The bakery was closed. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were singing on the radio and Alex was in the kitchen with The Modern Motor Car open in front of her.
‘Citroen, Fiat, Renault, Mercedes,’ she said to herself as she wrapped strips of puff pastry round the insides of three white dishes. A sweet wine and peach sauce was simmering on the stove. It smelt spicy and made her want to dip in her finger and try some. She had just switched off the heat when she turned and noticed a woman in a green hat knocking on the window. Alex leant through the door into the shop, mouthed, ‘Were shut,’ and went back to the table to slice apricot for the flans.
‘Chevrolet, Bentley, Studebaker,’ she murmured, imagining a line of shiny cars driving past the bakery. She had begun to dip the pieces of fruit into the sauce and arrange them in a spiral pattern on the base when she saw that the woman was still there, knocking on the window again and waving. She was wearing a long green coat that matched her hat, and shiny black shoes. Alex went out into the shop, because Mr Sabre was drinking the tea she had made him in the back room with a coconut fancy.
‘We’re shut,’ said Alex through the window. The woman said something she couldn’t hear, and didn’t go away, so Alex went to get the long key from the hook. The picture of Edith smiled down at her from the wall above the loaf trays. Under the photo
were three certificates in frames. ‘Edith and Michael Sabre’, the first one said, ‘Butlins Quiz Champions 1951’. The Q and the C were in green curly letters. The second and third were the same, only these said 1952 and 1953. She picked up the key. On the opposite wall were three more: 1955, 1956, 1957. Alex knew that in 1954 they had been beaten by a question on petunias and a suspect judge. The certificates were signed personally by William Butlin.
She opened the door.
‘I simply must have some custard tarts,’ said the woman. Her voice was thick, like the cream Alex piped into chocolate eclairs on Saturday mornings. She sounded so desperate that Alex stood back and let her in.
‘Custard tarts. Do you have any?’ the woman said, taking off her gloves slowly, one finger at a time. Her hands were smooth and white.
‘I’ll go and see.’
Mr Sabre had cleared away already, so Alex had to go back into the kitchen. ‘We have vanilla and pineapple,’ she called.
‘Good,’ said the woman.
‘Three of each, please,’ she said. Her shoes tap-tapped as she walked to and fro across the shop floor waiting for her pastries.
After the latecomer had gone and the flans were turning golden in the oven, Alex got the laundry basket and set up the ironing board in the shop, because there wasn’t room for it in the kitchen. She started with one of Mr Sabre’s shirts, the white one with a pink collar and blue cuffs, smoothing it with her hand. It was cold and damp and the arms stretched along the board as if someone had been squashed flat then forgotten about.
She sighed and looked at the pile of clothes still waiting to be washed. The green drainpipes he had bought after the funeral were hanging off the side of the washing machine as if they were about to run away.
After Edith died, Mr Sabre did two things. First, he bought himself a whole new wardrobe; second, he walked past the homeware showroom on his way to make deliveries every day and looked in at the window like people do when they are choosing cakes. Now the new washing machine stood like a smug white monster in the corner of the kitchen and reminded him that Edith wasn’t behind the counter in the shop any more. He had Alex, the machine and a heap of new clothes instead.
Alex thought of the Creature from the Black Lagoon from the poster above her bed. He opened his mouth to say something but then changed his mind. Since she had seen the film three years ago, the Creature would sometimes appear inside her, cross-legged like a conscience or an ugly prophet, telling her what to do, predicting what might happen, dishing out advice when she didn’t want it, kicking her hard when she felt guilty about something and sometimes even having a go at answering Mr Sabre’s questions for him.
Alex sighed and moved on to a pair of red slacks. As she watched the iron moving to and fro and the steam rising, she thought about what it would be like to slip her own legs in between the thick straight fabric. She put down the iron, lifted the trousers from the board and held them up against her blue dress as if she were in a shop trying them on. One day the feeling would burst inside her like seeds bursting out of an exploding flower, and she would pull on the clothes one after another: shirt, trousers, jacket, shoes. Then she would look just like Elvis in the Jailhouse Rock poster above her bed.
She heard Mr Sabre shuffling along the corridor. He came in holding his empty cup and crumb-covered plate. Michael Sabre was fifty-five and almost fat, with red cheeks and a scarred pincushion face. His hands were pastry-coloured and made Alex think of yellow frogs on the side of a pond. He took his cardigan from the peg by the door and wriggled into it.
