‘If I stabbed her to death with a butter knife, they’d understand, wouldn’t they? The courts, I mean …’
Mrs Fitt was clutching the weapon in question so tightly that her knuckles showed white, and the expression on her face wasn’t one you’d normally expect to find above a twinset and pearls – and certainly not a twinset and pearls being sported by one of the most placid women in the village.
‘Absolutely,’ I assured her as I attacked the next date and walnut loaf with a bread knife even more blunt than her butter knife. ‘Any right-minded jury would consider “She needed killing” as a perfectly acceptable defence – in the circumstances.’
The subject of our deliberations was standing, oblivious, at the cake stall, directly across from the servery hatch. She was arranging, wrapping and pricing the mountains of cakes, scones, batch bakes and cupcakes that had been produced for the Adverse Camber Christmas Fair by the volunteers Norman Ruskin had ruthlessly coerced through a combination of emotional blackmail and barter. Judging by the way her lips were moving – and the reaction of her fellow cake stall volunteers – she was singing along with the Christmas Party Favourites being blasted through the speakers on the stage. Her name was Marianne Hinchcliffe.
Every village has a Marianne Hinchcliffe : the eternally bubbly, eternally sweet-natured, eternally optimistic Pollyanna for whom everything is delightful and fun, and will all turn out for the best, after all worse things happen at sea and there are plenty more where that came from and you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? You know – the sort of person you hate yourself for finding tiresome because they’re so utterly dim and harmless, but that doesn’t alter the fact that you want to throttle them on a regular basis.
In order to save setting-up time on the actual morning of the Fair a group of us – including Marianne – had carefully carried all of the cakes for both the cake stall and the servery over to the village hall on the previous evening. We’d then spent a good hour and half displaying it, pricing it, covering the individual plates with cling film and then throwing a clean table cloth over the lot … so it could simply be uncovered in the morning when everything else was ready.
All had gone perfectly to plan and we were just on our way out of the door for a well-earned tea at the Vicarage when Marianne screamed ‘Mouse!’ and a small rodent hurtled across one corner of the Hall. She went in pursuit, but of course it had vanished completely by the time we all got there.
It didn’t take much imagination what sort of damage mice could do to the cakes, so Jazz Ruskin took an executive decision that we needed to pack all of the baked goods back into the boxes they came in, and stack them on the central table in the kitchen until morning.
Marianne, inevitably, said ‘The best plans of mice and men you know …’,
‘Schemes,’ I muttered darkly. ‘It’s best laid schemes.’
She giggled coyly. ‘Is it? Fancy that. Daddy always said “plans”. Well, I expect one of you is right.’
See what I mean about the throttling thing?
It was the next morning, as we were once more setting out the cakes – happily completely unmolested – that Marianne, positively bursting with her own cleverness, confessed that there had never been a mouse at all … just a wind-up one she’d sent across the room as a joke.
It’s quite difficult to describe the atmosphere in the kitchen as she revealed her jolly jape to Jazz Ruskin, Mrs Fitt and Yours Truly. It’s such a terrible cliché to say that you could have cut it with a knife, but you could – possibly even the very same butter knife with which Mrs Fitt was threatening such terrible violence.
Marianne – blessed with the hide of a rhino – was totally unaware of the effect her cheery revelation had on her audience and tripped off happily to irritate the other volunteers on the cake stall.
Which is where you came in …
Norman Ruskin, in full clerical glory, patrolled the Hall like a military commander reviewing his troops, tweaking a bit of tinsel here and a gaudily bedecked miniature Christmas tree there, rearranging the goods on the raffle to make them look more splendid than they actually were and examining the cake stall to earmark the ones he wanted put aside to buy for himself. He approached the servery hatch where Mrs Fitt and I were splitting and buttering the last of the scones and Jazz was cutting up batch bakes with millimetre precision.
‘All ready for the hungry and thirsty punters, Ladies?’
We all froze in unison and glowered at him.
‘Norman,’ said Jazz dangerously. ‘This is US you’re talking to, not the Mothers’ Union … now eff off and open the doors, there’s a good boy.’
So he effed off, a little crestfallen, to open the doors of the hall to admit the first fair-goers. Several of them had arrived very early and wandered nonchalantly in with the excuse that they couldn’t come later on so thought they’d just pop in ‘and buy a few raffle tickets and such just to support the community’. There were always people who tried that Jazz told me – hoping to get in before everyone else and grab the best bargains – and they always met with the same, charming rebuff from the Vicar.
‘I’m afraid we aren’t ready for customers yet, so if you’ll wait outside for a few more minutes, that would be just LOVELY.’
And strangely enough, when you finally opened the doors, those same people with ‘somewhere else to be’ would still be there.
