A Picture of Mary Berry

Prologue

Mme Sosostris read the name of the town as her train pulled into the station. This was the one. She never questioned her instincts but let them lead her where ever and she grabbed her large carpet bag from the seat beside her and glided towards the exit, taking her place in the queue of departing passengers. That small burning kernel of excitement reignited as she stepped onto the platform and she positively glowed as she handed her ticket to the ticket collector leaving him flustered. ‘Saffron Walden’. She worked the name around her mouth, savouring the vowels and took the first taxi at the rank. Not one of the waiting travellers in front of her noticed or would have minded if they had. A new town, a new adventure.

Part 1 The Gloating

Diane sat alone in the staffroom and ate a piece of cake. It wasn’t a very good piece of cake; it was thin and dry with baubles in place of any real craft; the type the supermarkets sell cheaply on rectangular trays to those who have neither the skill nor patience to make one themselves. She had arrived in the staffroom, purposefully early; the break-time bell was still 10 minutes away, plenty of time to finish and cover her traces. Alternating healthy bites with dainty sips from her tea, Diane worked her way, one little square at a time, through the entire tray.

Even while the bell was still a feint tinnitus trace in the school air, Henry Smythe ‘with an e’, one of the deputy heads, burst through the door. His face became a mottled montage: the initial surprise and then confusion as a pink wash bathed his cheeks. There then followed about three seconds of dawning understanding. Then came the famous anger, scourge of the Year 7s and NQTs, like a sped up film of thunder clouds rolling over a mountain range. Finally, the shiny pallor of panic as footsteps sounded down the corridor – the staff ready for the speeches and hungry for their tea, coffee and cake. He gave Diane a long look. She smiled beatifically up at him then took a little nibble from her carrot stick, returned to her book – a picture of innocence.

Desperate to find the culprits, Mr Smythe swung this way and that like a demented pendulum and there she was:  Bridget – like a waddling catastrophe, she came in through the library corridor door. She squeezed past Mr Smythe and glancing at the table – three empty trays, no cupcakes, not a biscuit left of the entire selection pack and of course, no chocolate cake, not even a bauble. All gone.

‘Oh Dear’, she remarked and turned sideways to brush past the counter and busy herself making a cup of tea while trying to ignore the feeling of nausea that threatened to erupt and ruin another school day. ‘Cup of Earl Grey, Mr Smythe?’.

‘What?’

‘Cup of tea?’

More staff were entering the room and all followed his gaze to the table. All looked surprised. Most disappointed. Some suicidal. One or two looked at Bridget – as she bustled in the kitchen looking for the Earl Grey.

General quiet discontent ensued.

‘What’s that?’

‘Your Earl Grey, one sugar, Mr Smythe.’

‘No, That! He was pointing at her mid riff and Bridget coloured and began to turn away. How rude, thought Bridget.

‘That!’ His voice had ridden above the general depressed banter.

All looked at where he pointed, not to his own mug which he completely disregarded but to Bridget’s. A chocolate brown semicircle like a lipstick mark frosted the top of Bridget’s special mug, the one only she used with golden Times New Roman proclaiming, ‘World’s Best Teacher. From the class of 2018. Thank you, Miss for always being there’.

‘Oh! Exclaimed Bridget – dishwasher must be on the blink again.’

She put down the unwanted Earl Grey on the counter, Mr Smythe hadn’t so much as acknowledged it and returned to the kitchen where she poured her tea into a new mug.

‘Not to worry, I’ll let Fred know, you know how good he is at fixing things.’

What Bridget hadn’t known was that her recent and alarmingly rapid weight issues had been the subject of staff concern and less kind interest for the last half term. At the beginning of the school year she had been a rather slim 40 something with energy, efficiency and an unerring ability to be there for everyone. The staffroom’s unofficial counsellor. Her recent decent into obesity had been a worry. Though some had less sympathetically observed that the staffroom biscuits had ceased to survive to Tuesday break at about the same time as her weight began.

