Thomas took off his grimy brown cap and wiped his brow with it. Shouldering his bag of belongings, he continued on the dusty road which meandered towards Dumfries, kicking the occasional stone out of his way as he went. Birds sang in the branches overhead and sheep grazed contentedly in the fields. Walking past the ancient standing-stone circle at Holywood, he spied the bridge across Cairn Water and hastened his step. He knew that he would be past the halfway point of his journey when he reached the river. His thirst was increasing, and sucking a stone would only go so far to assuaging it. Maybe it was that mouthful of whisky that Uncle Robert had pressed on him before he left. Cool, crisp river-water was what he craved. Stumbling down the stony bank, he slipped on some slime and landed with one foot in the water. Shaking it, he cursed his luck quietly, and knelt to dish up some of the swiftly flowing water into his hands. The taste revived him and he felt instantly refreshed.
Throwing his bag over one shoulder, he scrambled back up the bank and crossed over the stone bridge. Dumfries town was now only about a mile ahead. He could see the buildings quite plainly. His father had given him explicit instructions of how to get to the Bakery, and had drawn them out on a piece of wood which Thomas had in his bag. He took it out and scrutinized it as he passed the first small whitewashed cottages marking the outer edge of the town.
Coming into the town proper, he looked around him at the two storey houses and shops. He had only been to Dumfries a few times before, most times buying supplies with this father. Each visit had been direct to the trader's shop, where his father passed the time of day before ordering and passing comment on the quality of the goods. It was nothing for him to spend an hour in and outside each shop, waiting until his father was satisfied with his purchases. Then, bags slung over their shoulders, they would head off the few miles back home.
This time was different. This time he had no father to guide him through the maze of streets to find the Bakery. This time there would be no heading home in the afternoon. This time he was staying.
Squinting hard at the piece of timber which held James's squiggly map, he decided that the Bakery must be around the next corner. Coming to the end of the Haberdashery shop, he looked to his right down the cross street. But no Baker's sign hung there. He looked in the opposite direction as well. Still no Bakery sign.
Backtracking a few steps, he turned into the Haberdashery shop and asked directions. Following instructions, he walked another two streets and turned the corner. There was the wooden sign with a loaf of bread painted on it, swinging gently above head-height. His pace slowed, and again he went over what he had to say.
Reaching the Bakery door, he went in and stood at the worn timber counter. Racks of bannocks and two-pound loaves of various types leaned against the back wall. A lass was serving an old man, and placed a loaf onto the pendulum scales. Quickly, before they came to rest, she removed the loaf and handed it to the man, who passed over some coins in exchange. The lass smiled at Thomas as the old man left the shop. Her smile held a question in it. Thomas took off his brown cap and held it in his hand.
"I would like to see the Master Baker, if you please. I am to be apprenticed to him, ye see. My name's Thomas McCubbin frae McCubbingstone Fermtoun."
"I'll just be seein' if I can find him for ye," she grinned, and skipped through a doorway into the dark recesses of the bake-house.
Moments later, a rotund figure emerged up the steps, clad in an apron covered layers thick in flour. His florid complexion spoke of many a tipple, but his manner was quite businesslike as he spoke.
"Ye main be young Thomas, James's wee fellow."
"So, yer dad wants ye to become a baker?" he said as he ushered Thomas through the doorway and down the stairs into the bake-house.
"Don't say much, do ye. Och, and that's just as well, I'll be thinkin'. Now, ye will put yer bag on yin o' the beds in yon corner," pointing to some piles of straw lined up there, "an' I'll show ye to yer duties. Ye will change the straw beds as required, an' keep the water pails full frae the pump out the back. Now, come wi' me. Yon hole in the corner o'er there is the pissoir. Now dinna make a mess in it, fer it's your job to keep that clean as well, so it is. Young Archie will be glad that you're takin' that job over, right enough. Let's him get on wi' cookin' the meals an' learnin' how to mix the dough."
"Yer main job will be to do whatever ye're told to, by any o' me workers here. Even young Archie. He be only about yer age, but he's been apprenticed here a six-month already. 'Tis about time he started mixin' dough."
Thomas nodded, his eyes darting hither and yon. Five or six burly men milled around the benches on the other side of the large room. Two were working paddles back and forth in a large round wooden vessel. One was cutting slabs off a large pile of dough, and weighing them hurriedly on a set of beam balances. Two were forming dough-pats on the flat bench, while the last man was lining up the pats onto a large flat paddle so they could rise for a few hours before being slid into the oven.
Thomas could feel the heat like a wall as they moved closer to the oven. The men were sweating profusely, the droplets running down their arms onto the dough-pats as they worked.
"Lads," the baker called loudly over the whoosh of the oven, "Here's young Thomas McCubbin, who's about to take young Archie's place at the bottom o' the ladder. Sure I am that Archie willna mind bein' bunked up a step, so he can start learnin' the trade proper-like."
Dragging Thomas round before him he pointed, "That fat lump is Dennis an' beside him is John, frae Stirling. On the pats is Bruce an' Cam, an' weighin' them is Eric the Viking, and that fathom o' misery at the oven is Fitzy. No one knows his real name. Just Fitzy."
