by Caroline Ward Vine
The flour slipped between Melody’s fingers, cool as powdered silk and familiar as an old friend, as she scooped a well at its centre. She stirred the jug of foaming yeast and water, stooping, as she’d done for fifty years or more, to breathe its seaweed scent before adding it to the bowl and using her hands to mix.
Not for the first time, her mind drifted to a kitchen-long-ago where she had watched her mother do the same, singing along to the radio as she worked. Melody could still remember how the chipped edge of the Formica-topped stool had dug behind her knees as she swung her legs, and the feel of Mum’s engagement ring—taken off for bread-making to keep its diamond chips clean—warm as a sunbaked pebble in her fist.
When the dough was ready, Melody set it on the window ledge to rise. She rubbed her wrists—kneading was murder for her arthritis—and looked out at the leaden sky. It hung low over the rooftops, lightening only where it touched the sea at the horizon; the streetlights along the promenade already glowed orange, their sensors triggered by the bleak February afternoon.
The bag lady was back again, slumped on the bench at the corner where the road turned downhill. Strange, Melody thought, how small her head seemed compared with her clothing-swaddled body; perhaps inside she was tiny, like the last in a set of Russian dolls. She closed the curtains against the gloom, suddenly weary. She’d bake tonight but drop the bread round tomorrow.
She crossed to her bedroom, opened her jewellery box and sat for a while. The air around her grew salty with the tang of leavening bread, but the ring stayed cold in her hand.
The next morning, Melody tightened her scarf against a blast of icy wind as she closed the front door. The sun was pale behind the clouds and the sea steely, studded here and there with passing container ships. She gripped her basket and turned towards the brow of the hill.
The bag lady still sat on the bench, looking out across the water. She had piled her carriers on the seat beside her and, as Melody stepped forward, reached into the nearest to pull out a plastic-wrapped loaf. She tore a corner from the first slice—a crust without crustiness, the kind that tastes like fog—and put it in her mouth. As she chewed, she shredded the rest in her lap; shrieking seagulls wheeled above her head. When Melody was a few feet away, the woman scattered the bread across the pavement.
“Morning, my babies,” she cooed. The gulls flapped at her feet and next to her, their calls raucous and frantic. Melody hesitated, then crossed to the other side of the road. She pulled her hat low, but still she saw the woman’s eyes follow and narrow as she passed.
They lived in one of the brightly painted terraces that lined the steep hill in dolly mixture rows.
“Hello, Bread Lady.” Katy had to tiptoe to reach the latch and her arm still hung from it as the door swung open.
Her mother, Paula, stood behind, drying her hands on a tea-towel. “Melody, Katy – not Bread Lady. Auntie Melody.”
Melody smiled. The child had a point, after all: quite tone deaf, Melody had never lived up to Mum’s optimistic name choice, and she certainly wasn’t Katy’s—or anyone’s— aunt. It was just an honorary title, bestowed out of kindness after a few chance meetings in the park.
“I made a cottage loaf. I thought Katy might like the shape.” She held out her basket.
“That’s so kind! You really shouldn’t—”.
“It’s no trouble. I’d never eat two, but it’s not worth making less.”
“Well, if you’re sure. Will you come in for a cuppa?” Paula’s smile looked warm enough, but Melody thought of the bag lady, buying the friendship of scavenging birds, and shook her head.
“Oh no—I was just passing.”
She was already at the bottom of the steps as Katy called goodbye.
Tuesday was her next baking day. On a whim, Melody doubled the quantities. The bounty made her heady, and she hummed as she worked. But as she set the finished loaves to cool, fear fluttered in her chest. What was she thinking? Too late now—she couldn’t let them go to waste. She wrapped the loaves in greaseproof paper and put two in her basket.
The wind had a salty bite and she was glad of her gloves. The bag lady’s carriers spilled open around her, revealing bright flashes of cloth like petals unfurling to the ashen sky.
“Hello.” Melody tried to smile. “I hope you don’t mind. I’ve brought some bread.”
The woman’s light eyes flickered. This close, she looked younger than Melody had expected. Her skin was leathery and threaded with veins but hadn’t yet sagged into jowls.
“Supermarket stuff doesn’t taste of much and … well, I thought you might like a change.” Melody reached into her basket and held out a loaf.
“Crusty white,” she said, pulling back one corner of the paper.
The bag lady lifted a grimy hand. “Thank you.”
Her voice rasped with the rust of night-time disuse. She put the bread in her lap and turned away. Greaseproof paper fluttered in the wind.
Melody took a breath. She put her basket down and tugged away her leather glove.
“I’m Melody,” she said.
The woman’s eyes snapped around; she cocked her head to one side, looking at Melody’s hand for what seemed an age.
“Iris.” Her handshake was no more than a dry whisper of skin.
The gulls began to scream as Melody turned into Paula’s street. She looked back: Iris was scattering soft white crumbs over the pavement.
Melody’s gloveless hand still felt warm as she pressed the bell.
“It’s Auntie Bread Lady,” she heard Katy call.
Caroline Ward Vine’s “Bread Lady” came third place in the 18+ short story category as part of our 25th Birthday Writing Competition.