‘Kwithmath wouldn’t be Kwithmath without the self-seeking gatecrashers,’ she assured me in a mock-husky little girl voice. ‘They’re part of the seasonal colour. Like robins, yule logs and stupid paper hats. Okay troops … brace yourself … here come the barbarian hordes ….’
Until you’ve seen the steely-eyed determination of Christmas Fair-goers in search of bargains, cheap homemade cakes, ham rolls and raffle prizes, you have not known terror.
They take no prisoners and give no quarter. Price tickets are mere invitations to haggle: How could we possibly want £5 for a handmade christening shawl ? … Didn’t we know that you can buy mince pies cheaper than that at the supermarket? … The tea and coffee at Nether Camber’s Christmas Fair last week was half that price, and you got a slice of cake thrown in for nothing … Nether Camber’s raffle prizes were so much better, and their tickets were cheaper, too … I know it’s a £1 stall, but that’s no reason not to accept an offer of 20p for that little lead crystal vase … That’s a very small cupcake … Have you got any soup? … Why don’t you have any soup? … You ought to have soup because Nether …
‘I don’t CARE what bloody Nether Camber did. WE HAVE NO SOUP!’
Released from my washing-up duties in the kitchen by a shift change, I was over at the Tombola stall buying tickets for things I didn’t want to win when I heard Mrs Fitt’s voice rising above Jingle Bell Rock and the general hubbub. Standing on tiptoe to peer over the heads of the people around me, I saw Jazz moving smoothly in to intervene at the servery hatch and a small mousey woman on the public side looking both startled and affronted.
‘Happens every year’ said a voice at my shoulder as the Vicar’s wife guided Mrs Fitt to a quiet corner to calm down. Glancing round, I found Maggie standing beside me.
‘Mrs Fitt going into meltdown. I think it’s the price she pays for being so quiet for the rest of the year. She’s not terribly good with people, you see … but she insists on being in the kitchen.’
‘She was seriously considering doing someone in with a butter knife earlier.’
‘Hidden depths. We all have them.’
‘Speaking of which, what are you doing here? You don’t normally grace village fundraisers with your presence.’
‘Cheap cakes. The lure is irresistible. But I usually buy a raffle ticket or two, just to show willing. Oh God.’ She was looking over at the raffle table. ‘The giant bride doll’s back.’
We walked together over to the raffle which was, indeed, dominated by a large and particularly ugly doll dressed in a badly hand-knitted bridal gown. I was sure I’d seen it before.
‘Wasn’t that doll in the raffle at the Summer Fete?’
‘Yes it was.’ Isobel, from the Post Office, was on raffle duty. ‘The winner redonated it, which as very good of them. Although curiously enough the previous winner redonated it, too …’
‘It was a raffle prize last Christmas, as well,’ explained Maggie with a completely straight face. ‘How many tickets do you want then?’
We finally managed to eject the last of the punters from the Hall at 3.30pm, after the raffle was drawn and most of the white elephant stall had been given away for virtually nothing. A few stragglers had loitered, hoping that the left over cakes would be similarly disposed off, but Norman Ruskin herded them out and brought the remnants of mince pies, chocolate brownes, flapjacks and chocolate rice crispies cakes to the table where we were all slumped.
The light outside was fading, Rod Stewart and Slade had been replaced on the speaker system by the choir of King’s College, and we all sat around in various states of exhaustion, unable to move or feel our legs below knee level.
Norman proferred a mince pie.
‘These are really good. I tried one and hid the rest.’
‘They’re the ones I made ….’
‘Congratulations. You make an excellent mince pie. Coming to the Watchnight Service on Christmas Eve?’
‘Are fully paid-up atheists welcome?’
Maggie snorted. ‘They let me in. It’s nice. We have a jolly good sing. I haven’t been struck by lightning yet.’
‘Do come,’ chipped in Jazz, pulling a brownie apart to investigate the gooey centre. ‘It’s a sort of tradition that our friends come around to ours afterwards for coffee, sherry and mince pies. Maggie and Alec always come and Adam … you’d be very welcome. Just don’t throw things at the altar or be audibly rude about the organist.’
‘Okay. I’ll come. I like a good sing.’ I looked up at the rapidly darkening skies outside the windows. ‘But now I’d better get home. Those dogs will be thinking I’ve abandoned them.’
‘Take them the last of the sausage rolls,’ suggested Maggie. ‘They’ll soon forgive you. And don’t forget your raffle prize.’
‘Actually, I’m redonating it …’
‘Oh no you aren’t,’ retorted Jazz, dragging herself determinedly to her aching feet. ‘I don’t care what you do with it, but I don’t ever want to see it again.’ She grabbed the giant bride doll and thrust it into my unwilling arms. ‘Happy Christmas from Adverse Camber.’
The Adverse Camber Diaries will be back in the New Year.
(Photo credit: Christmas Star, by Vicky Brock on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)