Leon realised that he needed a bigger screwdriver to dismantle the crib. He roughly opened a cabinet, which disturbed a delicate equilibrium and a cascade of boxes toppled from the top shelf, bounced on his head, and lay in disarray on the floor.
“Damn, woman!”, he vented his anger on an absent Sophia.
His bedroom was already a mess. He had not bothered to clean it after Sophia had left him some days back, taking their infant son with her.
“Never throws anything away,” he kicked a dented shoe box clear across the room. The kick revealed a heart shaped chocolate box that was underneath.
The box was blood red in colour and the sunrays falling on it sparkled on the gold lettering. Leon picked it up and ran his hand over the embossed letters. “Geoffrey’s,” he nodded absently.
“Yeah, man. You were the one that helped me get close to Sophia.” He recognised it as the first gift he had given to Sophia. He had no idea that she had kept the box all this time. He blew off the dust and opened the cover.
The box contained several photos and a bundle of his letters to her, tied with a satin bow. As he sifted through the pictures, some faded, some bright still, a flood of memories came rushing back. He remembered the day when he had met Geoffrey for the first time, as clearly as if it was yesterday.
Geoffrey owned a bakery and confectionary shop named, quite simply, after him. Geoffrey’s was quite popular in Pleasantville, though of course the options were limited. A cobbled street branched off from the main road and meandered past a barber shop, Sam’s tailoring shop, Doctor Mathew’s clinic and sundry residences before ending in front of the glass plated frontage of Geoffrey’s. Beyond were the mountains that beckoned the tourists, who generally sped past the town without stopping.
Leon was in his teens when his father had died of a heart attack right in the middle of a ski lesson he was giving to the tourists. Soon his mother ran away with their neighbour, leaving him the not so proud owner of a two-room home, which had seen better days.
“What will you do now, boy?” Father McMohan enquired one day, full of concern.
Leon had no idea. He was a boy with no skills and no notion of how to survive. He had so far only daydreamt about a life with Sophia, who was in high school with him. He shook his head and with great effort kept his face devoid of any emotion. A pebble near his boot looked of great interest and he gazed at it intently.
Father McMohan ran a hand through his abundant grey hair and looked around to see if any of the church goers had anything to offer.
“Arrrrgh,” there was no need to see who was about to speak. Geoffrey always cleared his throat before saying anything and produced a variety of sound effects in doing so. “I need a helper in my shop if you wanna work there. Busy times ahead, you know.”
And so it was that young Leon had started his apprenticeship under Geoffrey. He cleaned the shop, arranged the red, heart shaped chocolate boxes when a fresh lot arrived from the makers, carried the freshly made chocolates and cakes and pastries and breads and cookies from the workplace at the back to the front and neatly organised them in the display counters.
Years passed and Leon was inducted into the art of baking and chocolate making. He had dropped out of school and would take a circuitous route to the shop, that took him by Sophia’s house. And somehow his shoelaces would always come undone there.
“Harrrumph. You doing well boy. Now you be staying up front and deal with customers. I will mind the staff back there,” Geoffrey said one day.
Leon understood why Geoffrey wanted to stay near the ovens and work benches. The kids would come in and deliberately ask questions to make him speak. It was a source of endless mimicry and mirth for them behind his back. Geoffrey realised this but could do nothing about it till now.
“Eheheh Eh, listen up everyone. This week, we work till late. No excuses. Bonus next week.” It was an annual ritual, but Geoffrey would repeat it every year, nonetheless.
It was a busy week, like it was every year around this time. Boisterous kids came in droves into the shop sending the doorbell ringing into a frenzy. They were all in a hurry to pick up their previously placed orders or the ready-mades displayed under the counter. Leon tried his best to cope with the rush, while Geoffrey measured out the ingredients and handled the staff at the back of the shop. The oven doors clanged open and shut constantly as they baked cakes and fancy chocolates almost nonstop and a sweet, homely smell of freshly baked delights wafted from back of the shop to the front and into the cold air whenever the doors opened.
It was not as if Geoffrey’s was the only place in town for sweet goodies. A few others had opened as the town grew but none became as popular as this shop. And February’s second week was not when one would want to shop at a second-choice establishment, particularly if a good impression was what one was aiming for. The line would stretch out of the shop and on to the street. There would be good natured ribbing among the boys, most of whom had grown up together and now were hopeful suitors.
