Chapter 2: Bakes Own Bread
"I am Beloved and she is mine." –From Beloved, by Toni Morrison
She spent most of the night sorrowing quietly for her pet, her face pressed against John's shoulder, not dropping off until just before dawn.
When a muffled, scraping sound pulled her out of a heavy, uneasy sleep some hours later, the room was filled with sunlight and John's side of the bed was empty and cold. For one wrenching moment she feared his Christmas Day return had been a dream, then she heard it again: a sound like metal being lightly dragged over pavement, coming from outside.
Mindful of her new center of gravity, Mary squirmed onto her side, swung her legs to the floor, and used her arms to push herself into a sitting position. Pulling on her slippers, she carefully got to her feet and tried to keep from waddling as she walked over to the window, grabbing her dressing gown off the back of the rocking chair on the way.
On the street below, John was using a garden spade to clear the snow from the pavement in front of their home. (The spade wasn't a tool best suited to this task, but it was so seldom that they actually needed a proper snow shovel that they never remembered they hadn't got one until they did.) Glancing up at a brilliant blue sky dotted with white clouds, Mary wondered why he was bothering. The storm system had passed; what little snow was left was wet and heavy, with slushy imprints left on the road by the few cars brave enough to have ventured out. She guessed that, between the bright sunshine and the rapidly rising temperature, there would be little left of last night's accumulation by late afternoon.
Likely he was doing it for the exercise. It was too sloppy to run or bike, and John liked to have some outlet for his restless energy. Mary envied his enjoyment of exercise – she didn't dislike working out, exactly, but her chief motivation for doing it was because she liked the way it made her look and feel, not because she got any enjoyment out of the activity for its own sake.
She lingered at the window for a moment, just watching her husband. Warmed by the exercise, John had laid aside his coat despite the damp chill, and she admired the way his lean back muscles slid and rippled beneath his olive green Polartec shirt. He worked methodically, moving with the easy grace of a small lion confident of his strength, smooth and precise in his movements. He was wearing heavy work gloves to protect his hands from the rough, wooden shaft of the spade, and a cap and scarf Mrs. Hudson had knitted for him the Christmas before last. The cap was pulled down low over his ears, and she could almost see the steam rising from his torso, to which his shirt, slightly damp with sweat, clung like a second skin. The seven pounds he had put on in the first months of their marriage had vanished along with seven more over the course of their estrangement, and she realized with a pang that she could almost count his ribs through the garment.
He's warm now from the exercise, but he'll cool down fast once he stops, she thought. Wrapping her dressing gown around her expanding middle as well as she could, she headed down to the kitchen to put coffee on.
The pot had just finished percolating when John came through the kitchen door, flushed and stamping.
"Mm, coffee," he said with pleasure, sniffing the air.
"You'll have to pour your own, I'm afraid," Mary said indicating her hands, which were sticky with the bread dough she had been kneading on the worktop.
"S'alright. Thanks for making it; I know you've been missing it yourself." John gave her his patented there-and-gone half-smile as he went to the sink to wash his hands before pouring a mugful of the dark, strong liquid. He added milk; then, still stirring, leaned in to brush her cheek lightly with his lips. She immediately turned to put her arms round him, holding her doughy hands away, but he leaned backwards out of her reach.
"Don't want to get you all sweaty." He shot her a concerned look. "All right?"
She managed a rather watery smile. "No. But I will be."
From the corner of her eye, she could see the bit of tiled floor where Sadie's food and water bowls had been. John must have put them away when he came down so the sight of them wouldn't upset her. She wasn't sure if having them gone made her feel better or worse.
Swallowing hard, she changed the subject.
"You'd better go shower; you don't want to get chilled."
He studied her a moment, giving her what she privately thought of as his "diagnostic look." He nodded slowly.
"Right. I won't be long." He gave her arm a squeeze before leaving the kitchen, taking his mug with him.
