The worst, it appeared on first reading, had happened. Only on review did this first reaction give way to another: the worst was not the worst. The worst lay hidden amongst the words. No longer City of the Year, as voted by the people of Great Britain, Winchester had conceded its title to Bath.
Fleur suddenly understood that by describing fear as a cold sensation writers were only half right. Her fear – fear realised – was glacial, she considered, so cold it drained through her body leaving ice crystals wedged in her organs.
Was this what one should expect to feel when faced with failure, she pondered? And when had she first started to think in terms of ‘one’? Was there really ever a time when she would have said ‘you’? She shuddered to think of it, of the humiliation such a word might bring.
Taking a deep breath, Fleur drew out a fabulous dining chair and sitting down bravely faced the article once more. The facts were plain; Bath had won, but why? Was it because it was a World Heritage Site? Surely voters knew that Winchester was once the capital of England. King Alfred the Great himself had chosen it, meaning that even all those years ago it was brilliant. But Bath, Bath, with its ancient water stinking of rotten eggs, oozing up between crappy yellow stones, how could such a place be worthy of an award? Winchester’s water was fresh and crisp, its pure quality twinkling brightly in the sunshine as it poured from expensively chromed taps.
Maybe provincial was suddenly fashionable? For whilst Bath always bragged it was international, it was plain to anyone living east of Reading that it was not. International cities hosted international events, such as the Olympics. Of course, Winchester was not international either, but it never claimed to be. It was cosmopolitan. Using her phone, Fleur looked the word up for clarification.
Cosmopolitan: from, knowing or consisting of all parts of the world.
Not cosmopolitan, then.
She changed her search to provincial, just in case.
Provincial: the whole of a country outside of its capital.
Well clearly this could not include Winchester because it had actually been the capital, plus it was within a mere sixty miles of London. Bath must be more than one hundred.
Provincial: uncouth in manner and speech.
What the hell was it all about; this nonsense claiming Bath was the best city in Great Britain? Bath! Really? For Jane Austen’s sake, what was the matter with everyone?
Jane Austen. Fleur twitched a smile. Bastardly Bath had claimed Jane as its own, she knew only too well. But dear Jane had died in Winchester and this was an indisputable fact. Jane had only been in Bath briefly, and after catching a whiff of the stinky water virtually turned on her pretty heels. Hah! We have her body, Fleur thought, victoriously; the mighty Jane Austen, resting peacefully in our magnificent Cathedral, when all you have in Bath are strange people stood around in period costume outside a museum dedicated to someone who hated you all. Dear God, the ignorance.
Did Bath have a Cathedral, she wondered? She supposed it must, though couldn’t be certain. There was something fairly substantial in its centre, close to the Roman Baths, an abbey, perhaps? She could imagine the sort of person that might go there, the strings of homeless people queuing up for a cup of holy gruel. Fleur had visited Bath once and struck by the number of people littering the streets decided never to go again. At least, she had assumed them to be homeless and not just local people shopping; either way they were unfortunate.
Fleur recollected one particular shop. She’d had no desire to go in because it sold only white slippers and quaintly annotated enamel pots, and it was closed anyway. But had she needed to buy either product, she would have been forced to step over a snoring mound in a blue sleeping bag. She recalled tutting at the sight of it and tutted once more at the memory, because the bag looked unnecessarily filthy.
Winchester had nothing so disagreeable that Fleur could think of, few homeless people, rarely a foraging tramp, and no scruffy residents. Were those who voted for Bath perhaps not aware of this fact; not done their research properly? Winchester contained nice clean people, all attractive and of substance.
There was a Waitrose in Bath, Fleur conceded, and by way of demonstrating the sophistication one would expect from such an organisation, it was joined to Bath’s main library. As she’d passed it on her way to use the supermarket bathroom, she’d taken a moment to observe the library entrance. Not a single person went in. The people of Bath were obviously not great readers. This memory induced a dimly lit fragment of pity, because Bath residents were not able to access the fine schools of Winchester. It wasn’t permitted, as far as Fleur knew. However, one could not say that this was through no fault of their own, since arguably they could move. But perhaps the people of Bath were unable to afford property in Winchester. Fleur knew with absolute certainty Winchester had the higher average house price of the two; she didn’t need to check. And of course, Winchester was always in the top ten of the most desirable places to live in the United Kingdom.
Fleur glanced at her beautifully crafted watch and then through the window to her huge new four by four, which would be very useful come the frost. The school run was not for another hour, but the shocking news had left her unable to focus on her work. Fleur had been forced to stop the rush of her life, always so much busier than everyone else’s. It wouldn’t hurt to ignore her work for an hour, she decided; after all, the baking blog was going well, and she had even started receiving requests for cakes, rather than just recipes. Besides, she could always work tonight once the children were in bed, since she was on her own again. He was away so often it felt normal.
