by Peter Ford [First appeared Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, December 2017 issue]
Harry Pinder was a chef like no other. He had never received a bad review, or, if he had, he was as certain as he could be that no other diner would have read about it. He prepared only a handful of meals a year, and had not written a menu in almost a decade now. Indeed, such is the way that the tastes of the general public can change and evolve, he doubted whether, upon leaving his current commission, he could ever write one again.
His diners, not customers, would write to him, maybe a week or so prior to their reservation, depending on the particular circumstances. From the moment the order arrived on his desk, he was at their complete disposal. His own time, weekends, evenings, holidays and birthdays were inconsequential when stacked against the specific and often unique needs of his diners. In the past, this deferential treatment had caused problems within his private life; it had cost him a marriage and strained many a friendship to the breaking point. Fortunately, his current fiancée of three years fully understood the exceptions required of his position, and appreciated and encouraged the sacrifices that they both had to make once an order came in.
The initial order would come via written instruction, passed on to him through an intermediary who was banned from reading it. He would read it once, twice, pause for a coffee, and then a third time to commit it to memory, before discarding it to the waste paper basket. What happened next was a matter of course; if the order was a relatively straightforward one (though there was no typical order; each was unique,) Harry would send his sous-chef, Hernandez back to the diner for the particulars of the presentation and any other technical issues that needed to be addressed. What sort of plate would the diner like? A china-bowl, a white porcelain square, or a piece of sanded slate? Hernandez would also take a drink order which would be a list of recommendations written by Harry himself; drinks that might complement the dish; a Chilean white, South African red, a crisp lager, 20-year scotch, or even an iced lemon water. Most diners ended up opting for an alcoholic beverage of some description, which, in Harry’s opinion was completely understandable. Though, when a rare order came back for just a water, or a soft drink, he could not help but feel a sense of respect for the diner’s power of abstinence.
Occasionally, if the order was unclear or ambiguous in some way, Harry would make contact with the diner himself in order to ascertain exactly what was required. Many of his diners had difficulty expressing themselves, and some did not even speak English, but Harry, being both experienced and professional, asked precise, pointed questions in a delicate manner, in order to determine, from the diners, exactly how they wished their beef cooked, or potatoes sliced. He had also taken to learning Spanish as many of his diners tended to be Hispanic and it secretly delighted him discussing the ins and outs of their cuisine in their own first language.
Once the particulars of the dish had been established, Harry would dispatch his small staff to source the ingredients from wherever they could be found. If a request required an ingredient not available locally, or was specific to a certain area, he would not hesitate in sending Hernandez to go and acquire it. In the past he had dispatched his assistant as far afield as Australia for kangaroo steak, to Norway for whale and Russia for a certain type of vodka. It was the diner’s meal, and he was responsible for every last aspect of it.
On the night before the reservation was due, Harry would prepare a trial meal in utter and complete silence. Music damaged his concentration at this most crucial stage. It affected his memory for the exact weight of the ingredients, the timing of the cooking, heating of the stove. When the meal was ready, he would sit by himself at the small, circular table in the corner of the kitchen and eat the meal. Again, silence during the meal was absolute imperative: Harry liked to hear the food as he worked it over his tongue. Only when the plate was empty, which it inevitably would be, would Harry sit back, take a sip of whichever drink the diner had selected, and decide whether or not the meal was acceptable; whether the textures and flavors were balanced, whether the selected drink complemented the dish as a whole, whether it sat well visually on the selected plate. Sometimes he would write changes on a notepad that he kept in his breast pocket, to remember details for the next day’s cooking. At other times he would simply nod and allow himself a small smile.
In the nine years, four months and eighteen days since Harry had accepted this commission, the routine had worked perfectly. He had never needed to visit a diner more than once in order to establish what they wanted, and although he never saw them again after the meal, the occasional positive comment had filtered through his colleagues back to him that made his heart burn with pride.
On one hot, sticky, July morning however, with the air stuffy within his office, Harry Pinder received a knock on the door.
“Yes.” he hummed, looking up as a man in a charcoal grey uniform straddled the threshold between his office and the outside world.
“Dinner reservation,” the man said without feeling or sincerity, stepping forward and dropping a piece of yellow note paper on Harry’s desk, before leaving the room without another word. Harry scowled after him: he was a stooge, a cog in the system, a man either ignorant or uncaring of the privileged, almost sacrosanct position he held.
