“…whatever he can’t carry out of the shop he’ll just have to leave… yes, good… well, you can always help him dismantle it if you like… no, I don’t want to talk to him. Have it done by six and get the sign up before you go. And put it the right way up this time. Good morning.”
Sir Archibald Fidget-Melvyn hung up the phone and fingered the curled ends of his moustache. After several weeks of experimenting, he had discovered that a mixture of his housekeeper’s hair-gel with a dash of washing-up liquid and a squirt of beeswax-rich furniture polish was the best way to set his moustache just as he liked it. This left the problem of wiping his fingers before he smeared his newspaper.
“Jenkins!” he roared. “Have you had your cat’s claws filed down yet?”
A pale, twitchy man hurried into the room.
“Yes, Sir Archibald,” he said, bowing his head slightly as he approached. “It was done only yesterday. I mean, I had the claws trimmed. The vet said no one files them. She said cats would hate to have their claws filed and…”
“Exactly,” said Sir Archibald, a faint smile slithering over his mouth. “When I say ‘filed’, I mean ‘filed’. You may need to find another vet, or go and buy a clamp and a metal file and do it yourself.”
Jenkins bowed his head further in an attempt to suppress the gulp rising from his chest. “I’m sorry, sir. And I’m desperately sorry about the scratches and your ruined shirt – the deduction from my pay was quite in order, sir. And I’m sure the claws are too blunt for it to happen again, sir.”
“We’ll see,” murmured Sir Archibald as he wiped his fingers across the soft fur on the cat’s back. The previous day, he had used the cat’s stomach fur. It still stood away from her body in hardened spikes. Mrs Jenkins had not been able to clean it and had decided that the fur would need to be shaved off. She certainly did not want the cat to go near Sir Archibald again. Unfortunately, the cat was both forgetful and greedy – it had only taken the smell of Sir Archibald’s kipper breakfast to bring her to him again.
His fingers were now clean. The cat bared its teeth at him and hissed but he was holding her quite firmly. She scrabbled against his shirt but the newly smooth claws failed to make any impression this time.
“Very good, Jenkins, you may go,” said Sir Archibald, “and take this revoltingly filthy creature with you.” He pushed the cat off his lap and she ran, sliding on the polished wooden floor, towards the door. The fur on her back stood up like the armour of a stegosaurus. Jenkins scooped her up in his arms, which was made more difficult by the spikes poking him in the chest as he did so. He bowed and, head down, shuffled backwards out of the room.
Sir Archibald Fidget-Melvyn was feeling good that morning. His moustache was perfect. He had dealt with the tiresome man who had been troubling him – Marmaduke and his ridiculous business were gone from the village for good. Things could now return to normal. No more strange smells wafting across his estate early in the morning. Instead, another opportunity for a little shop selling postcards, tea-towels, mugs, car stickers, boxes of fudge – each proudly carrying the crest of the Fidget-Melvyns.
Three miles away in the small bedroom at the back of a terraced house on the road which runs behind the high street, Benny Baker turned over in bed twice, opened his eyes, surveyed the room, closed his eyes again, then yawned, stretched and sat up. It was his twelfth birthday, it was the first day of the summer holiday and it was six in the morning.
It was far too early to wake his mother but he could not lie still in bed for another two or maybe three hours. He made a decision. He would quietly and carefully get up, get dressed and go and see his uncle Marmaduke. Marmaduke would have been working for at least an hour by that time. He would be pleased to see Benny, having had only flour, dough and warm loaves for company so far that day. They would sit and chat in the back-room, where the fresh bread was cooling, where the smell was the strongest and most overpowering. Marmaduke might even finally agree to take him on as apprentice baker now that he was twelve.
Ten minutes later he had crept out of the house and was standing, startled, outside the locked door of the bakery. Through the window he could see that the oven was still there but little else was intact. Everything that could be carried had been removed. Much that could not be carried was partially dismantled or broken apart. His uncle was nowhere to be seen and there was certainly no smell of bread.
A sign on the door proudly proclaimed, “Opening Soon! Another Fabulous Branch Of F&M!”. The baker’s van was no longer parked outside the shop, no longer shading the front from the garish neon F&M sign of the shop across the road.
“No, Benny, I don’t know what’s going on either,” said his mother later that morning. After some time, Benny had managed to persuade her to get out of bed and they were finally sitting at the kitchen table eating some toast.
“He said that Sir Archibald Fidget-Melvyn had raised the rent of his shop so much that he couldn’t afford it. He asked me not to tell you about it until today. All he said was that everything would be all right and that he would come and see us tonight to explain what had happened. And he left this for you.”
Mrs Ivy Baker opened the door of the oven and took out the parcel which she had hidden there. She handed it to Benny.
Benny took the loaf-shaped parcel, squeezed it gently and smiled.
