A big day was fast approaching in the village-town of Mucklebury.
The biggest day of the year in fact.
The annual Summer Fete, which has been held, every year since the beginning of recorded time, on the last weekend in July.
The kerfuffle of the previous year had barely died down, and the finer details were still the subject of many a chuckle over garden fences. The event was also a cause of much continuing hilarity in the village pub, which had witnessed some of the final scenes of one man’s very bad day.
By the time Abercrombie Buckweed, a fine, upstanding pillar of the community, had been locked up inside Mucklebury Police Station, there weren’t many people who didn’t know some version or other of the whole sorry saga. And even if they didn’t know the full story, they’d already begun filling in the gaps with anything that added to the comic effect.
The fete itself usually goes off without a hitch given that, for the most part, it is three days of harmless fun and games. Such light entertainment as knocking down coconuts, splatting rats, riding donkeys, three-legged sack races (only ever seen in Mucklebury) and the Small Pet Show, to name but a few.
Come to think of it the Small Pet Show has been known to cause the odd rumpus, with the wails and tantrums of disappointed children and occasional parental fisticuffs. And there was the infamous year of the Great Ferret Escape. But that’s another story altogether.
No, if there is going to be any trouble it will be something to do with the climax of the three serious village-town competitions: Best Kept Garden; The Flower Show; and Champion Baker.
Known by the locals as ‘Garden, ‘Flower’ and ‘Baker’, the gold medals awarded for first place are highly prized. Silver and bronze? Not so much.
When competition ‘Season’ arrives, the usually friendly and welcoming Muckleburians turn into steely-eyed monsters who will do anything, and I mean anything, to get their hands on the gold.
Added to that, there’s always the tantalising prospect of the Triple Crown Cup.
The Triple Crown Cup, as the name suggests, is awarded to the person lucky enough (or devious enough) to win all three competitions in one season. As you can imagine, this feat is all but unachievable, as anyone in possession of the gold medals for Garden and Flower, quickly becomes the prime target for sabotage and dirty tricks, as the Saturday of Fete Weekend, and the crucial bake-off, approaches.
Consequently, the cup has only been won six times since it was introduced 180 years ago.
Last year the ornately decorated, silver trophy, was won, and then lost in spectacular style, by the aforementioned Abercrombie Buckweed, retired headmaster of Mucklebury School and professional perfectionist.
In a nutshell, Abercrombie Buckweed made a bit of an exhibition of himself.
He had already secured first place in Garden, which is judged at the end of May, as well as Flower, in June’s competition.
Everything now hinged on Baker.
Saturday arrived and the hundred or so entries were neatly arranged on trestle tables in the judging tent. Each dish had a numbered card to identify it to prevent any accusations of favouritism. The judging committee, clipboards at the ready, entered the tent, closed the flaps behind them and began the serious business of picking their top three. Twenty rosettes were also awarded for the best of the rest.
Each entry was inspected, prodded, sniffed at and tasted while the competitors and fete-goers waited outside in excited anticipation. After a couple of hours, the committee re-emerged into the sunlight feeling, as usual, a bit bloated and slightly queasy.
In her sticky mitts, Bunty Muffin, head judge and professional baker, held three numbered cards.
With great ceremony, she placed the cards in their respective 1st, 2nd and 3rd places on the results board outside the tent.
As half the village watched on, the number 42 was placed in the 1st place slot and everyone looked around to see who had won.
A howl of delight from the normally reserved Buckweed, gave them their answer, as he took an identical numbered card from his pocket, threw it in the air and began leaping about in celebration like a salmon on springs.
Once he’d calmed down, the medals were handed out and an announcement made that the Triple Crown Cup would be presented the following day, at the end of the weekend’s festivities.
However, the silver medal recipient, or in competition language, ‘the loser’, was having none of it. Petunia Nimbus had ‘relevant information’ about a possible breach of the rules and the committee were duly informed. The resulting inquiry went on well into the evening.
