The Cherry Cake (UG)

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All day long this feeling of trepidation kept on creeping up on me and I would have to stop and think why. It was, of course, tomorrow that was on my mind. It had been decided, at the last Committee Meeting of the Young Wives Group, that it should be my turn to entertain the members at the monthly Coffee Morning.

Normally we met at the large detached residence of our President - Mrs. Gwendoline Pearson-Smythe. But every now and then the other Young Wives were given the chance to prove themselves.

At Mrs. Pearson-Smythe's house we sipped our percolated coffee from her Royal Worcester coffee cups and took the delicately decorated petit fours from her solid silver cake plates. Afterwards, if the weather was clement, we would tour her superb gardens - the rose arbours, herbacious borders and croquet lawn.

Tomorrow though, they would be drinking their instant coffee from my odd assortment of supermarket cups and mugs and if they really wanted to see the garden they would only have to stand, cheek by jowl, on the handkerchief square that is the lawn to see the entire thirty five square yards of it.

Still, I was really going to town on the cooking. I was doing all the things that usually turn out well - the walnut butter cookies, the apple Danish pastries, the tiny meringues filled with fresh cream and the little chicken vol-au-vents. I have to say that I am really quite a good cook and to my surprise, everything was going really well. Usually, when I want things to be special, everything goes wrong. But today the puff pastry had puffed to its full extent, the vol-au-vents had even risen in a straight line and didn't look like the leaning Tower of Pisa; the meringues where as white as the driven snow and the Danish pastries were light and delicious looking. Everything was going so well that there was absolutely no reason for my apprehension.

The star attraction though was to be Lily's cherry cake. Lily comes in for a couple of hours each week to help me sort out the mess that we all get ourselves into and she bakes these simply fantastic cherry cakes. The cake is all crumbly and light and the fat, luscious cherries nestle invitingly amongst it. When I try to imitate this, the cherries tend to lie dejectedly in a thick layer beneath a heavy and soggy cake.

I had cleaned the house from top to bottom - I could see my face in the furniture, it gleamed so, and I had even eliminated the cobwebs, which usually festoon the tops of the curtain rails like dusty Christmas decorations.

Then I had moved outside and mowed the mini-lawn, searched out every last weed that lurked in the flower beds and cut off all the dead flower heads until you would have thought that Alan Titchmarsh himself had been working out there for a week.

If I had a coffee morning every week it would always look this, I thought, but I'd be dead inside a month from the stress and strain of it all.

"Oooh, you've cut the grass" the kids yelled as they burst in through the back door, dropping their bags, cardigans and sandals in a line on the kitchen floor, and trooped through to the lounge where they immediately switched on the television.

"Come and pick all this stuff up" I yelled after them, but, as usual they had become suddenly profoundly deaf. "Don't know why I bother" I mumbled to myself. No good mumbling it to anyone else, because I am the only one who listens.

Ray was in a jolly mood when he arrived home:

"Oh, sorry I thought this was number five, I must have taken a wrong turning."

"Oh, ha, ha" I groaned. "Is it so unusual for the house to be tidy?"

"Yes. Who's coming then, the Queen?"

By about 10.30 I had finally finished putting all the finishing touches to the cooking and flopped, exhaused, into bed beside Ray. He gently ruffled my hair.

"You shouldn't go to so much trouble you know. I bet you only get a biscuit from the others."

"Oh, you'd be surprised - anyway Mrs. Pearson-Smythe is coming, I can't give her a biscuit."

"Give the old snob a rock cake and choke her."

"You don't even know her." I punched him gently in the ribs and we giggled and put out the bedside lights. It was ages before I finally fell asleep though, with meringues and vol-au-vents tripping lightly round my troubled mind.

Wednesday dawned hot and sunny and I looked down from the bedroom window at the neat garden. Breakfast was the usual shouting and punching match between the children and I was far from sorry when they had gone off to school leaving me alone to carry on with my preparations. I did the lounge again - vacuuming the carpet twice just to make sure. I even delved into the armchairs to ensure that Mrs. Pearson-Smythe didn't sit down on a bit of Lego. Those little bits can be murderously sharp if you happen to sit down a bit heavily on them - and Mrs. Pearson-Smythe is a little on the heavy side.

Bowls of flowers are what it needs, I thought as I stood back to survey my handiwork, and armed with my scissors I went out into the sunny, scented morning. I sometimes think that roses don't want you to cut off their heads, and who can blame them? They certainly put up a fight that morning and I was somewhat battle scarred as I arranged them in bowls with the sweetly scented stocks. The fight was worth it though, they smelled heavenly and the aroma of roses and stocks engulfed the whole room, even wafting out into the hall.

