Secret of the Oatlands
Harvey and Pam have a butter thief to catch, but although they think it’ll be easy as pie, they might just wind up toast.
It’s called the Oatlands, the middle stretch of Tasmania given over mostly to pasture and farms, and it holds a secret. To look at, it’s nothing special at first glance. Agriculture, with cows and sheep plodding over gently rolling green fields, golden swathes of grains hemmed in by low rock walls on one side, wire or trees on the other. Oats, obviously. They grow a lot of them here.
Every now and then, the placid scenery is broken by a small town or a hamlet, a tiny cluster of houses hugging the road, or perhaps set a little way back so that the only reason passing drivers know they’re there is because of the sign by the side of the road. Now entering Stonor. Pawtella. Melton Mowbray. And, of course, the eponymous Oatlands. Now leaving Andover, Whitefoord, Apsley or Lower Marshes. A few places don’t have names, just houses and people living their lives quietly out in the countryside, growing grapes or sheep or alpacas. Maybe they grow oats.
One such signless place, tucked away in the midst of the state’s agricultural heartlands, is known as the Williams’ farm. Which is interesting, because the Auldbach family has never had a William in their ranks, and they’ve owned the farm ever since it was built. Then again, the first Auldbach had seven daughters and no sons; he might have wanted to use the name for *something*. Aside from the farm, the other thing the Auldbachs own is a company, and a secret. With production centres in Launceston, Burnie and Hobart, the Auldbachs produce and sell bread. Their secret is that the so-called ‘production centres’ are mere packaging plants - all the bread comes from the Williams’ farm.
Tasmania is hardly an ideal climate for raising bread - cold, dry. Summer is pleasant enough, but the large sheds have to be heated during the other seasons, or else things can go wrong. Lots of things can go wrong with bread, actually. People are always surprised when they find that out, but the Auldbachs, well, they know all there is to know about it.
Harvey stops dead in his tracks when he sees the glow creeping beneath the kitchen door. Visions of burglars and possums flash through his head, chased by more realistic thoughts of Pam, ferreting through the fridge for a midnight snack. Hard to tell amongst the doonas whether she was in the bed with him or not. He glances at his watch as he pads towards the toilet; a 4AM snack. Bare feet sticking to the chill tiles, he feels his way along the wall, loathe to turn on a light and wake up fully. There’s still an hour of sleep to be had if he can make it back to bed bleary-eyed and drowsy.
The sound of something smashing does away with that possibility, and he nearly has to schedule a surprise bathroom cleaning session as he tries to stop and spin mid-stream. Tucking himself away, his feet slap loudly on the floor as he rushes to the kitchen. The door is still closed, but a gust of pre-dawn chill as he opens it reveals that the other door, leading outside, is ajar. Shards of porcelain gleam in the fridge light, wickedly sharp. He takes a step forwards, then thinks better of it.
“Pam! Pam, grab my shoes!” There’s a thudding sound from upstairs and Harvey spares one last forlorn glance at the remains of the bone china butter dish before carefully inching over to the bread box. He’s just finished pulling out a couple of bags when Pam clomps to a stop behind him, brandishing his boots.
“Another one? Any chance of a cuppa first?”
“If you can get it brewed brewed before I get my shoes on, sure.” He plops onto the arm chair at the edge of the lounge, definitely an improvement over the hard-backed kitchen table seat and an advantage of open plan design, but before he can even loosen the boots’ laces fabric smacks him in the face. Spluttering through a mouthful of thick denim, he peels his jeans off his face and stares at Pam. She scoops a spoonful of coffee beans into her mouth.
“I don’t wanna see your frozen chicken legs when we go outside,” she grins around a mouthful of coffee. Harvey glances down, and admits to himself that perhaps she has a point. Goosebumps are already pimpling his bare skin, boxers not being known for their thermally insulating properties, but he nevertheless directs a half-hearted scowl at his wife. Pam ignores him
As he wrestles his jeans on, he asks Pam what they’re looking at. Still chewing on her coffee grounds, the stove-top kettle ignored in favour of an immediate caffeine hit.
“Looks like rye,” she says, rolling a few scattered breadcrumbs between her fingertips. The remains of the butter are little more than greasy smears on the hardwood underfoot. “Smart one, too, if it can open the fridge. You decent yet?”
“I’m amazing, as always. But I do also have my pants on now.”
“Good.” Pam kicks a chunk of porcelain closer to the others before stepping over the sad shattered pile and striding for the door. She grabs a long-handled toasting fork from the umbrella stand, umbrellas being a rare beast in windy Tasmania, and pushes the door wide.
Small footprints have splattered their way through the thick spring mud, which squelches wetly underfoot. The pair follow the tracks through the yard, Pam taking a bread bag when Harvey offers her one, the mud making every step treacherous. Heavy duty boot grips don’t work so well when the ground is as solid as a puddle. Thankfully, the distance is short - the prints lead to the raising sheds, and Pam pushes open the doors in a gust of warm, yeasty scents. The smell of bread.
The muddy steps quickly peter out, vanishing in the direction of the pens, but the butter-thief culprit has left a second trail. Harvey crouches down and examines a few crumbs closely. He sighs.
“What is it about the rye?”
“Dunno. You reckon someone’s not proving them right? That’s Cripps’ job.” Pam leans on the edge of a raising stall, looking down at the bread. A ploughman’s loaf, just developing its flour dusting, chirps up at her and wiggles stubby legs. The bread tag embedded in the top right corner of its fat body is green, stark against its gold and white crust. “Looks like this pallet’s nearly ready to go.”
