Honesty is the best policy in this amusing short story by Alison Carter.
JUST grab a chair,” the woman said. “We all muck in here.” There looked to be no muck of any kind, Jeanie thought, at the Mornington Ladies’ Institute.
The hall was smart, with faux timber beams and pendant lights, and the ladies were even smarter. They had money and they had class.
“We’ll learn something this evening,” the woman said, and she bustled away in her tweed twin-set and matching small felt hat.
Jeanie had worn a dress, and its wide skirts were already getting in the way of the institute members on either side of her. Clothes in 1957, Jeanie observed, were a minefield.
“Perfect pastry!” a booming female voice with an educated east coast accent announced. “Here to tell us about that topic – Mrs Margery Schultz!”
Fifty pairs of gloved hands clapped softly.
Mrs Schultz had brought along slides to accompany her talk. Jeanie listened to the whirr of the projector as the lecturer gave advice on avoiding tough choux, and why it was vital to keep a pâte brisée cool.
Jeanie couldn’t stop herself from making up a jingle in her head: “Try Patterson’s Pastry, for perfect tarte aux pommes!”
The syllables worked, she thought. It would be best sung by an alto voice, to appeal to older housewives.
Mrs Schultz was pointing to a batch of her own rough puff on an image projected on to the canvas screen.
These ladies, Jeanie told herself, would never buy ready-made!
Jeanie tried to stop the jingle factory at work in her head. Nobody here wanted to hear what she laughingly called her “creations”.
Jeanie Stewart wrote radio jingles for a living. Ray, her husband, had lost his job, and they had moved to Mornington so he could take up another one that paid far less.
The jingles had begun as a hobby when Jeanie had been thumbing through a magazine in the dentist’s waiting-room, but they had become a vital addition to the family budget.
It was an inconvenient way to make money, because Jeanie was obliged to sell the items she won
– a vacuum cleaner, bowling balls, a pressure cooker – and to serve up others to her family – two dozen cans of luncheon meat, a month’s supply of oranges.
The move to Mornington had been an upheaval for them, but at least Jeanie could be near her sister, who struggled with an appalling husband.
“Try chilling this in a disc shape!” Mrs Schultz exclaimed from the stage. “Easier to roll out for that lemon meringue pie.”
Jeanie was reminded of the last jingle that she’d written: “Lemon Whoppee Whip – light as a spring breeze!”
She’d thought it was terrible, but the images of primroses on the ad for the competition had made her think that the manufacturer had a theme in mind, and she had won a year’s supply of instant pudding.
These women, Jeanie thought as she looked around her, didn’t know what instant pudding was.
She wondered why she had come here, but then remembered that she was lonely.
The lecture ended and the lady who had welcomed Jeanie at the door returned.
“Now,” she said, “let me see who you’d get on with.”
She led Jeanie to a table where fruit punch and bowls of potato chips were laid out (“More crunch with lunch! Mason’s Chips make noise!”) She met Jane and Ruthie, and a stern lady who provided a schedule of the talks to come.
“American composers are next week,” the lady said. “We’ve a gentleman coming from Dayton for that one. On the fifteenth . . . Harriet, what’s on the fifteenth?”
Harriet, a tiny person dressed all in mauve, thought for a moment.
“Vaccinations,” she said firmly. “Science of.”
Jeanie wondered what the women around her were chatting about. One thing she could be certain of was that she wouldn’t be telling them about the jingles.
If she was going to come here, she was going to have to skate around the facts of her own life. Honesty, when one was trying to fit in, was certainly not the best policy.
What would the posh ladies at the Institute have to say about her little secret?