They eyed up the Saturday girl as she spent her first lunchtime sat at a table by herself, close to the coat stand and the overflowing pedal bin at the far corner of the common room.
She was skinny, and surely no more than eighteen years old, with long red hair pulled back into a ponytail as per regulations, although strands of it strayed across the clear pale skin of her face. Her fine high cheekbones were dusted with freckles, and a starched white blouse beneath her gingham pinafore completed the look of a school prefect. Barely moving except to sip at a cup of tea from the vending machine, she read from a movie magazine, head bent close to the table top.
The girls in the corner spent a while sizing her up, before Ellen said: “She looks like a sad picture on my granny’s mantelpiece.”
There were a few titters and splutters. Then Jane – whose bob had become something of a mushroom of late – piped up: “Looks horsey. Anyone know where she’s from?”
One of the other girls said: “I think Janice said she was from up Howside.”
Ellen, who might have been a good-looking woman were it not for a cruel flex to one corner of the mouth when she spoke, a little too much weight on her neck and arms, and a face that had the crammed-in look of a Hallowe’en cake, nodded. “Might have known. Howside. Where all good estate agents go to die. That would make sense. Howside? Whyside, more like.”
They laughed again, quietly. The Saturday girl looked up, very briefly, from her magazine.
The production floor was a bustle of heat and high, sweet smells. Around two dozen people, mostly white-clad women, bustled along rows of trays, cutting through a mist of flour, sugar and pasty flakes. Despite the confectionery that rolled off the production line to be finished by hand and crammed into boxes, the place had a feel of the foundry, owing to the heat, the distant roaring of furnaces and clanking iron doors.
Janice, their supervisor, moved the Saturday girl next to Ellen’s spot on the line. The girls paused in their work at the trays to watch.
“Everyone, this is Tabitha,” Janice said. “She’ll be with us on a Saturday for the next few months. Ellen, I’d like you to show her the ropes.”
Ellen clapped her hands, the rubber gloves muffling the sound. “The ropes it is, then! You get yourself alongside me here, darlin’, and I’ll show you the ropes.”
The girl stepped forward, warily. She seemed much taller in close up, with a fine tapered figure not completely smothered by the overalls.
“Right – very simple. Spoon on the cream, add strawberries, lather on a bit of the old syrup, mop up any mess, do it four times, and… into the box, done. Got it?”
“Looks straightforward,” the Saturday girl said.
“I’ll go through it one more time, then you do it.” Ellen did so, then stepped back.
They all watched as the Saturday girl spooned thick clotted cream onto the pastry base, taking her time and flattening the mixture out, before reaching for the strawberries.
Ellen sighed. “God’s sake, there’s plenty to go around! Get stuck in, missy.” And she took the spatula from the Saturday girl, piling on a thick wadding of cream into the pastry.
“Sorry,” the girl said.
“You must think we’re still on war rations. Christ.”
The girl blushed, and jammed strawberries here and there into the cream. There was something of the squirrel in her quick, nimble movements. This being done, she then drizzled the thick red syrup all over the fruit. The stuff glistened in the light, channels of tiny bubbles frozen inside.
“Alright, it’s not an art project,” Ellen barked. “Into the box, and… next. Whahey! Perfect. You’ll go far here.”
The girl followed a learning curve, sometimes making mistakes, gradually filling the boxes of tarts faster. At one point, when she grew too confident and sluiced some of the syrup over the side of the pastry, she actually said, “Drat.”
“So what’s your story then, Tabitha?” Ellen asked, watching her mop up the mess. “You at school or college?”
“I’m still at school. Well, I’ve just gone into sixth form college.”
“Sixth form college. A bright spark, eh? What college is that?”
“A bead rattler, too! Very nice up there, I hear. Surprised you get much learning done in between the praying, though. Not long built, hey?”
The Saturday girl shook her head.
“So what do you fancy doing when you finish school, then? Off to university I bet?”
“I hope so. I’m applying for veterinary school.”
“What? A vet?”
“I hope so.”
“Better get used to wearing these gloves, then, pet.” And she mimed jamming a full arm’s length up a cow’s backside, sparking laughter along the production line.
