Apple crumble happily bubbling in the oven. Wine glasses scattered across the table. One hour to go until the Rum Jungle Agricultural Society began buttering up Harold Jones. It was Georgie's idea. She wrote the letter to the head of the Uranium mine, inviting him to our committee meeting tonight, promising all kinds of “epicurean delights”. This gave the letter, a touch of glamour and reminded Jones of his city home. A person like Jones doesn’t relocated to the isolated upper tip of Australia unless he’s going to make a bomb! A financial bomb, I mean. And the RJAS wanted a bit of that filthy lucre to stay in Rum Jungle.
No one liked Jones. Although I didn't actually believe the rumours that he'd make us all glow. I had no reason to love him, given he'd shouted at my dog and was known to bet against our local footy team. I'd like nothing better than to assist in the lightening of those pockets.
I mused over this as I sliced the brussel sprouts and doused them in cream and checked the temperature of the wood fired oven. (If you are a city person, like Jones, I guess I better tell you: you do this by sticking your hand in it.)
People in Rum Jungle know I can cook.
Even members of the Country Women’s Association have been known to cross the road on purpose in order to ask me how I make my sponges so light. Of course it’s no secret. You just add a dash of hot water. Nora Melles tells me this doesn’t work. I can’t say I ever had much time for Nora, she always has far too many flowers sewn on her hats, the green one is quite vile! Why a woman wants to walk around with a garden on her head, I don’t know? So I just tell Nora Melles, when it comes to sponges it’s all in the way you hold your mouth, now isn’t it?
I took the apple crumble out of the oven to make room for the sprouts. The warm sweetly sour scent wafted in my face. These were apples I had put into jars last autumn when visiting my sister down south, an especially nice crop of granny smiths picked after the first frost. There is great satisfaction in sliding the tip of a butter knife between the tin lid and the rubber gasket, letting that little breath of air in to release the vacuum seal. Opening the jar I felt like I was pouring out preserved sunshine.
The table looked resplendent. That tartan cloth of my mother’s always looked good against cut glass and would be made even more beautiful by my hand raised chicken, roasted golden.
The chook! My heart plummeted into my woolen socks. There was no chicken roasting in the oven. I’d been so pre-occupied imagining Jones’ head was the turnip I was mashing that I’d forgotten the chook! I dashed to the deep freeze. Last year’s lamb chops frozen solid, and quite likely sporting freezer burn were the only offerings.
I think I can do it. I think I can butcher and cook a chook in less than an hour! Golden roast chicken you are off the menu, please make way for fried chicken. Judging by Jones’ size, I’d say he won’t turn up his nose.
I had a chook in mind: Hetty-good-wyfe. I’d been planning for weeks, this buxom beauty would be my gastronomic triumph. I hightailed it to the chook pen. My ladies were just wandering in to bed. I flung back the gate. An ear splitting noise blasted me backwards and I landed, one foot in the chook water. “BreeeeooorrEeeeeroooarEeeee-Roooar!” Nose to the chicken wire, my donkey reminded me I never gave him breakfast. Kip joined in with a cascade of barks in different pitches and volumes.
“Patchy! Kip!” I roared as I made for the night house, ignoring the squelch of my sock.
“Hetty-good-wyfe!” I fixed my eyes on her beady ones, “I’ve got a frying pan with your name on it!”
I made my dive. Feathers and squawks filled the air, but no chook graced my hand. I leapt to my feet and pursued them into the yard. I sprinted towards Hetty and found myself sprawled once more in the dust. Next time I was downed by a low hanging branch. I hoped that wet feeling above my eye was sweat and not blood.
“Pull yourself together,” I gave myself a pep talk, “Its now or never, and it ain’t gonna be never!” The blow to my head must have affected my lucidity.
I dodged, I dived, I rolled, I felt a pair of panicked claws scrambling up my head and dusty wings flapping in my face. One last grab and I came up triumphant… and crowed!
It was not Hetty-good-wyfe, that lucky lady was now straightening her feathers in the pink twilight.
A skinny white chook danced around in my arms, “You’ll do.”
I tucked the lankly broiler under my elbow and sprinted to the wood block. There was no time for hypnosis. I wrung his neck, grabbed the axe and dispatched with his head and feet. The chook flung himself to the ground in the headless death dance, but this one resembled more of a frenzied gymnastic routine.
At this point in time, I was blessed with a moment of repose from my busy day. As I leaned against the woodblock and watched the chook slowly flopping over and over, my breath came to me and amid the barks and brays, I slowly became aware of headlights.
A group of people are standing on the driveway. Every eye was on me.
I wiped some of the mud, sweat and blood from my eyes and indelicately kicked the axe behind the wood pile. With the dripping chook tucked under my arm, I took a few steps towards Agricultural Society, who leaned back in horror.
“Chicken anyone?” I offered.
If anyone was going to save this situation it was Georgie. She swept the committee and Jones into the house, then came back to shake me out of my stupor. It’s amazing what you can do with a change of clothes and a splash of Old Spice, even without the shaving.
