Farley cocked his head to the right, staring wide-eyed up at Lavinia who stood very still in the middle of her kitchen, transfixed by her pantry door. Raising himself onto four paws, he gave a tiny whimper, followed by a little bark. Lavinia turned to face her furry companion, her expression one of gratitude as the previous day’s events flashed through her memory. Lavinia absent-mindedly tousled Farley's ears and turned back to her pantry, while the Norwich terrier bounced out of the kitchen. His oversized pastel blue-collar clinking with the rhythm of his trot.
In the process of making Malcolm, her husbands, breakfast, a realisation had flushed over Lavinia that had almost made her sick. Slowly, the memory of something that she couldn't believe she had forgotten yesterday drifted back to her. With apprehension, she moved to her pantry, opened the door, and, without looking, clicked the beaded metal cord that hung inside. The naked bulb illuminated the towering shelves of spices and raw ingredients, as well as the small jars that hung on the rack on the inside of the door. "Second shelf down," she whispered to herself, near the right-hand side, next to the ginger, that's where it should have been. She'd looked there yesterday, it's absence causing a sequence of events she couldn't take back now.
Lavinia recalled what she'd done. She could have almost slapped herself. Moving one shelf further down, she ran her fingers along the tops of the assorted jars, stopping on one with a pale red lid. Slowly, she pulled it from the shelf, twisted open the top and looked inside. Two small sticks of cinnamon, exactly what was supposed to be in the jar, plus a third item, nutmeg. She'd bought it fresh, and, wanting to keep it that way had stowed it away until she needed it.
Lavinia picked up the small seed and smelt it, wonderful, she thought, looking at the hard-little brown pellet in her hand. Tears welled in her eyes, then she started to laugh. First, just a light chuckle, until eventually she was throwing her head back, laughing raucously at the small piece of nutmeg in her palm.
Farley listened to his mother from the front room, uncertain of the sounds she was making as her laughter started to fill the house. Malcolm putting on his tie upstairs, stopped what he was doing as he heard his wife. What a strange morning this was shaping up to be, he thought, heading downstairs to investigate.
You see Lavinia Wright was a quiet woman. She chose her words carefully, having resigned herself to a life of listening intently while others dared to echo bold sentences. She watched, with a purposeful vacancy while Margaret Hillman wore a racy red lip, or Barbara Fielding sowed her dress slightly too close to the knee. Even as a child, Lavinia had sat quietly, tracing the patterns of her drawing-room carpet with her favourite orange toy car. Her mother, Joyce, when in social company she considered comely, would divulge that at times, she found her daughters behaviour rather odd.
Though for all her lack of oddities and verse, Lavinia was intelligent, highly capable of most things she put her mind too. After becoming a bookkeeper for the local accountant’s office, she married Malcolm Brown, the two moving swiftly from there family homes to a cottage on the outskirts of the village.
Malcolm took great joy in watching his wife go about basic tasks. Even though he knew she could see him starring from the corner of his eye, she indulged his attention, for Malcolm's gaze was never lewd. He observed his wife with a keen respect, taking note of the way she plucked a pen from the pot on the bureau, or how she sat perched on the edge of a chair, poised, ankles tucked beneath her.
On a quiet Tuesday in spring, Lavinia had been dusting the porcelain figures that sat atop the front room mantel, when she'd received a phone call from Carol Mordem. Carol being the 'somewhat of a battle-axe' leader of the local women's institute.
"Hello?" Said Lavinia into the phone, surprised to be receiving a phone call on a Tuesday afternoon.
"Lavinia? I was going to pop round but I thought it better to call, just in case things weren't fit for visitors," said a stern voice on the other end. "It's Carol," she concluded after Lavinia gave no reply.
"Oh...Carol," said Lavinia, "you know you don't sound like yourself on the phone. I'm so used to hearing you in the hall, it seemed odd somehow and I thought that..."
"Yes all right," Carol cut her off, "Lavy the committee voted and they'd like you to host the next tea turn." Lavinia fell silent. "Two Sundays from next," Carol said, expecting a response. "Lavy?"
"Yes, yes...um...of course. I just didn't exp..."
"No well neither did I," said Carol curtly. "Like I said, two Sunday's from next, that won't be a problem will it, you've got the space in the cottage haven't you?"
"Yes," Lavinia was too stunned to give more than a one-word answer.