Hearing his footsteps on the stairs, she suddenly remembered a morning last spring when he had just returned from a five-mile run, dripping wet and still blowing slightly as he entered the kitchen in his running gear. She had made coffee that morning, too.
"Ergh…you stink," she had announced, grimacing, as he drew near. "Keep away from me until you've showered!"
He had stared at her as he raised an arm to wipe the matted hair off his forehead. Suddenly a wicked gleam came into his eye; before she could figure out what it meant he had snatched her up in a bear hug and rubbed his sweaty face against her freshly showered hair and neck, pressing his dripping body against hers. He kissed her hard on the mouth, cutting off her indignant shriek, then ducked away and sprinted for the stairs when she raised her hand to smack him.
"Come back here, you coward!" she cried, glaring after him.
"Can't stop, got to shower," he called back cheerfully.
"What about me?" she demanded, disgustedly motioning to her now sweat-damp clothes.
Part of her wanted to clock him, but another part was finding it very difficult to keep from laughing.
He had paused halfway up the stairs and leered at her suggestively. "You're welcome to join me."
She loved that memory. (It had all been utterly revolting, of course, and she warned him that she'd suture his hands over his ears if he ever tried anything like that again, but secretly she had been pleased.) With the approach of their wedding, the return of Sherlock Holmes, and the mending of his friendship with the man, John's seldom-seen lighthearted, playful side began coming to the surface more often. It was a delight to see.
Then came Magnusson, and the thing with Sherlock, and the doctor's old, brooding wariness had returned in full.
Mary heard the water running upstairs, indicating that John was now in the shower. She wondered what would happen if she were to go up and join him – would she be welcome? They had reconciled, but he still wasn't the relaxed, easygoing John he had become last summer – he had gone back to the guarded version of himself he had been when they first met.
For a moment she considered it, then told herself the small shower wouldn't accommodate John, her, and the baby, and returned to the mound of bread dough on the worktop.
Nothing fancy this time, she thought, pushing the thought of everything but the dough out of her mind. No complicated swirls, tasty toppings or redeeming whole grains. Just a comforting, classic white loaf, the kind that tastes like a slice of heaven when slathered with plenty of fresh butter and jam and paired with piping hot, milky tea.
Despite the painful absence of Sadie's soft, furry body brushing against her calves as she worked, the familiar task soothed her. She remembered that the first yeast loaf she had ever made had been a classic white.
The Saturday afternoon after she had nearly given Imogen from work a heart attack just by smiling at her, Mary Morstan went for a run.
She made a point of running a minimum of three mornings during the work week, and she had missed Friday's by oversleeping. She told herself she was too tired to do it when she got home; that left Saturday. If it had been cold and rainy she might have bottled out altogether, but the glorious, golden autumn weather had continued into the weekend, and she could think of no other excuse to put it off. Bugger.
She rolled out of bed, stretched and hydrated, then reached resentfully for her running shoes. For once she brushed Sadie off as she headed out the door, irrationally jealous of her little indoor kitty's naturally lithe figure.
She doesn't need to run miles and miles to stay slim, and even if she did gain a bit, it would only make her look cuter. Bloody animals.
The exercise improved her mood as it always did – three miles later and the lovely weather, release of endorphins, and satisfaction of a task well done had induced a satisfied buzz that lasted through her half-mile cooling-down walk.
That is, it lasted until she passed the bakery just around the corner from her block of flats.
She paused on the pavement outside the building, glaring through the large window where a plump, rosy woman with grey braids crisscrossed over the top of her head was putting out a tray of fresh-baked loaves. Their heavenly aroma reached Mary even through the plated glass, making her mouth water and igniting a sullen resentment that made her fantasize about going back to the flat and seeing if she had the materials on hand to whip up a Molotov cocktail. She imagined herself throwing it through the window after nightfall when the place was closed, burning it to the ground so that it could never again tempt her or anyone else with delectable, traitorous carbohydrates. Surely that would be a boon to humanity?
