The Mar­quee Mys­tery

Who had sab­o­taged the sponge cake? Polly was de­ter­mined to find out!

The People's Friend - - News - by An­gela Lanyon

AS soon as Polly went into the mar­quee to judge the bak­ing com­pe­ti­tions she re­alised some­thing was wrong.

The com­mit­tee was metic­u­lous about set­ting ev­ery­thing out neatly, so she could see at once that some­body had dis­turbed the en­tries.

The neat cards with their num­bers had been scrab­bled to­gether in an un­tidy heap. Sab­o­tage?

Gary had warned her when she first agreed to judge the com­pe­ti­tion.

“Do you re­ally think it’s wise? Aren’t you go­ing to up­set some of your cus­tomers?”

“I hope not.” She’d sighed. “Re­ally, I think I must have been mad!”

Polly Grainger was the owner of Catkins, a small bak­ery and café in the vil­lage of Fen­ton Parva on the edge of the Som­er­set lev­els, and Gary was her part­ner.

This year, af­ter a lot of thought, she had agreed to judge the bak­ing com­pe­ti­tion at the an­nual vil­lage fête.

Turn­ing off her lap­top, she’d run a hand through her dark hair, brush­ing it away from her face.

“Any­way, I’ve agreed now, so that’s it.”

“What sort of bak­ing have you set­tled on?” he’d asked, look­ing up from where he was re­pair­ing a wicker bas­ket.

“Three classes. A plate of scones, a sponge cake and some muffins. They’re al­ways pop­u­lar. And there’s a spe­cial sec­tion of dec­o­rated muffins for the un­der-ten chil­dren.” She’d laughed.

“I’ve al­ready had so much has­sle I’m not sur­prised you chick­ened out of judg­ing the flower ar­range­ments!”

When first asked, Polly had hes­i­tated, wor­ried that she might up­set some of her cus­tomers. It was only that morn­ing she’d fi­nally agreed, hav­ing de­cided they were surely adult enough to ac­cept they were not all star bak­ers.

There wouldn’t be much point in her shop if they had been.

Gary had been born in the vil­lage and was now the owner of a florist’s in Wells.

He’d pulled the last strand of wil­low into po­si­tion.

“Do you think three classes are go­ing to be enough?“

“Oh, I reckon so. There will be pots of honey and jars of jam, but the bee­keep­ers will do the honey and I be­lieve they have asked some­one from Na­tional Trust to judge the jams.”

She’d smiled at Gary. “They’ll be pleased to have the op­por­tu­nity to have a stall and show stuff. I don’t think I could cope with any­thing else.”

Once word had got around the vil­lage that she was to be the judge, Polly no­ticed how her cus­tomers’ be­hav­iour to­wards her changed.

They eyed her up in the shop and slowly she be­gan to re­alise that some of them were hop­ing to in­gra­ti­ate them­selves by telling her how won­der­ful her cakes were and ask­ing her about her favourite recipes.

Of course, all the en­tries at the fête would be anony­mous but Polly was be­com­ing con­vinced that some of them would try to find ways of let­ting her know that they were hop­ing for a prize.

And there were cer­tain to be a lot of en­tries. Af­ter the pop­u­lar TV se­ries, “The Great Bri­tish Bake Off”, had aired, ev­ery­one was ea­ger to show how tal­ented they were.

While she served her cus­tomers in the weeks that fol­lowed Polly made bets with her­self on who might en­ter.

Mo Blox­ham, queen of the teas and hered­i­tary ruler of the par­ish urn, was sure to en­ter. And she was good, there was no deny­ing that.

So was her

daugh­ter, Kayleigh, de­spite be­ing un­der her mother’s thumb.

Polly thought Sue Wat­son, lady of the manor, might en­ter just for the look of it, and the vicar, Pa­trick, who fan­cied him­self skilled in the do­mes­tic arts, would no doubt be keen to demon­strate his tal­ents.

Then, of course, there was Ali­son Paget, who drove the mo­bile li­brary van and was al­ways col­lect­ing for some good cause or other, not to men­tion be­ing a highly vo­cal cham­pion of the un­der­dog – who or what­ever that might be at the time.

Yes, Polly thought, Ali­son was sure to en­ter – and was equally sure to be in for yet another dis­ap­point­ment.

Polly sighed. Ali­son was a bit of an un­der­dog her­self, well in­ten­tioned but never quite get­ting it right.