He shook his head after the man, and propped his half moon glasses at the end of his nose, and unfolded the paper.
His eyes flickered along the first couple of rows. A starter: soup-based, light, flavorful, very particular ingredients. Harry nodded, he liked it when his clients had culinary expertise themselves. He reached the main course; fish. It made perfect sense considering the warm weather, no need for a heavy red meat to add to the discomfort.
His eyes came to a sudden halt on the penultimate line of the main course order, and the wrinkles on his forehead came together in a downward arch. He re-read. The arch furrowed further. He looked away from the paper and licked his lips nervously, raised his glasses from his nose and kneaded his eyes with his forefinger and thumb before returning them and reading once again.
This was no trick of the light, the words were there in thick blue ink, crafted with deliberate precision by a knowing and purposeful hand. He closed the piece of paper and ran a finger across the crease, locking the words inside. After a couple of very deep breaths he raised the receiver on his desk phone and punched in a phone number.
“Yes,” Hernandez replied instantly.
“Hern.” Harry was surprised to find his voice was wavering so held the receiver away and coughed into his hand before continuing. “Hern, we have a dinner reservation.”
“Okay. Is there a drink order too?” Hernandez asked. Harry shook his head.
“No, I need you to go back to them,” Harry said, thinking fast and talking slow. “It’s the paper they wrote it down on, I spilled my coffee on it and can’t read it.”
Hernandez made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a snort. “I think you are getting clumsy in your old age.”
“Just go and get the order now please. One of them will have the contact details.”
“Sure.” He could hear Hernandez getting to his feet. “I’ll get back to you in a bit.”
“Thanks, Hern.” Harry replaced the receiver and steadied his shaking hand. He then took a pack of matches from the desk draw and struck one, sparking a bright orange flame which he held to the corner of the yellow paper until it smoldered and curled into ash.
Hernandez returned quickly with the new order, written out on expensive looking, cream-headed paper.
“Thanks,” Harry said, reaching up and plucking it from his assistant’s hand. “You read it?”
“Of course not,” Hernandez replied, looking offended by the question, Harry nodded and offered a small smile in apology. Beneath his hand he could feel the headed paper throbbing, waiting to correct the error made on its predecessor.
“Well I’ll let you know Hern,” he said eventually, conscious that Hernandez was hovering over the desk. “About the order.”
“Sure thing.” Hernandez nodded, leaving the room.
Harry waited for a moment until the corridor outside was completely devoid of people. Within the office the only noise was the rising frequency of his breathing. He raised his hand and one half of the paper rose with it, stuck to the perspiration on his palm. He pinched it from his hand and unfolded it with an, until now, unfelt feeling of dread. With a twitch of the neck he started again from the very top of the page, resisting the urge to begin at the previous error.
Again the soup, with ginger and lemongrass, that would be really nice he thought with an approving nod; he liked working with ginger, he could make that really special. Then the main course, noodles had been specified, but glass or thicker ones? He would have to think about that; he preferred the thicker ones himself as they retained more flavor, but whether or not this oppressive heat would complement them, a decision for the trial run perhaps. And then the fish. Dread was replaced by fear, he had felt this emotion before, but not like this, not the type which sweeps over you like a tidal wave washing away every other emotion and thought until all that remains is the fear itself. His dread had been realized, underlined two-thirds of the way down the headed paper. There was no mistake. Two words, underlined by three, four, five scratches of the pen. It was being shouted at him from the page, the words screaming out from diner to chef through the medium of his own, headed paper. The order fell back to the desk, and he placed his fingers into his temples, pushing hard to replace the mental anguish with physical, manageable pain. He shut his eyes as tight as he could, imagined the starters in a thin, ceramic bowl, sticks of lemon grass floating in the liquid, curls of flavor rising from it. Then the main, a circle of noodles, glass, clear, intertwined with onion and relish, surrounding the fish.
His eyes snapped open, disgusted at the image.
“Fuck.” He breathed, squeezing a single tear from his right eye.
Harry Pinder did not sleep that night. Beside him, Felicity (soon-to-be-Pinder) lay in solemn silence, oblivious to the immeasurable weight which her fiancée had brought home with him. When he could take the silence and stillness of the early Nebraskan morning no more he swung his legs from the bed, took a shower, kissed the sleeping Felicity on the brow and left for work.
