As I remembered it, everything had fallen silent and twenty or so grey heads had swivelled as one to face me in unified scrutiny: it was just like in those old western movies where the new guy in town enters the saloon. My gut instinct had been to pretend I had come to the wrong joint and to retreat safely back to the street, but sixteen years of strongly enforced manners forced me to respond to the already beckoning leader of the group. Her bent frame standing authoritatively at a lectern implicitly stated her position, although I would later note her gold badge hanging droopily on her cardigan, proudly proclaiming ‘President’.
‘Come in young man’ she had said, and the term ‘young man’, so formal and so incongruous in this forum, rang out in the cavernous space of the hall.
In my nervous state, I had let the door fall behind me and its weight had taken me by surprise. The loud bang of the door hitting the frame made me jump in unison with a dozen or so hunched shoulders, and I had shrugged my own shoulders in an exaggerated cringe to silently communicate my apology. Wrinkled faces, more wrinkled by knitted brows, stared as I sat down carefully at the far end of the semi circle. ‘President’ nodded briskly and continued her address to the meeting, referring to a clipboard gripped in her shaky hand.
‘Entries must be delivered to the fete hall on the twentieth, in order for the judging to begin promptly at eight am on the twenty first. Prizes will be announced prior to the commencement of the fete on the twenty fifth.’
President took off her glasses and squinted at the audience. During the dramatic pause I felt the group collectively consider prizes and deadlines. As I watched with interest, the President’s expression slowly hardened and her mouth pursed with grim sobriety. ‘And let’s not forget to meet display standards as specified in the entry form ... Bernice...’ President raised her eyebrow at a round, rosy cheeked woman in a Disneyworld shirt, who immediately blushed and shrank guiltily into her chair.
A bristle had gone through the group and individually the ladies attended to some busy adjustment on their person: straightening cardigans, uncrossing legs, repositioning purses on laps. I myself had shifted uneasily in my chair even though I had no personal investment in Bernice’s apparent failure to comply. Out of sympathy, I had caught her eye and given her a quick smile and she’d raised her eyebrows heaven-ward while recrossing her ankles. By then the meeting had resumed much to everyone’s palpable relief.
‘Now, we are currently trailing Bega in the sponge division and failing in every way in the jams,’ President shook her head in despair as she put her glasses slowly back on the bridge of her nose.
‘However’ she paused here again for maximum impact, ‘we are kicking butts in the fruit cake division!’
The group immediately broke out in merry chatter, twittering about this and that, while I choked on the phrase ‘kicking butts’ and tried not to laugh at President’s triumphant fist pump in the air.
‘Now, now!’ President then tapped her knuckles on the lectern and swivelled her head sharply to zero bifocal-magnified eyes on me. ‘What brings you to a CWA meeting young man?’ Her tone was brisk and the question warranted a short response, but nerves overtook me and as usual, I felt compelled to give my life story whether it was welcomed or not.
‘Uh, I’m Hugo. I just moved here with my dad. He’s the new GP’ I had looked around hesitantly at that point and I remember the inquisitive faces turned towards me. I knew this information had given them some context but had not answered the burning question on everyone’s mind: what had brought a sixteen year old boy to a CWA meeting when down the road the rest of the ‘male youths’ in Yarravale were in the PCYC playing indoor cricket or generally loitering and being a pain in the ass. I barely knew myself, because certainly, my attendance at this meeting would be all around town like wildfire by evening and ipso facto, the Yarravale ‘youths’ would not be falling over themselves to be my first country friend. But they probably wouldn’t anyway, given that I had always been the lucky holder of a reserved spot in the school library at lunchtime, friendless and anxious and nerdy. And by the looks on the faces of my current audience, all this was clearly apparent, especially to this group of veteran parents and grandparents who had seen tragic tales like my own in their own family webs. I mean really, the pale, freckled and spotty face, and the skinny legs swimming in baggy cargo pants gave me away as a kid not used to swaggering about town with a posse of followers.
That aforementioned anxiety, and the inability to sit in awkward silence, propelled me forwards to continue my sad narrative to what I had hoped would be a sympathetic crowd.
‘I just really love cooking and ... my dad said I needed to try and find something to do here to occupy myself and ... I suppose I’m sort of lonely at home.’
At this point I was starting to hit my strides in pouring out my heart but was immediately cut off by President, who had a pained expression on her wizened face.
‘Listen kid, this isn’t Junior Masterchef. This is a serious organisation, and we have serious business to attend to so if you’ll just mosey on back to your little mates down at the cricket nets....’
She went back to the lectern to shuffle her papers, and added as a prompt for me to leave ‘Maybe you can let your mum know that we run a Country Women’s Association if she’d like to attend’.