Indeed, this morning, by some invisible and silent stream of communication, Bridget had been accused, tried and been found guilty of eating the cake. Although she did not know this for certain, she found herself behind the kitchen counter alone with only the picture of Mary Berry for company. Someone had blue-tacked a page from a colour supplement to the mug cupboard door. Mary’s cold, blue eyes seemed to bore into Bridget’s and she thought to herself how far her star had fallen in recent months. Was it simply her unaccounted weight gain? She couldn’t believe her colleagues so shallow. But as she stood pretending to read the cake-making competition entry requirements, stuck under Mary’s picture, totally isolated, she could have wept. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked her for an impromptu counselling session; she could do with one herself. 

Her colleagues had clearly been upset by the whole no cake situation; she wondered who had eaten it so quickly and so utterly. Only the students would have been so efficient. Of course! She knew how to cheer everyone up. She’d bake a huge cake for the competition and win or lose she’ll share it with everyone! She smiled at Mary and mouthed thank you as if she had been inspired by the matriarch of sweet baking instead of by her own sweet character.

‘Find something amusing, Ms Wensum?’ Mr Smythe had appeared ninja like at her side and his use of her surname and his jutty chin, meant she was in line for one of his famous put downs.

‘No, not really it’s just that Mary Berry here has given me an idea’.

‘I wonder if she has any other ideas? For instance, does she have any clue about who ate all the cake or perhaps what became of the jammy dodgers so recently donated to the tin by yours truly?’.

‘If she could only talk, Mr Smythe, she might well be able to point out the culprit’.

‘Then for your sake, Ms Wensum, perhaps it is best she can’t talk’.

And with that he actually sashayed away, pleased that his barrister worthy performance was so well received by the room. He pretended to talk to the head of maths, who had resumed glaring into his tea trying vainly to conjure a ginger nut.

How strange. Does he think I took the cake? That’s what happens to people when their sugar levels get too low. Bridget, who had never had a sweet tooth, was always surprised by the dietary dysfunction she saw in the people she worked with. The caffeine addiction alone was almost universal – only dear, sweet Diane and herself seemed to keep to fruit tea or spring water; everyone else positively shook with the craving of a junky and, Pavlov like, literally drooled for tea or coffee at the sound of the break-time bell. She found herself being ignored yet at the same time being the centre of attention. After two minutes she could bear it no more and left the room. Before she had taken a step into the corridor, the volume of chatter quadrupled as if the elephant in the room had had to leave before everyone voiced an opinion. And voice their opinions they did. ‘The whole tray and to think it was a gift to all of us from the Head for parents evening.’

‘But I was in here 15 min before break and there were three full trays.  And now not a crumb.’

‘There’s definitely something wrong with her.’

‘Quite impressive, if you ask me.’ But Simon from Chemistry’s half glass full attitude was glared down to ‘a terrible shame. Quite peckish, myself.’

‘Remember last July she came second in the staff race on Sports day?  Can you see her beating the head of PE today?’ General laughter.

‘Well, only if someone puts a crunchie on the finishing line!’ The laughter was almost hysterical now and it reached Bridget before she closed the door of her room. She needed to be alone.

‘Hello, Miss. Mind if I sit in the warm?’

‘Of course I don’t mind, dear. Are you alright? Come on, tell me about it.’

From across the room Diana had watched on in delight. This was better than she had dreamt. The head of year job was as good as hers and if she could get to be so senior within a year of joining, who knows? Diana had hardly had to do more than tip the first domino to make today possible. The money she had paid Mme Sosostris was proving to be the best £1000 she had ever spent. How did she put it to 19 stone Diane who had waddled into her shop on the high street just three short months ago? ‘Wouldn’t you like to have your cake and eat it, Diana?’

Where she could be in five years? Perhaps she’ll never have to spend time in the classroom with the revolting little termites at all before long. She was interrupted from these lovely thoughts by Glyn the PE teacher. He absent-mindedly (how else) scratched at his tanned thighs as he said something suggestive about the way she was holding her tea in such a firm grip. She had been

getting a lot more attention from the male members of staff as her figure had become lithe and her complexion clear. She turned her pert breasts to him and replied in kind. He didn’t seem to like that and actually winced at her reference to bulls and horns. Her confidence and almost predatory response forced him to back away. He made an excuse about the bell about to go and almost ran away in his expensive orange trainers.

