B-Sides: Chausson aux Pommes
B-Sides are short stories based in the world of Bytown. Every so often, I take a request from a reader and see where the story takes me.
He hadn’t heard the door open, so when the little hand crept up over the edge of the counter and snatched a bun, Émile almost yelped in surprise. The thief, a 10-year-old boy with ragged clothes and filthy cheeks, dashed out the door like a rabbit racing a hawk.
Émile got outside in time to know he had no hope of catching the child. The streets were too busy for that, and he didn’t know them nearly well enough to try giving chase.
“A thief?” asked a woman, sweeping the front steps to her shop.
“Yes,” he said, still not quite giving up hope of finding the boy. “A child.”
“Hmm,” she said. “They’re out and about early today. Usually wait ‘til closing.”
“This happens a lot here?” he asked.
“Every day, give or take. Numbers go down when cholera swells, pick back up when it’s done. Purge the old orphans, make some anew.”
Émile stared at her as she swept, the pit of his stomach aching at the words, and the callous way she’d said them. Bytown was a cruel and heartless place, but even so...
“New here?” asked the woman, stowing her broom for a moment.
“Yes,” he said. “Since last week. I’m sorry I haven’t stopped by to introduce myself, but—”
“No worries,” she said. “Wasn’t here last week.” She nodded towards his shop. “Les Gens set you up?”
Émile frowned. “Who?”
The woman winced, went back to sweeping. “Well, good luck to you, then.”
The conversation was over, a cold kind of distance rushing in, in its place. Émile paused a moment, but then a brisk autumn breeze nudged him onward. He returned to his bakery, and shut the door behind him.
The boy with the filthy cheeks was standing by the counter, the half-eaten bun in his hand. “You made this?” he asked too-rough French.
“Yes,” replied Émile, not sure whether to be upset or impressed at the child’s ability to disappear and reappear at will.
The boy took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. “It’s terrible,” he said. “Are you a baker?”
“I own the shop, don’t I?”
“My father owned shoes, but he was not a cobbler.”
Émile grinned. “Yes, I’m a baker.”
The boy swallowed, looked at the runt of the bun like he had serious reservations about eating it. “Then you should learn how to bake.”
“Well, thank you for your critique,” said Émile, opening the door to show the lad out. “But I’m doing just fine on my—”
“No you’re not,” said the boy. “I checked the till. You are not doing fine at all.”
“I’m new, so—”
“A baker with poor bread will not be a baker long.” He set the bun down on the counter. “I will teach you.”
Émile laughed. “Teach me? To bake?”
“Yes,” said the boy. “On one condition: you pay me with your failed attempts.”
“Seems like a bad deal for me.”
“Worse for me, eating all that bread.” He held out his hand. “Deal?”
Émile laughed to himself, and shook the boy’s hand.
There was no upstairs yet. The man who’d built the shop had intended to make a second floor with a flat to live in, but he’d died before finishing the job. So Émile had a broken staircase leading nowhere, and a blanket and pillow shoved in the back of the main floor.
Sleeping wasn’t easy at the best of times, it was especially hard when he could hear someone trying to pick the lock to the front door.
He sat up, squinting through the darkness, trying to see—
The door clicked and swung open, then closed very gently. Émile got to his knees, reaching for a rolling pin as he moved to the edge of the counter. He held his breath, trying to hear some sign of the intruder, and what they might be after.
“Ah good, you’re up,” said the boy, from behind him, and scared him so much only barely kept himself from striking out.
“What are you _doing?_” gasped Émile.
The boy lit one of the lanterns and gave Émile an unhappy frown. “It’s three o’clock. Time to start.”
“A baker who sleeps past three is beggar in training,” said the boy, started rolling up his tattered sleeves. Émile took the hint and followed suit.
The boy’s teaching style was brutal and unforgiving. He barked orders like a ship’s first mate, but never gave quite enough detail to follow exactly. He seemed intent on reinforcing behaviour with the stick, not the carrot. And he was damn good at it, too.
Émile spread flour on the countertop and dashed it around with his palm, only to see the boy’s expression harden into evident displeasure.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” said the boy. “You’ll see.”
Émile sighed and scraped the flour off.
The first buns of the day were a bit overdone, but still presentable. The boy took one, cracking it apart and breathing in the steam that came out. His face was impossible to read. He took a bite, sucking in two puffs of air to cool the bread in his mouth before chewing, chewing, chewing... and swallowing.
“Well?” asked Émile. “To your satisfaction?”
The boy licked at his lips like there was something intensely sour there. “Not at all, but less awful than before.”
He snatched another four buns off the counter and headed for the door. “Tomorrow, you’ll do better,” he said, and disappeared into the sunlight like a puff of smoke into a breeze.
The boy was standing over Émile at three o’clock, nudging his head with his boot, looking even less pleased than before.
“A baker who sleeps past three—”
“Yes, yes, I know,” grumbled Émile, and dragged himself upright again.
This time, Émile got the ingredients just right—he could tell by the way the boy didn’t roll his eyes—and he even spread the flour in an acceptable way. The buns were cut and rolled just so, and even he had to admit the difference between this and his old way of doing things was stark.
He was about to put them into the oven when the boy rested a hand on the tray.
“A little longer,” he said. “The temperature’s still not settled.”
Émile frowned at the oven, then at the boy. “How do you know?”
“You learn by doing.”
“But—and no offense—you’re just a child. How do you know?”
The boy nudged one of the buns and looked away. “My father taught me.” He cleared his throat. “He was the baker here, before you. I was his apprentice, he said. This was to be my shop, when I was old enough.”
