(Excerpt from Grymmer: The True Story of the Town that Died of Shame by Eric Elland)
Malahide Fleur came into existence in a small village, a speck really, in the far reaches of the south of France, the only son of the local baker. As a baby he looked like a large wriggly maggot, all chubby cheeks and rolls of fat. It was like he had been born without bones.
His father thought he looked like an uncooked croissant; his mother, on the other hand, didn’t think much of him at all and was gone by the time he was six years old. So Malahide Fleur grew up indulged by his doting father, an eternally chubby boy waddling along behind him in the crepuscular light before dawn, watching the magical process by which water and flour and sugar and butter and yeast became the cakes and rolls and baguettes that Monsieur Fleur sold in his old timbered patisserie-boulangerie in the town square.
The people came from far and wide to visit Fleur et Fils, their greedy eyes feasting on the beautiful wares that sat in the window, their noses sniffing in the comforting smell of baking bread and the honey-brown aroma of melting sugar.
However, it wasn’t long before Fleur pere was surpassed by Fleur fils. Malahide was, he discovered, gifted. He had the touch, the golden something that turned a simple mille-feuille into a million dollars in your mouth. Malahide, who was never seen in the front of the shop, nevertheless created little peepholes in the walls where he could watch people dig into their paper bags before they even left the shop. He loved to see their eyes close as they bit into his pastries and cakes.
But it still wasn’t enough. It was as if the more expert he became at his art the more he could see its flaws and imperfections. He was like a great painter who could only see the one errant brushstroke in an otherwise perfect artwork. And it drove him crazy. WHY were his croissants not symmetrical? WHY did that lemon cake rise differently every time?
His father indulged him for a while but then came the incident with 92-year-old Alabaster Fresnoy and the hell-hot chilli-and-chive croissant that caused her so much distress (see Grymm, pages 106/7). It was an experiment too far. The cat that had somehow puked up his own bottom was one thing – as was the rabbit that somehow became addicted to, well, rabbit and ate its own right leg – but putting Mrs Fresnoy into hospital …
His father didn’t understand. His father forbade him to continue his … work. “You keep this up, you kill someone, mon petit asticot. So, non, non, non. Arrete, I say, arrete now.”
His father seemed to think that good enough was good enough. And it wasn’t.
His father laughed at him.
And when he wasn’t laughing he was angry. Especially when Malahide threw away a perfectly good batch of dough because it hadn’t risen “properly”. After that it was a beating. And another. And another.
And then one day the village awoke to find an obscenely fat teenager, a gargantuan, pasty-white wobbly man-boy, standing in the street screaming for people to “come quick, come quick!”
And they came quickly to find the older Fleur face down in the bowl of the mixer, the curved blade caught against his body, his head and shoulders deep in a batch of sticky dough.
(Afterwards, they said the son made bread out of the very same dough in which his father had perished.)
The products on sale had changed then; the cakes became sweeter, the cream creamier, the bread tastier. Within weeks the shop was crammed with rabid, frantic customers every morning. Fights broke out over the baguettes, curses were uttered by the pain au raisins and woe betide anyone who got between the mayor and his tuiles aux amandes.
And then, one bright day, the shop didn’t open at all and the crowds went wild. They ripped up the ancient cobbles from the main square and smashed the windows to get at the patisseries. Men and women fought over the gateaux, grabbing handfuls and stuffing them into their mouths despite the broken glass.
By the time the gendarmes arrived two people were dead, three were clinically insane, and the rest were sitting around covered in cream and strawberry jam – only, on closer inspection, it wasn’t strawberry jam.
In the basement they found a table heaped with old cookbooks and ancient scrolls written in ink and quill, with blood and finger, forbidden books, hidden books; books for a man in search of the perfect recipes and who would do anything to uncover them.
On top of the oven they found a nondescript black baking tray on which row after row of gingerbread men were lined up. As they watched they began to twitch and move. When one of them sat up and bared little razor-sharp teeth the police pushed them to the floor and crushed them under their big black boots.
Grymm by Keith Austin is out now, published by Random House imprint Red Fox.