That evening there was a knock on the door.
“Can you get that?” called Benny’s mother. “Benny? Can you go to the door? I’m still in the bath.”
Benny realised that he had put his leg to sleep by curling it under himself while watching the television. He straightened the leg with some difficulty, stood up and nearly fell over. With a strange mixture of hopping and limping, and accompanied by another flurry of knocking, he made his way to the front door.
Through the frosted glass, he could see a large brown shape. As he opened the door, the shape resolved itself into two items: a van parked outside the house with its engine idling and a man, dressed in brown, walking back to the van, carrying a parcel.
“Excuse me!” called Benny.
The man stopped, slowly turned, and made his way back down the driveway. With a grunt he handed Benny the parcel, which was the shape and size of a brick. With another grunt, he thrust a grubby pen and a clipboard at him, pointing to a space where Benny assumed he should sign. As Benny was putting the finishing touches to his signature, the man grunted again, presumably in thanks, and took back the clipboard and pen. The pen went behind the ear, the clipboard was thrown onto the passenger seat of the van, the man clambered gracelessly into the driver’s seat and, with grinding of gears, the van shot forwards and away, startling a thin man and his small dog who were making their way along the pavement. The thin man glared at Benny as though he blamed him for the van, the noise it made and many other inconveniences in his life, both major and minor. The dog gave a high-pitched annoying bark. Benny went in and closed the front door.
“Who was it?” called his mother.
“A courier – I never knew they came in the evening…,” said Benny, turning over the parcel in his hands. “Looks like it’s for me.” He began to unwrap it.
The first layer of wrapping paper only revealed another layer. Under the second layer was a single sheet of paper and another parcel, swamped in far too much bubble-wrap over brown paper. Benny unfolded the sheet of paper and read the note.
“Dear Benny,” it said. “Happy Twelfth Birthday! Sorry I wasn’t there to see you this morning and that I can’t come in person tonight.
“I assume you’ve noticed the downfall of my bakery – but that’s all in the past now. I’m moving on to the future! Well, I began moving to the future six months ago and I thought I’d be there by now but you know how things are. I should be there in just a few more days.
“Now then, I hope you enjoyed your birthday loaf although your real present from me is enclosed here. I’ll come and see you next week to find out how you get on with it.
“Love to your mother, Marmaduke.”
“How mysterious,” said Benny to himself. “I’m sure he never used to talk in riddles.”
He tore away the bubble-wrap and brown paper from the parcel to find a thick sheaf of papers, roughly stapled together to form a booklet. The cover-page said, “Apprenticeship instructions for Benny Baker, working with grand baker Marmaduke Clingbine.”
He quickly flicked through the booklet and saw that every inch of every sheet was covered with small, precise writing. Fifty-four types of loaf, roll and cake were detailed. A small envelope slipped out from between the sheets and fell to the floor. Benny picked it up and put it in his pocket to look at later.
He went back to the front of the booklet and read the introduction.
“Dear Benny, Ever since I first showed you what true bread should be, I realised that you would be a wonderful apprentice. I consider that it is my duty to teach you what I know so that my ways and techniques of baking will be in safe hands. I truly believe that you have the aptitude to make a great baker and thus live up to your name.
“You will find, enclosed in this booklet, all my precious bread recipes. Try them – we will soon know if baking is your calling, if it is in your blood.
“Take care not to let this booklet fall into the wrong hands – the recipes within are valuable and powerful. They may not look it, scrawled onto the only paper I could find in the shop, but they are not written anywhere else, nor should they be.
“They were passed to me with the same instructions and the line is unbroken back over twenty-two centuries to the great Greek baker (and occasional philosopher) Menedemus.
“And whatever you do, beware Sir Archibald Fidget-Melvyn.
“With much affection, Marmaduke.”
“Mum,” called Benny. “Uncle Marmaduke sends his love to you. And can I borrow a hand-mixer and a loaf tin?”
Ivy Baker’s kitchen was not her own from that day on. For three days and evenings after Benny’s birthday, the house was first filled with the bitter smell of not-quite-right dough, then overwhelmed by the pungent smell of bread being baked to within an inch of its life, before finally the choking smoke of burning crust drifted through every room.
Benny was baking as though his life depended on it. He would not listen to his mother’s well-intentioned suggestions that he should start small, perhaps with a roll or a simple sponge cake. He was driven by the memories of all those mornings standing in his uncle’s shop, inhaling the smell of fresh bread. He wanted to recreate it in his home as a gift to his mother. All that his mother wanted was to have her kitchen back.
After three days of allowing her son to run amok with flour, water, salt, sugar, oil, milk and a dash of yeast, Ivy Baker decided that she had had enough. She was going to put an end to the dreadful burning, followed by the pained howling of the smoke-alarm. She had scraped enough lumps of dough off her ceiling.
And so, on the fourth day, Benny’s mother put on her sternest expression and opened the door of the kitchen to an unexpectedly calm room. Benny was sitting at the kitchen table staring, awe-struck, at a remarkable loaf of bread. It stood majestically on a cooling rack in the centre of the table. The crust was perfectly smooth, a slight heat haze rose above the loaf and, unless her eyes were deceiving her, the whole loaf seemed to shimmer slightly.
It was a shame that it had turned out the shape of a small car which had been partially crushed by a particularly fat elephant and that one end was much darker than the other. This may have been because the oven did not heat evenly or alternatively Benny might not have mixed the ingredients perfectly – after all, his arm was aching from three days of dough pounding. However these were minor considerations. The bread was not burnt, it smelt and looked like bread and the smoke-alarm had not gone off even once during the baking. Ivy Baker was so surprised that she tested the alarm to check that the battery hadn’t gone flat.
“I bet you’re really pleased with that,” said Benny’s mother. “Let’s leave half of it to eat at breakfast for the next few days and freeze the rest for next week.”
Benny looked at her as if she had just suggested that they should move to a mountain village in Peru and raise llamas. “You would freeze fresh bread? What on earth for? This loaf should be good for well over a week – it’s not like the stuff you buy in the supermarket, you know. It’ll stay fresh, it won’t dry out – you’ll see. Anyway, the loaf I’m going to bake tomorrow will be even better – you’ll want to throw the remains of this one to the birds once you’ve tasted tomorrow’s. Although, come to think of it, that might be cruel to the birds…”
“Now Benny, I don’t think you’re being entirely fair,” said his mother, trying to control the panic building up in her at the thought of even one more day of extreme baking in her kitchen. “I’ve been very reasonable, especially as it was a birthday present but…”
“You’re quite right, I’m sorry,” said Benny.
“Okay, good, well you’ve had your fun and you do seem to be mastering…”
“… You’re right to think that it would be okay if we froze half of it. Sorry – what were you saying? Just give me another few hours – I think I know what went wrong with this one. Is that all right? Please?”
“Three hours more and then I want you out of the kitchen until the day after tomorrow. And I don’t want to have to clean anything up!” With that, Ivy Baker strode out of the kitchen. Two hours and thirty-four minutes later, with smoke charging around the house, the smoke alarm shrieking and the neighbours about to phone the fire brigade, she wondered if she had made the right decision.
Then, on the seventh day, Marmaduke arrived.