I moved to a small rural township on the outskirts of Melbourne three years ago. As far as country towns go, it's a lovely place, full of tearooms and curio shops and oak trees lining the main road. My husband Donald found a job on the local council, but as a young mother with three children under four I found it difficult to get out much and involve myself in the community. Our neighbour was a very kind, retired woman called Beverly who sat on all the town committees and was renowned locally for her magnificent cakes. Each year our town held a Spring Fair, and the central event was the cake competition. Beverly had won this competition every year since her retirement as a school teacher, for 10 years running now. Cakes were one thing I could never get a handle on. The measurements were too precise, too exact, and I was more, well, slap-dash with my cooking. The day we moved into our house, Beverly greeted us with a beautiful chocolate raspberry marble cake, which the children devoured with glee. My husband and I had to make do with the chicken casserole left by another neighbour. As a school teacher, Beverly was wonderful with the children, and could always be counted on to baby-sit in an emergency, or on the odd occasion Donald and I went out to dinner. Beverly was always ready for a friendly chat and was full of advice on how to make friends in the town and enjoy my life there. She even encouraged me to enter the cake competition that she always won. "It's just a bit of fun, after all, Christine, and not that you'd be expecting to win or anything, especially with me as a rival!" For some reason, her certainty at winning annoyed me. Even though the thought of entering any cake baking competition had never entered my mind, a year ago I finally gave in to Beverly's constant encouragement and baked a cake to enter the competition. It deflated 20 minutes after it came out of the oven. "Never mind Christine," Beverly had commiserated with me, "there's always next year." Now it was next year, and I planned to enter the cake competition again — and win it. I decided the only way I could win was through cheating. I made my own cake, from a packet, and in the microwave. A vanilla tea-cake, the exact same cake I knew Beverly was baking. She had let me in on her secret the week before. She never let anyone know what cake she was baking, in case they made the same one in an attempt to out-do her. With me, though, she was so certain I wouldn't beat her that she gave me her recipe to use. I knew Beverly left her cakes to cool next to an open window in the kitchen. She believed fresh air added something special to her cakes. It was her superstitious ritual to place her cooled cake in a particular cake tin and wrap it all up in a yellow ribbon. Beverly went to bed after watching The Bill on Saturday nights, so I knew this would be the safest time for my cake-swap. I crept across our backyard after dark, skirting the tricycle and navigating around the sandpit. I looked down at my cake, already sagging in the centre, the sickly sweet icing pooling in small lumps on the cake plate. I had added a handful of salt to my cake, just to make sure. The window was open and the cake was there, just as I knew it would be. Beverly had already placed it inside her cake tin, done up with a bright yellow ribbon, ready for the judging tomorrow. I could only hope her cake would be as magnificent as usual as I undid the ribbon, took the lid off her tin, and swapped my cake for hers, setting the tin back in place. Due to her superstitions, I knew Beverly wouldn't open the tin herself before the judges did. The day of the Spring Fair was perfect, crowned with sunshine and blue skies. I waited all day in trepidation, watching the children eat fairy floss and enjoy rides on the old-fashioned carousel. Finally, the moment arrived. Inside the town hall the crowd waited, huddled around the cake judging table, while the town mayor's wife and the judging committee sampled all the cakes. The town mayor's wife finally undid Beverly's ribbon and slid out a slice of cake on the silver server. The judging committee each took a bite. I noticed them looking at each other nervously. Beverly noticed too and looked at me. I raised my shoulders quizzically and looked back at the judges, mainly to avoid Beverly's eyes. They all had another bite of the cake. They all looked disappointed and forlorn. After the longest five minutes ever of discussion they returned to the microphone to announce the winner. "This year, we are proud to announce a brand new winner." A murmur ran through the crowd. I heard Beverly gasp in surprise beside me. I couldn't look at her. The judge continued, "This year, with her wonderful vanilla tea cake, our winner is Christine Roberts!" Beverly grabbed my hand and I thought she was going to accuse me there and then. Instead there were tears of joy in her eyes and she kissed my cheek warmly, saying "Oh, I knew you could do it, Christine, and no one deserves this as much as you." Needless to say I never baked a cake again. Guilt is a very sour ingredient.
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