The People's Friend
The Marquee Mystery
Who had sabotaged the sponge cake? Polly was determined to find out!
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 –”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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