Whyte was black – blacker than a lump of Aberfennon coal, or so Frankie always said – and like an overgrown crow, he hoarded shiny things: edible silver balls from a just-made wedding tier, small objects of jewelry removed by the bakery staff at the start of their shift, and once even a nose ring found on the side of the wash basin in the café’s customer toilets.
Whyte was a thief, but he was also Monsieur Valéton’s pet, and as such he enjoyed the sure and certain privilege of a fêted beloved, even though his owner could often be heard to grumble that il chante comme une casserole: an observation often made to the accompaniment of a strident, screeching chorus of the singing in question.
As a bird he was a little like a parakeet, a little like a macaw, without actually being wholly either, largely due to the anomaly of his colouring.
He lived in the bakery, in a domed rose-red and gold-gilded cage high in the rafters above the polished range, thereby flouting just about every health and safety law known to the city. Though this was of little consequence to the self-proclaimed king of cakes, Monsieur Valéton.
Monsieur Valéton prided himself in never baking the exact same recipe twice: often the ingredients were the same, but the results were not.
At the precise moment of the bake, there was, he claimed, always a little more cinnamon, a little less marzipan, a little shake of the wrist here, a scattering of dust there; a random thought folded in with the flour, a truly inspired moment beaten into the whites of the eggs. He claimed to bake a little of the true essence of his customers into each of their special orders: it was what kept his clientele loyal, he said, despite the arrival of two more commercial, and somewhat cheaper, establishments further down the Hammerworth Hill.
It was, he said, this element of surprise mixed with familiarity which seemed to make all the difference to the lives of his favoured few.
For Monsieur Valéton scorned the baked fresh in-store this morning claims of those household superstores that used ready-mixed yeast – pah! – and who, in his vociferous opinion, could not hope to compete with le goût du terroir supplied by his own master lineage.
In appearance, Monsieur Valéton was a tiny, barrel-chested, disproportionate man of uncertain origins; the pores on his face were coarse and open, much like the blind-baking of his flan cases, and his beard framed his face, in contrast to the narrow rim of hair that sprung from the side of his head like a wild black halo.
His French was quaint, his English worse, and yet he could recite the ingredients of the bake in a great many languages and make himself understood in more.
This did not stop Frankie – who as well as working in the bakery had recently moved into the apartment above it and was thus privy to his multi-lingual early morning soliloquy’s – from privately suspecting that Monsieur V had never been further than the cross Channel ferry terminal, if that, and that the name and the persona behind the bakery were entirely for the benefit of the good people of Hammerworth, who had come to expect a certain authenticity in their shopkeepers.
M Valéton himself occasionally served behind the counter as well as baked – just to keep his fist in, he would say with a wink to the rest of his staff – and it was noted that those customers who received this personal touch always came back for more, claiming they had never felt better.
Before Frankie, there’d been an apprentice called Peter, who was much younger than Monsieur V, and who’d been supposed to take over the heavy work, leaving the master free to perfect his concoctions.
Monsieur V had apparently been teaching the apprentice his recipes, imparting his secrets, crumb by crumb; but then there’d been a scene, and according to Azlen, the window cleaner, there’d been much shouting and screeching in the private parlour behind the kitchen, and much heat that was coming not from the ovens, and Monsieur V had accusing Peter of taking from him, though what or why or when was never discovered as the young man in question was never seen on the Hill again.
Admirons les grands maîtres, ne les imitons pas! Monsieur V often admonished the remaining members of his staff at regular intervals thereafter, and they nodded sagely, though they were never quite sure what he meant.
‘Victor Hugo,’ said Frankie, who was not without learning in the classics.
‘What happened to Peter anyway?’ she asked.
‘Demons,’ hinted Azlen darkly.
‘What happened to Peter?’ Frankie then asked Kasia, who came to help out during busy times.
‘I not say,’ she said, though after a bit of cajoling she admitted that his belongings had still been in his flat some weeks after he left: the same flat in which Frankie now resided. ‘But Monsieur Valéton, he is – what you call him? – romancer.’
Frankie did not understand what a romancer was, but she understood that the baker in question possessed truly rare and mysterious gifts, more than he might care to admit.
A visit to Monsieur Valéton promised many things: dark, rich, Arabian coffee, imported especially for Valéton’s, then blended on site; bespoke creations that wowed the elite from the nearby Royal Opera House with cream horns and éclairs decorated with the opening bars of Nessun Dorma, a choice that also encouraged sales to those of a more sporting disposition.
His baking provided insulation against the disappointments of life: thick layers of fondant ingested against the cold, the short sharp fizz of a clove bonbon decoration on the tongue, jolting a long-term depression. His flavours were often not quite as expected: curious but delicious.
Monsieur V himself had once lived behind the shop, in a suite of rooms tinier than the apartment now occupied by Frankie, and although he had now moved out, he was always downstairs, clattering about and hovering over his ovens, no matter what time Frankie came in from her studies.
But despite this, for Frankie, living above the bakery had its compensations.
Although she never ate cake, Frankie was still enticed by the sweet sugary waft of fondant, the bitter hint of almonds that assailed her nostrils as it rose up through the gaps in the floorboards of her still half-renovated apartment. (It has to be said that Mr V was a better baker than he was a landlord; why, just after she’d moved in, Frankie had found a clutch of dusty recipe books and a damp stack of scribbled notes bearing Peter’s name rolled into a great wodge and stuffed into the sump pipe under the kitchen sink, almost blocking the drain.)
When grants at the university became scarce, she began to undertake small tasks for Mr V, in return for a reduction in the rent.
