Tragedy Ends in Romance – Week 42 of the 52 week short story challenge

bakery4

 

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar…  Scrub that. I was actually working in a small bakery. The owner – Charles – liked to refer to it as an ‘artisan bakery’. I felt that profits would be up if we sold a few more sausage rolls and pies, instead of sourdough loaves and sweet potato pasties.

Most of our customers were pretty ‘right on’. Men with long revolutionary’s beards and tight red jeans. Women with layers of tie dyed clothes and multiple piercings. Charles had squeezed in a couple of bistro tables and spindly legged chairs in order to upgrade us to a cafe. Fairtrade products were stacked artistically on the counter tops and a shiny cappuccino machine was Charles’ latest toy.

We were rarely busy.

I started there as a Saturday girl while I was still at school. Saturdays were slightly busier because of the weekly market outside. When I started doing my ‘A’ levels I had Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons free so Charles offered me some extra work.

This was partly to give Charles and his partner Aimee some quality time together. Aimee did most of the baking, as well as serving in the shop while Charles indulged in intellectual conversation with one of his many mates who perched precariously on the chairs, bought one cup of soy milk pumpkin latte and stayed until closing time.

Quality time.

Aimee and I got on well. I’m sure that she would have liked to run up some sausage rolls but Charles was adamant that everything in the shop was vegetarian friendly.

We had our secrets, Aimee and I.

On market day we often had disappointed customers who pulled faces at the very thought of sprout and coriander quiche, or Savoy cabbage and marrow ciabatta, before rushing off to the chip shop or Maccy D’s.

Charles refused to admit that, however honourable his principles were, the general public did not agree with him. The cafe was losing what little money was being made on the bakery sales, and there were not that many takers for the hefty loaves that were more suited to being used in dry stone walls than gracing tea tables.

I could see the signs, and was casting around for alternative employment when fate changed the course of my life.

On an even more sluggish than usual Thursday afternoon, I had cleared all the tables bar one, washed up and was in the bakery at the back of the shop when I heard a huge crash.

Aimee was upstairs in the flat having a lie-down. Charles was sitting at one of the tables with his friend Ben.

Well, he had been sitting at the table with Ben.

When I looked through the door into the cafe all I could see was dust and the front of a large van poking through the place where the shop window used to be.

‘Charles? Ben?’

The van’s engine was still running and I could see a man slumped over the wheel. I couldn’t see Ben or Charles.

I couldn’t see any chairs or tables either.

I backed into the bakery and got out my phone.

‘Police, Fire or Ambulance?’ said the operator.

‘All three I think. A van has crashed into the shop front  where I work. There’s a man unconscious and I can’t find my boss – or his friend.’

The operator assured me that help was on the way and that I should stay in the bakery in case the shop front collapsed.

I did as I was told, listening out for any sound that Aimee might have woken up. I had a feeling that she was pregnant – but hadn’t told Charles – and once she went up for a nap it would take more than the shop being destroyed to wake her.

The fire brigade were first on the scene.

I showed them where the rear entrance to the bakery was, and two very large and rather handsome firemen joined me in order to carry out their assessment of the damage. One of them managed to get into the van and turn the engine off. I saw him look at his companion and shake his head.

The man in the van was dead.

There was no sign of Charles and Ben.

My fireman took me upstairs to check on Aimee. She was fast asleep still but we woke her up in case the crash had affected the structure of the flat as well.

We sat in the back of an ambulance; we were both shaking and neither of us was brave enough to ask the other about the whereabouts of Charles.

My fireman came back looking puzzled.

‘We’ve checked. There’s no one in the cafe. A lot of mangled metal and we’ve got the guy out of the van. Are you sure there were two people in there?’

I shrugged. They had certainly been sitting there when I’d cleared the tables and did the washing up  but I hadn’t left the bakery until I heard the crash.

Aimee began to relax a little.

‘Could they have gone somewhere else?’

I shook my head. Charles rarely left the cafe during opening hours unless he was shopping for supplies and he tended to do that on Sundays.

A policeman tapped the fireman on the shoulder.

‘We’ve found them.’