What was required right now was a cup of tea, Lady Grey de-caffeinated. Fleur stood up and moved to the kitchen area, pausing for a moment to gaze at the splendour of its shiny surfaces. The large wine cooler, the fridge with chilled water dispenser, the induction hob with integral extractor; the two large warming drawers; it was magnificent. Her eyes drifted back to the table, and the magazine article announcing the results of the competition. Her mouth dried; something that felt like panic rushed over her. What the hell was it all for? For a moment, even the original Eames recliner seemed pointless.
With a balled fist, Fleur shrieked ‘Dammit!’ for being defeatist was not the way to success. She took a long slow breath, and reset her inner karma.
Yes, Bath had won and Winchester had lost, but that did not mean Bath was better. It meant only that someone had fooled everyone else into making a mistake. After all, they were on occasion a devious bunch in the West Country, as proven by the unlikely success of the rustic musical band, The Wurzels.
Feeling rebellious, she selected not Lady Grey but English breakfast tea, fully caffeinated. While her tea brewed in a tiny one-person pot, Fleur leaned against the marble counter and using her phone pulled up details of noteworthy people from Bath.
The icy sensation returned. The list was longer than she had anticipated; far more extensive than the one she had seen detailing Winchester’s most notable human exports. She moved off the page, trying not to notice any of what was written there, while inadvertently registering the name Midge Ure.
So they had Midge, did they? Fleur poured her tea and sat back down, fine porcelain mug in one hand, phone in the other. She tapped in the words Bee Gees. She loved the Bee Gees. Ah, she thought with some disappointment as she sifted information, they were born on the Isle of Man. In all honesty, Fleur hadn’t really expected to find they were from Winchester. It was a long shot. She thought then about her own business, and typed the name, Mary Berry.
‘Oh for Fuck’s sake!’ Fleur growled, before apologising to the family’s black labrador, lying bored on the polished oak floor, reclaimed boards from an ancient French Château. ‘Born in Bath. Educated in Bath. Father, Mayor of Bath.’ Fleur groaned aloud as she read Mary had been given the freedom of the city. Why oh why would she want to go back there, Fleur wondered? Why would anyone want to go to that shithole, when they could come here?
Miserable, Fleur sought a treat. Nothing of her own baking remained, and so she went to a cupboard and took out a small packet. The door-closing mechanism was pleasingly dampened, but even this failed to delight on a day so filled with blackness.
Sitting back down at the table, Fleur carefully withdrew four gluten-free biscuits, placing the now half empty packet on the table. Her eyes scanned the packaging; the biscuits were free from almost everything. Gluten-free was a hard diet to follow, and it was only the weekly indulgence of a fresh cream doughnut that kept her going. This, and the occasional pizza.
Looking from the biscuit to the tea and back again, she initially concluded that the people of Winchester were not inclined to dunk, because dangling food in a hot beverage was rather like mopping up cottage pie with a slice of focaccia. But then she thought, maybe we do dunk, maybe it’s classy because it speaks of rebellion. Dunking a biscuit says I don’t care what you think of me, because I set the trends. I live in Winchester.
I am Winchester.
With a mixture of guilt and pride, Fleur dunked, and given the fragile nature of baked goods traditionally made with gluten but not, it melted away, sinking through the liquid to the bottom of the mug.
Fleur’s head hit the table in despair. What was it with today? And why oh why had she removed every gluten-containing snack from the house? Why of all the diets did this have to be the best one? Did she even need to diet?
Her manicured hand slipped across the small wine tyre cradling her waist. The roll was definitely smaller. The diet, plus a week off the booze, had obviously had an affect, so it wouldn’t hurt to have a glass later. As soon as she was back from the school run, she’d open a pinot grigio and enjoy a glass while the kids had their water and carrot sticks in front of Cbeebies.
Fleur smirked. In Bath they were probably still quaffing chardonnay, of all things. She stopped smiling; what she needed to get was the Portuguese wine her friend Philly had shared with guests, at her tremendously successful dinner party. But what was it called? Fleur couldn’t remember. She searched the words Portuguese and wine and on finding too much information decided she would ask Philly instead.
She could also ask Philly what she thought about Bath stealing the title from Winchester. Fleur resolved to phone her later. Maybe together they might solve the mystery, perhaps even expose the fraud. Like any friend worth having, Philly was well connected, so perhaps she would be able to get to the bottom of it. She was after all, responsible for much of Winchester’s tourist information and literature.
Fleur felt a little better. Philly would know what to do. William the Conqueror commissioned monks to write the Domesday Book in Winchester, just as Philly would make certain to rewrite this little blip in Winchester’s history.
