She put these white things in her ears. They are joined by a wire and I can see them disappear into her pocket. When she gets up and walks away I realised there must be music in them, fed from something in her pocket into her ears, like a drip. How do I know they’re white? What is white? Why do I know about pockets, but not these music feeders? I am travelling forwards much faster than I could ever run. Anyway, my shoes are too clumsy for running, smart shoes – I could walk briskly at best.
Moving forwards… feel a bit queasy. Someone’s left a half eaten cupcake by their bag on the seat next to me. But my gloves are in the bag… they’re leather. From the Durham indoor market last winter. Durham… that’s a place. Further north than here. Where is here? Why are my gloves in someone else’s bag? Or is it…yes, it’s my bag. Ah, that’s my water bottle, labelled N.J. That’s me. N.J. for N…N… well, my middle name is James, that’s the J. Why am I travelling? It’s all swaying from side to side slightly. No one else seems bothered so I won’t be either. Some guy in glasses is looking at some large sheets of flat material of some sort. There are a whole load of small black marks printed on it. I think I could understand them if I could see a bit closer… oops, he saw me leaning over in the reflection on the window. Window! Transport. I must be on a coach, or train, journeying… The ends of my wrists split into five strange tentacles. I’m sure I’ve used them before. At the end of each I have a hard coin so I can scratch that itch on my ankle. I can use these strange but familiar appendages well… they bend in three places. One is more stumpy but I seem to use it most. It’s called… come on… Think N. James, body parts; arms, legs, wrists, feet, … No. One day the name for them will be discovered. Or do other people know, and I have never been taught. I feel I have left something somewhere, why do I know my arms, but not these feelers? Why do I know I can walk, but not know where I am going? Maybe I’ll sleep. Maybe I’ll remember when I wake up… remember… that’s it.. I seem to have forgotten something…
Maddy. I can’t stand her. Maddy Maddy Maddy nyea nyea nyea, Maddy this, Maddy that. All he ever talks about is Maddy: ‘Maddy said I should be chosen for the football team, Maddy likes vinegar on her chips, Maddy says I’m the cleverest boy she’s ever met,’ Maddy Maddy Maddy. Maddy makes me mad. Mad mad mad. Maddy Mad. Mad Maddy. If he opens his stupid mouth one more stupid time to tell me about stupid Maddy I’ll stuff his oh-so-cool-cap down his Maddy-approved throat.
Sarah was furious. Not only was he obsessed with that awful girl, but he’d borrowed her bike. Her bike, with not so much of a please or a by-your-leave, or even a grunt. Stupid boy. She nearly fell over his skateboard which he had placed deliberately just inside the hallway.
Her mum was washing up the breakfast things and she sighed ‘Have a good…’ but by the time the guttural sound of the ‘g’ had formed in her throat Sarah had already slammed the front door. She stormed to the bus stop, took her seat four rows from the back by the window, and scowled at her reflection in the glass. She hated Friday mornings. Why? Friday she had no PE, where the boys laughed at the girls in their PE skirts, she had double art (her favourite) in the afternoon did I bring my coloured pens? Yes, it was nearly the weekend, and best of all mum always did crumpets for breakfast just for her, on a Friday. All slathered in butter and honey that soaked right through so her plate got all sticky and she had to scoop off the last bit with her fingers. Mmmmmm… But still. Friday, of all days, was the worst.
Sam had always been slow, so said his aunt, who had looked after him since his parents died when he was three, so she should know. He was slow to eat, inching his spoon to his mouth, rarely allowing half the cereal to stay on it in the laborious process. In the time Sam took to tie his shoe laces his aunt had made his packed-lunch, brushed his hair, fussed him into his school-jumper and stood waiting at the door. In class he would never put up his hand as he was too slow in saying the answer (which was usually correct) and another child piped up before the second syllable had pushed its way out of his reluctant lips. In the end his teacher sighed and spoke to the headmaster, who kept him back a year. Sam, who was not stupid, only slow, so said his aunt, grew quieter and slower, rarely played, just liked to think; a great thinker, so his aunt said.
At four o’clock Sam got home from school and went straight into his aunt’s parlour, where she and he sat amicably side by side. Her legs were neatly crossed at the ankle under her chair, slightly to the left, and his hung slowly a little above the floor. She would pour out a china curl-handled cup of tea for her, and a milk for him and he would have a thick slice of forest cake while she enjoyed rich tea biscuits, to watch her weight so she said.
In a residential home, not far from one of the larger lakes in the North-West of England, there was a room up in the roof whose slanted tiles meant that only a very small person could live there, according to health and safety. In the far end of this long room that extended over the majority of the house there was a rocking chair of cedar wood, and buried among a multi-coloured quilt and two bright green cushions was a wisp of hair, eyes, and limbs that somehow joined together, as if in spite of nature’s inclination, creating a lady quite as patched but matching as the quilt that covered her legs.
