Chapter 8 The cooking festival
Checking the contents of his rucksack, Jack set off for Rose Square with a spring in his step. Everything was set in motion, now all he had to do was sit back, fingers crossed, and watch the play unfold. As he entered the square he could see that most people had already congregated around the long, central trestle table with its flowing linen tablecloth. Thomas was busy making sure the judge, Max Stellar; the world famous gastronome was being entertained. Max was a well known in that part of the world, and what a figure! He towered over the little mayor, Thomas looked like a small tug bustling around an ocean liner. He came to Mineral town once a year to judge the cooking contest, savouring every dish before delivering his verdict. Over the years Doug had won many times but his daughter, Ann had her own share of victories. Both Anna and Manna were brilliant cooks and both women had won prizes before. Lillia no longer entered the competition as her health would not permit it and Sasha had also ceased to compete. She'd stopped when Karen began to enter the fray. Poor Karen though had never won the cooking contest, no matter how hard she tried. She was hopeless and the harder she tried the worse it got. Today, one by one, the competitors went over to the table and left their dishes, each one covered with a cloth. This was the same each year but today things were slightly off. Although there was excitement and eagerness in the air something wasn't right. Max Stellar could tell all wasn't quite as it should be but he couldn't quite put his finger a on what it was. It was making him uneasy and he wasn't used to this. He just wanted to get this over with and get back to an atmosphere he was comfortable with. Although it was a little early to start Thomas could see his guest was growing uneasy so he rang his bell calling all the competitors to the table. It took everyone by surprise but they all gathered round. The five entrants stood in front of the table waiting to be called over to the judging. Doug looked very nervous and he kept glancing at his watch. Ann kept looking over to where Cliff stood at the beach entrance, next to a large picnic basket. Anna stood next to Manna and both women whispered to each other, looking round from time to time at their families. Basil smiled back at Anna but Mary, for some reason kept glancing away from her mother to smile at first Gray and then at Karen. Duke was deep in conversation with Jeff and didn't seem to notice his wife. Jack came up behind Karen who was stood twisting her handkerchief and trying not to look concerned.
"Good luck, Karen," he whispered.
"Thanks, Jack," Karen whispered back, without turning round. "I don't think I could bear it if the Gourmet told me he hated my food again."
"I'm sure he won't" Jack assured her, "How could anyone hate you?"
"Well, here goes," Karen, said. "Jack, after this is over, will you go for a walk with me?"
"Yes," Jack moved closer to whisper into her ear. "I'd go anywhere with you, you know that."
"Jack…I…I," Karen began but she was cut off by the beginning of the contest.
"Welcome to the annual Mineral Town cooking festival," Thomas called out, "and welcome to our esteemed judge MR. Max Stellar." There was a round of applause and the Gourmet stepped up to the table. "When your name is called please step forward."
Everyone grew silent and waited in anticipation as the judge approached the first station.
Doug stepped forward and removed the cloth from over his entry. It was a stir-fry but to the Gourmet's dismay this was nothing like Doug's usual cooking. Doug looked down at the sorry display and shrugged his shoulders. The last few days had been a nightmare for him ever since Thomas had dropped the hint that the hotel inspector was in the area and would be dropping in on him today. Since then he'd spent every waking moment making sure that everything in the inn was perfect. All those little jobs he'd been putting off he now rushed to do. Every time he relaxed something else would spring to mind and he'd be off to work on it. Every cupboard had been emptied, linen searched through for worn patches and as for the books, well, Doug just didn't like to think of the hours he'd spent over them. He'd only remembered the cooking this morning and he'd flung together a stir-fry from just anything he had lying around.
" A most unusual collection of flavours," the judge murmured as he pushed the stir-fry around the plate noticing quite a few burnt bits as he did so. Doug had noticed them too but what could you expect he'd been in and out of the kitchen all morning, every time the fool telephone rang or there was a knock at the door. Ruefully, the judge shook his head and Doug stepped back.
The judge had to call her twice and even then Manna had to nudge her to take notice. Ann hopped forward with an apologetic smile at the Gourmet. Max uncovered Ann's plate with anticipation. He always loved her food, so complex and yet so tasty. As the cloth fell away his face fell. A green salad! Ann smiled at him but looked away. She knew it wasn't up to her standard but she had far more important things on her mind. She glanced across at Cliff and gave him a dazzling smile. The poor man! She'd come across him on the beach a few days ago sighing as though his heart would break. She wasn't to know he'd been practising that sigh and twice Manna had caught him at it. He'd had to pretend he had indigestion and suffer her homemade remedies. Still the churning in his stomach had been real enough as Ann approached him. He'd poured his heart out to her just the way Jack had instructed him to. She'd held his hand as he told her how much he missed his family, how he'd loved a picnic on the beach with them on holidays but now he was sad as he had no one to share these special days with. Ann had hugged him close and told him he did have someone special, he had her. If a picnic would make him happy then a picnic he would have. Jack had been right, it was amazing. Since then Ann had gone around as if she glowed, arranging things, asking him what his favourite foods were and making sure he was happy. Cliff couldn't believe just how happy he was and he waved to Ann as he waited by the groaning picnic basket. Of course she'd cooked lots of wonderful things but they were all in the basket. The salad was the only thing she had left.
