Read The Other Half of My Heart Online

Authors: Stephanie Butland

The Other Half of My Heart (3 page)

BOOK: The Other Half of My Heart

The tasting is from 10.30 to 11.15. Bettina will sit at the table and talk, and encourage people to toast and taste, and by the time the event is finishing the coffee crowd will be arriving in earnest, and she will leave out the leftovers for them to try. The talking, the being on show, is not a comfortable thing for her to do. She isn't really comfortable anywhere out of the kitchen, although behind the counter she feels protected. As soon as she steps away, she feels nervousness creep out of her bones where it's been hiding and surround her, a clammy cloud of wishing she was somewhere that no one would speak to her. But she knows that this isn't the way to live, and so she perseveres.

At her beautiful scrubbed-pine table, surrounded by a hotchpotch collection of wooden chairs – all bought from an auction house and costing more to transport and have re-sanded and varnished than to buy – Bettina is exposed. She's not good at small talk; she never has been, even in her teens before her life veered off the road. One of the things she likes about Rufus is his ability to make conversation smooth and simple, whereas what comes out of her mouth often seems awkward, or off-key. Even last night, when she had turfed him out although she'd known he was unwilling to go, he'd managed to be polite and make it less awkward than it might have been. He had called in on the pretext of dropping off a takeaway menu for the Indian restaurant near his office, and she'd invited him to stay for a drink.

Although, now she comes to think of it, he hasn't been in this morning. He often pops in to get a sandwich to take to work, or half a dozen croissants to drop off for his daughter and granddaughter. Bettina's mind and memory are suddenly full of her mother's voice, ticking Sam off for giving a classmate a Valentine's card when the girl he had intended it for gave him the brush-off. Don't start something that you can't finish, Sam, she said. It's not good manners. You've been brought up better than that. For all her playfulness, Alice had standards, and rules. You did as you were told, in her house. Bettina suspected that her advice about Rufus would be the same, were she in a position to give it.

Bettina drags her mind back to the here and nearly-now of today's tasting. It's an effort. Part of the reason she tries to stop herself from thinking about the distant past is that, given the choice, she would rather stay there than be here, most of the time. Of course, her memory is selective, and the memories – especially the ones that wake her screaming – aren't all good. She takes a breath. There's a rosemary cake baking, and it smells so good that she could cry. But she doesn't because, she reminds herself, this is business.

She knows that she has to promote her products and that, for now at least, the best person to carry out that promotion is herself, so she just gets on with it. People buy people first, her father used to say, and she has worked in enough bakeries and boulangeries to understand how important a face for the business is. For her first tasting, she'd prepared a series of prompt cards for each section and she'd learned by heart what she was going to say, delivering it in a voice that seemed brittle even to her own ears. Now she's learned that if she can only get through the chat before everyone settles down to the tasting, she can manage the rest, because when she's talking about baking she's on safe ground. Last time, she had sixteen tasters, four of them new customers; with the exception of one person, they'd all bought something, and she's pretty sure that all of them have been back at least once. Angie will look after the shop and the rest of the café, and in the kitchen Simon will keep the hungry ovens fed. And so this morning, all is well at Adventures in Bread.

There's a mellow ring from the cluster of brass bells that hangs on the back of the door, and Bettina looks up. She recognizes the newcomer from her photo-byline in the local newspaper, and the world tilts.

Oh, hell.

She has forgotten – well, not so much forgotten as pushed to the side of her mind, into the area labelled ‘things to think about later when I am feeling up to them' – that this is happening today. Verity Ross of the
Throckton Warbler
is here, right on cue, to do the interview that Bettina has been trying to ignore. She looks at her hands and they're shaking. It's one thing to cope with feeling exposed, sitting in your own café; quite another to be written about in the local newspaper, where anyone and everyone can read about you, and judge you, or recognize you. Bettina swallows. She tastes bile at the back of her throat, burning the skin and leaving a sourness that will linger all day.

‘Morning,' Bettina says, feeling her customer-smile make its way to her face, and willing her voice to sound brave. It shakes, a little, but it manages to hold. ‘You must be Verity.'

