WRITTEN BY ELLIE HOLMES
Just when you think things can’t get any worse, life has a way of heading off in an entirely different direction
The heat from the oven hit Stella’s face, giving her a jolt even though she’d been expecting it. Picking up the tray of cottage loaves, she slid it inside before closing the door and setting the nearest of the six timers.
Her gaze drifted to the wall clock. Five minutes to midnight. She’d been hard at it making various breads and pastries since eight o’clock and knew she wouldn’t finish until four the next morning when the last batch of croissants would be ready to come out of the oven. She stifled a yawn.
It was hard work, harder than it had been in her youth, but somehow she had to power through it. She owed it to her daughter. If she cracked, the whole thing would be over.
She poured herself a strong black coffee, scalding her mouth as she drank, too eager for the rush of adrenaline it would give her. One of the timers on the worktop started to bleep. Stella knew she should be used to it by now but the sound still made her jump. She looked from the timer to the note stuck in front of it: Sausage Rolls – bottom left oven.
Her notes had become essential.
On the edge of a sleep-deprived haze most of the time, she’d courted disaster on a number of occasions. The loaves that had gone unbaked because she had forgotten to turn on the oven. The smoke detector shrieking when she’d neglected to set a timer. Burning the Chelsea buns to a crisp. The wholesale order she’d got disastrously wrong.
And every time she made a mistake all she could think of was the lost revenue.
Turning off the timer, she opened the oven door and lifted out the tray of sausage rolls, placing them on the cooling rack. The face was clearly visible in the reflection of the oven door as she shut it. Shouting in dismay, she wheeled around. The face and the person to whom it belonged was gone.
Stella opened the back door and stared out into the black alleyway. The pool of light cast by the bakery didn’t extend very far, but Stella could just about make out the shadow of a figure heading away into the darker recesses of the alley.
“You there! Stop!”
The figure continued to walk on.
Shrugging, Stella closed the door and, after a moment’s hesitation, turned the lock. It was probably some homeless person looking for a place to sleep, she thought. Poor soul. She wouldn’t fancy braving the biting January wind.
Stella picked up her coffee once more. There’s always someone worse off than you, she thought.
It had just gone midnight on the following night when the same shadowy face appeared in the reflection of the oven door.
This time Stella did not shout out in alarm. Instead, she moved swiftly across the kitchen, flipped the lock and opened the door.
A man of indeterminate age stood outside, a bundle of mismatched clothing, his face obscured by an unruly beard.
“I saw you last night,” Stella said.
“Here most nights,” he said.
“Do you sleep here?”
The man gestured down the alleyway. “It’s warm near the air vent and the smell of bread reminds me of being a kid.”
The man’s words pulled at Stella’s heart. She watched him look over her shoulder and into the bakery.
“Would you like a sausage roll?” she asked him.
“I don’t have any money,” he replied.
“It’s on the house. Have a pasty, too. They’ll be out in a minute.”
Stella took one of the freshly baked sausage rolls, wrapped the end in a piece of kitchen paper, and handed it to the man. “Be careful it’s hot. I’m Stella, by the way.”
“Mick,” the man replied, blowing on the sausage roll and nibbling the end.
“Thanks for this,” he added.
Fetching a chair, Stella placed it just outside the door of the bakery. “You can’t come in,” she said, apologetically. “There are hygiene rules. I can’t…” She stopped. “I’m sorry, that sounded awful.”
“It’s OK. I understand. Thank you.”
Stella watched Mick’s shoulders relax as he sat, basking in the warmth emanating from the open doorway.
“It must be cold living on the street.” Stella bit her lip. What a stupid thing to say!
“Would you like a coffee?”
“I’d prefer a tea.”
Stella put the kettle on. “How long have you been living rough?”
“Eighteen months. I came out of the army, struggled to adjust, then my marriage broke up.” Mick took the mug of tea, saying, “Thank you.” He cradled his hands around it. “
In the summer there was a girl here. She’d sing while she baked. Sweet voice. She’d often leave a bag of food out for me. Not that I’m saying you should do that.
“My daughter, Natalie,” Stella frowned and fell silent.
“Did she leave?”
“She was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, one of the ones that can be treated. When she’s well, she’ll be back.”
Stella busied herself with the pasties. Once they were arranged on the cooling rack she fanned them before slipping one into a bag and handing it to Mick. “For later, maybe?”
“Thanks.” Mick drained his coffee mug and placed it inside the doorway before standing and carefully doing the same with the chair.
Feeling inadequate, Stella said, “I’m staying in the flat above the shop until Natalie returns to work. If you come back tomorrow morning at ten you can have a shower and wash your clothes… if you want…” she added quickly, not wanting to
“Cheers. That would be great.”