The Gourmet took a quick nibble and then moved on.
Manna stepped forward proudly, smiling at the audience. Duke watched his wife but looked away quickly. He wasn't too worried about what he'd done as his wife had made his life a misery for the last few days. He done as Jack had suggested but she hadn't believed him. Morning, noon and night his head rang from her recriminations until he took to hiding in the cellar. He knew he didn't have to do as Jack had asked but he did it anyway, for his own satisfaction. Manna was making one of her special apple and blackberry pies for the contest and, when she wasn't berating him, she was boasting about how she'd wipe the floor with all of them this year. It had been a simple slight of hand to swap a few labels when she was off dosing Cliff with one of her stomach remedies, poor kid. She'd never even noticed that the grated nutmeg was a little paler than usual and enough of the other ingredients covered the smell of the dried garlic she shook over the apples. The pie now stood on the judging table waiting to be tasted. Max smiled at Manna and cut himself a generous wedge of the beautiful pie. He plunged his fork into the glistening sweet filling but as he put the pie into his mouth his eyes began to water. He dropped the fork and struggled to swallow the mouthful, calling for a glass of water. Manna stepped back abruptly and turned away confused. She couldn't understand it and she looked really crestfallen. Duke felt rather ashamed at his having gloated at her downfall but promised himself he'd make it up to her with a romantic dinner for two and a moonlit boat ride just the way he had when they'd first been married.
Anna walked forward but she was far from happy with her entry this year. Something had gone wrong with her delicate cake and for the life of her she couldn't work out what. She'd made three of the cakes and they'd all flopped. Still, there was something going on over in the far corner of the square today that meant she really didn't care. Her beloved daughter, Mary was sat over on the bench with the blacksmith's grandson, Gray and she had never seen her so happy. She knew Mary liked Gray but she'd never been sure about the young man's intentions. Then he'd given her that beautiful book that showed just how mush he did think about her. Mary was also watching her mother, feeling more than a little guilty at her part in this but the smile on her mother's face told her everything would be alright. Gray had bought her the most beautiful book she had ever seen. It took pride of place on her bedside table. To think that he thought so much about her that he had gone to such lengths to find her such a wonderful thing. It was obviously an amateur piece but the romantic story had really touched her heart. A young man had fallen in love with a beautiful princess but she was far above him. To win her hand he had to perform a dangerous and difficult task that many had failed to do before him. With the help of a wondrous guardian angel he'd overcome all the obstacles and won his true love. Gray had commented how the story had reminded him of his friend Jack and Karen. How sad that his friend loved Karen and what an impossible situation she'd put him in. Mary had been intrigued by this and begged Gray to explain. So he had. If only Karen could win the cooking festival then maybe jack could also win the love of his life. Gray had sighed and said what a pity Jack had no guardian angel to help him like the hero in the book and how lucky he was to have his own little angel in Mary. Mary had thought about it and said she'd love to be an angel and help their friends win love, but how. Gray had suggested she could do her part and, although she was uneasy at sabotaging her mother's cakes, she was sure Anna would understand that love must come first. Together they'd managed to wreck all three cakes, opening oven doors and kitchen doors at just the right times to ensure they fell. Now, watching the Gourmets fat face, puckering like a disappointed toddler at the sight of the sunken cake they couldn't help giggling.
Finally, the judge moved on to the last dish.