“I’ll send my Martin over for an examination,” Jane said, from the bottom of the table where the meringues were made. “But you’re gonna need a bigger glove.”
Once the laughter had died down, Ellen said, “Nah, good on you girl. You don’t want to be working here all your days like us, eh? Slapping together custard pies on a production line.”
The girl said nothing for a moment, then she began to stammer. “Oh no – I’d work here no problem, no problem at all. There’s nothing wrong with – I mean…”
“No-one said there was anything wrong with working here,” Ellen said. She calmly fixed down the box lids, tucking flaps into slots and making sure the corners were snug in fluid, well-practised moves. “I didn’t hear anyone say that.”
Maureen, an older lady with close-cropped white hair beneath the netting and large spectacles fixed to the back of her head like ski goggles, said to the Saturday girl: “This your first job, honey?”
“Yes. I have to get saving for university.”
Ellen said: “You’re from Howside, aren’t you?”
“Didn’t think ‘saving up’ would be a big problem, there. Some right lovely houses at the top of the hill. Real crackers.”
The girl nodded.
Ellen raised a finger. “Can I ask what age you are? Sixteen? Seventeen?”
“Seventeen,” the Saturday girl mumbled.
“Seventeen? Jesus. You know what age I was when I started doing Saturday jobs?”
The girl shook her head.
“Twelve. I was twelve.” Ellen glanced around the table, shaking her head, making sure all eyes were fixed on her. “Jesus, when I think of it. I washed dishes down at a community centre. Got paid five quid once for working a 16-hour shift at a Christmas party for the old folks. My Christmas bonus was a pat on the arse off Mr Brownlee for my troubles. And that was in between my paper round during the week. And after all that, I handed most of my wages in to my mother.” She placed her hands on her hips and sighed to the buzzing striplights above. “Think about it – every morning, running up and down stairs, dragging that bloody bag, and all before school.”
“You must have been very fit back then,” the Saturday girl said.
Ellen stopped what she was doing for a moment, and several expressions seemed to pass over her face at once in a torrent. One side of her mouth dropped open, and her eyes darted back and forth. She might have been searching desperately for the right phrase to use. But she said nothing, and looked for a moment like a landed fish. Jane, stood opposite, snorted in surprise; one or two others sniggered under their breath.
And that was how it began.
Early on the next Saturday, Ellen told the Saturday girl to carry a set of battle-scarred trays through to the other side of the bakery. The pitted pallets were piled up to the girl’s chin, quivering with a grating rustle as she heaved them through. One of the other girls made a motion to help her, but too late; the uppermost trays toppled with a terrifying crash.
Ellen charged over. “For god’s sake – what’s wrong with you? It was only a few trays!”
“I’m sorry – they overbalanced.” Red-faced, the girl crouched low, piling the trays high at speed.
“If they were too heavy for you, while didn’t you say?” Ellen watched her, hands on her hips.
“It wasn’t that they were heavy. They were awkward. I’m sorry.”
Ellen rolled her eyes. “Think maybe you need to go to the gym, love. Build some muscle. Bit of co-ordination, too. You’ll learn about that at vet’s school.”
The Saturday girl piled the trays high; by the time she realised that lifting the whole stack from the floor would prove equally problematic, white-haired Maureen had come over to help.
“We’ll do it in two piles,” Maureen said. “Don’t worry, you’re doing fine, love.”
Blushing furiously, the Saturday girl lowered her head as the pair raised the two piles of metal and shuffled their way through to the bakery.
Ellen hooted laughter. “Two of them! To lift a pile of trays! You’ll be lucky they don’t replace you with bloody Poles.”
In the common room at lunchtime, the Saturday girl made her way over to the girls’ table. On cue, Ellen cackled loudly at one of her own jokes.
“And here she comes, Mrs Butterfingers. Everyone, this is the Saturday girl. Her name’s Tabitha.”
“Hello,” the Saturday girl said.
“She’s a bit of a bright spark, this one,” Ellen declared. “Goes to sixth form college. She’s going to be a vet.”
“Applying to be a vet,” Tabitha said. “I haven’t got in yet.”
Some of the girls murmured approvingly, although many of them already knew her story from what Ellen had told them during the week. One asked: “Where do you live, pet?”
“I’m from… just over the hill, up past the old mill.”
