Please, please, please let me know what you think!
“Hello, can I help you?”
“That’s six eighty –five, please.”
”Two large whites and a dozen bread cakes.”
”Can I get you anything else?”
Voices ring in my head, all repeating the same lines over and over again, the smiles plastered on our faces might be fake and plastic, but it doesn’t matter as we swing and twist our elaborate dance, a ballet of monkeys swinging around the counter. They stand still, waiting as I twist around and detach a bag from it’s hook, before turning again, and ducking under someone else’s arm, twisting as I emerge to avoid running into a hot tray of Cornish pasties that is just being pulled from the oven; I reach across over another bent colleague to reach for the allusive large whit, slipping it’s soft playable, and still warm shape into the bag in my hand, before throwing it into the air, and swinging it like a gymnast on the barre, and handing it to the patiently waiting customer. Again and again I repeat this endless dance, my overall moving with me, a chequered dress that straps around me, giving me freedom, and giving me my identity.
There is a freedom for me in this tiny, country bakery, lost in a small town of flowers and trees, the church tower rising above the slate roofs and ringing out in deep clangs the time, and memories of being a little girl. Old friends drop into the shop, and smile, and I serve them, feeling awkward and insignificant, whilst knowing that my name will remain here long after I go, and they will be forgotten after they buy their flapjack, and step out of the door into the sunlight and muffled noise.
“Pam dropped in today. Yes, she’s fine.”
The bread is like playdough in my hands, and I know that if I ate it, it would melt in my mouth; a sweet savoury. I hold a bread cake in my hands, and feel the underside, almost mould to my palm, whilst the top is the colour of fake tan, crispy and delicate. The flour is my hand cream, laving my skin, and dying it an imperfect white, and I become a queen.
I have watched this bread cake from the moment it began, and until now, when I am about to sell it for sixteen pence each, or one – fifty – five for a dozen. I watched it take shape, and rise, and bake, and as I stand in the shop, different worlds spinning around me, I know, that there is a connection, if only I can find it.
_“Morning Mrs. Wesel. How are you today? Yes, yes, it’s grand weather, isn’t it? And how’s the young one? Good, good, glad to hear it. A balm loaf did you say? Of course, of course, yes here we are. Now, anything else for you today? No? OK, well pet, you have good day, and take care of yourself you here? Yes love, now what can I do for you?”
Bert Wyer is managing his shop, a small family – run bakery in Baslow, 1927. His hair, a dark brown, is already thinning, even at the age of 42. He is dressed in a long overall, perfectly white, despite having been worn since the early hours of the morning, with the tie brought round to the front, because he has never been able to tie I behind him. His hands are scrubbed clean, until all sign of flour, and tobacco have disappeared, and his large hands are left pink and smooth.
He owns this shop. Or rather, he rents it. He has worked as a baker ever since he returned from the war. He used to deliver it, fresh and smelling of the kind of warmth you only find when you wake up under a duvet with a blanket of comforting air next to your skin. He sat on the horse and cart, driving through Baslow, as the village woke up, and smiled lazily at him over the treetops. He horse, a large black shire, plods rhythmically, in time with the beat of his heart, and Bert greets people much as he does now, although he seemed shyer then. Maybe he is embarrassed – he is one of a select few to have found work after the war, and he looks away from the accusing eyes of the young men sat on the benches by the road side, the young men with haunted eyes and shaking hands.
But now, he has rented his own shop, and hired an assistant, and is raising his own family. His daughter, with fine golden curls pulled back away from her face, and her daintily pink petticoat fanned out around her legs, is sat on the sideboard in the back, watching him, as he kneads the dough, his hands pushing and pressing against the elastic mixture. She is eating glace cherries from a small paper bag, and they have stained her lips and fingers red.
“Tell me daddy. Tell me about the horse.”
“You want to know about old Blackie, do you? Well, let me see. Have I told you about the time when it was raining so hard, you could barely see your hand if you held it infrount of you? We were out at the other end of Baslow, near Calver, and it was pelting it down. We’d been out all day, but as I couldn’t see the road, I had to rely on Blackie to get us home, and he did. He walked slowly, took his time, and all, but we got there, soaked to the skin, but safe. I gave him an extra bit of oat in his tea that night, and made sure he had plenty of warm blankets. He’d certainly deserved it! And then, do you, know what your old da did then, little miss? He ate with the big family, and they gave him a bed above the stables. Now isn’t that grand? Oh, look, lassy, you’ve got your frock all sticky. Run off, and get it changed before your ma sees you!”
That was were he’d met Alice, whilst he was at big house. She’d been a maidservant there, trying, as he was, to support her family back home. She was only eighteen years old when they met, but they fell in love, and once they had enough money to marry, they did so, in 1927. BY then, he was forty. Within a year, he had his own family to raise and provide for, with the birth of this little daughter, the apple of his eye. Alice. She was born in October, in a small council house, and spent her days in the bake house with her father, eating cherries and yeast. She’d watch him in the evenings and at weekends, digging in his vegetable garden, caring for the roses and tulips like they were his children too. Hens run around his feet, picking at the soil, idly missing the seed he is trying to feed them with. Alice has a large, chestnut hen sat her lap, fat and overhead, the feathers are smooth and neat under her tiny fingers, the warmth of a living body making her feel peaceful and maternal, even at four years old.
