Sample chapters from the book The Abominable Doughman.
Some shops are famous throughout the world.
Harrods in London.
Macy’s in New York.
Galerie Lafayette in Paris.
But only one shop is known to almost all the world’s six billion inhabitants. From the salt plains of America to the rainforests of Borneo; the deserts of Mongolia to the mountains of Nepal, everyone has heard of Bunzilla’s; a small, family-run bakery tucked away in a side-street in a once-sleepy seaside town in England. I say once-sleepy, for every day, coaches come from miles around to cram its twisting, intestinal streets, filling up the town like a much-too-heavy meal, spewing out the tourists who feed with hungry eyes on what is, in the end, always a disappointingly small building.
“Is that it?” they say, standing before number 13 Beach Street. “I was expecting it to be, you know, bigger!”
Photographs are taken nevertheless, buns are bought for the journey home, and till receipts are signed by Iris, the world-famous owner.
So how was it that this small and unremarkable shop came to be so famous? How is it that Inuits have heard of Bunzilla’s buns? That Amazonian tribes talk about their rolls? And Aborigines, on the other side of the world, have come to admire their sourdough baguettes?
The answer to that is what follows in this book. So sit back and let us begin our tale, one which begins in a kitchen in a small house in London.
It was a kitchen much like any other; clean, but worn around the edges. ‘In need of modernisation,’ an Estate Agent might have said. An elderly oven leaned in the corner of the room, while the sink, somewhat stained, belched and burbled like an embarrassing aunt at Christmas. The fridge hummed, the freezer ticked and the clock on the wall did both, as if forgetting then remembering what it was for. There was a table in the middle, around whose legs the linoleum floor gathered in folds, and at which the family would sit to eat in the evening. And finally, near the back door (which opened on to a rather wild garden) stood an old pine dresser which like the oven leaned on its feet, stacked with knick-knacks, bowls and willow-pattern plates which hadn’t seen food in years.
That then is the kitchen. But what of the people who lived in the house – the characters in our story?
Well, there’s mum and dad, also known as Jean and Gordon, and their children Iris and Ben. Iris, at the time this story begins is 11 years old; her brother 2 and a half. There’s a cat too called Wham-Bam, who, as well as knocking things over likes to scratch his bottom on the doormat. There’s a gerbil called Katie who, I’m sorry to say, has since gone to the big wheel in the sky, as gerbils are prone to do. Katie II has been a disappointing sequel, despite which, Katie III and IV look a certainty.
But back to our tale.
Gordon, Iris’ dad, had always loved baking – especially bread.
“There’s only four things you need to bake a good loaf,” he’d say as he kneaded the dough, holding up his fingers up one by one. “Flour, water, yeast and a pinch of salt. Anything else and your bread becomes a monster. A Chorleywood monster.”
Iris had no idea what Chorleywood was and didn’t bother to ask, fearful that the answer might go on a bit, as her dad – unlike gerbils – was often prone to do.
As well as bread her dad could bake cakes and croissants, buns and birthday cakes. Indeed, he could turn his hand to anything and every weekend he’d turn the kitchen into a winter wonderland of sugar and flour, and a not-such-a-winter-wonderland of dough-smeared bowls and spoons, dirty baking trays and utensils. It looked, said Iris’ mum, as if Father Christmas had crashed his sleigh in Lapland.
Now, imagine for a moment just such a scene (we’ll imagine too that Father Christmas – and his reindeers – escaped unharmed from the wreckage). What do you see? A snowy mess – yes, but would you not also find a load of lovely presents? Would not the calamity yield up some treasures? Of course it would! And this was, almost word for word, what Iris’ dad said by way of defence whenever his wife mentioned the mess. And he always said it whilst holding out a fresh-baked loaf or a tray of warm muffins as a peace offering – which helped.
“Nothing comes from nothing,” he would add with a smile.