Part 2 – The Cake

When Bridget got home that evening she found the white A5 envelop with the local Hospital Trust logo – a pair of hands clasped round a heart with, ‘To Serve, Protect and Heal’ curved underneath. She dared herself to open it. After nearly 3 months of disappointment this very last set of blood tests were her final hope. She read it twice and put the brief letter away in the drawer with the others. Nothing. No diagnosis, no ideas for further treatment just a glib report of raised sugar levels, the danger of diabetes and the same, exactly the same, recommendation as she had been given before: to attend a dietary clinic. She opened her fridge and looked in, almost expecting it to explode with cholesterol rich foods as if she had been in denial all these months and had been actually stuffing herself. But no there was only some salad and a bowl with half a tin of tuna in spring water saved from her main meal last night. She hadn’t had an appetite for weeks and could barely eat anything when she got home. As she flumped back down on her sofa she automatically reached under the cushion for her box of tissues and began to weep.

Her life at home was lonely but her school job filled her with purpose. Helping staff and students had given her a vocation and was a continual source of joy. Or had been. No one asks her for advice or help anymore and she sits alone at break in her corner of the staffroom that once was so busy. Bridget wondered why her weight gain had had such a dramatic effect on her professional relationships.  When weight gain is gradual, perhaps it is tolerated because we see the continuity

of the person and our love for them stays with them despite their change; in the same way as we don’t stop loving someone as they age. It’s incremental and almost invisible.  But when we suddenly turn into our monster our colleagues have no time to see the disability for what it is, no one saw this coming or had time to process. It had been like the Bridget they all loved had died and been replaced by a gross being who stole their biscuits. She understood them a little better now. After all, she could barely look at herself. But there was nothing she, nor medical science apparently, could do about that.

She’ll make the cake. She deliberately explored her cupboards and found that she had all the ingredients she needed. So she would begin to bake and moved around the kitchen with an efficient speed that denied her bulk and for an hour she was lost in creativity and even happy.

Having greased a 13-inch cake tin, she beat the sugar, butter and egg yolks together in a bowl using a whisk until she was happy with the smooth and creamy mixture. She worked precisely, efficiently lost in the joy of creation without a pause but never rushed moving with the inner grace of one attuned to baking. And all the time she was busy she thought of the faces of the staff as they saw this beautiful cake. Or rather cakes – there were over 50 staff. She would do three tiers! She added the shredded coconut and whisked the flour thoroughly and then added the baking powder and pinch of salt. And so she worked on until all three beautifully baked sponges stood on the airing racks.

Part 3 – Desperate Times. Desperate Measures.

Before bed she went online and check her blog and see if there was anyone else out there she could help. Her mother had once told her the only cure for self-pity was to help someone else. She had lived by that simple rule. No-one needed her advice tonight.

She dared herself to delve again into the world of alternative medicine. The sheer number of posts and sites was intimidating. Desperate people seemed to haunt the internet pity party chat forums like tics on a sad dog. But the NHS had let her down and she could not afford private medical treatment on a teacher’s salary.  A homeopath had given her a selection of identical little white beads and she had not bothered to keep taking them after six weeks of even faster weight gain. Tomorrow she would visit what was probably her last hope.

The next morning was a cold, crisp Saturday.  Dorothy, the school secretary, had recommended the lady who as Bridget hesitated outside her door, watched from behind the intricate net curtain smiling.  Dorothy had explained that, ‘You have to just go in at the time she gives you, go up the stairs and knock once and enter. She’ll ask you sit down – it’s like walking into a gypsy tent at a village fayre in an old story. ‘

In her desperation Bridget put aside the logical voice telling her how absurd to pursue the alternative and occult to solve her dietary issues, and she walked to the green door as one summoned to her doom.

‘Tell me a little about yourself, Bridget.’ Mme Sosostris had an indefinable accent, perhaps central European, thought Bridget, but soft, like something sacred buried under Persian rugs. Her host’s eyes clearly saw past all front so Bridget found herself skipping way past ‘a little’ and showed her a photograph taken only two and half months previously of a happy and much slimmer and pretty Bridget at a friend’s engagement party.

