Back when the girls took swimming lessons at the Kensington Leisure Centre, we had a Saturday routine. The pool was in the back of a public housing estate under the Westway flyover. There were orange brick houses with tiny patio gardens. You had broken windshield glass on the path, but also unsnapped tulips under the pale sun.
We took our Rolser, an upright shopping basket on wheels, and into it would go the wet towels. We wheeled ourselves over to the Portobello Road for English breakfast at S&M (sausages and mash), which did a nice bubble and squeak. Fortified, we’d work our way down the market, piling food into the Rolser as we went.
We stopped at the family-run Spanish Grocery, at the fruit man, the rude salad and herb ladies, the Halal butcher with the winking cow sign (“Ask about our special beef.”) We were pretty sure it meant bush meat.
The mother and grandmother of one of the older daughter’s former classmates sold veg at one stall, so we might stop and say hello and swap notes on the state of the educational system, the schools and our mutual challenges. There was the coffee plant, the Oxfam book store, the schnitzel cart, the cashmere shop, the bagel stall. And then there was the candy man.
The candy man sold traditional English sweets out of old fashioned jars. The girls were drawn, as you would be, to the colors, shapes, twists, the many manifestations of sugar: striped ribbons, flying saucers, rhubarb and custard, lemon drops, wine gums. I would name an amount they could spend and they would choose, but invariably they would choose something that the candy man didn’t want them to have. Why? Why not?, we’d cry.
“Won’t like it,” he’d say. “Have this.” He would indicate something which by definition they didn’t want. Something ordinary, like jelly beans. Sometimes we’d insist. We must have these. “Won’t like it,” he’d threaten, eyes narrowing.
How, we’d wonder, could you be a candy seller at a market and be so unwilling to part with the goods, so unjolly, such a crank? And why are you selling candy that people won’t like? Other than atomic red hots there really wasn’t going to be anything they wouldn’t like. “She likes licorice,” I would tell him.
We had this idea to freak him out and make him think twice that next time we went the younger daughter would hold up her fingers like devil horns and hiss savagely at him. We practiced with her on the way home. The next time we approached the stall, still out of earshot, my husband and I would incite her. Candyman, we’d murmur, Candyman. SSSSSSssss. HHHAAaaaagghhhHHH!
But nerve failed us all, time and again.
Candy man was like the soup man, made famous by Seinfeld, based on a real person, whose soup my husband ate regularly when he worked in Midtown. One day he took an exuberant friend with along him. He briefed the friend on the particulars of ordering and moving along, but, unable to resist, the friend broke the rules. He was punished, just like George Costanza was: “No bread for you!” cried the soup man.
Being denied bread is a sad thing. If it were in France, our small city would be designated SB (Sans Boulangerie), a ghost town, where the agriculture has died out and all the people moved away, rather than a city on the up. So many people are living without access to this basic staple, a fresh loaf, a metric of economic health, like a pulse, but they don’t even know they’re missing it.
Costco is our Portobello Road, the car our Rolser, laden down with wet towels, produce, meat. And so I buy the loaves of artisinalesque bread. They come two to a pack, of course. I slice one and freeze it for later in the week.
Oh, how my husband laughs when I do this.
Back when the movie Titanic came out there were posters in the tube of Celine Dion, who sang the soundtrack, which someone tagged with a speech bubble that read, “My mother freezes bread.”
Even the toaster has foretold my downfall. Look, it has a “frozen toast” setting, a setting for a thing that does not exist, which I had not even noticed until recently, like seeing your gravestone.
Now you can buy soup man soup in the freezer section. A display of candy, the color and combinations particular to every holiday, greets you on entering any food store or pharmacy. The supermarket bakery produces cakes and cupcakes piled high with technicolor frosting. A good baguette you buy in the morning is past its prime by the evening. It is ephemeral, like the chocolate-covered, raspberry-flavored marshmallow Peep hearts that are offered in a limited seasonal edition. Put your devil horns back in your pockets, kids, it’s all yours. Except for the bread.