The workers nodded or smiled and went on with their work. Bruce winked at him.
A boy about Thomas' age scuttled into the bake-house with two wooden pails of water. His eyes widened as he saw Thomas but he said not a word as he carried the pails around to the mixing trough where Dennis and John stood with their paddles working the stiff dough.
"Slop a wee bit in here laddie," growled John in the deepest voice Thomas had ever heard. The very sound of it made his bones shiver. The lad tipped a bit in and waited, the pail resting on the edge of the mixing vessel. "That's enough. Off ye go," John's voice rumbled.
Mr. McIntosh called the lad over. "Archie, yon is Thomas McCubbin, our new apprentice. Today ye will show him the ropes, then Tomorrow, ye start workin wi' John an' Dennis on the dough."
A great smile split Archie's face as he thanked his Master and stood ready to take his leave.
"Go on, laddie," the Baker chuckled, pushing Thomas away, "young Archie's yer master today!"
Turning to the other men, he called, "And as is our habit when a new apprentice joins our little family, there will be a wee dram before ye go home to yer wives tonight."
Two days had passed. Thomas new well his new duties. Rise with the rest of the bakers in the dead of night. Get the water from the pump and leave two pails full next to the mixing trough. Scrub the rolling bench with water, and wipe it so the dry flour will not stick to it. The heat from the oven ensured fast drying. Keep the firewood box filled so the oven would reach the proper temperature.
Fitzy tested that by spitting onto the brick floor of the oven and judging the sizzle as it dried. The more the spittle jumped around, the hotter it was.
"One day it'll jump right back out at me, an' I'll know it's ower hot," he joked as he showed Thomas how he tested it. The heat was a smothering pressure as Thomas leaned his head in at the small door. Brick floor and curved roof vanished into the gloom. He heard the flames crackle in the firebox below. Pulling his head back from the oven's gaping maw, he was able to breathe again. Fitzy laughed at him a crazy glint in his eye.
"Ye'll get used to it, b'God. The heat's yer friend, especially in the blows o' winter. Snug as a bug, we be!"
"But now it approaches summer."
"In here, where's the difference?" and he turned to the table and his paddle of loaves.
Baker McIntosh stood in the doorway to the shop.
"Thomas," he called. "Come here. I will be showin' you the profit of a loaf." Thomas joined him quickly.
"This here's the scales, ye see. Now our loaves are supposed to be either four pound "Quartins" or two pound "Half-quartrins". Law says they must be weighed if the customer so asks. Law doesn't say they must be two pound or four pound weight, just they must be weighed if we're asked. So ye keep the bread on the pan for a wee while, then take it off, sayin', 'That's right Ma'am' an' handin' it ower. Chances are it'll be a bit light on; it happens that Bruce might cut the pats a wee bit smaller to add some profit. But that's never-you-mind, that is.
Now, if some soul does see it's a wee bit light-on, we add a slice frae yon loaf to make up the difference. Only one slice, mind, and cut thin. Young Lizzie here is a mite heavy on the bread-saw, an' I've scolded her oft about it. You'll be takin' a turn in here frae time to time, as she calls ye. Now ye'd better have some practice weighin' an' cuttin' a slice while she's here to check ye." Turning to Lizzie, he winked and said, "He's all yourn now Lizzie. Keep that knife handy, 'e looks like a bit of a one!" She giggled as he turned and descended the steps into the bakehouse, leaving Thomas to learn a little skulduggery.
At that moment a lady entered the shop, clutching her shawl to her bosom as if to protect herself from demons.
"Mornin' Ma'am," Lizzie offered. "An' what can we get you this fine day?"
"A quartin an' four bannocks will do me, lass."
"Thomas, fetch me that quartin, while I get these bannocks."
"This one?" he asked, lifting up one of the large loaves.
"Aye, that'll do." She lifted a lead four-pound weight onto one pan of the beam scale, held the bread on the other pan for a moment, her thumb pressing gently on the pan until the lever reached vertical, then swept it off and handed it to the customer, along with the four rolls. The lady picked it up, hefted it and said, "My Maxwell said the last one was light-on. You sure this one is full-weight?'
"Aye, it is, but if ye're worried, I'll give ye a wee bit extra to make up fer last time," and she sawed a thin slice off the working loaf. Thomas watched carefully, and saw that Lizzie swapped two of the bannocks for smaller ones while the lady was shuffling through her coins.
"Thomas! We can't give the lady these bannocks. They're dirty! Must have fallen on the floor. There, that's better."
Money exchanged, the wife gathered the loaf and bannocks into her shawl which she converted into a carry-bag. Grabbing it close to her body, she scuttled out of the dingy shop and into the weak sunlight.
That night, as Thomas lay down on his pile of straw, with close to eighteen hours toil behind him, he tossed and turned as his mind came to terms with all he had experienced. So different from the small bakery at McCubbingstone Fermtoun. And he would have to get up in the middle of the night to start all over again.
Finally, he was able to conjure up a vision of Isabel as she ran before him over the hills of standing heather, and her long dark hair swept his face as he followed her into dreamland.
See Rob's other Works in Progress