It’s a quarter past seven on a Thursday evening, and I’m driving down dark country lanes towards Edge Hill, in the very north of Oxfordshire. I’m jittery with excitement and nerves – I’m to meet my friend Shiny Gems, and to join the Secret Pudding Club at the Castle Inn.
All day long, I’ve been bumping into people who tell me how fortunate I am to have a ticket, ‘they go in five seconds flat, darling’. Waiting for the school bus, the Mistress of The Horse roars up in her jeep.
‘Pudding club tonight, Carles? You lucky, lucky thing. Hope you’ve skipped lunch.’
Yep. And now, walking down the steps to the Castle’s bar, the tower soaring above me, I’m ravenously hungry. I walk through a low door and see a reserved sign, with ‘Pudding Club’ scrawled beneath. I feel a visceral squeeze of anticipation.
I’m early, so I slide through to the door to the bar, thinking I’d have a lemonade and a chatter with whoever I find. The bar is octagonal, with a huge log fire and bits of battle regalia on the walls – a breast plate here, a pike there. Not a pub to come with warring couples. I accidentally order a gin and tonic, and sit down with my notepad, unashamedly eavesdropping on the conversations around me. There are three men at the bar, all mud-encrusted and horny-handed – a million miles away from the Barbour Brigade. I try to understand their conversation, but it mostly seems made of odd hand gestures and low grumbling ‘aah’s, like rams exchanging tupping notes.
I’m just zoning in to the conversation on my left, when I hear loud laughter from the other side of the bar. It’s Shiny Gems, with lots of other tall girls, all knocking back pink bubbles and waving at new arrivals. I pick up my gin and go through.
‘Carles!’ cries Gems, and introduces me to everyone. ‘And you remember Sue-‘ I nod and grin, and stand very slightly on my tiptoes. The gin has flushed my cheeks and seen off my nerves.
‘Lovely puds tonight,’ someone says, rubbing her hands. ‘Where do we sit?’
We end up on a very long table with boxed starched-linen tablecloths that are impossible to force your knees beneath. I perch sideways, trying to remember everyone’s names, and not knock all of my cutlery flying. Blimey. There’s a lot of cutlery. The tables are pristine, and on each place is a bag of petite-fours, tied with a navy grosgrain ribbon. I slide mine into my sac magique, to take home to the children.
The room is filling up now, with perhaps thirty women – ten of which belong to Gems.
‘Sorry,’ says Gems in my ear. ‘Everyone’s very horsey.’
‘Not all-‘ I begin to say, but then a pretty brunette opposite launches into a story about a horse with a broken jaw. ‘Just snapped it off!’ she bellows, to a woman up to my left. ‘It was just dangling off-‘
I feel myself blanche.
Fortunately, a man rings a tinkling bell, cutting the story short. ‘I’d like to introduce you to your chef,’ he says. ‘Scotty-‘
And we all clap for a merry-eyed bearded man in chef’s whites. He welcomes us and tells us about his menu, and his puddings. We all ooh and aah, and then Jo, directly opposite me, calls for Prosecco. It arrives to much applause in two huge silver ice buckets.
We dispatch the savoury first course, and launch into the first of the puddings, which is flavoured with lavender.
‘Um,’ says Kerry, thoughtfully licking her spoon. ‘Tastes like my grandmother’s drawers.’ We all collapse with laughter.
‘Yum,’ though, says my neighbour.
The wine’s kicking in now, and the volume is climbing. Conversation moves onto War Horse, and how much better the theatre production was than the film. ‘I mean,’ snorts Jo in disgust. ‘They used over ten different horses for Joey alone. And the barbed wire wounds were in no way realistic.’
Anxious in case of more horsey blood-and-guts stories, I ask her opinion on the dessert wine. ‘Very good,’ she replies, and we both drain our glasses.
My immediate neighbour disappears for a cigarette break, and I scooch along to chat to the other end of the table. I meet Jo’s daughter, Holly, who has a waterfall of pale blonde hair and a beaming white smile. Her mum keeps pinching her phone to read her text messages, and making her blush.
I tell her I embarrass my daughters just as much, and that it’s our job as mothers. She starts telling me all about her new job, promoting a top-end car.
‘Ooh,’ I say. ‘What?’
She shows us all her phone, with an impossibly shiny Nissan GT3 on it.
‘It’s a Nismo GTR,’ she tells us. ‘And is a 3.8 Litre V6.’
‘Golly,’ I say, thinking my husband would adore her. She mentions how she makes Bannoffee Pie for her office mates, and conversation moves onto baking.
The other end of the table is in uproar. Gems and Sue are playing an Elf animation on Sue’s i-Pad. The last dessert arrives, and I’m feeling very stuffed. Scotty promises one lucky lady will find a strawberry in her pud, to win a meal for two. We pick up our final spoons in readiness.
‘I never win,’ says the lady next to Jo. Her spoon hits the strawberry and she whoops in excitement. More drinks and drunk, and the music from the Elf Ainmation plays again and again.
‘I really must go,’ I say, staggering to my feet. I’ve had just one gin and a tiny sip of dessert wine; sober me doesn’t last long on nights out. ‘So sorry to be the first to bail-‘ I start inching out, waving, crying nice-to-meet-you’s, take-care, take-care.
Outside, the air is sharply cold, and wakes me from my sugar fug. I stretch and shake my hair from my face, looking at the star spangles, feeling my waist band bite my stomach. Oh, but it was good. I had fun and ate and ate and ate.
I walk up to the road, cross to the car park. I know tomorrow at the school bus, the others’ll say, ‘Well? How was it? Was it good? What did you have?’
And I’ll grin, give a little shrug. ‘It’s a secret,’ I’ll say. ‘What goes on in the Pudding Club, stays in the Pudding Club. You’ll have to join to find out.’