Mrs Nimbus’ allegation was that Buckweed’s winning entry, a glazed apple and custard tart, contained custard made from bought powder. Apart from being a complete no-no in the baking competition world, if proven, the use of packet powders of any description was a disqualifiable offence.
How Mrs Nimbus came by this information goes some way to explaining why the Triple Crown was so hard to achieve.
Mrs Nimbus is the head-honcho of a vast network of spies, gossipers and busy bodies whose beady-eyed tentacles reach far and wide throughout the County of Dorsetshire. During the ‘Season’ when the three main prizes were being competed for, they were under standing orders to gather as much information as possible on the activities of their leader’s competitors.
In early July, one of them had reported seeing Buckweed buying a packet of Drib’s Instant Custard from Sparks and Mincer’s General Store in nearby Tumbleville.
Now, this product, much frowned-upon by ‘proper’ bakers, was freely available in at least two of Mucklebury’s food stores. Therefore, Buckweed’s purchase of such an item in the city, a place to which he was rarely known to travel, and so close to the competition, could only be viewed as suspicious at best and devious at worst.
The judging committee unanimously agreed that such behaviour was highly questionable and although they couldn’t be one hundred percent sure the custard was illegal (because actually the powder made very good custard) the circumstantial evidence was damning.
Buckweed flatly denied buying the illegal ingredient, insisting it must have been a lookie-likee. When I tell you that Abercrombie Buckweed is about five-feet tall, totally bald, with an enormous ginger beard and outrageously large feet, you will see that the committee thought the likelihood of a twin imposter being at large, was slim. Added to that, his explanation of how he went about making his own ‘real’ custard was vague and unconvincing.
The upshot was that Buckweed was disqualified, and Mrs Nimbus was promoted to first place.
The old headmaster’s dream of lifting the Triple Crown Cup was taken away, along with a large chunk of his self-esteem.
Buckweed’s utter embarrassment at having the Cup snatched from his grasp after his public display of triumph was bad enough.
Then he went to the pub.
The rest of the evening passed by in a cider-induced haze which severely compromised Buckweed’s capacity for making good decisions.
PC Inquisitus Plod found the old man drunk, riding a donkey, stolen from its enclosure at the fete ground, in the middle of the High Street, singing ‘cockles and mussels alive, alive-o’ over and over again at the top of his voice.
After a night sobering up in one of the Police Station’s cells, he was released in the morning with no charge and retreated from public life for the rest of the year to pick over the smouldering remains of his dignity.
As this year’s Competition Season approached, all eyes were trained on Buckweed to see what lengths, if any, he would go to to make up for last year’s debacle.
And while everyone was looking the other way, one equally ambitious resident was hoping to slip under the radar and secure the Triple Crown Cup for himself.
Dudley Dobson was the village-town’s resident chimney sweep and spent all week covered from head to toe in soot and dust. Dressed in black, with any exposed skin covered in grime, he was often invisible to the naked eye, especially on overcast days and after dark. Very often, ‘Sooty' Dobson (as he was affectionately known), resembled a pair of disembodied eyes and a set of teeth hovering in the vicinity of the rickety, three-wheeled handcart which contained the tools of his trade.
But come Friday night, the dirty sweep was unceremoniously dunked by Mrs Dobson into a tin bath full of hot, soapy water where all his sooty bits, and dusty crevices were vigorously scrubbed back to a pink sheen.
Many people didn’t even recognise the spotless Dudley at the weekends, when he was to be mostly found tending his front garden and, at this time of the year, titivating his prize Dahlias.
Dudley had always entered the horticultural elements of the competitions and had won a few medals over the years but, hitherto, any baking success had eluded him. Mrs Dobson was no help either, as she didn’t have a culinary bone in her body.
But this year was going to be different. This year Sooty Dobson had a secret weapon.
When he wasn’t exercising his green fingers, Dudley’s other passion was for knick-knacks and curiosities. His interest had been sparked as a child, while helping his father clean and repair the blocked and broken chimneys of Mucklebury’s old houses.
