“It’s army surplus,” said Archer. “Came from a World War Two military base in Wiltshire.”
He tapped his knuckles against one of the sprockets on the donut machine. “Beautifully constructed,” he continued. “Everything they made was.”
I watched as the rings of dough dropped into the hot oil and advanced in rows along the submerged conveyor belt. “Try one,” said Archer as the first row of rings tumbled into the sugar.
I didn’t want to think about the rows of American marines on D-Day, jumping down from their landing craft, racing through the shallow tide, then tumbling onto the French beaches, but I couldn’t help it. I realized that when they’d thrown themselves face-down onto land, their wet uniforms would have been covered with sand like the donuts were covered with sugar.
“Try one,” Archer said again. “You’ve got to know what you’re selling.” He used tongs to drop a warm donut into a perfectly donut-sized paper bag, then handed it across the machine to me.
I took the bag and took a bite. I had been a great lover of donuts, but this time as my teeth broke through the donut’s sugary skin I really felt as though I was biting through the sandy uniform of a dead soldier.
I put my unfinished donut next to the cash register, then used the tongs to put the finished donuts into their little bags. Even the rows of bags put me off. They seemed like rows of headstones now. My father had taken us to Dieppe a couple of years earlier, and we’d visited a British war cemetery. One of the headstones had caught in my mind. The name engraved on it was ‘Proops,’ and above name was a Star of David instead fo a cross.
One of the newspapers carried an advice column by Marjorie Proops. I wondered if they were related: husband? brother? son!?
I thought about writing to Marjorie Proops with my dilemma, but I never got around to it.
“Ere, give us a donut and a coffee,” said a wiry man with a mustache. I selected a very fresh donut for him, and made him an instant coffee from a big can.
The donuts were American, but the coffee was entirely British.
The donuts sold, the coffee got constructed, and the hours passed like mollusks. At school, Latin lessons were my benchmark for slow-moving time, but time at the donut stand hovered motionlessly, like a seagull riding on a headwind. Finally, after a decade or so, 4 o’clock came around. I took my seat on the upper deck of the number 15 bus, and had time for two cigarettes before I got home.
The next morning there were only about a dozen donuts left. I tossed them into the trash can the other side of the boardwalk, and prepared to fire up the machine.
“Oi! Those are perfectly good donuts!” O’Brien strode towards me, his fists balled up. He was in charge today. “Take them out of the trash, clean them up and sell them. Any that are ruined will come out of your wages.”
I cleaned them up the best I could, and put them back in their cemetery rows. The new donuts were already arriving. I wondered who I would sell the old ones to. I thought I’d hide them, but customers were already lining up, attracted by the smell. O’Brien took four of the trash can donuts and sold them tow a woman with four small children.
“See,” he said. “They don’t care.”
Business was brisk again. I kept my eyes on the trash can donuts. I hoped I wouldn’t have to sell them, and maybe the following day Archer would be back, and we could throw them out for real.
Then the woman with the three kids came back. “These donuts aren’t fresh,” she said. “The sign says ‘Fresh Donuts,’ but these are hard as rocks––and they taste funny.”
O’Brien barged in from behind me, almost as if he was expecting this, and even looking forward to it. “Freshly made yesterday,” he said. “Donuts stay fresh for a week. No refunds!”
“You miserable cunts!” Snarled the woman, pivoting from me to O’Brien as if she was spraying machine gun fire. “You’re trying to poison my kids!”
She threw the donuts into the trash can––the same one I’d used earlier––and stormed off. O’Brien went over to examine the trashed donuts. He was clearly going to tell me to sell them again, but they had bites taken out of them, and even O’Brien couldn’t sell donuts with bites in them.
I tried not to sell any more of the trash can donuts, but about half an hour before closing a skinhead marched up to the register, with his skinhead girlfriend in tow. “Gimme two donuts,” he said. “Make sure they’re really fresh, and be quick about it.”
I’d had run-ins with skinheads. I didn’t care for them. I gave him two of the trashed donuts, and he marched away.
A few minutes later I cleaned up the counters, took off my donut-selling coat, and headed for the bus stop, looking forward to my two cigarettes.
I had to pass through a dark tunnel under the pier to get to the bus. About halfway along the tunnel I found I couldn’t walk any further. This was because a strong hand had me round my throat.
“These donuts are rotten,” said the skinhead. He pushed his face so close to mine that I couldn’t see anything else part from his face and a bit of his girlfriend’s face in the background.
I said, “They were made yesterday. They’re perfectly fine.”
He said, “They’re stale, but they’re also rotten. Look they’ve got green bits.” He slid one of the donuts between my face and his. It was true. It had green bits. They looked like lettuce. The donut must have been next to a sandwich when it was in the trash.
We stayed in that position for what seemed like a long time. I thought I was going to be beaten and robbed, but eventually the girlfriend said, “Leave him. It’s probably not his fault,” and the skinhead let me go.
There was a newsstand between the tunnel and the bus stop. I bought a Daily Mirror. On the bus I lit a cigarette, and turned to Marjorie Proops’s agony column. I read about boyfriends who only wanted one thing, husbands that snored, and mean parents.
I thought about writing to her again.
But I never did.