‘In the shop?’ Aimee was trembling again.

‘No. One of your neighbours spotted them. They were in Maccy D’s eating burgers.’

I’m not sure if Aimee would have preferred Charles and Ben to have been squashed under the van. She was so angry.

A shamefaced Charles and a grinning Ben appeared in the doorway of the ambulance.

I got up.

I had the distinct feeling that I wasn’t needed.

The fireman held out his hand to help me down the step.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

‘I think so. I’ve a feeling my job prospects just took a nose dive though. Even if Aimee forgives Charles for his lapse, the shop is pretty well wrecked. Do you know why the van crashed?’

‘Officially no but unofficially the paramedic thinks that the guy had a heart attack and was probably dead before he hit the window. I guess we should be grateful that the cafe was empty and you were safe.’

I could have been mistaken but I had a feeling that my fireman blushed when he said this.

He really was very handsome.

‘Do you actually like all this veggie stuff?’

‘Hate it. Aimee and I often have ham sandwiches when Charles has to nip out to the shops.’

‘Only,’ and he blushed even more, ‘I was wondering if you’d like to go out for a meal – when you feel better of course.’

‘I’m fine. Now I know that Charles and Ben are okay – and that Aimee will finally be able to own up to Charles that she doesn’t like veggie stuff either. It’s a shame about the poor man in the van but it could have been much worse – couldn’t it?’

He nodded and looked at his watch.

‘I finish at six. Are you free tonight?’

My turn to nod.

We didn’t go to Maccy D’s.

Our first date was at the little Italian restaurant far enough away from the cafe so that I didn’t have to look at the boards across the window and the yellow police tape flapping in the wind.

My fireman – now known as Tommy – has become a permanent fixture in my life and I had very little inclination to look for another job.

Aimee and Charles – and the new baby – gave up on the bakery business.

I lost contact with them but I heard that the insurance payout was very generous.

It was a shame about the man in the van though.

 

images-2

Advertisements

Rising to the Challenge – Week 2 of the 52 week challenge

My kitchen is a wreck. I am a wreck. Used bowls and every wooden spoon that I own  teeter in a tower of washing up on the draining board.  Flour floats in the air and makes me sneeze violently. The dog, sporting a totally inappropriate white halo, sneezes in sympathy.

Regrets. I have had more than a few today and as I watch the tea-towel covered bowl for signs of life, my anxiety builds.

It had seemed such a good idea at the time. The ideal way to finally get one over on Caroline. Caroline the (allegedly) perfect mother and housewife. Caroline whose smug smirk has been irritating me for more years than I want to remember. Caroline whose hair and skin were perfect, whose dress sense was impeccable and whose children never, ever, ever misbehaved.

Calm down. This is nothing to get anxious about. Famous last words.

I cast an evil glance at the bowl before fighting my way to the sink.

The phone rings and it is my friend Sarah. Like me, she is in her kitchen and about to tackle her washing up too. We commiserate. We compare the mess level but neither of us is brave enough to lift the edge of the tea-towel and peek.

The call refreshes my flagging spirits. Both Sarah and I  are more than aware that our skills are inferior to Caroline’s, and that we are heading for an embarrassingly epic fail, but we are beyond caring now.

I tackle the washing up with gusto, dry it all up and stow it away in the capacious kitchen drawer – ordered specially to accommodate such rarely used but necessary implements when we had the new kitchen fitted.

The fruit goes back into the big biscuit coloured bowl; identical to the one my mother owned but much less used. I really want to take a sneaky peek but I force myself to clean up the worktops first and shake the flour from my ‘Domestic Goddess’ apron out of the back door.

According to my watch I have only used up twenty of the allotted sixty minutes. How on earth do the professionals cope with such fettered curiosity?

Shutting the kitchen door firmly, I sit down on the sofa next to the dog, and try to lose myself in a banal quiz show on TV. Either the questions are very easy or I am the unofficial Brain of Britain. Either way, the contestants are making heavy weather of it and my tolerance for their stuttering replies has vanished.

