Gladys’ more than ample rump was not the issue: the problem lay with Mildred’s aged and tattered sofa. For no matter how Gladys rearranged her posterior, at least one of the steel springs poked brazenly upwards. It was such a pity that Mildred couldn’t afford better furniture - but with the pathetic job her husband had it was hardly a surprise.
The weekly ladies’ fellowship was well under way. Gladys clutched a shrivelled cucumber and lettuce sandwich in one hand and a tepid cup of tea in the other. She winced at the crack in the rim of the porcelain teacup but resisted the urge to draw everyone’s attention to the badly glued teapot handle. No need to embarrass Mildred in front of the other women - although doubtless one of the less charitable sisters would remark on it once their hostess was safely out of the room.
The fellowship normally started with a rousing hymn. At least that was how Connie, the pastor’s wife, liked to describe it. Gladys thought that their performance had more in common with the howling dervishes she had encountered on holiday in Turkey – strong on noise and enthusiasm, lacking in sense or order. But Connie was away on vacation, so by common consent they had dropped the hymn.
Someone had to pray – this was a Christian meeting after all. Margaret did the honours with her usual penchant for quoting Scripture in the Authorized Version with a couple of extra thees, thous and forsooths thrown in for good measure. By the time she had finished imploring God to bless the refreshments, the tea was cold, the edges of the sandwiches had turned up, and there were definite signs of mildew on the fruit cake.
Gladys’ Amen was not particularly loud, but its sarcastic tone was rewarded by a look of loathing from across the room. Margaret didn’t dignify the insult with a reply. Instead she gave the tiniest sniff that went unnoticed by everyone else. But Gladys understood the slight: her chronic flatulence was a source of great personal embarrassment.
The sudden tension caused the other women to interrupt their conversations and to look round in puzzlement. Gladys pondered her own response, rolling a choice morsel of slander round the inside of her mouth, wondering whether this was the opportune moment to share it with the others. Meanwhile, Margaret gave a delicate cough, a signal that something particularly juicy was about to be divulged.
It was at this moment that Mildred bustled into the lounge. “Excuse me, ladies,” she called out, “but you really must try a piece of my homemade Fellowship Cake...”
Gladys’ first thought was that she was going to retch. The cream topping reeked of lemon juice and angostura bark, overwhelming her taste buds with bitterness and acid. But just as she was about to scream in protest, something stopped her. It wasn’t just the crumbly lightness of the rest of the cake. Nor the delicate sweetness of the butter-rich filling. There was something present that conjured up long-buried memories of childhood innocence...
“What ever did you put in it?” asked one of the other ladies. “It’s incredible.”
“Let me tell you all,” replied Mildred. “For months now I have been sickened by the way we treat one another in this fellowship group. It seems to me that we prefer gossip to prayer. We long to find fault with one another when we ought to be building each other up. That’s why I made the cream topping as bitter as possible – to remind us of how nauseating our behaviour must seem to God. Then I made the body of the cake as mouth-watering as I could to remind us of what fellowship is meant to be like.”
“But what did you put in it?” interrupted Gladys. “There’s something here that I have never tasted before.”
Mildred paused shyly. “I know it’s not very hygienic,” she said. “But as I was making the batter I couldn’t keep myself from weeping. I must have cried buckets of tears into the cake mixture. Sorrow for what we’ve become, longing for what we could be.”
There was a long silence as each of the women contemplated Mildred’s words. Finally it was Margaret who spoke up. “Please could I have another slice?”
Receiving the cake, Margaret crossed the room and knelt beside the sofa. “This is for you, Gladys,” she explained. “It’s my way of saying that I am truly, deeply sorry for everything...”
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