The kitchen resembled a bombsite. There was a fine layer of flour on every surface, Caster sugar and hundreds and thousands crunched underfoot, and the overflowing bin was spewing empty maragarine tubs and eggshells. The freshly painted ceiling was now liberally splattered with brown goo and the cat was licking the butter.
The Church Fund Raiser was due to start in under half an hour and i hadn't even changed yet. My wheedling pleas for the nieces to help clean up the mess, fell on deaf ears. They were both too busy gloating over the fruits of their labour and writing swirly labels to advertise their wares.
"Cho clit Browneys - £5 each." Abi had written in giant bright pink letters on a piece of A4 card.
"I think that might be a bit expensive for some people." i suggested,
"And erm, that's not how you spell chocolate. Here, i'll write it and you can copy it."
Abi shook her head and held the pen out of my reach.
"No, i want to keep it like it is. " she replied, cocking her head to one side and admiring her handi-work.
"It's very pretty." i agreed in a placatory tone, "but let's just change the spelling shall we?"
She looked up at me and blinked rapidly before sniffing, a sure sign of impending tears.
"Mummy says it doesn't matter about spelling as long as i try my best." she said in a small voice.
"And she's absolutely right. " i said, feeling like I'd kicked a puppy. "You're a very clever girl. Let's put it with all the other signs so we don't forget. YUM YUM!"
The door opened and Jasper came in for breakfast.
"Good gracious - you girls have been busy!" he exclaimed, admiring the delicious smelling goodies.
The girls giggled in delight as he helped himself to a piece of rice crispy cake.
"And what have we here?" he wondered aloud, pointing at a flowery tin.
"They're mine." piped up Abi proudly, handing him the placard.
I bent over the sink refusing to catch his eye.
"Hmm, they sound fascinating. What, may i ask, is the key ingredient?"
"CHOCLIT of course. Derrrrr!" sighed ABi, shaking her head.
"Ah, of course!" he tittered. "Silly old me."
Forty minutes later, we had loaded the trestle tables and cakes into the car and after collecting the eggs and topping up the geeses water, we set off. It was a beautiful day; the lane was flanked with wild daffodils whose vibrant heads swung merrily in the sun, and everywhere you looked, the trees and hedges were blossoming with the first signs of spring.
"Can you slow down a bit? My pen keeps slipping." said Abi, who was labelling the eggs with black felt tip "£2.50 per egg. Bargin!"
The village hall was bustling with activity when we arrived. The Organiser, Bunty Bealing, came scurrying over when she saw us arrive, clutching her pearls dramatically and fanning herself with her clip board.
"Jessica! I thought you'd never come!" she cried, looking at her watch.
"Now, off you go and set up, there's a dear. You're there next to the Tombola." she said bossily, propelling me across the hall with a firm shove.
The Colonel was already manning his table and taking furtive sips of gin from a perspex pint glass when he thought no one was looking, whilst half heartedly trying to prize open the rusty latch of the antiquated tombola with a screw driver.
He smiled fulsomely and waggled his moustache when he saw me approach.
"Morning Mrs Miller! How fortuitous to be pitched next to you and your goodies! What culinary delights have you made today?" he boomed, peering at the various tins and tupperware through his pince-nez.
"RICE CRISPIE CAKES!" he bellowed.
"FARM HOUSE SHORTBREAD - my favourite!"
I whipped the brownies out of sight just in the nick of time.
Twenty minutes later the doors opened to admit the public. There was the usual rugby scrum as people rushed at the tables to grab any bargains, avoiding eye contact as they used their elbows to joust each other out of the way. There was a minor altercation involving two elderly ladies and a pair of hideous floral cushions from the nearly new stall. Neither lady had realised that that the cushions were for sale as a pair, until they both attempted to buy them singly, at the same time, whereupon Bernard, the stall holder, a timid looking man afflicted with Tourettes , apologetically informed them of his mistake. The two old ladies eyeballed each other over the trestle table. Had they not been separated by a mound of bric-a-brac, there is little doubt that there would have been a scuffle. Gone were the sweet, stoop-backed misty-eyed old dears. It was clear from their puckered mouths, flared nostrils and clenched fists, that neither was leaving without the others cushion. I pitied poor Bernard, whose condition was compounded by stressful situations. His head was now twitching violently every few seconds, each spasm accompanied by a low keening sound.
The old ladies turned and glared at him expectantly as he jerked helplessly from side to side. They looked as though they were waiting for the punch line.
He stared back at them for a few seconds, growing redder and redder, before opening his mouth and bellowing "BUMSANDCOCKS!!" at the top of his voice.
There was a stunned silence. Hollie and Abi's were open mouthed as they turned to gauge my reaction.
The day was saved by the Vicar, who strode forward smiling broadly, and guided the chuntering old dears to the safety of the Home Produce Stall, on the pretext of enlisting their help to judge the Best Cake Competition. Within seconds, all thoughts of cushions had been forgotten. The noise and chatter resumed, and Bernard slumped on a stool mopping his sweating brow with a piece of kitchen roll whilst kindly old Mrs Holloway from Church cottage plied him with sweet tea and Garibaldi's.
