by Liz Cox
Mrs Firth was standing over the stove in the kitchen. Steam was rising not only from the pan she was stirring, but also metaphorically from the top of her head. She was being watched by her eight-year-old daughter Nancy who had innocently said to her mother,
‘Sophie says her mum is making plot toffee for the bonfire next week. Sophie says her mum makes the best plot toffee in the whole wide world.’ Nancy toyed with the utensils on the work top and dipped her fingers in the sugar earning herself a short sharp tap from a buttery spatula.
‘Oh, she does, does she? We’ll see about that.’ Mrs Firth stirred the mixture in the pan without remorse. Burnt sugar was flying all over the stove. It hit Nancy, who winced.
‘Ouch! Mum that hurt,’ she protested, rubbing her bare arm. ‘Anyway, there’s going to be a competition for the best toffee, Sophie says.’
‘Oh, Sophie says, does she?’ Mrs Firth pushed her damp hair from her forehead and continued stirring muttering to herself.
Mrs Firth had been the champion toffee maker for years now, ever since Nancy’s older brother James had started at the school. She used a recipe which had been handed down through her proud Yorkshire family. No one’s toffee was better than hers. Sophie’s mother, Mrs Green, had only just arrived in the area from down south somewhere. It was a matter of pride.
She had seen Mrs Green at the school gate, always dressed up to the nines, hair perfect. She seemed to skate through life and never looked harassed, unlike Mrs Firth who was always in a hurry and arrived to pick Nancy up with her hair blowing all over her face wearing her hastily donned stained anorak and old jeans.
Her toffee mixture was now ready, and she poured it into the tray to set. This would be the best toffee she had ever made; she was sure of that. She covered the tray loosely with a tea towel and carried on with the rest of her chores.
When she went to pick Nancy up, Mrs Green was waiting in the playground as well. She walked straight up to the woman.
‘Mrs Firth - Edna,’ she said, holding out her hand in greeting, ‘I’ve seen you waiting for Sophie before. Pleased to meet you.’
Mrs Green’s eyes widened, but she took Mrs Firth’s proffered hand.
‘Mrs Green - Sandra,’ she countered, ‘pleased to meet you as well.’
‘I understand you’re entering your plot toffee for the bonfire night competition.’ Edna scowled.
‘Why, yes, I thought I would try. We’ve not long moved here, and I wanted to enter into the local competitions. Get to meet people, you know, take up local customs.’ Sandra smiled sweetly, but her eyes were harder than the toffee being discussed.
‘Well, good luck. I’ve been the winner now for five years,’ she boasted, ‘it will be good to have some real competition.’ Edna grinned and ran to meet Nancy who was now emerging from the school. ‘Come Nancy, hurry up. Good luck Sandra,’ she called out to the retreating back of Mrs Green, muttering ‘you’ll need it’, under her breath.
Mrs Green gripped the arm of her daughter Sophie and virtually dragged her to the beat-up old car which was parked outside the school gates.
‘Who’s that Sophie?’ she asked her bemused daughter who was trying to shake her arm free.
‘Oh, that’s Nancy’s mum,’ she replied, ‘Nancy’s my bestest friend.’
That night Edna was restless. She had to perfect her own toffee, but she needed to find out what Sandra was going to put in hers. Only one thing for it; she would have to ask Nancy to spy for her on the progress of the toffee.
‘Nancy,’ she cajoled, ‘why don’t you invite Sophie for tea tomorrow.’
‘That’s a bit sudden,’ said Nancy sullenly, biting her lip, ‘what if she can’t come?’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ said Edna, ‘I’ll get Mrs Green’s number from the school list and phone her.’
Before Nancy could protest, Edna had located Mrs Green’s number and dialled it.
‘Yes, Sandra, we would love to have Sophie for tea. It’s no bother. It’ll be nice for Nancy to have company. I’ll pick the girls up after school. Yes, don’t worry.’
‘There,’ she said to Nancy, ‘all organised.’
Nancy shrugged and went back to watching her TV programme, whilst Edna plotted and schemed. How to question the girl without her becoming suspicious? How to reassure her, so she spilled the beans without Edna giving her own recipe away?