‘Bettina? Yes, I am. Hello.' The journalist is a neat, smart woman, dressed in a tweed jacket over a white blouse and a black skirt. A deep pink silk scarf is knotted at her neck; her smiling lipstick matches it. She might be fifty or she might be seventy, and she probably won't change at all in those two decades. Bettina feels herself shrink inside. She wishes she had inherited her mother's talent for acting: then she could play the successful, confident bread-shop owner. Right now there's a good chance that she will clam up and be able to squeeze out only yes or no answers. She feels as she used to feel when she was plagued by panic attacks: she's waiting for the feeling of time stopping, the air closing around her and suffocating her. But she comes out from behind the counter, and she keeps smiling because she doesn't know what will happen if she stops. She shakes Verity's hand, her own suddenly cold, and says, ‘Welcome to Adventures in Bread.'

Her leg aches. The old injury is the place where her tiredness and stress always make themselves known. It's an outward manifestation of a pain that's as familiar and constant as birdsong in the dawn. She shifts her weight and remembers what her father used to say about how the hardest part of anything is to begin. ‘Shall we get some coffee and cake and go upstairs to the flat, where we won't be disturbed?'

‘That sounds lovely,' Verity says, her glance roving along the baskets of breads, the trays of cake. She lets out a little sigh. ‘I wish I hadn't had breakfast.'

Angie, Bettina's assistant in everything except breadmaking, laughs and says, ‘We hear that a lot.' Once the drinks are made and the cakes chosen, Bettina leads Verity upstairs, trying to remember what state she left the place in this morning, focusing on the flat as a way of suppressing her emotions, which she is managing to punch down like dough after a first proving. They'll rise again, she knows, but she needs to be able to put off dealing with them until later.

‘Your nomination for the Heart of Throckton New Business Awards is proving very popular,' Verity says with a smile when they are settled on two small sofas, facing each other across a coffee table cluttered with recipe books, notebooks, a jug full of peonies only just on the wrong side of ripeness, but nothing worse. Rufus brought the flowers a week or so ago, wrapped in yellow tissue tied with a green ribbon, ‘because I thought they were cheerful and you'd like them'. Bettina had been ungracious about them – for no reason other than the fact that she doesn't know how to accept gifts, especially when they are surprises, although she had said something about how she didn't like cut flowers much, by way of an excuse. She's felt guilty about her ingratitude ever since, so she's kept the flowers too long, as a sort of penance: every time she looks at them, she thinks of how complicated even a casual relationship seems to be. Bettina scans for anything she doesn't want the journalist to see, but she thinks she's safe. And the coffee, the cake, give them something to do, and give Bettina a chance to breathe deeply. Verity, after much wondering, had chosen a Tartly Lemon Slice; Bettina had stuck with her old faithful Kickin' Coffee Kuchen, although she eats only a bite before she puts the plate down on the table.

‘Well, it's good to be popular,' she says, before subjecting herself to small talk that makes her squirm when she is on the receiving end of the questions: what she thinks of Throckton, whether she lives on her own, her unusual name.

‘May I call you Tina?' Verity asks.

Bettina, shocked into abruptness by the remembrance of the time when that was the name everyone called her, says, ‘No.' She adds, ‘My name is pronounced to rhyme with “retina” – my mother was always very firm about that – and so “Tina” feels … unintuitive to me.' This is true, although everyone outside the family had shortened her name in the same way that they shortened Samuel to Sam, and Bettina/Tina quite liked it. Alice didn't. When Bettina's friends or teachers used her shortened name Alice would smile and say, ‘I don't know a Tina, I'm afraid. My daughter's name is much more beautiful, and unusual, like my daughter herself.' Teenaged Tina would cringe and her mother would wink and smile and say, well, if you stuck with the name you were given I wouldn't be forced to embarrass you, sweetheart. She'd go back now, in a heartbeat, and please her mother by using her name – or at least she would wink and smile back, instead of sulking off to her room, and leaving it as late as she could before going down for tea.

