The rich aroma of freshly baked bread jerks him awake, jolting Rusty’s head and earning a sour glare. Scratching behind his ears in apology, Craig rises to investigate. Grey and overcast outside. Dark thunderclouds brewing in the east. The chill makes his teeth ache. Ugh.
On the other hand: breakfast.
Near the sluggish brown canal is a bakery cheerfully calling itself Much Ado About Muffins – a silly name, sure, but the warm scent wafting from the open door is definitely bread, so who the hell cares.
He ventures in, and immediately regrets it.
The shop is one overwhelmingly large room filled with chattering people, all packed into a ragged shuffling line stretching from the counter almost to the door. He tucks himself into a dim corner of the shop, and watches. The queue inches forward. Does he join? Is there a shortcut?
Too crowded TOO CROWDED
The young woman in the white cap is staring.
Yep. He’s made a terrible decision.
A dog – a big, dark, lanky hound – starts tugging at its leash and barking, claws scraping against the floor as it strains towards him. People flinch away. The dog is looking right at him. Black fur. Doberman. Teeth bared. Eyes blazing. Barking. Moving closer. Teeth.
They chase you into the woods if you don’t do what you’re told. Barking. Growling. Teeth.
They chase you anyway.
There’s a woman at his side, carefully not touching him.
There hadn’t been women with the dogs. Not like this, with a scarf on her head and gentle green eyes. Always men. Sneering. Whistling. Jeering. Snarling. Always men. He thinks. He isn’t sure.
‘Sir? I’m going to need you to step away from the dog, please.’ The woman gestures to her left and waits for him to move first, clearly anticipating he’ll follow. He does – the hint of authority hitting his spine like a ice shock, echoing through his shaking limbs.
Sweat chills his back. He didn’t mean to scare her. He didn’t want to scare anyone. All he wanted was some damn food. He knows he’s not right yet but he’s trying, he’s trying.
The burly man in the flatcap is staring.
The line shuffles forwards, propelling him on. Closer. Closer. A pair of giggling boys barge past him to the jars of boiled sweets. Panic spikes. He steps back, heels bumping into the bottom shelf behind him. Swallows past the spasm in his throat.
Front of the line. Nowhere to run.
The baker is gazing expectantly at him, eyes lingering on the twitches in his left hand. His smile is guarded but pleasant on the surface; the look of someone who knows this is a potentially dangerous situation and has no choice but to engage. It’s a jolt seeing it under the thin veneer of polite servitude.
‘Sir? Are you all right? Was there something I could help you with today?’
Can’t cross his arms, too hostile too defensive. Can’t clasp them behind his back he’s not on parade anymore he’s not some idiot overgrown schoolboy. He leaves them hanging by his sides limp useless-
Fist clenched. Nails digging into his palm focus focus.
He can leave, he can scream, he can run, he can –
NO. There was a reason he voluntarily entered this seventh circle of consumerist hell and it wasn’t this.
‘Pastries. Stuff. Baked stuff. Where?’ Aaand he’s regressed to monosyllables again. Goddamn this fucking place.
The baker blinks and tilts his head, eyes softening. The guarded look fades away. ‘Just here, sir, I’ll show you. Was there a particular sort you wanted?’
There are different kinds of pastry? Does that make a difference?
He can feels his cheeks growing hot; it’s ridiculous, the sight he must appear. He forces his head up, fights the urge to hunch his shoulders and duck his head. ‘I, um..’
Breathe. You have to breathe.
Whispering behind him sharp words sharper stares
Cold-wet pricking his eyes why is this so goddamn hard–
Muttering of impatience behind him people waiting he’s taking too damn long.
Breathe in for three, out for six. In for three. Out for six.
He’s not going to let them all down. He can do this.
He squares his shoulders and meets the baker’s gaze. ‘Four doughnuts, please. Jam.’
The baker regards him levelly, then reaches under the counter for a pair of tongs and fills a brown paper bag. Hands it across with a smile. ‘That’ll be three pence, please.’
He rummages through the jumble of coins in his palm. Two farthings make a halfpenny, right? Or is it three? Is there enough change – does he have enough? The creak of floorboards behind him. People getting impatient.
A baby wails.
Screams burning smoke fire screaming
‘Move back, please! Make some room!’
Craig blinks and finds himself sagging against the counter. Hand clenched into the wood.
Acid churning in his gut.
In for three. Out for six.