He turned away, tidying the counters to avoid facing Émile.
He was so gaunt. Gaunt and filthy, and tired beyond his years.
Tired and stubborn.
Émile set down the tray and opened one of the higher cupboards, pulling out a box and setting it on the table. He searched through it until he found the things he was looking for: an apple, and a wedge of dried meat. He cut a piece of the meat off, and offered it to the boy.
“Here,” he said. “Eat.”
The boy eyed him suspiciously. “My pay is in bread.”
“That’s not pay, that’s punishment,” Émile grinned.
The boy laughed. “Yes it is.” He took the meat and ate it with a kind of measured urgency; like he was too hungry to be polite, but too experienced in hunger to let the moment pass too quickly. When he was done, Émile took up the apple, and angled the knife to—
“No!” said the boy, pushing his hand down.
“You don’t like apples?”
“Not like that,” said the boy. “There are better ways to eat an apple. Save it ‘til you’re ready.”
Émile put the apple back in the box and, to his surprise, felt a desperate need to impress his young mentor. Curiosity drove him onward, and made him work even harder than before.
The boy let himself in a three, and found Émile already at the counter, preparing the workspace.
“You’re learning,” said the boy.
“I’m not completely useless,” said Émile.
The boy just shrugged in reply.
The dough they made was better. The buns were cut and rolled with precision Émile had never understood before. The oven, heated earlier, felt steadier, the longer it burned. Things that made no sense suddenly became clear. Émile wasn’t waiting to be told, and wasn’t watching a clock for a specific moment...he just knew.
“Where do you live now?” he asked the boy, while they waited for the second batch to brown.
“North,” was the reply, and not a very useful one, since the bakery was nearer to the south of Lowertown.
“And your parents?”
The boy looked shocked at the question, like he might just up and run away rather than answer it.
“I lost my parents when I was little,” said Émile, taking the box out of the cupboard again. “My mother, to consumption. My father, I’m not sure. Never heard either way. It was just me and my sister—”
“Did she die?” asked the boy, eyes wide and suddenly so young.
Émile took a halting breath. “Not then, no. But we were on our own at a time when I...when neither of us was really ready to be on our own. So I know—”
“They died,” said the boy, accepting a slice of meat. “My father, mother, sister, brother. I was the only one it didn’t touch. Father Jean said I was blessed by God, but I...I don’t feel blessed.”
“No,” said Émile. “I can’t imagine you do.” He handed the entire rest of the meat over, and the knife. The boy took it, cautious but thankful.
“Stay here,” Émile said, after a while. “Live here, work here as my apprentice.”
The boy cracked a smile. “Your apprentice?”
Émile laughed. “Employee, then. I can’t pay much at the moment, but I have a feeling that with your help, that might just change.”
The boy seemed to be thinking it over, but with a shimmer in his eyes that he was working hard to hide. He sniffled, pointed at the oven. “You’ll burn them.”
Émile rushed to take them out, setting them on the counter and admiring his own handiwork with a goofy smile on his face. The boy pushed past him, snatching up a bun and cracking it open. He breathed in the steam, then took a bite, sucking in air before chewing, chewing, chewing...
“Better,” he said, and Émile felt unreasonably giddy.
“So you’ll stay?” he asked, watching the boy eat the rest of the bun much faster than ever before. Like he was actually enjoying himself.
“Yes,” he said, holding out his hand to shake. “I will stay here to help you.” He took the apple out of the box and set it on the counter. “And show you what apples are meant for.”
He gathered up another handful of buns and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” Émile asked.
“To feed my friends,” said the boy. “And to tell them the good news.”
His smile was so wide when he left, Émile nearly wept at the sight of it.
The boy didn’t come straight back. He didn’t come back by the afternoon. He didn’t come back by nightfall, or dinner, or even by midnight. Émile fell asleep on the stool at the counter, listening for every sound he could, his mind running itself into the ground with worry.
At three o’clock, he awoke like someone had slapped him.
“A baker who sleeps past three is a beggar in training,” he said, and got on with his routine. Scrape, clean, prepare. Make the dough, cut, roll. The oven wasn’t quite the right temperature yet, but he knew it would be, soon.
He checked the street again. Early yet, but far too late for what he was looking for.
The oven was nearly there. Nearly there.
The door rattled, and Émile turned around, hope bubbling up his throat—only to see another boy, maybe 6 or so, standing there, peering through the glass in his wretched, tattered clothes. He didn’t pick the lock. He just stood there, helpless.
Émile opened it for him and crouched down. “Can I help you?”
“You’re the baker?” asked the boy.
“Your buns are wonderful,” said the boy, shyly. “We all adore them.”
“Thank you very much,” said Émile with a smile. “Come by any time for more.”
The boy’s eyes widened in surprise and joy. “Oh, yes please!” he said, and turned to go...before stopping himself. He struggled with what he was trying to say before settling on: “Pierre is dead.”
Émile knew who he meant, knew what the words meant, but he couldn’t—
“Who...who is Pierre?”
“The baker’s son,” said the boy, clearly uncomfortable. “He died. Yesterday.”
“How...?” Émile gasped, falling to his knees. “Who—”
“No one,” said the boy, sadly. “A carriage in the street. He didn’t...” He shrugged, like there was nothing more to say about a young life ended so suddenly. “He died.”
He left without another word, disappearing into the daylight like a puff of smoke in the breeze.
Émile made his way back to the oven and knew the heat was just right, and it was time.
He saw the apple on the counter nearby, waiting to be made glorious.
It was starting to rot.