The original baby was conceived by Anna at the beginning of lockdown. Anna’s baby soon became a mother, producing children of her own. These offspring were adopted by Anna’s mother’s neighbours, who fed and nurtured them until they too reproduced. Single babies, twins and triplets settled and grew in homes all around the village. The birth of Anna’s baby, though in itself an ordinary event, was the start of something that touched people’s lives. Numerous anecdotes and stories were inspired by its incarnation. What follows here is a taste of how that happened.
Anna’s baby resulted from the coming together of 200g of strong flour and 200ml of lukewarm water. Anna was home from university, isolating with her parents. The sensible thing, she knew, would be to use this enforced stay-at-home period like a prolonged reading week. There were similarities: the familiar walls of her bedroom; parents pottering around in the background; nothing much exciting to distract her. Yet the differences were greater. The boredom of reading weeks had been contained by the predictability of a return to family life. By contrast, lockdown triggered landmines beneath the previously stable ground of home. Mum’s ruthless denial of any problem plus Dad’s reactive short fuse equalled dynamite.
As soon as restrictions were announced, Mum had embarked on a military campaign of cleansing. The enemy, Covid-19, was to be defeated at all costs; no prisoners taken. Floors were purged, surfaces wiped clean, shelves in every room attacked and subdued. Anna had no wish to ignite an explosion. She sought to negotiate for peace, and joined forces for once with her mother.
Clearing out the kitchen cupboards, Anna came across a bag of strong flour, bedded down on the bottom shelf. Like a prop from Alice-in-Wonderland, the flour spoke to her.
Anna listened – the only real pause in an otherwise hectic few days – and in that moment, decided to act.
‘Mum, look what I found!’
Mum stopped scrubbing the oven.
Another pause, as Mum tried to make sense of Anna’s discovery.
‘Oh, I’d forgotten I had that.’
‘We bought it in Devon, remember?’
Anna’s mother did remember. The last family holiday before her only child flew the nest. For the whole of that week she’d fought her fear of the void that was about to open up between her and Anna’s father, now there was nothing left to bind them together. Already, unexpectedly, she had her baby back. Yet the homecoming, in spite of being welcomed, hadn’t brought joy to Anna’s mother. The chasm in her marriage still gaped.
Mum’s arm, holding the scouring pad, fell limp against the top of the oven. ‘I should make something. It’s ages since… I need to…’
Anna recognised it was time to take command. ‘We’ll do it together,’ she said. ‘We can make sourdough.’
It was a far cry from university research. But who was interested in fourth wave feminism now that everyone’s rights were curtailed? Although she had seen on the news there’d been a steep increase in domestic violence since the beginning of lockdown. She could start looking into a paper on that, she supposed. I’ll do it later, she decided. It sounded as though there’d be plenty of time.
Anna focused her attention on the packet of flour. She and Mum had bought it from a restored mill they’d visited last summer. Anna remembered that holiday too. Long, lazy days of sunshine, sand and sea. The murmur of her parents’ voices in the bedroom next to hers. The warmth of assuming they would always be there watching out for her, solid at her back, when she started her long-awaited bid for freedom. Where had that gone? Her maiden flight had been curtailed. Already she’d been returned to base, confined to quarters, her wings well and truly clipped.
Anna turned to research of a distinctly non-feminist variety, googling tutorials on bread-making and watching videos of how to get going with a sourdough starter. She created a WhatsApp group, and named it Dough Babies. The group included all Mum’s friends in the immediate neighbourhood who might be interested. They were mostly women Anna had known since childhood. Meanwhile, next to the boiler in the utility room, a puddle of flour and water fermented. Anna had no doubt it was alive. Vibrant. Active. Bubbling and gulping like a primordial swamp. After a couple of days, her sourdough starter was ready to breed.
She set her intention for the WhatsApp group beneath a cartoon GIF of a baby loaf of bread. Mum’s best friend Sally was the first volunteer to adopt, quickly followed by Laura, then Bea. That evening, Anna took her allowed quotient of daily exercise by walking past each of their houses. She left a well-covered baby on their three doorsteps, before returning home to post instructions in the WhatsApp group:
Your babies are now on day 4. You’ll need
to feed them with 1 cup of flour and ½ cup
of water. Keep them reasonably warm
overnight, in a large tub. They will grow!
The babies did grow, and on the whole very quickly. A flurry of parental anxiety was generated in the WhatsApp nest. Question after question appeared:
‘Do we mix, or just pop in the flour and water?’ Sally asked.
‘I don’t have a cup measure,’ texted Laura. ‘How much in ounces?’
‘Will wholemeal flour do? It’s all I’ve got,’ from Bea.