He’s here. He’s here in a pokey little bakery on some crummy street in East London. He’s not kneeling in the dusty scrub, the acrid stench of smoke in his nose, women and men and babies screaming, the jolting crack of the rifle against his shoulder, running shadows scream and fall, he’s-
‘I’m okay,’ he rasps out. Blood pounding in his ears.
The baker is still holding the brown bag. ‘Got your pastries here,’ he reassures. Then raises his voice. ‘Make some room, please.’ Onlookers are clustered at a safe distance four feet back, eyes filled with pity.
Cheeks burning, Craig pulls the bag off the counter with a mumbled ‘thanks’ and flees the store.
The cold breeze is a slap in the face after the pressing warmth of indoors. A light spitting drizzle on his forehead. Cooling. Soothing. He fights back the prickle of panic bubbling under his skin, and treks on. Towards home.
A tug on his arm. ‘Mister, mister.’ He jerks free. Whirls around. Fist raised…
…Doesn’t lash out.
A ragged unkempt boy shrinks away from him. Brown rags, filthy grey bandana below a matted crown of dirty blond hair. Mouth opening and closing on half-words. He gulps nervously, kneading a slip of paper in his hands.
The boy blinks and stares hard at his feet. Finally, he thrusts the folded scrap of paper into Craig’s hands.
‘Message from the network. Thought’cha might need it, mister.’
Then he scurries off down the alley.
The crinkle of unfolding paper is loud in the empty stillness.
Three scrawled lines of spidery handwriting, barely legible.
Vincent Brown. Landlord. 140 Jackson Avenue.
Laura Brown, 42. Charlie Brown, 14. Rosie Brown, 11.
Opium den on Salmon Lane, lets addicts hole up in Stainsby Road. Vince tips off police to chase them out.
Back at the flat, the snick of the deadbolt into the wall bracket calms his jarring nerves. A quiet room, and a door that now locks. No chance of intruders, short of kicking down the door. Lots of noise. Plenty of warning. Great. Rusty snuffles eagerly into his hand, and doesn’t complain that Craig needs a good long hour to sit very still on the cool floor in peace and quiet and let the hissing tension slowly bleed out of him. He just squirms under Craig’s arm and nudges a cold wet nose into his hand as Craig absently pets him, trying to breathe.
Warm-rough-damp rasps over Craig’s fingers as he slowly scratches through wiry fur.
The throbbing in his ears fades to a faint hum, and…he is better. He’s fine, really. He scratches behind Rusty’s ears, just the way he likes, and Rusty wriggles closer, nuzzling into his lap with a pleased little huff.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Mission note: if the flat is to be suitable for long-term habitation, the death-smelling rug should be burned to cinders and the crunchy mattress needs replacing soon. And that odour. Ugh.
But the afternoon is better. Two jam doughnuts provide excellent fuel for his tinkering project. By 1300, the dingy hallway radiator has warmth slowly seeping in. An afternoon with the bedroom window left open helps dispel the musty odour, which is mercifully only dirt and mould and not dried blood or months-old body leakages. By 1400 the whole place smells fresher already. The wailing echo of distant gulls and far-off barge horns is almost comforting. By 1600 the flat is much cleaner; he’s even carried the death rug out to the empty room down the hall and obtained an armchair that smells only of dust.
And, glory be praised: he is on time for his cooking lesson with Esther.
He knocks on her door and soon hears the tap-tap of Suki’s feet within.
‘Not too busy after all, I see,’ Esther smirks when she opens the door.
Suki stands up on her hind legs, perches her front paws on his knees, and chirps hello in cat. Esther smiles.
‘She wants you to pick her up.’
Higher likelihood of claw marks from picking up or not picking up.
Suki pricks holes in his kneecaps. He picks her up and drapes her on his shoulder, where she purrs into his neck and presses her cold, wet nose into his ear. It tickles.
Halfway across the room, Esther pauses to bend over, palms flat on her thighs. Takes three deep huffs.
Craig hastens forward. ‘What’s wrong-’
She waves him away. ‘Nothing, nothing.’ Straightens up, hands on hips. Exhales heavily. Gives a rueful smile. ‘Just these damn hips. Getting creaky in my old age.’ She shuffles to the kitchen shelf, unscrews a bottle cap and tips back two tablets. Swallows. Her eyes go hazy for a second, then she blinks and smiles. ‘Aspirin’s a real lifesaver.’
The bottle is three-quarters empty. Only a meagre handful of white tablets remain.
Sub-task: Acquire more.