He arrived just after sunrise, pulling his green Cadillac roughly into its dusty parking spot by the shack which doubled as both the cafeteria and his office. It was deathly quiet, a quiet like a withdrawn breath waiting to be released upon the world. He sat at his desk and paused for a moment, perched at the very end of his chair. He had not dreamed it, the order, how could he when he had not slept? And yet, it did not seem real. It felt like a scene in a book he had read, but it was not, there was no book on his desk, only a folded piece of headed paper. He raised the phone and held it to his ear.
“Yes,” a voice replied, croaky and distant, probably the first word it had said in hours.
“Good morning,” Harry said quickly. “It’s Mr. Pinder here.”
“Mr. Pinder,” The voice sounded surprised, mildly amused. “This is early for you, doing a breakfast are we?” Harry ignored the jibe; he had heard them all before and their words no longer fazed him.
“I have received a reservation for a dinner on this coming Tuesday and I would like to speak to the prospective diner.” He was worried his voice might betray him, as the words were chased from him by the rampant beating of his heart.
“Now?” the voice sounded annoyed. “Christ, man, its six-thirty. We’d have to wake her up.”
Her? Harry paused, he had not considered that the diner be female, though there was no reason why she should not be. He always assumed his diners to be genderless, a figure who wished to dine, asexual, unknown, this was information he did not need or want to know.
“I don’t care,” he said defiantly. “This is important.” He slammed down the receiver.
The grey guard said nothing as Harry approached him and the barred doorway. The man rose and stretched as he saw the chef approaching; his facial expression was like all the others, uncaring, ignorant.
“I’ve woken her, she’s expecting you.” He was visibly annoyed at the earliness of Harry’s visit, beneath his charcoal uniform his muscles bristled and tensed.
“Thank you,” Harry replied with a nod. A buzzer whirred above his head and the metal door slid itself aside, and both guard and chef advanced into the darkness beyond.
They walked for a long two minutes, mainly straight and in silence, then descended a steep staircase and proceeded forward once more. The lights illuminating the walkways had been dimmed so much they barely seemed to light the air surrounding them, and Harry stayed close to his guide, following the heavy beat of boots on the bare, concrete floor.
Eventually they stopped outside a door from which a dull light seeped from benetah. Without taking his eyes of Harry, the guard raised a knuckle to the door and beat it twice.
“Yes,” the voice replied. A key was slotted into the lock and turned, more light spilled from the room as the door was pushed open.
“You have thirty minutes,” the guard said, nodding Harry inside.
The room was small and rectangular, a single bed with a threadbare grey blanket hugged the right-hand wall. A small desk sat at the far end beneath a barred window; it held, upon its knobbled splints, a handful of tired-looking books and old-looking paper. Slid beneath it was a red plastic chair which looked like it had been borrowed from a primary school.
Harry’s diner sat on the bed, cross-legged and tranquil. As he entered she raised her head and smiled an early morning smile.
She was young, he thought. Christ, she was young. Her hair was blonde and closely cropped around a pale, sun-starved face devoid of age, a crown of freckles ran across the bridge of her nose. She was small and child-like, angular limbs seemed to jut out in all directions, threatening to tear through the orange jump suit she wore with the comfort of someone who had worn it like their own skin for a very long time.
“Hello,” Harry replied eventually, looking away to hide the shock in his eyes from her. “I’m sorry I woke you up so early.”
“That’s alright,” she said softly, giving her morning smile again as Harry turned his gaze back to her. “I don’t really sleep that much nowadays.”
“Oh.” Harry made a neutral noise. Sleeplessness made sense he supposed, though he remained feeling guilty at the early hour nonetheless. “Do you mind if I…?” He motioned towards the plastic chair, but to his surprise, his host unfurled her legs and slipped from the bed.
“Please.” She patted the bed, which did not look much more comfortable than the chair. “It’s only a small chair.” She pulled it from beneath the desk and sat in it, tucking one, spindly leg under the other and leaving Harry little choice but to sit on the bed. Maybe this is why she doesn’t sleep, he thought, as he felt the boards through the thin mattress.
“My name is…” she began, but Harry interrupted.
“Don’t.” He paused at her stunned silence. “Don’t tell me.” He was short of breath, as if he had been on a long, long run, and beneath his shirt, his skin began to feel hot and pricked.
