It was snowing gently. The air was pleasantly crisp, and flickering candles in the windows were throwing warm light on the narrow dusky streets. Heather was on an errand to deliver bread to several households. She was rather enjoying the task, as it could get quite stuffy in the house during winters when the door was closed most of the time and so were the windows. Everybody else loved heat in this family of bakers, loved it so much that Heather thought they wouldn’t mind sleeping in the mouth of the oven which was always spreading its hot, alder leaf scented breath in the kitchen, and from there to the rest of the house, finding escape only through the sole nostril that this building had - the window of Heather’s room that remained open throughout the year. Sometimes when it got too cold she would be asked to close it as the chill was spreading to the next rooms. This was no doubt a warm house in all meanings of the word.
In need of some refreshment Heather had picked the basket from the big table and left, thus unspokenly volunteering to bring the hot loafs to their new owners. It was a favourable arrangement for everyone, as Heather’s three brothers - the other candidates for this mission, were not at all keen on a walk at this time of year, except for the one walk leading to the pub down the road, and a groggy stagger back a couple of hours later.
The smell of freshly baked bread from the basket mixed with other fragrances that lingered in the streets: fried onions, cooked beef, cinnamon pies, tobacco, and the less-pleasant smell coming from Amos Perkins’s house – a sad building on the edge of the city that many believed was held together by some kind of magic, for by the looks of it there was no way it could stand upright according to any laws of nature. The house stood a little aside from the cluster of other buildings in the very North of Arbora, however on days when the city was visited by strong Northern wind Mr. Perkins’s presence was made nasally noticeable in the vicinity. That was actually the only way in which his presence was made noticeable at all, as he barely left his house. Those few who had ever entered his domicile claimed that part of the infamous odour, and that was the good part of it, came from the chunks of dried meat that were hung all over the ceiling. Did he bake his own bread? Did someone else bake it for him? Or did he just live on meat like a sworn carnivore? Heather often asked herself these questions as his place of dwelling came into her sight. Something felt different about this architectural wonder tonight, but she couldn't quite put her finger on what it was.
There was one loaf of bread left in the basket, snoozing comfortably under a double layer of tea towel. Heather did not bother to have a look at the delivery note to check who it was meant for, it was the same people day after day, she could have done this tour with her eyes closed, unmistakeably knocking on the right doors. She took the bread out of the basket and knocked on the door of Mrs. Cottonclew, Mr. Perkins’s closest neighbour who never tired of complaining about the ‘benefits’ of living at such a short distance from him. Waiting for the door to open, Heather took off her scarf, put it in the basket and covered it with the towel to make it look like there was still work to be done in case this was one of the days when Anne Cottonclew’s urge to pour her soul out would mean staying here for an extra hour, as it had happened so many times before. It was getting cold, even for Heather, and dark. There was no answer, so she knocked louder this time. She took a step back and looked up at the top floor windows. They were as dark as the ground floor ones. Had the lady of the house fallen asleep? The last thing their family needed was a complaint about a failed delivery. She kept knocking on the door and waiting for the next ten minutes before turning around to leave. The wind was blowing from the South, and after a couple of steps Heather realized how unpleasant that would make her journey home. In need of some comfort she broke a chunk off the undelivered bread and took a bite. She put the remaining loaf back in the basket and removed her scarf from it. As she was putting the scarf around her neck a piece of paper fell out of it and landed on the ground. She picked the drenched delivery note up and had a quick look at it. The lump of bread got stuck in her throat. ‘Quail lane 1. Amos Perkins’ said the last line. This was a disaster, and a very confusing one. It made no sense. Heather gave it a moment of thought. Had Anne Cottonclew gone out and forwarded the order to her favourite neighbour? Why would she? She had enough friends among her more agreeable neighbours, and several of them were obviously at home this hour. Whatever the answer was, there was only one thing that Heather could do - she would have to go home, explain all this to her parents as efficiently and apologetically as possible, grab another loaf and rush back. Neither of the things on this to-do list delighted her, besides - it would be pitch black and freezing by the time it would be accomplished. She turned around one last time to see if there were any signs that at least Amos Perkins was at home. He no doubt was.
Heather finally realized what it was that had seemed so unwonted about Perkins's house earlier. All its windows that were usually gloomy and dark were gleaming with bright candlelight, and so was the door. It was open and someone was standing in the doorway. Heather’s heart was racing. She had been noticed. She cursed herself for banging on Mrs. Cottonclew’s door so loudly and insistantly. Now she will have to go and confess to Mr. Perkins that in a moment of absent-mindedess she had half-consumed his bakery order, and then amiably promise to be back as soon as possible with a replacement. A sudden realization made the sitaution worse: unlikely as it might be, all signs were pointing at the possibility that Perkins might be having guests: one of the many reasons why the man was so unsociable was his infamous stinginess, and yet tonight there seemed to be countless candles lit in all the rooms, and there was bread to be delivered to his house. This was bad, this was worse than a missed regular delivery to a regular customer. Guests will have to be kept waiting. And as Heather was slowly making her way towards the house, which in its turn seemed shaking with desire to collapse over her, she started having doubts whether the tall shadow in the doorway belonged to Amos Perkins at all. She could hear her own heartbeat. The person came towards her. There were no signs of Perkins’s proverbial limp in his pace.
Heather stopped. That was the last thing she had expected to hear right now, uttered in the voice of the last person she would expect to meet here. She batted her eyes to try and see through the darkness and snow.