A rustle of clothing in the next room. A muffled thump. A tinkling giggle. He glances at the door.
Esther smiles. ‘Amy. My goddaughter. Lost her father at Mafeking, bless him. Her mother works nights at St. Mary’s, so I help out with babysitting whenever she needs a rest.’
The technique of making grilled cheese is straightforward. Esther, for all her snarky comments, is as thorough and as patient as an ox. She moves slowly, talking the whole time about the merit of cast-iron pans, the general pestiness of Suki, and the only trustworthy grocers in the neighbourhood.
‘The cheese looks…different,’ he says as she slices.
She hands him a piece. Its flavour is almost sour, very strong.
He wants more.
‘You won’t find good sharp cheddar most of the time in those awful sandwiches you can buy at the market. Too expensive, and many people – who are wrong, by the way – find it much too strong.’
‘I like it.’
She nods approvingly. ‘As well you should.’
Then she launches into an enthusiastic tirade about types of cheese, different varieties of bread, and apparently infinite condiments.
He feels dizzy with possibility.
Midway through another regaling story about Suki’s worst antics, a small giggling figure dashes around the corner and stops dead, swaying on her feet. Instantly silent. Eyes wide. Blonde curly ringlets. Blue smock.
Craig puts down the plate.
The girl blinks at him, shifting from foot to foot. She twists her hands together, glances down at the floor, then back up at him.
Esther beckons her forward. ‘Amy, it’s alright. Come here. You can sit on my lap, okay?’
The girl shuffles forward and clambers up.
Her voice is quiet and timid. Shy around strangers. A kindred spirit.
Esther squeezes her shoulder. ‘This is the nice man I was telling you about. He came over the other day for biscuits. We were just about to have some cake.’
Oh were we now.
The girl waves hesitantly at him. ‘…’M Amy.’
How did that slip out.
Esther grins and swats his arm. ‘You rotter! All this time you’ve been coming in here and never told me your first name?’
She has been a friend to him ever since he moved in. She made a safe space for him without even knowing she did so. She gave him cookies. More kindness. And he has not even introduced himself properly.
Why are his ears warm.
‘School okay?’ he asks.
Amy pauses, seriously examining the question for its benefits and drawbacks. Then she nods solemnly. ‘…It was okay.’
‘Learn anything fun?’
‘…How to spell some words.’
She pauses again, concentrating, then tilts her chin upward a fraction.
‘Not easy ones,’ she says proudly. ‘Ball and fall.’
Craig nods gravely. ‘Four letters. That’s pretty tough.’
She blushes. ‘I fink you can spell them.’
Craig furrows his brow, making Esther grin. ‘B-A-L-L,’ he intones. ‘F-A-L-L. Like that, right?’
‘You’re grown up,’ Amy smiles, like he’s passed a test. Then she shuffles closer. ‘I gotta secret.’
He leans in. ‘Yeah? What secret?’
‘The teacher said four letters,’ Amy whispers, conspiratorial. ‘But she’s silly. There’s only three, because the L comes twice. Right at the end.’
Craig smiles. The same sort of things he’d thought at her age. Outraged puzzlement at the illogicalities of the weird world he was being asked to join.
‘Smart kid,’ he grins. Esther pats his arm. He eases off of the chair and holds out his right thumb for Amy to shake, which makes her giggle and beam at him.
‘I’m Harper,’ he says, then feels awkward. He glances at Esther, looking unbearably smug, and tries again, ‘uh, Craig Harper.’
Esther settles back into her armchair. ‘I’ll tell Ollie. He’ll be thrilled to know.’ Then she nudges Amy. ‘Would you like some cake, sweetie?’
Amy giggles and nods eagerly. Her eyes crease. Her cheeks make dimples.
‘ ‘Sss, ‘Nana.’
Esther jiggles her gently. ‘Yes, what?’
‘…’sss please, ‘Nana.’
Esther strokes her hair. ‘Well done.’ She raises her eyebrows at him. ‘Would you be a dear and…?’
He nods, rises. ‘Where is it?’
‘Bottom left cupboard. Behind the sugar.’
He peers inside. Frowns. ‘There are two here.’
Esther smirks. ‘Which one would you like?’
There’s a choice?!
His stomach makes an interested growl. Suki throws him a deeply disdainful glare, and snorts.
‘Tell you what,’ Esther grins. ‘Let’s try them both.’
Amy claps her hands and giggles.
Yeah, yeah, Mission. Let’s get cracking.
© 2017 Tom Burton