By Jude Bridge
Dressed in a bright yellow frock, unlined, and showing her knees, the newcomer posed with her first-prize winning Victoria Sponge for the local paper. Mavis noticed with spiteful pleasure that the young woman’s hem was trailing a thread of cotton and hoped that it would be visible in the photograph.
If this skinny usurper couldn’t keep her wardrobe in order, thought Mavis, grinding her teeth, how on earth had she managed to produce a cake that sat fully several millimeters higher than Mavis’s traditional recipe sponge? Had the tart from nowhere sifted her flour fifteen times? Unlikely, thought Mavis, she wouldn’t have the strength in those puny arms.
But the slice which the judges had cut looked absolutely perfect, so light that it practically floated off the plate. In contrast, Mavis’s effort sat lamely on its pedestal wearing the second-prize rosette, appearing to her eyes to visibly deflate as the photographer took photograph after photograph of the slovenly young brunette, clearly charmed.
The same photographer had taken one or perhaps two reluctant shots of Mavis with her first-prize winning Victoria Sponge every year for the last seven years. In the past, said photographer had always been downright disinterested in the Cakes, Biscuits and Scones Exhibit, always in a hurry to get to the cat judging, or the sheep shearing display, or the lavatory.
Yet now he’s asking the overblown daffodil to pose this way and that, just a couple more, if you don’t mind, no she doesn’t mind, got nothing else to do except smile and twirl around her spectacular cake.
And then, and then, to Mavis’s absolute mortification, the interloper in the poorly made dress invites Mavis to join her in a picture. The photographer’s nodding as though it’s the best idea he’s ever heard, his few strands of hair plastered to his head with excitement sweat.
The sunflower flings a tanned arm around Mavis’s shoulder, leaving her no choice but to be in the happy snap, leaning as far away from her own cake as possible, which, from the corner of her eye, looks like a slab of yellow mud. Beside the slim woman, Mavis feels enormous, like one of the pot-bellied milking cows in the Dairy Pavilion.
Moisture from the winner’s armpit warms Mavis’s back unpleasantly through her floral blouse. She makes a mental note to give the blouse a good soak when she gets home.
Mavis is wrong about the woman’s strength, she has Mavis firmly gripped.
‘I’m Summer,’ smiles the upstart.
Of course you are, thinks Mavis. ‘Mavis,’ she mumbles.
‘Isn’t this fabulous!’ trills Summer. ‘Have you entered this kind of thing before? It’s my first time.’
Mavis opens her mouth to answer that not only is she a seven times winner of the Victoria Sponge section, but also a respected member of the community, homemaker, mother, dressmaker, hospital volunteer and supplier of gingham-topped homemade jam and preserves to the local Gifte Shoppe in Carnakarra, and that’s just for starters, when a young man wearing a guitar appears in the wide doorway of the pavilion.
He is tall, dark and handy with his chords. Two more young men also wearing guitars up step sharply beside him. They play a fast and catchy introduction before launching into a passionate rendition of ‘Guantanamera’.
Summer points at the handsome man in the middle. ‘That’s my husband,’ she squeals. ‘Let’s salsa.’
She performs a few complicated steps and holds out her arms for Mavis to step into. The small crowd step back to give them dancing room. Mavis shakes her head as Summer shakes her hips.
Mavis does not salsa. Mavis does not drink, or smoke, or swear. Mavis does what is right, and what is expected. She walks briskly away from Summer and joins the crowd, seething inside, her face red with embarrassment.
A teenage girl joins Summer in the middle of the circle and together they storm up a salsa, stamping patterns on the wooden floor. Summer’s dress spins up around her thighs. The photographer clicks away.
Mavis has seen more than enough. The high standard of the Carnakarra Agricultural Show has been compromised. Salsa dancing and roving musicians in the Barton pavilion! What next! Strippers in the Craft Pavilion? Prostitutes giving pony rides?
She marches to the Administration Tent to talk to the Mayor, her friend, a neat, sensible woman who shares Mavis’s values.
‘She’s not here,’ says an underling. ‘She ran off to see the dancing in the Cake place. Never seen her move so fast. It’s going off over there – you should go see. Wish I could, but someone’s gotta stay here.’