Over the centuries people had put all manner of weird and wonderful objects inside their flues. Sometimes for superstitious reasons, sometimes simply to hide them. Needless to say, many were forgotten about and the young Dudley found them.
He became fascinated by these oddities, which ranged from mummified cats and squirrels to ancient child's shoes, old clay pipes and endless numbers of bird skulls. He started collecting these things, and any other weird and wonderful objects, wherever he could find them.
His hobby led him, at least once a month, into Ye Olde Antique Shoppe.
On the corner of Market Square and High Street, Mucklebury’s only antique shop was run by the enigmatic Richard E. Mantlepiece.
Known to all as Dickie, his eccentricities were legendary, not least his curious habit of only opening his shop for four hours a day. Which four hours they would be was anybody’s guess, but at least they were always consecutive, with no lunch break, so at least if you did happen to find him open you might have time for a rummage around his jam-packed, dust-covered shelves and chaotically arranged cupboards, chests and display cases.
Dickie had spent his youth travelling the world, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of others, including Mucklebury’s retired Famous Adventurer, Laxton Pearmain, on his far-flung expeditions. Everywhere he went he would collect interesting stuff and send the bits home for storage until he had enough junk to open his shop.
As a result, he had amassed a vast collection of exotic trinkets and odd objets d’art from the myriad nooks and crannies of the planet. Many of them were haphazardly displayed in the shop but, by all accounts, he had an inexhaustible supply still in storage, waiting for shelf-space.
One afternoon the previous December, Dudley was hanging around Market Square hoping for an opening so he could find something for Mrs Dobson’s upcoming birthday. To tell the truth Mrs Dobson was never that impressed by Dudley’s ‘presents’ that came from Dickie’s Shoppe as she had the distinct impression they were not really for her at all.
The sweep was rewarded for his patience when the immaculately dressed Mantlepiece suddenly appeared at the glass-fronted door, shot back the bolts, and flipped the sign to ‘Open’.
He went in straight away and, as usual, Dickie was nowhere to be seen. He never inhabited the shop space during opening hours but could be heard pottering about in one of the back rooms. If you wanted to buy something, there was a bell on the front counter to summon him forwards to finalise the transaction.
Now the other odd thing about Ye Olde Antique Shoppe was that nothing had a price label. Once the bell had been rung and customer and proprietor were face-to-face, a kind of dance would take place along these lines:
Customer: “What is this thing, Dickie?”
Dickie: “No idea.”
Customer: “Where did it come from?”
Dickie: “A little flea market in the back streets of Marseilles”. He knew where everything had come from.
Customer: “How much do you want for it?”
Dickie: “What do you want to pay?”
The customer would then name a price, Dickie would double it or treble it, depending on his mood, and then a haggle would take place, culminating in an agreed figure somewhere in between the two opening offers.
Dudley was such a regular that he could quickly spot things he hadn’t seen before, and on this occasion, his eyes were drawn to a small ivory chest, inlaid with mother-of pearl, tucked behind a stuffed animal of some sort on top of a glass-fronted display case. He picked up the chest, which had a small key in a lock at the front.
The key turned easily, and the lid hinged open. The inside of the lid was covered with what looked like Chinese writing. The chest itself was divided into compartments, each slightly different in size and shape and topped by its own little wooden lid with a small turned ivory knob. The top of each knob was inscribed with a different Chinese character.
He picked up each lid in turn. The compartments were full of either some kind of powder, herb-like material or what looked like seeds. To him it had the appearance of a spice box but if it was, the contents were unfamiliar to him, either in look or smell.
He rang the bell.
“What is this, Dickie?”
“Come on Dickie, this is me you’re talking to, you must have some clue. Where did it come from?” Dudley could get away with pushing Dickie a bit further than most.
“I can tell you what I was told when I bought the item, but I make no assurances as to the truthfulness or otherwise of the tale. As you know, I give no guarantees.”
“Go on then. I promise I won’t sue,” replied Dudley.
Dickie went on to explain the story he had been told when he had bought the chest from a white-bearded Chinese tinker, during his travels in outer Mongolia.