“Howside, is what she means.” Ellen winked at the Saturday girl. “Don’t be ashamed of where you’re from, love. We’re all friends here.”
“I’m not ashamed.”
Ignoring this, Ellen said: “She’s the one who crashed out with the trays earlier. Bit of advice for you, Tabitha. Try not to do that when you’ve got buns on the trays, yeah? Hey?” Ellen nodded approvingly at the smiles and chuckles that surrounded her. “Especially not with a wedding cake.”
Maureen, who had not laughed or smiled, chased the last of her coffee and said, “Yeah. Next time you drop a set of trays, Tabitha, try and make sure you drop them onto Ellen’s head. I’m off for a smoke.”
Things became more fraught still when it came to the iced doughnuts.
After a close inspection, Ellen held a shovel-like hand up. It was not quite a call for silence, but functioned well enough as one, and she raised her voice.
“Excuse me. What’s the score with the hundreds-and-thousands?” She indicated the multi-coloured sugar flakes that the Saturday girl had used to dust the buns.
The colour drained from the girl’s face. “That’s what you told me to do with them.”
“No – I said use a handful, over the icing. I didn’t say ‘throw tonnes of them on’!”
“Sorry. It wasn’t clear what you meant.”
Ellen pursed her lips and put on a florid accent. “’It wasn’t cleah what you meant.’ Oh I think it was puhhfectly cleah, don’t you?”
The girl clutched at her elbow and chewed her lip.
“Next time, listen, college girl, alright? God’s sake. GCSEs up to her eyeballs, and she can’t finish off a doughnut!”
At this, the girl left. It couldn’t have been called storming out; there was no door-slamming, no foot-stamping. But she was certainly gone, tearing off her hygiene net, stray streamers of hair drifting out behind her.
Ellen did not allow her the dignity of an exit, though. She tore after the Saturday girl, wrenching the door back open. “Here! Where do you think you’re going?”
“Tummy ache,” Tabitha said, without turning round.
“Well, get a bit of Evening Primrose down you. You sort your tummy ache out, love! Some of us have work to do!”
After Ellen had made her serene way back to the line, mushroom-headed Jane tugged her sleeve. “Might want to tone it down a bit, eh?”
Ellen whooped. “Tone it down? What for? She’s not good enough. She’s weak sauce. And she needs told. We don’t do soft-soaping in here. We’ve had some brilliant Saturday girls before. This one’s useless.” She turned to the others. “Sorry – that’s the way it is.”
Maureen called out, “She’s only learning, Ellen.”
“But did you hear her? ‘It wasn’t clear what you meant’. How many times do I have to explain how to make a doughnut? I mean, how clear do you have to be?”
The Saturday girl came back, her complexion clear, with no obvious signs that she had been crying. She said very little for the rest of the shift, taking her time over the doughnuts, and double-checking with the girl next to her how many hundreds and thousands should be used on the icing. Ellen frowned at her once or twice, but said nothing else to her until Janice came in to make an announcement, ten minutes before hometime.
Neat in a trouser suit, Janice was the picture of middle management efficiency. She glanced occasionally at a clipboard in her hands during her speech.
“If I could have everyone’s attention? Just before you all finish for the day? Thank you. Now, it’s been brought to my attention that there’s been a complaint over, uh, unpleasant comments and bullying on the shop floor.”
Ellen spluttered aloud, astonished. Janice paused while the big woman composed herself and trailed a slow finger over the flat bulb of her nose. “Sorry. Hay fever.”
“…So I’m here to remind everyone: we don’t tolerate bullying at this bakery. In any way, shape or form. If it turns out that people are being bullied, then there will be, eh, disciplinary action. You’ll have me to answer to. That’s all. Thank you.” With that, Janice actually nodded at the Saturday girl, who stared at her shoes.
Ellen smacked a fist into the palm of her hand. “Right – who was it, then? Who’s the big bully? Just wait till I get my hands on her, girls!”
Few of the girls expected her to return the next weekend, but the Saturday girl showed up as usual, taking her place at the strawberry tarts table. Beyond small talk, no-one said much to her, until Handy Andy burst into the room.