The nieces finished laying out plates of cakes and biscuits on the gingham table cloth, and waited for the punters. Within five minutes, and to Abi's great delight, a friendly young couple had handed over a fiver for two of the "Bargin" eggs. Having persuaded her to drop the price of the brownies, she sold the lot within half an hour, accumulating a grand total of £15. Having counted it carefully into her Hello Kitty wallet, she toddled off to the Toy Stall to spend her loot.
The Fund raiser was a record breaking success. All morning, people called in, to spend money and donate things to sell. A constant stream of people turned up bearing cakes and biscuits for the table. No sooner had a cake been put on display, before it was sold.
By 2pm, things were starting to quieten down. I was counting up, when an angelic looking toddler with blonde ringlets ran up and gazed hungrily at the remaining batch of pink iced fairy cakes. I smiled and pushed the plate towards him.
"Would you like one?"
"Thankyou." He whispered shyly, and reached out to take one with an awestruck expression.
The cake was halfway to his open mouth when a short dark haired woman wearing a stetson appeared in the doorway. She stood on the threshold looking around with a supercilious expression, until she spotted the little boy.
"CRISPIN! " she squawked. Her Cow Boy boots clunked noisily against the wooden floorboards as she strode towards us, mean little eyes ablaze with anger.
"How dare you run off like that! Oh my GOD - Is that a cake?"
As little Crispin watched her approach, his crestfallen face suddenly assumed a look of defiance. He looked like an escaped convict cornered by the Police. He hesitated for a milli-second, before ramming the whole thing into his mouth. His cheeks bulged and crumbs spewed as he tried to chew.
The Mother looked aghast. From her reaction, you would have thought that her son was chomping on a fresh dog turd.
"NAY! NAY!" she squawked. "What have i told you about Junk food? BAD BAD BAD!"
Crispin swallowed and looked unrepentant.
I stepped forward, cringing slightly.
"I'm so sorry, it was my fault."
She threw me a brief, appraising glance, a faint but unmistakeable sneer playing at the corner of her mouth as she took in my scruffy ensemble ( faded jeans and battered jodpur boots), and mentally consigned me as non-PLU. (PEOPLE LIKE US)
I smiled and offered her a glass of squash. I certainly wasn't about to take offence at some jumped up short-arse dressed as a barrel racer.
At that moment, Mr Wilmot, the Church Warden, appeared and introduced himself.
"Hello! You must be the lady who has just moved into the Old Rectory." he beamed.
"Yup, that's me." she replied, briefly twitching the corners of her mouth into a smile which didn't reach her cold fishy eyes.
"Mummy, i'm hungry." whined little Crispin. He was gazing at Lily's Rice Crispy Cake, like a dickensian waif drooling over a suckling Pig.
"Alright sweedy. Hang on a sec." drawled CowBoy Woman. After a brief rummage in her Gucci tote, she produced a small tupperware box full of chopped raw veg.
Crispin stared balefully at the unappetizing contents, before nibbling dutifully on a carrot baton.
A harassed looking woman in her late forties entered the hall, pushing a pram with a sleeping new born baby. She waved at CBW and came over, fanning herself with the parish magazine.
"That's my little sister!" said Crispin proudly, pointing into the pram and tickling the baby under the chin.
"She's a pretty girl. How old is she?" i asked.
"Eight days." he replied, kicking a piece of raw broccoli under the table when his mother wasn't looking.
"Mummy and Daddy are going on holiday tomorrow for nearly three weeks" he continued.
"How exciting! Very brave of you to go abroad with such a young baby." i smiled at CBW.
"Erm, it's supposed to be a holiday?" sneered CBW.
I looked at her, confused.
"As in, Crispin and the Baby are staying here, with Nanny." she said slowly, as though explaining something to a cretin.
"Oh. Right." I didn't know what else to say.
"Nanny is going to London next week to see her brother, so Tracy is going to look after us for three days." said Crispin, stuffing a handful of spinach leaves down his underpants. His Mother had her back turned and was fiddling with her mobile phone.
"Tracey is the new cleaner." volunteered The Nanny as she undid the baby's sleepsuit to change the nappy.
"Oh. Right." i said again.
The baby began to scream.
CBW dropped her phone back in her bag and turned to the Nanny, who was soothing the wailing infant with one hand, and trying to prepare a bottle with the other. CBW yawned loudly and checked the angle of her stetson in a compact mirror.
"Right, you can walk back with the pram Nanny, it does the baby good to get some fresh air, and i'm so exhausted at the moment. I need to get home and have a long relaxing bath before James gets back tonight."
I looked down at Nannys worn slip-ons, and the blisters forming on her heels. The Rectory was two miles away, mostly up hill. She looked worn out, but she nodded wearily and slung the heavy changing bag over her shoulder, preparing for the long trudge home.
CBW didn't bother to say goodbye. She was halfway to the door when she turned back to Nanny and called
"By the way, we'll have lamb tonight. There's a leg in the fridge and plenty of veg in the garden. You'll need to go into town when you get home because there's a case of wine to be collected from Majestic, and we're out of red currant jelly and a few other things. I'll leave a list on the table. Oh, and Nanny, please don't burn the roast potatoes again..."