The Ghost of Christmas Past
December 10, 2009
Baking a Christmas cake in France is not complicated: I buy the ingredients at the supermarket, I mix it all up (swatting small fingers away) and put it in the oven. This year I will not be making one as no-one in my family is very keen on it. It is too easy now.
Baking a christmas cake in Zimbabwe takes all the logistical training and agility of a special forces operation.
The first hurdle to overcome is the unavailability of dried fruit. In the year in question, I neatly side-stepped that by getting a friend to bring some back from a trip to London. My mother prevailed upon some friends in South Africa to bring some when they visited.
Even prior to the days of multiple zeros in our hyper-inflationary economy, foreign currency was hard to come by and cost a fortune in our local Monopoly money.
What the hell! It was Christmas and we needed something traditional! The bright sunshine of our endless African summer was not at all Christmasy, turkeys were unobtainable and our local father Christmas’s skin tone (bless him), contrasted sharply with his white beard. Nothing was authentic! A Christmas cake we would have, thanks to my mother, and I would make a Christmas pudding so rich in brandy it would squirt you in the eye when fork hit fruit.
The price of butter equalled that of the Gold Standard and nuts had to be purchased through discreet transactions with our Greek greengrocer.
Once the requisite ingredients were assembled we were almost foiled once more: by electricity rationing. A Christmas cake is a temperamental thing and should not be subjected to the vagaries of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Commission.
Christmas eve loomed. My mother was driving to Zambia, leaving at dawn on Christmas day. She would be bearing a Christmas cake made by her own fair hand, and a pudding made by mine. A cake would also be coming in our direction.
There was a power cut on the morning of the 24th which lasted until her car was packed and ready to go. But we come from a long line of adventurous folk and we stood strong. The power came back on, the cake went in and the puddings were on the boil. Our respective homes were filled with the wondrous smells of northern climes.
Time was ticking though and the Cake Baker needed some sleep. A plan was hatched. A handover would take place, with the security guard who worked outside her block of townhouses being a pivotal player.
The cakes would come out the oven at around midnight. One of them would be packed into the car and one would be lovingly wrapped in a cloth and put in a cake tin. The tin would be handed to the tall man wearing a balaclava and bearing a truncheon. He would be given precise instructions to hand it to the driver of a white car who would be in the vicinity in the small hours of the morning. He would recognize her because she would hand him a parcel and point at a red car. She would say,
“When the driver of that car comes to the car at 0400 please hand her this”.
At 0200 hours the puddings finished their interminable bubbling and boiling. The driver of the white car (me), handed them to the Protector of all that is Good and Right. In return I was handed a deliciously warm cake tin.
I drove home with a smirk on my face. Mission accomplished!
Then next day I unwrapped the cake. I was astonished to see that my usually perfectionist mother must have prized it out of the tin with a crow bar. The ragged edges looked like a giant rat had been nibbling at them. Not a smooth contour in sight! But that is when the final triumph occurred…imported Marzipan! I covered those (rather large) imperfections like a pro and by the time the icing was on no-one knew any better.
I was just admiring my handiwork when the phone rang. Through the crackling line from Zambia I thought something dreadful must have happened. I heard a hysterical, choking sound and thought it was surely the harbinger of some catastrophe.
It was indeed my mother. She was laughing so much she had to try and catch her breath. Indeed, she had been laughing for much of the 7 hour trip to Lusaka. She had set off on her way, thanking the pair of eyes peering out from his paramilitary headgear and had set off. For some reason she decided to peek at that Prize Pudding. There was something peculiar about it, and being of a curious disposition she investigated further.
It had been carefully hollowed out.
Those Christmas treats gave us more joy and laughter than any piece of cake or calorific, booze-laden bombs.
When questioned about the incident our faithful guard stood to attention and said.
“I am sorry. I failed in my duty.”