Switch­ing her mind back to the present and try­ing to ig­nore the mud­dled num­ber­ing, Polly quickly elim­i­nated a plate of scones from her own bak­ery and some muffins from a su­per­mar­ket with the price still on them.

Then it was time to tackle the sponge cakes . . .

Marks for pre­sen­ta­tion first. For a mo­ment she stared at the ta­ble, un­cer­tain how to pro­ceed.

Of course, Polly didn’t have to have the ex­hibitors’ num­bers in or­der to do the judg­ing of the sponges, but she would re­quire them later to en­ter the re­sults on to the sheets she had care­fully made out.

There were marks for pre­sen­ta­tion, ap­pear­ance, tex­ture and flavour.

She knew peo­ple would recog­nise their own work, and cer­tainly the in­di­vid­ual plates would give them a clue if they were doubt­ful.

There was some­thing odd about the first cake.

It looked per­fect – smooth on the top, jam vis­i­ble but not ooz­ing – but why had the com­peti­tor not put it on a clean plate? Ic­ing sugar was ev­ery­where.

Polly looked again. The ic­ing sugar had not been just sifted over the cake but was also scat­tered all over the sur­round­ing table­cloth! Had one of the com­peti­tors had an af­ter­thought?

But how had they man­aged to get in? Jane Mor­ris, the sec­re­tary of the fête, had promised to keep an eye on the mar­quee once the en­tries were in place.

Still, that wasn’t Polly’s prob­lem. She awarded two marks for pre­sen­ta­tion: af­ter all, the baker had tried.

Care­fully, she cut a sliver so she could as­sess the tex­ture be­fore she tested it for taste. Evenly risen and moist – maybe browned just a little too much?

She took the nose off the slice and bit into it. Ugh! Not ic­ing sugar, but bak­ing soda! Gin­gerly, Polly dipped a fin­ger in the scat­tered pow­der and tasted it.

This one cer­tainly wasn’t go­ing to win.

Then it struck her that it per­haps wasn’t just a case of some­one pick­ing up bak­ing soda by mis­take for ic­ing sugar, but a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt by a ri­val baker to spoil another per­son’s en­try and in­flu­ence the judg­ing!

But whose cake was it?

Putting the piece aside, she care­fully con­tin­ued with her assess­ments: cut­ting a slice from each cake and tast­ing a small sliver.

Two of the en­tries had gone into too hot an oven and had peaked in the mid­dle.

A few were rather too solid, one had been over flavoured and another was def­i­nitely burned on the base. That left her with six from which she had to pick first, sec­ond and third.

There was a move­ment be­hind her and Polly turned to see Jane Mor­ris stand­ing at the en­trance.

“Ev­ery­thing all right?” Polly pulled a face. “You’d bet­ter come and take a look.”

“What is it? Oh, good heav­ens!” Jane ex­claimed when she got closer. “What­ever’s hap­pened?”

“Dirty work at the cross roads.” Polly took a deep breath. “It looks like some­one’s tried to nob­ble one of the en­tries.” Jane looked puz­zled. “But how did any­one get in? I had the en­trance in view the whole time. I even put a rope across it once the com­peti­tors had ar­ranged their cakes.” She paused.

“I sup­pose it could have been one of the chil­dren. Some of them can be a bit wild.”

“No, I don’t think we should blame the chil­dren,” Polly said. “They’re all busy get­ting ready for the danc­ing dis­play. And where would they get the bak­ing soda from?”

Quickly she ex­plained to the sec­re­tary about the “ic­ing sugar”.

“It looks to me more like a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to in­flu­ence the bak­ing sec­tion. I’ve judged the chil­dren’s en­tries and there’s noth­ing wrong with those.”

She turned to the ta­ble with the dec­o­rated muffins. It seemed that every one of the pri­mary chil­dren had en­tered.

Jane swooped down on the first and sec­ond. One was a huge moun­tain of Smar­ties and sprin­kles, the other a sim­ple but neatly ex­e­cuted Union Jack with a smaller one stuck in its cen­tre.

“Oh, I’m so glad this one got a prize!” she ex­claimed, look­ing at the muf­fin with the flag. “I haven’t the slight­est idea how to pro­nounce her name but it’s the girl from our little refugee fam­ily, and they’re so anx­ious to fit in. They’ll be thrilled. As for the other one –”

Polly laughed.