“Why?” she asked. She had watery blue eyes, though they seemed to have a hardness which told Harry she would not be moved to tears easily. He paused again, waiting for a good answer to her question.
“I don’t want to know.” It was not a good answer.
“Oh.” The woman whistled softly and nodded, cradling her hands together in her orange lap. “Well can I at least know yours?” she added, earnest as a schoolchild asking their teacher’s name for the first time.
“Henry.” Harry conceded with the weakest of smiles. The dread he had felt in the time running up to receiving her second order had returned making him squirm and fidget on the mattress.
“I had a dog called Henry,” she said, looking up at the square of light half way up the wall. It had a wire mesh over it and three rusted bars outside of that. “He was a Labrador. Got killed in a fire.”
“Oh,” Harry said, watching the woman watch the bars on the window, bars, which to him, seemed only necessary to reinforce the illusion of incarceration without really being necessary for that purpose.
“Is this about my order, Henry?” the girl said eventually, meeting his gaze across the cell. Harry looked back at her, his neck strained as if holding down nausea. She looked no older than twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and her face was a mixture of youth and the faux-age that comes with prolonged incarceration. Grey bags beneath beautiful eyes, white teeth behind thin lips. She was a painting, to be hung in courtrooms across the land, of beauty spoiled.
“I take it it’s not about the soup?” Her lips flickered into the briefest of smiles.
“Are you going to make it?” She leant forwards. The room was so small Harry could feel her breath float across the space between them and touch him lightly on his face. It smelled of toothpaste.
“I can’t.” He spread his hands, palms to the ceiling in desperation.
“Because it will kill you.”
The chef and his diner sat, for what seemed to be a very long time, in silence. The heavy tick of Harry’s wristwatch seemed to reverberate around the room, and he wondered how many of his thirty minutes they had already spent. The girl watched him through inquisitive, shimmering eyes, and he felt interrogated, squirming on the bed, avoiding her gaze as beads of cold sweat began to form on his brow and roll down his temples.
“What does it matter?” she said, breaking the silence with her quiet yet insistent voice, “I’ll be dead the next day. The world has decided that I am to die. What does it matter whether it is this day or the next?” Trapped inside this nightmare, Harry shook his head and wiped his brow. He felt exhausted, pummeled into submission. Before him, the girl in the orange jump suit seemed to grow and grow until she loomed large above him.
“Why like this?” The question sounded so weak, so unbecoming when placed within the magnitude of the situation.
“I have been here for eight years,” she began with a sigh and a renewed stare. “For eight years I have had no control. I have been told when to sleep, when to shower, when to eat. And now….” She paused and let her head drop to her chest.
Harry was taken aback by this first show of real emotion from the prisoner, it made him feel uncomfortable, but reminded him, as if he needed it, that she was real, “And now I will be told when and how I am to die.” Harry’s instinct was to comfort, to commiserate, but even the thought of it sounded hollow. “And if they wish to postpone my death, if they want to extend my agony, they can. On a whim, on an administrative error, a perceived mercy or deliberate torment. They can keep me here expecting death every week until I am old with my soul tortured by living inside death’s porch.”
“They can’t…surely.” Harry’s shock overtook his words, but in her face he saw no lies and no fear of death, only fear of its postponement.
“They can. And they do.”
Harry looked to the floor: a droplet of liquid, sweat or tears, he could not say which, dropped from his face and splashed on the concrete floor, forming a tiny sea amongst a grey desert. When he looked up, she was staring through him, through to his heart, as if the flesh surrounding it was little more than a dusty window. “Do you know what I did, to get in here?” Harry shook his head. “Would it affect your decision if you knew?” He thought, briefly, weakly: the state kills killers, only killers, he knew that much. But anything more than that, he was separate from all that business, all that unpleasantness. He had a job to do, a duty to grant a condemned man or woman one last joy before passing on. Others decided their fate.
“I don’t know,” he said eventually. “I don’t want to know.”
The prisoner nodded and leaned against the wall, her back as straight in opposition to Harry’s which was hunched over his knees. “It will be murder.” He spoke out from within his own cave. “You’re asking me, to murder you.”
She tilted her head to one side and gave him a curious, almost bemused look like a dog looking at its owner. “Not murder.” She said quietly. “No one would know. There would be no post-mortem, no inquiry; they would just toss my body in an unmarked grave. Henry, you would be saving me.”
