Just about the worst thing I ever made came from a packet of bicarbonate of soda and four premium white bread rolls. It all cost less than a pound. It wasn’t actually my idea, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t to blame. And no matter how old I finally get, I’ll never again try to bake without a recipe.
It was a Thursday. The first day of the school holidays, when it wasn’t hot enough to go to the beach, but it was too hot to stay inside. Our parents were working out the week until their holidays started too and this was how come Daisy Brown and I found ourselves in the supermarket carpark.
She’d called for me and we’d practically run through town, past the postcard racks and the beach-ball shops, because it seemed like a good idea at the time. We seemed to know where we were going though I don’t think we had a plan. When we got there we sort of slowly realised we didn’t know what to do and so we started off spotting foreign cars from their number plates, then yellow cars, then kicking up dust and stones and then we soon got bored.
We sat ourselves on the wall by the road and looked up at the flaking clouds that were actually crumbling in the sky and Daisy said they reminded her of that funny Greek cheese her Mum used in salads sometimes. I didn’t know what she meant because we didn’t much use any sort of cheese in the salads we had at home, mainly only lettuce and tomatoes and cucumber and onion, but I didn’t want to look or sound stupid which is why I agreed with her anyway.
It was always best to agree with Daisy because she was the sort of girl who could turn on you like a shark if you said anything to contradict her. And I didn’t want her to turn because I still couldn’t believe my luck that Daisy, yes Daisy, had actually called for me, and not one of the others. She was without doubt the prettiest girl in our class and we all knew that every boy, whether they admitted or not, wanted something to do with her. When we were in class and no teachers were listening we used to sing-whisper her name like we were sitting at the back of some church.
The carpark was one big mucky concrete square and it was practically full, but it was obvious most people weren’t actually going into the supermarket. They were just popping in and buying sticks of French bread and re-sealable plastic bags of grapes for picnics and bottle after bottle of water in case they got thirsty when the sun remembered what month it was and decided to show up for once.
They were only tourists and they weren’t doing their proper shopping for the week and it was sad really how they thought they were going to get away with leaving their cars there for the whole day. Already there was a fat old man in a blue uniform who was taking number plates and issuing tickets to any car that had been stood for more than an hour.
We laughed about it. Then Daisy laughed at the old man in the uniform with the ticket machine and she said she couldn’t imagine spending the whole of the summer holidays doing something as pointless as that. I laughed too, even though it felt kind of wrong and if Dad was with me he would have said something like leave him alone, he’s only doing his job, and this would have made me feel worse.
Then Daisy pointed out a younger boy in a brown uniform who was collecting all the discarded, empty trolleys and wheeling snaking lines of them over to the empty trolley shelter.
“Imagine doing that all day,” said Daisy, but I couldn’t, even though I closed my eyes, so I didn’t say anything back.
Daisy was wearing a blue summer dress that stopped short at her knees. Her legs were thin, but not spindly thin, as yellow-gold as the sand on the beach on the best days, and she had a tiny white scar that stretched for a centimetre across her right knee and became more obvious as she swung her feet and then hooked her ankles behind each other until the swinging stopped. I wanted to ask Daisy how she got the scar but I didn’t want her to know that I’d been looking at her legs and so I leant closer into her instead. We weren’t technically touching but still I could almost feel her shoulders and her hips.
When she jumped from off the wall, she said we should do something else, but I was blank and empty because she’d already dismissed the beach and I wasn’t going to suggest the harbour. It was the first day of the school holidays and I was fairly certain that’s where the other boys would be.
If I hadn’t been with Daisy then I’d have been with them too, avoiding the fishing boats and tombstoning off the harbour wall into the frothed up milky waves of the harbour mouth, even though we all knew this really wasn’t allowed, because this was how backs got broken and you ended up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. Dad said it wouldn’t be him pushing me around. Dad said it had happened to this kid about three years before although when I asked who, he couldn’t come up with a name.
Anyway I hadn’t bought my wetsuit and I didn’t want Daisy watching the other boys in case they jumped higher or further than me, in case they screamed louder and did summersault tricks, and so I eventually said that maybe we could actually go into the shop and have a look around.
Daisy had a look around and looked at me like I was mad, but when I said I had enough money to buy something because I’d taken a whole pile of coins from the bowl on the dresser in the kitchen, Daisy’s eyes lit up like someone had put the batteries in the right way round and she simply nodded. She was already halfway to the supermarket by the time I was off the wall myself and I had to nearly run to catch her up.
Inside the supermarket was cooler than outside and it felt a little like a church at first, a great big high ceilinged echoing space, and then Daisy took the church away when she said in a voice that was way too loud that we should try to buy some cigarettes.
I didn’t smoke and I’d never smoked and I hated coughing and so I wouldn’t have done even if we had a whole packet to ourselves. But it didn’t matter anyway because as soon as we asked, the girl behind the tobacco counter wanted to know how old we were and even though we lied, we couldn’t prove it, so she refused to reach up and open the rack on the wall and there was no point arguing.
Daisy was muttering when we walked away. She said she knew the girl behind the tobacco counter from somewhere, she couldn’t remember where exactly, ballet probably, and she’d always been this smug old cow and Daisy was going to tell absolutely everyone what a total bitch the girl was because now she’d gone and proved it.
“It’s not like we were trying to buy vodka,” said Daisy which was true, but I didn’t much care either way. I’d never done ballet and I didn’t know the girl behind the counter from anywhere and I hadn’t actually wanted to buy the cigarettes, so I said something like never mind to Daisy, which wasn’t enough. Then I tried to get Daisy to follow me through the food aisles where the fruit was kept.
