In Leuka’s cosmology there was a special corner of hell reserved for speculators in food prices, for it was thanks to these people that the cost of bread had now gone through the roof. But hell was a long way off and breakfast was now – so one cold, wet morning she decided to put off the trek to the corner shop and start making her own. Susan had recommended a bread-maker, but Leuka never could learn to like the steamed, square-shaped products of these machines; to her the whole point of dough was the relationship between flour and fingers.
‘The human hand is essential to the process,’ she explained.
‘Nonsense!’ said Susan, who couldn’t even understand why anyone would make bread when it was freely available in the shops, let alone doing it by hand. Susan had once announced her intention of making soaps for Christmas presents: Leuka had been impressed until she found out that her friend had used a kit consisting of soap-flakes ready to be melted into ready-made moulds. Very nice, but not actually making. That was Susan’s idea of self-sufficiency, whereas Leon made soap from scratch using rainwater and used cooking oil and costing practically nothing. That, as far as Leuka was concerned, could be called making.
She had the bread down to a fine art now – not bothering to weigh her ingredients, just scooping some brown, grainy flour into the bowl, throwing in the dried yeast which ran like sand through her fingers; giving a the oil-bottle a quick nod over the bowl and mixing it all together with tepid water. Then kneading: that was the bit she liked best. She loved to wrestle with the dough against the working-surface, seeing it begin to breathe, watching it blend, feeling it and become light and pliant; pushing it away with the heel of the hand and raising it up to take in a gulp of air and swallow it. She was bringing the dough to life: it felt almost God-like. If she got the balance right, her fingers would start off sticky and work themselves clean: if not, there was nothing easier than to dust on some more flour and continue working.
It took intuition, this kneading; knowing when to push and when to pull, when to mix and when to leave alone; when to add flour, when to rest – and the more Leuka did it, the more she felt it was work that could not be entrusted to a machine. Then at the right moment she scooped the mixture back into the bowl and covered it with a damp cloth: she left it by the warm oven and went into her studio to paint.
It made for a good combination, this mixture of paint and dough; both activities complementing each other. Leuka was not a realist painter – though if well-paid she could do you a portrait as sharp as a photo – but neither was she quite a surrealist. Her work was just slightly off-centre; there was a distorting mirror in the artist’s eye, and after a morning of painting she needed bringing back down to earth.
She was still painting scenes of London, ten years after moving out of the city; doing scenes showing the tube-trains below, the streets at the front, the buildings to one the side and Trafalgar Square from above, its pigeons outnumbering its restless human population. The figures in these paintings were tiny: lost, like atoms without a nucleus, each one trapped in its own world: ‘like a join-the-dots without a picture’, as one commentator put it. They showed Leuka’s own painful experience of that city of crowds without community, of pain without help. Right now she was working on one of her worst London memories, which was called The Sneezer. In her mind the picture had echoes of Magritte and Beryl Cook, in about equal measure.
The incident had happened back when Leuka had to endure the twice-daily hell of tube travel, that proximity-without-intimacy of resentful commuters all swaying in unhappy unison with each turn and jolt of the train. Leuka’s station was Acton Town: she struggled on, and as the train pulled away there was no other sound but the repetitive hiss of a nearby MP3 player. Then, as the engine gathered itself for the long leap from Acton Town to Hammersmith, there came a sudden noise like an explosion from the other end of the carriage. Leuka jumped – her heart contracted in fear, but instantly she realised, along with other startled commuters, that it was nothing to worry about: just a sneeze. Looking down the carriage, she could just make out a man in a suit with his head down, fumbling in his pockets for a tissue. But before he could find one he sneezed again, putting his hands up to cover his face; and now he was stuck; clearly – and embarrassingly – unable to move his hands from his face to get out a tissue. He seemed paralysed in the moment: and then he sneezed again – and again – and now he couldn’t stop. The train rattled on through the stations between Acton and Hammersmith, flashing past signs which read: STAND WELL BACK – TRAIN DOES NOT STOP, and still the unfortunate man kept on sneezing. The whole carriage was listening now, even those with earphones in their ears – and Leuka saw that there had grown up around the man a tiny exclusion zone where his neighbours had moved back, making the rest of the carriage even more crowded than before. Leuka pitied him, but it was impossible to help. Had she been standing right next to him she might have handed him a tissue, delicately turning her face from his predicament – though even that would have been violating the first commandment of tube- travel, which was ‘Thou Shalt Not Notice Thy Neighbour. But as it was the man stood at the far end of the carriage, and the idea of being able to pass tissues from person to person all the way down – the idea of London commuters co-operating sufficiently to put such a plan into action – was unthinkable. They were all alone: the Sneezer, especially, was on his own.
It was time for the second kneading. She put down her palette-knife smeared with yellow and grey; wrapped it in cling-film as was her habit and, having washed her hands, went through to the kitchen. The damp cloth was dome-shaped now; she peeled it free of the dough and scooped the mixture out onto the floured table to wrestle with it again, feeling it exhale the old breath with a sigh, letting it gulp some fresh air. Then she divided it in two and folded the two parts like swaddled infants into the waiting loaf-tins.link dough with sneezer
It was a rule of hers never to examine a painting too soon, but she couldn’t help taking a peek as she came back into the studio. She had painted the tube-carriage sideways-on, open to the viewer as though the side had been peeled off, with all the strap-hangers leaning to one side in unwilling unison. She had yet to paint the central figure; but she had drawn him in exactly like the mental snapshot she’d taken. He was in mid-sneeze, a thousand tiny droplets exploding from his nose and mouth, his hands mid-way to his face: and around him the exclusion-zone with everyone looking the other way. The people further down the carriage were either sneaking a sidelong glance or looking anywhere but at him: in the pockets of some of them she planned to plant packets of tissues just poking out.
The painting would be called The Sneezer, but it was as much the story of the other passengers as of the central figure. As she worked on each of the characters she came to know them intimately; their stories, their journeys; where they came from and where they planned to go. They might be strangers to each other but from Leuka no secrets were hidden.
Soon it would be time to clean up; once the bread was in the oven it would need turning to help it cook evenly. As she washed her brushes she wondered if The Sneezer was likely to make her any money – and if not, why the hell she was bothering.
There was an answer to that, though not one that would make sense to anyone.
She slid the two loaves into the oven and went to rest her legs while she waited for the dough to become bread.