I knew that the new apprentice was repulsed by me but he should have learnt sooner to fear me rather than mock me. My eyesight was nearly gone (which made no difference as I could tell the difference between cinnamon and cassia with just one sniff, could roll a piece of marzipan into a flower or a star or a mouse with just my fingertips to guide the shape) but I knew when he curled his lip. It was as loud as the clomping boot steps he made as he entered the confectionery shop as if he wanted all of Frankfurt to hear him arrive.
No matter. The confectioner put him through his paces, cleaning the shop’s working surfaces and cooking tools, stoking the fire, emptying the slop bucket, sweeping the floors and tidying the shop front. He spent hours fetching supplies of firewood, white sugar, granulated sugar, flour, though not the spices. The confectioner dealt with the spice merchant himself, not trusting his young apprentice yet with such important ingredients. No apprentices were ever permitted to make even a simple sugar syrup until they could pass the confectioner’s first test - tell him the grade and origin of the sugar by taste only. I listened from the shop front as the new apprentice grumbled to himself about his taskmaster. What a fool to think that because I was an old woman I could not hear his cursing.
The confectioner was considered the master confectioner of Frankfurt, a city recently recovered from the horrors of the decades-long war. Men and their wars. Thirty years could be a lifespan. How many lives cut short by the fighting, the famines that followed when all the land was burnt, razed, trees cut down for armies to march, camp and clash with their enemies? The master had held onto his confectionery shop throughout it all as he was the preferred confectioner for the emperor. To find apprentices now, when so many young men had been sacrificed for the state of the nation, was not easy.
The apprentice worked six days a week, from dawn until dusk. One Saturday evening, he asked the confectioner why I must work the shop front. Would I not scare the customers away with my hag-like visage? The confectioner reprimanded him, reminded him to treat me with the respect that my age and sex deserved, then told him to be sure to confess his sin of vainglory before church the next day. I smiled to myself as I listened. I heard his eyes fix on my face, repelled by me.
He heeded the confectioner’s warning when other people were around. The confectionery was not a large place; a small front area with a cabinet to display our candies and gingerbread, and a slightly larger kitchen area and storeroom behind. If we happened to be the only two in the confectionery, then he might bump against me as he walked, blaming it on the heavy sacks of flour that he carried. If he thought he could trick me, he was a bigger fool than ever.
Only once did he catch me out, knocking my walking stick as he brought a tray of marzipan mice to the counter. I cried out before I could help myself. His snigger stung my ears. The housekeeper for one of the big houses and a maid came into the confectionery as I fell. They rushed to my aid while the apprentice faked his concern. The housekeeper, Frau Wiffen, helped me back to my seat, asking if I would try a new warm drink that the medicine men agreed was beneficial for the body. She sent the maid to fetch me this drink of tea.
Once the maid returned with the tea, I was feeling better but I put on a little act of confusion. The confectioner had returned by then and Frau Wiffen asked him to keep an eye on me. He instructed the apprentice to watch the shop front while I rested. I sat with my hands around the warm cup and told him a story. His snorting told me that he thought me a senile old woman rambling about fairytales. Yes, it was a children’s story, the tale of Hansel and Gretel in the woods with the old woman, but it was not my fault if he could not see the admonition. He sat sullenly until closing time.
I was waiting for him the next morning. I knew that he would come early to stoke the fire and sort the deliveries. Before dawn lit the sky, I was there in the kitchen, feeding logs to the fire. The stove blazed with heat against the bitter winter’s morning. Above the confectionary’s roof, smoke would be streaming out of the chimney like spun sugar. He started with surprise when he saw me. I did feel nostalgia then, for my forest cottage with its cosy fireplace, but it had been many hundreds of years since those days and that forest was no more. The little confectionery shop was a pleasant enough alternative. Do not burn yourself on the oven, I told him. He grunted in response.
The master is not here yet. Would you like me to show you how to make caramel candy?
He looked at me and I heard his unspoken questions but the confectioner had been using him like a dog’s body since he’d started, so he said yes and ran to fetch an apron.
Bring the granulated sugar, a jug of water, the cream of tartar. He was so eager to make the caramel I had to remind him to take care with the molten sugar. I showed him how to swirl the pan so the caramel would not stick nor crystallise as it melted. He took the pan and copied my actions. That was when I stumbled, righting myself quickly with my stick but bumping the apprentice’s arm. The boiling caramel splashed up from the pan and he screamed as it hit his face.
Oh dear, oh dear. You are burnt, here take this wet cloth for your face.
He had always underestimated me, that boy. As he reeled against the benchtop, I opened the oven door and bundled him in with my stick. His cries were muffled by the sound of the caramel bubbling on the stovetop. I dipped my finger into the pan to taste it. Burnt. What a waste of good sugar. I tipped it into the slop bucket and waited for the fire to burn down. Once the bones were incinerated, we could grind them into a white powder to add to the sugar if white sugar happened to be in short supply.
When the master arrived, I had just finished grinding the boy’s bones. I tipped them into a jar and closed it.
The apprentice is not here. Shall I start the baking this morning? I can make some shortbread.
The master nodded and I set to work with the flour, sugar, butter. The feel of the dough under my hands made me cheerful. Should I cut the shortbread into squares or fingers? I laid the biscuits onto a baking tray, like tombstones in a graveyard. I counted them out, one, two, three, thinking of all the children over the years who had ventured too close to my oven.