‘You are soo beautiful. What do you want, Bridget?’

‘Well look at me?’ And Mme Sosostris’s eyes bored deeply into her own. Bridget was suddenly flushed and uncomfortable. Her host smiled at the effect she was having and asked almost playfully, ‘What is it exactly you want me to do?’

‘Whatever you can do for me.’

‘It’s just that you seem so lovely.’

‘I’m not lovely! In only three months I’ve more than doubled my weight and I hardly eat anything.’

‘Have you spoken to your doctors?’

‘Yes, a whole string of them up to consultant level and dieticians too.’

‘And?’ As she asked these questions, Mme Sosostris had moved to sit next to Bridget on the ornate sofa and her presence flustered Bridget to total candour.

‘They don’t know. I suspect that they think I’m mentally ill and lying about what I eat.’ She recognised the rising passion in her voice but could do nothing to stop herself. ‘My cholesterol is off the charts and I’m developing diabetes and …’ she was practically sobbing.

‘And? What else, Bridget?’

‘I do not deserve this…’’she slapped her thighs that quivered under the cheap dress she had had to buy online. Bridget realised how low she had become. This was not like her. Whinging to a stranger, who was looking at her with such intensity.

‘Who knows what any of us really deserve. Anyway,’ she smiled and slipped off the curious, long gloves she wore, ‘it appears I may be your last hope?’

Bridget’s hand was taken into Mme Sosostris’, so warm and strong as she knew it would be.

‘Bridget, I can help you.’

And Bridget wanted to believe her, heart and soul.

‘But you must keep an open mind. You must trust me.’ As she spoke these last words Mme Sosostris had leaned closer so that her beautiful, flawless face was only inches from her own. Bridget could smell her scent, subtle, natural. It took all her will not to kiss her. Shocked at her reaction to this woman, she tried to pull her hand away but it was like it was caught in a tender vice, so absolute was Mme’s grip.

‘Now listen to me and remember, keep an open mind.’ A pause in which she could feel her host’s breath on her face. ‘You are bewitched.’

That was too much.

‘Bewitched? Really?’ Disappointment more than anger swelled up inside her. This time she was allowed to pull away but Mme Sosostris crushed velvet voice followed her to the door.                                                                                                                                                         

‘You work at the local school and just before your weight started to increase you got a promotion. And you have a special tea cup from some grateful students. Don’t you? And everybody at the school used to love you: staff, children, support staff, parents even the cleaners. Didn’t they? But not anymore.’

‘I didn’t tell you I was a teacher. How did you know?’ She heard a whisper of fabric and turned and Mme Sosostris was right there staring down at her, even closer than before. Bridget noticed the pale flecks of iridescent green in the hazel of her corneas. ‘I know, because it was I who bewitched you.’

And so Mme Sosostris begun to set the world aright again. This was a bit she loved most. For, when the world swings back into balance, the chaos could be exquisite.

Part 4 Magic

The music in the School Hall was making the stage curtains twitch and the fat on Bridget’s thighs pulsate. Mr Michaels, the new young head of Music, was obviously playing with his 1000watt sound system promised to him during his interview. The music was, Bridget guessed, hip-hop, the lights blinding and the sight of the teachers attempting to get down with the kids made Bridget more nauseous than usual. She carried a large box in which her cake balanced precariously and she knew walking through the undulating, posing crowd to the stage would not do. She regretted the fact that her cake dish was totally inadequate for the three tiered architectural wonder that was her Coconut Delight. She also regretted having given in to Mme Sosostris’ suggestion for a dress for the ball – bright blue and green satin cut quite tight that accentuated all her folds of flesh.