This. This was the bloody problem – the reason she had to run miles and bloody miles every week in order to maintain her size twelve figure. That horrible Cath at work loved safe, slimming salads like children love candy and ate them nonstop, but fresh bread had always been Mary's Achilles' heel – her Kryptonite.
Not for the first time, it occurred to her that she had been an idiot to move into a flat mere steps away from a bakery.
As the baker straightened up, she glanced through the window. Spotting Mary, she offered her a cheerful smile and friendly wave, as if to a good friend.
Naturally – I keep her in business, Mary thought sourly. She offered a dutiful smile in return before turning away resolutely. With grim determination she stalked off in the direction of her flat, resolved to avoid the bakery on this day, at least.
Her resolve was wavering before she even hit the shower.
Barely thirty minutes later, the shop bell chimed blithely as Mary, hair still damp from her shower, pushed open the bakery door. She grinned sheepishly as the grey-haired woman exclaimed happily upon seeing her, "Ah! I thought I should have had you back before the closing time…you cannot resist the classic white loaf, yes?"
It was the longest sentence Mary had ever heard her say – though she knew this woman well by sight, she never lingered, and they rarely exchanged words beyond a simple, "hallo." Now, Mary discerned the barest trace of an accent.
Polish, she thought, but she's lived in this country so long her accent is nearly perfect. Some people might guess from her syntax that she's not from here, but I bet I'm one of the few who could guess her country of origin.
Aloud Mary said, smiling, "How do you know that?"
"It is the one you choose the most often," the baker declared cheerfully as she reached behind the glass case to extract a loaf. "You are also quite partial to the rosemary and olive oil, I think, and occasionally to the oat and honey. But always, always, you come back to the white, your favorite – especially on the brisk days."
Mary's smile faltered. She felt alarmed by the baker's keen observations. She was adept at fading into the background – her life had often depended on her ability to do so – yet this woman noticed her. Among who knows how many customers that entered this shop every day, this woman had noticed Mary. Mary's eyes grew cool as she studied the baker warily. Just who the hell is she?
But her scrutiny revealed nothing to alert her keen instinct for spotting danger – only an elderly woman who had been a baker all her life, with lively grey-green eyes, the beginning of arthritis in her hands and wrists, and a warm smile.
It's you, Mary, who's grown careless, she mentally scolded herself. She had not stayed in one place so long in years, and she knew better than to frequent the same shops, regardless. Before Sadie had come to live with her she had made a point of patronizing different establishments for what she needed, but having a reason to go home made her keener to choose the stores closest to her own block of flats. Besides, she loved this bakery. It was warm and full of good smells, and had an authentic, old-fashioned charm the newer bakeries lacked.
"Is always nice to see someone who truly appreciates good bread," the baker said proudly as she handed Mary her change along with the white loaf, now wrapped up. "I like to see you come in." She rested a hand lightly on her chest. "I am Anja."
Mary hesitated before answering. "Mary."
Anja's smile grew broader. "Marya! A beautiful name. It was my mother's." She extended her left arm to give Mary her change.
Her own smile growing, Mary reached to take it. "Anja. It's very nice to–" she began, then, glancing down, broke off with a quiet gasp when spotted them – a faint line of blurred, blue numbers tattooed on the inside of Anja's forearm."
Anja looked puzzled a moment, then understanding flashed into her eyes when she followed Mary's gaze. Calmly, she flipped her arm over to drop the change into her customer's frozen palm before discreetly pulling her sleeve down over the tattoo. "You have baked bread yourself, Marya?" She asked in the tone of one who is trying tactfully to turn a subject.
Flushing, Mary dragged her eyes away from the woman's arm. "Me? Oh. Oh, no…no, I can't cook, really." It was something she'd never really had the time to learn.
