Did they not feed you after the wedding, Mr. Christmas?”
“I dropped into the reception for only a minute,” Tom replied, conscious of the passing figure of his housekeeper, as he continued his contemplation of the bounty in the vicarage refrigerator. “I didn’t have a chance for a bite.”
He barely knew the young couple he had married that after-noon—Todd and Gemma—other than to have a brief preparatory discussion with them the month before. He had never seen them in church, nor had he seen their families or friends, and didn’t expect to see them again, unless the couple wished their baby baptised—which mightn’t be far off, given that the bride, wearing a meringue with a train half a mile long, had fairly waddled up the aisle at St. Paul’s, the second of the two churches in his charge. Her plump face, when she’d pushed back her embroidered veil, had looked much like a blazing beetroot, he recalled, staring at a jar of the pickled variety inside the door of the fridge. Sweat had sparkled in tiny beads along her exposed hairline—this despite the glacial damp of the nave in January—which some might have construed as the effect of energy expended getting up the aisle, but which Tom interpreted as a dew born of anticipation and triumph.
The groom, however, had been a figure of bemusement, his face a kind of Belisha beacon, one moment as blanched as that leftover rice pudding in its puddle of cream on the second shelf, the next as pink as the Virginia ham one shelf below. Tom shouldn’t have fancied their chances at marital success—they were much too young; he was a farm labourer and she was a health-care aide of some sort and they were living with his parents—but for some reason he did, and could only chalk it up to a decade’s experience splicing couples of varied sorts. He imagined them receiving their sixtieth-anniversary card from the Queen (or the King, as would most probably be then) where other couples, more advantaged, would fall by the wayside. “When betrothal is brief, the marriage lasts long,” he recalled his father-in-law saying, quoting some bit of Jewish wisdom when he was trying to reconcile himself to his daughter’s elopement. How wrong he had been, at least in Tom and Lisbeth’s case.
“The reception was at The Pig’s Barrel,” Tom told his housekeeper.
“A January wedding and a pub reception. Sounds a hurried affair.”
“A little, perhaps,” Tom responded noncommittally. He rarely went to wedding receptions anyway, unless he knew the family well. Receptions could murder the best part of a Saturday afternoon, and it wasn’t as though he didn’t have anything else to do—polish his sermon, for instance. He’d dropped in at Todd and Gemma’s only because he’d seen the very attractive village bobby, Màiri White, pass through the The Barrel’s doors when he went for his car after the ceremony and couldn’t resist the allure of a chance encounter. But, alas, when he arrived, Màiri was ensconced, back to him, at a table full of—damn!—men. Anyway, snow, ominously forecast to bung up northwestern Europe for the weekend and more, was beginning to fall in earnest and so getting home to Thornford seemed more imperative than being stood like a lemon at The Pig’s Barrel.
He looked past the edge of the refrigerator door, wondering if Madrun was about to launch into a mini inquisition over the newlyweds. Customarily, she would have ushered them into the vicarage study when they came for their marriage interview, but the wedding had come together all in a rush during busy Christmas week, which Madrun had spent with her aging mother in Cornwall, thus depriving her of an opportunity to inspect and pass verdict on events at home.
But Madrun’s back was to him. He could see one hand resting against one cheek as she contemplated the array of cookery books marshalled behind the glass of a ceiling-high barrister’s bookcase. He guessed her preoccupation lay not with the hapless couple. The Sunday before, after her return from Cornwall to Thornford Regis early in the New Year, she had cooked a joint, accompanied with roast potatoes and parsnips, green beans with caramelised shallots, and, of course, Yorkshire pudding. Tom and Miranda had been in the sitting room with their guests, Will and Caroline Moir, their daughter, Ariel, their son, Adam, and his girlfriend, Tamara, when their conversation had been riven by a piercing cry—such as he had never heard before—from the kitchen. Heart racing, expecting to find Madrun horribly burned or cut, Tom dashed into the kitchen, the others at his heels. Instead, they found her, oven-gloved, staring aghast into a steaming dish, the door of the Aga behind her a yawning maw. Nestled inside the dish’s black and aged sides was a vast and even expanse of tawny gold—quite lovely to look at and smelling heavenly. Despite his still-coursing adrenaline, he had felt his stomach growl.
And then Miranda, on tiptoe, glanced into the pan and declared: “Oh, it’s a dropdead!”
