The scones were arranged in a perfect circle, enveloping two small pots of clotted cream and raspberry jam. ‘Homemade’, Patricia had hastened to add. The rest of the morning tea had been arranged with similarly singular vision. Spread across the coffee table, itself neatly covered by a spotless lace doily, were two sets of delicate china teacups and saucers, accompanied by a catalogue of intricately decorated, tea-related accoutrements. The rest of Patricia’s home was just as clean and neat. Evelyn had known the turn-off to her house from the main road by the topiary hedges flanking the gravel drive, twisted by iron contortions and obsessively trimmed to perfect uniformity.
The house itself was a small stone cottage, but lacked the ramshackle charm of others in the village. It had recently been repointed and retiled, and the centuries-old stone gleamed like new. Meticulous garden beds, planted in perfect symmetry, funnelled Evelyn up the pathway to the front door where Patricia welcomed her. She led the way through to the sitting room at the back of the house, polished floorboards squeaking underfoot, and folded herself into an armchair, gesturing Evelyn towards a floral settee opposite. There was an uncomfortable silence, broken by Patricia pushing the plate of scones towards her.
‘Please, do eat something.’
She herself seemed contented with her cup of tea, which she raised to her lips occasionally to take an inaudible sip, waiting for Evelyn to speak.
‘These scones are simply delicious, Patricia.’
Patricia smiled and pushed the plate closer to Evelyn across the coffee table.
‘I’m so glad you like them. It’s my grandmother’s recipe.’
Evelyn flicked a trail of crumbs off her cardigan, only succeeding in relocating them to her tweed skirt.
‘They’ve got a little something extra in them that’s just marvellous,’ she said eventually. ‘Your grandmother must have been a wonderful cook.’
‘Yes, she was,’ said Patricia. ‘She was the President of the local Institute in her day, as was my mother. That’s me as a child with the two of them.’
Evelyn squinted across the room through her bifocals. The physical evidence of Patricia’s achievements covered an entire wall of the sitting room. Lengths of show ribbons hung in colour coordinated bunches of blue, red, and yellow, draped over shelves of trophies and medallions. Interspersed between framed certificates were several family photographs, sepia-toned and faded. Evelyn could just make out a small dark-haired child in pigtails standing between two women, a blue ribbon clutched triumphantly in her hand. Sitting across from her now, Evelyn was struck by how unchanged Patricia was. Her face was older and her hair threaded with a grey that seemed silver against the black, but her eyes were still the same. Patricia alone had remained unaffected as, one by one, all the women in the Institute reached middle age and succumbed to glasses. Her own vision, she assured them, was perfect, and Evelyn believed her. Her brown eyes, framed by brows as dark as her hair once was, reminded Evelyn of a hawk. It made her a particularly diabolical judge at show time, spotting burnt edges and lumpy icing from across the hall.
‘I had just won my first ever baking prize,’ said Patricia, gazing fondly at the photograph. ‘I was the youngest entrant, as I recall, but nobody could beat my Victoria sponge. The ribbon is still up on the wall.’
Evelyn glanced politely towards the wall, as she felt she was supposed to. Patricia had returned once more to her tea, and seemed content to allow the silence to continue.
‘You must have been a very disciplined child,’ said Evelyn at last. ‘I think I was still making mud pies at that age.’
‘Oh, I practically learnt to read from the Institute constitution,’ said Patricia lightly, waving a dismissive hand. ‘All those rules and regulations simply thrilled me, and now I can’t cook any other way. Have you looked closely at the scones?’
‘I can’t say that I have, I’ve been too busy enjoying them – ’
‘Five centimetres diameter,’ interjected Patricia crisply. ‘Every single one. Do you see how straight the sides are? Well risen, of course, not too dense. A thin crust on the top and bottom, but not burnt.’
She turned one over to demonstrate, revealing a perfectly golden underside. In a single, sharp movement she snapped it in half, revealing the spongy centre.
‘A fine, moist texture and a good crumb. And no excess flour, of course,’ she added, wrinkling her nose slightly in distaste as she replaced the torn scone on the platter, as though the very idea itself was unpleasant to her.
‘Heaven forbid,’ muttered Evelyn, taking a sip of her tea.
Patricia raised an eyebrow almost imperceptibly.
