Authors: Stephanie Butland
âIt smelled bittersweetly of sourdough, and there was the trace of hot, fresh bread in the air. She took a deep breath and unlocked the door.'
Fifteen years ago Bettina May's life veered off course in one disastrous night. Still reeling from the shock of losing everything she thought was hers, Bettina opens a bakery in a village and throws herself into the comfort of breadmaking.
She spends her days kneading dough and measuring ingredients. She begins to heal. Until someone who knows what happened that night walks into the bakery. In the pause of a heartbeat, fifteen years disappear and Bettina remembers a time she thought was lost for ever . . . Can she ever go back?
For my parents
âArise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry'
I Kings 27:7
HOWARD AND HIS
twins, Sam and Bettina, are sitting in the front row of the audience. It's a privilege accorded to them as they are the family of one of the show's stars. Also, Howard says, as he's the one who has to turn up early to put out the chairs he doesn't see why he shouldn't give himself a perk and bag them the best seats in the house. He smiles as he says it: Tina, sitting between him and her brother, feels warmed.
âI feel like I've seen this a thousand times,' Sam says. âIn fact, I feel as though I'm in it.'
Tina laughs. She knows what he means: since their mother was cast as Beverley, home life has been dominated by
. Alice has even been found smoking in the garden. âI have to get used to it,' she'd explained. âIt has to look authentic when I do it.' Tina had agreed, although taking up smoking didn't strike her as particularly normal behaviour for a mother. But one of the things that's wonderful about Alice is that when she decides to do something, she really does it.
âIf someone doesn't show, you might have to take part,' Howard says.
âOver my dead body,' Sam says, and goes back to his book. It's a biography of Stalin, something he asked for at Christmas. His fringe flops forward as he reads. There's a crop of freckles on his cheeks; Tina's own face has the same markings. They will be fourteen soon. She is going to ask for new riding boots for her birthday. Sam will want more history books, and he has his eye on some New Balance trainers.
âLet's be proud,' Howard says. He's one of the quiet heroes of the Missingham Amateur Dramatic Society. As well as putting out chairs, he paints furniture for sets and brings wine and crisps from the cash-and-carry for performance nights and last-night parties. He photocopies scripts and counts the money. If he ever gets tired of it, he doesn't show it. Tina smiles. She can sense how proud he is. It comes off him like aftershave or the smell of a clean cotton shirt when he moves. She loves her father, but she envies her mother her bright spirit, her fearlessness; she sees the same thing in Sam, but not in herself. She is her father's daughter, she knows, and not only because her mother says it so often, and with such satisfaction, as though there is nothing better than being steady and quiet. (âWe're only quiet,' Howard had said just that morning, âbecause you and Sam won't let us get a word in edgeways. It's learned behaviour.' And Alice had shushed him, and then told them all off when they wouldn't tell her what was funny.)
Someone at the back of the hall throws the light switches and there's darkness. And then there's Alice, smoking in a way that's definitely authentic, bright eyeshadow, long green dress cut low. Sam touches Tina's hand and when she looks at him, he winks a wink that says, yes, let's be proud, but that is our mother up there, and I do know exactly how you feel.
When the applause starts at the beginning of the interval, Sam leans across and says, âLet's have a pizza and watch a film tomorrow night. She's great but we deserve it. Compensation for the embarrassment.'
âDeal,' Tina says, and she wonders how people without a twin can possibly navigate their way through the world.
THE THAI TAKEAWAY
is sweating on the passenger seat of the car. Rufus knows that the food won't be worth eating by the time he gets back with it; his daily ten-minute drive home from the office has already taken three-quarters of an hour. He remembers that he is learning to be patient, and tweaks the volume of the Rachmaninov symphony he's listening to up a little.
The horse and rider that passed his stationary two-hundred-and-fifty-five horsepower BMW convertible ten minutes ago are making their way back up the hill. Rufus clicks the stereo off, turns the key in the ignition, slides the window down and feels the March breeze chill his face, despite the early evening sun, as he leans out to hail the rider.
âHow's it looking?'
âNot good. There's a lorry stuck on the bridge,' the rider says. âIt's got halfway round, thenâ' She shakes her head, makes a you-know-how-it-is face. âI'd go the other way if I were you,' the horsewoman offers. âThe fire brigade is still scratching its head down there. It's going to be a while, by the looks of it.'
âI think I will. Thanks.' Rufus waits until the horse has got well away before starting to shuffle the car out of the queue and turn round. He might have nine points for speeding on his licence, but his years of squiring his daughter from pony club to gymkhana means he knows how to treat a horse when he meets one on the road.
âOh well,' Bettina says, half an hour later, âwe'll just have to have one of your famous omelettes.' She's arrived at her neighbour's for dinner to find him still taking off his coat, and the two of them have taken one look at the contents of the cartons, limp and tepid, before deciding to put them straight in the bin. She smiles: sudden sunshine. âWell, it's not the end of the world, is it?'
âI suppose not.' Rufus is still shaking off the disruption to his evening. âI could go downstairs and get something,' he offers, half-heartedly. It's not that the food from the Italian restaurant he lives above isn't good. But he's home an hour later than he meant to be already, and because Bettina gets up at four, she'll want to be in bed in an hour and a half. He rubs the inner corners of his eyes, hard; shadows jump behind his lids.
