The Great Village Bun Fight
From Chapter Three: Tricycle Icycle
"Have you seen?"
Henry slapped his hand down on the paperwork to anchor it against the icy gust that rushed into the bakery - along with a pink, panting Nessa - and set the Christmas tree bead strings into a wave of tsunami proportions. Nessa whipped her umbrella shut, javelined it into the stand and frivolously kicked the door with her heel. The force wasn't quite enough to shut it - luckily.
Mrs. Broughton was a step behind her and whinnied, pulled up short by the obstruction between her and her weekly egg - free range, of course - custard tart. Nessa didn't appear to notice and scurried around the end of the counter, unfastening and pulling off her coat on her way past Henry.
"Have I seen wh - "
"Not now!" she hissed, disappearing out back then reappearing a second later, still pink and panting, with her Henry Jones, Baker, est. 1874 apron dangling from her neck, hands labouring at her back and a big, false smile for their customer. "Good morning, Mrs. B. How are you today?" She side-eyed a further warning for Henry to keep his mouth shut until they were on their own.
"Oh, you know how it is." Mrs. Broughton wearily rubbed her left wrist and then her right with gnarled old fingers sporting freshly manicured, glittery red nails. Evidently, the bakery wasn't her first stop of the morning.
"Your arthritis giving you trouble, is it?" Nessa simpered. No time to waste on small talk when she had gossip to impart, she tugged a brown paper - recycled, it goes without saying - bag free of the hemp string and flicked it open.
"It is, love," Mrs. Broughton lamented. "Still, it's to be expected with the damp and the cold." She glowered in disapproval.
Henry peered out the front window at the drizzly gloom. "Snow's on its way," he mused aloud.
"Don't say that!" Mrs. Broughton chastised, aghast.
"According to the - ouch!" Nessa stamped on his toes. "BBC," he finished obstinately.
"Aye, well, what do they know about the weather?"
"The Met Office too - ow!" Henry inhaled sharply at the stamp on his other foot and shut up for good this time. Not his snowflakes, not his blizzard.
Nessa raised the serving tongs and crocodile-snapped the air. "One or two-tart day today, Mrs. B.?"
"Two, please. I have to entertain the Reverend Osbourne this afternoon." She patted her hair and honked out a heavy sigh. "I could do without the rigmarole on Christmas Eve, I must confess."
Nessa muted a snort and got to transferring two egg custards from glass cabinet to bag. Henry cleared his throat and faked concentrating on his paperwork. Better Mrs. Broughton think them rude than realise they were laughing, although not at her, or not just at her. Most of the older village folk thought their young vicar, with his long hair and love of rock music, was a lout. If only they took the time to get to know him, they'd realise what a lovely guy he was. Well, Henry thought so. Nessa just wanted to get into his pants.
Mrs. Broughton had a soft spot for him too, regardless of her 'could do without the rigmarole' of the manicure and, Henry observed, new hairdo. She was the long-standing, completely unbudgeable and somewhat dictatorial leader of the Parish Council, of which Margaret Sharpe had been secretary until a few months ago. Suffice to say, she now knew why Mrs. Broughton - and other members - had stopped buying cakes from THE Village Bakery, and it had nothing to do with calorie-counting or diabetes.
Nessa twisted the corners of the paper bag and set it on the counter. "Anything else, Mrs. B.?"
"No, that's it, love. How much do I owe you?" She clicked open her purse and tinkled the loose change inside.
"Two pounds twenty, please."
"Have they gone up again?" They hadn't, as well Mrs. Broughton knew, but she had to say it. Every week. "Eeeeee, I don't know how they expect us to live on a pittance of a pension, cost of living being what it is and all. Here, love. I can't get hold of the little so-and-sos with these nails."
Without warning, she upended her purse. Nessa swooped in with a well-aimed palm and caught most of the coins before they hit the glass top of the cake cabinet. A two-pence piece bounced off and rolled across the floor, coming to a stop next to Henry's bruised toes. He retrieved it and rose to return it to their customer.
"Stick it in the Sally Army tin, love," Mrs. Broughton ordained, clicking her purse shut and zipping her coat right up under her chin, creating a dimple in her crinkles, but at least she'd be warm. She gathered her wares. "I'll be off, then. A Merry Christmas to you."
"And to you," Henry called.
"Yeah, and you, Mrs. B." Nessa wide-eye-watched her all the way to the door, which she fought with a fierce determination when the wind flung it open and refused to relinquish its hold. Nessa dashed over to help and, between them, they managed to put wood back in t'hole before Mrs. Broughton set off at a fair old speed.
Nessa gave a conspiratorial glance up and down the high street before she returned to the counter. "Soooo..." she said, eyebrows arched to embellish the suspense.
Henry nonchalantly dropped the tuppence into the Shelter - not Salvation Army - collection tin and straightened the paper bags. "So?"
"You haven't seen it?"
"What you're talking about."
He shrugged. "Outside the camping shop?"
Now is the winter
Of our discount tents
Henry thought it was hilarious.
"Not that one," Nessa said. "On the noticeboard?"
"Good place for it," Henry quipped. Nessa folded her arms and glared. Henry grinned. "No, I haven't seen the notice. Not that I know of."