‘It may seem strange to you, Evelyn, but I always say you can never get enough practice. All year, every time I open the oven door, I’m preparing for the annual show. And I think you’ll agree,’ she added, with a nod towards the trophies fighting for space on her wall, ‘that it hasn’t been an entirely unsuccessful strategy.’
Evelyn was saved from answering by a low, scraping sound followed by a dull thud coming from outside the house. It took several uneven repetitions before she recognised it as the digging of a spade. She glanced towards the lace-bordered windows to try and spot the source of the noise, but her view was impeded by the wisteria that snaked up the trellis outside.
‘What’s that noise? Have you put your husband to work while we’re in here drinking tea?’
‘Yes, he rather drew the short straw today,’ said Patricia, pouring herself another cup of tea. She clasped it in both hands as she, too, stared out the window. ‘I’ve been at him to enlarge the vegetable patch for months. I do so want to grow our own pumpkins this winter, and we just don’t have enough room in our current plot.’
After several jolting cycles, the scrape and thud of the digging relaxed into a constant rhythm. It seemed to sooth Patricia. She settled back further into her chair and observed Evelyn over the rim of her teacup.
‘I am so glad that you like the scones. There really is nothing more satisfying than watching someone enjoy your cooking.’
‘Clearly your culinary skills run in the family,’ said Evelyn. With Patricia watching her so intently, she felt obliged to take another bite. Patricia laughed.
‘They said that about being President of the Institute as well, but I guess it must skip a generation!’
She took a sip of her tea, but a note of bitterness hung in the air. Evelyn shifted slightly in her seat.
‘Of course,’ continued Patricia, replacing her teacup on her saucer, ‘the next best thing is to have one in the house. I take it you’re here on official Institute business?’
‘Well, yes actually.’
Evelyn had rehearsed what she was going to say over and over again in her mind on the drive through the village, muttering to herself in a tentative soliloquy, but still couldn’t seem to find the right words. In the end, she spoke plainly, her teacup rattling in its saucer as she set it down on the coffee table.
‘I’ve received a complaint, Patricia.’
It struck Evelyn now that, in all the years she had known her, nobody had ever called Patricia anything but her full name. The Institute meetings were populated by diminutives and nicknames — Maggies and Shirls and Jens and Barbs — but no one had ever ventured a Pat or a Trish.
‘A complaint? About me?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
Patricia dropped a cube of sugar in her tea and stirred it until it dissolved. The clink of the metal spoon as it skirted the inside of the teacup seemed deafening to Evelyn.
‘It was concerning the spring flower show,’ she continued, when it seemed Patricia wasn’t going to ask. She felt her face growing warm with discomfort. ‘One of the other participants seemed to think that a fertiliser mixture of some sort you gave her… well, it didn’t really work as she thought it ought to.’
‘You’re talking about Margie, I presume?’
Patricia looked coolly at Evelyn. She had stopped stirring, and the sound of the digging from outside punctuated the silence with the regularity of a metronome. It was starting to give Evelyn a headache.
‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you who the complaint was from – ’
‘I know it was Margie Howard, Evelyn, and this is all a misunderstanding,’ said Patricia with a smile. She spoke with a slightly condescending air, as though Evelyn had wandered mistakenly into events that didn’t concern her and that she couldn’t possibly understand.
‘You see, I gave Margie a bottle of my worm juice — not a fertiliser, as you said, but a concentrated run off from the compost heap that works wonders on the garden. Now, I specifically told her to use it sparingly on her icebergs, because it’s quite a potent mixture, but from the looks of things she went and poured the whole thing on.’
Evelyn cleared her throat uncomfortably. It had grown a little tight.
‘That’s not what I heard,’ she said. ‘She says she only put a few drops on, and that the whole bush had withered in a week. She says there’s sign of acid damage on the leaves.’
Patricia shrugged and folded her hands in her lap.
‘I’m not sure what she used, then, but it wasn’t what I gave her. Frankly, I think it’s appalling that I’m being suspected of sabotage purely because I tried to help someone…’
‘I didn’t say anything about sabotage,’ interjected Evelyn quickly.
‘But it’s what you were thinking, wasn’t it?’ said Patricia. She spoke mildly, as though simply stating fact, but her unblinking eyes were trained on Evelyn. ‘Otherwise, why would you come all the way out here?’
