Freezing drizzle soaked Brenda as she ran from her car to the bakery and fumbled with her keys in the pre-dawn blackness. Once inside she hit the switches and light bounced off the gleaming stainless steel benches and equipment. Another switch and the fan ovens whirred into life, soon drowned out by Brenda singing with Black Sabbath on the radio. Coat off, apron on, unwilling wet hair pushed up under her cap and she was ready to bake.
Brenda loved this time of day when she could indulge her passion for baking uninterrupted. But this morning was different. Brenda had had a dream so vivid she felt she’d lived it. She had dreamt of a new slice, flavoured with coffee and at once chewy, crunchy, sweet, and tart. She felt excited and compelled to make it. As the ovens warmed the bakery Brenda glanced with venom at the decades old product manual of the Sticky Fingers Bakery chain. She had memorised it years ago. It bored and frustrated her, it stifled her creativity and professional development. She was just a small link in this chain, without power or voice. Owner Harry Bommel was a stickler for consistency in his range of products and would never agree to a new slice. She had tried before.
When Harry arrived for his inspection at ten o’clock the bakery was warm with the aroma of cinnamon, baked fruit, and chocolate. Brenda’s heart always skipped a beat when he arrived. She took a deep breath in anticipation of the conversation she wanted to have with him as she took the blueberry friands from the oven.
“Good morning Brenda, everything okay today?” He nodded at her.
Brenda glanced at him. He was tall, solid, and quite handsome behind his glasses. Not much older than her, in his early fifties. Rumour had it Harry was a bit of a loner and had never married. He was a businessman, focussed solely on making money. He had inherited the business from his father and had not made a change in twenty years.
“Yes, everything’s fine Harry. Can I have a word?”
“Sure, but I don’t have much time.”
Brenda put the friands on the bench and removed her oven mitt. “I’ve had an idea for a new slice…” she began.
Harry sighed. “I’ve told you before, we’re not adding new products.” He walked to the door.
“Don’t just walk off.” Her temper rose at the arrogance of the man, her frustrations boiled over. “You haven’t even heard my idea. It’s coffee flavoured and…”
“Are you deaf?” Harry stopped, hand on the door handle.
“No. I’m not deaf. Are you ignorant?”
Harry turned, his face blank, unreadable. “Where did this idea come from?”
“Well, it came from me. I dreamt it, and in my dream it became a huge success for your business.”
He stared at her as if she’d just arrived from Mars. Then he roared with laughter. “No new products,” he said and walked out still chuckling.
Brenda felt gutted. Humiliated. Furious beyond words. Tears burned behind her eyes. She was surprised at how much his laughter hurt. She made herself a coffee and took it to the wobbly plastic chair by the back door, amongst the rubbish bins. She seriously needed to look at her choices. She was a skilled, creative, qualified baker. But with daughter Mandy to feed and a mortgage to pay walking out was not an option. Neither was not making the slice. Her head was full of it. The fudgy texture, the rich coffee taste. As she sipped her coffee other options came to mind:
She could burn down the bakery. That would fix the prat.
She could kill Harry with a rolling pin next time he came in.
Or she could make the slice anyway and tempt him to try it.
The following morning found Brenda stirring thick creamy custard for the vanilla slice. Apple tarts in the oven sent heavenly wafts of spicy apple around the bakery, and the cooling brownies added chocolaty undernotes. Def Leppard strutted their stuff on the radio, but this morning Brenda didn’t sing along.
Brenda had the dream again last night. No ordinary dream, this was cappuccino slice on steroids. The ingredients had come to life; currants rattled and shook in their bin, walnuts leapt and thumped against their lid, and the espresso machine puffed and whistled and squirted steam. There was a magical new ingredient wriggling across the bench. Amongst it all Harry had arrived, his handsome face twisted in disapproval. From its position on the bench the rolling pin suddenly dislodged itself, whizzed around the bakery and with a ghastly crunch whacked him on the back of his head. Brenda woke with a scream on her lips.
“Yikes, concentrate girl,” she told herself as the custard started clotting, “Harry will do his prunes if the custard isn’t smooth.” But Harry didn’t arrive that morning. Brenda waited all day, becoming more tense as time went on. She meant to speak to him again, to convince him that this slice would be good for his business, to let her try. Two o’clock came round, time to go home. Still no Harry. Sick with nerves she checked the chiller and store-room to ensure she’d have all necessary ingredients and went home. She was going to make her slice. She was a baker possessed.
That evening was filled with the promise of frost when Brenda arrived back at the bakery. The day’s lingering warmth welcomed her as she shed her jacket and popped her apron on. There was no chance anyone would come in at this time, the place was hers. She switched the radio to the Concert Programme and the soothing sounds of a piano playing Bach flowed around her. This was no time for heavy metal. She closed her eyes and thought back to her dream, picturing how she had made the slice.
She melted condensed milk, butter and brown sugar and added two double shots of strong espresso. Then her dry ingredients: biscuit crumbs, coconut, currants, and walnuts. She found herself humming, effortlessly mixing it together, and adding the magic ingredient. She poured it into a tray and popped it in the chiller to set. She made icing by adding another double shot of coffee to icing sugar and butter, spread it over the slice and let it set some more. While she cleaned the equipment she noted she had never felt so exhilarated, so at peace with herself, so fulfilled.