Iris loved her dad’s baking, especially on a Sunday morning, when he’d prepare his “world-famous ‘pains au chocolate!’” Back then it was a joke, to say that they were world famous. But now of course, they really are – especially in France, where even the President is said to import Bunzilla’s pains au chocolate for his breakfast every weekend, as well a filled baguette for his lunch every day. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re a long, long way from that part of the story. At the moment, Gordon is just an amateur baker, baking and making a mess in the kitchen at home in London.
During the week, when Gordon wasn’t creating the culinary equivalent of the Big Bang, he worked in a bank, and hated it. He hated wearing a suit and tie; hated counting money that wasn’t his; hated his boss, hated computers and hated the queues of customers who were always grumpy. So when he was made redundant by Messrs Hobbes and Smythe, he took the cheque they offered and began to turn his dream into reality. What Gordon wanted, more than anything in the world was to be a full-time baker. Not only that, he wanted to run his very own bakery. Jean liked the idea, although – being a practical person – she cautioned that it would be a lot of hard work.
“Indeed it will dear,” said Gordon, a little dismissively. “But think of the…”
“Early mornings…” said Jean, her words like a pin to the bubble of his dreams.
“Yes, but I’m already getting up at…”
“Really early mornings…”
“Yes, I know,” said Gordon sharply. “I know it will be very hard work. But I hoped we could all muck in. Make it a real family adventure.”
Jean agreed that it would certainly be an adventure.
“We could even move to the seaside. You said yourself you fancied a change.”
Jean raised her eyebrows in that way she did when she wan’t saying yes but wasn’t saying no either. “But what about the kids?” she asked.
Ben wouldn’t care, as he was only two and a half, but Iris – when they asked her – wasn’t so sure. She didn’t mind the idea of her dad running a bakery and would imagine, whilst lying in bed, all the different machines he’d need to make the loaves and buns, cakes, biscuits and pies. Weighing machines, mixing machines, kneading machines and one with a big pipe for squirting icing onto cakes. But she wasn’t so happy about moving, even if it was to the seaside.
“What about my friends?” she asked at dinner.
“They could come and visit,” said Jean. “Besides, you’d make lots of new ones down there.”
“You’d have twice the number! What could be better?”
The embarrassing aunt burped and gurgled. It all seemed a bit sudden to say the very least.
“‘Scuse me!” said Dad, seeming to brush aside Iris’ concerns. “I know it would be hard love,” he added, a little more seriously. “But think of it as an adventure! Like going on an amazing journey! You wouldn’t be sorry, I promise!”
The next day, as usual, Iris’ friends – Charlie, Becky, Bethan, Immy and Josh – called for her at home. They always came earlier than they needed – especially on a Monday – as they liked to scrounge breakfast (and lunch) which, at the start of the week, often comprised leftover croissants, pains au chocolates and whatever else remained of her dad’s baking experiments. Josh was especially greedy, filling his mouth as if he’d been starved for a month, then spraying its contents across the room whenever he laughed at Wham-Bam scratching his bottom on the doormat.
“Don’t laugh dear,” Jean would say in a pretend telling-off voice. “You’ll only encourage him to do it more. Besides, you make as much mess eating the stuff as Gordon does baking it.”
It was later, when they walked to school, that Iris told them of her dad’s plans. They could tell something was up.
“A bakery?!” they all exclaimed. “By the sea?!” They seemed excited by the idea which rather annoyed Iris as she’d hoped they’d be a little bit upset. They were especially excited by the fact she might be going to live on the coast and that they could go and visit.
“You would come wouldn’t you?” Iris asked as they sauntered down the familiar road to school.
“Of course we would,” Josh replied. “Just you try and stop us.”
To Iris it all seemed absurd, asking her friends to come and stay in a place where she herself wasn’t living yet (her parents still hadn’t made their minds up). It was, she thought, like asking them to visit her in a dream – and a bad one at that.
