'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Olivia's Cookery Course

There's a definite hint of autumn in the air. We've started lighting the fire again, and the wife's aunt has knitted a jumper for the dog. There were cats on the last jumper she knitted for him, so it was no surprise when he tore it off. This one has synchronised swimmers, and he seems to like it.

My cousin Isobel signed up for a cookery course given by a woman called Olivia, who used to teach the classes in her own kitchen. The classes began at eight o' clock in the evening, and sometimes they went on for nearly three hours because Olivia liked to digress and ramble on about things that had nothing to do with cookery. Sometimes she mumbled in a quiet voice and it was impossible to hear what she was saying. At other times she spoke clearly in a loud voice and her words would be reverberating around the walls of your head for days. Isobel enjoyed the classes because of Olivia's style of teaching. Lessons on how to cut a shepherd's pie lasted much longer than lessons on how to make a shepherd's pie, and they were more entertaining.

One evening, Olivia suggested a field trip. They left the house and they walked to the end of the street. They climbed a fence and went into a field. Olivia spoke about cauliflower as they walked through the field. She said that when cauliflower had been defused and rendered safe it could be approached from the side. She had heard of a priest's house-keeper who had tried to cook cauliflower before it had been defused. She got such a fright that she started planning her funeral later that day. She didn't trust her family to organise the funeral. She used to say that she'd sooner donate her body to the prison than let her family decide how she should be buried.

Olivia took her students to the ruins of a red brick building. "This used to be a bakery," she said. "I worked here many years ago. It was easy for me to get a job here because my aunt Gladys was the boss, but I'd like to think that I had enough talent to get the job even if the priest's house-keeper had been the boss. Uncle Peter was supposed to be running the business with her, but he spent most of his time trying to get bees into a beer glass. He wasn't trying to drown the bees -- it was an empty glass. I don't think he was trying to drink them either. I remember seeing a magician who had bees in a honey jar and he turned them into honey, but that was probably just a trick.

"Gladys wanted all of her employees to learn French. She thought it would add to our sense of sophistication. She wanted us to believe that we were better than other bakeries, and much better than the sandwich factory at the other side of town. She used to tell us that they cut sandwiches with hatchets and they communicated with each other using only the word 'ug', and at Christmas they conducted pagan ceremonies in which they'd play drums to entice an immortal pig out of the fog.

"Christmas was the most important time of the year at the bakery. Gladys would get out her famous Christmas cake recipe. It was in French so no one from outside the bakery could read it. She didn't believe that thieves would be sophisticated enough to learn French. She kept the recipe in a safe, and the safe was hidden under the carpet in her office, and the office was full of heavy mahogany furniture. There was a huge table, a sideboard and a chest of drawers. All of the drawers were full of heavy objects, like brass weights and Waterford Crystal feathers. All of these things had to be removed from the drawers and the furniture had to be taken out of the office so the carpet could be taken up and she could get at the safe. The recipe was spread over seven pages. She was the only one who was allowed to see all seven pages. It was my job to weigh the cherries. I didn't know much about the recipe, but I could tell you the amount of cherries in a typical cake. The workers who iced the cakes wore sunglasses because the glare was so bright.

"People were always asking me about the recipe. The cake was very popular. Some people wanted to buy it all year round, but Gladys would only sell it during the three weeks before Christmas. Some people would buy as many cakes as they could afford during those three weeks. There was a man called Luke who'd have an attic full of the cakes by Christmas Day. He'd do his best to ration them, and they'd normally keep him going until October.

"One February he visited his brother in England. He was supposed to be gone for a week, but after three weeks he still hadn't returned. Naturally, people were concerned about his well-being. They considered the possibility that he'd had an accident, possibly as a result of seeing a frog. He believed that frogs were manifestations of Satan, and the fear of what a frog might do to him meant that he showed little regard for his personal safety in his attempts to get away from frogs. He once jumped into a river after seeing a frog on top of a teapot.

"Shortly after first considering the possibility that he was dead, his neighbours' thoughts turned to liberating the cakes. No one wanted to break into his house and steal the cakes, but they were all afraid that someone else would do it. They couldn't bear the thought of someone else taking all of those cakes in Luke's attic.

"Paul and Susanne were friends of mine and neighbours of Luke, and they decided they had to act first. Paul had been taught how to break into houses by his father, but he didn't know where to find a barrel full of dynamite. Breaking in like this may well have broken the house and damaged the cakes anyway, so they needed some other means of getting in. The only other idea they could come up with was breaking a window, and they were so desperate to get the cake they were willing to give it a go. They went to his house after midnight. There were three panes of glass in the back door. Paul was going to break one of them and then reach in to open the door from the inside, but Susanne noticed that the door was already open. Getting into the house was much easier than they thought it would be.