"Baking and cooking are two different things," Anja said firmly, coming out from behind the counter. "Baking bread takes patience. You have patience, I think. I am sure you would find it very satisfying."
"Oh, I don't know…"
Anja gave Mary's arm a warm squeeze as she saw her to the door. "You must to come by some evening, a Friday evening perhaps. I show you."
Bemused, Mary lingered a moment on the pavement as Anja locked the door to the bakery behind her and turned the sign in the window to "Closed." Then, shaking her head slightly, she returned to her flat and Sadie to enjoy her fresh, still-warm bread.
She told herself she had no intention of doing any such thing – of course she didn't, she had better sense than that – but she did go to the bakery late the next Friday afternoon. Just to get another loaf of bread, of course, not to take Anja up on her offer. No, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Anja was warm and welcoming, that she reminded Mary of her grandmother (the only family member she could remember, whom she had lost at the age of four), or the unspoken realization that Anja, too, apparently had a violent, unsettled past she didn't care to speak of.
When the delighted baker invited her back to see the kitchen, Mary told herself that it would be impolite, not to mention unkind, not to at least take a look now she was here. Anja was very proud to show Mary her kitchen and all its treasures, and Mary couldn't help admiring how neat and orderly it all was – much more so than she had expected.
"There's a certain…aesthetic to baking the bread," Anja declared. "Everything must to be so clean and nice."
She insisted on walking Mary through her first loaf of bread – a quick bread made with flour and milk and eggs and salt, using bicarbonate as a rising agent instead of yeast, and olive oil and a variety of herbs for flavoring. Watching her work, Mary marveled at how ridiculously easy it was – really, you just whipped the ingredients together and kneaded them a bit before dumping them in a loaf pan and popping it all into the oven. Less than an hour later, out came a fragrant, moist and crumbly loaf that paired beautifully with the salad and soup Anja had ready.
Mary couldn't wait to try the recipe Anja gave her at home, but to her dismay, what felt like a brick dropped heavily out of her overturned pan. It was still wet on the inside, but a bit too brown on top – nothing at all like Anja's perfect loaf.
When she brought it to Anja the next day to find out what had gone wrong, the older woman shook her head.
"You handled the dough too much, Marya," she said sagely. "Did I not to warn you? Some loaves need a light touch only. Like many things in this life, you do not want to try to control it too much."
Thus began a treasured if unlikely friendship, and a hobby that became Mary's private passion.
When Mary set her mind to learning something, she learned it, and under Anja's direction she soon turned out her first yeast loaf. The satisfaction she felt when the unappetizing-looking mixture of yeast, salt, water and flour she had left to rise overnight in Anja's kitchen came out of the oven as a loaf of real, actual bread, was like nothing she had ever experienced.
Admittedly, it was not very good bread (it tasted a bit bitter; Anja said she must have put too much yeast in), but Mary was ridiculously pleased with herself nonetheless. She couldn't wait to try again, and under Anja's watchful eye and expert tutelage it wasn't long before she produced a perfect white loaf.
From then on, there was no stopping her: baguettes followed cinnamon-raisin loaves followed challah. She learned about using lecithin granules, millet, oats and honey. She learned to make wonderfully sour and stiff pain Poilâne-style loaves, sweet and savory bagels, and buttery croissants. She learned to make eggy brioches, cinnamon babka and pain au chocolat. But her personal favorite was the classic white.
As she punched down dough with Anja, Mary couldn't help asking herself what the hell was she doing? London teemed with excellent bakeries; baking bread certainly was not a skill she needed to learn.
Perhaps it was the science behind it (there really was a lot of chemistry involved in baking bread), or maybe it appealed to her innate ability to watch and wait. Or it could have been the fact that baking bread was the first thing she had ever undertaken to learn for herself alone. Regardless, Mary found it a soothing, comforting task. Working side-by-side with Anja, breathing in the intoxicating aromas of rising dough and fresh-baked bread, listening to the comforting background hum of the mixer and dough hook turning and the radio turned to a BBC7 drama, she enjoyed a sense of security she had not experienced since her early childhood.