Once she had proved her worth, she was occasionally tasked with the delivery of orders for those customers served personally by the baker: snowy christening tiers, heart-shaped Marquise, Galette des Rois for Epiphany, and its traditional King Cake parties.
Early one morning, before the shop itself had opened, they were putting the finishing touches to just such an order, for a new customer, one whom Frankie had not yet met, but whose order she was reluctant to work on.
The order was for two dozen Madagascan Vanilla cupcakes, iced with a layer of soft chocolate cream, a covering of sugar fondant, and finished off with a sprinkling of edible gold lustre. Each cake was larger than the fairy cakes she had devoured as a child, but nonetheless they reminded her of them. These cakes stood packed in cerise and gold tissue, regal and beautiful.
The fairy cakes were the reason Frankie no longer ate cake of any kind.
It had happened at a birthday party for one of the popular girls at school, a girl who’d lived on a large and rambling farm on the edge of Hammerworth. The girl hardly ever spoke to her in class, but despite this she’d invited Frankie to the party. Frankie’d worn a starched white dress with a pink nylon bow above white patent shoes. She’d arrived carrying an extravagantly wrapped presentation box of chocolate fairy cakes with miniature white ladybugs on top, flat iced with tiny red fly-away spots.
The birthday girl herself had opened the door and the other girls had crowded themselves into the hallway, apparently in welcome.
During the inevitable game of hide-and-seek that followed the closely supervised high tea, three of the girls had held her down in the gloom of the barn and crammed most of the contents of the cake box into her mouth, one after the other, until she was choking and gagging, and the once-white dress was covered in saliva mixed with smears of red-bug icing.
Afterwards, as she lay on her back, stinking in her own vomit, all she could remember about the cruelest girl, the tall one who’d egged the others on, was the pink mark on the back of her right hand, its colour reminding her of the faded empires on the plastic globe that stood on her bedroom desk, and the fierce outlines of other, distant continents.
Such was the shock of her humiliation that for several minutes she’d been quite unable to stand, and had to content herself with gazing up into the soaring beams and cross-struts of the roof, idly thinking that in many ways they resembled the interior of the Big Top of the travelling circus her mother had taken her to see just that summer, and she began to imagine herself up there amongst them, balancing high, swinging on a golden trapeze from one to another of its beams, the white and pink ruffles of her sequined costume gleaming under the many spotlights, each safe landing bringing a new and increasingly tumultuous round of applause.
She never spoke to those girls again, but the bitter slash of chocolate and white and red ladybugs stained her lips, and travelled treacherously deep inside her body, making its warm, treacly progress inside her.
Just as she was finishing the cupcakes, Kasia arrived to help Frankie serve the commuter rush.
This particular morning, a line had already formed on the pavement and customers pulled themselves flat against the stained-glass windows of the bakery’s frontage, trying to shelter from a drizzling but penetrating rain.
When the shop finally quietened, Frankie slipped out back and, together with Monsieur V himself, began on the rest of the day’s orders; the baker meticulously checking each one, adjusting a sugared violet here, straightening a cluster of egg yellow wafer roses there.
As they worked, Whyte fluttered soft ruffled spirals in the air above them, his total blackness like a shadow passing over her, accentuating the bright swirls of marbled sponge of the latest batch of cakes set out on the wire cooling racks behind them, their rainbow hues bouncing off the dull metallic-grey of the ovens, ricocheting off the tiled walls of the pantry.
Monsieur V suddenly straightened from his task, laid down his piping tools and spun round, dropping his face to the level of the cooling racks, and sniffing at the sponge; then he pressed a finger into its surface. He cut a sliver, took a bite, then another.
‘Mais, non!’ he exclaimed, ‘mais, non, non!’ his face contorted with distaste. ‘The texture pah!’ and he spat the mixture out into the nearest sink. ‘We must stop the baking,’ he said, ‘there is something wrong with the ovens!’
So, Monsieur V took the flashlight that he kept on the top shelf in his office in case of power failures, and together they climbed down the narrow set of stairs to the furnace.
‘I cannot fix!’ he cried, after several minutes of crashing around in the near darkness. ‘We shall call the help!’
An hour later Monsieur Valéton had his head in the oven. The hand that had so recently wielded his piping tool now clutched a greasy spanner, and a gaggle of repair engineers crowded around him, shouting instructions from a manual. Frankie couldn’t help thinking that the other way around might have been more productive, but it seemed that, despite the urgency of his au secours! Monsieur Valéton was unwilling to let strangers manhandle his precious ovens.
Her gaze fell on the now abandoned racks of Madagascan Vanilla cupcakes, and with a sigh she began packing them tidily into their protective travelling boxes: she would, she supposed, now have to deliver these herself.
When she knocked on the bright brass knocker of the front door, balancing the boxes of cupcakes in her arms as she did so, there was no answer. She knocked again. Still no answer. She was just about to try round the back when the door opened slowly, and an angular woman in a kimono-style dressing gown pushed back a mane of damp blond hair from her forehead.
‘Good morning – your cake,’ said Frankie, holding out the stack of cerise boxes.
The hand that reached for the cakes was pale and mottled, old beyond its years, more wrinkled than the wide, smiling, perfectly tanned face above it, and at the base of the thumb as it curled around the purple ribbons of the smallest gift box, the faintest trace of red, as though a spider had spun its web there, many moons ago.
Frankie’s heart beat a little faster and a little faster still. Her own fingers caught on the trailing ribbons of the cake boxes as she handed them over, nearly toppling the pile from her grip.
‘Careful! Careful! That’s my wedding cake!’ admonished the woman, her heavy brows knitting together in consternation.
‘I’m so sorry, I just felt a little faint…’ mumbled Frankie and fled down the path, leaving the woman standing tall and imperious in her doorway.