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“Mr. Schumann,” said MaryLou in her clipped manner, “can I introduce Mr. Max Moreton, our chef for today.”
He looked at me in my chef’s garb, and I had the feeling that he thought I should be back in the kitchen and out of sight of his guests.
MaryLou, it appeared, must have read the same thing in his expression.
“Mr. Moreton,” she went on, “is a chef of some reputation, and has often been seen on TV.”
Some reputation indeed, I thought: the mass poisoner of Newmarket Town.
Mr. Schumann didn’t seem impressed.
MaryLou hadn’t finished. “We are very lucky to have Mr. Moreton cooking for us today,” she said. “He is much in demand.”
This wasn’t altogether true, but I wasn’t going to correct her.
Mr. Schumann reluctantly stretched out a hand. “Glad you could help,” he said. “Young MaryLou here usually gets her man.” He spoke with more of a drawl than his marketing executive, but his voice lacked warmth and sincerity.
I shook the offered hand, and we looked at each other directly in the eyes. I found him somewhat intimidating and decided that retreat to my rightful place would be a wise option. However, I was prevented from going by a hand on my arm from the lady to my left.
“Max,” she said. “How lovely. Are you cooking for us today?”
Elizabeth Jennings was a regular customer at the Hay Net along with her husband, Neil, who was one of the most successful trainers in town. Elizabeth herself was a tireless worker for charity and organizer of great dinner parties, some of which I had attended and others that I had cooked.
“Rolf,” she said to Mr. Schumann, “you are so clever to have got Max to cook for you today. He’s the absolute best chef in England.”
Good old Mrs. Jennings, I thought.
“I wouldn’t say that,” I said, although I might privately think it.
“Only the best for you, my dear,” said Mr. Schumann, turning on the charm and laying a hand on the sleeve of her blue-and-yellow floral dress.
She smiled at him. “Oh, Rolf, you are such a tease.”
Rolf decided that he was needed by someone else outside on the balcony and, with a slight nod to me and an “Excuse me” to Elizabeth, he moved away.
“Is Neil here with you?” I asked her.
“No,” Elizabeth said. “He should have been, but he wasn’t too well last night. Something he ate, I expect. Probably the ham he had for lunch. I told him that it was past its sell-by date, but he ate it anyway. He always says that those dates are just to make you throw away perfectly good food all the time and get you to buy new stuff. Maybe now he’ll change his mind.”
“What did he have for dinner?” I asked as innocently as possible.
“We went to that big do here last night, you know. I saw you,” she said. “Now, what did we have? You should know. I always forget what we eat at these things.” She stopped and laughed. “Sorry, I suppose I shouldn’t say that to a chef.”
“Most people had chicken,” I said.
“That’s right. We did. And it was very good. And I loved the crème brûlée.”
“So you definitely had the chicken?” I asked. “Not the vegetarian pasta?”
“Of course I had the chicken,” she said. “Never have that vegetarian stuff. Vegetables should accompany meat, I say, not replace it. I always have a steak at your place, don’t I?”
That’s true, I thought. Maybe the chicken was not guilty after all. She was beginning to look puzzled at my questions. Time for me to depart to the kitchen.
“Sorry, Elizabeth, I must dash or you’ll get no lunch.”
THE LUNCH SERVICE went well in spite of the poor state of the chef. Louisa, one of my staff, came into the kitchen carrying empty plates and said how pleased MaryLou was with the steak-and-kidney pies. Apparently, everyone had loved them.
I had learned early on from Marguerite, my mother’s cousin’s fiery cook, that the real trick to cooking any meat was to not cook away the taste and texture. “What makes roast beef roast beef is not only its smell and its taste but its appearance and the feel of it on your tongue,” she had said. “Food involves all the senses,” she maintained, and she reveled in the chance to make food noisy to prove her point: sizzling steaks, and even whistling toads in the hole. “If you want to add flavor,” she would say, “get it into the meat before you cook it, so that the natural taste of the meat still comes through.”
And so I had. The pie filling had been well marinaded in my special concoction of spices and herbs, with a little citrus fruit to add zest. Add a good dose or two of Scotch whisky and allow to soak for forty-eight hours or so to absorb the liquid and the flavors. Then cook slowly, at first in a moderate oven, before briefly placing it in a hot one to golden the pastry, and the results were delicious. Piece of cake-or pie.
