As the sun sank lower in the sky, casting an umber glow across the horizon, Rhodri took a cloth to the counter top and wiped away the smattering of golden crumbs that had gathered throughout the day. The soft waves rolled a musical backdrop as he worked. No noise came from the cafes nor B&Bs that lined the promenade, though he was neatly sandwiched between two busy establishments. Only the squawking of the seagulls and occasional footfall rattled around him. Watching the Autumn day draw to a close, Rhodri felt at peace, his mind at ease.
Rhodri smiled to himself, scooping stray sultanas from the counter and into his cupped hand, before a shuffling from the corner of the room reminded him that he wasn’t alone. Elin, small and mouselike, was sat on the bench, swinging her legs contentedly back and forth, munching on the day’s misshapen leftovers, her fingers sticky with dough.
‘I will have to take you home in a minute, bach,’ he told her.
‘Oh please don’t. Can’t I stay with you, Mr Griffiths? Mami’s been shouting again.’
”Fraid not,’ Rhodri set his lips into a straight line, and went about tidying up the place. ‘They’ll all be worrying about you. Finish up your pics now.’
As he emptied a fistful of crumbs into the bin, tiny flecks cascading like a waterfall of sugar, Rhodri caught sight of a small black ribbon discarded on the floor. He recognised it immediately – it had fallen from Mrs Jones’ brooch when she’d stopped by this morning. He picked it up, its smooth surface grazing his fingertips as he cast his mind back.
‘Bore da, Mrs Jones. How are you?’ Already he was bagging the dozen plain Welsh cakes he knew she would ask for. Of course, she played the game as always, pointed at the dark chocolate and orange, then the curranted cakes, chewed her bottom lip and asked about the flavour of the month – apricot. Rhodri had offered her a sample of the white chocolate and raspberry, grinning, all the while holding her ordinary order beneath the desk, waiting for her to say, ‘you know what, I’ll stick to my usual, thanks Cariad.’
‘How do you have the time to make so many different flavours?’ she asked, not for the first time, while counting out her change, jangling a palmful of silver and copper coins, like tooth fillings, from her purse and on to the counter top.
This morning, he had told her about his mother. ‘Her Welsh cakes were the best in the village, hands down.’ Even now, he could hear the giddy laughter of grubby-kneed children, scrambling over one another, making a pyramid of their bodies and climbing the ladder of limbs to be served through the kitchen window. Rhodri’s mother would lean out in her pinny, arms outstretched, balancing a tray of steaming Welsh cakes ready to deposit in grass-stained palms.
Once his mother had been consumed by the illness, Rhodri had hunted high and low for the Welsh cakes that might recapture her spirit, but nothing was ever the same. Nothing was ever as soft nor buttery, as crumbling, as fall-apart-on-your-tongue, lick-the-sugar-from-your-lips delicious, and nothing ever conjured her touch.
‘Dementia, and then pneumonia in the end,’ he told Mrs Jones that morning, a lump catching in his throat.
She nodded, grim, then disappeared with a sombre ‘cheers love.’
A year or two on from his mother’s passing, Rhodri had opened the shabby little shop on the promenade, buoyed by the grey ocean view. The smell of the shop surrounded him like his mother’s arms, filling his nostrils with sugar and spice daily. It was his cinnamon shelter – and Elin’s too, more often than not.
‘Mr Griffiths,’ a small sing-song voice came from the corner of the room. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m just tidying up, bach.’ Rhodri reached for the broom and began to sweep the floor. ‘Mind your legs!’
Elin picked up her legs, spindly as a school girl’s, and giggled as he manoeuvred the brush around her, his mind still half-set on the day that had passed.
After Mrs Jones, there had been a steady flow of customers, some regulars, some just passing through. Rhodri served them all with enthusiasm and vigour, recommending the day’s special and warning them about the seagulls.
‘Take your eye out for a bite of my Welsh cakes, they will,’ he laughed.
