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.
I wrote, planned, studied. I didn't get 50,000 words down, but I did make progress, especially in the plotting space which has always been my weak point. Work in progress...
There are some things we say we're gonna do. Often we need a nudge to make it happen though. I'm big on talk, and happily, I sometimes get going.
Early in 2020 I was in Rome. Staying in a gorgeous 2nd floor apartment by the (insert river name). Inside the spiral staircase which provided access to each floor was a tiny lift. Not much bigger than a phone booth (back in the day, before we carried them in our pocket, there were mini homes built just for public phones). There was a courtyard out the back with fruit trees and rose bushes. The weather was mild. I walked, I gawked, I ate, I slept. And I wrote, on my laptop. Two important pieces of information came to me from my laptop, both of which would affect me for at least the next two years. One of them you know about, because it affected you too. The other was an email from Yarra Libraries. They were offering a free writing course. There was the nudge I needed. I enrolled and started writing. I mostly haven't stopped. I've taken a bunch more courses. Learnt more and more things I didn't have a clue about. Produced some drivel, revealed some secrets, surprised and embarrassed myself. For the second time since that week in January, November has come around. This time, I'm doing NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. It's a world wide event were authors write, every day (almost) aiming for a full first draft of a novel of 50,000 words by midnight, November 30. Now if I'm working 12 or 13 hour days in the bakery, I don't have energy to write. All I want to do in the evening is eat and binge on telly. So, here's the bit you might care about: I will continue to limit the baking days to Friday and Saturday throughout November. On my not-so-ridiculously-long days (theoretically 5 days a week - Saturday to Wednesday) I'm writing. Today is November 7th. On the NaNo schedule I should reach 11,669 words today. Ok, I won't do that. But if I stop rabbiting on here I might just reach 8500 before I head off to mind a couple of grandkids.
Having said that, I'll go.
Thanks for reading. Drop me a feedback line and I'll know I'm not alone at my keyboard.
Rose woke with a start, eyes wide, throat dry, her heart thumping. For a moment she didn’t recognize her own ceiling. She knew the white paper lantern, hanging over the end of the bed by a chord in the centre of the room. But it glowed as though powered by a low wattage globe and she knew the light did not come from the globe. She reached out to the vacant space beside her. Yes, no Felix. He hadn’t been there for months, not since she told him to go. She turned her head to look at the pillow beside her, saw the window bright with moonlight. It was that which caused the lantern to glow. She recalled her dream: Felix painting a wall, a beautiful wall of handmade house bricks. Felix using a wide paintbrush, slapping a thick coat of white paint on the old red bricks. She trying to stop him, asking him not to. Pocked bricks with flecks of blue. Paint seeping into the cracks in the bricks, the soft sandy mortar. Felix continuing with a determination which excluded her, his mouth set in a firm grimace.
Shaking off the dream she heard the chooks’ cackles, rising in alarm. A fox. But the chicken coop is safe, the chooks are safe. The cackling eased for a moment, then rose in another chorus of panic. It was warm under the covers, Rose was reluctant to leave the protection of her quilt. If she disturbed the fox it would only wait for her to leave, return later, or another night. It was her curiosity which urged her to slip from under the covers. Leaving her cocoon she hoped the warmth would still be there when she returned. She pulled on her wrap, pushed her feet into slippers and made her way through the house to the back door. Her living-room-cum-studio was flooded in moonlight. Her empty easel cast shadows on the polished wooden floor. A geometric pattern unconcerned with gravity. In the kitchen the clean dishes on the drainboard were eerily lit in shades of grey. Opening the veranda door, she was surprised to see the fox just feet away, its nose almost touching her chair. She could see the steam of its breath, the individual hairs of its thick coat glistening. It turned its head, slowly, to look at directly at her, unthreatened by her close proximity. Their eyes locked for a few moments, her breath shallow, before the fox licked its lips and moved deliberately away.
The chickens’ cackling had settled. Rose took a few steps to the veranda edge to watch the fox trot away. She looked up at the full moon, a wisp of cloud passed by and she felt the cold air against her face, easing into her body through her wrap. She shivered and retreated inside.
Back under the covers there was only a remnant of warmth. She curled into a ball and waited to warm up. Even when warm she couldn’t sleep. Eventually she rose again, pulled a jumper over her wrap, stoked the stove and made tea. Sitting at the kitchen table with one foot tucked under a thigh, she wrote her dream in her journal. Remembering Felix’s stern face and intent to cover the wall made her sad.
Opening a sketch-pad she pencilled the fox’s face, slender snout, erect ears, knowing eyes. Male or female? With a red biro she coloured the lips, added a snarl, rimmed the eyes crimson. Male, she thought, adding spectacles in black biro, then hatched the lenses to solid black. The moon was beginning to set when she climbed into her cold bed.
When she awoke late in the morning Rose let the chooks out, collected the eggs, checked the coop for loose wire, rotting boards. There were less eggs; they were spooked. But there were plenty, for she, and for Felix who would come later with bread to swap for eggs.
The afternoon sun splashed gold across the hills beyond the creek. Cool air was settling through the valley, promising a cold night. At the kitchen table, sipping tea, Felix eyed her drawing. “Got a fox?” he asked.
“The coop is safe.” Rose answered, examining her tea cup.
“I know,” Felix said, smiling. “I built it.” Rose met his eyes, then looked at the floor as heat rose in her face. He reached to touch her, she flinched and he pulled back.
That night the chooks were quiet, but Rose couldn’t sleep.
