When I was an accountant, I used to urge my artisan and artist friends to charge more for their work. They always cringed. Sometimes they would take half my advice, and edge prices up 5%. I lie. They took 25% of my advice. Maybe a year later they would edge another small increase into some products. As an accountant, my commercial clients had no trouble charging more. Or cutting costs. They would eagerly tell me they had pushed costs down while edging prices up. That’s what business, isn’t it?
Now that I’m the artisan, I’m loathe to take my own advice.
Two years ago, I left a friend to run my business. She’d worked for me since I opened. She knew the ropes, made bread, knew customers, did many of the tasks I did, except the money and planning stuff. While I was visiting relatives in Switzerland, trying not to fret about the bakery, travelling through Italy, admiring architecture and mountains, she sweated in the bakery. It was the summer of the fires; not the quiet January we had imagined. By the time I came home she was over it. It had worn her down. The long hours, the tender dough needing almost 24-hour care. The unpredictable flow of demand and supply. Before I came home, she was telling her partner how relentless the hours were. They wondered if the bread was too cheap. She and he spent some time reviewing the bread prices and gave me exactly the advice I used to give my artist friends: put the prices up, by 20%. I was sure they was right. And I was terrified everyone would stop buying my bread. I shelved their advice.
For the first few years I ran the bakery on adrenalin. Determined to make it work, I soldiered on, working stupid hours, running between the oven and the mixer, getting up to check the dough overnight, spending my days off planning, paying bills, ordering stock. After my overseas trip, when Covid threw the world into a ‘new normal’, I dug deep for more adrenalin to carry me through. But I didn’t have any more. I kept getting tired. I kept getting sick. I thought I had asthma. (I’ve lost count of how many Covid tests I’ve had.) I took a few breaks (a long one for a cracked rib), but I didn’t really come back feeling refreshed. Three months ago, I took a sort-of break by reducing my bake days. I thought a fortnight of 40-hour weeks would sort me out. When they didn’t, when I was still feeling I needed the 3 day weekend to recover, I kept the 2-bake-day-40-hour-week routine going. It’s better than the hours I was working. Much better. But I don’t think I can go back to the way things were. I just don’t have the stamina. The adrenalin seems to be all gone. The trouble is, the business is only just making ends meet. I’m working for minimum wages, and if I take any weeks off, there’s no reserve to grease the wheels while I’m gone. I postpone holidays and dig into savings when I finally do take a break. That was fine when I was working 60+ hours a week. The savings were enough. But 40 hours on minimum wages doesn't leave much for overheads while I lie on a beach. True, going anywhere during Covid has been rare. But that’s not the point. There's always my couch.
I did an accounting exercise this weekend. Costing the ingredients AND labour of bread making. I figured on paying myself (or - shock horror - a baker!) $40 an hour to make bread, and allowing a 25% margin for overheads. It took me hours. I needed to justify charging customers more for the product they love and appreciate. I needed to value my efforts. My self. The result, funnily enough, is within cooee of my friend’s suggestion two years ago. It’s a hefty increase, but it’s what it costs. If people won’t pay the increase, I’ll have another problem on my hands. But that’s business, isn’t it?
Sophie woke with a start. Eyes wide, she listened for Tommy’s cry. But there was no sound from the next room, only the steady breath of Pete beside her. Moonlight, filtering through the lace curtains gave the room a sinister, Hitchcock quality. She turned to the clock: 4.13! Tommy must be ravenous. This baby, her biggest, ate more than the first two, was faster to temper, scowled at his sisters, tugged at her nipples. He pulled her hair then chuckled when she called out in pain. She tiptoed into his room, her pulse thumping in her ears.
Tommy lay on his back, staring at the mobile hanging over his cot. ‘Hello my sweetness, you’re awake.’ She touched his cheek, expecting him to turn as if to her breast, but he jerked away to focus on the feathers floating above his head. Gwendolyn, Pete’s mother, had made it. Sophie had objected, but Pete had agreed with his mother, had balanced on a chair and taped it, precariously, to the ceiling. Gwendolyn’s visit, Sophie felt, was more interference than support. Picking Tommy up she marvelled at his weight. Heavier every day. She took him to the change table, tucking his wrap out of the way while she unzipped him. His nappy was dry. Had Gwendolyn seen to him already? Tommy arched his neck, trying to see his mobile. Sophie scooped him to her shoulder, holding him close with one hand, she spread his wrap across the table. She frowned, pulled a corner close. Even in the grey light she could see the wrap was green, covered in a fine pattern of leaves. Exquisite, but foreign. Not the baby blue one she’d put him down in. This wrap with its forestry theme she’d never seen before. She clenched her jaw. Tommy was mouthing her neck, licking then sucking his mother’s soft flesh. ‘Damn you, Gwendolyn,’ she whispered. She shook her head, the shudder passed down her shoulders to her ribs. She lay Tommy on the wrap and he smiled at her, his mouth closed, a cheeky, almost sly smile. Sophie wondered if Gwendolyn had fed Tommy. Given him the bottle they had argued over earlier.
Sophie settled into the rocking chair, pulling her swollen breast from her nightdress. Tommy took it noisily, greedily. Sophie smiled, petted his oversized head and looked out the window at the hawthorn tree: Gwendolyn’s ‘fairy’ tree. Luminous in the moonlight. It took Sophie a moment to comprehend the figure, in a long white dress. A pre-dawn dancer, surreal beneath the tree. Gwendolyn. Her long hair out, arms stretched above her.
With Tommy fed and settled Sophie crept to the study. She closed the door and turned on the computer, but no electric light. As she waited her hands trembled. If Gwendolyn believed in banshees she could believe anything. Sophie opened a browser. She had to know what Gwendolyn might do. She typed, then paused, unsure if there was an e before the l. She looked at the search bar: someone had already typed the word she dared not speak.