“It has to be Katie Parker from the newsagent’s. Who else would have such a range of sweet­ies for dec­o­ra­tion?”

She turned back to the sponge cakes.

“Any­way, what are we go­ing to do about th­ese?”

“You’re sure it’s bak­ing soda?” Jane asked. “It seems such a mean trick. And look!”

She ges­tured to the grass. “It’s been spilled down here as well.”

Polly bent down. “Foot­prints!”

Jane copied her. “Most of them seem to have rubbed away, but it looks as if some­one got into the mar­quee by crawl­ing in from the far side. No won­der I didn’t see them.” “What shall we do?” “We’ll have to find the cul­prit.“Jane was adamant. “We can’t let some­one win first prize af­ter they’ve spoiled some­one else’s en­try.”

Polly nod­ded.

“If the ev­i­dence is on the grass, it must be on their shoes, so we ought to be able to track them down. Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, where are you when we need you?”

She handed the com­pe­ti­tion re­sults to Jane and stuffed the mark sheets in her folder.

“Leave it to me; I’ll have a little snoop.”

Out­side in the sun­shine she first went in search of Gary.

He was busy putting the fin­ish­ing touches to a dec­o­rated hand­cart from which he would be sell­ing Vic­to­rian nosegays and but­ton­holes.

Quickly Polly told him what had hap­pened.

“I don’t sup­pose you saw any­thing, did you?”

“No. I was back­wards and for­wards to the kitchen get­ting wa­ter for the con­tain­ers, so I wasn’t re­ally pay­ing at­ten­tion to any­thing else.”

He laughed.

“I know the kitchen was in an up­roar, with Mo Blox­ham spin­ning round like a top and giv­ing Ali­son what for be­cause she’d spoiled a table­cloth.”

“Jane thought it might be one of the chil­dren. Some­one had crawled un­der the edge of the mar­quee.”

“I don’t see Mo

Some­one had cov­ered the cake with bak­ing soda!

Blox­ham do­ing some­thing like that. Not got the fig­ure for it. And Kayleigh wouldn’t have the ini­tia­tive.” He grinned. “Though the looks she gives her mother when she thinks no-one’s watch­ing . . .”

“You don’t think she’d do some­thing like that to get her own back?”

“I don’t think she left the kitchen. If any­thing needed fetch­ing it was Ali­son who was dis­patched. Poor woman, she was in and out and then get­ting it in the neck for be­ing so slow.”

“How did she spoil the table­cloth?” Polly was be­gin­ning to get an idea.

“Spilled flour, I think. Some­thing white, any­way. It messed up one of the cloths.”

Polly turned away.

“I think I might just go and see if I can have a word with Ali­son. If she was run­ning er­rands, she might have seen some­thing.”

Leav­ing Gary to fin­ish his dis­play, Polly walked back to the mar­quee and went round the back. It wasn’t dif­fi­cult to spot the bent grass and scraped earth where some­one had squeezed un­der the flap.

Some­thing caught her eye. Bend­ing down, she spot­ted a small blue but­ton. If she could find the owner, she’d have found the mis­cre­ant.

Turn­ing around, she scanned the grass, but away from the hedge the grass was dry, and so many peo­ple had tram­pled it down erect­ing the tent that one more set of prints would im­pos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish.

Re­mem­ber­ing she had planned to go and see Ali­son, she made her way to where prepa­ra­tions for the teas were un­der­way.

The manor house kitchen was crowded and seething with ac­tiv­ity. Polly had to ad­mit Mo Blox­ham knew her stuff, and the woman had ev­ery­thing un­der con­trol.

There were times when Polly felt Mo bul­lied her team mates, but usu­ally the work was ac­com­pa­nied with gales of laugh­ter and good-na­tured ban­ter.

It was only if things got fraught at serv­ing time that tem­pers snapped, so it wasn’t usual for her to be ha­rass­ing Ali­son at this time of day.

Mo’s daugh­ter, Kayleigh, she ad­mit­ted, was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

“Oh, hi, Ali­son.” Ali­son Paget stopped dead, her arms cradling a box full of tea plates. She had a guilty look on her face.

“I’m sorry, Polly, I can’t stop.” The top few plates be­gan to slide.

Polly grabbed half the pile and lifted them to safety.

“You don’t want to drop the box, do you? Let me help.”

“They’ve to go in the tea tent.”

Ali­son started off along the flagged stone path and Polly fol­lowed, notic­ing the white smudges on the side of Ali­son’s train­ers.