And with her sarcastic hiss on women’s and a squint though her huge glasses, she turned her attention back to the meeting.
‘But...but’ I had stammered, and I must admit now in embarrassment that I blurted out the most plaintive confession, ‘I don’t have a mum. She’s dead.’
About nineteen women all jumped as one and a chorus of ‘ohs’ ran along the semi circle like dominoes falling towards me. I felt a bony arm grip me from my left and I turned from the President to meet the large sympathetic eyes of the lady next to me. I noted that the semi circle of nannas had now leant forward as one and the curved arc of pastel coloured cardigans leaning towards me suggested the warmth of a group hug.
However, any warm fuzzy feeling was interrupted by a gigantic sigh from President, and everyone turned back to face her as she summoned attention again with a stamp of her sensible navy lace up shoe.
‘For God’s sake, are we a drop in centre now for every simpering waif in town? Alright’ she held up her hand to stop any protest, ‘You’re in kid, as a trial in this fete. But you need to prove your worth by being a good listener and a quick learner. We have ribbons to win here, Sonny Jim’.
A cheer rippled through the group and a few members clapped their hands to show their satisfaction with President’s apparently uncharacteristic ‘compassion’.
‘Scones, Jan. Start him on scones!’ Centre seat, apricot coloured cardigan addressed the President excitedly and she would later be introduced to me as Adelaide, or Addy, my new scone mentor.
The meeting had concluded with pots of strong tea and a caramel slice that left a thick smear of oil, butter and sugar on the tongue for hours afterwards. Bernice had wrapped up a piece in baking paper to take home to my father: I didn’t have the heart to tell her that in his role as town GP my father would soon be telling her that she was to cut sugar, carbs and all caramel sliced pleasure out of her diabetes threatened life.
And indeed he did days later but his new role as the fun police didn’t affect my CWA membership because by that stage I was firmly in my apprenticeship. I was pouring over recipe books and practising kneading dough, collecting secret tips from the masters in the group such as using a shot of lemonade to improve the dough consistency, crowding the scones for scaffolding in the oven, sifting the flour five times to perfect the rise. As the fortnight went on, and my scones rose and rose, my reputation in town amongst my peers moved from disinterest to curiosity to outright bewilderment. Happily it was Easter holidays and I could sleep all morning to avoid interaction, and scoot out to the hall for the afternoon arrival of the ladies post lawn bowls session. It was mostly a peaceful existence except for one afternoon when Clover bought her grandson to meet me, in an attempt to set me up with a familiar face for the first day back at school. Joel had scowled at me as he picked at a piece of fruit cake, and when Clover had her back turned he had mouthed ‘fag’ with contempt and left not long after without a backwards glance. I had shrugged it off like every other time I had that word thrown at me: I was used to it. I suppose the worst thing was its inevitability. No matter where I went, or who I encountered, there was always some kid ready to throw out ‘fag’, ‘poof’ or ‘homo’ within minutes of meeting me. It was inescapable; even here at the CWA. It was exhausting.
But Addy never called me ‘fag’ or ‘poof’: she called me ‘petal’, and with her gentle and kind tuition, my scones glazed browner, and crumbled more deliciously; I slept better each night basking in the mild light that a friendship with a seventy year old woman could offer a sixteen year old boy. Even President deigned to inspect my offerings on the day leading up to the submission, and gave a derisive sniff at my pumpkin scone fresh from the oven, a dab of yolk coloured butter dribbling enticingly down the sides.
‘No butter for the comp Sonny Jim, they are taste tested plain. Can’t hide any flaws by smothering it in butter’ she had barked, with a tap of her knuckles on her clipboard before stalking off to test the texture of Bernice’s sponge. Addy and I had rolled our eyes and stuffed a warm scone half into our mouths, content to be inside on a rainy afternoon and enjoying the spoils of our labours.
And so the twentieth had arrived, and the best of my batches were dispatched to the plain, the date and the pumpkin divisions. I was playing the numbers game and flooding the divisions in order to place somewhere out of sheer blanket exposure. I thought that the best way to win. And here’s where I’d like to tell you that a blue ribbon was wrapped around one or more of my scones, triumphant in the fete display and perched above the second and third place tiered scones of the Bega chapter. But I’m afraid not. My scones looked good but were, in fact, like stones. Something about the second day staleness as a result of overcooking – I’d been chasing the desirable brown glaze at the expense of a fluffy interior. President had shaken her head and muttered something about rookie error. Addy and Bernice expressed good natured disappointment. I wasn’t disappointed though: I had been warned by them that baking was an art and the years that these nannas had put in showed their commitment to the cause and their passion to perfect the process. Two weeks showed me that it was a lifetime of learning to become a CWA veteran. It was okay: this boy had the time.