‘Mother Bessie’s Scones, two a tenner each,’ a voice growled as I passed my local Co-op. I knew there was nothing on the shelves inside, apart from dry goods like loo rolls and antiseptic wipes which no one wants. I’d used my carbs token to buy rice. I hadn’t tasted wheat for so long that I was tempted by Bessie’s yellow lumps even though I knew they’d stick to the roof of my mouth then set in my stomach like cement.
‘I’ll throw in a Ginster’s pastie,’ urged the low voice. I handed over £20 and shoved the package down my front. I was surprised that the black-marketeer had pronounced ‘scone’ correctly and sounded like a woman. It was a woman and I knew her. I followed her until she stopped in another door-way where a street light briefly illuminated her face. It was my neighbour Pam.
‘Craving the white stuff’ are you?’ she said and flashed a Warburton’s sliced.
‘Can I swap it for the scones?’ I said whispered pleadingly. ‘No chance,’ she rasped and disappeared into the darkness, possibly spotting the police-car. I was charged with receiving stolen wheat products. Banged up for a month I’ve been thinking about the past.
That last late summer of 2020; I recall baking a cake, just like my mother used to, forgetting that no one invited to tea that day was likely to eat it. I made another one quickly using ‘free from’ flour. Where I live in a nice part of Oxford even the pets and probably the birds are gluten free.
As Vera, Janet and Pam, and Bill, our one male friend arrived, I pointed out the acceptable cake. They all looked relieved except Bill, who I think secretly, like me prefers a crumb more like sponge than sand.
We were happy sitting in the weak late summer sun. Conversation followed familiar lines. Vera was worried by a man in her road, behaving suspiciously, making notes on the parked cars.
‘He was from the government,’ she said anxiously. ‘They are sending people out to find out all our details, tracking every movement.’
By mistake I pushed the flour imbued cake towards her. She looked at me as if I might be a Putin style poisoner. Janet gave it an ambivalent look as if she might allow herself, ‘just a very small piece,’ but didn’t. She’d been gluten free for ten years and identified as Coeliac, until recently when she met a new man on line. He liked traditional cake so she decided that her problem lay with cow’s milk.
My mother used to bake whilst listening to The Archers on Radio 4 and that afternoon our talk seemed to focus on rural life, although not as she knew it.
‘No pesticides should be used at all,’ said Pam, ‘because our ancestors never used them.
‘We should eat nothing that wasn’t consumed in the Iron Age.’
‘I’m so much better since I gave up anything non-organic, refined or with added sugar,’ she said, watching Bill taking a large slice of Victoria sponge lathered in butter cream and icing.
‘I’d be on my back, laid out for a week if I ate anything like that.’
He glanced at her apologetically, a damning lump of butter cream on the tip of his nose.
‘You do realise,’ she went on in the way people used to talk to smokers, ‘that almost half of all cases of bowel cancer could be prevented if people stopped drinking alcohol and chose whole grains rather than refined flour. And sugar has been directly linked to cancer?’
He made a noise which might have been agreement. Dabbing at his face with one of my nice paper napkins.
‘Cancer loves sugar,’ said Janet sagely. They all nodded.
‘It’s like an opioid or nicotine, added Vera. ‘That’s why they want you to eat it.’
My garden still had some late roses and everyone looked fairly happy. Who would have thought that soon we would hardly recognise each other?
Before our uneasy, ‘rule of six’ lock-down Christmas there was talk of a slump in the price of turkey through over production, not the kind of meat my friends and I would buy so we weren’t worried, but almost unnoticed the price of bread began to rise.
‘Worst harvest for fifty years. Incessant rain followed by drought. We’re thrapped.’
(Local parlance for ‘buggered’) Said a farmer on the BBC Radio 4 farming program. Not many people heard as it was on at 6am and the rest of it focussed on a national lack of black Lesbian farmers. If they’d listened, they’d have known that crops which usually yield three thousand tonnes of wheat had produced only five hundred. In January the government reached no satisfactory Brexit deal and the World Trade Organisation slapped tariffs on exports to the UK. Road haulage drivers went on strike to protest about long waits at Calais, and soon not much food was getting in.
The first shortages were fresh lettuce, tomatoes and soft fruit. None of the people near me eat those things out of season while the Spandex wearing class don’t buy them anyway, so no one noticed. Then came a duty on quinoa, rye and sour-dough. There were local murmurings. The tolls spread to Durum wheat, pasta, sorghum, millet, corn, cereals, rice and refined flour. For a time, only bread based on ‘responsibly sourced’ crickets was available which caused violent Vegan demonstrations in London.
TV news showed empty shelves where fat bags of Home Pride once sat, and shopping trolleys piled high with wrapped bread. There was another sell out of chest-freezers for hoarding before bread rationing was introduced. Dinner rolls normally sold in packs of six, in the manner of loo rolls in the previous crisis changed hands at £10 a piece in small corner shops.
There were alarming reports of people in poorer areas getting thinner, that is reaching their correct weight. I noticed my friends getting rounder, not due to the kind of cannibalism seen during the siege of Leningrad but to illicit supplies of Mother’s Pride they alone could afford.
It’s not bad here inside. ‘Bread and water’ is no longer a punishment, and some of my neighbours including Vera and Pam are with me. Although Vera feared that some kind of international government was after her, in prison she feels safe, protected from phone masts and the threat of internet influence. Every Sunday we get a ‘full English,’ baked beans, a fried slice, cheap, rather sweet tinned tomatoes and bendy white toast, stuff we’ve forbade ourselves for years. Some of us are reminded of childhood, before we became middle-class; bread like blotting-paper, and how un-thinking and barbaric as we were, we enjoyed every mouthful.