The evening turned out to be quite a success. Half the committee had bought a plate of slice to share so dessert was a smorgasbord. Nora Melles jelly slice was never so welcome and I really think I was a bit too hard on the old bird. In fact, that green hat she wears really brings out her complexion and I must tell her sometime that it’s all about how you stir the sponge; around the edge and through the middle, then repeat. That’s the way to do it.
But Jones! Jones never looked so content. His fingers, like little fat sausages, were quite at home in the delicate operation of maneuvering jelly slice to ones mouth without the topping sliding off.
The evening culminated in Mr Jones writing out a cheque for $100 and handing it over to Jim Jackerby, President of the RJAS, to be used as the prize for the Champion Exhibit in the Home Industries section, on the condition Jones acted as Judge. It seems Jones would rather judge jams than children’s crafts and he’s not really qualified for anything else.
It’s a bit of a drive back into town, an hour this time of night, and if rains and your wheel goes in a rut: you haven’t got a hope. So after we got the cheque we buckled Jones into the front bench seat of Jim’s Ford, put an Ada biscuit in his pocket and waved them off. Georgie stayed and helped me with the dishes.
“You know why Jones was in such a good mood tonight?” She asked me over the soap bubbles. I answered that I couldn’t imagine it was my cooking. And she laughed and told me that was exactly what it was.
“Neil, you are one of the few men in town who intimidate Harold Jones!” She told me, “Nothing we cooked up for him could have given Jones greater pleasure than seeing you in a tight spot.”
She pulled a tissue from up her sleeve and told me to close my eyes. I'm pretty sure something which you can find at the bottom of the chook pen was being wiped of my forehead.
“I’ve been waiting to do that all evening,” she laughed.
I thought it was sweet of her to use the words ‘tight spot’ instead of ‘failure’ there aren’t many there that night that would.
Knowing Jones’ pleasure in my err... ‘tight spot’. I deemed it only fitting that I should be the one to bank his cheque and wipe the smile of his face. Although, I ended up taking more than that off his face, as you will see.
I spent weeks putting up preserves and experimenting with jam flavours. Have you tried a little crème de menthe in the preserved pears? Divine. They go a very elegant shade of mint green too, which reminds me of Nora Melles, the good old girl.
My house took on a particularly sticky feel and my car boot was familiar with white powdered sugar. Even on the day of the Rum Jungle Agricultural Show I was pouring sauce into jars. Entries must be delivered to the Ladies Pavilion by 10 am, but the roads were dry and I needn’t worry about getting bogged, only navigating the dried out puddles, some deep enough to lose a small child in. I hit the road with Kip in the front and my show entries happily packed in the boot of my Studebaker; one basket of farm produce, nine different varieties of jams, three different sauces, four Fowlers bottles of preserved fruits, including the much admired blue plum preserves from last year. ’63 was the year for plums, you should have seen them, big and burgundy with a bluish bloom, you can’t get that in the city, I’ll bet.
We rattled up to Rum Jungle and left our goodies in the Home Industries section of the Ladies Pavilion. The ladies who steward the Baking Section saw me coming and reminded me that I was banned from entering the men’s section this year. They only get a couple of fellers entering the men’s baking section so winning happens more by default than skills.
“… and if you are going to brag about your first prize sponge cakes, Neil Harrison, then remember it is only fair to bake against the best. There are 20 sponges entered in this year’s women’s section,” Nora Melles finished exultantly. I suddenly noticed that her hat was more flowery than ever.
“There’s a wasp on your hat, Nora,” I said and headed back outside to Kip.
We set off for the sump oiler's display, guessed how many kilos of wool would come off the best sheep and admired the biggest weed. Jones sauntered past with his yes men in tow. Just one look at those shiny crocodile skin shoes had Kip in a bad mood.
Did I mention Jones had a not so secret desire to be a politician and has started tickling babies where ever he goes? He ignored us but made a beeline for the nearest beribboned pram and brushing past Kip who doesn’t like his fur rubbed the wrong way. Kip let out a low growl. Jones looked down and gave him a swift kick. Kep whined and looked quizzically at me, waiting. Before I could decide what scathing comment to hurl his way, the bell rang and he trotted off to judge the preserves.
Now, I wanted more than ever to take the his prize money.
We joined the crowds to watch Jones delve into the pots joyously licking jam out of his moustache. My basket of farm produce won first prize and a few of my jams picked up prizes but I was only really interested in the aggregate prize for Champion Exhibit.
The envelope with the $100 cheque inside went to Sadie Jane Jones, niece to the illustrious Mr Jones, who had tied pink ribbons around all her jars and a couple in her hair. I heard a few grumbles from around the hall. But really could we have expected anything else from the man who made our fresh water ponds glow green.
There were still a fair few of my plum preserves unsealed on the table. I rolled my eyes. Typical. Then I saw one of the Fowlers jars foaming a bit around the gasket. It was right under the wobbling chin of Jones who had leaned over the table giving an impromptu filibuster.
The bumpy roads must have shaken up my preserves some and it looked ready to blow, with a fine foam of bubbles escaping from the edge of the lid. I stood, rubbing Kip between the ears, having a lovely day dream about Jones getting his nose sheared off by a preserving lid. I saw Georgie across the crowd and gave her a wink. She gave me a confused smile when...
Kip boy, we’ve been avenged.
About the Creator
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