After the usual haggling shenanigans, Dudley became the new owner of the mysterious chest, along with a yellowed piece of paper which, according to Dickie, was a translation into English of the Chinese writing on the inside of the lid.
He also bought a whale-tooth candle holder for Mrs Dobson’s birthday.
The chest, however, would remain very close to his chest and, most definitely, a closely-guarded secret.
The following day, Dudley sat down to his evening meal. As usual, Mrs Dobson had prepared an insipid soup-with-no-name as a starter. He was constantly at a loss to understand how his wife managed to achieve such a consistently low level of taste in her offerings, and today was no different. He took a spoonful of the watery broth into his mouth and, as usual, his taste buds remained unstimulated.
Surreptitiously, while Mrs Dobson was back in the kitchen ruining the rest of his dinner, he took a clean white handkerchief from his jacket pocket. He carefully opened it up to reveal three tiny grains, no bigger than sugar crystals, that he’d taken earlier from the triangular compartment inside his ivory chest. He shook them into his soup and gently stirred the grey gruel.
Tentatively, he put a second spoonful into his mouth and was instantly transported to food heaven.
He had never tasted anything as good, ever, anywhere. It was indescribable. Somehow there was a hint of all of his favourite flavours in each mouthful: freshly baked bread; peppered steak; roast lamb; toffee donut; his Mum’s casserole and dumplings. But not all mixed up and disgusting, each flavour was separate and distinct. He wolfed it all down in double-quick time, much to Mrs Dobson’s surprise, and for the first time ever, she dared to believe that she had produced something edible.
The rest of the meal was as bland and unappetizing as usual, but Dudley Dobson now had a vision of the future.
A future devoid of tasteless dinners.
A future that might also see the name ‘Dudley Dobson’ engraved upon the coveted Triple Crown Cup.
By the time fete weekend arrived, Dudley’s extra hard work in his garden had paid off, and for the first time in his life he had won both ‘Garden’ and ‘Flower’.
By rights, the village-town should have been buzzing with excitement at the prospect of a potential shot at a Triple Crown win.
But it wasn’t.
Dudley had never won so much as a rosette for his baked offerings, and it was well-known that Mrs Dobson didn’t have the skills to help him out, so no one expected any fireworks to result from Saturday’s judging.
They were wrong in more ways than they could have imagined.
On the Friday of Fete Weekend, Dudley got home extra-early and was dutifully scrubbed clean by Mrs Dobson. Then he went to work in the kitchen.
He had settled on a spiced carrot and ginger cake for his entry and had practised it a couple of times, with moderate success. However, this one was going to have the secret ingredient from his Chinese Chest. Once he had the eggs, sugar, butter and flour whipped to a creamy, airy perfection he got his white handkerchief out again.
This time he stared down at NINE grains of the magic ingredient.
He hesitated over the mixing bowl. The handwritten translation Dickie had given him was quite clear that no more than three grains should ever be used in one meal. He had experimented with five grains one day when one of his wife’s truly terrible lentil and brown rice stews was served up to him and, apart from a bit of a stomach upset the next day, he had suffered no ill-effects. And the stew had been indescribably delicious.
What the hell. It was death or glory time. Nine grains would just mean three times the effect, he reasoned to himself.
He wasn’t wrong.
Saturday afternoon arrived and the judges were inside the tent, judging.
It started just after they had finished.
Dudley’s entry was number 82, so they were nearly at the end by the time they arrived in front of his carrot cake. They all agreed that the taste was sublime. The effect on each of them was so profound that everything after that was just plain ordinary by comparison. When they got to the last entry (number 95) they had already made their minds up that 82 was the clear winner, so the slightly dry fruit scones, with crunchy currants, were quickly discarded.
Bunty Muffin felt it first. The pressing need to break wind - a not unfamiliar feeling during judging afternoon - but the intensity was severe and the onset sudden. She managed to move away from her fellow judges and control the release silently. She was surprised by the length of the blow-off but, feeling quite pleased with her subterfuge, she moved back to the group. Unknown to her, a profound stench had followed her back.