Anna answered everyone as best she could. Then she posted further instructions:
Tomorrow your babies will need feeding
again (morning and evening). Before each
feeding weigh them down to 4 ounces and
remove the excess mixture. Otherwise the
yeast will grow too much and too fast.
The yeast did grow much, and fast. For three days, the sourdough starters were fed, watered and weighed down with loving care, morning and evening. But what was to be done with the discard, which was burgeoning, taking on a life of its own.
‘Looks like something released by aliens,’ texted Bea.
‘Perhaps it’s spying on us!’ Laura wrote.
‘I’ve been neglecting mine in favour of
the starter,’ Sally confided.
‘Ooh! It might get angry and fight back,’ said Anna.
No one felt comfortable throwing away living, breathing organic food matter in this current environment. The only responsible option was to farm it out.
Like Covid-19, the yeast cultures expanded exponentially, infecting more people in the neighbourhood than the dreaded virus had so far claimed. Babies born from the discard were passed from doorstep to doorstep. Families across the village became foster carers and surrogates.
In Alice’s home, the mother of all was still producing. Dad complained louder each day about the dough-filled plastic boxes taking up valuable beer-space in the fridge.
‘We should give some to the couple next door,’ suggested Mum.
Anna was surprised. ‘Thought you barely knew them. Do you even have their number?’
‘As it happens, I do,’ said Mum. ‘From when they first moved in. I popped round a couple of times. But, they’re never in. They’re both at work all day. Not sure what they do.’
‘They’re probably home now,’ said Anna. ‘Like the rest of us.’
So Anna included her parents’ next-door neighbours, Jo and Paul, in the Dough Babies WhatsApp group, copying what had passed so far.
‘Wondered if you might be interested.
We’re all baking sourdough.’
Jo didn’t react well to Anna’s text. Nor did she appreciate finding the Tupperware box containing a living, breathing mass on her doorstep later. Over supper, she showed the WhatsApp thread to Paul.
‘What are these women like? This is the last thing I need right now.’
‘They’re just trying to include you,’ said Paul, reading through. ‘It’s a nice gesture.’
Jo prodded her fork at the frozen vegetable rissole on her plate. She wasn’t hungry. It tasted like cardboard. ‘Don’t they realise? It’s not as if I’ve got the time –’
Paul raised an eyebrow. ‘Do they actually know what you do? Have you said?’
Jo sat back. ‘Not sure… Maybe… We haven’t really met anyone so far.’
‘Perhaps now’s the time,’ suggested Paul, gently.
He knew how stressed Jo was at the moment. Waves of tension pinged from her like layers of elastic bands. She was an anaesthetist at the local hospital, frontline against Covid-19. Her role was to hook the most critical patients up to ventilators. Yesterday, they’d lost a young woman on the ward only a year older than Jo, with no underlying health issues.
Jo and Paul had left London so Jo could take up a less demanding position, with more time off. The idea was to give themselves the space, God willing, to raise a family. Their house move had been rapidly overtaken by the virus, and Jo’s deployment to ICU before she’d had chance to find her feet. Already, she was overworked, exhausted and scared.
When she glanced at him across the table, Paul saw how tired she was. Her eyes were hollowed out, her cheeks drawn. In two weeks, she’d aged by several years.
Jo pushed the tasteless rissole to one side and set down her fork. ‘Really, though,’ she sighed. ‘Bread dough? Now I’m under pressure to produce some great Bake-Off marvel, or I’ll be a crappy neighbour. Or a rubbish woman.’ Tears welled up. ‘It’s too much.’
Paul reached across the table and covered Jo’s hand with his own.
‘I’ll do it,’ he said. ‘I’ve always wanted to bake bread. I can fit it in round working from home.’
Jo stared back at him. ‘You? Baking bread? Really?’ But she couldn’t help smiling through the tears that wobbled loose and rolled down her cheeks.
By day six, Sally and Laura, among the first to adopt, were getting ready to bake. This stage was turning out to be less straightforward than people had imagined. No one had anticipated how greedy the sourdough babies would be. They needed feeding regularly, and devoured so much! Flour, like toilet paper, had become a rare commodity. Those who’d considered their cupboards well-stocked at the beginning of lockdown found the hungry babies were consuming so much flour there was little left to make bread. And parenthood had bred competition. For some, anxiety turned to full-blown panic.
Anna posted photos of her original starter, still healthy and active. Laura responded with pictures of her offspring, happily gurgling away.
Sally couldn’t help wondering if she’d become an over-anxious mother. Her kids – now grown – would no doubt confirm that. Her abandoned discard seemed to be faring better than her actual dough baby. She must have smothered, or weaned it too soon. Or perhaps it had never recovered from the trauma of being separated from its parent. It needed longer to settle. She rested and fed it. Decided to wait.