Mrs King was almost all deaf, but the sparkle in her eye and wit of her tongue had only brightened through her ninety-eight years on the earth. She pottered and tottered around her rooms set high in the house, enjoyed the view down over the hillside and down to the lake, and she loved to peer bird-like into every door she passed on the way downstairs for dinner, smiling cheekily at the men, whose thin chests broadened at her notice of them, and conspiratorially to the women, all of whose secrets she knew and kept. She was, needless to say, a favourite among staff and residents alike.
Visits from relatives left them recommending the home to all their older relatives, who were no doubt offended, but made sure they looked into it. Staff members were rewarded for hard work by being assigned to Mrs King’s floor for their morning shift. Doctors came, tested blood pressure, took blood, shone lights in her eyes and ears, and were amazed and amused at her sprightly resolve not to allow them to do any of the above.
Those who asked her about the secret to her happiness as long as ever they could remember her received the reply ‘Live by a view and have coffee and croissants for breakfast.’ Accompanied by a wink and an invitation to tea.
Amaria Winter kept a patisserie. Or it kept her. It was a family business, handed down from generation to generation so that the recipes grew and were modified and perfected to the point where people would travel far to taste the caramel pastries, double chocolate raisin buns, custom filled pancakes, gateau crème-de-la-mare, marshmallow soufflé, fairy cakes, Nepalese buns and twisted sesame bread.
There had always been a kind of mystery behind the little corner shop. Mamma Tessa first began the business and when she got too arthritic to knead dough and decorate fairy cakes, she taught her youngest granddaughter all the skills she knew. This tradition of grandmother to youngest granddaughter had continued, as if by accident, through the outbreak of wars and return of peace, through flood and fire, rise and fall of kings, the invention of electricity (that was a huge revolution in the little corner shop), then the little village expanded and inhaled and puffed out its chest and with a mighty effort cathedrals and skyscrapers appeared. And still the little corner shop sold its pastries, and people came from far to taste the yoghurt coated raisin bread, banoffee pies, torte delle stelle, and pavlovas that seemed to grow more fruit as you ate.
Amaria’s grandmother had died when she was five, far too young to have been taught more than a basic knowledge of how to measure sugar, grease a baking tray and the differences between the four hundred types of white flour. Her older sister Sophia (who was twelve at the time) had kept the shop open for exactly a week after her grandmother’s death, making sponge cakes and scones, which was all she really knew how to do. But, from the day she turned on the oven not a single cake sold and not a single customer came to the shop. Sophia had to take home every scone and every sponge cake she had made. Her younger brother Mattias ate a whole sponge and was sick for a day and a half.
After that week she gave up, shut the blinds and locked up the shop with the ‘closed’ sign mourning in the window. Amaria, always a quiet child, liked to visit the closed corner shop. There was a spare key in the vase in the hallway at home, and she would go there after school and stay there all weekend, so much so that her mother began to doubt that she had more than one daughter, and it was Sophia who remembered to set a place for Amaria at the dinner table. Things continued in this way for a few years until one day in April Mrs. Winter walked past the little corner shop and saw that the blinds had been pulled up, the ‘closed’ sign now declared ‘open’ from the window, and there was a neat selection of pastries on display. She was so open mouthed that she had to put her hand to her face to cover her astonishment as she dreamily opened the door and went inside.
‘Can I help?’ asked a voice, and the words bounced like raisins off the counter. Mrs. Winter gaped even more.
‘Amaria?!’ Amaria smiled. There was a smudge of flour under her left eye and hundreds and thousands in her hair. ‘But what? How?’
‘It’s mine isn’t it? The shop. That’s what you said. That’s what grandma said. So I’m the shop lady. Can I help you?’ She smiled again.
Mrs Winter could see chocolate in her smile.
‘But…school. You can’t… the oven… How? Mother never used recipes.’ Amaria looked puzzled. By now her mother had moved behind the counter and was moving towards the kitchen. She took her hand and, chattering like a blackbird in a field of worms, she led her bewildered mother around. There were shelves and shelves of large jars, each neatly labelled; groud cinnamon, sultanas, cardamom, icing sugar, ground pepper, bran flour, dried apple… ‘See?’ Amaria looked triumphant. Mrs Winter shook her head ‘Oh,’ Amaria tried again. ‘The recipes are in the jars. You just have to put them together.’ Mrs. Winter tried hard not to laugh.
‘But you don’t know the first thing about cooking, Amaria. No one will buy cinnamon cheese-sticks or some other concoction made up by… well… darling… nine year olds just don’t run bakeries.