âDon't be silly,' Bettina says, putting a hand on his arm, drawing it away from his face. He thinks, for a moment, that she's going to kiss him, but she doesn't. She is cautious with physical contact, as though she has only so many touches to give and must give them wisely. Either that, or it takes an effort.
Her smiles, though, are unlimited. âThere's nothing better than your omelettes, if you don't mind making them.'
âOf course not.'
âI'll go and get some walnut bread, shall I? I made it this morning.' And she's gone before he's had time to answer: to say, yes, thank you, and might I just add how wonderfully easy it is to be with you. But I wish you'd stay the night. Just once.
She's back before the butter foams in the pan. In her absence Rufus has taken off his suit and tie, put on his cords, loosened his shirt collar, rolled up his sleeves and swapped his Italian leather shoes for his Italian leather slippers. He's opened a bottle of Viognier, put plates in to warm, sliced some tomatoes, remembering the time he and his ex-wife spent in France as he breaks the fruit from the vine. He's checked that the bedroom is in good order. (Which it is, because he left it that way this morning, and as it isn't the day for his cleaner, no one has been in there since. But still.) He pours the eggs into the pan and as he waits for them to set he watches his neighbour, friend and sometimes lover (not-as-often-as-he'd-like lover) set the table.
The flat is quiet. This is a silence that Rufus likes: he doesn't think he's ever had a relationship with a woman when silence means, simply, that in this moment there is nothing I want to say. This is wordlessness without waiting, or punishment, or heavy unsaid words. Of course, part of the reason that it is so uncomplicated is that Rufus is held a cautious arm's length away from real intimacy, and he knows this. But he hopes he can wait. He thinks he is learning to be careful, at last. He mulls their relationship over, often; he knows it would be foolish to rush in, and he reminds himself that there's no hurry, pushing his resentment away. He does this more often than he'd like to admit, because he knows â he tells himself â that he is a better man than he used to be. But he wants to say: you're lovely, Bettina, I wish you knew how much I think of you. He wants to be able to look at her, fully, properly, drink her in. He wants to gaze. But if she sees him gazing she stops what she's doing, uncertain, as though he is a stranger in the street, looking in at her through a window.
He puts the first omelette in the oven to keep warm â he will eat it, so that Bettina will have the fresher one. He pours the eggs for the second into the pan and adds an extra twist of pepper, which he knows she will like.
Rufus watches Bettina as she puts out knives, forks, glasses and the unsalted butter that he keeps in an antique cheese dish on top of the fridge. She's absorbed in what she's doing â this is something else he likes, her thoughtfulness, her focus â so he can watch her, out of the corner of his eye. And he likes watching her move. She isn't graceful, exactly; a slight limp means that she always seems unsteady. Unless you look for the limp, Rufus thinks, you wouldn't know it's there, but once you've noticed it you can't help but see it, like a spelling mistake on a business card. She's a little too thin for her own good, too, which worries him; it's not that she doesn't eat, more that she's never still, nervous energy constantly eating everything that she eats, and more. He makes a point of feeding her, brings her gifts of chocolate and the French cheeses from the deli round the corner from his office. She eats them all, but she never seems to gain any weight. He wonders if she realizes that he offers these small gifts from his heart, even though he wraps them in friendliness and gentlemanly consideration.
Bettina's hair waves and curls as though it's been set by a hairdresser who trained in the 1940s. She has it cut into a blunt, unfussy line that sits halfway down her jawline, her parting on the left and her right ear usually exposed by the curls tucked behind it. Her skin is clear; her mouth is, if anything, a little small in her face; her teeth are small, too, and when she smiles her lips tend to stay shut, so seeing them is an oddly intimate experience. It's as though the rest of Bettina's face knows that it can't compete with her eyes, which are a sort of buttery walnut colour, with bright amber highlights. In the half-light across dinner tables or in bedrooms, they shine a blackened bronze. They might be the most beautiful eyes that Rufus has ever seen. She glances up at him and he feels his heart falter as he returns her small smile. If the contents of her bathroom cabinet are to be believed, the only make-up she ever wears is brown mascara. Her eyebrows are thick arches the same pale mouse-brown as her hair.
As the second omelette sets, Bettina puts out the bread. She's brought it wrapped in a cloth, in a basket. She puts the basket in the middle of the table, pulls back the corners of the cloth, takes the loaf in both hands, then breaks it, slowly, gently, her attention on the freshly exposed shards of crust, then moving to the soft bread within, which she inspects with the same expression that Rufus's daughter has when she looks at her own little daughter's fingernails. When the bread is in pieces, she wraps it again. Rufus has watched Bettina perform this ritual many times, whether the bread is a breakfast baguette, the accompaniment to an omelette, or one of her complicated, ornate plaits, glazed to the colour of good, rich coffee on the outside and pale as milk within. It seems to him a prayer, a grace, although he doesn't think she knows what she is doing. He'd joked, once, that breadmaking was a religion to her; she'd said, seriously, that if religion is what makes your life bearable, then she supposed it was. She'd added that it had rescued her, once. He hadn't said anything else, but he'd filed her answer away. Attention to detail is what makes Rufus Micklethwaite a good architect. All of the problems in his life have arisen when he's allowed his attention to wander. He wishes Bettina would let him give her his true, undivided attention.