There were endless repeating racks of grapes and strawberries and apples and bananas and kiwis and pineapples and peaches, but Daisy huffed and puffed and said very clearly how she wasn’t hungry yet. She said we shouldn’t waste the money because if we got hungry later we could always go round to her house and have something from the cupboard. I liked the idea of going round to Daisy’s house and seeing what was in her kitchen and when I thought about it I wasn’t overly starving myself, so we left the fruit and the other food and took a left by the toilet paper which was all stacked up high in teetering, tottering mountain shapes that looked about ready to avalanche.
We passed the toothpaste and the bleach and the stationery and somehow, again without necessarily meaning to, we found ourselves in front of the baking stuff. One shelf had tubs of chocolate sprinkles and tiny silver sugar decorating balls and another had candles and three more were filled with bags of flour of every different kind. I had only ever made one cake, with Miss Jackson in cookery the year before, which was a Victoria sponge with a layer of raspberry jam and cream, but it hadn’t really worked because it had tasted sort of salty and it had sat on the kitchen counter for over a week before Dad finally threw it away.
Daisy, though, seemed to know what she was looking for. She picked up different packets and boxes and read the instructions on the back and if she’d have wanted to us to go back to her house and try to make another cake then I really wouldn’t have minded. When she found what she was looking for she handed the box to me. I read the label. Bicarbonate of Soda. It might as well have said Magicians Magic Potion for all it meant to me.
“You should buy it,” she said.
“Why?” I asked as I tried to hand it back. She wouldn’t take the box.
“Because….,” she started, but then she shrugged instead of finishing her sentence which would have been annoying in anyone else. “You’ll see,” she said in the end and then I followed her to the bread aisle and she picked out four puffed up floury rolls.
When it seemed we’d finished shopping we joined the queue and stood behind a family with two children who were buying cheap foam body-boards, which seemed to take forever. One board had a picture of a dolphin on it, which was the girls, and the other had a picture of a shark, which was the boys, and even though both of the boards were practically bigger than the children who held them, Daisy and I knew that they wouldn’t really work because they were barely thick enough to float.
When it was our turn to get served, Daisy stood to one side as I handed the woman at the till the box of bicarbonate and the four bread rolls. She took them from me and then asked what I wanted them for, which may have been making conversation or may have been because she thought she had a right to know. I didn’t answer, but Daisy came forward and said we were going to use the ingredients to bake something. She didn’t say what but it seemed to be enough for the woman who took my money next and then put everything in a carrier bag even though we didn’t really need one.
Outside, the sun had arrived and the crumbling cheese clouds had gone. The old man in the blue uniform was giving a ticket to a German car, which was almost the funniest thing. Daisy took the carrier bag from me and took the rolls and the box of bicarbonate out of it before she threw the bag away in a tall bin by the exit gate, which was brim to bursting with used silver foil, disposable bar-b-ques and scraps of sausage that the seagulls were after.
“What now?” I said, because I really had no idea. Two of the gulls, big as cats, started fighting over a chicken leg which was covered in tomato sauce that looked exactly like blood.
“Watch,” said Daisy which was when I noticed exactly how her blue dress clung to her legs and made out the shape of her. And the tiny muscles in her thin arms flexed and twitched as she opened the bicarbonate and then split the rolls and poured a whole load of the powder inside, fluffing and working it in to the bread with her fingers, the way Dad sometimes mixed butter into a jacket potato with his fork.
A short German who must have been the driver of the car which had got the ticket had started arguing with the old man in the blue uniform. The short German didn’t speak much English and so he was shouting in his strange language and the car park man was shaking his head and it was really very funny to watch, which was why everybody else in the carpark was staring at them and nobody noticed Daisy and I, now standing by the tall bin near the exit.
Daisy balanced and perched the bicarbonate bread rolls on the top of the bin and then we walked back to the wall by the road.
“Just watch,” she said again.
“Why?” I asked, even though I thought I knew.
“Just do it,” she said, so I did.
We didn’t have to sit watching for long. The German carried on arguing about his ticket and one car came and two cars went and then a huge seagull swooped down and settled on the bin. He ate three of the rolls in one gulp and then spread his giant black tipped wings across and flapped them twice and flew away with the last roll in his yellow beak.
Daisy was laughing again. It wasn’t a full on belly laugh, but a gentle, teasing, windmill whirr. She was smiling too, with the broadest ever grin, her mouth so wide that she could have got a whole bread roll in there, not that we had any left and not that she was ever going to try.
The German was pointing and shouting and the old man in the blue uniform was shaking his head. The boy in the brown uniform was still pushing his train of collected trolleys, completely unaware, and the seagull with the bread roll was soaring round in hypnotising circles getting higher and lower, then higher, then lower, then lower, swooping between the crumbling clouds.
Soon it seemed the gull was close enough to touch. If it had been flying over me, then I would have been able to reach into the sky and pluck it from the air. I could have touched the feathers and the wings. But it wasn’t flying over me, because it was flying over the German and the ticket man and that’s when it exploded.
It happened suddenly.
Without a bang.
The seagull was simply there, in the sky, and then it was not. And that’s when my whole world stopped. Everything motionless and frozen except for the falling guts and the spurts of blood and the separated head and the separated legs of the very dead gull. Heads and wings and legs and guts and blood which dropped from above onto the German and the old ticket man, who weren’t arguing anymore.
“See, it works,” said Daisy and she still hadn’t stopped laughing and whirring and even though the sun was only half up, I was hotter than I’d ever been. Boiling inside. I tried to answer her, but I couldn’t speak. I don’t know why, but when she looked at me, I tried to smile although I couldn’t do that either. All I know is that when she kicked forward her golden, best-of-days legs and dropped herself down onto the dusty pavement, then I stayed where I was. All I know is that when she started to skip her way back into town, then I didn’t follow her.
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