After a couple of weeks, Iris’ parents chose a town to move to on the coast. The house in London was put up for sale and on the last day of term, Iris said a tearful goodbye to her friends. As a treat Dad took them out for a farewell meal of burgers and chips and spent much of the time peeling the bun from his burger as if it were the sodden cover of a book dropped in a puddle.
“Our buns will be much better,” he whispered to Iris.
“Is everything ok?” the waitress asked, picking up the empty glasses, watching him stab his fingers into the sorry looking bap.
“Oh, lovely!” he said embarrassed, taking a bite. “Very nice!”
The waitress raised an eyebrow. At least Iris laughed.
The next day however things were very different.
They packed the car and said goodbye to the old house, outside which the ‘SOLD’ sign was leaning like the oven to the point of falling down (the Estate Agent had indeed said the house was in need of ‘modernisation’). They drove the two hundred miles to their new home on the coast with Wham-Bam meowing much of the way and Iris quietly crying, cheering up when she glimpsed the sea twinkling like a galaxy crashed to Earth.
“Here we are!” said Dad, as they pulled up outside their new home. “What do you think?”
Iris looked at the smart detached house. It was very different from the one they’d left behind; all edges and corners, as if it had been folded into existence, unlike the old house which looked as if it had grown like a mushroom at the side of the road.
“C’mon! Let’s take a look inside!”
A clatter of echoes rushed to greet them at the door and inside everything smelled of fresh paint and polish. There were boxes everywhere and every surface seemed to shine in its newness (nothing had ever gleamed in the old house). The taps, door handles, the oven… all of them sparkled like diamonds. It seemed to Iris as if there was much more light here, as if in this part of the country there were two suns rather than one.
“Come and see your bedroom love,” said Dad. He rushed upstairs, pursued by the echoes.
Iris’ new room was in the attic. It was at least twice as big as her old one with a big dormer window overlooking the garden. There were windows too in the sloping part of the ceiling through which she could glimpse the sea. When they were open, she could hear the waves crashing on the beach.
“So? What do you think?”
Iris turned around, doing her best to smile while her Dad pointed at the bare walls, showing her where she could pin her pictures. He pulled one out from one of the cardboard boxes, unrolled it and held it against the wall.
Iris nodded, smiling a smile which floated on her face like flotsam.
“Good girl,” said her Dad. “I knew you’d like it.”
Iris did like it. She liked it even more when they’d finished unpacking the boxes. Then there were fewer echoes. It helped too when familiar things – like the willow-pattern plates from the kitchen – were put in what had been unfamiliar rooms. She especially liked to fall asleep to the sound of the waves, but over the coming days she began to miss her friends. It was the Easter holidays and back home she would have seen them every day. Here, she saw no-one but her parents and little brother. No matter how many times she went to the beach, no matter how many ice-creams she had, she couldn’t help feeling sad and rather lonely. What was worse, was that in just over a week’s time she would have to start her new school in the next town.
To try and keep her mind off her friends and the frightening prospect of having to make new ones, Dad roped her in to help with the bakery. It was just two days before the grand opening and he wanted Iris to help get it ‘ship-shape’ while he ‘prepared the wares’.
The actual shop was small but could fit a good dozen customers at once – albeit squashed like currants in a Garibaldi biscuit – and had room for a couple of tables which would soon become the cafe. The counter formed an L shape, running across the back of the shop – behind which the breads would be stacked – and down the left hand side where speciality breads and cakes were going to be displayed. A door at the back, covered by a bead curtain, led into the bakery.
At first Iris had been a little disappointed in that there weren’t machines like those she’d imagined, just a big oven. There was a mixing machine, but this one didn’t have quite a many levers and nozzles as the one she’d designed in her head. Also it was silver whereas hers had been rainbow coloured and powered by steam.
Mum meanwhile was busy cleaning the shop – and the small flat above – and directing the men outside who were putting up the sign above the door. Dad had thought long and hard about what to call the bakery and in the end had settled on ‘Baker’s dozen.’
