The caretaker had the thankless task of clearing the rubbish from the old schoolhouse ready for its new occupant to move in.
‘’Bout time too,’ he muttered to himself.
He’d never had much time for Old Ma Pickles. Far too full of herself she’d been.
Thought the whole world should bow down and worship her, and her school.
And he’d never thought much of her famous jams either, so when he found the box labelled My Secret Recipes he was tempted to throw it straight into the boiler. But maybe the new head could make use of these pretty lids and labels? He had no idea what was concealed underneath.
“Dear Madge,” the hidden letter began
“I hardly know where to start. But I owe it to you to finally tell the truth. Ever since you arrived as the new headmistress, you’ve been unceasingly kind to me, your predecessor. You’ve even let me stay in the schoolhouse, my home for so many years, while you’ve been billeted at the parsonage, comfortable enough I’m sure, but not the same as having your own place.
“Well, enough of my rambling. My consultant tells me that I should start putting my affairs in order as my intellectual abilities will go first. So if I’m ever going to confess, I need to do it now. Yes, confess is the right word when I have so many guilty secrets. You, Madge, with all your impressive certificates and sparkling references, probably can’t imagine what it’s been like for me all these years. And I was always alone, so alone.
“What about Mr Pickles, I imagine you saying, and what about your son in Australia?
“Well that’s my first confession. There never was a Mr Pickles. And my son? He was real enough, but I was forced to give him up before he was a week old. That’s what happened in those days. I used to imagine he might come looking for me, and that we might one day meet again, but it wasn’t to be.
“Mrs was the honorary title they gave me when I first came to St Edmond’s as a supply teacher, perhaps because I was past the first flush of youth, and carrying a bit of extra weight. Anyway, they decided I was a widow, and I never corrected them. Gradually a reassuring picture of my previous life evolved – and why should I disabuse them?
“The fictitious Reverend Pickles, they assumed, had needed a helpmate to work with him in an equally fictitious mission school in Africa. Then he’d tragically died leaving me alone in the jungle to bring up our baby son. Now that young Robert had set up home on the other side of the world, I had decided to come home to England to follow my vocation.
“You don’t need to know what really happened to me in those dark intervening years. Suffice it to say that no one ever questioned my non-existent qualifications, and in time I became first a permanent assistant teacher, then eventually the imposing and much respected headmistress you’ve only known in my declining years.
“But though it was easy to master the basics of primary school teaching, life was never simple. As the imaginary vicar’s widow, I was expected to have various abilities outside the normal school curriculum. Some I could acquire from books: maypole dancing was a cinch and music was OK – there was always some young teacher who’d mastered the recorder as a child, and was flattered to be asked to help out with the school concert. The local vicar jealously guarded his role as the keeper of our pupils’ souls, so that was all right.
“No, the real challenge lay in the Village Fete. As you too have discovered, any truly respectable and respected headmistress of a village school must set a good example, and so encourage the entire community to involve itself in this annual fund-raising activity. There were cake stalls, plant stalls, stalls selling embroidered table cloths and hand-made lace doilies, even a White Elephant stall, but for some reason I chose the jam stall.
“You might think it was easy enough to learn how to make conserves, whether they’re jams, Jellies, Chutneys or Pickles. Well Pickles were out of the question. Mrs Pickles’ Pickles would sound ridiculous. But you wouldn’t believe how many pans I ruined, and how much fruit I wasted, before I came up with my own slightly irregular solution to the jam stall problem.
“If only we’d had the internet earlier, maybe I’d never have started down that particular path. But it was no use trying to pass off the jams sold in the local shops as my own.
“They might claim to taste ‘Just Like Mother Makes’, but they certainly didn’t look convincing after I’d steamed off their labels, and replaced them with my own. I just had to start visiting other fetes in other villages – and buying up supplies of genuine home-made jams.
“There were even advantages I hadn’t thought of. For example the labels were easier to remove than from the shop-bought variety! And the rural jam-makers of England had invented so many different varieties of jam. Melon and Ginger was one of the tamer lines. Chilli and Blueberry sold out as soon as it appeared on my stall, while I still haven’t cleared the waiting lists for Cherry and Almond, let alone Nasturtium and Crab-apple.
“I’m sorry Madge, I’m getting tired and my head is aching. If only I’d been more courageous, I could have told you all this in person. I already feel I know you better, and I hope you in turn feel closer to the ‘Old Head’ who must so often have seemed an impossible act to follow. Now however you needn’t feel in awe of my abilities a moment longer, and you have my permission to perpetuate my jam-making technique!
“Goodbye – I won’t say God Bless as coming from me it might sound blasphemous –
Miss Marsh, popularly known as Madge, soon discovered the box where the caretaker had left it prominently displayed in the centre of her table.
‘Oh no! The sanctimonious old cow can’t leave me alone even now she’s dead,’ was her first thought. Then without a second thought, she threw the box unopened into the skip with the rest of the old stuff which was to take no space in her life.