By the time they reached the tea tent Polly thought she had the an­swer to her ques­tion.

But why?

“I think this might be yours,” she said, hold­ing out the blue but­ton once Ali­son had de­posited the box of plates safely. “You dropped it by the mar­quee.”

Ali­son’s face red­dened. She stared at the but­ton and then at her blouse and then burst into tears.

“What­ever made you do such a silly thing?” Polly asked gen­tly.

She could see Ali­son was al­ready up­set and feel­ing guilty so she didn’t want to make matters worse.

“It’s Mo!” Ali­son sobbed. “I don’t know why she be­haves that way.”

“You wanted to win so you tried to spoil her en­try by sprin­kling it with bak­ing soda?”

“No, no. It’s not that.” Ali­son pulled out a hand­ker­chief and dabbed at her eyes. “You’ve got it wrong.”

“Then what has she done to up­set you?”

“It’s not her, it’s Kayleigh.”

Polly was con­fused. “You’re say­ing it’s not Mo, it’s Kayleigh who’s up­set you?”

“No! That poor lass, she never has a mo­ment’s peace. I just wanted her to win so much.”

Tears were run­ning down Ali­son’s cheeks and Polly pat­ted her hand.

“She’s just as good a baker as her mum, but Mo goes on at her the whole time. And it’s not fair!” Ali­son burst out. “I ex­pect now you’ll tell ev­ery­one what I’ve done.”

Polly thought.

“I’ve no in­ten­tion of telling anybody,” she said at last. “I’ve done the judg­ing and the sec­re­tary’s got the re­sults. She knows some­body messed up the en­tries, but she doesn’t know who and I cer­tainly shan’t tell her.”

“Thank you. I only wanted to help Kayleigh.”

Polly put an arm around Ali­son’s shoul­ders.

“I know you did, but this wasn’t re­ally the best way and I’m sure, if Kayleigh needs help, she’ll ask for it. Af­ter all, she’s a big girl.”

Polly tried to sound en­cour­ag­ing.

“Ali­son, we all know how kind-hearted you are, and how you stand up for peo­ple, but you can’t fight ev­ery­one’s bat­tles.

“And be­sides, Kayleigh will be off to uni in Septem­ber and she won’t have you to stand up for her there.”

Polly pulled a clean tis­sue from her pocket.

“Now, dry your eyes and I’ll help you set out th­ese plates or Mo’ll be won­der­ing what you’ve been up to.”

“I don’t seem to get any­thing right, do I?” Ali­son sniffed, ready to dis­solve into tears again.

“Non­sense,” Polly stated in as firm a voice as she could man­age. “Stop run­ning your­self down. Ev­ery­one knows how ca­pa­ble you are. I mean, we wouldn’t have a li­brary if it wasn’t for you!

“And look how you man­aged to get round to all the vil­lages last year when we had that snow. I’m sure you’re a life-line for lots of the el­derly, fetch­ing their pre­scrip­tions and bring­ing their gro­ceries along with their books when they can’t get out.”

Ali­son sniffed again. “I sup­pose you’re right.” “Of course I am. Now, cheer up and let’s get on with th­ese plates.”

“Well, aren’t you go­ing to tell me who it was?” Gary asked, hand­ing her a glass of white wine.

The fête was over and the stalls cleared away. It was a per­fect sum­mer evening just past the long­est day.

The trees were in full leaf and Polly and Gary sat re­lax­ing on their pa­tio and look­ing across to where Glas­ton­bury Tor was sil­hou­et­ted against the twi­light.

Polly shook her head. She had told Ali­son she wouldn’t tell any­one and she meant to keep her word.

“All sorted,” she said, hold­ing her glass up to catch the last bit of sun. “And be­fore you ask, it wasn’t Kayleigh.”

“But she won, didn’t she?”

“She did, and the funny thing was, Mo never en­tered the com­pe­ti­tion. She an­nounced – very loudly, I might add, when the win­ner was de­clared – that she didn’t need to prove her­self.

“Be­tween our­selves I think she was rather proud of Kayleigh. Not, of course, that she’ll tell her.”

“You might be sur­prised,” Gary replied, lean­ing across to fill up her glass. “I was just clear­ing away the last of my things and I caught Kayleigh and her mum hav­ing a hug in the kitchen. And they both seemed to be en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence.” n

Polly thought she had solved the mys­tery

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