Tall, wiry and fashionably unkempt, with a silver pen cocked behind one ear like a feather in a courtesan’s cap, he strutted along the rows with the air of a man pausing for photos on a red carpet. Adoring smiles garlanded his stately progress. “Morning girls,” he called, nodding to everyone. “How’s my babes doing?”
“Oh, hi there!” Ellen called out, waving.
He made a beeline for the big woman, snapping arms his around her meaty shoulders with an almost ferocious passion. “Ah, Ellen, flower of my daydreams. What’s been going on with you?”
“I’d tell you, but it might get me sacked,” Ellen said, close enough to his neck to sink her teeth in. She winked, over his shoulder, at the Saturday girl.
“Oh yeah. You in trouble, I hear?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
Handy Andy followed her gaze towards the tall, willowy girl at the corner of the table. With a neat turn on the balls of his feet, he strode towards her.
“Well hello,” he said, voice losing an octave on the way across the floor. “You’re new.”
He was the kind of man who tricked you into a smile before you knew it, and the girl’s face lit up. “Hi, I’m Tabitha.”
“Tabitha. Nice name. And what are brings you to the hall of angels?”
“I’m the Saturday girl.” She shrugged, bashfully.
“Friday, Saturday and Sunday girl, you mean. Jesus! Look at those lines. Model material. Don’t I know you from somewhere? Honestly, your face is really familiar. Where you from?”
“You don’t know her,” Ellen bellowed. “She’s a clever clogs. Doesn’t mix with van drivers. From Howside. Goes to the college. She wants to pick the fleas off some dogs when she grows up.”
“What she means is, Tabitha’s studying to be a vet,” Maureen said.
“Ah right,” Andy said, suddenly earnest. “A vet, that’s brilliant. God, I wish I’d done something like that.”
Ellen said, “Yeah, you wish you would…” But he was not listening to her. And from there, Ellen utterances devolved into a mumble, a long run of grunts and snorts which may have contained syllables but no words at all.
Later, Ellen gave out some orders. “Right, Tabitha. I want you to make up a tray of brownies, four boxes of strawberry tarts and a dozen special eclairs. Corporate order, for a board meeting down the rugby club. You got it?”
The girl blinked, repeating the order over. “No problem. I’ll get onto it.”
“Well, write it down, then!” Ellen handed her a notepad and paper.
The Saturday girl put the box together, careful to not even smudge the whorls of cream and chocolate garters; after Ellen inspected it, she snatched the pen clipped to her breast pocket and threw it to the floor.
“For god’s sake! What did I ask you to do?”
The Saturday girl shrank back, and searched her pockets. “I’ve got it here – I wrote it down. Hang on.”
“That order has to go today. Do you understand? Today. This afternoon.”
“Here it is,” the Saturday girl stammered. “A tray of brownies, four boxes of strawberry tarts, a dozen special eclairs. That was the order.”
Ellen started forward, her voice deadly quiet. “And what about the pineapple cakes?”
“Pineapple cakes? You didn’t ask for pineapple cakes.”
Ellen let the silence – the tension – the audience – build. She flared her nostrils, staring right into the Saturday girl’s eyes. “No, love. I think you just weren’t listening.”
“I took it down, look. I made you repeat it.” The sheet of paper quivered in Tabitha’s hands.
“A simple instruction. Yet again, you get it wrong.” Ellen shook her head. “You know, for all your education, it’s fair to say that you’re one of the worst Saturday girls we’ve ever had. I don’t know anyone who can’t get a simple instruction right like that.”
“Ellen,” Maureen growled.
“We took on a lass who’d been in care,” Ellen continued. “And to be fair, she was a right rough character. But you know what? Never a complaint from her. Never an excuse if she got things wrong. She got on with it. She did a good job.”
“I didn’t make a mistake. You must have.” A certain edge had crept into the Saturday girl’s voice.
“Yes, that’s right. I must have made a mistake. I’ve been here fifteen fucking years, and I made the mistake. Not you, who’s been here two minutes. Not you, who gets everything wrong. Yes, I must’ve made a mistake. It must have been me.”
The explosion was instantaneous, and drew audible gasps as the Saturday girl’s voice grew to a sudden shriek. “You fat bitch! You didn’t ask for pineapple cakes! I know you didn’t!”