"Right, wonderful. Oh, and don't forget the egg custard, it was divine, we must have it again," everything Carol said was flat as a pancake. She hung up without a goodbye, leaving Lavinia standing in her front room, the dial tone ringing through her ears, uncertain of what to do with herself.
Placing the phone down, a tiny scratch came from her feet. She looked to see Farley, sat on his back legs, looking up expectantly. Lavinia bent down, gave his face an adoring rub, and, realising the severity of her situation, rushed into the kitchen to make a plan.
Lavinia assumed that Carols mention of the egg custard was not simply a shining example of her potential, but rather a signpost towards the committee’s decision to have her host. A few weeks prior she had made the tart, for an evening social, for the first time in her life from her mother’s old recipe. Upon consumption, it had cause a cacophony of successful noises, not to mention questions of ingredients, process and execution. How on earth had she made it so creamy, and smooth, and delicious? The women had marvelled at each other when Lavinia was no longer present.
Having been neglected for seniority or hosting rights in the past, Lavinia took this moment as her first soiree into the upper echelons of the social structure that seemed to rule over her home. In truth, she'd never concerned herself with the same ideas as the other women in the village. When Margery Halls was petitioning for the patchwork club to have weekly gatherings, instead of fortnightly, Lavinia was busy trying to persuade the town to have a gin tasting event. When Sarah Burnside was handing out flyers for the spring fete, Lavinia was handing out lists of controversial but important books that she felt the women of the village should be reading.
This moment, she knew then as she stood in her kitchen, a piece of paper in front of her and a pencil in her hand, had been a long time coming. For some reason the women of the village could not comprehend the idea that someone as strange and different as Lavinia could make an egg custard tart that was so perfect, without there being some sort of witchery going on. So, thought Lavinia, pulling her hair up into a loose bun, time to show the ladies what we're made of.
She would make seven different things, plus the centrepiece egg custard tart. At least half the ladies would bring something which meant up to eight extra edibles. She would also need to make more of the items that came in batches, such as scones or tea cakes, as some women were likely to have more than one. Victoria sponge was a must, no tea turn could go ahead without it, scones, tea cakes, a coconut cream pie, a wildcard but worth the risk, hot cross buns, one fruit loaf and something exotic, something fruity. Ah! A lemon meringue pie, perfect, she thought, completing her list.
The fruit loaf would come first, that could be made during the week of, tasting better for the time it had to soak up more alcohol. The lemon meringue, Victoria sponge and coconut cream would have to be done the day before, then refrigerated overnight. The rest could happen in the days leading up to the event. Apart, that is, from the custard tart. The tart had to be made early on the day of, in time to refrigerate before serving. Let me see, she thought, tapping her pencil against the countertop. Four hours in the cool box, she worked backwards, two hours to prep and make the pastry, then filling and baking; gosh, it was going to be a long day.
Needless to say, Lavinia was unconscionably busy the week prior. Anytime Malcolm had dared to set foot in the kitchen he had been ordered out with a flour-covered swoosh of the hand, dusty clouds billowing across the room. She toiled, assuming that every night when she lay down to sleep, the fear of what could go wrong would grip her so extensively that she wouldn't be able to rest. Though it didn't. Every night, without fail, before she had time to concern her mind with worry, even before Malcolm had made it from the washroom to the bed, she became a heavy dreamless log.
On the day of the tea turn, as the temperature had begun to rise signifying the advent of summer, Lavinia was woken by her gentle alarm at five-thirty. A precautionary time, much to Malcolm's dismay, but a necessary one to her mind.
Working tirelessly, and as noiselessly as possible, Lavinia set to work on putting the final touches to all her creations, as well as preparing the Egg Custard. A final pouring of sweet sherry and the fruit loaf was ready to sit at room temperature. A light glaze over the scones to give them a soft sheen and a crunchy outer shell. She found the whole process most enjoyable, certain that her meticulous attention to detail would make this her best tart yet. She took special care when rubbing the flour and butter together, not forgetting the pinch of salt. Hardly daring to take her eyes from the warming milk mixture as she tipped it into the beaten eggs.
Once baked, the tart would be immediately placed in the fridge to set. Only to be removed 45 minutes before the arrival of the first guest. Lavinia was certain that several women would go straight for the tart, its time at room temperature would ensure it was not cold, yet still had a certain quality to it. A firm wobble with a chilled middle, fresh and sweet, but certainly still creamy and melt in the mouth.