The following morning, Mick was back on the stroke of ten. With a school friend of Natalie’s minding the shop, Stella showed Mick up to the flat.
“I’ve put fresh towels on the bath and there’s some toiletries there and fresh clothes – a toothbrush and a razor. I’m guessing you don’t… not that you have to…” She stopped, embarrassed.
“Cheers. That’s all great, thank you.”
Stella was cooking eggs and bacon when Mick emerged in a cloud of steam from the bathroom. About the same size as her son, Stella had left him some of his old clothes which Mick was now wearing. The straggly beard was gone. Clean-shaven, he appeared much younger than Stella had imagined he was.
“Smells good,” Mick said.
“I made enough for two.”
Stella plated up the breakfast, conscious that Mick’s gaze tracked every movement as she did so.
“I can’t tell you how good this is,” Mick said between super-fast mouthfuls, bacon juice making his lips moist, dribbling down his newly shaven chin.
“Happy to help.”
When both plates were empty, Mick picked them up and took them to the sink.
“You don’t have to wash up. I’ll do it later,” Stella said. “Besides, I need to go to bed and grab a few hours sleep before I’m due in the shop.”
“You work in the bakery all night and then do a shift in the shop?” Mick said. “And I thought I had it hard.” He grinned.
The things we do for love.
That evening, as Stella approached the bakery she was unsurprised to see Mick standing in the rain by the back door.
“I’ve been in the library for most of the day and then the Mission on the High Street. Figured if I kept myself clean you might let me come in this time. I want to help – if you’ll let me,” Mick said. “You look like you need help,” he added.
Stella was taken aback. This man who had nothing wanted to help her?
I’ve seen you, several times, asleep on the chair with your head on the countertop. I’ve slept in more comfortable positions on the street!
“It hasn’t been easy,” Stella admitted. “And I’d welcome the help, but I can’t afford to pay you.”
“Mug of tea and a sausage roll will see me right,” Mick said.
“I suppose you could be my sous chef,” Stella mused, as she opened the door.
“I was part of the Royal Logistics Army Catering Corps,” Mick replied as he stepped over the threshold. “So maybe you can be mine! Shall I make a start on the sourdough?”
Stella grinned. “By all means. Thanks!”
They worked side by side through the night to produce all the loaves, pastries and other goodies Stella baked every night. It was gone three when they stopped for a break, opening the back door for a bit of fresh air. The rain from earlier had turned to sleet.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like,” Stella said. “Out there, I mean.”
Mick blew over his mug of tea. “Never thought it would happen to me. You don’t, do you? You have to make the best of it. Hope for something better.”
“When life gives you lemons…”
“You make Lemon Drizzle Cake,” Mick replied. They both laughed.
“I’ve enjoyed tonight,” Mick said. “Nice to be doing something useful.”
“I only wish that I could pay you.”
“A hot drink and a meal are payment enough,” he said.
“I could use another pair of hands tomorrow night and the night after and the night after that, if I’m honest. That’s if you’re interested.
Stella looked hopeful.
“Together we can bake more, which means I can keep the shop open for longer and hopefully sell more.”
“I’m happy to give it a go if you are,” Mick said.
By the time Natalie returned with a clean bill of health, the bakery had been transformed. Mick, dressed in chef’s whites and a piratical headscarf, ruled the kitchen. Stella ran the shop. The bakery was open six days a week with reduced hours on Sunday and a midnight bakery operated from the back door of the kitchen between midnight and two am five nights a week feeding the homeless.
The increased revenue had allowed Mick to be paid a modest wage and he had moved into the flat above the shop, allowing Stella to return home.
“I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done,” Natalie said biting into one of Mick’s special creations, a spicy cinnamon cronut. “Mmm this is delicious,” she said.
It’s good to see you back and looking so well.
Mick undid his pirate headscarf, folded it neatly on the countertop before adding, “But I guess now you’re back, it’s time I moved on,” he said, patting the headscarf as he spoke.
“What?” Stella exclaimed.
“You can’t leave!” Natalie cried.
“You don’t need me now,” Mick said.
Natalie chased the crumbs of pastry from around her mouth. “Don’t need you? Whatever gave you that idea? Mum’s told me all about the home delivery scheme the two of you have cooked up. Hampers of baked goods and bread baskets delivered to local homes and offices. It sounds amazing and I’m sure it will be popular. Now I’m back I want to build up our social media and revamp the website so we can take orders online. When the home delivery scheme takes off, which I am sure it will, we’re going to be busier than ever. So, as for not needing you,” she scoffed.
“Unless, of course, you don’t want to stay…” Stella said.
“Oh no, I want to stay,” Mick said. “I’ve loved working here.”
“Good. That’s settled then.” Natalie smiled. “So let’s have no more talk of leaving. You’re part of the Midnight Bakery family now.”