‘Wait and see’ was all she said when Bridget told her of her fears and that loose and tent like was more her style. Looking longingly towards the stage, she considered her options as her ears felt like they would bleed and then she saw her chance: a corridor over a meter wide had miraculously appeared between her position, just inside the double doors to the hall, and the stage steps. She went for it and almost giggled as the music’s repetitive beat seemed to accompany her footfall and how the tide of students and staff just followed the rhythm out of her path oblivious apparently to everything but the music and themselves. Even the sound of her heavy tread on the hollow stage steps was drowned by the percussive blast and so she made her way unnoticed to the far curtain, which twitched as if someone had just pushed through. Reversing through with the cake cradled in her arms she turned towards the row of three trestle tables standing at the far end of the stage – centre stage rear as she had learned in the school play last Spring. She had played the fairy god mother and had made and kept the dress she wore – she knew that one of her legs would not now fit the waist.  She could cry. Her breathing had returned to normal after the steps and she gently lifted the box off the cake and checked it. Silver and white, the icing shimmered in what little of the disco lights reached her. Piped words read, ’To the staff and students of Saffron Walden High School’.

The other cakes were nowhere to be seen; she knew that there were at least six other entries and wondered if there had been a change of plan. But no, there were the plates ready for the cakes, stacked to the side so she began placing them on the table around hers.

‘Oh, no!’ she said aloud, ‘These are dirty.’ Crumbs and icing littered each of the plates: fresh icing, fresh crumbs. She tentatively tasted one of the bits of surviving icing – absolutely fresh and rather good.  Had she missed the competition? So much bypassed her these days and being kept outside of the loop was becoming a feature of her diminished management role. But her cake! Should she put it away, hide it, pretend she hadn’t baked one? She felt her face blush in embarrassment, an embarrassment made worse by the sound of voices coming onto the stage.  Voices made louder by the sudden absence of music. The procession entered stage left in front of the curtain that hid the tables. It was the judges including the chair of governors, the head teacher, the deputies and the student senate presidents, who had clearly entered the other side of the curtain and were receiving a quite enthusiastic applause.  Bridget felt rooted to the spot and as the head-teacher finished her brief introduction, the curtains swished back, the stage lights and the spotlights swept

up the stage settling spectacularly on the trestle tables and Bridget who held an empty plate in each hand. The bare tables empty except for one large cake.

The judges froze as still as Bridget who just wanted to run. Mr Smythe’s instinctive lurch towards her broke the spell and his visceral roar of anger and exasperation set off a general laughter and whistles.

Bridget would have protested her innocence but the mayhem was total and no one was listening to anyone. Finally, she regained control of her legs and backed towards rear of the stage and would have fled stage right had a strong hand not grasped hers through the curtain and led her panting to the rear stage steps out into the school canteen.

‘Stay calm, Bridget. There is now to be no cake contest – I think yours would have won, by the way. We are up next. Stay calm. We are nearly there.’ Mme Sosostris was clearly calm and enjoying herself. And as it couldn’t possibly get any worse, Bridget followed her lead.

The half-hearted applause that followed Mr Smythe’s cynical introduction died totally as Mme Sosostris ascended the steps like a vision from a dark fairy-tale. The silence was absolute and she had all their attention simply by standing in front of them. All thought she was looking directly at them. All were both terrified and enthralled. Most of the assembled staff seethed in envy of her total command. She turned to Mr Smythe who had mentioned her ‘tricks and nonsense’ and by that look she promised him a personal magic show all of his own. He seemed to physically shrink under that stare and stepped back into the crowd. At an inclination of her hand a curtain was raised and there stood a raised platform about two meters in diameter with a partition surrounded by a long purple curtain. It stood on four steel legs with a clearance of half a meter so that it was possible to see that no trapdoor escape was possible. Two flights of steps allowed access to the two partitioned booths.

She then asked for the volunteers to come onto the stage.   Diane made her entrance in her beautiful, black figure hugging gown. Diane of course had immediately agreed to participate as this would be the perfect opportunity to shine as Bridget star was forever extinguished, literally taking her place – ‘all part of the service’, as Mme Sosostris had told her on the phone. The cake display had worked perfectly – it had been too easy to set up Bridget again; people do seem to see only those things that confirm their beliefs and now not one person: staff, student or governor could doubt her greed and seriously dysfunctional eating disorder.

Bridget waiting in the wings, conscious of Mr Smythe’s hate filled stare from the opposite wing, watched as Diane stepped up into the booth, waved at the audience and smoothed her beautiful dress over her supple curves, brushing off a little icing from the plunging neckline. 