Sally wasn’t the only one with starter envy.
‘Mine doesn’t look like that at all!’ posted Bea.
‘I think I must have killed it.’
‘It’s the wholemeal flour,’ she muttered to no one, as she tidied the twins’ playroom for the hundredth time that week. The flour she’d been forced to use was heavy, and probably stale. She’d had the packet longer than she cared to remember.
Someone posted a video of a BBC Mash report in the Dough Babies WhatsApp. A young mother forced to resort to the Dark Web to score her flour fix. Bea was not amused. The story was too close to home. The female comedian, acting the part of a harrowed and desperate housewife, looked just like her. Bea had promised the twins they could make pizza bases, but her starter was flat and lifeless. They’d be lucky to get pitta bread out of it.
Someone else responded to Bea’s worried texts by posting that a shop two villages away had bread-making flour.
‘Is that a necessary journey?’ asked Anna.
‘I wouldn’t be comfortable,’Laura agreed.
A barrage of comments followed, the gist of which was that most deemed the village in question a drive too far. After that there was silence for a day in the Dough Babies group. No one dared risk further comment.
That evening, Carl, one of Bea’s eight-year old twins heard a knock at the door. He opened up to find a bag of white powder squatting on the mat, with no accompanying note to say who might have brought it.
‘Mum! Look! Someone left this.’
Bea’s forehead creased. She took the bag from Carl. ‘Go and wash your hands. Straight away. You don’t know who’s touched it.’
But Bea had her suspicions. As the boys went back to fighting each other in the playroom, she poured herself a large glass of cold, white wine. No wonder hers was the only dough baby not to thrive, she thought. Since her husband, Dan, left her for a younger someone else, Bea had felt pretty much like a social pariah. She could suck the life from anything she touched.
Bea had taken to using her allowed shopping trips to drive past the younger someone’s place. The twins, usually squabbling in the back during these visits, had no idea their father was so close. Bea had taken the address from Dan’s phone, the day she found the incriminating texts. The younger someone’s modern apartment was no doubt spacious, and tidy. It was certainly child-free. Bea couldn’t work out if the searing pain of envy attached to this unencumbered space, or the younger someone’s possession of her husband. Nor could she tell whether her drive pasts were motivated by a desire to see Dan, or because she longed for him to glimpse his battling sons, and wake up to his responsibilities.
Whatever. Bea knew for sure she wasn’t coping. It would take more than flour and water to fill the cracks. And now it was humiliatingly obvious that one of her neighbours felt sorry for her. Laura, no doubt. Laura with her grown-up, perfect alpha children. Laura who never had a hair out of place. Laura whose own husband was attentive, affectionate and always at hand.
After shovelling the boys to bed, Bea poured a second large glass of wine. While she drank it, the flour rescue package caught her eye. Absent-mindedly, she cut a hole in the corner of the bag, poured a heap of flour into the starter bowl, and mixed it roughly with tepid water from the kettle. Then she shoved it under a tea-towel, leant over the bowl and wept.
The first thing Laura did when she returned home from dropping off the bag of flour at Bea’s was to write her gratitude list for the day and pray to her Higher Power.
Please keep Bea and the children safe. Protect them all and hold them in your Love.
‘I really feel for her,’ Laura told her husband, Robert.
‘She’s better off without him,’ said Robert.
‘I know,’ agreed Laura. ‘Though I guess she might not realise that yet.’
Dan had reminded Laura of her own first husband whose violence, in the end, drove her to drink. Thank goodness those days were behind her now. But she would never, ever forget. Not many people knew about Laura’s past. Perhaps it was time to bring it out, she thought, as she took her dough baby from the airing cupboard.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ she told Robert.
‘Sounds like a dangerous occupation.’
‘I mean seriously –’
‘I don’t doubt that for a minute,’ Robert smiled. ‘Knowing you.’
Laura smiled too. Robert did know her, and that was nice, though not as well as he like to think. Lockdown had caused her to reflect on her life, and how she’d arrived at where she was now. She and Robert were isolating with her two children and the dog. They were managing ok, establishing routines, and enjoying a gentle rhythmic flow from one day
‘We’re too safe,’ she said.
Robert’s eyes widened. ‘Too safe? I thought that was the idea –’
‘Sterile,’ explained Laura. ‘We were isolating long before we actually needed to.’
‘I’m not quite sure what you mean –’
‘Living in our own little bubble,’ said Laura, dropping flour onto the starter. ‘If we don’t let anyone near… if no one touches us, the bubble can’t be burst.’