‘What is special about the 1956 Renault Dauphine?’ he said in a serious voice.
Alex thought for a moment. ‘It has its engine at the back.’ She picked up another one of his shirts to iron and pulled it straight on the board. This one was her favourite. It had colourful vertical stripes and musical notes on the collar.
‘When was the first mass-produced car made?’
She hesitated, closed her eyes and tried to picture the page with the cars and the years in the book.
‘1902?’ she said, opening her eyes and hoping she was right.
‘1901. One wrong,’ said Mr Sabre. ‘What was it called?’
‘Um.’ She screwed up her eyes again.
‘Do you want to be a quiz champion or not? The Curved Dash Runabout made by the Oldsmobile Company in the United States. One out of three,’ he said. ‘Next, planets.’
‘Have you got a book?’ she asked, loading his clothes into the basket.
‘Look in the cupboard when you take those up.’ Mr Sabre’s encyclopaedias, atlases and dictionaries were arranged on the bookshelf in the back room. The ones that wouldn’t fit were stacked in his cupboard and rotated twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, when he would curse because his back hurt, say, ‘Help me carry these, will you?’ and swap the books over.
Alex put the clean washing down on the bed and went over to the cupboard. Inside, it smelt of leather and socks. His clothes were hung up neatly: shirts together, trousers together, cardigans, jackets. Belts, braces and ties were on the wardrobe door. The white overalls were downstairs on the hook in the kitchen, so that in the privacy of his bedroom, Mr Sabre might not have been a baker at all. There was no sign of flour or butter or yeast apart from a faint musty smell which hung about the whole of the upstairs of the bakery like a lodger with long hair who refuses to leave. She felt around inside the cupboard and pulled out A Professional Guide to Angling and The Norton History of Britain before she saw the book on astronomy.
As she reached in to get it, she touched a pile of things lying crumpled at the bottom of the wardrobe, which she hadn’t noticed before. There was a red dress, a matching handbag, a shawl and shoes. It was one of Edith’s outfits. She rubbed the material between her fingers. It smelt dusty. The handbag undid with a faint click. She thought about the times when Edith must have opened it and delved inside for lipstick or a handkerchief or a pencil. Alex closed her eyes and pictured her back in the kitchen breaking an egg into a bowl. When she opened her eyes again, she saw the photo of Edith holding a green rosette staring at her from the sideboard where the alarm clock stood. Alex felt suddenly sad. She stuffed the clothes back where she had found them, took out Wandsworth’s Astronomical Companion and ran downstairs.
On her way home Alex had to walk through the cemetery. After she had pushed open the gate on the other side and had stepped back out onto the street, she paused at Mr Bradley’s house and looked over the wall. She took in the dark green and red bushes which had thin fingers and looked as if they had been covered in icing sugar, then moved quickly away and soon the street of tall red terraces stretched behind her, like soldiers in their uniforms.
When she got in, her parents were in the front room with food on trays on their laps so that they could watch the new television. She sighed and wished she was back at the bakery making fruit loaf. Through the door, she saw her father, who grew wider every day, almost bursting out of his armchair. When he sat in Mr Bradley’s car seat, he was too big for it and bits of him stuck out either side. Once, when she was younger, she had tried on a pair of his trousers and they were so big, she could have fitted into them three times over.
Alex’s father had just been promoted.
‘He gets a new uniform and everything,’ Alex’s mother had said proudly. ‘With a hat.’
‘Driver,’ her father said, trying out the word. He mimed steering the wheel and smiled.
‘Chauffeur,’ her mother corrected him.
‘Who for?’ said Alex.
‘Mr Bradley of course.’
‘Wow,’ said Alex. That was the day when he went out and bought the television set.
Mr Bradley was the cinema man. He owned the Rio in town and Alex’s father had been a security guard there since before she was born. It had been his job to weed people out and escort them from the theatre by the elbow. There were five main types of misbehaviour: entering without a ticket, throwing sweet wrappers, talking loudly, wearing a large hat, and hanky-panky, which her father told her meant too much kissing. When she was small Alex used to imagine him shining his torch into people’s faces as they watched the films.
