‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ by Yoko Ogawa
Read it here (click on ‘Read Excerpt’, underneath the picture of the book’s cover, to read the entire story), in about 20 minutes.
Thinking about why it’s unsettling…
The first two paragraphs describe a beautiful day in a peaceful place, where people go about their business, doing ordinary things, in happiness and safety, but there’s an ominous undercurrent created by slight disturbances: the balloons make squeaky sounds, a horn is heard, ‘A flock of pigeons burst into the air’, a baby cries. The narrator comments ‘You could gaze at this perfect picture all day… and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.’ – I initially thought this foreshadowed something, but having read the story I reinterpret it to mean that not everyone would notice the ominous undercurrent, so it says a lot about the narrator’s state of mind that she sees it.
The story then switches to first-person narration. Our narrator enters a bakery, and something is out of place – there’s no one serving behind the counter, or indeed anywhere in the bakery. Another customer enters, and also notes the oddness of there being no one behind the counter, and no other customers, as the bakery is usually busy.
As the two women wait, our narrator reveals she wants to buy strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday. Her son, we learn, is dead. The narrator’s calm way of stating this seems reasonable to me, as it’s been twelve years since he died, and she must have had to tell many people this fact, many times, since then.
The details of his death are revealed, and they are disturbing: he ‘Suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator left in a vacant lot.’ – was this an horrific abduction and murder? Or a tragic freak accident? We are not told, and the narrative gaps add to the horror. Then we hear of the protagonist’s reaction: ‘When I first saw him, I didn’t think he was dead. I thought he was just ashamed to look me in the eye because he had stayed away from home for three days.’ – wait, what? She thought her six-year-old child had not returned home, for three days, of his own accord? Is this the shock talking? Or does it tell us something about the protagonist’s general mental state?
The narrator’s behaviour in the aftermath of her son’s death is recounted, and it’s not unexpected for someone in pain, so it’s not possible to gauge if this is further evidence of her mental instability: she keeps her son’s birthday cake until it becomes mouldy; wishes a similarly slow, painful, lonely death for herself; is left by her husband; collects newspaper articles of other tragic child deaths… Even her reaction to the phone call she receives, years later, from the man who claimed to have known her son in middle school, isn’t disturbing, but of someone put in an awkward position.
Then, the narrator realises there is someone in the bakery after all – a woman in the kitchen, talking on the phone, crying, too far away to be heard. The narrator must have been in the bakery a good while by this point, because it’s becoming dark out, yet she’s still patiently waiting, while the other customer gave up long ago. Looking outside, the scene is similar to the story’s opening, and this time the narrator notices the animated figures, including the angel, that appear when the town clock chimes five.
Seeing the baker in distress, the narrator doesn’t leave, but instead remains, reciting her strawberry shortcake order in her head, breath held, hoping to be served soon. I think this is the point it hits home how desperate she is to buy the shortcakes, and how she must endure this same ritual, every year, on her son’s birthday, torturing herself, reliving her lifetime of pain, as she waits.