Mme Sosostris called Bridget’s name and beckoned her amid the amused and spontaneous laughter and calls of ‘where are the cakes?’. Bridget looked into her reassuring eyes and carefully stepped up into her side of the booth. Mme Sosostris was explaining what was about to happen: a simple swap of sides from booth to booth. A year 9 boy and girl had been chosen to look over the booth – proving the solidity of the mirrored panel between Diane and Bridget actually crawling under the frame and finally reporting to the Head that all was ready.

Bridget felt exposed, all were looking at her all she could feel the ill will like a tangible force. She glanced at the mirror that formed the partition between the two booths and winced at the 25 stone stranger that squinted back.  To her relief, Mme Sosostris appeared at the front of the booth, smiled, winked and drew the purple curtains shielding Bridget from the audience. She heard the whoosh of the curtains from Diana’s side and then the expectant silence was broken by Mme Sosostris’ rich voice commanding attention, ‘Tonight, I will make you all believe in magic again. On the slow count down from FIVE our volunteers will change places and all will be in balance in the world!’

Billy Cuss from the year 9 band gave a very creditable roll of the drums and dry ice surrounded the stage as Mme Sosostris’ voice was joined by all in the countdown, ‘FIVE…. ‘

As the crowd roared, ‘FOUR’ Bridget began to shake and her entire body was seized in an enormous grip squeezing and shaking her. Mme Sosostris had said it would be more extremely uncomfortable than painful but a pain more than she had ever felt now swung her back and forwards, side to side and she screamed. From the next booth came a scream even more piercing more terror stricken and as the count reached ‘TWO’ this scream was abruptly cut off.

Bridget found herself gasping, laying on the booth floor, wrapped in the folds of what she took to be the curtain. As she calmed herself she felt a warm softness push under her head where she lay against the partition of her booth. A pink mass was oozing from the other booth and wedging itself in the two-inch space under the partition mirror. Sudden revulsion spurred Bridget to situp. The first feeling she had was of enormous strength and she actually sprang to feet, once she had extricated herself from the folds of her dress which now hung about her like a roman toga. But when she was on her feet she felt like she would float up and over the tall rich curtains that still surrounded her. Then she saw her reflection. It was like seeing a close friend or relation for the first time after a long separation. Bridget stared back at herself from eyes that were wide with wonder and from a face with a definable bone structure as if the sand had been blown from a lost desert palace.

As time sped up to its usual speed, the audience shouted, ‘ONE!’ and both curtains were pulled back. This time it was the crowd’s turn to scream. Shrieks, gasps and shouts of ‘Oh my god!’ and pointed fingers and phones. But it was not at Bridget they pointed. All eyes were on the booth next door. The booth all assumed was occupied by the transported Bridget. But not this naked Bridget. Bridget looked round the partition and squeezed within was a seething mottled pink mass. From within one of the folds two tiny eyes blinked in terror as huge arms sort to protect her modesty where the tattered dress had been absorbed into the creases of flesh like the wrapper of a melted toffee. But there was nowhere to hide from the sea of phones that had emerged from the dark like fireflies. With a terrified stumble and shriek the thing rippled from the booth into the wings knocking Mr Smythe and the Chair of the Governors into the delighted audience.

Epilogue

Mme Sosostris watched, bag in hand, as the train pulled into the station. She had no interest now in the events of three nights ago that were still splashed across the station news agent’s windows. The details of Diane’s humiliation, resignation and admission to a health clinic were of no consequence now. And she was neither pleased nor displeased by Bridget’s suddenly much heavier workload as the now official college counsellor. She had of course seen the graphic mobile footage in the local press and TV. but it had simply been all as she had wished. She did muster a smile as she showed her ticket to the handsome ticket collector she recognised from her arrival. Was it only three months before? She released her hand from her glove. He had recognised her too and he looked her in the eye as he punched her ticket and as her particularly warm hand touched his he collapsed with an electric ecstasy that trembled through him. She passed serenely on leaving quite a kerfuffle behind her. She heard some good Samaritan diagnose a fit. ‘No, not a fit, you fool! Life!’

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