The morning grass was wet when she let the chooks out. She packed a thermos, biscuits and oranges in her day pack, adding a small sketch-pad and pencils. She tied a rug to sit on to the top of her pack and headed off to the creek. The mud track was slippery and she walked carefully in her gumboots. She stayed out all day, moving between the shallow rapids and deep pools, drawing bare branches, jagged rocks, fallen logs.
The fox returned that night. She heard the chooks’ cackle, rising with their anxiety. Listening in bed her heart thumped as she stared at the paper lantern in the dark.
After breakfast the next morning Rose cleaned the coop. She raked out the soiled straw, filling the barrow several times and used the thick humus to mulch the pear and peach trees. She scrubbed their drink trough and feeder treadle, gave them a fresh feed and water, a thick bed of dry straw. In the afternoon she pulled out her oil pastels, tracing her fingers over the bold colours. With Bach loud on the stereo and she filled pages with colour. Swathes of ochre, russet, chestnut, ash grey, gentian blue, merging into each other in muddy rivers. Finally, she washed her hands, placed clean paper on her easel and using pencil tentatively sketched a fox sitting and staring at her. She added colour delicately, building up the layers to a warm brilliance. Looking outside a few hours later she noticed it was dark, and rushed to close the coop, to secure the chooks.
When Felix brought quince jelly and bread two days later he admired her work. “Your new subject? Colours match my jelly.” He smiled at Rose, she looked at him suspiciously, chewing her lip.
Some nights Rose walked in the damp grass, sensing the fox. Once, returning to the house, he was at the back door, peering through the glass panes. Another time he was by the front gate. He cocked his leg, urinated on the gate, watching her watching him. She was mesmerised. She hadn’t known foxes cocked their legs.
The studio became cluttered with fox images. Charcoal, pencil, pastel. Vibrant colours, haunting eyes. Felix brought apple pie. “You’ve been working.” Rose’s smile was tight.
Rose stretched a huge canvas, coated it with gesso. The next day she sketched her subject in pencil before squeezing colours on her palette. Burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, titanium white. She took a deep breath, running the bristles of her brush against her palm before dipping it into clean water. She smiled as she worked, singing snatches of Patti Smith songs.
The next time Felix came he brought duck terrine. She raised her eyebrows in appreciation, and opened a bottle of wine.
“Cheers,” she said, smiling shyly. Felix’s grin was wide.
“Cheers,” he said, “nice to have you back.”
“Nice to be back,” she said, and clinked her glass to his.
“Quiet you lot!” but my growl had no effect. We were 14 Australian students and 4 teachers waiting to fly from Johannesburg to Gaborone. The kids, amazed to be on such a small plane, were exuberant. The flight attendant waited. A crackling voiceover began:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Air Botswana. Please pay attention to…”
But a disembodied woman’s voice commanded everyone’s attention.
“Perhaps you young people have been many times on an aeroplane and already know everything. But for many passengers this is our first flight. We wish to hear the safety instructions. Please be quiet!” My students obeyed.
Finally, after years of saying 'I want to...' I have started writing. Short stories, chapters of something, flash fiction, anecdotes... whatever feels urgent or amusing. A blog seems like as good a place as any to 'publish' these pieces. I hope you like them.
Thanks for reading.
Summer usually includes a week or two at Thurra River. It's a time to chill out, read books, eat well, chat, walk, swim and relax. This year the little kids, a little over 1 and 3 were absolutely ready to get wet and dirty. Their parents (my kids and partners), had been looking forward to the break even more than most years. None of us expected to be evacuated the day after we arrived. In hindsight maybe we should have anticipated evacuation. Maybe we did, but we didn't want it to happen so we employed the time honoured head in the sand approach, and packed our gear and headed East.
Sadly we left barely a day after we arrive. Thankfully we got home safely, albeit dazed and upset. A few days later we had a fund raiser. Easy really, prepare dough, advertise on social media, run out some cakes, sandwiches, coffee... It was a great day.
All profits - i.e. takings less cost of food - was donated to the red cross. Almost $1200. And we had a good day. Plenty of regulars and friends came in, plenty of new faces said hello. It felt good to do something useful, and it felt great to pass the money on to Red Cross.
A bit of a waffle to start 2018...
Camping was wonderful. Slow, relaxing, beautiful beaches, river, scenery.... we read, did crosswords, played games, went for walks and swims, ate, chatted, slept, cooked, ate, drank wine, we even baked some camp oven loaves. Mine had pretty dark crusts, others managed to get perfect crusts. All the loaves were entirely wonderful inside and enjoyed by all.
So now I'm back! You may notice a greater range per day than last year. That's because I'll be doing some 48 hour proving: mixing a batch on Tuesday and refrigerating half of it to shape on Wednesday and bake on Thursday (the other half gets shaped on Tuesday, baked on Wednesday). I'll see how it goes - it's another little tweak which could be better for you and me.
Ideas of other treats to entice curious hungry palates are bubbling along... I'm pretty excited to be thinking outside the bread-box - so watch this space and the bakery counter for sweets and savouries to eat at the bakery or at home.
As well as the preserves, coffee beans, biscuits and pantry supplies I'm looking to sell utilitarian artisan products in the shop and eventually on line - beautiful hand made things which serve a purpose in households. If you know anyone who crafts useful things perhaps you could put them in touch with me. Isabel's T-towels are a lovely example: hand printed on quality linen.
Workshops were a huge success over the Christmas/New Year break. The three I've held so far have been well received and a pleasure to deliver. Have a look at the workshop page and book one for yourself, a gift for another or even a gift voucher for an undecided date.