Karen looked around her, her heart thumping in her chest as she stepped forward. She couldn't understand what was happening here but something obviously was. This was not like any of the other years and she was terrified at what was going to happen next. She could just see the handsome green and gold dish peeping out from under the checked cloth that covered its lid. The judge looked at her as he lifted the cloth. She knew he was remembering her disasters from previous years one of which had removed one of his fillings. Looking around her all she could focus on was Jack. His face stood out for her, her wonderful little farmer, cheering her on. She smiled at him, conscious just how much he'd come to mean to her. All this fuss over a silly cooking contest when someone like Jack loved her! Forgetting her nerves she looked at Max and gave him a dazzling smile. The judge lifted the lid of the dish and looked in amazement at the golden creamy pudding that lay beneath. Cautiously he dipped in his spoon and took just a small sample. He knew enough of Karen's cooking to be wary but the taste was dreamy. It was sweet and rich; the pumpkin taste melted his mouth, spiced with a subtle taste of cinnamon. He dug in his spoon and took a larger mouthful glorying in the sensational taste. Karen watched in amazement as he savoured her pudding, surely that couldn't be her dish, but it had to be. What she didn't know was that while she slept Sasha had taken a second dish from her cupboard, one she had made earlier. She had quietly substituted Karen's pudding for one of her own. Keeping her fingers crossed, Sasha stood by her husband and just hoped her daughter would understand eventually and forgive her. It broke Sasha's heart to see how her beautiful daughter struggled with life. It was so hard to see her unhappy and not be able to do anything to help. She knew other people assumed that Karen and Rick would become a couple but Sasha knew they were wrong for each other. Still, Rick wasn't that hurt, she could see the young poultry farmer standing by that pretty girl from the valley and he was being very attentive. Since Jack had come to live in the area Karen had begun to change. As his interest increased Sasha had seen the sparkle return to her daughters eyes. She watched her daughter slowly falling in love with the handsome young farmer but she knew that Karen was afraid, afraid to believe that this was all real. Sasha had agreed to Jack's plan because she knew he would make Karen happy, all it needed was a bit of a push. She felt for Jeff's hand and squeezed his fingers, wishing hard.
The judge laid down his spoon and went to speak to Thomas. After much whispering the mayor walked up to the dais and called for quiet.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he called "The winner of this years cooking festival is…..Karen."
There was a gasp followed by a huge wave of applause as everyone showed their delight at the verdict. They clapped and cheered making the square ring with sound. Even Manna cheered with the rest, she was still upset about her pie but she was glad that Karen had won.
"Come up and get your prize Karen," Thomas called down to her.
She stumbled forward and stepped up onto the dais. Blinking in astonishment, she shook the mayor's hand and accepted the small plaque and sash. She couldn't believe it, she, Karen, had won the cooking festival. Thomas turned her around so that she faced the crowd and declared,
"I give you the winner."
The applause sprang up again but then a hush fell over the crowd who stood waiting. Karen could see that they were waiting, waiting for what? It wasn't usual for the winner to give a speech, so what was it? It was almost as if everyone was holding their breath. Karen looked at the other competitors but they were as bewildered as she was, it was the audience who seemed to know what was happening. Then, as if a signal had been given, the crowd parted leaving a clear path across the square. At one end of the path was Karen and at the other was Jack. Keeping his eyes on her he walked across the cobbled space until he stood in front of her. There was not a sound from anyone, they were all waiting.
"Karen," Jack's voice rang out pure and clear. His eyes never left hers for a moment. "Do you recall what you said to me the day of the Goddess festival, right after the dance.
Karen blushed as she remembered that night and her own words came back to her. Jack had kissed her that wonderful night. It had been like a dream and she was afraid of dreams. They'd sipped punch and danced under the stars. Jack had asked her about marriage but she had turned around and laughed at him. Jokingly she had called to him as she reached home, that yes, she'd thought about being married and that she'd marry him the day she won the cooking festival. Since that night she hadn't given the words another thought but, from the look on Jack's face, she could see that he had thought of little else. She tried but she couldn't speak and in the silence she felt she could even hear the beat of her own heart. Jack reached round into his rucksack and drew out a long, curling blue feather. The sight of the beautiful feather drew a collective sigh from everyone. It gleamed, a bright heavenly blue, starlight sparkled from its luxurious fronds. It lay on Jack's palm curling slightly with the breeze and a cream coloured tag dangled from its spine with her name written on it in gold. It was unbelieveable; no bird she knew had feathers like that.
"Karen, you've won the cooking festival," Jack went down on one knee. "Will you marry me?" he asked.
And then she knew, somehow he had done this, done this just for her. His love for her was so deep he had created this miracle just for her. She looked deeply into his clear brown eyes and all she saw there was love. It confirmed everything she knew in her heart. Here was her soul mate, her other half. He would always love her, no matter what, he would never try to make her into something she wasn't and if she wanted the moon he would move heaven and earth to get it for her. In his arms she was home, she was complete. There would never be any other man for her but this incredible man. All it needed was one word and everything she had ever dreamt of would be hers. Everyone was waiting, her whole future was waiting.
"Yes," Karen answered, "Yes, Jack I'll be honoured to be your wife."
With that the silence was broken and Rose square erupted with people clapping and cheering. This was what they'd been waiting for and if she'd thought the noise loud before it was like a whisper compared to this. Jack handed her the feather and then swept her up into his arms. This was the prize and now she had the greatest prize of all the prize of the rest of her life.