Carl and I sat on stools in the kitchen and dozed. The summer puddings had been served, with whipped cream and the strawberry garnish, and, thankfully, the coffee was the regular caterer’s responsibility. I leaned on the countertop, rested my weary head on my arms and went to sleep.
“CHEF. CHEF. Mr. Moreton,” said a female voice. Someone shook my shoulder.
“Mr. Moreton,” said the voice again. “Wake up, Chef.”
I raised my head and opened an eye. It was Louisa.
“They want you in the dining room,” she said.
“OK,” I said with a sigh, “I’m coming.”
I dragged myself up, pulled my fingers through my hair to straighten it and went across the corridor.
They applauded. I smiled. Being a chef was being a showman, an entertainer. Taking one’s bow was what made it worthwhile. The heat of the kitchen is forgotten in the glow of appreciation from others.
Even Rolf Schumann smiled broadly. Elizabeth Jennings sat on his right and positively beamed. Reflected glory, I thought rather disingenuously. She stroked his arm and whispered in his ear in a manner that made me think that it was she who was the tease, not he.
Having milked the applause for all I could, I retreated to the kitchen to find Carl had stirred and was starting to clear up and load the wire cages for returning to Stress-Free. I really didn’t feel like I had the energy to help him, so I went back across the corridor to find myself some strong coffee.
The lunch party was breaking up, with some of the guests going to place their wagers on the first race, which was due off any minute. Many decided to sit out the race at the tables, drinking their coffee and watching the action on the television sets placed high in each corner of the room. Others drifted out onto the balcony to watch it live.
Louisa poured me some coffee, and I stood, drinking the hot black liquid, and hoped that it would wake me up a bit.
MaryLou came over. “That food sure was terrific,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said. “Glad you enjoyed it.”
“Certainly did,” she said. “Mr. Schumann really liked it too.”
I could tell that his approval was the most important thing. Mr. Schumann clearly intimidated her too. A successful lunch might mean her job was safe for a while longer.
The first race was over, and the guests drifted back from the balcony and many sat down again at the tables. I realized it would be some time before we could clear everything away and have a decent rest. Louisa and Robert, my other waiter, were busy refilling coffee cups and passing out chocolate mints. Everyone was in good humor and enjoying themselves.
THE 2,000 GUINEAS was the third race on the card, due off at three-fifteen. The excitement of the afternoon built towards the big event, with jazz bands and street entertainers helping to raise the pulse of the crowd. I could have done with a jazz band in the kitchen just to keep me awake.
As the time of the big race arrived, I went back to the boxes where Louisa and Robert were clearing the tables. Finally, all the guests had left their chairs and were crowding onto the balcony, or standing inside up against the windows, trying to get a good view of the horses as they approached along Newmarket’s famous Rowley straight mile.
I picked up some dirty coffee cups and glanced up at the television set on the wall. The horses were running down into the dip, and the jockeys were jostling for position, ready for their final effort up the rise to the finish. So tired was I that I decided not to stay and watch. I could always see it later on the replay. I turned to take the cups out to the kitchen.
That decision unquestionably saved my life.
T he bomb went off while I was crossing the corridor.
I didn’t understand immediately what had happened.
There was a great blast of heat on my neck, and it felt like someone had hit me in the back with a sledgehammer.
I crashed into the kitchen door upright and fell, half in and half out of the room.
I still couldn’t understand what was going on. Everything seemed to be in silence. I couldn’t hear. I tried to speak, but I couldn’t hear myself either. I shouted. Nothing. All I could hear was a high-pitched hissing that seemed to be in my head; it had no direction, and was unchanged when I turned my head from side to side.
I looked down at my hands, and they seemed to be all right. I moved them. No problem. I clapped. I could feel my hands coming together, but I couldn’t hear the sound. It was very frightening.
My left knee hurt. I looked down and noticed that my black-and-white checked trousers had been torn where they had hit the doorframe. The white checks were turning red with my blood. What’s black and white and red all over…? My brain was drifting.
When I felt with my hands, my knee appeared to be in the right place, and I could move my foot without any increase in pain. It seemed that the blood was from superficial damage only.
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