However, as fate would have it, there was a slight glitch in Lavinia's plan. As the oven timer went off, indicating the preheat was done, Lavinia opened her pantry door, looked to the second shelf down on the right, next to the ginger, and, having moved several things around in a flurry, was suddenly awash with the grey clouds of doom. The nutmeg, she knew exactly where it was kept, next to the ginger at the right-hand side of the second shelf from the top. She had most certainly bought it because Dean the grocer had almost forgot to charge her for it. So where was it? It's all right Lavinia, she told herself, stay calm, it’s got to be here somewhere.
She thought, and her thoughts turned into worry, then she searched, and her search turned into mayhem, and then, well she panicked. And panic was just panic so she sweat, and toiled, and searched some more. She pulled items out of the pantry, searched the kitchen floor and all its cupboards, she even threw her apron off and prepared to run out of the house and back to Dean's grocery, but it was too far away, and of course at the exact moment she opened the door Sarah Darling was stepping into her front garden across the road to prune her rosebush. Lavinia lurched back inside for fear of being seen.
Trudging back into her kitchen, her hair misplaced, her house dress slightly dirty from crawling around on the floor, Lavinia heard the tiny creak of the wonky cabinet door from beneath her sink. A box, that at first she didn't recognise, sat on the bottom shelf, and seemed to be presenting her with a solution.
"No," she said firmly to herself. "Surely not, I couldn't possibly," she said kneeling to examine the box..." or perhaps...oh look at the time, and it's not even baking."
You'll be pleased to know she did a small test first, to see what the grated flakes of her solution looked like. Similar enough to her eyes. After all, how important was nutmeg to an egg custard tart, Lavinia rolled her eyes at her stupidity and dared not answer the question in her mind. She could see her mother, glaring back at her, a look of concern spreading across her face. It's this or nothing, she told herself.
"I should have gone with nothing," she said worriedly to herself as she raced up the stairs. All the searching and faffing had left her behind and in a state. Quickly changing, Lavinia worked out a plan. She would leave the egg custard till the very end, as a sort of special presentation, assuming by then that many of the party might have eaten too much to entertain the idea of indulging in more treats.
Placing everything on the table with as much finesse as possible, Lavinia marvelled at each item, she had certainly outdone herself. Looking around the room, she ran a finger across the top of the mantle, spotless. Standing in the middle of the room, a sadness crossed her, a bubbling trepidation tickling at the back of her throat. None of it would matter, she knew. Preemptively stopping an incoming tear, she whipped herself around to peer out of the front window. Pushing back the net curtain, the distant figure of Carol, unmistakably Carol because of her high grey beehive hairdo, paced up the street. Stopping outside the front door, she pulled up the sleeve to her burgundy blouse to peer at her watch. Two minutes to one, her watch read, so she waited until the second hand had officially made it to one o'clock. After three short raps on the door, Lavinia took a deep breath and flung it open.
"Carol," she exclaimed, "do come in."
"I'm the first I presume," she asked, stepping over the threshold, "smells wonderful." Carol made a b-line straight into the front room and stood, staring at the delights on the table. Standing behind her, Lavinia saw the cold, calculated turn once she had finished her inspection.
"Lavinia?" Said Carol.
"Yes?" Asked Lavinia with as much aloofness as she could muster, certain that she was going to ask where the egg custard tart was.
A knock at the door saved her as her next guest arrived, Mindy Danvers, Lavinia's closest friend in the village. Promising to be there exactly on time should she need any support from the judgemental onslaught that might ensue.
"You won't believe what I've done," whispered Lavinia in a panic as she opened the door.
"Whatever do you mean?" Said Mindy, racing inside, throwing her coat over the bannister.
"Good afternoon Mindy."
"Oh," said Mindy stopping short in the hallway, "hello Carol, I didn't think anyone was here yet."
"Evidently," said Carol with a calm composure. The three of them stood motionless in the hallway, each waiting for the other to speak. Lavinia suddenly realising as host everything was down to her.
"Shall we sit ladies, I'll get the tea."
Upon entering the front room Mindy gave a slight gasp as she caught sight of the table and all its delights. A pale blue table cloth, covered with a lace top, was adorned with glowing, pristine baked goods. It looked like a shop window from a magazine, thought Mindy.
"Lavy...gosh did you...do all this?"