“A Baker’s dozen is 13 you see,” he explained over dinner. “And the bakery is Number 13 Beach Street. It makes perfect sense!”
Iris looked at her Mum who in turn looked at Ben. Then they all smiled, a little unconvinced.
The next day, Iris helped her Mum deliver flyers around town. They were advertising the ‘Baker’s Dozen’ bakery which everyone seemed pleased was opening.
“We could do with a proper bakery,” they said, although they frowned when they saw the name.
“A Baker’s dozen is 13,” said Iris, explaining the name. “And it’s number 13 Beach Street. It makes perfect sense!”
They’d nod and smile when she told them, as unconvinced as Iris and her Mum had been.
“Well, as long as the bread tastes good, that’s all that matters!”
“And the cakes,” said Iris. “We’re selling cakes too. And pies!”
It was nice delivering the flyers. Not only did Iris get to know the town, she also got to meet quite a lot of people, especially the other shopkeepers.
Mabel from the knitting shop looked as if she was almost done knitting herself a husband. He sat half-finished in a chair behind the till, clutching a ball of bright red wool as if he was holding his intestines. Perhaps Mabel was unpicking him, ready to make a new one?
Three doors down was a hardware shop, run by brothers Roy and Ray. Roy was large with an unruly beard, his chest a giant bellows which fed the red of his cheeks as though his face were a furnace. No-one asked for anything here. Roy told his customers what they wanted as soon as the bell rang above the door.
“Curtain hooks!” he bellowed, as soon as Mum and Iris walked in. As they approached the counter, his brother Ray had rung them through the till.
Putting the curtain hooks in her pocket, Mum left a leaflet and walked outside with Iris.
Across the street was the newsagents: ‘Agents of News’, run by Mike and Theresa Bond, who, whenever they spoke, affected James-Bond-with-gun poses and addressed each other as 001 and 001 and a half (‘the better half’ according to Theresa). They’d fire their finger-guns with the sound of kisses, laughing harder still as if it was the first time they’d done it.
Next door but one, Chris and Elsa were the exact opposite of 001 and 001 and a half. They ran The Ship – a dark and grubby pub which stank of stale beer – and stood behind the bar as if on a beach, staring forlornly out to sea, waiting for past loves to return.
“Should be called the Ship Wreck,” said Mum as they left, glad of the fresher air outside.
And finally, at the end of the road was the ‘Star Fashion Emporium.’ Run by Nigel, a short, balding man dressed like a woman dressed as a man, the shop sold second hand clothes, and as Jean spoke, Nigel held various blouses against her, cooing all the while like a pigeon, attracted by its own puddled reflection.
“Nigel,” he said once she’d finished talking. “Swap the ‘N’ for an ‘R’ and what to you get?” He clapped his hands and raised them as if he were a game show host practising his catchphrase.
“Rigel?” said Mum, rhyming it with Nigel, much to Nigel’s annoyance.
“Rigel!” he spat, “as in Regal, like royalty! It’s the name of a star! The Star Fashion Emporium. You see?!”
Jean frowned. As far as explanations went it was worse than ‘The Baker’s Dozen.’
“But not any old star,” Nigel went on. “Rigel is the brightest star in the constellation of Orion – famed,” he said, “for its belt…” He gestured towards a rail from which a dozen belts were hanging. “It’s also 772 light years from Earth! Can you believe it? 772!”
Jean and Iris remained silent. They were having a job believing this strange little man was actually real.
“It means,” he went on, hardly drawing breath, ”that the light that hits your eyes today, left the star in…” He tried to do the maths.
“1242,” said Iris.
Nigel frowned, then held out his hands.
“1242! Which reminds me,” he said, looking at the gold watch which hung from his waistcoat. “It’s lunchtime!”
He promised, as he shooed them out, that from now on he would buy his lunch from ‘The Baker’s Dozen’. Jean rather hoped he wouldn’t.
“I think this town is mad,” she said as they walked back to the bakery. “Dad should fit right in.”