‘I didn’t come here to accuse you of anything,’ said Evelyn, exasperated. She felt the situation quickly spiralling out of her control. ‘But my hands are tied, Patricia.’ She paused briefly before she next spoke. ‘This isn’t the first time I’ve received complaints like this.’
Patricia sighed quietly, an audible mingling of impatience and resignation.
‘Not this again.’
Evelyn ignored her. ‘There was that business with Nola…’
‘I can’t be held responsible for her inability to distinguish sugar from salt,’ said Patricia, a trace of contempt visible on her face.
‘Competition rules clearly state that all elements of a dish must be made by the competitor, and I knew for a fact that her cheesecake base was made from store-bought digestive biscuits. I couldn’t, in good faith, allow it to be judged.’
‘…and Jenny Packer…’
Patricia’s teacup came down hard on her saucer.
‘Just what sort of point are you trying to make, Evelyn?’
There was a tense silence, broken once more by the rhythmic digging coming from the garden. Evelyn felt the beginnings of a migraine. She took another bite of her scone for something to do, but her mouth felt dry and she had to concentrate to swallow.
‘What exactly is Arthur doing out there in the garden? He must be halfway to China by now!’
Patricia watched her closely.
‘Would you like a glass of water?’
‘No thank you,’ said Evelyn, biting back a cough. It was going worse than she had expected. She took a deep breath and tried again.
‘Look, Patricia. I’m sorry, but you can’t deny that the circumstances don’t reflect well on you. Even if it’s all untrue, if it’s all just a series of coincidences, it’s a bad look for the institute. Especially considering your position as Vice President. Surely you can understand that?’
‘Nothing is more important to me than the Institute,’ said Patricia, looking at Evelyn with a fierce sincerity. ‘Nothing.’
‘Then we are in agreement,’ said Evelyn. Her throat felt hot and she took a sip of her lukewarm tea to try and cool it down. Her head throbbed in time to the endless digging coming from outside. ‘We both want what is best for the Institute and unfortunately, that means your resignation, Patricia. I’m so sorry.’
‘I suppose that means another election.’
‘Yes, I suppose it does,’ said Evelyn absently. Now that she had accomplished what she came for, she wanted to get out of the house as soon as possible. She was already looking for where she had left her handbag, but her vision was beginning to blur around the edges.
‘One of the Committee Members will have to take my place until the Annual Meeting,’ mused Patricia. ‘Then you’ll have to elect someone to fill the vacancy.’
‘I’m well acquainted with the constitution, thank you very much,’ said Evelyn testily. She thought she had put her bag down by her chair, but it was no longer there. Or had she left it in the hallway when she came in? The throbbing in her head had turned into a stabbing pain, and the sound of Arthur’s digging grew louder and louder. Patricia continued as though Evelyn hadn’t spoken.
‘Of course, there’s no backup for the Vice President like there is for the President. If the President were unable to fulfil her duties, the constitution states that the Vice President can assume the role.’
Evelyn didn’t even bother to reply. Her throat burned with a prickling fire and the blinding pain in her head was beginning to make her feel physically sick. She clutched the edges of the settee as the living room began to spin. Patricia regarded her calmly from across the coffee table, her head cocked to one side like an inquisitive bird. Her dispassionate voice echoed in Evelyn’s head, as though she was speaking to her through water.
‘Are you quite sure you’re alright?’
Darkness began to creep in around the edges of Evelyn’s vision. As the room seemed to contract, she noticed that the scone on Patricia’s plate remained untouched.
‘Ah yes,’ said Patricia, reaching across the coffee table to pick an uneaten specimen from the platter in front of Evelyn. She held it aloft, examining it in her fingers like a triumphant prospector. ‘It’s my grandmother’s recipe, as I think I mentioned before. She always loved to put a little twist on the classics. I’ve inherited that from her.’
Outside, in a corner of the garden away from the vegetable patch, the digging steadily continued. Arthur was submerged up to his knees, and the mound of discarded earth beside the vegetable patch continued to grow in size.
‘The scones…’ repeated Evelyn, quieter, this time.
‘They’re pumpkin,’ continued Patricia chattily. ‘Home-grown, of course. I’ve always prided myself on my pumpkins. I’m looking forward to a bumper crop next year.’
'Pumpkin Scones' was published in our 14th issue, The Curious Issue, which has now sold out. To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £10 a year.