"Well!" Nessa unfolded her arms again and rubbed her hands in glee, back on track with the juicy gossip. She went over to the coffee jug. "Is this fresh?" she asked, already pouring a cup.
"Made just before you got here," Henry confirmed.
She turned to face him, sipped coffee, smacked her lips. Either she was building up to something big or was worried about his reaction. Still he refused to prompt her further and instead reached for his paperwork, his fingers grazing the top sheet as she finally relented.
"Hold that," she said and thrust her cup at him so she could get her phone from her pocket. "I took a photo of it on my way out."
"Out of where?"
"The village hall."
"Is playschool on today?"
"If it's not, Marky'll be sitting on his lonesome for the morning." She unlocked the screen, and they did a quick, awkward swap of items.
She'd taken one of those pictures that refused to stay upright, and Henry had to hold the phone at a jaunty angle, with his head tipped to the side, to read the notice. He didn't even make it past the headline before his stomach did a somersault. "No way." He shoved Nessa's phone back at her. "No. Way!"
"We'll easily win," she goaded.
"We won't, because we're not entering."
"Are you kidding me?"
"Friendly? Remember the Easter Bonnets? I told you it was too soon."
"We were more than ready to take her on."
"I don't want to take her on!" Henry snapped.
"Really?" Nessa questioned. "Because that's not how it looks. OK, I know we're artisan and catering for a different demographic - " he couldn't believe she'd air-quoted at him - twice! " - but you re-opened the bakery."
"Yep, and have you noticed she's gone all 'free range, organic' la-de-dah? She doesn't give a hoot about ethical sourcing or hens' well-being. She's just an out-and-out copycat." Henry picked up his pile of papers, tapped them to straighten them, put them down again and propped his hand on his hip.
Beside him, Nessa took a breath and paused, as if she were considering saying more, but merely huffed a, "Fine, whatever," and stormed out the back.
That was where she stayed for the next three hours, only emerging to help in the busy periods. Henry was surprised so many villagers had braved the increasingly bleak weather to pick up a Christmas Eve treat - weather which, sooner rather than later, he was going to have to brave himself. He still needed to get out with the deliveries.
By twelve-thirty, when he could stand the dramatic thumps and bangs no more, he prepared a peace offering of leek and potato - vegan, locally sourced - soup plus a couple of sourdough - baked in-house - rolls and tentatively approached the kitchen, loitering in the doorway to watch his cousin's purposeful march back and forth with sundry items, all destined for the delivery trailer. She slotted three French batons into a corner and made brief eye contact, her scowl still firmly in place.
"I've brought lunch," he said, holding it up as evidence.
"Thanks." She marched off to the storeroom - bang, clatter, grunt - and returned with four jars of cranberry jelly. Into the trailer they went.
"Will I be in your way if - "
He was in the way simply by being there. To avoid upsetting her further, he dodged around the centre island to the microwave and stayed with it while the soup warmed, pretending to look around the room when he was watching Nessa, yet over those few moments, his focus shifted and he started thinking about the kitchen instead. He'd felt more welcome there as a mischievous kid getting in his grandad's way than he did now, and not just because of Nessa's mood, which was still icier than the chilly December afternoon.
He missed the baking. It wasn't like it didn't happen, but it didn't happen while he was on the premises. By eight a.m., when Henry arrived, the baker was done, leaving only dozens of loaves lined up on the racks and the residual heat of the ovens. At this time of year, he appreciated the warmth, especially first thing; come spring and summer, it was...well, like an oven.
For all that Henry's name was above the door, it wasn't his bakery, and not because - secretly - he and Nessa were equal partners. Henry could manage staff, do the accounts, cash up, clean up, take care of the deliveries, but when it came to the real work - baking bread and serving customers - he was clueless. It hadn't troubled him until today.
Until Nessa showed him that notice.
"I'm done," she mumbled and flopped sulkily onto a stool. "What soup is it?"
"Leek and potato." The microwave pinged and he removed the bowl, shoving it in front of her. "Here." He edged past and out of the kitchen.
"Are you not having any?" she called.
"Nope." Yanking his coat from the hook, he struggled into it on his way back. "Not hungry. I'm gonna get the deliveries out before it gets any colder." Hat on, gloves...
"Where's your helmet?"
...delivery chits... "Can't wear it with a hat."
"Henry - " The rumble of the rising bay door cut off her warning.
Henry lugged the trailer out into the yard, calling, "See you later," through the slowly diminishing gap as the door rolled shut.
All right, let's take stock here. We've got a loaded trailer, a Henry agitated to the point of recklessness, icy roads and a tricycle. That, folks, is what we call an accident waiting to happen. And the thing is, Henry's not really angry with Nessa. If she hadn't told him about the contest, someone else would've done. Indeed, by the time he's done with this fateful Christmas Eve (that's fateful, not fatal - one wedding and no funerals, I promise), almost everyone in Banton will have asked him if Henry Jones, Baker, est. 1874 is doing it.
'Doing what?' you may ask. Well.
The clue's in the title, innit?
OK. Christmas Eve tricycling on ice. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, because Henry most definitely is not.
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