Elin was guilty of feeding the seagulls, throwing the sticky crumbs up into the air for the sheer thrill of seeing the birds swoop and squawk. She thought they were kissing when they tried tearing pieces of food from each other’s beaks, and would giggle with delight if they ever took food directly from her hand. That was Elin though; she was naiive, innocent, unassuming. Mostly, she was fearless.
Understandably, not everyone found it as amusing when the seagulls came swooping at their faces, beady eyes set on course, beaks open wide and ready to strike. For common birds, they could be vicious.
Rhodri looked over at Elin in the corner, still swinging her thin, sparrow legs. He smiled at the dreamy glaze of her eyes, the stray sugar grains coating her lips. She came in daily, 3:30 on the dot, as predictable as the tide. She had been his very first customer, and remained his most memorable and loyal. She had wandered in, that first day, wild-eyed and bewildered, as though blown in by a gust of wind. Her long skirt hung loose around her waist, her socks sagged and crumpled around her bare ankles.
‘Prynhawn da, how can I help you miss?’ Rhodri had asked the small figure stood in the doorway. She looked lost as ever, her feet shuffling back and forth, and peered at the various Welsh cakes spread across the counter, squinting.
‘I’d like to buy some Welsh cakes please, for Mam.’
Rhodri felt his smile waver then, but quickly regained composure.
‘Here you go, my love, hot off the griddle.’ He handed over a neatly tied sack of Welsh cakes, and said – ‘on the house, my darling. You’re my very first customer.’
Bright blue eyes lit up as a shaking hand clasped the bag.
‘Oh, diolch o galon,’ she said, before turning and skipping out, murmuring in Welsh, her long gingham skirt billowing about her legs. She did that sometimes – spoke only in Welsh, frowning at his English gibes, just as the schools had taught.
She came again the next day.
‘More Welsh cakes?’ Rhodri raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. ‘You can’t have eaten them all already, surely?’
Elin looked down at the ground, dragging her foot on the linoleum floor, scuffing her shoes.
‘We share.’ She spoke softly, her voice meek and timid.
Rhodri smiled and extended another bag to her, his first ‘regular’ customer. Later that evening, he caught her outside in the cold, throwing the crumbs up into the wind and laughing. She didn’t seem to feel the chill air, which whipped across the promenade, cruel and sharp, though he could see goosebumps puckering on her exposed shoulders, pale as a peeled chicken carcass.
Elin stopped by every afternoon, wafting in on the breeze, extending her bruised hands for ‘Mam’s piciau ar y maen,’ her mother’s Welsh cakes. She came tinkling in, light and airy as a baby’s breath in the morning, blowing by as the children poured from the school gates, setting the brass bell ringing out through the shop.
‘I’m all done sweeping,’ he told her now. ‘Have you finished up your crumbs?’
Rhodri began to stack chairs against the wall, humming Sosban Fach, an old favourite. Elin joined in, humming along with him, two sets of lips forming the melody. She started to sing.
Sosban fach yn berwi ar y tân,
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr,
A’r gath wedi sgrapo Joni bach.
‘Is that something you used to sing when you were younger, Elin?’ Rhodri asked her. Despite her daily visits, he hadn’t ever managed to learn much about Elin. She was mostly silent, and when she did speak, it was often incoherent. Rhodri would have liked to learn more about her mother, her childhood. Were Welsh cakes, for her too, an anchor?
Before she could answer, the bell above the door tinkled, singing it’s sweet tune, and Rhodri turned. The words died on his lips when he saw the young woman stood in the doorway.
‘Have you seen Mamgu today, Rhodri? Only, she’s not at home and I need to take her to an appointment. I know she comes here every day -‘
‘Not to worry,’ Rhodri interrupted, smiling at the woman. ‘I didn’t get chance to call, but I was about to walk her home.’
Rhodri moved to one side, taking a step towards the counter and exposing the elderly lady, sitting contentedly in the corner, still singing her song and bucking her skinny legs.