Her training agent had warned her about making connections. Adopting the stray cat had seemed safe enough, but the softening that had begun with Sadie had created a change in Mary that the discerning baker had noticed – a change that made the elder woman begin to feel fond of and rather protective towards the lonely younger woman, finally prompting her to reach out.
Anja was the first person Mary formed a connection with in her adult life that had nothing whatever to do with her prior profession. The connection made her uneasy at first, but she soon relaxed. Anja was restful to be with. She never asked Mary why she was apparently alone in the world, just as Mary never asked her about the tattoo. Their conversations were light and their silences companionable. The time they spent together was somehow healing for both of them, and Mary could see no possible harm in it.
In her zeal for her new hobby, she soon outstripped her own and Sadie's ability to eat her home-baked creations before they went stale.
Not being a wasteful person, Mary began to bring them to work to give to patients: quick breads, yeast breads, rolls and muffins, savory and sweet. Her patients were delighted with her, and the pleasure with which they received her edible gifts warmed her in an unexpected way. One of her older female patients thanked her in Arabic, calling her malak, and she loved the idea of being an angel instead of a villain for once.
She almost risked making a faux pas one day when one of her regulars–kind, elderly Mr. Kirke – came in for his three-month's checkup. She had been about to present him with a raspberry-vanilla swirled brioche when he told her proudly that he'd been gluten-free since his last appointment.
She left the loaf hidden under her coat and, with unusual demonstrativeness, kissed his grizzled cheek instead. (He seemed to like that just as well.)
At the staff meeting later that afternoon, her co-workers were astounded when Mary Morstan set out a home-baked sweet loaf and invited them to help themselves. They were so pleased, in fact, that she was pleased in return, and resolved to bring more of her baked treats to share with them.
One Sunday evening, just as Mary was putting an olive oil rosemary loaf into the oven so it would be ready for her to bring to the Monday morning staff meeting, she had an epiphany:
I enjoy baking. Especially bread.
She had opened the window a bit to let in the spring air. Sadie was sitting erect with her tail curled daintily round her front paws on the sill, her back to the fire escape as she watched her mistress with great interest. The radio was on, and Mary had been humming along with it as she worked.
For a moment, she just stood there in her tiny galley kitchen, in her ridiculous fuzzy pink slippers and the stupid red apron with "I LIKE BIG BUNS AND I CANNOT LIE!" printed across the chest in screaming white letters. Trying to retrace her actions in an attempt to identify the source of the extraordinary, unbidden thought, she glanced down and noticed streaks of flour across her stomach from where she had wiped her hands just before grabbing the handle of the oven door.
It was the apron that had inspired the thought, then – that silly apron.
It had been Christmas a gift from Janine, Dr. Clarkson's assistant. Janine had drawn Mary's name in the Secret Santa last December. Everyone had laughed at the apron when Mary opened the package, including Mary herself, but the thing had pleased her somehow. Trying to think why, she had finally decided it was because it was useful. In the years prior, Mary usually got something like hand cream or a scented candle, dutiful gifts from little-known co-workers who had been disappointed to draw her name and hadn't the faintest idea what to give her. But this apron – Mary could use this. In fact, she needed one – Anja always lent her one of hers when Mary was at the bakery, but at home she usually just tucked a tea towel into her jeans or collar to protect her clothing while she baked.
Now, closing the oven door and slowly stepping backwards, Mary stared down at her apron, marveling at its personal nature.
Janine had got her this. The good-natured Irish girl was the first person to tease Mary in a friendly way since her team had been killed. Janine had chosen the apron as her way to do it because Mary was always bringing home-baked bread into the surgery – because she, Janine, knew Mary liked baking bread. Before Mary herself had known, Janine Hawkins knew that Mary Morstan enjoyed baking.