What propaganda was currently being composed in Bath, she wondered? What further lies were being told since it had stolen the coveted accolade? No doubt the prize, and what a prize it was, would delight the city’s elite, assuming it had one. Just as all the important people of Winchester had been given the freedom of the city of York for one whole month after taking the title, so Bathonians would be afforded the same. They would be able to come to Winchester and ride the buses and visit the attractions and drink coffee free of charge, lowering the tone with their funny accents. Fleur again thought back to her visit to Bath. She had bought some wrapping paper and been baffled by the sales assistant repeatedly asking if the paper should be rowed or fowded, as if it were Fleur who were mad.
The more Fleur pondered, so the pain of defeat began to lessen. She studied the gluten-free biscuits and picked up another. Yes, the chosen few from Bath would have the freedom of Winchester, but traditionally winners were not treated to hotel rooms. No. As winners of City of the Year, the previous year’s losers would host them, in their own homes. In Fleur’s home.
They would of course attempt to bring their blue sleeping bags, thinking this might make them less of an inconvenience. Fleur, whatever her thoughts of the more conniving habits of late, always assumed the Bathonian to be a passive and deferential breed, subservient in the way of a cocker spaniel. Fleur loathed cocker spaniels, the way they half crept and half slithered across the floor just for the honour of a pat.
She looked again to her own dog, and smiled proudly.
Fleur could make the stay of her lowly guests miserable, she concluded. She could serve gluten-free biscuits and gluten-free bread; she could reheat cooked gluten-free pasta because she’d already discovered this was the way to make it an unpalatable mush. Make a lasagne and cook it immediately and it was hard to tell that it wasn’t regular pasta. Make it in advance, or keep any extra for the freezer, and one may as well eat one’s own vomit.
She would not make gluten-free cake, because this was very nice.
But the downside to this approach would be that she herself would appear inadequate. It would be a terrible thing for any inferior being to feel their much-admired superior was mediocre. And admire the people of Winchester, they surely did. Who could not? Why else would they go to such lengths to appropriate the title, if not because they knew it would otherwise be retained? Pitiable people of Bath, how crushing it would be to arrive at such a wonderful home in the finest city in the world only to discover the catering was terrible. Assuming they would notice, of course.
Perhaps instead Fleur would cook them the most exquisite food imaginable, make them crave for more, ensure that when they left they would be so bewitched by what they had eaten that the memory of it would be a torture? She could bake the beautiful cakes and cookies that were beginning to make her blog such a success. But what of savoury matters? Fleur’s gaze drifted to the latest Jamie Oliver book to be published, arranged on an illuminated shelf near the coffee machine. When in Bath, Fleur had noticed a Jamie restaurant. The provincial guests would be overawed to think they were eating something originated by a top chef from London.
Just as the Winchester Guildhall clock strikes eight o’clock every evening, so an inevitable cog turned in Fleur’s mind, and she shuddered. The dog, until now stretched out on the floor, released a single whimper before moving to its luxurious tartan bed. Fleur’s fist balled once more, crushing the biscuit, and as fine dust fell so a decision was made. Fleur would make sure to have a person stay who followed a strict diet. Not wheat-free or gluten-free, whatever the difference was; nor vegetarian or vegan, though this would not pose any real difficulty, for she was a dab hand at meat free diets having followed one herself. She knew of people whose idea of catering for vegetarians meant simply not serving the meat aspect of the dinner, which to Fleur seemed lazy when all that was needed was some nut loaf or cheese. And as for the troublesome vegan, interest and flavour could always be attained with the secret addition of some beef-stock.
As her thoughts wandered to a time when she had used Bovril to add flavour to some vegetarian sausages, having run out of Marmite, she stopped short. Thinking this way was evasion, an avoidance of what should remain at the forefront of her mind. Loose from the ice flow, a crystal expanded in her heart, and Fleur accepted the decision made; what she needed was someone whose allergy was fatal.
The delivering hand would have to be her husband’s, of course, because of the risks involved. Their father was a good man, working hard in the new capital to provide Fleur with the lifestyle she required. In fact, by managing risks he had already secured her future. He was a problem solver, a man who could move things; a man who changed things, a man who hedged his bets and could do this thing and never know what was done.
And if it was deemed not an accident but the result of negligent cake serving, so what? Had he not always pledged to do anything for her? For the children?
Did Bath have a prison, she wondered? Was that the reason it had won, elevated above its station because nothing as socially difficult tainted the limestone. Picking up another biscuit she took a large bite, tongue searching for texture. Life is full of risk, she thought, choosing not to research the question of whether or not Bath was home to a prison. She dared not check, for which would be worse, Winchester’s adversary not having one, or her husband ending up in it? Because it would be a terrible injustice if he were sent to Bath, when Winchester had a fine prison of its own.
Besides, Fleur wasn’t certain she could bring herself to visit him there.