"You sound surprised," Lavinia said, smirking at her friend.
"Not in the slightest...but whatever did you mean, what you've done...?"
"Oh nothing," said Lavinia quickly. "It was nothing to do with all this...we'll chat later. Tea! Or, anyone for coffee?"
"I'd just bring both," said Carol, watching the other two with suspicion.
"Of course," Lavinia laughed as she exited the room, leaving Mindy to brusquely say hello and sit as far away from Carol as she could.
Teresa Brown, Gillian Shepherd and Georgina Caldwell all arrived shortly after, all just in time for the early examination of Lavinia's baked goods. Teresa contributed some chocolate eclairs, that, despite her offended proclamation they were homemade, looked decidedly store-bought. Georgina came with an apple strudel of sorts, though it didn't look particularly appealing, she wasn't known for her baking prowess.
Another rap at the door welcomed more ladies, and before half-past one, the house was teeming with amused conversation; the soft clicks of teacups on saucers resounding as the ladies began to take there first scone or piece of cake.
All the ladies had a piece of Victoria sponge, most of them had a scone as well. Slicing into other items Sarah rejoiced at the tart filling in the lemon meringue. Eve Collins ate two pieces of fruit loaf, slathered in fresh butter, she was on the larger side and took no shame in eating as much as she wanted. Unfortunately, the coconut cream tart was neglected, the room deciding it was too rich, or exotic, to eat an entire slice to oneself; apart from Eve, of course, she ate the rest of Mary's slice as well as her own.
Working hard to enjoy herself, Lavinia took the seat at the head of the room, close enough to the door should she need to flee, or more likely get extra milk or honey; but still in a position where she could see everyone. Guiding the conversation as a gracious host, away from the many compliments that came her way, towards any other topic than her baked goods. Several of the women were fishing for a way to talk about the egg custard, that they had noticed wasn't present. Lavinia cleverly diverted them with talks of there husbands and the gossip involving the elderly lady who owned Fishers bed and breakfast, and the man who'd been found dead there several weeks earlier.
Carol, who had taken one bite out of everything on the table so she could taste it, waited patiently. Lavinia could see towards the end of the afternoon that she was waiting for a lull in the conversation. She knew it was coming, she could feel it, Lavinia only hoped that at the exact moment Carol decided to open her mouth, Malcolm would come rushing into the house, declaiming some sort of emergency, not tragic of course (though needs must), that would require her immediate attention. Therefore distracting the party, rendering her unavailable to answer any questions on the missing tart and saving the day entirely.
No such luck appeared. While Malcolm sat down the road in the Crown and Horn pub, on the cusp of feeling flush from his afternoon of supping ale, Carol found her perfect moment. A wave of titters at a joke Mindy had made subsided, the women reaching for there teacups, giggling to themselves. Carol inhaled deeply through her nose, time slowed down for Lavinia, who turned to see the calculated cold eyes of Carol glaring back at her. Slightly pursing her lips, Carol said calmly,
"Saved the best for last I presume?" Lavinia swallowed hard, smiling at the room of eager eyes glaring back at her, she placed her teacup and saucer on the small chintz ottoman next to her.
"Yes," she said, no clear way out presenting itself. "Well, you see..." Lavinia tried to stall.
"Don't tell me you haven't made the egg custard, not after I specifically..."
"No, I've made it," all eyes were on Lavinia, "you're right, I just wanted to save it for last." Lavinia left the room hastily with as little alarm as she could muster.
Dammit! She'd forgotten to take the tart out of the fridge given her hopes of it being forgotten. Inspecting its surface after laying it on a serving plate, Lavinia marvelled at how presentable, not to mention accurate, it looked.
The slow walk from the kitchen to the front room made her body feel heavier and heavier, as if someone were pumping lead into her veins, filling her feet and legs so she could hardly walk.
The ladies had cleared a space for the final addition in the centre of the table. Slicing delicately through it Lavinia turned to the room and casually asked,
"Does anyone have room for a slice?" Every single hand in the room went up, accompanied by a nod or a firm "Oh yes," while Lavinia's stomach lurched into her bottom.
The thin sliver that remained after portioning she placed onto her plate, the room waiting for everyone to have a slice, and for Lavinia to sit back down. Picking up her fork, expectant eyes on her, she caught sight of Mindy, who she could tell was aware that something was wrong. Mindy smiled back with supportive sympathy, a look that said no matter what it was, it wouldn't matter to her. Good lord, she suddenly thought, what if it made them all sick, what if it poisoned them.