“Hey, Leon! Why are you attending to Sean? He can’t buy even a cookie that has fallen down.”
“Oi Nellie. You have a girlfriend now? Sure she is a girl?”
“Bugger off, Jim. I am getting it for your mum.”
Leon would enjoy the banter and the momentary feeling of importance as he ruled behind the counter and shouted out the orders to the backroom.
“Give me the red velvet,” was heard the most. Soon that heart shaped sweet wonder would run out and Leon would see brows furrowed and eyes narrowed over the masked faces of those who came in too late.
“Come back in an hour and we will have those again,” he would say helpfully.
But as the day wore on, many decided they could not wait and opted for a replacement like a chocolate layered glistening regular cake or even the slow-moving pineapple pastries or almond cookies. Later in the evening, the elders would walk in, sedate and polite. They would be tired after the day’s work and would mostly point out what they wanted, without much chatter.
The hectic activity would gradually ease off as darkness fell. Geoffrey would emerge from the backroom, his face sweating and flushed, and go out for a quiet cigarette. Leon would wipe the counters clean and would wait for everyone to leave. His duties included closing the shop and dropping the keys off at Geoffrey’s home.
One night Geoffrey had opened the door of his home and saw Leon standing with the keys dangling from his hand and brushing off the snow on his jacket with the other.
“Harrrrrumph. Come in boy”, it was the first time in years that Geoffrey had asked him to enter his home. Sylvia graciously urged him to stay back for dinner.
“So, who is going to be your Valentine tomorrow? Surely, you have someone?” Sylvia asked over dessert.
She noticed a blush spreading on Leon’s bowed head and clapped her hands in glee. ” Of course, you have. Anyone I know?”
“Umm, she has moved to Darren’s creek...”
“Not far from here. I suppose you mean Sophia?”
Leon looked up in surprise.
“I know their family well. We are still in touch.” She turned to Geoffrey, ” Give the boy an off tomorrow. Let him go and meet her, Geoffy.”
“Arrrgh, busy days…”
“Oh, stop it. Let him try his luck before it is too late. And you, dear Leon, carry with you a box of ‘Lover’s nest’. I tell you, that chocolate, that is the best thing Geoffrey has ever made. It is magic. That’s the one that got me!”
Next day Leon made the trip to Sophia’s house in Darren’s creek, a heart shaped, red chocolate box tucked in his bag, and clammy hands that would not stay dry. But ‘Lover’s nest’ worked its magic, and he was rewarded with a peck on his cheeks. A period of intense courtship followed, and their communications gradually shed formality and became more intimate.
Sophia had accepted his proposal a year later, with the condition that he move to Darren’s creek, which offered more opportunities to grow. She urged him to start his own bakery there and painted a rosy picture of a great future together. Leon sold his house, married Sophia, and set up his own bakery in Darren’s creek.
Soon it became apparent that he was not an astute businessman and the venture floundered badly. Loans accumulated, recriminations flowed and turned into a torrent from an initial trickle. Leon’s bakery had to shut down and he had to take up a job in a super store, working double shifts to support his struggling marriage. Their marriage became a test of endurance and an unending fest of unwinnable arguments. The depleting fortunes resulted in frequent changes in accommodation, each a step down from the previous, till finally they landed up in the poorer section of the town. The unexpected arrival of a child did not help matters.
One night, Leon returned from work to find the house strangely quiet and dark. Sophia and child were missing. No message, no explanation.
Morning he rushed to her parents’ house and pleaded with them to let him talk to her. Her parents were completely unhelpful and said that she did not want to meet him.
“Sophia, come back. I will try harder!”, he shouted from the pavement, but the upper floor window remained stubbornly shut. He visited her house every day and left chocolates and teddy bears on the doorstep. The next day those would be found atop the community trash bin. After a while, he had stopped.
Sounds of laughter brought him back to the present. A young couple walked past his window, hand in hand and very much in love. Valentine week was here again.
The red box in his hands reminded him of the happy times gone by.
“Nah, “he shook his head vehemently and threw the box in the trash.
“Now, where did I keep that screwdriver?” he asked himself.