A few weeks later, my friend, Lisa, from Leominster, invited me to her friend’s birthday party. Hay was a great place but like anywhere, it was good to get away sometimes. This time, however, I was spared the rigours of public transportation and instead got a ride in the delivery van with Alex’s dad, Malcolm. He had another delivery to make before going to Leominster to deliver to a cool little health shop, known locally as Nitty Gritty, that was just around the corner from Lisa’s house. I was looking forward to going the rounds and though it was to be as circuitous a journey as the bus ride, I anticipated that it would certainly be more lively.
I took my weekend bag with me to the bakery that Saturday morning. It was a busy shift and we had some big orders to fill. The mixing machine clunked away for hours. Huge tubs of dough were dumped onto the oak table, chopped into different sized loaves and shaped, then transferred to trays or proofing baskets before being whisked away to rest in various corners of the bakery. Batch after batch was done, and the awesome flavours of different recipes were soon mingling in the air as the hot, crackling loaves were shovelled out of the oven.
The air got so hot and smoky as the night wore on that my eyes began to burn a bit. As daylight dawned, Liam threw the front door open and turned the fan on. The noise from the fan was tremendous but within a few minutes it had sucked the hot air out, cooled the bakery down considerably, and cleared the air.
We’d hardly had a moment’s break the entire shift but at last, the pace slackened. I was so hungry by then, and the focaccia was on the table, ready to be dressed with its final toppings of herby olive oil, sea salt and black pepper.
“Can I have a bit of that, please?” I asked.
“Oooh. . . that might not be possible today,” Liam said. “It’s all for orders and I don’t think there are extras today. . . tomorrow should be okay though.”
“Okay, no problem,” I said. I looked longingly at the large slab of knobbly bread and settled for swallowing a mouthful of the delicious smell instead.
When Malcolm arrived, we had already started loading the vans; and Alex was poring over the orders when the bombshell struck. He just then discovered that a whole batch of bread for a particular outdoor market had been forgotten altogether! What were we going to do? Sourdough bread, after all, is not something that one can whip up in a hurry. As Alex was fond of saying, “Good bread takes patience . . .”
Once the dust had settled, Alex said, “We’ll have to just divide the Presteigne market batch in two.” And so that was done.
The trouble was that Alex Gooch breads were extremely popular in Presteigne and what was left for Presteigne after the division was definitely not enough. Malcolm looked at the Presteigne stack in dismay.
Alex ushered him through the door. “You’ll have to just apologize, Dad,” he said. “You’re going to be late if you don’t get a move on!”
And so we set off for Presteigne, the first stop, a village about 18 miles north of Hay-on-Wye. Malcolm put his foot down somewhat because we were in fact a bit late, and I settled back to enjoy the view. It was lovely sitting right up front as we sped along, with the sun rising higher and higher and promising a fantastic day.
We arrived in Presteigne about 20 minutes later to find a queue of people waiting outside Lisa’s shop, where she customarily laid out the loaves on a wooden stall. Despite the sunny morning, the people’s faces were cloudy; clouds, however, that gradually dissipated as they recognized the van and as we pulled alongside them. Some half smiles appeared that seemed to half-scoldingly say, “You’re late . . . but I’m glad that you have arrived now, anyway.”
Lisa appeared instantly at Malcolm’s door, a frantic expression on her face. Malcolm opened the door and got out. He went to the back of the van and opened the double doors like a treasure chest but alas, Lisa’s distress only deepened.
“Is this all you’ve brought?” I heard her whisper urgently.
“I’m afraid so,” Malcolm said, his own brow deeply furrowed as he glanced at the stack and then through the windscreen at the long line stretching along the length of the pavement.
Lisa’s helpers ferried the trays of bread from the van and started setting them out on the stall. There was a man with an enormous stomach at the very front of the queue. He wore braces on his trousers; and he stood there with a thumb hooked around each brace strap, rocking back and forth, starring at the steadily growing display of loaves, and all but slobbering, a grin of delight plastered across his face. I knew how he felt. He was in a position of privilege and he didn’t seem to care too much about those unfortunate souls who were much further behind him in the queue.
Once the miserly batch was offloaded, Malcolm made it quickly back to the driver’s door, and ducking his head a little, he hopped in. “I need to get out of here quickly before these people realize there isn’t enough bread for everyone,” he muttered.
While the eyes of the people in the queue were trained ahead of them towards the bread stall, Malcolm manoeuvred the van in the narrow street, and within a few moments we were out of sight and well on our way once more.
Perhaps we’d just escaped a lynching. I’ll never know. And while I did feel somewhat sorry for those people at the very back of the queue who would no doubt be disappointed at having the bread run out on them, I had a tremendous feeling of satisfaction from knowing that I was involved in some little way with producing a product that customers placed so much value on and were prepared to queue for rather than go elsewhere for an alternative and, God forbid, may even have been prepared to lynch us for on account of our failure to bring ample supplies.