“Have you fed Whiskey Bill, lass? Don’t forget now will you?”
“Mummy did it earlier, Daddy. He’s hiding in the lettuce bed now, behind you.”
“Ah, there you are! Come on out lad, come on, that’s it. Why don’t you go and sit with Alice and Brownie there? Go on, get him Alice.”
“Come on, Whiskey Bill. There’s plenty of room for you here, look. Daddy, Mummy said she might get two more hens soon. Then we’ll have ten! I don’t know anyone who has more than ten hens?”
“Aw, lassy, you should have seen the ones at Chatsworth when I worked there as a young lad. Dozens, there were. And they all had their own fancy huts, all varnished so bright you could see your face in them.”
“Did you collect the eggs, Daddy? Were they lots of pretty colours?”
“I don’t know, I’m afraid lovey, I didn’t work with them, though I used to help mam with ours when a was a young one. But no, at Chatsworth I was an under gardener.”
“What do they do?”
“They dig the earth, and plant bulbs, and seeds, and care for the lawns, and do all sorts of jobs.”
“Did you like doing it?”
”Yes, lass, I did, though it was hard work, and I had to be up every morning for six, and walk for an hour, before I got to the grounds. But, yes, it was good work, an’ the pay helped mam.”
”Why’d it help mam? Why, ‘cause love, we were very poor in those days, and me father had died when I was just a baby, and mam needed all the help she could get to raise us four. Life weren’t as easy as ‘t is now.”_
But life didn’t remain easy, I remembered. Things changed, as did everything did when the war began. With it came not only rations, and the Black Market, but supermarkets also began stocking pre-packaged, cheaper sliced bread, and business dropped, until finally they had had to move out of the large stone house, sunk into the river bank, that they’d had built when the bakery had been flourishing.
I have heard a lot about this house, with it’s open, busy kitchen, wide staircases, and large garden, overflowing with flowers and hens, but, until now, I have never seen it. And yet here I am, staring up at the walls, trying to see past the glazed windows, and uncover it’s secrets; all those little stories I never heard, and never will hear. I knew the man, I knew the father, the husband, the grandfather, the baker, the gardener. But there was so much I will never find out.
I place my hands on the cool stone, rough and hot in the afternoon spring sun, and leaving little grains of sand stuck to my palms, where it had eroded and become uneven over the centuries. But it stands firm, reassuring me, supporting me. The door is locked, and painted a murky green, telling me better than any sign that it is probably best if I don’t enter, and so instead, I peer in at the windows. The first one I come to must be the lounge. It’s empty now of course, except for an old, half – eaten sofa, that looks like it was once a shell – pink colour, but is now only dirty beige, the colour of old skin. Stuffing is overflowing from the seats, and one of the cushions is stood on end, but at an angle, and I wonder if it is trying to escape. The carpet no longer seems to fit around the edges, and it has shrunk with years of being neglected. There are feathers littering the floor, and I know that the only inhabitants here are birds, who get caught in the empty rooms, and flapped about, with nothing but echoes to accompany them.
Around the back is the kitchen widow, large and divided up into neat squares by wood, neatly painted white. But the windows are a faint green colour, and although I never thought glass could smell, this does, of age. Perhaps it is the moisture from the river. Inside, the proportions are still the same, and there are the same old wooden worktops, and cupboards, all standing neatly in perfect formation. But, my great grandmother is no longer there, scrubbing and cleaning until even the doorknobs shone. The cats, two moggies, with a dash of Blue Persian thrown in somewhere, are not dashing in and out with rats they’ve caught from the river. And Bert is not coming in from the garden.
I turn, and gaze down at the garden, which slopes gently down to the river, which too is covered in algae, and I can’t see any ducks anymore. It used to be so full of life, so large, and friendly, and it enclosed me in its arms every time I visited. The hens are long dead, but if I listen carefully maybe I can still hear their movements. No, it’s only the rustle of rotting leaves.
And he is not there. Not stood in the vegetable patch, or knee deep in compost, or pruning his roses, or cutting Alice a bunch of tulips for the kitchen. I remember it all vividly however, every detail, every inch, of this garden, this house, this life. I remember the last time I saw him, just a very little girl. I had woken up from my operation, groggy and aching, and the world seemed to buzz around me in a way I had not noticed before. I could hear the nurses talking at the other end of the ward, and there was a radio playing somewhere. Radio four – I just heard the beeps. And he is there. My great grandfather, Bert. He is sat by my bedside, smiling in his polite way, and I know he is relieved to see I was ok.
_“There you are lass. How do you feel?”
“That’s good to hear. Listen, I can’t stay long ok, but I just wanted to say how proud I am of you, my little girl. I will always be proud of you. Give my love to your mummy, you hear? I’m sure she’ll be in soon. Goodbye lass. So proud…”_
He had died the day before, but he never mentioned that.