Please. Could you try not to make quite so much noise breathing? Thank you.
If you promise to sit very still, and stay very,very quiet, I’ll tell you a story.
We’ve just had a meeting down at the Vicarage to discuss this year’s Christmas festivities. The Reverend Ruskin always lays on a slap-up cold buffet because he knows that bribing people with free food and drink is the only certain way of getting their attention, co-opting them onto the Christmas Committee and keeping them there.
To help ease the pressure on the Vicarage finances he and Jazz persuade the more biddable amongst us to come along bearing food. I generally take salady stuff like coleslaw and sausage rolls, Mrs Fitt provides cake and scones and Maggie – who knows her limitations – nips down to the bakers to see what’s going cheap. Today it was Eccles cakes and slightly tired Jersey slices.
We were just setting the food out on the sideboard when Isobel from the Post Office arrived, bearing a large frosted glass bowl with cling film over the top. I’ve never seen a face light up as fast as Norman Ruskin’s did.
‘Isobel! Is that one of your wonderful trifles?’ He cooed, virtually running towards her. ‘Here – let me help you with it.’ Removing it – a little forcefully, I felt – from her mittened hands, he carried it to the sideboard in a manner which could only be described as reverential. ‘That really is too kind of you.’
‘Well I thought I’d make the effort, Vicar …’ She eyed the dying Jersey slices coldly. ‘I know how you like to keep a good table.’
‘Quite so. Quite so. Excellent …’ He rubbed his hands together. He actually rubbed his hands together. I didn’t think people really did that. ‘Well, if we’re all here we can start the meeting …’
‘Norman,’ said Jazz patiently, speaking as one would to a particularly dim five year old. ‘There are six more people on the Committee. They haven’t arrived yet, mostly because the meeting isn’t due to start for another 10 minutes.’
I looked at Maggie for an explanation. She leaned over to whisper in my ear. ‘Isobel makes exceedingly good trifles.’
‘That good? He’s virtually slobbering. It’s very un-Normanlike.’
‘Pretty good.’ She grinned. ‘She doesn’t stint on any of the ingredients.’
I wandered over to look at it under its plastic wrap. It appeared to be a perfectly ordinary, common or garden trifle. Norman came up behind me and gazed at it lovingly over my shoulder. I do hope he didn’t actually dribble on me. ‘Isobel makes such wonderful trifles …’
In due course, the other Committee members trickled in and we started the meeting just 5 minutes late, which must be some kind of record, given what monumentally casual timekeepers most of them are. I swear an autopsy on any one of them would find ‘Never put off till tomorrow what you can put off till a fortnight Thursday week’ engraved on their heart.
As the Minutes Secretary, it was my job to keep a record of proceedings. Really, I could just copy the minutes from the previous year, because nothing ever changes and everybody always says the same things, but I dutifully wrote it all down nevertheless: the usual arrangements for the stalls at the Christmas Fair, the carols for the community singing around the village Christmas tree, the procurement of said tree and the Pensioners’ Christmas Lunch.
‘You mustn’t call them pensioners,’ said Howard Benson. It was the first time anyone could ever remember him speaking in a meeting and it made us all jump.
‘What ARE we supposed to call them, Howard?’ asked Norman, who was the first to gather his wits.
‘Err ….’ He furrowed his brow as he thought – which for Howard is a short and uncomplicated process. ‘I’m not sure, but I know it’s not pensioners. It’s like what you have to call the binmen these days.’
‘Refuse Disposal Officers?’ Maggie skewered him with a gimlet eye. ‘We have to call pensioners Refuse Disposal Officers?’
‘That’s not what I meant.’ The poor bloke was looking so flustered, I felt a bit sorry for him … after all, he was the man who once told me that I had a comforting bosom. (True, he was high on borrowed painkillers at the time, but a girl’s got to take her compliments where she can find them.) I waded in to his defence.
‘I think Howard means Senior Citizens or something like that.’
Jazz turned to Mrs Fitt, who was one of the pensioners in question. ‘How would YOU like to be referred to, Mrs F?’
‘Well not as ‘that bad-tempered old bat’ – which is what he called me in the Drovers last week, according to Audrey.’
‘Tell you what,’ said Norman with forced brightness, shooting to his feet. ‘Let’s break for something to eat and come back to this fortified by cold cuts, tea and some of Isobel’s fine trifle …’
This, at least was passed unanimously and we downed notepads, pencils and cudgels to get stuck into the main attraction – the food.
As I was helping myself to a hard boiled egg and a few cherry tomatoes, I noticed that everyone else was ignoring the first course and going straight for the dessert. They were descending on Isobel’s trifle like a pack of hyenas. I had just resigned myself to the fact that I’d be the one eating the day-old Eccles cakes when Maggie emerged from the melee clutching two bowls.
‘I thought I’d better get you some trifle while there was still some there to get.’
‘Thank you.’ I took the bowl from her and looked at the contents curiously. ‘Ooh. Black cherry trifle. Lovely.’
Silence fell over the Vicarage as the Committee tucked into the buffet – punctuated only by the occasional chink of metal on china and the low murmur of Howard muttering sulkily to William Burdock about how he never called her any such thing.
First course finished, I picked up the trifle. It DID look lovely … and the first spoonful confirmed that looks were not deceptive. The custard and cream were just the right consistency, the jelly was made with real fruit and fruit juice, the sponge was beautifully moist and there was an interested kick of something alcoholic in it that I couldn’t quite identify, but which was delicious.
‘That really is good trifle,’ I said around a mouthful. ‘I’m not surprised Norman got a bit excited about it.’
Maggie nodded. ‘It’s Isobel’s signature dish, as they say on those poncy cookery programmes. Er … you don’t drink, do you?’
‘No. Haven’t done for years … but I don’t mind alcohol in food … I mean trifle without a bit of sherry or kirsch – isn’t really trifle, is it?’
‘No indeed.’ She had a strange look on her face, but said no more and just applied herself to her own bowlful.
About fifteen minutes later, sideboard cleared and dirty crockery transported to the kitchen, we all got ourselves a cup of coffee and reconvened the meeting.
Howard started by voicing his objections to what Mrs Fitt had said he called her – and as Norman did his oil-on-troubled–waters thing, I began to feel a little warm and slightly light headed.
Quite when I actually dozed off I have no idea. I’m told they’d been talking and agreeing matters for at least ten minutes before anyone realized that the Secretary was, in fact, snoring gently with her chin on her chest and her notepad discarded on her lap.
Norman called my name and I jerked awake. ‘What? Yes! Okay … Eh?’ My head was swimming. ‘Oh lord, I do feel odd … Isobel – what DID you put that trifle?’
‘Vodka.’ she said simply, in the tone of one who wouldn’t consider putting anything ELSE in trifle.
Maggie made no attempt to hide her disdain as she poured me another cup of coffee.
‘One bowl of trifle and you’re plastered. You lightweight.’