The first ever film she saw was White Christmas and the day afterwards Alex went into the bakery while her mother was in the grocers nearby. She had been sent to pick up some doughnuts. It was cold and sleet had fallen in the night, so the streets were icy. In those days, her eyes were about level with the top row of coconut fancies, but if she looked up, she could see Edith’s hot sagging face looking down at her. In front of her were several plum puddings, a whole stack of mince pies and two beautifully iced cakes with Santa skating merrily across the top as if they were frozen white ponds.
‘Can I have one of those?’ Alex said, pointing at a marzipan snowman by pressing her finger into the glass, but Edith ignored her.
‘Come into the kitchen, I want to show you how to make Christmas cake,’ she said instead. Alex followed her.
‘We went to see White Christmas at the cinema,’ she said as she stirred a wish into the sticky mixture.
‘You need more nutmeg,’ Edith replied. ‘It’s in the bag. Really? Did your father take you?’
Her mother often sent her on errands to the bakery and she gradually got to know more of Edith’s recipes. Inside the shop she witnessed the changing seasons. In March there were rabbitshaped biscuits and chicks sitting in marzipan eggs. In the summer there was pink coconut ice. In October there were pumpkins and witches’ brooms decorating the cakes, and for bonfire night, apples rolled in a gluey toffee. Then it was Christmas again and the shop was filled with the smell of spice, icing and Edith Sabre’s sweat.
In those days, Alex had to sit with Mrs Rodgers, the ice-cream seller at the cinema, after school every day until her father was ready to take her home. The ice-cream seller didn’t like Alex’s father. When Alex asked her mum why, she said it was because Mr Rodgers had wanted the job as security guard, but Alex’s father told her that the two of them had been sweethearts at school and he had let her down. Once Mrs Rodgers cornered Alex’s dad by the popcorn and called him a rotten egg.
It was the bakery that rescued Alex from the ice-cream seller. That day, the coconut ices were sitting on their trays behind the glass cabinet and the air was so hot it felt as if the day was melting.
‘I don’t like waiting at the cinema,’ Alex told Edith.
‘Free films, as much ice cream as you can eat,’ Edith said. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ She was folding clothes into a neat brown case in the back room.
‘Mrs Rodgers hardly ever gives me any,’ Alex said. ‘Apart from when she cleans out the tubs. And I only get to see films at Christmas.’
‘Pass me those shoes.’
‘Where are you going on holiday?’ Alex picked up a skirt and wrapped a sleeve round her wrist.
‘Skegness. Put that down. It’s for a special occasion.’
‘Is it someone’s birthday?’
‘No. We’ve got through to the general knowledge finals.’ She took the skirt and re-folded it.
‘Can I have one of those iced buns?’ Alex said. Edith carried on folding for a while as if she was making up her mind.
‘OK. There’s some in the kitchen that didn’t come out right. Don’t tell your mother.’
‘Mrs Rodgers has wet hands,’ Alex said when she came back from eating her bun. ‘And she smells funny.’
Edith looked at her as if she was seeing into the future.
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ she said.
‘I don’t want to work in the cinema like my dad and Mrs Rodgers. I hate Mrs Rodgers,’ she said sulkily.
‘I’ll teach you to make cakes then,’ Edith said just like that, and went back to folding her skirts. Alex sat down in Mr Sabre’s armchair and watched her and felt pleased, as if something important had been decided.
‘After school every day,’ Edith said when the case was full.
‘Instead of Mrs Rodgers?’
‘Yes. Fetch your mum in and I’ll tell her.’
There was a sound of clapping and music from the new television.
‘You’re late today,’ her mother said, without taking her eyes from the screen.
‘I did his ironing for him.’
‘Again?’ she said. Alex’s father laughed. He was still wearing his chauffeur’s uniform. His fat shoulders shook. She wasn’t sure if he was laughing at the ironing or at the television. Alex shifted the book on the universe under her arm, feeling frustrated because they wouldn’t turn round and look at her.
‘He misses Edith,’ she said.
‘Six times quiz champion, that woman,’ said her father. Edith and her father had lived on the same street when they were younger. Still neither of her parents turned round. They could have been talking to someone on the TV.
‘Amazing mind. Full of facts,’ her father said. He tapped his forehead.
Alex was relieved to finally climb the stairs to her room. She lay on her bed with her book. Her posters smiled down at her from the walls: The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Michael Landon from I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and a big one of Jailhouse Rock. She closed her eyes and imagined she was Elvis in the poster then opened the book on astronomy and saw the planets zooming into space in front of her as if she had created them herself.
From The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls by Louise Tondeur (Review 2004)
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