Edna duly picked the girls up from school the next afternoon.
‘Nice to have you for tea Sophie. Do you have other friends at school as well as Nancy?’
‘Oh yes, Mrs Firth, but Nancy is my closest friend.’ The little girl beamed and ran to catch up with Nancy. The two of them strolled hand in hand along with path, chattering together. When they reached the house, Nancy dragged Sophie up to her bedroom to show her the collection of Barbies she had acquired over the years. Edna began to prepare the tea. She called the girls when it was ready.
‘Sit here Sophie, that’s the best chair,’ she crooned, ‘I hope you like fish fingers and chips. Nancy loves them.’ Sophie sat down where she was told and looked at her plate.
‘Thank you, Mrs Firth, we never have chips at home. It’ll be a real treat.’
‘Here, have some ketchup to dip them in.’ Edna pushed the bottle of red sauce towards the girl. What do you have to eat at home?’
‘We’re vegetarian, I’m sorry. I can eat the chips but not the fish fingers.’ Sophie was downcast.
‘Never mind, I’ll do you an egg to go with the chips. I won’t be a moment.’ Edna rushed off towards the cooker mentally filing the information.
‘Don’t worry Sophs, I forgot to tell Mum it was all a bit of a rush,’ Nancy apologised. ‘When we’ve finished tea, we’ll go and watch TV.’
Edna knew that she couldn’t miss her opportunity. The child was sitting at her kitchen table. She quickly fried two eggs and slid them onto Sophie’s plate.
‘Here you are Sophie, I’m sorry I didn't know that your family were vegetarians.’ They would be Edna thought, smart, well turned out and vegetarian to boot. She went for the jugular. ‘So, when your mum makes her toffee, does she use butter? Surely if she’s a vegetarian she wouldn’t use butter?’ She peered into the girl’s face. Sophie reared back and looked to Nancy for help. Nancy slapped her own forehead with her hand. Embarrassment didn’t come into it.
‘Mum! Leave Sophs alone to eat her tea. How’s she supposed to know?’
‘Sorry Sophie, please enjoy your food.’ Edna knew she had come on too strongly. She would have to think of another ruse.
‘It’s OK, Nancy, Mrs Firth. Mum’s using a new recipe she thought up.’ Sophie stabbed her knife into her fried egg, sending yolk flying all over the table.
‘A new recipe? What’s in her new recipe?’ Edna was now sitting opposite the child as she watched her eating her chips.
‘Don’t know Mrs Firth.’ Sophie paused with a chip halfway to her mouth and stared at the woman. Edna was reminded of the chilling look she had received from the girl’s mother the previous day in the playground.
‘How many times has she made it so far? Have you tasted it? Edna pressed her point. Sophie pushed that chip and another one through her clenched teeth, chewed and swallowed, taking her time.
‘I have tasted it; it’s the best plot toffee ever. It’s a real winner.’ Sophie was beginning to enjoy herself. Nancy blanched. She might only be eight years old, but she knew what Sophie was up to and she was dying inside. She shuffled in her seat.
‘Come on Sophs, let’s go to my room. We can play a game.’ Nancy slid down off her chair and made her way towards the kitchen door. ‘Come on Sophs.’
‘No, it’s alright Nancy, we’re all friends here. If your mum wants to know I’ll let her know what I know.’ Sophie pushed her chair back from the table and went towards the kitchen cupboards. She flung open the doors.
‘Well, let’s see.’ She took down a packet of flour and placed it on the worktop followed by a bag of brown sugar. Next, she reached for a bottle of olive oil and some golden syrup. ‘Right, for colour, I think we need some of that pink stuff and, for taste, we need a vanilla pod. Do you have a vanilla pod?’ Sophie smiled sweetly at the older woman. ‘I think she puts milk in it too.’
‘Come on Sophs, let’s go. I’ve got chocolate in my room.’
‘OK Nance, coming. Is that alright Mrs Firth?’ The girl shook her blond curls, smiled, and followed Nancy out of the room.
‘Yes girls, off you go.’ Edna was stumped. She looked at the items arrayed on her kitchen counter. There was no way you could make toffee from those, but a worm of doubt was wriggling in her ear.
