The opportunities to snack that the bakery presented were many and varied. Custard slices came at or near the top. Layers of flaky pastry filled with egg custard finished off with fondant icing and thin strips of liquid chocolate in a diamond design. These were prepared in sheets as big as the standard metal trays we worked with, 1.25 by 75 cm – the sheets of flaky pastry were baked off then staked when cool. The custard mix which was like a very thick cream was spread evenly over the base and then the top was added. Then the fondant was spread across the top. Liquid fondant across such an area was a really skilled job – to get it even, to do it quickly enough so that it did not set before it should, was all the challenge of the Danish pastry writ large. I never managed it to do it, though Trevor let me try once when my father was out of the bakery. It was like trying to hold onto a slinky. Trevor had to rescue me. Finally and while the fondant was still a little moist, thin lines of chocolate were piped long ways down the sheets and then a set divides was used to make a series of diamond shapes by pulling the stripes of chocolate gently across each other. The sheets were then cut into individual custard slices using the pastry dividers to determine the size of each slice. There was no way in which every slice could be made exactly the right size so strips of fresh custard slice were usually left from the sides and the ends of the tray. There was a rough mix of the edge of the pastry – always a little shy of the edge. These were a rough mix of the edge of the pastry, always a little more crusty, a layer of fresh custard cream and a small amount of fondant. What I liked best was the pastry and custard without the addition of the fondant or with only a tiny amount. The fresh pastry and the soft custard was a classic combination which I loved. But what I liked about this snack was that it was uniquely part of the bake house experience. You could not buy this in the shop. When the custard slices were being done a surprising number of people, including girls from the office, found a reason to walk by this part of the bakery. While Robert or whomever was cutting the slices was cleaning his knife the edges disappeared. It was in part a ritual enjoyment of the fringe benefits of the bakery – it was different from stealing which had to be kept hidden. This was understood and enjoyed by all openly. It also represented to me a sense of belonging to the “staff”. I am always intrigued by areas in restaurants or other places that have staff only sections. I am also quick to notice the inter-relationships of staff in places we go. It is something I have noticed in my brother as well. It comes back to that sense of inclusion in the little world.
Finally, towards dawn, all the goods were ready and arranged in the dispatch section of the bakery in metal racks with trays for Jumbo and his brothers to pack. Each of these racks carried twelve to fifteen trays. Each tray was arranged with the goods in rows. Racks were divided into different product lines. In some the puff pastry lines, sausage rolls, Cornish pasties, steak and kidney pies were stored. Other racks had yeast risen buns and cakes like Danish pastries, scones and Chelsea buns. All these goods were unwrapped and often got stuck together across the rows. In other sections of the bakery the crusty bread was pushed through on large trolleys from the ovens. Different kinds of loaves were kept together as they had been baked together in batches. In other places were the cream cakes and any fancy goods that needed to be delivered in the morning. Near the door, the sliced bread was stacked in baskets carrying fifteen loaves each.
The work in dispatch was to assemble this variety of goods into individual orders for delivery. The racks were arranged along a wall. The goods in the individual trays had to be located then the right number had to be put in the right place. The trays and baskets labelled correctly and arranged for loading in roughly the order that they needed to be put onto the vans for delivery.
Much of this last part of the morning was therefore spent looking up and down the racks for the right items. I used to think that it was like some sort of strange religious ceremony. First we would change into our whites to work the shift. This was like going to serve on the altar. I used to cycle to our local church, a modern Catholic one called Our Lady Queen of Peace, on a Sunday morning to do altar service and I also served at school for Thursday benediction and Friday morning mass. Serving involved changing into red tunics and white silky tops and carrying our candle sticks onto the altar. The prize job was working the incense burner. This was a bowl on the end of silver chain that you filled with incense to produce large quantities of smoke and a very pungent smell. My friend Declan and I once over filled the pot with whatever the stuff was and began to swing it form side to side as much was possible. The smoke billowed out. I was already hot that day. I breathed in the smoke as much as possible because we thought that it was a little like smoking a cigarette. But it was too hot. As a child I would sometimes pass out for no particular reason. Growing pains was the generally accepted explanation. It was okay to do this at home but at school it was humiliating. Girls fainted, not boys. On this occasion the whole school was assembled and watched me sway and faint amid the overwhelming fumes of the incense burner. I think all this would have bothered me if I had not woken from my faint in the arms of Sister Angelic, her large breasts just above my head. In all the subsequent teasing the site of those immense comfort zones was compensation and a silent, undeclared, trump card.
Other aspects of the mass were closer to the packing movements than fainting of course. For example the constant getting up and down from bended knee was a genuflection in front of the goods, assembled like so many gods of commerce on the altar of their metal racks – at least that is how I imagined it. If the gods were feeling kind then the goods were there. If they were feeling cruel then they could not be found. That meant a shortage. We had to check other orders or check to see if there were more on the way. There was a wrath of the god of this bake house waiting if the orders were short. The wrath of my father.
Some goods were pulled fresh from the oven onto the racks but others had to be packed in cling film before they could be sent out. If the shift was going to plan these would be the first ones to be ready. However they had to cool first. Rolls were packed in perforated plastic which let them breath so they could be done a little ahead of being completely cooled down, but the others had to be allowed to cool. Otherwise, as my father would say, the “buggers would sweat” and when opened be soggy. The clash was always between the needs of the packers to get the orders together before the drivers were ready to load them and the needs of the bakers to ensure that the goods were packed at the right moment and not ruined by sweating.
Once wrapped and packed the goods had to be arranged. This was an intricate business. The cakes had to be arranged to use the space efficiently in each of the wire baskets but also so that they would arrive in as good condition as possible. This was not a total pre-packaged environment – all smooth lines, conveyor belts and white surfaces. This was a bake house. Packers were not well trained technicians who understood the processes of production but jobbers who could read an invoice and count. It is this reality that means that in a business like my father’s it is essential that the boss, the owner, the gaffer, is around as much as possible. Only he can effectively police these kinds of things. He might have a foreman or a manager of some kind but in our experience, in this size of organisation, these positions were of limited use. The bake house existed in a world somewhere between the factory and the craft workshop. The bakers cared, to an extent, that the stuff was packed probably but often they would have finished their shift well before much of the packing went on. The packers did not want to send out broken stuff but equally they wanted to pack their stuff up as quickly as possible and get home. Unless my father was there checking a lot of stuff was thrown into the trays and sent out.
The level of returns to the bakery and complaints about what had actually arrived were very limited in ratio to the volume of stuff that the bakery produced. Absences that had been paid for were almost always called in and complained about directly they were noticed. Really serious breakages, like large twelve inch continental apple pieces destroyed by a steak and kidney pie, would be reported instantly. But the goods that had been badly packed, too many in a tray or packed too hot, were much less frequently complained about. The only explanation can be that the English, when it comes to bread and cakes, will eat anything.