The others were instantly aware of the eggy odour but politeness and, now their own discomfort too, forced a heavy silence to descend. They were all concentrating very hard on retaining their own potential explosions and all were clenching tightly.
Then, from the unexpected direction of the tiny, ancient form of Winifred Wilberforce, came a high-pitched squeak, like air escaping from a balloon. It went on and on. The rest of the judges looked down at their shoes trying not to catch the eye of the mortified Winifred as her face tightened with concentration before, finally, she could hold the pressure no more and the squeak became a rip-snorting fart of epic proportions. She went crimson with embarrassment, muttering a ‘pardon me’ and a weak ‘must be something I ate’.
It was definitely something she ate.
Then Harold Trumpton piped up “Apologies” before simply letting go with a pant-ripper of his own, making no attempt at concealment. His lengthy rumble ended with a staccato set of notes and a double-tap, reminiscent of a ‘Tiddley-om-pom-pom’. This actually made Bunty laugh out loud, which simultaneously caused the release of her second raspberry
Millicent Trauserkoff was literally trying to hold it all in by clasping her behind with both hands and she was doing a great job, but the air had to go somewhere. The noises that came from within, along with the visible undulations of her belly, looked extremely uncomfortable, and she had to admit defeat and bow to the inevitable. She raised her hands above her head as if in surrender, allowing nature to take its course. She rather regretted wearing her favourite baggy silk trousers, which rapidly inflated like a hot-air balloon, to the point where it looked like they might explode. Mercifully for all present, the fumes found an escape route around her ankles, and the trousers gently deflated.
The whole group were now freely venting, with no attempt at apology or restraint. Clearly, they had all been affected by some rogue cake ingredient and the feeling that they were all in it together banished any embarrassment or shame.
But the air around them was becoming harder to breathe, as the tent rapidly filled with what must have been an explosive level of bottom-gas.
“I think it might be time to leave,” suggested Bunty, as her eyes began to water.
They all enthusiastically agreed and made their way to the opening, each of them trumping with every step. Bunty pushed open the flaps and gratefully gulped fresh air. She faced the expectant crowd and watched, horrified, as their faces immediately started to contort with disgust, as the sulphurous fumes rushed from the tent and wafted among them.
Bunty tried very hard to hold the pressure in again whilst attempting to make an announcement, but the two tasks turned out to be mutually exclusive.
“Ladies and (fart) Gentle (fart) men. Champion Baker (fart, fart) is cancelled (fart) due to unfore (fart) seen circum (fart) stances.” When she had finished, she just gave up. The resulting flatulation sounded like her own buttocks were giving her a round of applause.
Behind her, her fellow judges were making slightly better attempts at holding it in, but it was all about to reach a crescendo, as air pressure was replaced by something altogether different. The four faces simultaneously took on a horrified expression as they reached this critical point at the same time. There was no more to be said. The stricken judges made a beeline for the toilet tent with as much pace as they could safely muster.
Each face bore an expression of intense concentration as they tried to mentally calculate whether the distance to the tent was decreasing at a faster rate than their ability to hold back the rising tide.
They all made it.
The toilet tent was a no-go area for the rest of the day and the remaining contents of the bakery tent had been rendered inedible.
Dudley Dobson was dejected enough already, but when a fully recovered Bunty Muffin approached him the next day to tell him his cake would have won him the Triple Crown Cup if it hadn't been for the mysterious poisoning, it felt like salt being rubbed into an open wound.
He had to console himself with the thought that he had enough of the Chinese ‘taste improver’ to ensure his wife’s dodgy dinners would taste divine for the rest of his life.
And he promised himself he would keep strictly to the three-grain rule from now on.
Once again, the elusive Triple Crown Cup remained un-won for another year.
What the other compartments of the Chinese Chest contain I shudder to think, but I have a feeling we haven't heard the last of it.
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Drawings by Rosie Middleton.