Lily rang the bell at 10.00 a.m. as usual, but today she had a large airtight tin with her and inside was the newly-baked cherry cake.

"Come on in Lily, everything seems to be going well" I said, conversationally. She just grunted - never said much didn't Lily. A whizz with a vacuum cleaner, but the strong, silent type. She just hung up her cardigan, said "Bedrooms" and disappeared up the stairs.

In the kitchen I laid all the food out on doiley covered plates and when I had finished I stood back to admire it all. It really did look good. Even the weird assortment of cups didn't look too bad. Now for the cherry cake.

"Can I cut up the cake Lily?" I yelled up the stairs to her. She grunted, in the affirmative I think, and I went back to the kitchen and cut it up anyway. I cut it into sixteen neat slices but left it in the centre of the plate. It looked a dream - golden brown and lightly dusted with caster sugar. Inside, as usual the fat, juicy cherries were all evenly distributed through the crumbly cake. I had to fight hard to stop myself from biting a chunk out of one of the slices. Instead I licked my finger and gathered up the crumbs which had spilled onto the work top. Mmmmm, gorgeous.

I had just finished putting everything out when Judy, my friend from next door, rapped on the window and let herself in through the back door. She was all ready for the meeting and looked cool in a white sun dress. Her long dark hair was tied back with a piece of material the same as the dress.

"Wow!" she exclaimed "that all looks smashing - should impress old Pearson-Smythe."

"I didn't do it to impress her" I lied, but she could see through my protestations and just grinned at me. "Well you know what a show she puts on" I finished, lamely.

"I certainly do" said Judy "and when they ask me to have a Coffee Morning I shall refuse!"

Suddenly, Mrs. Pearson-Smythe's Jaguar was at the gate and the Young Wives had begun to arrive. They were all very sweet, saying how nice the house was and how neat the garden was and what beautiful flowers.

The meeting was short and to the point; Mrs. Pearson-Smythe, looking a trifle over-dressed in a floral chiffon, flowing affair and matching turban-style hat, talked about the next jumble sale. We all groaned inwardly at the thought of walking the streets collecting jumble again, only to bring it home and burn most of it before we started! She thanked me for my hospitality and then Judy and I went out to make the coffee. Judy took the plates in and Lily came down to help us to hand the food round.

From the kitchen I could hear the "Ooohs" and "Aaahs" as they saw the pastries and meringues and things. When I got back with the coffee Sue Price came up to ask how I managed to make such a gorgeous cherry cake without the cherries sinking to the bottom. "You must let me have the recipe" she said.

"Oooh cherry cake" Mrs. Pearson-Smythe's grey-green eyes lit up and her plump jowls wobbled in anticipation "May I have a slice please - it's my very favourite".

"Of course." I handed her a slice and she moved over a vol-au-vent and a meringue to make room for it on her plate. I wanted to say I had made it but I confessed to them that all the credit must go to Lily.

"How on earth do you do it Lily?" Sue persisted. "When I make cherry cake all the cherries sink to the bottom - how do you stop them from doing that?"

Everyone rhubarb rhubarbed and it was clear that they all had the same problem with their cherries. I too was interested to know how she did it but I had never thought to ask her before.

Well, Lily really came into her own then. She stood in the centre of the room and made like Delia doing a cookery demonstration in her posh conservatory. Waving her plump red arms about and really living the making of her famous cherry cake. "Well you creams yer marge and yer sugar together, same as usual" she said, her rosy cheeks glowing. I'd never heard her say so much in my whole life. She was really enjoying herself, standing there with such a large captive audience. And then she really got into her stride.

"Then you adds yer eggs - nice and slow like, so's they don't curdle. Next you sieves in yer flour. But the real secret is when you adds yer cherries. Reason they all sinks to the bottom, see, is 'cause they're all covered in that sticky stuff. That's what makes 'em sink, all that sticky stuff! So you 'aves to get that sticky stuff orft first. What I do is. I just picks up each cherry and I sucks all that sticky stuff orft before I adds 'em to the mixture!"

She held up an imaginary cherry in her fat fingers and pretended to suck off the syrup, making the most unbelievable slurping noises.

The room was silent for a moment - some of the Young Wives had turned pale and others were giggling helplessly behind their hands. Then there was a loud thump from behind me. I turned to look at the rumpled floral chiffon and turban, which was askew over one grey-green eye. Two fat legs which had been up in the air, came to rest on my carpet with a dull 'thud, thud'. Mrs. Pearson-Smythe had fainted.

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