A kind of moan slipped from Madrun’s throat as she turned and placed the hot dish onto a trivet on her worktable, next to the roasted beef and several bowls of thawing berries, which a little later spilled around a heavenly pavlova.
“But I’m sure it will taste wonderfully,” Caroline had interjected quickly, and the others had murmured concurrence. Dropdead was his daughter Miranda’s coinage for a Yorkshire pudding that failed to rise. Her mother’s often hadn’t. Lisbeth had been a blasé sort of cook whose Sunday lunches were sometimes a fiesta of Waitrose ready meals. When Lisbeth died, their French au pair, Ghislaine, tried her hand at English fare but could never quite get the knack of certain dishes, Yorkshire pud among them. Tom, who had never made one in his life, couldn’t understand how a simple concoction of eggs, milk, and flour could be so temperamental and cause so much distress. There had been much crestfallenness back in Bristol when the Yorkshire, pulled from the oven, looked more like Norfolk-in-a-pan than Staffordshire-in-a-pan—flat rather than hilly. Lisbeth would feign indifference, but Ghislaine wept at her first failure. But then they were all in shock in the wake of Lisbeth’s sudden, violent death.
Madrun’s, on the other hand, were always a tremendous success—puffy and light, glorious umber hillocks set against deep golden valleys, a sponge to sop the rich brown gravy she would produce from the organic beef acquired from the farm shop at Thorn Barton. But not last Sunday. The pud simply looked . . . sad. After her initial distress, she had pulled herself together and brought forth an otherwise fine Sunday lunch in the dining room, although she remained subdued throughout. Since then, she’d had Fred Pike, the village handyman, in to look at the Aga, which Fred had pronounced fit as feathers on a duck, scrutinised the sell-by dates of the flour and milk, and had a barney with Roger Pattimore down at Pattimore’s, the village shop, over the freshness of his eggs. She had adjured Tom to check on his computer to see if there were any chat rooms or forums devoted to Yorkshire pudding—the word failures didn’t pass Madrun’s lips; mysteries was substituted—and there were a few, not unpredictably, in the Internet age, but he had white-lied and said there weren’t because—and this he didn’t say out loud—for heaven’s sake, it was too silly. All this bother for a simple—and not wholly necessary—side dish.
“You heat fat in the pan first, don’t you?” Tom had asked a couple of days later when he found Madrun lifting her glasses from the chain around her neck with one hand and pulling the very pan to her face with the other for close examination. “Then why don’t you do a pudding now and experiment with some vegetable oil? That’s a sort of fat, isn’t it?”
“Really, Mr. Christmas,” Madrun had snapped, her tone indicating the suggestion infra dig. “It must be beef fat.” And then her eyes shot open behind the lenses and a flash of enlightenment lit up her features. “I shall have to have a strong word with the girls at the farm shop.”
Tom later learned from one of his parishioners that there had been some unpleasantness up at Thorn Barton when Madrun arrived at the shop to question the aging of their beef, or lack of aging, or some such thing. Sainsbury’s had made a larger-than-usual food delivery to the vicarage on Thursday, so Tom suspected Madrun and the women at the farm shop were keeping a bit of space between them for the time being.
“Sometimes, Mrs. Prowse, things happen for no reason,” Tom said finally, trying to keep exasperation from his voice.
Madrun flicked him a disapproving glance, as if he were being theologically unsound, and said, “It’s an omen. I feel it in my bones.”
Tom, who at the time was struggling to put the lead on Bumble preparatory to a walk up Knighton Lane, had bit his tongue and said nothing, because, of course, there was nothing to say: He was disinclined towards omens, particularly if they came in the form of collapsed savoury puddings.
Now his housekeeper had pushed back one of the glass doors of the bookcase and pulled out a cookery tome. Opening the book to the index at the back, she studied him a moment over the rims of her spectacles. “You’ll let all the cold out, if you keep the refrigerator door open like that.”
“You may be pleasantly surprised this evening, you know, Mr. Christmas.”
Tom made a demurring noise as he closed the door. “Perhaps if I lined my stomach with a glass of milk.”
“Mr. James-Douglas used to love the Burns Supper.”
“I expect from his name he had a bit of Scots in him.”
“You don’t have to be Scottish to enjoy the Burns Supper.”
