'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Baker

We had a white Christmas this year. The snow didn't last for long on Christmas Day before the rain arrived and left us with ice, but it was a very white Christmas Eve. The garden gnomes made their own snow people and arranged them in a scene. It looks like a bank raid gone wrong.

My aunt Bridget used to visit a local baker called Des at least twice a week. When he announced that he was closing down his business it was a sad day for all concerned, for Des and his customers. All concerned would have fitted into the small baker's shop at the same time, and they did at five o' clock on Des's final day. Almost all of his customers were dedicated ones. Having numerous uncaring customers was more profitable than securing a handful of ardent followers who'd tell all their friends and relations about Des's incomparable cakes, but it wasn't as fulfilling. This is what had made the struggle with his finances worthwhile for so long. Either his customers didn't have many friends and relations or his creations only appealed to a certain type of person, someone capable of appreciating the peculiar character of a cake and recognising its superiority to the mass-produced, character-less clones in supermarkets, and willing to pay more for it. He reached the stage where the benefits of an early retirement seemed greater than the satisfaction he got from his job, and he announced his decision to close his bakery.

His customers were disturbed. They all tried to convince him to change his mind. Many of them promised to eat more cakes, even vowing to become obese to save his business. But his mind was made up. He was looking forward to his retirement because he'd finally get a chance to start the vegetable garden he'd been planning for years. He'd be able to visit his sister in Scotland and his brother in a tree.

After his customers had accepted his decision, their thoughts turned to expressing their gratitude for the countless delights he'd provided over the years. Bridget organised a meeting in her house to discuss what they'd do for him. They agreed to surprise him with a party in his shop on his final day, and they'd buy him a present to mark the occasion. When someone suggested giving him a cake, the room went quiet. A party wouldn't be a party without a cake, and it wouldn't be a good party without a cake made by Des, but you couldn't get the guest of honour to make his own cake. They could make a cake themselves to show how much they cared, but anything they made would shrivel with an overwhelming sense of inferiority when it was revealed in Des's shop.

The silence was broken by a man called Jeff, who stood up and said, "We could always get someone else to make the cake, someone who'd do a much better job than we could. A neighbour of mine, Laurence, is supposed to be an outstanding baker. I've heard people swear by him. I've heard people swear at him too. He's a funny sort of fellow. A bit eccentric. Sometimes he angers people by picking flowers from their gardens or asking them if they're wearing a wig. He doesn't do these things in a malicious way. He just doesn't think. He'd chance anything without thinking. You can order a cake from him and he'll make it in his kitchen. I was thinking about getting him to make a birthday cake for my mother after hearing some great things about him. I wanted to suss him out a bit more first, so I called around to his house. I told him I was interested in finding out more about the windows he had fitted because I was thinking of getting new windows myself. He was very friendly. He gave me a tour of his house, or at least he started to. It was the strangest house I've ever seen. That's what I was saying to myself after seeing the cobble stones around the fireplace in the dining room. And then we came to the study. All four walls were hidden behind shelves. The shelves on one wall were filled with glass jars and in each jar was a single spider. At first glance it was difficult to tell if the spiders were living or dead. One glance was one more than enough for me. Having said that, I'd rather stay with the spiders than take my chances in the room where he kept the hair, which he promised to show me after the study. Fortunately there was another option. I told him I had to go and see a man about a boil, which was true. I decided not to get him to make my mother's birthday cake. But I still hear great things about his skills."

"I've heard of him as well," Bridget said. "People have told me he's just as good as Des. Loyalty to Des prevented me from ever sampling any of Laurence's work, but I suppose now is a good time to start. We do have to think about life after Des... So what became of the boil?"

"It was hastily dispatched. But sitting down can still be uncomfortable. I wouldn't have made this suggestion if I hadn't wanted to stand up, because I don't think it's a very good suggestion. I still can't stop thinking of those spiders and wondering how bad the hair room could be."

"I think we should give him a chance," Bridget said. "We'll get him to make two cakes. We'll eat one ourselves and if it's good enough we'll give the other one to Des."

Laurence's cakes were more than good enough. Bridget and the other customers presented one of them to Des in his shop on his final day, along with a gift of a silver pen. He was touched by their affection for him. When he asked where they got the cake, Bridget just winked and said, "Maybe we made it ourselves."

All eyes were on Des as he tasted the cake. The customers were expecting to see a look of pleasant surprise, but instead they saw anger in his eyes. "He made this," he said.

"Who?" Bridget said.


"Oh. Ah... Yes. Is that a problem?"

"Please remove this cake from my shop."

"We're terribly sorry. We didn't mean any offence. We just thought it would be nice to have a cake worthy of the occasion."

After Bridget and the other customers had convinced him that they had no idea he'd have a problem with a cake made by Laurence, he explained the reason for his anger. "I taught Laurence everything he knows," he said. "Twenty years ago, when the business was going well, I took him on as an apprentice. He had talent -- there's no doubt about that -- but he couldn't be tamed. He kept coming up with outlandish designs, like a cake in the shape of a shepherd who's just been given permission to perform an operation on his brother. He added expletives to the messages on top of birthday cakes. He said that ten-year-olds would love to see a message like that on their birthday. He might have been right about that, but it was still wrong. He was damaging my reputation, so I had to let him go.

"He set up his own bakery. He was funded by a rich cousin called Steve whose hobby was buying expensive sports cars and crashing them into holes. Digging enormous holes was another hobby. Because of his money, Laurence didn't have to worry about making a profit. His cakes were much cheaper than mine. People didn't seem to care that the cakes were swearing at them, as long as the price was right. You could say that about the cakes in the supermarket. All sorts of supermarket food jeers and swears at people as they put these things in their trolley. Laurence's cakes had real quality as well, at least in terms of taste, if not looks. My business was on the point of collapse and he didn't give a damn. I was only saved because Steve was arrested for fraud and his assets were frozen. Other charges followed, such as vandalising public gardens by digging holes and building a wizard's house. Steve insisted that there was nothing to worry about. His plan was to dig a hole and escape from prison, but it never came to fruition. Laurence's business went bust instead of mine. He didn't seem to give a damn about that either. I haven't spoken to him since."

Bridget and the other customers felt awful about the way they had ruined Des's final day. The only way to make up for what had happened was to repair relations between Des and Laurence. Laurence was only too happy to offer an olive branch. He would have been only too happy to do almost anything they suggested, as long as it didn't involve losing any of his hair. He made a cake for Des. In the icing on top he wrote a message expressing his admiration for Des and gratitude for the skills his teacher had imparted. He managed to fit many heartfelt sentiments into the top of the cake, and an extraordinary amount of expletives.

Des accepted Laurence's apology and his cake. They spoke about Des's plans for his retirement. Laurence already had a vegetable garden, and he was able to help Des with his. Laurence grew vegetables in his own idiosyncratic way. He made hundreds of tiny scarecrows. Some of them were made entirely out of hair. They didn't have much of an effect on the crows but they kept most people away.

The moose's head over the fireplace is looking forward to our fancy dress party on New Year's Eve. He's going as Laurel and Hardy. Not that he's going anywhere. He's staying as Laurel and Hardy. There isn't much more to his costume than two hats hanging off his antlers, and yet no one ever confuses him for a hat stand. People immediately recognise who he's meant to be. My Popeye costume is very detailed, but people often mistake me for a leprechaun. This also happens when I'm not wearing my Popeye costume.