The girls could be heard laughing up in Nancy’s room. She was alone. No, it was impossible; those ingredients could not be used. There was no flour in toffee. The girl must be mistaken, but still she tried. She placed all the items in a pan and boiled it up. The result she poured out into her tray. It looked like no toffee she had ever seen, but still she was prepared to wait for it to harden.
Edna glanced at the clock; it was 7 o’clock time to take Sophie home to her mother.
‘Come on girls, in the car. It’s time for Sophie to go home now,’ she called up the stairs. The girls came clattering down the steps, giggling and pushing each other. ‘Hurry now.’
They drew up outside Sophie’s house and Edna opened the door to let her out.
‘I’ll just come to the door with you and have a word with your mother,’ she declared, before racing down the path in front of the girl and ringing the doorbell. Sandra opened the door.
‘Good evening Mrs Firth – Edna.’ She put her arm around her daughter who then ducked underneath and ran into the house laughing. ‘I hope Sophie was a good girl.’
‘She was indeed,’ declared Edna. She paused. ‘How is your toffee making going?’
‘Oh, I’ve decided not to bother. I didn’t think I could compete with you Edna. Everyone tells me your toffee is the best.’ Sandra smiled thinly and went to shut the door. Edna put her hand out to stop the door closing.
‘I’m sorry, but I questioned Sophie about your recipe, and she told me what you used. I thought it most unusual. I know it wasn’t a very nice thing to do. I apologise. You have to enter.’
‘We’ll see,’ said Sandra, ‘but I’m sure you will win. Thank you for having Sophie.’ She closed the door and leaned against it doubled over with laughter. ‘Come down here Sophie, what have you done?’
‘Well, Mum, Nancy and I were talking. She said that I was invited to tea, so her mother could grill me about your toffee, so I just went along with it. No sweat.’
‘You wicked girl. Serves her right though. What did you tell her?’ Sophie recounted the recipe she had given Mrs Firth. ‘That should keep her busy then. I can’t wait until tomorrow.’
It was the fifth of November and all the parents and children were gathered in the school hall. Trays of toffee were laid out on the trestle table located on the back wall and the judging was about to begin. Mrs Holmes, the headmistress, headed the panel of judges who were making their way along the entries, crunching, and chewing as they went.
‘I think we have made our decision. Gather round everyone.’ Mrs Holmes held out the red rosette and certificate. ‘The winner is Mrs Green, a newcomer to our community. ‘Well done Mrs Green, come and get your rosette.’
Sandra moved forward protesting as she went.
‘But Mrs Holmes, I didn’t enter. I can’t have won,’ she stuttered.
‘The winner is entry number 10 and that is in your name. No doubt about it.’ Mrs Holmes declared handing over the certificate.
Later as the parents were enjoying a cup of coffee and some biscuits, Mrs Holmes collared Edna.
‘Did you not enter this year Mrs Firth? It’s unusual for you,’she boomed, crunching on her custard cream, and leaving crumbs all down her front.
‘No, I thought I would give someone else a chance this year. I win every bonfire night.’
‘That’s incredibly good of you. It’s nice that Mrs Green won. She’s had a terrible year. She lost her husband and then had to move up here. It’s an excellent welcome.’
Edna was sitting in the corner on her own when she spotted Nancy and Sophie at the other side of the room, arms around each other.
‘Nancy, come here. I have something I want to ask you,’ she called. Nancy disengaged herself from Sophie and wandered over to her mother.
‘Nice one, Mum,’ Nancy said before her mother could get a word in. ‘It was a lovely thing to do for Mrs Green.’
‘Well I knew that the recipe Sophie gave me was impossible and that you girls were up to something. It taught me a lesson for being so pushy. I entered my toffee under the name of Mrs Green.’
‘What if you hadn’t won Mum?’ said Nancy.
‘Oh, there was no doubt about it, I knew it would win.’
About the author
Born in Yorkshire, Liz now lives in North Wales where she attempts to write short stories, poetry, and a novel. While procrastinating she watches the butterflies on her buddleia in the summer and in the winter the torrential rain.