Amaria’s eyes went all blurry, ‘I’m ten. And seventeen people have bought things from me just today, and four of them came back for more. I can cook. I can make Latin apple turnovers, bun-fancies and marzipan delights and bakewell tarts and…and…’ she started beating at some dough on the sideboard. She sobbed as she pushed dried apricots into the mixture and kneaded the dough as though it was a drowning man in need of resuscitation. She ignored the tears that made the dough sticky, and automatically added some extra flour. By the time she had shaped and baked the bread Mrs. Winter had returned home for a nice cup of tea. That evening Amaria presented her mother with a loaf of desert-gold bread, twisted and plaited into a rush-mat pattern and speckled with plush apricot pieces.
With great curiosity Mrs. Winter sliced it and set it on the table in an apologetic corner position. Sophia took a piece and dipped it into her carrot and orange soup. She looked at Amaria, her mother, the bread, and took another bite. Her eyes filled with tears and she kept eating. Big drops fell off her chin in to her soup. Mrs. Winter tentatively took a bite and reached for her napkin to dab at the apparent desperate watercourse that was finding it’s way through the beginnings of wrinkles on her face and dripping onto her lap.
Amaria looked at Zach across the table. He grinned. Half a loaf and two boxes of tissues later her mother agreed reservedly that she could run the little corner shop but only in the afternoon after school.
Two years later and little Amaria was less little and could now see over the counter properly and reach a whole shelf higher than before. This had opened up a whole her set of possibilities in her cooking. This made sense to her, this progression of access to ingredients. Her grandmother had always said ‘when you’re tall enough,’ never ‘when you’re old enough,’ and this, she supposed, was why. Since her twelfth birthday she could reach the Tibetan Paprika, lemon grass, pistachios, cocoa beans, Brazilian coffee, fine Chinese flour and fourteen other jars. She was happy. Most of the time. She felt at home. How could anyone be lonely with every shape to cake tine, and all the spices of India within reach? No, Amaria was not lonely. Strangers assumed there was an adult in the kitchen at the back, regulars merely wondered if there was, old-timers who had known her grandmother knew there wasn’t. Mrs Winter had come to an agreement with Amaria, without realizing it, that she no longer needed to go to school. Her extensive reading about foreign foods and spice advanced her vocabulary far beyond any of her classmates and her mental maths was kept sharp on account of running a shop. Amaria loved the moment that she opened the shop: 6am. In the early morning, in between the sunny side up and five flour breads, she made crumpets and croissants. That was her one dislike: she hated crumpets. She hated the holes in them, like grubs had mangled their way through. She hated the uneven roundness, her perfect circles ruined by the little bubbles that forced their way out. She hated them. Which is why she then made croissants, as a sort of reward. Rolling out the pastry, imagining the wind blowing through it, airing it, folding and rolling so that a row of crescents smiled at her. That, she thought, was true contentment.
A man commuting to London was always waiting on the doorstop at seven for a cup cake to eat on the train. Later on two old ladies came and dawdled over the Danish pastries, then after school a rush of children came and went, sticky fingered. On Fridays a woman came early to collect fresh crumpets, on Tuesdays at 2.15pm a man and his Alsatian came in; the man like French bread, the dog liked cake. Any cake.
In the evening she made up the mixture for the morning’s brandy buns, citrus flan bake, and forest cakes mixed and baked so slow that the tiny square of chocolate in the centre was barely melted while the cake itself was perfectly done. The only time Amaria was unhappy was in the evening, just before she left the little corner shop. Longing for the day when she could reach just a bit higher, she tasted in her mind every flavour as she ran her eyes along the inaccessable shelves… no longer needing to read the labels to know what was in the jars. She made fairy cakes last, giving the oven time to cool to the right temperature, and it was for this reason that she almost always nearly forgot to put them in the oven. Tired, she would misplace her keys, find them in a different safe place, forget to lid all the jars, forget that fairy cakes needed the crinkled baking tray to make sure they were grooved down the edges. Then it was just a matter of flipping the sign, drawing the blinds and locking up. In that moment, as she turned the key, she felt lonely. She was glad of her bed, where she could dream of living over the little corner shop and never leaving it. Not ever. And call into her dreams the fragments of her grandmother’s wisdom, ‘It’s the heart that makes the difference.’
Vicki Northern is more commonly known as Ermintrude or Paradox, due to a daisy chewing habit and having odd friends. Her favourite things include watermelon pip spitting contests, quoting The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and playing unaccompanied Bach. She doesn’t like riding rickshaws down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, aeroplane curries, or the beeping sound microwaves make when they have finished cooking. She spent her childhood in East Africa learning to avoid rabid dogs, cycling through national game parks and wearing flip-flops. She reads anything she can get her hands on, mostly due to the fact that she has never had a television. She writes poetry and fiction. Now she lives in Guernsey and wants to be Postman Pat when she grows up.
© 2008, Vicki Northern