Afro Poetry Times
Short Story – South Africa...
BUT Mom . . .” my eight-year old son, Matthew, wailed again. “You need to enter! Dad’s doing the archery and I’m riding the go-karts. You can bake a pie.”
I shuddered at the thought and tried desperately to recall the list of fair events I’d read about in the school newsletter the previous week.
“What about the dog show?” I said, suddenly remembering the canine show. “Why don’t I enter Missy?”
Matt screwed up his face. “She’d never win. We need to win so I can get points for my class. We get pizza and ice cream if we get the most class points.”
I turned away and grimaced. My life was flashing before my eyes for pizza and ice cream. “You just have to bake a pie from scratch,” he said, echoing his teacher’s words. I shuddered again. Instantly
transported to a day, 25 years ago, during a home economics practical in matric when I’d managed to serve up one spectacular flop.
I remember Mrs De Beer’s unimpressed stare as my mint-crisp-caramel tart pooled on the plate, complete with cookie-crumb and chocolate-chip flotsam floating ominously around the edges. I’d received a “D” for that disaster and it effectively destroyed my year mark.
The cherry on the cake was when Debbie “Miss Perfect” Michaels won the top “home ec” trophy that I’d had my eye on since Standard 6. In the years that followed, I’d hardly baked much.
The odd cookies and cupcakes with the kids, but nothing significant. I preferred to pop to the local tuisnywerheid for baked goods. They were, after all, home-baked. I’d managed to keep a low baking profile for 20-something years.
Until now. Until the primary school decided to host an old-fashioned fair. Complete with pie contest.
“Please, Mom,” Matt said again, jolting me back to the present. “Please bake a pie.”
I looked at my son’s puppy-dog eyes and mom guilt took over.
“Okay,” I said rather hoarsely. “I’ll sign up for the bake-off.”
THE next day, with Matt and Tiffany at school and my husband Jim off at work, I headed out to the garage to find my old high-school box. Yearbooks. Old projects. School diary. Photographs. I winced. My cerise-pink matric-dance dress with the poofy sleeves. Valedictory and Debbie Michaels and her huge home ec trophy. My trophy.
I shoved the photos under some books and hunted deeper in the box for the black notebook with the red spine. My old home ec recipe book.
The pages were yellowed with age, dogeared, with the odd stain from the buzz of the beater or whip of a spoon.
I leafed through, quickly bypassing the infamous mint-caramel failure, to other offerings. Chocolate mud pie. Banana pie. Rhubarb. Nothing sounded like the winner my son was looking for.
Tucked in the back of the book was an old recipe I’d pulled out of the YOU magazine decades earlier. An apple, pear and coconut pie.
I’d made it for my uncle’s birthday, and everyone had loved it. It had been a big family hit and I’d even added my own twists. Then I quit baking.
SECRETLY, I hoped for rainy weather on Saturday, but the day dawned fine and clear. Much to my surprise, fresh out the oven, my pie looked okay. I was confident that, while it probably wouldn’t win a ribbon (and it’s equivalent in class points), I wouldn’t poison the judges.
At school, Matt took Tiffany to the hall for the dance competition and Jim went to sign up for archery. I found the bakeoff in a white marquee at the bottom of the field.
“Good morning,” a woman, whose nametag read “Fiona” said, as I approached the entry table, pie in hand. “I guess you’re entering our bake-off.” I nodded and said good morning. “You’ll need to draw a number,” she explained, offering a black hat. “Then fill in the entry form using only your number. Your name won’t appear next to the pie, so we can ensure complete honesty from our judges.”
I reached into the hat and passed the folded paper to her.
“Twenty-nine,” Fiona said. “Just write it in where it says contestant.”
I filled out the card, including the name of the pie and my cell number.
Fiona wrote down my name and surname next to number 29 on her list. “We’ll only reveal the names after the competition. Come back at one o’clock for the winners.”
THE morning passed in a whirl. So far, our family was contributing nicely to Grade 2K’s pizza and icecream tally. Jim had gotten third place in the archery and Tiffany’s dance-off had netted five points to the total. So far Matt was in the lead with 16 points for his eight laps around the go-kart track. All that was left was the bake-off.
Gingerly, I headed back to the marquee just before one o’clock, with my family in tow.
Fiona called everyone to order and proceeded to explain that 35 pies had been entered into the competition.
Of the total, the judges had selected 15 for tasting. All bakers who were part of the final 15 would receive five points towards the class tallies.
“I hope it’s you, Mom,” Matt said, tugging at my T-shirt. “We need points.”
I glanced helplessly at Jim, who winked back. Fiona handed the mic over to Principal Ncube.
“Good afternoon, parents,” she said. “I’m so happy to see all our bakers.” I tuned out. My stomach was in knots. “Please welcome our special guest judge, Debbie Venter from Bake Away in Sandton.”
My head shot up just as Debbie Venter aka Michaels (yes, that Debbie), headed to the podium and stood next to the principal.
The knots turned to cramps. A wave of nausea descended. What was she doing here?
“Debbie owns a successful bakery and was kind enough to come today to officiate our school’s first bake-off.”
I felt like Jamie Lee Curtis when Sigourney Weaver showed up in You Again.
When 29 was called in the final 15, I was pretty surprised, and Matt was overjoyed that I’d received five points. Jim gave me a thumbs-up.
Third place was called. Then second place. And then first place. “Number 29.” I didn’t move a muscle. I saw Fiona consult her list. “It’s Lillian Parker.”
I walked up to the podium where the judges were standing with the principal, who shook my hand and handed me a huge bunch of pink roses, a blue ribbon and an envelope.
I shook hands with the other two judges, a teacher at the school and a parent I knew from Tiffany’s high school. When Debbie reached me, I saw a flicker of recognition cross her face. “Oh, it’s you again,” she said in surprise. I didn’t get a chance to respond as the photographer descended for photos to immortalise the moment for the school’s history books.
IT WAS only later, when the frenzy died down, that I took a moment to catch my breath. Jim handed me a cup of coffee, then took my flowers and gifts to the car. Matt and Tiffany left to check the class tallies. I was standing alone just outside the marquee, sipping coffee.
“Lily,” Debbie said as she came up behind me.
“Hello, Deb,” I said, turning towards her. “It’s been a long time.” She nodded. “I loved your pie. All the judges did. I remember you always were a great baker.”
I searched her face. “As I recall, it was you who won the home ec trophy,” I said, nonchalantly.
“Surprisingly so,” she laughed, waving her hand. “And only by one mark.” I frowned. “One mark?” She nodded. “Just one.” “But how do you know? The prizes were awarded according to the final percentages.” “That’s right,” she answered. “I asked Mrs De Beer. I couldn’t believe I’d won, so I asked to see the actual marks. I beat you by one mark. The percentages were down to the decimals.” I gaped at her. “One mark!” “One mark that I actually need to thank you for,” Debbie said. “That trophy changed my life. I was all set to study law but after that I decided the kitchen was where I wanted to be. I went to chef school and later opened my bakery. I love my job. I’d have been a miserable lawyer.”
I stared at her. My mouth wasn’t open, but it sure felt like it.
Just then, Matt came rushing towards me, with Tiffany right behind.
“Mom!” he yelled. “You’ll never guess how many points we got for your first place!” I bent down. “How many?” “Twenty-five whole points,” he shouted, throwing his arms around my neck. “We’re gonna win!”
I glanced up at Debbie and smiled. Funny how life has a strange way of putting you exactly where you’re meant to be.