“Usual present from Uncle Marmaduke! But what’s going on? What’s happened to him? You must know.”
“No, I don’t know any more than you do. But I’m sure he’ll explain himself when we see him later. Here’s the card from your father.” She opened the freezer and took an envelope from the ice tray. “Washington DC this year. Funny how he always seems to get sent away on business when it’s your birthday – it’s almost as though his boss does it on purpose. Mind you, given that he works for F&M, they probably are doing it on purpose.”
Benny nodded although he wasn’t really listening. He turned the loaf-shaped parcel over and over in his hands, as though thinking through a very difficult puzzle, before finally unwrapping it. It looked, smelt and tasted as good as anything that Marmaduke had baked for them. Benny thought he detected a very slight bitterness around the crust, as though Marmaduke could not prevent some of his feelings about his impending eviction from transferring into the bread. He didn’t mention it to his mother, not wishing to be disrespectful to Marmaduke’s gift. This year, the picture burnt into the crust showed a cartoon baker holding a hot loaf and grimacing as though his hands were burning.
“I just don’t get it,” said Benny. “We’ve already got more than enough branches of F&M in the village – there’s even one across the street – but Marmaduke’s was the only bakery. Surely that’s more useful?”
“’Useful’ has got nothing to do with it,” said his mother. “Sir Archibald doesn’t care about what’s useful – he just wants to open as many of his nasty shops as he can and sell as much junk as possible to as many tourists as he can lure inside. And besides, he never liked bread, that man, not that anyone can understand why.”
Later that afternoon, Benny was walking home from the cinema with his friends Simon and Sean Sharkly and Samantha, Sandy and Samuel Shardly. They walked across the green, bought ice-creams from an F&M van and sat on the steps of the village hall.
“Well, thank goodness my mother let me have a normal party this year,” said Benny. “Thanks for still being my friends after last year’s disaster.”
“It certainly was a unique experience,” said Sandy. “It had been years since I’d run the egg and spoon race.”
“We had to stay friends with you, Benny,” said Simon. “We couldn’t risk missing out on this year’s ‘unique experience’. Although it’s been a disappointment not to at least get a sack race…”
“…or a parents’ race,” added Sean, who often finished his brother’s sentences, although not always as Simon had intended. “How long did it take them to catch your father last year?” he asked the triplets.
To add to the excitement of the parents’ race last year, Benny’s mum had decided that the runners should be blind-folded and spun around before being released. The intention was that the cheers of the crowd and the bell rung by the finish-line would guide them in. Unfortunately, the church bells started to peal at the same time and Mr Shardly had headed in the wrong direction.
“Who would have thought he could move so quickly?” added Simon.
“We certainly didn’t,” muttered Samuel who, along with his sisters had sprinted after their father in an attempt to recapture him.
“I think it’s time we changed the subject,” said Samantha. “What’s happened to your uncle, Benny?”
Benny sighed. “I don’t know,” he said. “My mother says she doesn’t know either. Apparently his rent went up again and he couldn’t afford to pay it so he’s shut down the bakery. She said that Sir Archibald has been trying to get rid of him for ages – not that anyone knows why he hates the bakery so much. Anyway, Marmaduke’s going to come and see me later today – which reminds me…”
He reached into his rucksack and took out a large foil packet.
“He baked me another of these fabulous birthday loaves. He says they’re going to take over from birthday cakes once people know about them. I thought you might like a slice each – goes well with ice-cream.”
Five minutes later, they were each eating a birthday-loaf/ice-cream sandwich – even Sandy Shardly who had looked unconvinced that this was a sensible thing to eat.
“You know, you’re right!” she said. “This is really good. Huh! Bread and ice-cream, who would have thought it…?”
As she spoke, a drop of ice-cream the size of a kidney bean fell out of the back of her sandwich, hitting the marble steps at exactly the same time as the clock tower bell began tolling six o’clock.
“Wow, that is loud ice cream!” said Simon. “Come on, little brother, we’re expected home for supper.”
“Little brother?!” snorted Sean. “You only beat me by sixteen minutes…”
“I think my mum asked me to be back by six too,” said Benny, interrupting what was shaping up to be the latest in a long line of lengthy and pointless bouts of bickering from the Sharkly twins.
They got up from the steps and walked away. If instead they had walked up the steps and opened the door they could have seen the newly decorated Alice Fidget-Melvyn Memorial Hall. It had been erected thirty-two years earlier in memory of Sir Archibald Fidget-Melvyn’s grandmother. Sir Archibald had loved her very much. She had passed away after choking on a large crusty roll. The details were hushed up by the family, even though some of them thought it was her own fault for not wanting to chew it properly. From that day on, Sir Archibald Fidget-Melvyn had been the enemy of bread and all those who peddled it.