Mavis lifts her chins, gulps air and heads to safety. The Menzies pavilion is exactly as it should be. Red checked tablecloths, real linen napkins, waitresses in white aprons, the Sampson family, the Creswells and the Taylors enjoying a Devonshire tea. Mavis nods hello and takes a table by herself. The waitress brings tea, jam, scones and thick, fresh cream. The scones are good, not quite as good as her own, but even hers pale in comparison with her mother’s scones.
With the mixture sweet in her mouth, she clearly sees the Golden Wattle Cookbook perched up against the kitchen wall, spine broken, pages askew, grease-spotted, Mum’s handwritten recipes on loose pieces of paper stuffed between the pages.
And there’s Mum, rolling out the scone dough, flour up to her elbows, glasses also slightly smeared, singing along with great gusto to the old radio. Seven-year-old Mavis sits on her stool, kicking her legs, humming along, waiting for the special time when she’s allowed to cut out the scone shapes. As well as the round scones, Mavis is allowed to cut out three heart-shaped scones with the heart-shaped cutter.
Mum dusts both their hands with flour, then they press down together on the dough, Mum’s hand over Mavis’s. Mum says “this is your heart” for the first one, then “this is my heart” for the second one and “this is Dad’s heart” for the third one.
Then, with strips of dough, they make an M for Mavis, an F for mum (Flossie) and an E for dad (Edward) and place the letters on top of the special scones before brushing them with milk.
When Dad comes in from the farm, he picks up Mavis’s heart, hot from the oven and says “this must be mine, it’s got an m for me on it” and Mavis laughs and Mum brings out the homemade jam and the cream and Dad says that these are the best scones he’s ever tasted and Mum says “it’s all in the way you cut them out” and Mavis feels very, very proud.
A tear dribbles down her powdered cheek and she lets it fall. She feels welded to the chair with a great, fat, heavy weight. When did I stop being happy? Mavis wonders. When did I become so rigid, when did I wrap myself in this emotional corset?
Pushing her scone aside, she puts her head on the table and cries. Cries for her parents, long dead, for her husband, dead at fifty, for the daughter she sees only once a year, and her grandchildren, tiny and soft and excitable and oh-so American, running out to meet her at the airport, little feet skidding on the shiny floor, faces uptilted, nothing else matters, all you big people better get out of the way, because we’re here to meet Grandma, from Australia.
And finally she cries for herself, for spending too much time worrying about what other people think, for being proper, and sensible and old, old, old before her time.
Mavis hears the chair opposite her being dragged out. She looks up, expecting to see one of the Sampsons or the Creswells or the Taylors. But it’s Summer.
‘Can’t you just leave me alone?’ says Mavis, dabbing at her eyes with the linen napkin. ‘I’m not here for your amusement. Go away.’
‘Is that what you thought? That I was making fun of you?’ asks Summer, her brow creased with concern. ‘Oh no, Mavis, no, that’s not it at all. I just thought that you could use a smile, or a touch, you looked so sad … you are sad …’
Summer put her hand over Mavis’s hand. Mavis almost draws back, but it’s been so long since anyone has touched her, since she’s felt the warmth of another person, the comfort of skin on skin, that she leaves her hand where it is.
‘I hope I didn’t embarrass you, in the Cake pavilion,’ says Summer. ‘And if so, I’m sorry. Now, is there anything you need?’
Mavis looks, really looks at Summer’s beautiful, earnest face, her dark eyes and the hand which covers her own, gently.
‘Yes, there are things I need,’ says Mavis. ‘I need my husband back, but that’s impossible, and I want to cook with my mother, but she’s gone too, and I want to see my grandchildren more, but they live in Chicago …’. She paused, untied the corset a little more. ‘But right now, Summer, I need a whiskey, I need to stop being so uptight, I even make myself sick sometimes, I need your husband to play that wonderful song again, I need to know how you made your cake, and I need to stop being me for a while.’
‘Easy,’ said Summer. ‘Anything else?’
‘Will you dance with me?’
And in the Menzies pavilion, watched by the Sampsons, and the Creswells, and the Taylors, all eating slightly inferior scones that are not heart-shaped, Mavis learns how to salsa in the strong, warm arms of the lovely Summer.