Part 1

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I met Theophilius Gout for the very first time over a chocolate eclair filled with orange cream. The filling isn't strictly important, but Mr Gout, upon seeing this manuscript, made me promise to include it. Life, after all, he said, is all about those delectable little details.

He entered my parents' bakery at half-past seven on a chilly November morning. The little bell above the door chimed, and I turned from stacking the loaves behind the counter to see him push open the door, advancing towards me with a solemn expression oh his chubby, round face.

'My dear child,' he said. 'I am so very sorry.'

I regarded him in surprise, wiping my hands on my floury pinny. He was a large man, both tall and wide with a somewhat roundish middle that tapered down to small, delicate feet. He moved with a surprising lightness, bouncing on the balls of his feet, heels never quite touching the ground. A particular way of walking, as familiar to me now as the yellow-green tweed suit he wore.

'I do beg your pardon, Sir.' I said. 'But whatever do you mean?'

He looked at me with his large blue eyes. 'For one so young as yourself to face so much is just ... just unthinkable!' he said, shaking his head from side to side.

'Do I know you, sir?' I asked, sure that I did not. 'Are you in town for the hiring fair?'

'No,' he said. 'And yes. But of course, I refer to your baking.'

'I'm really very sorry, sir, but I'm not sure I understand you. Is there a problem with one of our products?'

'Quite the contrary my dear, quite the contrary. Why I'm sure I've never seen a finer display of patisserie in my life. Which is of course quite delightful for me, but for you my poor girl ... why it must be frightful!'

'Must it?' I said, quite confused.

'It must!' he insisted. 'For the alchemy of baking is one of the most mysterious processes on earth! The turning of simple flour, sugar, eggs and yeast into each and every delicious morsel in this shop ... well, it is the very best magic I know. But for you ... to have to go "behind the curtain", to have those mysteries explained in measures and weights ... Well, my heart breaks for you, it really does. I say, those eclairs look quite divine!'

He paid for his selection and I wrapped it in brown paper to take away. As he left he forced an extra coin into my hand.

'So brave.' he said, fixing me with a beaming smile. 'Tell me, are your parents quite well?'

I blinked in surprise at the question. 'They're fine, thank you. Do you know them?'

'I see.' he said, his smile slipping and an expression of deep thought appearing on his spherical face, before quickly being replaced with yet another smile as he added 'Oh no, not at all. Toodles!'

And with that he was gone, bouncing out into the lamplight and disappearing up the road. I stared after him for several moments, for he is that sort of man. He had filled the shop entirely with his presence, and now that he was gone it felt small and empty.

But soon other customers arrived and I didn't think about the strange man again until I took lunch up to Granny.

'We had the oddest customer this morning.' I said as I sat myself down in the wicker chair at her bedside. Her small attic room was stuffy that morning and I longed to open the window, just a crack. But I knew better. Granny had always felt the cold, and during her bouts of infirmity (my mother's word), she would complain that even the merest breeze bit at her like jack frost himself.

'Odd in what way, dear?' she asked me, taking a tentative sip of her broth.

Broth was about all she could stomach when her illness came upon her. Even then she would eat precious little, and on this particular occasion her infirmity had dragged on longer than usual, leaving her scarcely more than a pile of bones beneath her sheet and blanket. In truth, I was worried about her. Her white hair - shiny and bouncy in health - lay flat and dry against her pillow. The pink highlights on her cheeks that shone out when she laughed or drank sherry had all but disappeared, her face almost as white as her hair. I'd expressed my concern to Mother just the previous day and she had frowned at me sadly.

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