Oh, don’t you? Tom thought. It might help. He didn’t know who his natural parents were. He didn’t feel somehow they could have been Scottish, if one were permitted to feel such things. He himself felt thoroughly English, and if he were about to give allegiance to another people, it would be the French or the Italians, who had wonderful food, not the Scots, who could only have been led by a ghastly climate and impoverished soil to think a celebratory dinner should consist of offal and oatmeal stuffed into a sheep’s stomach then boiled, turnips—his least favourite vegetable—boiled, and potatoes—yes, boiled. Without reopening the refrigerator door, he could see in his mind’s eye the ham, the leftover cheese-and-onion pie, the last of the turkey orzo soup Kate had made after Christmas—any of which would make a fine Saturday-evening meal.
“He was hardly fit for the pulpit the next morning,” Madrun continued almost fondly, licking her thumb and turning a page.
Giles James-Douglas, who preceded Tom, but for one, as incumbent, had been vicar in the village for over twenty-five years before his death. A lifelong bachelor of considerable private means and epicurean tastes, he installed Madrun as his housekeeper when she was a young woman, turned her into a superb cook, and left both the large late-Georgian vicarage—which he bought outright from the Church—and its housekeeper to his successors. Tom, therefore, had more or less inherited Madrun Prowse, who, though a spinster, retained the honorific Mrs. He was grateful for the help, being a busy priest and a widowed father, but there were moments when she did get on his wick a bit, especially when the matchless Mr. James-Douglas slipped into the conversation. He felt, to keep up, he should get as much malt whisky as he could down his neck Saturday then spend Sunday morning conducting services at two churches with a throbbing headache and a dry mouth, and trying not to gag over the Communion wine. He didn’t fancy it. In fact, he didn’t fancy attending the Burns Supper at all, but he was chaplain to a regional pipe band and Roger Pattimore, the pipe sergeant, expected him to come and deliver the Selkirk Grace. It was churlish to say no. Having been in Thornford less than a year and still finding his way in the parish, Tom didn’t want to offend for small reasons. What he wasn’t keen on was the food—the tatties and the neeps (potatoes and turnips, so called) and that acme of culinary horrors, the haggis. When he had been a curate in Kennington, he’d had an old parishioner who told him that in Botswana, where he held some rank in the colonial administration, they had used haggises (or was it haggi?) to poison hyenas.
Really, Tom thought, he should have gone to that pub reception, after all, and at least had a couple of greasy pasties. With such bricks in his stomach he might have an excuse to only nibble at the forthcoming supper.
He glanced at a couple of trays on the counter and wondered what was under the linen cloths covering them. He was about to step over and lift one when, unexpectedly, tantalizingly, the aroma of roasting meat tickled his nostrils. He began to wonder if hunger was driving him to fantasy. His glance moved to the oven.
“Am I smelling beef? Are you back up on that horse, Mrs. Prowse?”
Madrun glanced up from the cookery book. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I thought perhaps you might be cooking a roast with a view to making a Yorkshire pudding.”
“Well, it’s true I’m cooking beef, but it’s beef Wellington . . . of a kind.”
“Beef Wellington!” Tom gave a passing thought to his food budget. “You’re serving the children beef Wellington?”
“It’s . . . an adaptation of beef Wellington.” Madrun frowned at something in her book. “Minced beef, which I shaped into a ball and roasted earlier. Now it’s cooking enclosed in chopped mushrooms and puff pastry.”
“It’s en croûte, Daddy,” a voice behind him said.
Miranda had pushed open the kitchen door, followed by the vicarage cats, Powell and Gloria, who began a lewd and mewling pace in front of the Aga.
“Yes, oncrew,” Madrun murmured. “That’s the word.”
“We’re having our own Burns Supper,” Miranda said brightly, moving to the counter to examine the contents of various bowls.
“I shaped the mince to look like a haggis,” Madrun explained.
Tom frowned at his daughter. “I’m surprised that you and Ariel and . . . who else is coming to your sleepover?”
“Emily and Becca.”
“ . . . had the faintest interest in Robbie Burns.”
“Oh, we don’t. Or at least they don’t,” Miranda added obliquely.
“Then . . . ?”
“It’s because of Zak Burns.” Miranda shook her head so her pigtails slapped against her cheeks.
Tom turned to Madrun helplessly.
“I believe he was the last winner on X Factor.” Madrun raised a censorious eyebrow.
Excerpted from Eleven Pipers Piping by C. C. Benison. Copyright © 2012 by C. C. Benison. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.