Ellen did not get angry; did not shout, nor raise her hands. She simply shrugged. “Disgraceful. What a shameful thing to say. You all heard that, didn’t you?”
No-one said anything.
“You provoked me.” Tears, thick and briny, trembled at the corners of the girl’s eyes.
“I can’t tolerate that,” Ellen said. “Just so you know – I’ll be filing a complaint. I’m telling you that to your face, an’ all. Not grassing you up to the boss, on the sly.” She stabbed a finger towards the girl. “And while I’m here, I’ll tell you something. I’ll be frank. I might be too scummy for someone like you. I may not have a big fancy house, or a big car or lots of money off mummy and daddy. But I work. Yeah? I work for a living.” She slapped a hand against her bosom. “I’ve been here for years. I know the score. I know this place inside out. And I deserve a bit of respect. Even from a princess like you.”
Maureen had blown her nose and spiked up her fringe in the mirror when she heard a gentle snuffling from one of the stalls.
“Hello?” She knocked gently on the military green cubicle.
“Yes, hello,” the Saturday girl squeaked.
“Tabitha? Are you alright, love?”
“Absolutely fine, thanks.” And she flushed the toilet.
Maureen waited a moment. When the door still didn’t open, she knocked again. “Oh, come on, love. Open up.”
Maureen hugged her close after a while, patting her hair beneath the netting. “Aw pet, I’m sorry. You don’t deserve it. You don’t.”
“I’m just here for a job. My mum made me apply, to get out and work. Pay my way properly. I wanted to do it, too. And that cow thinks I’m a snob!”
“I know, love. I know.”
“Why is she doing this? I haven’t done a thing to her. I didn’t say a word.” The girl was so pale she was almost translucent, hands shaking. Her eye make-up was a storm cloud smudge down her cheeks. “It’s my eighteenth next week, and I can’t think about anything else! What’s her problem?”
“Isn’t it obvious, love?”
The question seemed to reverberate around the cubicle for a moment. Then the Saturday girl took a deep breath, and straightened up. “What can I do?”
“Nothing. Don’t do anything. Don’t change.”
Maureen passed an order sheet to Ellen. “We need a cake finished off.”
Ellen shrugged. “And? Why are you handing it to me?”
“Thought you were the best at icing? That’s what you were saying the other day.”
“Yeah, well, I’m busy at the minute.”
“Janice asked for you especially,” Maureen said.
Ellen chewed the side of her mouth. Glancing at the list, she whistled. “Hey. Saturday girl. You can give me a hand here. The big job.”
The Saturday girl had a whipped look to her, but she came forward.
The cake was produced, a huge 12-inch disc slabbed with pink icing. The white icing over the top was battlement-thick. “Right then,” Ellen said. “It says fairy glitter, here. Let’s get that sprinkled on.”
The Saturday girl took a handful of dust from a plastic container; a twinkling rain settled over the icing.
“Must be for a right princess, this cake. Okay – now the ribbons. In fact, here, stand back – you just watch. That’ll be the best thing. You make a mess of these, you get your wages docked.”
Bernadette Wilsey appeared. “I saw the order sheet earlier – here’s a few decorations.” She proffered a box of figurines – pink and blue-winged fairies, snuggled in among football players poised to shoot, goalies diving full length. Brontosauruses poked their necks out from this jewelled swamp; here and there were tigers, dragons and horses.
Ellen tossed the box over to the Saturday girl. “That’s a job for you. Tailor made. Use your skills. Pick out some fairies and princesses.”
The finished piece began to take shape; soon fairies began to appear, and then the centre-piece, a girl with long hair stuck in a tower, and a handsome prince with a sword. The icing was studded with plastic stars, carefully positioned by Ellen.
She palmed some sweat from her brow and checked out the order sheet. “Right… Something’s missing, here. Is there a name or a message?”
One of the other girls – Shanice’s young sister, Elaine – said: “I think Maureen was talking about it earlier.”
“Yeah? And am I supposed to guess? Make a name up?” Ellen took up the icing bag, cradling its heft and weight.
Elaine shrugged. “I’ll go ask Maureen.”
Ellen sighed and shook her head. “It’s turning into amateur hour, here. Worse with every passing week, I tell you.”