Too late, Carol noisily hacked a piece off her slice, consuming it like a camel at the watering hole, she seemed to swill the tart around her mouth, wanting it to coat every surface. The rest of the ladies followed suit quickly, as did Lavinia. Though before it had reached her lips, she knew the jig was up. The smell, the smell immediately gave it away. It wasn't particularly pungent, but it certainly didn't smell like an egg custard tart. Lavinia tasted her creation, pastry, well baked, filling, too cold but still creamy, not quite sweet enough either, and that taste, perhaps it was masking the sugar, it was...odd. It also seemed to leave a slight tingling on the top of the mouth.
Gillian coughed and reached for a cup of tea to wash down her bite. The women collectively chewed, churning the tart between their teeth, brows furrowing, eyes tightening as they wondered what that unusual taste was.
"Oh this is delicious!" Said Mindy, nodding erratically at the room, covering her mouth with her hand while eyes of distrust looked back at her.
"Well," said Carol, discarding her plate as she had done with the others. "I can't say it's as good as your last effort, but never mind. The rest was very nice." Most of the women nodded in agreement. Very nice. That was all she was going to get, it was very nice. Lavinia watched as the women followed suit, cautiously placing their plates down as if they were handling some kind of toxic material.
"Did you..." Mindy's little voice broke the silence, "did you change something Lavy, perhaps you did something different...and...it um...had an unexpected result." Lavinia loved her friend in that moment, for trying so hard to save her.
Though she avoided Carol's eyes, Lavinia looked around the room, catching sight of the women she remembered she had no real desire to impress. There, in all their faces, she saw friendship, sympathy, an endless understanding of the needless pressure they had put upon themselves to outperform one another.
In that moment, as a bead of sweat ran down her back, Lavinia made a choice. Most of her life, she had been quiet, sensible, reserved, and suddenly she realised that she had done something so utterly out of character, in the hopes of ensuring the least amount of judgement possible, from a group of women who had barely taken the time to get to know her. I guess she did care what they thought after all, but not for long.
"Well, Carol, ladies," said Lavinia, exhaling as if to let go of any tension, "you see...I couldn't find the nutmeg for the topping this morning." Lavinia locked eyes with Mindy, a look of excitement across her face. "So I grated one of Farley's dog biscuits on the top instead." The room fell silent after Sarah almost dropped her teacup. Mindy clenched her lips tightly shut, rapidly turning purple for wanting to burst out laughing.
That moment, having confessed, before anyone else made a whimper, was glorious. In her mind, Lavinia could see Malcolm laughing at the story as he told her later. She could see herself, making an egg custard for her unborn children, and smiling, as she grated nutmeg on the top.
To her surprise, as Mindy was about to burst, Lavinia feeling like the silence had stretched on forever, the entire room exploded into raucous laughter. Even Carol smiled to herself, bowed and shook her head as the women couldn't contain themselves. Lavinia quickly joined in, shedding a tear of joy as she caught eyes with Mindy, who simply couldn't contain herself and knocked the rest of her slice off the table, onto the floor, creating a second wave of laughter that bounced around the room.
Once the laughter had subsided, Lavinia accepted all the tales of bakes gone wrong, missing ingredients, disastrous tea turns and stories from generations of women who had made a mess of a simple baked good. From there mother's and there mother's mothers, it seemed that everyone had a story to tell. The room became awash of flowing conversation, smiling faces, and of course, more tea and cake.
Malcolm returned home a couple hours after Mindy, being the last guest to leave, had hugged her friend on the doorstep, giggled to herself and bounced out the door.
"A triumph Lavy," she whispered before she left, "they'll be talking about this one for a while." Lavinia watched her friend wander down the street, the evening light bathing the road in a golden hue.
Finding his wife standing still at the sink, supposedly doing dishes, Lavinia was looking out the window into the night. Drunkenly sauntering over to her, he placed his hands on her shoulders. She started slightly, in a daze she hadn't heard him come in.
'Hello darling,' she said.
'Good evening Mrs. Wright,' he said playfully. 'How did it go?' Lavinia shook the soap suds from her hands, spun to face her husband, and, wrapping her damp arms around his neck, said,
'It was wonderful.'