impanate (verb): to embody in bread
The pinch of cold air, from the door opening, told him that someone had come in. The girl’s puffer-jacket dripped onto the tiles and a droplet hung from the small silver ring in her nose. Her hair – he would realise later – was blonde, but it looked closer to the brown of hawser rope when wet. She stood, with her eyes closed, and breathed in. When her eyes opened, she looked straight at him. Grey eyes framed by smeared mascara.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I love the smell of baking bread.’
‘Nothing to apologise for, I’m a baker.’
Alex spent the next thirty seconds unpicking what he’d just said. Had it made sense or did it just sound like two unconnected statements? He meant that, as a baker, he liked the smell too. That he took it as a compliment. Especially from such a beautiful girl. Should he say that?
‘Here,’ he said instead, taking a brown bag, wafting it through the air and then folding it closed. He held it out over the counter.
‘What’s this?’ she frowned and Alex found that it changed the rhythm of his heartbeat.
‘Stupid really,’ he said. ‘I was trying to bag the smell.’
‘That’s sweet,’ she grinned, and Alex had to press his kneading-knuckles against his chest. It wasn’t that he was fearful of a heart attack; just that he felt like he should be sitting down, like he should be giving himself time to adjust to the arrhythmia.
‘It’s the sourdough-rye that smells best,’ he said, reaching to the shelf behind.
‘No, I – ’
‘I insist, please. Free the house. I mean, on the house.’
She came in every Tuesday and Thursday without fail. She would buy one sourdough-rye loaf and walk out with her nose in the bag like a glue-sniffer. Two days a week, always when Alex was on-shift. Yet it was two months before he did anything about it.
The simplest course of action, he knew, would be to ask her out. But he convinced himself that too much time had passed. He couldn’t form the words – even to the empty shop. So, instead, he took a wooden spoon and used a breadknife to saw the head from the handle. Then he used a metal skewer to scratch a message into the soft curve of the spoon-head:
‘Tomorrow 7pm, Prince Regent’.
The Regent was a gin-cocktail place further into the North Laine. He would bake the spoon-message into her Thursday loaf and then wait for her on Friday evening.
Grand romantic gestures seem like a good idea right through until the crucial moment. As Alex was working the dough, he sang to himself; folding in the spoon-message, he found he had a wee tremble of excitement in his fingers; and, as the loaf baked, he stood in the middle of the shop floor and breathed in the smell. Just as she had on that first day. Yet, as it cooled, he began to worry – what if she found it creepy? If it broke the teeth of her breadknife? He would lose his job if she complained.
By the time she came in, he’d convinced himself that he should come clean. Hand over the specially-baked loaf, yes, but also explain what was inside. He was worried that the layer of varnish – which he’d added, last minute, to protect the carved words – might taint the taste of the crumb.
‘It’s a little bit different,’ he managed to say, as he held it out to her. He could feel his cheeks soaring to the temperature of the ovens.
‘Oh, exciting,’ she said.
‘Special, just for you.’
She smiled and took a deep sniff. ‘Lovely,’ she said. ‘I’m Jess, by the way. I’m in so often, I feel I should introduce myself.’
‘Alex,’ he said, taking her bare hand. That first morning, she’d been wearing gloves.
‘See you,’ she said.
‘Hope you like it!’ he called after her.
Most of the week, Jess was in the School of Art studio working on her screenprints. She wore an over-sized lilac shirt and yoga leggings. But on a Tuesday and Thursday morning, she pulled on jeans and a top that didn’t need a sleeve-roll or tummy-tie, and wandered down to mind the till in the seafront gallery.
They had seven of her prints stocked, but she’d only ever sold one. It was hunger, then, that had led her into the bakery that first day. And gratitude for the free loaf saw her tearing at it with her fingers even though she knew it would make her stomach twist and groan and ache like an infant with colic. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Jess kept going back to the bakery, though. She liked the guy with the flour-streaked beard and the thick rust-red hair. She liked that he wore a little blue cap, even though the hair tufted from the sides. She enjoyed the ritual of going in and the aroma of the bread she couldn’t eat.
Part of it was superstition, maybe. She took the loaves only as far as Brighton Dome and she gave them, there, to the homeless lad huddled in the doorway. As soon as she started doing this, she found that her postcards and sketches started to sell. She could afford the extravagance of two charity loaves a week, if it bought her enough karma to shift her art.
The day she introduced herself to Alex, she walked – as normal – to the Dome, but she nearly carried on past her rough sleeper. James, he was called. He was all angles: Adam’s apple as prominent as a beak; elbows sharp enough to tear his sleeping bag. It was this skeletal appearance which had led her to start feeding him.
She almost walked past him, though, because she was thinking about Alex. Those big hands, trying to be careful as he lifted pastries; that tendency to say something touchingly garbled, like a toddler before bed. Jess walked back to young James and gave him the brown bag. She smiled, to apologise for nearly forgetting, but said nothing.
For the rest of the day, Jess sat at the till and sketched out a stencil that would give the swirl of the sourdough-rye. She would print it in earthy-brown, rust-red, but would leave a dusting of white flour on top.
An American bought one of her framed prints, of a seagull. She was grateful, of course, but she had to hold herself back from saying that it was nothing – would be nothing – compared to the print she was planning. She couldn’t wait to get back to her lilac shirt and silkscreen.
With a purposeful stride – the kind that only comes with the arrival of a fresh idea – she made for home. She had a fold of money in her pocket, for once, but she quickly forgot that she’d intended to buy her flatmate a special dinner. To celebrate and to thank him for covering the heating bill last month.
By the time she remembered about the shopping, she had to cut back through the Royal Pavilion Gardens. She was wondering if, maybe, she could ask Alex about gluten-free loaves. Now that she knew his name. The awkwardness of her previous purchases could be quickly brushed off, surely.
As she came out of the gardens, she heard her name, shouted, from behind. She looked over to one of the benches. James was standing with three others. He stood on the bench, showing her something she couldn’t see. He held it like a police badge.
‘Yes,’ he shouted. ‘See you tomorrow.’
Jess waved and turned, quickly, away. Once she started buying gluten-free bread, she would have no spare loaves for James. But maybe, now that she was earning, she could just hand him some cash instead – so that he could buy more of whatever it was that caused him to lose long weekends and think that Tuesday followed Thursday.