The sourdough burped and gurgled greedily for more. Strange how nothing but a mix of flour and water could produce something so alarmingly vital. Life is messy, like this, thought Laura, as she watched the mixture glug and pop. The strange ingredients in her past had combined in a rich, fruity mixture. I’ve been trying to knock the air out of it. Now I want to let it breathe, and prove.
‘I just think we should share more,’ she said to Robert. ‘Let people know about us. Where we met. That sort of thing.’
‘At an AA meeting?’ said Robert. ‘You reckon that’d go down well in this village?’
Laura looked straight back at him. ‘I think it might,’ she said. ‘With some. With Bea, at least.’
‘As you like, Love,’ said Robert. ‘I don’t mind. I only want to protect you.’
But I don’t need protecting anymore, thought Laura. Life, she had learned, was about relationship, and love, and communication with other people. No one around here was going to beat her up for setting a foot wrong. She could allow herself to be vulnerable; risk revealing the mistakes she’d made in the past and the effort it took her, every day, to nurture her mental health.
‘When we’re out of lockdown, I’ll invite Bea round for coffee,’ she said.
‘And a slice of sourdough?’
‘Perhaps,’ she laughed. ‘Assuming it turns out ok.’
‘If it helps,’ said Robert.
‘I think it might,’ said Laura. She had a feeling it might help Bea as well.
Anna posted a News Flash in the WhatsApp group.
Our local Londis has sacks of strong plain flour.
They’re dishing it out to customers in 1kg bags.
With the arrival of fresh flour, baking was back on. Everyone began to channel their inner Mary Berry (who, as it happened, lived just up the road). Anna and her mother experimented with different sourdough recipes, passing on the benefit of their experience to the WhatsApp group. Laura made a beautiful, well-rounded loaf. Even Bea’s heavy baby had latched on to the clumsy attempt she made at caring, kick-started back to life by Laura’s gift of white flour. Bea and the kids thumped and kneaded their pent-up aggression into pizza bases, the best – they all swore – they’d ever tasted.
A late-comer to the group, Claire, elected to make breakfast biscuits.
‘Crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle,’she reported.
‘Nice with bacon and eggs.’
Claire was a former nurse newly brought out of retirement to answer the Covid call to duty. She messaged Anna’s mother separately from the Dough Babies group:
‘Met your new neighbour at work today.
Did you know Jo’s a doctor?’
A week had passed since Anna delivered a baby to the new next-door neighbours. Jo arrived home from her late shift to find Paul standing at the kitchen island. He was laying into a large ball of dough, thumping it and slapping it down hard on the granite work surface. Jo’s first impulse was to tell him he was doing it wrong, that was no way to treat the baby. But she was too exhausted. She still had to go through the routine of throwing all her clothes in the washing machine and showering, before she could step within two metres of her husband.
When Jo came back downstairs, Paul was still kneading dough.
‘It’s definitely getting more elastic,’ he told her.
Jo said nothing. She was mesmerised by the muscles in Paul’s bare forearms, flexing and relaxing, and the movement of his fingers as they smoothed, and stroked and gently squeezed. Her flesh stirred, responding as though it was her body beneath Paul’s hands. She remembered how, in the early days of their marriage, those strong fingers had smoothed and stroked… That was before temperature charts and unnatural positions got in the way, now that she was trying – so far without success – to get pregnant.
As soon as Paul had washed, and tidied up, and set aside his dough to prove, Jo took him by the hand. Wordlessly, she led him upstairs to the bedroom.
In the afterglow of their coming together, there was a knock at Jo and Paul’s front door.
Paul reached for his dressing gown. ‘I’ll go.’
‘Don’t be long,’ said Jo. ‘I need you to hold me.’
While Paul was gone, Jo dozed peacefully, listening to sounds of the kettle whistling, and plates rattling. Paul came back upstairs carrying a tray laden with two mugs of tea, butter, marmalade and a basket of steaming Hot Cross Buns.
‘They were on the doorstep.’ He showed Jo the note that had been left with them.
‘From Anna and the sourdough starter
next-door. Thank you Jo. And thank you
NHS for all you’re doing for us.’
‘Easter!’ Jo remarked. ‘Well, that’s better than eggs.’
How easily she’d forgotten it was Good Friday.
She lay back against her pillows, smiling up at Paul, grateful for what she knew throughout her being had just started. She laid the flat palm of her right hand over the rising mound of her belly.
‘The loaf’s in the oven,’ Paul told her.
‘I know,’ she said, linking her fingers with his and pressing them down on the rise of her stomach.
The sweet aroma of fresh, home-baked bread wafted upstairs from the kitchen.