"The door to the attic was in a spare bedroom. They went upstairs to this room. Paul got a chair and put it underneath the attic door, and Suzanne shone a flashlight on the door. Paul stood on the chair and he was just reaching up to pull the door down when they heard a cough. They realised that the back door was open because Luke must have returned. A wardrobe seemed like the ideal hiding place, but when they tried to get in they were pushed back by the people already hiding in it. Paul couldn't help swearing, and the people in the wardrobe recognised his voice. So did all the others who were hiding in the room. Someone turned on the light and the cake-lovers emerged from their hiding places. Fifteen of them had got there before Paul and Susanne. They were all eating cake. The newcomers didn't waste time arguing about missing out on their fair share of the cake. They just tried to make up as much lost ground as possible.

"The cake was gone by dawn, and all of the thieves had fallen asleep. You can imagine Luke's horror when he returned to find his house devoid of the thing he loved and full of the people who had eaten it. It didn't take him long to wake the thieves. One quick-thinking thief came up with the story that they had eaten the cake to celebrate Luke's life because they had been told that he was dead, flattened by a steam roller after being surrounded by frogs. Luke believed this excuse because it had a ring of truth to it. He told them what had really happened. He hadn't been killed at all, he said. He was bird-watching with his brother one afternoon. They saw a strange bird that looked a bit like a pheasant but almost certainly wasn't a pheasant, unless it was a very strange pheasant. It was walking quickly through a field, as if it was late for an appointment. Luke and his brother followed the bird, and it led them to a narrow lane, where they were captured by pirates. These pirates had given up life on the high seas because it was too dangerous. They took their captives to their 'ship'. The ship was really just a van with ornamental sails. They demanded a ransom for Luke and his brother, but they couldn't find anyone willing to pay anything for the hostages. This was demoralising for Luke and his brother. It was even more demoralising for the pirates who had to listen to the hostages talk all day about birds, cake and their aunt's habit of suing waiters. After a few weeks, the pirates paid a farmer to take the hostages off their hands. Luke and his brother escaped from the farm, and Luke made his way home.

"His disappointment at the loss of his cake didn't last long. He told the others that it was time they liberated the recipe from the safe in the office. He had often considered doing this before, but there was no way he could have done it on his own. If they joined forces they could remove all the furniture at night and then he'd be able to open the safe. He'd been taught how to do this by a master thief. When they first met, the thief was telling an ostrich about the joys of bachelorhood. His embarrassment at being caught doing such a thing made him offer his secrets to Luke in exchange for a promise of silence on his chat with the ostrich.

"The cake thieves went home to get some rest. They met again at Luke's house at midnight, and from there they made their way to the bakery. As they were standing outside the office window, arguing about who should break the glass, the window opened and Gladys looked out. On the previous night she had seen some of the cake thieves before they broke into Luke's house. They were dressed in black and they looked as if they were afraid of being caught doing what they were going to do. She was afraid that they were going to break into the bakery to steal the recipe, so she spent the night in her office. She had planned to return home on the following night, but she knew that she wouldn't get any sleep because she'd be afraid of a break-in, and her fears were confirmed when she saw the crowd outside the window. They told her what had happened, and she had pity on them. She offered to make another batch of the cake just for them, but they'd have to pay three times the normal price. They were delighted with this deal. She could have sold it at ten times the normal price."

Isobel said, "If she was making so much money from the cake, how come the bakery is in its current state?"

"Some of the ingredients in the cake were banned, and business was never as good after that. The bakery closed down when Gladys retired. She gave the recipe to me. I keep it in a safe at home, even though it's not as sought-after these days."

"Is there any chance you could show us how to make the cake?"

"I'm afraid that would be out of the question. Leaving aside the question of legality, I wouldn't want anyone else to know the recipe."

"Fair enough."

"But I could make some of the cake for my students. I can see some educational value in it. The last time I checked, education wasn't illegal."

At the end of their final class, Olivia gave them some of the cake. Isobel could see why it attracted so many devotees. Everyone in the class signed up for Olivia's next course.

The moose's head over the fireplace is enjoying the fires beneath him. They make the room seem more welcoming, even when the wife's uncle is telling his story about finding a set of false teeth in the mud. He spent weeks trying to find the woman who dropped the teeth there. It was just like Cinderella.