...and eat it, too

By

The English governess is now an extinct breed, but in her heyday she exerted such an influence that those of us who were schooled by her would never dream of breaking one of her many golden rules.

Some of these had to be adjusted during the austere Forties and it became no longer necessary to leave a little on the dinner plate for Mr. Manners. Overnight waste became a sign of ill breeding and what I declined to eat at breakfast would be put before me at luncheon and, if it still congealed upon my plate after that, then I would be confronted by it again at tea.

My own governess was not unkind and she would not deliberately present me with food that I deeply disliked. One of these dislikes was known to be cake.

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Rather to my surprise, as I entered the drawing room one afternoon, I saw a plate of prettily iced cakes on the tea table. They did look very good and my mouth began to water at the thought of the delicious flavours which must lie beneath the icing. The cakes had been bought for a guest to spice the humdrum fare of bread and jam.

As tea progressed, I realised to my consternation that I was not going to be offered one of the cakes. After a while I could stand it no longer, and putting on my best five year old expression, I asked whether I might be allowed to have one. I was told reluctantly that I could be allowed one as long as I promised to eat it all up. Foolishly I gave this promise and picked one of the most attractive of the remaining cakes. For a few moments I looked at it and enjoyed the anticipation of the delights which were to follow. Then as my teeth sank through the icing to the sponge cake beneath, I realised that I had been deceived by the decorative outer coating. Never would I be able to plough my way through such dry, throat-catching texture, tasting of sugared dust; and I had promised to eat it.

I noticed that as the others devoured their cakes, a small amount of crumbs fell onto their plates. Perhaps, I thought, I might be able to crumble my cake so that it looked as if I had eaten it, and I set hopefully to work. After a while, as the pile of cake crumbs grew, it should have been apparent to me that the more I crumbled, the larger the heap would become, but I hoped for some kind of miracle. To have called on heaven's help would have been profane, but there was no reason why the wizard Merlin should not come to my aid. I muttered all the magic spells I knew, but no one heard, except that my governess suddenly saw the mess I had made. I was in disgrace and sent to the kitchen to find a spoon with which to eat the unappetising mound.

A few years later, my grandmother made a hot ginger cake which fell down the back of the oven. It turned out to be delicious. The crash had prevented the middle rising so the cake was moist. She sent me one of these to my boarding school. The rule there, since the War was on, was that all food parcels were pooled. Unfortunately for the other boys, my grandmother had added too much ginger, so I was the only one who ate it, and when subsequent cakes arrived with less ginger, I was allowed to keep them all to myself to prevent the waste that had occurred on the first occasion.

But for some reason my grandmother stopped making ginger cakes and, when I was at another school and my mother asked whether I would like a cake sent for my birthday, I declined. I knew I was taking a risk since the other boys usually enjoyed a visit from their parents on their birthdays and tea was turned into a feast of rock cakes, bath buns, brandy snaps, drop scones, jellies and, of course, the birthday cake. I hoped that my own birthday would slip by unnoticed. Unfortunately the headmaster's mother took pity on me and bought a number of small iced sponge cakes which sat on the table looking a little lost among the piles of bread and butter.

The cruelty of small boys in English preparatory schools is understood only by those who have suffered at them. The barrage of sarcasm which I had to endure on that summer afternoon all those years ago was the stuff that recurrent nightmares are made of.

Some adult years later I was at the Savoy Hotel for an evening of watching the Thames illuminated by special celebratory fireworks. By coincidence the occasion was my birthday, which fact I had pointed out when the early arrangements had been made. To my consternation I was presented with a large cake which followed me about from viewing room to dining room and back to viewing room again. Finally I was made to cut the cake and a few people sang ''Happy Birthday'' rather halfheartedly.

A little later when I was standing by the cake wondering where I could hide it, a prep school sister asked me whose birthday it was. I told her and she asked me my name. On hearing it, her lips curved into a sneer. ''Typical'' was all she said as she walked away.

My daughter doesn't like cake either, though she used to. I remember that at her third birthday party she had those little iced sponge cakes. It was the year I decided to dress up to make the traditional present distribution to the other children more interesting.

When the lights were put out so that the cake candles would look more spectacular, I stole away to put on my costume. When the candles were blown out and the cake cut, I reappeared in cloak and magician's hat, singing, ''I'm Merlin the wizard, I'm Merlin, I am . . .'' I got no further for the children immediately burst into tears and had to be comforted by female attendants while I slunk away.

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