“No.” Harry jumped to his feet and backed away from her. He raised a hand to his head and kept it there, while he paced backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards around the room that seemed to be spinning at an ever-increasing rate. “You can’t ask me to do this.” He knew what he should do, he should leave, turn his back on this girl and leave her to the others, to the justice system of which he was and wished to be no part of. But he didn’t, he stayed. “I am a chef.” He jammed his thumb into his chest, “I make my food for prisoners, for my diners,” he corrected himself, “So that my diners may enjoy one last joy before…,” he could not bring himself to say the final word so waved his hand instead and turned to the door.
“But I would enjoy it,” she replied quickly. “I would enjoy it as your diner, I would just die a little sooner.”
“My dishes,” he sounded angry, though he was not, “represent life and beauty, the flavors of the world, unique to every diner.”
“Exactly,” the girl said with a sense of finality. “Each diner requests from you something unique, something intrinsically personal to be intertwined in their final meal. A taste of the exotic, where they have been, or where they had wished they had been, a childhood memory previously lost, a meal of spiritual significance before meeting their maker. I ask for no different. I ask for release from this existence through the ecstasy of the perfect meal.” Harry cried silently as he sank to the floor. “You have a duty, Henry, to grant your diner their final wish, to create their perfect meal. I have given you my order.”
“I don’t want to kill you.” He sounded so pitiful, so pathetic, so selfish. “I don’t want to be a murderer.”
Thirty minutes had passed when the guard opened the door. Harry and the girl sat in comfortable silence, him on the mattress opposite the prisoner, cross-legged on her plastic red chair.
“Time’s up, Mr. Pinder,” he growled, and Harry looked up, not to him, but to the girl. She smiled her morning smile, though he could not bring himself to return his own. With tired limbs he pushed himself from the bed and walked to the door. “Get everything you wanted?” The question was mocking, but Harry ignored it, pausing instead in the doorway and looking back in the cell. The girl continued to sit, unmoved by his exit, staring at the empty wall from within her orange jump suit.
“Yes I did.”
“You know what she did?” the guard asked, as they walked back through the still sleeping cells. “Crazy case, man.” Harry barely heard him above the noise within his own head; he felt as if he were being pushed along by a force unseen, preventing him from collapsing to the floor and curling into a ball like a detached petal.
“No, I don’t know.”
“Man.” The guard whistled. “I’ll send the file up to your office, just don’t read it when you’re having your breakfast.” Harry said nothing, he couldn’t speak to him any more, and stared straight ahead down the corridor to the rectangle of light at its end, marking out the land of the living, from the land of the soon to be dead.
Upon reaching the light, Harry turned to the guard, he smirked as he descended into his chair watching the boundary between light and dark and placed his hands behind his head. “Well, Mr. Pinder, it’s been a pleasure.” Harry wanted to beat him, to take his face and hammer it against the ground until the smirk seeped into the concrete. Without a word he walked on, fists curled in unjustified, implausible rage. Suddenly, without his mind knowing it, he stopped and turned.
“Send me the file,” he said.
When it came, Harry stared at its cover for a long, long time. Hernandez came in, asked him questions about his day, about the order, about the file. Harry sent him away without a word. It was desert-brown, deep and thick with ill-fitting pages and the irregular corners of photographs, seductive teasers, all trying to get him to peel back the cover and look inside. He hovered his hand over it, ran a finger down its spine, lifted it up, put it down, and still the sirens within sang for him to reveal its secrets.
Without warning, something snapped within him. Or did it loosen, he could not be sure, but the result was the same, a calmness washed over him, cleansing him, absolving him. He pushed the file from him, to the other side of the desk and reached for the phone, punching in a familiar number.
“Hern.” For the first time that morning, his voice was level, certain in the words it spoke. “We have an order, now listen carefully, it’s a difficult one.”
Peter is a British writer based in London after three years working in Switzerland, and before that in Tanzania. He has written a collection of short stories entitled A Fractured Mirror and is currently seeking a publisher for his first novel, Meadowlands, a dystopian drama set in an alternate London in which corporations have taken over the government and all people are now split in three new social classes: Employee, Management and Executive with social mobility a thing of the past. Meadowlands will be published in 2018. When he is not writing, Peter works for the British Civil Service.
Photo credit: alphaspirit