The Challenge

The Challenge.

Chapter 1. Karen.

The alarm went off at 6:30 but Karen was already awake and dressed. She was sat at her dressing lazily brushing her long, honey coloured hair and gazing at her reflection in the glass. With each stroke of the ivory backed brush she tried to calm her nerves. Why did she do this every year, why did she put herself through this torture? It had to be the ultimate in the triumph of hope over experience. Every year, for the last four years she had gone in for the Mineral town cooking festival and always with the same result, total disaster. No matter how hard she tried or what ever she cooked she failed to impress. Her mother spent hours trying to teach Karen the rudiments of cooking but nothing ever seemed to stick. Sasha was endlessly patient with her, encouraging her all the time but nothing seemed to help. Karen couldn't help contrasting her life with that of her mother. There was a peaceful serenity about Sasha that Karen completely lacked. Her mother had been an extraordinarily beautiful young woman and she'd married her childhood sweetheart, Jeff, there in Mineral Town. Although Jeff was such a quiet, timid man he and Sasha had a very happy marriage, peaceful and contented. Karen found it hard to understand. Deep inside her she knew she'd need something more from the man she married but she also knew she'd never settle for anything less than the love she felt in her own home.

"Sweetheart," Sasha called from the kitchen, "Karen, are you awake, love?"

"Yes, mother."

"I've got coffee ready, come on you've got lots to do this morning," Sasha called back. Karen could almost hear the hopeful smile in her mother's voice.

"I'll be out in a moment," she answered.

With a sigh Karen put down the brush and shook back her hair. Ruefully, she sighed at her reflection in the mirror. Oh, yes she was pretty; there was no doubt about that but the sight of her perfect oval face with its rich creamy skin. The arched golden eyebrows and the large emerald eyes fringed with long dark lashes left her cold. This was ridiculous, she had a good home, good friends, loving parents, and beauty and yet she felt so empty. Day melted into day, spring, summer, autumn, winter, one year and then the next and nothing changed. It just got worse. Try as she might Karen couldn't feel as if she belonged. Maybe this inability to get to grips with cooking was just a symptom of her inability to get to grips with life. Mary had her library, Elli, the clinic, Ann had the Inn and Popuri the farm but she had nothing. It was this lack of direction, this lack of purpose that dogged her days. She knew she drank too much but she needed something. Most days she stood on the beach gazing off across the waters looking for something. Looking for someone. She knew Rick cared for her and she liked him but it just wasn't enough. Thinking of her friends Karen smiled. Ticking them off on her fingers she mused at their choices. Popuri, she just melted every time she looked at Kai. Elli was devoted to the doctor and Karen had caught Trent gazing longingly at Elli when he thought no one was looking. Ann was a right one for a lame dog and if Cliff didn't watch it he'd find himself well and truly looked after. Now there couldn't be a much odder pairing, one the face of it, then Mary and Gray. Him a real streetwise kid and she such an innocent still real devotion had sprung up there. To her annoyance Karen found another face constantly filling her mind these days. Jack. This enigmatic outsider had come to Mineral Town and taken over the abandoned farm on the edge of the woods. Ever since moving in Jack had seemed to pop up everywhere with his cheeky smile and hid soft, floppy brown hair. He had soon won over most of the town's people, everyone seemed to like Jack. At first several of the girls had fancied their chances with Jack and, although he'd been unfailingly kind, one by one they'd given up. There was an awful lot of gossip in the supermarket and Rose Square about the young farmer. Who was he really? Was there a tragic secret in his past? Was there someone back in the city or had he his eye on one of the girls in Forget-me-not-Valley? No one seemed to get closer to an answer.