It was while she was cutting the slice into forty-eight equal squares that she heard keys unlocking the backdoor. Her heart lunged in her chest. Her head spun. She took a large gulp of air and turned to face Harry.
“What in on earth are you doing here woman?” He stood tall, his face thunderous. An image of the Viking God Thor came to her mind. Tall, broad, muscled, and violent. Missing (thankfully) was the hammer.
“I might ask you the same thing, you scared the living daylights out of me.”
“I was driving past and saw the lights on.”
“And I came in to make my new slice, which I know will be your best-selling product ever. No need to thank me Harry, it was made with love.” If only his personality matched his looks. Whatever made him such an ogre?
“You’re unbelievable. I’ve told you repeatedly we’re not adding new products. And here you are, stealing my ingredients and electricity, blatantly disobeying me.”
Brenda glanced at the rolling pin. It didn’t move. She sighed with relief. Although he deserved to die, the prat.
“Well?” Harry tapped his fingers on the bench and glanced at the slice.
She smiled. “I’m calling it Cappuccino Slice.”
“What were you going to do with it? You knew I would never sell it here.”
“You have seven Sticky Fingers bakeries Harry, all of them produce the same products every day. Have you asked yourself why this one sells more than the others? Why do the same products here look and taste better? And don’t you think the customers are getting bored with the same products year after year?”
“Our formula works well. We can’t take risks.”
“Ah, so that’s it. You’re scared Harry. Formulas are for science labs. Bakeries need passion, love and creativity.”
Harry was furious. “You have deliberately disobeyed me. You’re suspended and will meet me in my office at nine tomorrow for a disciplinary interview. Please take your things and leave.”
Brenda grabbed her jacket, snatched a square of the slice, and left, glancing wistfully at the rolling pin as she went.
Next morning Brenda found it unsettling to see a relieving baker in her place. A pimply young man who had the Sticky Fingers recipe book spread out over the bench. She felt swamped with fear and doubt, was she that easily replaced?
“Hi, I’m Jeff,” he said over his shoulder as he readied a tray of date scones for the oven.
“I’m Brenda.” She watched him put the scones into the oven without their sugar and spice topping and decided not to tell him. There was no trace of the Cappuccino Slice. She assumed it was in the compost bin.
The tiny cubby hole Harry called his office had a small desk, two chairs and less room than the broom cupboard. She switched on the desk-lamp which lit up the desk but cast a gloomy half-light through the rest of the windowless space. The tick-tick-ticking of the wall clock unnerved her. Fifteen minutes to wait.
She sat down, stretched her legs, and yawned. She hadn’t slept. The slice had needed eating when she got home, and it had been everything she had dreamt. Her teeth had sunk through the creamy icing into the fudgy base. Her mouth had filled with the earthy crunch of walnuts, and the tanginess of chewy currants which balanced the soft sweetness perfectly. The satisfying coffee flavour had exploded on her tastebuds. It was divine. A Goddess food.
As the night crept on she had become increasingly concerned about her future. Harry was bound to sack her and unlikely to give her a reference. Her mortgage was huge, and Mandy’s university fees had gobbled up her reserves. During the dark hours Brenda had searched her soul. What could she have done differently? Not making the slice had not been an option, she knew that in her bones. Perhaps she had been too rude when she spoke to Harry. His arrogance, lack of acknowledgement and his laughter at her dream had hurt, and because it hurt her responses to him were sassy and unprofessional. But why had it hurt? Could it be that she cared for him, and was more than a little attracted to him? Hot tears soaked her pillow. When she faced him she would need to put those feelings aside. She would need to be professional and apologise. And with that resolve she awaited her fate.
She stood up when Harry arrived. The faint light softened his features, he looked almost human. He nodded at her to sit. Swallowing hard she raised her eyes to meet his. She couldn’t read them, but something in them had changed.
“Harry, I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you, it was disrespectful,” she began.
“Yes it was.”
“It’s just that I love baking so much, and I have so many ideas that could make this place amazing. But I’m willing to tow the line if you give me another chance.” She felt his eyes on her. Her face flushed hot.
Then he smiled, and his eyes twinkled behind his glasses. In that instant Brenda knew he had tried the slice. He’d tasted the love.
He stood up. “Come with me,” he said and led her through the bakery to the shop. In the middle of the counter, stunningly arranged on a glass platter, stood the cappuccino slice.
“I have decided to employ a professional baker to review the product list and ensure quality and consistency across the chain. Would you be interested Brenda?”
Brenda’s mouth dropped open but she was dumbstruck.
“You were right Brenda,” he continued, “change scares me, and we need to move forward. Why don’t we discuss it over dinner this evening. I’ll pick you up at seven.” Harry smiled and looked into her eyes. Brenda blushed some more.
“Okay,” she said.
The Cappuccino slice wiggled on the platter. Mission accomplished.
(Note: This story was written in New Zealand, I'm aware that in some parts of the world a slice is not known as a bakery item. In NZ and Australia it is a flat oblong biscuit based cake, sometimes with filling ore icing. It comes in many different flavours.)