“Good, good,” comes Harvey’s distracted reply from further inside the shed, among the various raising pen partitions. Pam follows him more sedately, pausing now and then to check on the loaves’ progress. She rights a sesame seed bun that’s fallen onto its back, tiny legs waving frantically, and it squeaks at her and nuzzles her hand before scampering back to join its other batch members.
“I feel like Gretel,” she mutters as she finds Harvey kneeling on the tiles, chunks of bread scattered in a crumb-y mess around him. He frowns as he glances up at her.
“You know, Hansel and Gretel, following breadcrumbs. If there’s a gingerbread house, I’m out.” Laughing, Harvey straightens up, holding a chunk of bread.
“Thank god we just raise normal bread. Gingerbread moves way too fast; you know I don’t run.”
A friendly poke to the stomach makes him wince and he bats Pam’s hand away as she grins at him. “I can see that.”
The trail of bread crumbs winds its way in a meandering path between the various sections, and with each corner, Harvey feels his worry rise. The lump of half-formed bread in his hand feels heavier with every step, with every scattered pile of non-rye crumbs. Behind him, Pam’s smile slowly fades.
“It’s gone feral, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah. Definite temperament issue.” Harvery nudges half a pumpkin five-seed loaf with a toe; the other half is nowhere to be seen. “At least it’ll make it easier to spot. Enriched dough. Glossy, silky, smooth.”
“Cannibalistic. We’ll switch to a double proofing for the rye strains. See if we can weed these issues out.” Movement in the corner of her eye catches Pam’s attention, and she spins just in time to see the rear crust of a loaf vanish around a corner. “Got it! Come on!”
Skidding around a corner, Pam darts after the rough loaf while Harvey dashes away from them, intending to head off the bread and corner it in a pincer movement. Despite its almost-but-not-quite vestigial legs, the loaf is surprisingly agile, squeezing between the wall and a rake left carelessly lying against it. Pam, being larger, attempts to dodge around the rake, but her foot catches the handle, sending it crashing to the ground.
“Are you okay?” Calls Harvey, his blonde hair easily visible against the dark walls of the shed. Swearing under her breath, Pam yells back an affirmative, eyes fixed on the glistening loaf racing away from her. Sweat beads her forehead and she can feel it dripping down her back. Ahead, Harvey appears from between two stalls, on a direct path to intercept the runaway loaf. He catches a glimpse of its pasty crust, glistening with ill-gotten dairy fats, and readies himself. All those weeks playing catcher in year 3 PE baseball are about to pay off.
The loaf, slows, but a glance back shows Pam bearing down on it like a ticked-off roadtrain with a sore toe. Its doughy head turns this way and that, before its thickset body deforms. Harvey swears and lunges forwards, but the loaf is faster - it flattens itself down then, with a springiness that mature bread shouldn’t have, launches itself into the air. Harvey’s fingers barely scrape the bottom of the airborne loaf and sharp pain sears down his forearm as Pam’s toasting fork makes a cleaner connection with his flesh. Nine feet up, the loaf flattens itself out once more and glides towards the back of the shed. Towards the proofing rooms.
Feet thundering on the ground, echoing and mixing with the squawks of surprised and frightened loaves, Pam and Harvey run after the airborne bread. It hits the door with a wet thud, hard enough to rattle the hinges, and slides down the wood until it hits the ground. With distressing ease, the dough flattens itself, and by the time Pam reaches the door, breathing heavily, it has vanished into the back room. The plaque on the door, now a little grimy with dough residue, reads ‘Rye Strains’. Underneath it, someone’s pinned a work roster - Cripps has been the only person assigned to the room for a month and a half.
Pam grabs the door handle and nods to Harvey, who returns the nod and shifts his stance wider. His right arm has already stopped bleeding, but he is still holding the toasting fork in his left hand anyway.
“You bready for this?”
Harvey gives her a deadpan stare for a moment, before the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth betrays him and he grins at her. “Ready.”
The door swings open in a warm gust of air, the thick yeasty smell of over-fermented dough greeting the pair. Before them, spilling out of the great proofing vats, a pale mass of raw dough bubbles, stretching over the floor and inching up the walls. Pam drops her toasting fork and steps forwards as the rouge loaf slithers towards it parent mass. The dough pulsates, reaching out sticky tendrils to wrap around the returning bread, which loses its shape even as it approaches, becoming a formless lump that disappears into the greater mass within seconds. From the dispenser on the wall, Pam flours her hands and, for good measure, tosses a cloud of flour at the roiling mass of feral dough.
Pam rolls up her sleeves and, with practiced movements, lays into the dough. The amorphous mass collapses quickly as she and Harvey begin kneading it with swift, sure strokes, forcing the air from it. Globs pull back from the walls, retracting into the main body as they work it, stretching, folding and pushing, and after several minutes the dough begins to purr. They roll and shove it back into the proofing vat, where it gently rises and falls like the chest of a sleeping person, all previous animation and cannibalism-related propensities seemingly forgotten. Pam and Harvey turn flour streaked faces to one another, dusting their hands off on pants that might belong to a Halloween ghost costume.
“Double proofing, definitely,” Pam says, nodding to the placated dough.
“Yeah. Think we can triple proof?”
“Only one way to find out,” comes the reply as the door clicks shut, leaving the rye dough alone in the warm darkness.
Author’s note: Story shamelessly inspired by the Cripps Nubake ‘Bred for Taste’ slogan for their bread. Any similarities to persons, living or dead, or secret facilities is entirely coincidental and not my fault.