 2.

‘Martha told me that on the news they said it’s going to be thirty-two degrees today,’ announced Man 3 proudly, ‘and they said five hundred people would die today because of the heat. That’s why she’s not coming to the fête.’

Suddenly everything changed. What was supposed to be a leisurely afternoon had become a dangerous sport. Would we survive?

I clutched my ‘OK’ cake to my heart and walked past the men, hoping that they weren’t St Peter and three gate-keepers, and that this fête wasn’t my fate. The image of a gravestone flashed before me.

 

HERE LIES TONY HAWKS

WHO COLLAPSED

DURING HIS FIFTH GO ON THE COCONUT SHY

IT WAS HIS OWN FAULT

HE
WOULD
LIVE LIFE ON THE EDGE

 

We climbed a short incline and entered the main field, where an array of different stalls awaited us. Despite what the old man had said, a healthy number of people had taken their lives into their hands, and were happily milling about. They’d even risked their children, too, such was their reckless addiction to this English summer tradition. Bunting abounded, enthusiastic volunteers manned stalls, and the rest of us wandered about with an insouciant aimlessness.

I found myself feeling a little nervous. Was it because I wasn’t sure how my cake would be received? Or was it because these kinds of events were always an opportunity to let yourself down badly? After all, I had a painful memory from a village fête. A scar even.

As an eighteen-year-old I’d been invited by some friends to attend a village fête just outside Lewes in Sussex. It had been a beautiful summer’s day (a reasonable temperature with fewer deaths predicted) and after only a short meander around the fête’s stalls we’d ended up in the beer tent, where I’d been bought a pint of some real ale or other, no doubt with a ridiculous name like Spruggles or Chattlespeare. A teacher from my school had introduced me to the local vicar, who clearly relished the opportunity to welcome one of the younger attendees at a function that traditionally attracted an older clientele. The conversation, at least from my end, had not been an easy one.

Talking to clergymen isn’t easy, especially for young men who think about little outside the realm of sinning. As I stared at his clerical dog collar, I became acutely aware of how regularly I devoted time to the consideration of having sex before marriage. Should I confess this to him, or should I continue with the inconsequential exchange on which we had both now embarked? In the event, a wasp intervened and the question became irrelevant.

I’ve always been afraid of wasps, having experienced an extremely painful sting as a ten-year-old. Now, just as I was about to answer the vicar’s question about what A levels I was taking, there was a sudden swoop down by this amber assailant, and I began to panic. I swung at the wasp with my free hand, but to no avail. The air-strike continued unabated, and when my attacker moved in towards my face, I lost all sense of reason and control.

Instinctively, I pushed out with both arms in the direction of this invasive flash of yellow and black. A second later the wasp was gone, and so was all hope of continuing the polite conversation with the vicar. Quite unintentionally, I had, with some considerable force, thrown a pint of real ale full into his face. He frowned, brushed down his clerical shirt, and with Spruggles (or Chattlespeare) still dripping from his nose, he headed off for the relative safety of a group of older ladies. To this day, I feel sure that he has never spoken to a group of teenagers again, and that the incident may even have rocked his very faith itself. After all, why would a loving God have allowed such a thing to happen?

Just as this painful memory was threatening to overwhelm me, a voice restored a sense of reality.

‘That looks like a very nice cake!’

It was the voice of Karen, the village fête committee member whose house call had instigated this gastronomic, sugary delight. Karen beckoned us over to the cake stall, took my cake with a perfunctory thank you, and unceremoniously labelled it at £2.50. She did exactly the same with Fran’s cake, which immediately sold to a family of four who had been eyeing everything else on display. Mine, it seemed, had a less obvious quality. It was more for the connoisseur. It was a niche cake and would have to wait to find its buyer.

Free of the responsibility of not dropping my cake, only now did I begin to survey the scene around me in any detail. The small field was dotted with stalls, all actively manned by eager volunteers. One thing seemed to unify them – the requirement of the punter to cough up some money if they wanted to play anything. This seemed a little churlish. After all, hadn’t we already bought raffle tickets, donated books and cakes, and paid an admission fee? Since I didn’t yet know where the profits of this event were going to go, I was beginning to resent paying a pound to try and throw some hoops, or take a shy at a coconut. It wasn’t as if the prizes were that appealing.

But then they never are. To me, this is the mystery of the British funfair or fête. Here’s the deal on offer, at least as far as I can fathom:

You give me £1 for the privilege of trying to do something that is almost impossible to do, with the incentive of winning something that you don’t want, and probably isn’t even worth
£1
anyway.

It wasn’t an offer I couldn’t refuse, and despite the plaintive calls of eager volunteers for me to participate, I made polite refusals and headed for the bric-a-brac stall. Here, I redeemed myself by buying an antique douche pan for £2. I couldn’t resist it. I didn’t mind that I’d spend the rest of the fête carrying what looked like a portable toilet around with me, a bargain is a bargain, and I’d be laughing if there was an overly long queue for the portaloos.

A five-piece band started up, playing a kind of easy-listening jazz, and made up of what looked like four teenage lads and one of their dads. Fran and I sat on some deckchairs that had been placed before the little tent they were performing in. They were doing a good job, and we applauded politely after each song, something that seemed to embarrass them slightly. When they took a break, I turned to Fran.

‘We’re not meeting very many people, are we?’

‘Not really. You kind of need to know people a bit already at events like this. There’s nothing really enabling people to mix together. At the moment, anyway.’

‘Does seem that way.’

‘You carrying a portable toilet around with you may not be helping. Shall we go?’

‘Yes, I think so. It’s too hot. No point in risking our lives any further.’

As we walked home, I wondered if I’d been spoiled by the fêtes I had attended in France.
2
Over there, the village fête centres around a meal for the villagers. Yes, you paid for it, but it was good value and at least you got something back for your money, and it created a wonderful opportunity for everyone to get together, share stories and put on weight.

‘I think that fête could benefit from some innovative ideas,’ I said to Fran, as we settled into the comfy chairs of our relatively cool living room.

‘Well, you should get yourself on the village fête committee then.’

‘What?’

‘You heard.’

Darn it. Fran had a point. Instead of being gently critical, maybe I needed to get involved. But did I really want to get
that
involved with village life? I swiftly changed the subject.

‘I hope my cake sold. I’m not sure she put it in the best position to catch someone’s eye.’

I looked up to see that Fran had fallen asleep in her chair.

Goodness, I thought, I must be getting dull.

3

Slugging It Out

 

 

 

 

BOOK: Once Upon A Time in the West . . . Country
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