Animal bread

When I think of Linus I always remember his hands. They were huge, like the rest of him: slabs for palms and sausage-thick fingers that always seemed to be dusted with flour. On another man they might have been intimidating, but not on him; these were the hands that gently kneaded and pinched the soft dough, coaxing it to the shape of his choosing, a skill that seemed to us akin to witchcraft, even more so because he would never let us see how it was done. “Ah ah,” he would say with a shake of his head, a smile twinkling in his eyes. “A magician never tells.” We would protest in secret delight, hoping that he might take pity on us and give us each a piece of buttery, flaky croissant as a consolation, with an instruction not to tell our parents.

For as long I can remember we would drop in to his shop once a week after school to pick up rolls for mum. I loved the smell of fresh dough, and the way Linus (always Linus, never Mr Kowalski) would greet me and my sister like adults: “And what can I get for the young ladies today?” His English was perfect but thickly accented, which only added to the heady thrill of his shop and the feeling that you had stepped into another time and place entirely. But most of all I loved what he called his ‘creations’, the breads shaped like animals that lined the shelves at the window, welcoming passers-by. Rabbits, cats, and his speciality, hedgehogs, each one moulded with great care so it would bake and rise just so. Sometimes, if one had not quite come out as he had hoped, we would find it in the bag alongside the crusty rolls that mum insisted we buy, despite my pleas for her to consider a change. I was sure that if she did so she would be an immediate and total convert, but she never did.

To me, Linus was old in the way all adults are to children: unthinkably and unthreateningly. He had been in the town for longer than our parents had been alive, but this meant little to us. Children see age as a constant property, not as a progression; those we knew who had died had either done so in accidents or random illnesses or, as far as we were concerned, had always been old. But still, I was aware of things changing: we came home more often with charred or broken animal bread, the queues in his shop became gradually smaller, and I recall my mother returning one day with rolls not in the paper bags Linus gave but wrapped in plastic from the supermarket.

These small shifts, however, did nothing to prepare me for the shock of one day finding tall, t-shirted men carrying boxes and wooden tables out from the shop. I darted inside, leaving my sister following, to find Linus sitting at the counter, which was now stripped of the till and small basket he kept for tips. Perhaps it was the nakedness of the shop, but he stood and looked, for the first time I had known, tired, like his body was a coat several sizes too big for him.

“What’s happened?” I cried, unable to keep the distress from my voice.

He seemed to squint at me from beneath his shaggy eyebrows, then shrugged. “It has been a long time.” With a sudden movement, as if he had remembered something important, he reached down and picked up a brown paper bag and held it out to me. “Here – I made them for you and your sister.” I stepped forward to take it, but he pulled it back. “No, wait, I will give them to you as a surprise. Hold out your hands.”

We closed our eyes. I felt something warm and soft in my cupped palms, and I saw a perfect, golden hedgehog, its spikes delicately plucked upwards and a crooked mouth carved into its face. Impulsively I ran forward and hugged Linus, my eyes threatening tears. “Thank you,” I said, and burrowed my head into his apron as he stroked my hair soothingly.

We held our presents carefully all the way home, solemnly, as though they were china vases or funeral wreaths. It was only when we ate them that evening that we realised they were sticky and raw in the middle, and that they tasted unaccountably of salt.

Note: I have edited this post slightly since it first appeared.

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Birdie

3,698 words – approx. 12 minutes

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Birdie Williams won his nickname in the rushed last week of a summer that had never gathered any momentum. Days worthy of the season had been sporadic that year, and no sooner had a promising stretch been put together than a sudden bank of bulging grey clouds appeared and kept everyone indoors, their endless games of Mario Kart made monotonous by lack of alternative and punctuated by the crack and roll of thunder.

But late August brought with it days of unbroken golden sun, and with the new school year looming ever-larger on the horizon, the children of Kendrick Road were determined to make the most of the weather’s newfound benevolence. At 12, Sean wasn’t quite the youngest of the group, but Patrick made it clear that his involvement in their ragged games of football or cricket was due to his older brother, not any acceptance that Sean could lay personal claim to. Within the boundaries of Ma Williams’ orders – “If you’re going outside, take your brother now” – Patrick would do little to hide his reluctance, often waiting until the last minute to call “Going!” leaving Sean to stampede breathlessly downstairs and pull on his trainers (formerly Patrick’s) in a desperate hurry. Whether or not they were late, Patrick would always apologise to the others as Sean pulled the back gate to.

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Beneath the midday sunshine

On cold days his knee still ached. He’d lean on his stick by the front garden fence, his cap pulled down, and his padded jacket wrapped around his thinning frame.

“Let him be,” grandma would say, watching him stood looking down over the valley.

It happened two weeks after mum’s fourth birthday. The news spread in minutes, the way bad news does in a village. She remembers grandma getting ever more frantic, unable to stay still but not wanting to leave either mum or the telephone.

By the time he came in it was dark. His face was blackened and his breath sour. Grandma hugged him and yelled at him for being drunk, for being late, for spending his wages on alcohol, for being a miner. Through all this he just stood in the doorway, his arms hanging by his side. She learnt later that he hadn’t spent a penny, that the landlord had waved away his attempts to pay.

We never knew why he was leaving the mineshaft at the time of the explosion. It was the middle of his shift, and the supervisors were known for their inflexibility. He never talked about it. When months later the 468-page report blamed no-one he just spat.

Once, I ran out to him by the fence when mum wasn’t looking, my small hand finding the leathery creases of his. We stayed there until mum shouted from the kitchen, then we went back inside to where grandma’s cawl struggled in the pot.

Pretty bubbles in the air

4,184 words – approx. 14 minutes

“How old’s the lad now?” Col jerked a thumb at Davey to his right.

“Twelve.”

“Twelve, eh?” said Col in wonderment. “I remember when you were so big,” he said, addressing Davey, and he spread his hand face down, level with the bench they were sat on.

“He ain’t much bigger now,” said his dad. “But you will be, won’t you? You’ll be big and strong, like your old man.”

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A matter of perspective

5,985 words – approx. 20 minutes

Mr Baxter was not like any teacher we’d ever had before. That much was clear from the start.

It was the first day of the new school year, warm with autumn, and we poured into the last room on the right in the Humanities block. Our blazers were slung over our shoulders and our mouths laden with the summer’s exploits. We were Year 10s now, ready to take our rightful place at the front of the dinner queue, aware of the threshold we had crossed in those last six weeks and the exalted position in the school we now held.

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Bear

1,331 words – approx. 5 minutes

It is unlikely that  none of the other boys on that school trip had brought some sort of stuffed toy, but only Anthony was naive enough to display his openly, rather than hide it at the bottom of a bag to be quietly and unobtrusively brought out at bedtime. There he stood in the 4am cold, clutching his naked, threadbare companion as we waited, with intoxicating tiredness, for the coach to arrive.

Once our luggage had been safely stowed, we boarded and waved goodbye to our parents. Some of them had already left even in the short time it had taken Mrs McMillan to check our names off the register, presumably in the hope of compensating for a little of their lost sleep, but my father stood waving, and, as I remember, so did Anthony’s mother, a tight stiff smile stretched across her face.

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