I'm Mary Morstan and I like to bake bread.
It was the type of statement she used to make while getting in character for an undercover role: I'm Enid Brown and I'm a former army brat, current teacher's aide. I'm Sue Morris and I'm a divorced secretary who devours trashy romance novels on the commuter train. I'm Danielle Smythe and I'm an accounts manager who likes rice pudding and beadwork.
She stared wonderingly down at the floury apron.
I'm Mary Morstan and I enjoy baking bread.
Her heart began to pound as she realized this time her mantra was different – because this time it was true.
For the first time, she understood that Mary Morstan was no longer an identity she had adopted…she actually thought of herself as Mary Morstan.
The name – Mary Morstan – was not the one she had been given at birth, any more than the others were – but it felt real. The statement – I enjoy baking bread – was a true statement: she did enjoy baking bread. She had learned because she had wanted to, not because she had needed to flesh out a character. Then, having learned, she had kept on for no other reason than because she enjoyed it.
She was startled out of her reverie when Sadie, puzzled at her long stillness, suddenly jumped down from the windowsill and wound her furry body around Mary's ankles with a questioning mew. Mary blinked down at her as though she had never seen her before.
I love cats, she suddenly realized.
Another statement of truth: since she adopted Sadie she noticed cats while she was out and about. She would pause to admire or stroke them now, where once she would have passed them by without thought.
She looked up and caught sight of her own reflection in the tiny mirror on the wall by the door. The reflection was not a ghost or shape-shifter, but a real woman: a woman with her blonde hair held out of her eyes with purple plastic grips, wearing the nerdy glasses she'd put on after taking her contact lenses out minutes after arriving home.
That's Mary. I'm Mary. It's not a cover. It's Mary Morstan, a real person who loves cats and baking bread, and she's…me!
Looking down at the apron again, she knew there was another reason it had pleased her when she opened it – a reason apart from its usefulness and humor, and now she knew what it was: it was red. She suddenly remembered something from her childhood, something she had long forgotten, but which was still true: red was her favorite color.
Sitting down suddenly on one of the wooden kitchen chairs, a bit faint from having discovered three self-truths in rapid succession, she swept a startled Sadie into her arms and, clutching the little cat to her breast, pressed her face into her black-and-white fur.
"I'm Mary Morstan. I love cats. I enjoy baking bread. Red is my favorite color," she whispered.
Happy, humble tears squeezed out from behind her eyelids and wet Sadie's fur.
Until Sadie came to live with her, Mary had regarded her little flat as a place to stay rather than a home.
If she had ever had a real home, she did not remember it. An only child orphaned young, she had, after her beloved grandmother's death, gone through a series of increasingly brutal foster homes until she ended up with the shadowy guardian who had seen her as a tool, someone with the ability to be used and shaped into the assassin she became.
By the age of twenty-five she was already so hardened and cynical, and had seen so much of the ugliness of human nature, that she more than half believed the concepts of home, family and love were fairy tales people told themselves in an attempt to infuse the pointlessness of life with meaning. She certainly never would have believed that the presence of a common shorthair cat and a new hobby could transform her shabby little flat into a place she thought of as home.
In the weeks after her epiphany she went a bit mad buying up things for the flat: framed wall prints featuring quaint bakeries and loaves of bread, cheerful throw pillows with pictures of cats embroidered on them, and a bright red duvet for her bed. She also purchased a lovely, stylish red winter coat that she found on sale – a completely frivolous purchase vastly different than the plain, sensible, unremarkable colors she usually favored.
In time she no longer looked forward to "going back to the flat" after work, but to "going home."
She was discovering herself, and the journey was wondrous.
She had been working with John Watson for three months when, on a whim, she decided to bring the sad, weary-looking man a loaf of her classic white bread to take home with him.
He looked at her when he thanked her, of course, and she had the sense that he was truly seeing her for the first time. She was happy to think he was seeing her true self.