The dog and I return to the kitchen. I pick up the grimy pieces of paper so recently printed off from the Internet. The rules stated that certain ingredients had to be used and both Sarah and I have spent hours researching recipes that contain them. We are using different recipes however, in the hope that one of us will have found the definitive way to finally vanquish Caroline.

Caroline always wins our Bake Off. It is only a small competition; open only to a group of women whose children have grown up together, but whether it is a Victoria Jam sandwich, profiteroles, apple pie or – this year – a wholemeal loaf, Caroline always wins our Bake Off.

The kitchen timer rings and startles me from another memory of crushing defeat at Caroline’s ever-competent hands. Her children were always the most imaginatively dressed – whether it was for the Christmas play or a children’s fancy dress party. Nothing ready-made; no straggly tinsel wings or halo, and definitely no tea-towel head-dress for the shepherds.

Tea-towel!

I gingerly lift the tea-towel’s edge and gasp at the dough-monster filling the bowl. It is HUGE!

According to the recipe it is time to give this beast another thumping before it can go in the oven.

Oven!

The cooking times and temperatures on my recipe sheet don’t include those for a fan oven!

Calm down. You have already managed to convert the American cup used in the recipe to ounces – grams were too complicated.

You could just use the ordinary oven but then why did you buy an oven with a fan if you are too scared to use it? You love it when Mary Berry says ‘170 fan’. It makes you feel as if you are a member of her exclusive club.

You decide to risk things and go for the fan. Mary would – wouldn’t she? Caroline undoubtedly has a fan oven in her squeaky clean kitchen.

Oven on. Baking tin lined and ready.

Ten minutes of dough kneading and the beast is subdued enough to be put into the oven.

Timer set. Time to clean the worktop again and wash up the bowl before the remnants of dough set hard and have to be chipped off.

The dog has his head cocked to one side and gives a small but heartrending moan because I have forgotten his dinner. He can hear the sound of the six o’clock news and knows that I should be feeding him rather than messing around in the kitchen.

Thoroughly penitent, I give him his food and add a few treats to make up for my negligence. We sit down together to watch the news.

As time ticks on, the smell of freshly cooked bread creeps round edge of the kitchen door; an irresistible odour that reminds me of my childhood. I should have made two loaves, then we could have eaten one and used the other for the competition. This thought sparks a fear that someone may creep into the kitchen in the night and ravage my bread before it can be presented.

It will have to be hidden; not from my husband who can be relied upon not to touch it or the dog who is locked out of the kitchen at night, but my children…

The scent of my bread is being overthrown by a horrible acrid smell of smoke. I rush out to the kitchen and peer through the oven door. The loaf is cooking nicely. The smell is coming from outside the house.

Making sure that the dog is safely indoors I go into the garden where I can hear sirens and see a thick pall of black smoke on the horizon. The phone rings and I dash back inside.

It’s Sarah again and she isn’t checking on the loaf’s progress.

‘Did you see the fire?’

‘See it! I can still smell it, and I’ve been deafened by the fire engines. Where was the fire?’

‘It was at Caroline’s.’

‘What?’

‘Caroline’s here at mine. She went out to fetch some butter from the corner shop and her oven exploded. The fire brigade got there very quickly and put the fire out but the kitchen is totally gutted. So is Caroline.’

‘What was she cooking?’ I ask this although I know what the answer will be.

‘Bread.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘I think we should cancel the Bake Off – I’m ringing round to see what everyone else thinks?’

‘I totally agree. It wouldn’t be a Bake Off without Caroline’s contribution.’

There is a moment while Sarah has a quick conversation with Caroline. I take the opportunity to don an oven glove and remove my handsome brown loaf before it burns as well.

‘Caroline’s going back to the house now – a rather lovely fireman just came to get her. I’ve just taken my loaf out.’

‘Me too. How does yours look?’

‘Gorgeous. Too good to eat really. Not that I’ll be stopped by that.’

‘Me neither. I have plenty of butter too.’

‘Damn! I’m all out.’

‘Come round then Sarah, and we’ll compare loaves. We met the challenge anyway.’

‘I’ll be round as soon as I’ve made these calls.’

‘Sarah?’

‘What?’

‘Make sure the oven is turned off…’