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The Scrivener: Was He Singing To Forget?

...Nowadays, family bakeries still exist but we also have lots of franchised hot bread bakeries, the modern, brightly-lit, well stocked, multicultural versions of those little old village bakeries...

Brian Barratt writes about the essence of life.

Long before bread became a limp sort of concoction, ready sliced, lacking crisp crust or identifiable crumbs, and wrapped in cellophane, we used to buy real bread from the local bakery. It had thick, brown crust, which we were assured would make our hair curl if we ate it. I must have been forced to eat a great deal of it: in those days, I found it heavy going on my small teeth, and I had straight hair. In later years I came to love crust, and my curly hair was the envy of straight-haired ladies.

There was a small bakery at the end of a row of houses across from my primary school. In those gloomy days of the Second World War, when you couldn't buy sweets from corner shops, we used to go and buy buns, or even cream buns. But my favourite was, simply, a piece of bread from a white loaf, so we used to share a loaf between several of us. It was not that we were starving there were just no sweets or chocolate for us to buy, and English war-time winters were cold and miserable and aroused our hunger.

There was a memorable bakery in a small village nearby. I used to go by bus, on cold wintry days, to visit a school-friend. The bus stop was next to the village bakery. I recall standing by the wall, with snow blitzing around me, waiting to catch the bus to go home. This was in the days when I was allowed out until about 11 o'clock at night a teenage status symbol. The wall would be warm, and wonderful to lean against. The aromas of tomorrow's loaves and buns would percolate through the windows and eaves, and bring hungry comfort to a freezing lad.

Nowadays, family bakeries still exist but we also have lots of franchised hot bread bakeries, the modern, brightly-lit, well stocked, multicultural versions of those little old village bakeries. Some years ago, a local one was managed by a singing Greek gentleman. As you walked by, you could hear his merry melodies from behind the racks of freshly baked loaves.

'You sound happy this morning,' I said to him.

'Is always time to be happy. Why not?'

'Do you always sing?'

'I sing. I talk. I listen. I bake. Why shouldn't I sing?'

He beamed, his curly hair shining in unison with the smile-wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. 'Yes, I like to sing. It make me happy. It make you happy, also?'

'It makes me feel very happy,' I assured him.

'Then I like that my customer is happy. Now, what you want to buy this morning?'

I surmise that I probably bought more than I had intended to buy, but in such a smiling atmosphere, how could I resist? Here was an infectiously happy person. He brightened up the day.

There was another very happy Greek shopkeeper in our neighbourhood. He ran a small supermarket. He didn't sing, but he regarded everything as 'bewdifull'. Not only was he always ready for a chat, but, when he had finished serving you, he bade you 'Goodbye' and added another 'Bewdifull!'.

No matter how cold the winter was, or how distressingly hot the summer, or how small your purchase, everything was 'bewdifull!' It brought as much cheer as the baker's singing. Alas, his little supermarket closed down long ago, when the big ones arrived and dominated the trade.

The lady in another hot breadery, nearby, was not very happy one day when I popped in. 'I'd like a wholemeal loaf, please. One of those from the top shelf,' and I pointed to the top shelf. 'And half a dozen rolls, please.'

She busied herself picking and packing my needs. It was the end of a busy day at work, and I was pre-occupied. I did not really see the loaves and rolls; my brain was full of paper and people. I glanced down, when she announced the price, and realised that she had packed a French stick, not a high-tin loaf. I felt embarrassed.

'Sorry. I didn't mean that top shelf. I meant the other top shelf. I must be getting vague in my old age.'

'Not to worry,' she replied. 'I've had a bad day, too.'

I enquired what had gone wrong.

'My man lost his job.'

'Oh dear me,' I commiserated. 'That is bad. What happened?'
I could hardly sing, or shout 'Bewdifull!' to cheer her up, so the least I could do was to let her share her misery.

'He's a driver. He bought a brand new bus the two weeks ago. He took it to Perth. When he got back yesterday, he found the depot closed. They've gone out of business.'

I presumed he was an owner-driver working for a co-operative sort of depot. The factual side was a little confused, but I didn't press for clarification. It was not the right occasion to be pedantic.

'They didn't give any warning. He just came back and found he had no job. And he's got this bus sitting there.'

She obviously wanted to tell me the whole story, and she did. It was sudden and sad and she was most upset. When the next customer came into the shop, she heard the end of the tale of woe, and a retelling immediately commenced. There was nothing we could do but offer sympathy.

I wondered, as I drove home, what sort of problems and tragedies, minor and major, haunted the lives of other folk you meet in shops. Some people have to get it all out, and share their problems. Others bottle it all up.

What ups and downs, especially downs, had the singing baker faced in his life? Was he singing to forget?

Copyright Brian Barratt 2012

To read more of Brian's life-enhancing columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his Web site
www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

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