Powder Burn Flash #114 - Barry Baldwin
A REAL BONER
It might all have been so different. I could have been at spatulas drawn with Jamie Oliver. Perhaps groping Nigella, if I were lucky. Instead, I'm stuck with serving this institutional muck to morons who don't care or, worse, even like it.
I always wanted to be a chef. It goes back to the War. After my little sister died, I asked for her dollies' tea set. My father rolled his eyes whenever I had it out. My mother said I'd soon grow out of it. But after the dollies had gone into the back of the toy cupboard, I started pestering to help her cook. At first, she thought it was just a dodge to scrounge extra food. When she realised I was serious, she put me on to little jobs that grew bigger, from table setter to tea masher to all-purpose stirrer on the Belling cooker.
The first summer after VJ Day, we went to Blackpool. I was the only child on the excursion train looking forward more to the food than the sands or the Amusement Park. We had digs on the sea front. A smudgy card in the window saying No Coloreds. The landlady was your classic vinegary type, the house plastered with rules, a lot more Don'ts than Do's.
Even allowing for post-war shortages, the food was awful. Bad at breakfast, worse at lunch, indescribable at dinner. Everybody slogged through it in silence, only complaining to each other outside the dining-room.
One morning, when the rubbery eggs were practically bouncing off the plates, I suddenly cried out that this was the rottenest grub I'd ever tasted and that I could cook better than her. The landlady chose that moment to come back in and overhear my boast: "All right, clever clogs, why don't you show us what you can do for lunch?"
Ignoring my father's face, my mother said tactfully that it would give the landlady a break and make a change for everybody.There was a babble of excitement from the other guests, enhanced by the fact that I was flukily the only child there that week.
Apart from Lorraine's baby, that is. Lorraine was supposed to be the landlady's niece. She was the general dogsbody behind the scenes. The landlady was forever on at her. Whatever she did was wrong, whatever she didn't do wasn't right either. One morning, I happened to catch her hoovering the hall and gave her a bit of a grin and after that she quite took to me. Nothing much was said, but little items of food started to be smuggled out of the kitchen and pressed into my hand.The baby was the snag. Everybody was sick of it. Lorraine and the landlady included, they didn't make any secret of that. It was forever howling, and what came out of its rear end was enough to knock you backwards. They were much keener on putting it down than picking it up. Making sure we shared the grief, the landlady would sometimes cart it into the dining room and dump it down on a spare table or the floor and leave it there.
The official story was that the father had been killed in the Pacific and that out of the goodness of her heart the landlady had taken them both on, with Lorraine helping around the house in exchange. Nobody questioned this, at least not in public, much less suggested it would have been better for all concerned if it had been the baby that had died fighting the Japs. My parents' opinion was that it was the result of a Victory Night's fling and that the bloke had simply done a bunk. "And when you look at the three of them, who can blame him?" my father said, adding that for all we knew it could have been the landlady's own husband, since it was never explained why he wasn't in evidence.
I was in luck. Lunch was going to be meat and potato stew, something I'd often helped my mother make. Now that her challenge had been accepted, the landlady became almost but not quite jolly, saying she was going to take the chance of a few hours off and had no intention of stopping to see me make a fool of myself, which surprised and relieved me.
At least, until I realised there was no meat for the stew. The old bat must have sneaked it out of the kitchen to make sure my lunch effort would be a flop. I was flummoxed, thinking I'd have to call it Irish Stew and eke it out by throwing in the potato skins as per the wartime recipe for Woolton Pie. But then Lorraine, who of course had heard about the dare, came in and said she could help.
Lunch was always sharp at one. Late and you went without. By five to, my stew was bubblingly perfect. I ran out into the hall and beat the gong with the three strokes that summoned us to all meals, pretending to be the muscle man who did this at the beginning of J.Arthur Rank films. When I proudly entered the dining room, the other guests were looking both pleased at the prospect of the landlady being done down and anxious about what sort of stuff I would be dolloping on their plates. Even the young honeymoon couple who rarely came down to eat - they must have paid extra to earn exemption from the ban on guests being in the house between meals - were there. They began a round of applause that spread through the room. Old Dr Whatley, who always sat by himself, even got up to clap.
My stew went down a treat, disappointing the landlady who after all hadn't been able to resist coming back in the hope of witnessing my humiliation. Yet by the time the evening meal rolled round, people were openly wondering what had got into her. One couple reported she hadn't said a word when catching them back in the boarding house twenty minutes early. The honeymooners, down again to share the excitement, swore they had heard some humming from the kitchen. When she brought in the food, the others were so taken aback by its high quantity and quality that they didn't pay much attention when she announced that Lorraine and the baby were gone. "They won't be back," she added, "she left a note, not one word of thanks for all I've done for them."
The other person missing was old Dr. Whatley. When he came back, it was in the company of two policemen. They led me off into the Black Mariah, my parents being told to follow them down to the station where, after listening to my story, they said I would be in the children's court charged with murder. I was too young for an eight am date with the hangman so, under what they called "Detaining Until The King's Pleasure Is Known," something he never did anything about and neither has his royal daughter either, they put me here, where I still am, mainly because their psychiatrist, in one of our 'little chats', bamboozled me into revealing just how my little sister had come to choke on a family picnic in the few minutes our parents had left us alone to go behind the bushes for a pee.
Of course, there shouldn't be bones in a stew. Still, that might not have mattered with any of the other guests. It was my bad luck that it landed on old Dr. Whatley's plate. As he told the court, there was something about it that bothered him more than it just being any old bone, so he pocketed it and took it down to the local hospital where he knew one of the pathologists and got them to run some tests.
When the landlady made her announcement, I had already known Lorraine was off. She'd told me that in the kitchen when helping me with the meat crisis. I also knew that she hadn't taken the baby with her. It was time I paid her back for all those food treats.
Biographical Note: Born (1937) and educated in England; college-university lecturer in England/Australia/Canada. Now Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and Fellow of The Royal Society of Canada. Published 12 books and c. 600 articles on Greece, Rome, Byzantium, 18th-Century History & Literature, and Albanian History/Language/Literature. As freelance writer, have contributed many magazine and newspaper articles on many subjects in various countries. Did a 2-year stint as regular columnist for the British daily newspaper Morning Star. Currently write regular columns for (e.g.) Catholic Insight (Canada); Fortean Times (UK/USA); Presbyterian Record (Canada); Stitches (Canada); Verbatim (USA/UK).