He came into the supermarket on a regular basis, buying food and seeds and he brought her and her mother flowers, but then he did that for the other women as well. On Jack's second visit to the supermarket Karen had given him a free packet of seed. She couldn't remember now what had come over her, maybe she just felt sorry for him he seemed to have so little. Later on in the year curiosity had got the better of her and she'd gone to visit the farm. She took a packet of Moondrop flowers as a present. She'd gone with the vague idea that Jack could do with something to brighten up his world. She could remember walking past the farm in times before Jack had lived there and it had really been the most forlorn place. The fields had been full of rocks, dead wood and waist high weeds. The farm buildings had all been locked up and deserted. No one had lived in the farmhouse for several years, the glass in the windows shattered and tattered shreds of curtain fluttered mournfully in the breeze. There had been a barn, a stable, a hen house and the usual storerooms but they had all been dilapidated and empty. Now Karen stopped at the entrance to the farm, stunned. What a difference! God, Jack must have worked every hour he could. All the buildings had been repaired; the fields were cleared and productive. Tomatoes, corn and onions were growing in ordered rows. Several plump, healthy cows were fenced in front of the farm buildings as well as a beautiful brown horse. There were flowers and strawberries perfuming the air. Jack had even pruned the old apple tree by the watering hole and now apple blossom showed the promise of sweet apples to come.

"Karen, come on love." Sasha called again breaking through Karen's thoughts.

"Yes, mother, don't worry, I'm ready" Karen called back. She then got up and straightened her bright purple top. Quietly, she closed the door and went into the kitchen. Sasha was stood by the scrubbed kitchen table on which packets and bottles jostled with glistening vegetables. Yesterday Karen had gone through the huge, ancient family recipe book and, with closed eyes and a spoon handle, chosen the dish she would mutilate this year. Pumpkin pudding! Now just how difficult could that be?

"There you are," Sasha smiled. "I've got all the ingredients ready for you. Are you sure you don't want me to help?"

"No.yes…no" Karen stammered. "I don't know. I should do this all by myself but I can't bear to lose again.

"Look, how about I just watch and you can ask me questions?" Sasha suggested, putting her arms around her daughter.

"With you watching I'll probably just drop everything." Karen confessed.

"Well how about I work over there." Sasha gestured to the other side of the kitchen, " "and you can just ask if you need me."

"Thanks mum," Karen replied, hugging her gentle mother. Sasha walked over to a large cupboard across the kitchen and took out a beautiful green and gold pudding basin and then crossed over and gave it to Karen.

"This is my special, lucky dish Karen," Sasha explained. "Use it today, it belonged to your grandmother and it always worked for me."

Karen gently took hold of the dish and smiled gratefully at her mother.

"Let's hope so. Well I'd better get on with." With that Karen shrugged and rolled up her sleeves.

About an hour later Karen was exhausted and the kitchen looked as though a whirlwind had gone through. She was slumped in a chair surrounded by the debris of her cooking. Sometime during that hour it seemed that every packet had disgorged its contents all over the floor and Karen had been drenched in batter. Glutinous drops of thick batter hung from her hair and landed in heavy splats on the floor. She was sure she'd done exactly what the receipe had said but Karen was sure the mixture shouldn't have exploded in the mixing bowl they way it had. At one point Sasha suggested they try straining the mixture to get out the eggshell and that it would be a good idea to have smaller pieces of pumpkin. Her mother kept reassuring her that things were going well even though she had shot forward to stop Karen when she picked up the chilli powder rather than the cinnamon. Still, Karen squinted at her pudding sulking there in the beautiful bowl, she was sure the pudding in the picture looked a rich creamy mix not the virulent yellow hers did.

"Are you sure that looks right?" Karen asked timidly.

"Yes," Sasha replied, looking away.

"I don't want a repeat of last month when Jack tried my stir fry and ended up being taken to the doctors." Karen confessed. It had been so humiliating even though Jack had tried to tell her that it wasn't her fault.

"Oh, Karen love," her mother murmured, "You'll be fine, I just know you will. You know, Jack thinks the world of you, don't you."

"Mum," Karen warned "I know you like Jack but he's got too much…..too much….oh, you know." Karen stammered to a halt.

"Alright, " Sasha shrugged, "Now you go and get a bath and get ready while I put this pudding in the oven. You want it to arrive in Rose Square in perfect condition, don't you."

"But we need to clean up," Karen sighed, pushing her hair out of her eyes.

"No, love you just leave that to me, you just go and rest."

"Thanks, mum. You're the best."Karen replied heaving herself out of the kitchen chair.

"I know." Sasha whispered as her daughter left the kitchen. She put the pudding in the oven, carefully closing the glass door. "And one day you'll thank me for this."