This is the story of my lessons for Christmas at my east London school when we made Christmas cakes, peppermint creams and coconut ice. Well some of my students did and others caused a bit of bother!
For days, pungent smells of cinnamon and nutmeg have wafted out of my cookery room as we mass produce mince pies for carol services and Christmas parties.
Marzipan fruits, coconut ice, chocolate truffles and Christmas logs are made for special gifts. Rich, dark fruit cakes have been stacked in my storeroom to mature and every week Cynthia helps me stick skewers into the cakes to dribble in brandy to add more flavour. This is not just any brandy. This is Hennessy finest cognac that Mark brought round to the front door of my bedsit house, but I didn’t ask him to stay.
Now the cakes have been topped with marzipan and enrobed in fondant icing and today we’ll finish them with green holly leaves and blobby red berries moulded from the icing. Then we’ll tie round the sides with a red ribbon in a giant bow. It’s the modern TV look to keep up with fashion.
Vicky, as always, arrives late, dives into her bag and plonks a grubby Father Christmas and his grubbier sledge on top of her cake. The man, his reindeer and the sledge need a good scrub. She wraps a faded red tinsel band round the cake’s middle and sticks a pin in to hold it in place.
‘Our cake always looks like this and we have ‘im on our cakes, Miss.’
Mr Shield the headmaster is invited to judge my Best Christmas Cake competition. This time, surely, he’ll realise that I don’t spend my lessons cooking my supper or doing my washing. He accused me of this a few weeks ago. He glances round the tidy cakes then makes his announcement.
‘The winner is Vicky.’ The room cheers. So the common looking Christmas cake decorated with a plastic toy wins. Vicky raises a fist in triumph. Some people have no taste.
My evening outings to The Loose Box winebar have been successful and I’ve been on a few dates as part of my manhunt. The trouble is, we can’t phone each other to fix or change a date since my bedsit has no phone. Dawn, the school secretary, is getting increasingly crabby taking personal calls for the young teachers who are working at the school. She does not want us in her office, however serious we say the call is. Being late for a date means I don’t need to prop up some wall outside a busy pub and wait, looking like I’m a prostitute touting for business. There was one date when the man never came.
It’s the last week before Christmas, and we’re making peppermint creams as a Christmas present. More likely they’ll eat them on the way home, or throw them at each other for target practice. Gavin is back after another week’s suspension. It’s not clear what he’s done, but some think that prison is his destiny. I’ve been nervous about starting to educate Gavin again. Well not exactly again. I can’t make any claim to have educated Gavin, ever.
‘Hello everyone, and welcome to the peppermint cream lesson. Now you’re ready, sieve your icing sugar into your bowls.’
Gavin lumbers down to my desk. He seems to have grown bigger.
‘Miss, I’m making rum creams. Rum is for Christmas.’
He eyes me provocatively and sways unsteadily. I see he’s grasping a small bottle of rum with most of its contents missing. The room fills with sugary dust as the class shake their sieves. I stand up, ready for conflict.
‘Gavin – get your cooking things ready and leave the rum on my desk.’
Amazingly Gavin puts the rum bottle on top of my marking and ties on his apron. I face a class of surprised faces.
‘Gather round – I’ll show you how to crack an egg to separate out the white. Then mix it into the icing sugar with some peppermint essence and green colouring. OK let’s start.’
Where’s Gavin? I hope he’s gone home. The rum bottle is still on my desk. They sieve and mix and roll out balls of green dough. A sudden movement catches my eye. Gavin rises from behind his table and stamps his boots together. One of my pudding bowls is on his head and his right hand is raised in a Nazi salute.
‘Miss. I told you. I am using rum.’
The group is silent. No one wants to be noticed by Gavin.
‘Gavin – we can’t use alcohol in the classroom. It’s forbidden and you are under age for drinking.’
‘You let them girls put brandy in Christmas cakes last week. Are you picking on me?’
Gavin puffs up like the Jolly Green Giant on those adverts for tins of sweetcorn. Only Gavin seems bigger. And not jolly, green or friendly. And not singing ‘Ho, Ho, Ho.’
He’s right about the girls and their brandy. But wrong that I would pick on him. Not in my cookery room with the door closed. The group makes lines of peppermint creams in a kitchen silent with tension. Gavin stumbles to my desk and grabs his rum. I must deal with him or there will be trouble. His great body thuds down in my chair and he lets out a noisy yawn.
‘Gavin – the room’s hot – you must be tired. Put your head down and rest.’
He spreads out his fleshy arms, and seems to doze. But Gavin can’t be trusted – I wait for the storm. The class quietly clears away. We smile together, wrap up the sweets in greaseproof paper and tie each bundle with a green ribbon. I send Len off to the office to get Mr James who comes in quietly and removes a dozy Gavin from my desk. Whew. That was easy. Perhaps he’ll go to another school next term. And in a week it’s the Christmas holidays.
Next day a packet is left on my desk.
‘Hello Miss. I’ve moved into another group. I’ll be in your O level class next term. Happy Christmas, Alice.’
I unwrap the red and gold paper. Inside is a tin of Yardley’s English Lavender Talcum Powder. Now that brings back memories. Thankyou Alice. It’s nice to be appreciated.