On some level the big woman had already guessed something was up; there were too many smiles in the room, too much unsolicited attention. She became tense, finding some obscure fault with the icing bag, tapping, shaking and testing it as if it had moving parts, valves and gaskets.
Maureen trotted back into the bakery with a fresh sheet of paper. “So sorry, Ellen – here’s the icing message. It must have slipped my mind. Here you go.”
Ellen took the sheet. She simply nodded. “Well. You know what? I think I’m due a break. Someone else can do it.”
She tossed the icing bag onto the table. On the way out she slammed the door, hard enough to fan the loose leaves of the firefighters calendar and billow the rotas on the far wall.
The laughter followed, long and loud, echoing out through the chamber, bewildering the Saturday girl. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll show you.” Maureen took up the icing bag; with quick flicks of the wrist, neat loops and whorls of lettering spelled out the message: “Happy birthday Tabitha”.
Candles were produced and lit; the Saturday girl, face the same shade of pink as the cake, blew them out, and applause rang out.
“You have a lovely birthday,” mushroom-headed Jane said. Then, pursing her lips, she forced it out: “And never you mind that witch.”
“You should have crowned her with the cake,” one of the other girls said. “Good on you for keeping yourself right.”
“You did call her a fat bitch,” Shanice said. “And for that, you’re my hero.”
The Saturday girl, tears in her eyes, said: “That’s nice but…”
“But what?” Maureen asked, slicing down into the cake. “Every girl deserves a birthday cake. Come on, let’s get the plates out. Get the tea on.”
“I know, but…”
“You worried about her?” Maureen jerked a thumb towards the door, following a glance from the girl. “It’s got nothing to do with her. She’s the icing expert. Tells us so every week. We decided to get you a cake, so she gets to decorate it. It’s not like it’s malicious.”
“A red face is the least she deserves, anyway,” said Shanice. “Nobody would have blamed you if you’d slapped her one.”
“I don’t want to slap anyone,” the Saturday girl mumbled.
Maureen slid a slab of sponge and icing onto one of the paper plates. “Right – cake for you. Come on, girl, get it down you.”
The following Saturday, Ellen began her working day as she always did, throwing her coat up on the common room stand. She’d already noticed the extra noise. As usual, the girls were grouped around the best table, up close to the window, but everyone else in the staffroom had been drawn into this nucleus from all corners. Right in the centre was the Saturday girl. Her face had been transformed with a broad smile, her cheekbones honed, cheeks and chin dimpled.
“Great – why don’t I book a table for us?” Maureen said, just as Ellen pulled up a seat.
“Morning girls,” she said, slapping both hands down on the table. “What’s all this mirth about, then?”
No-one said anything. Even Jane said nothing, resting her chin on a fist.
“We were just, um, talking about a night out,” the Saturday girl said. “Next Saturday, after we all finish.”
“What? Out in Howside, I take it? The country club? Or is it a weekend in Monaco?” Ellen snorted, casting for glances. “We going riding? Playing polo? Try Scuttlebutt’s down the town, instead, sweetheart. That’s more this lot’s style.”
“Actually, it is at Scuttlebutt’s,” Tabitha said. “Everyone’s invited. You too, if you want.”
“Not at all,” Tabitha said. “Open invite. Please come along.”
Maureen and Tabitha waited for Ellen’s reply. And Josie and Prue, Karen and Megan and Tess, Shanice and Elaine, and the other girls.
“Not for me,” Ellen said at last, sniffing. “Scuttlebutt’s is a bit rough for my liking.”
“Let me know if you change your mind,” Tabitha said. “I just want to say thank you to everyone for my lovely cake.”
Ellen nodded. “You’re welcome.” Then she turned her head away.
The excited chatter continued all around her, while Ellen’s attention was diverted out of the window by two dogs rutting beside a litter bin. One furious woman tore down the street, bellowing silently, an empty lead swinging in her hand.
Maureen drained her tea. “Best get with it then, girls,” she said. One by one, they shuffled their seats back into position and filed through to the production floor.
Soon only Ellen remained, blinking furiously at the crumb-sprinkled table, fists and jaw clenched tight enough to shatter.
(c) Pat Black 2015