Still, Bettina embraces ‘Bettina' now, and she has told her mother so. She'd like to think that Alice understands, and sees loyalty as well as expediency in her decision. There was a time when she'd considered changing her name altogether. She'd even picked out a shortlist of not-unusual, serviceable names that she thought suited her – Annie, Karen, Claire – but when it came to it, something stopped her. The happy parts of the past, perhaps.

Bettina wishes she'd had the courage, or the insight, to duck out of the interview – out of the whole Throckton Business Awards. But then she has never been brave. She is happiest out of the way, in the kitchen, mixing and measuring, surrounded by yeasty earthy smells and sweet, plump tastes. Publicity makes her nervous, sitting in her guts like dough left out in the cold. She's afraid that the article will be seen by someone she doesn't want to see it. She tries hard enough not to brood about the past: she cannot bear the thought of it confronting her.

She supposes she must have thought that she would manage it better than this. After all, Verity – who is now wittering merrily about her figure and how much one of her granddaughters likes baking, although eating her scones is a labour of love – is, plainly, no threat to Bettina. Yet her palms are cold and her hairline prickles, and she could, so very easily, cry.

This interview won't even be the end of it. If Adventures in Bread turns out to be one of the three businesses with the most votes, Bettina will have to stand on the rickety stage at the Throckton Spring Fête in May for the awards ceremony, smiling whether she wins or loses. She hates the thought of her quiet, busy-enough life being disrupted, and she cannot bear the idea that she will have to look at her picture in the newspaper, even if it is only the
Throckton Warbler
. The thought of it makes her shake. She puts down her cup and holds her hands in her lap, each steadying the other.

She focuses on Verity. This woman isn't going to do her any harm, despite the way her instincts are rearing up and warning her of danger. Breathe, breathe, she tells herself. ‘Bettina it is, then,' she says. ‘I'm afraid I always want to shorten names because it's impossible to shorten mine.' She smiles at Bettina.

‘I suppose not,' she says.

‘I'm tempted to lick my plate,' Verity says, and smiles again. Instead she dampens her finger with her tongue and uses her fingertip to collect the last crumbs. ‘I'm surprised that you don't have more cakes. When they're so good, I mean.'

‘Well, I see Adventures in Bread as being primarily about bread,' Bettina says, her words coming fast, ‘and everything I sell is made on the premises. But of course I wanted to sell cakes too, so I have a dozen tried-and-tested cakes and I bake three of them every day. My customers know that they will get a small choice of fresh cakes alongside the breads. They seem quite happy with that. And when people come to the café they can't resist the toasters.' The refitted café is everything Bettina hoped it would be.

‘And where do you get your ideas for breads from?'

‘Well,' Bettina says, ‘I've always liked the thought that, if bread can be the thing that you put interesting flavours on, there's no reason that it can't also be the thing you put interesting flavours in.' To her surprise, she finds that she is starting to feel lighter, supported well by this familiar ground. She is answering questions that she answers in the shop, a couple of times a week, more often when the tourist season is in full swing and the hotel and the holiday cottages are bursting with people new to Throckton who come in exclaiming over the smell, the look of the place, and want to know more about it. This journalist, she tells herself, is just a customer with a notebook, really. And a rather nice one, at that. She makes the effort to slow and steady her voice. ‘You eat bread with meat and cheese, but also with jam and honey,' Bettina continues, then pauses and waits for Verity, who is nodding and scribbling, to catch up, ‘so I try to make breads that incorporate some of those tastes, which are adventurous. Hence the name of the shop.'

Verity smiles. ‘But I notice that you also cater to those with more traditional tastes?'

‘Of course,' Bettina replies, ‘those people are my bread-and-butter, if you'll pardon the pun.' Verity laughs; Bettina smiles – perhaps she can play this game, after all – and continues, ‘My best-selling loaves are the plainest, but some of the others have what you might call a cult following. And I have a suggestion box, where customers can suggest a bread and I'll do my best to make it. That's how my Scarborough Fair loaf came about.' Every time Bettina takes these aromatic cobs from the oven, she feels as proud and glad as she's ever been. In this life, at least. ‘Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,' she adds, although she suspects it's unnecessary.

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