When I was a girl, families made do. In the evening, we didn’t have TV or radio; we didn’t need it. There were seven of us: me, my two brothers, and our four cousins. After dinner, we’d all crowd around my grandmother’s ankles, and she’d read stories from these huge whacking books that were peeling at the seams. She was a widow, even if she never spoke about where her husband went. Her tales put the wind up your spine. She’d read them with all the seriousness of a court judge, and then, right at the end, burst into the widest smile. We never went to bed frightened.
But one night, full of stew, we rushed into the den, and I could tell she’d been crying. I don’t know if the other children noticed. She didn’t take a book down from the shelf; she spoke straight from memory. It was a folk tale, a yarn about a man with spikes in his head, who would come to the house of wives who didn’t cook their men good food and exact a terrible revenge on them. The Man in White Robes, she called him. He’d march through the door and scream at your family and destroy all the furniture, and finally, he would chop you apart with his big meat cleaver.
We got our giddy scare and chased around the house like a pack of wolves before bed. But as I lay down on that mattress next to my brothers, I couldn’t shake the image of her face. There was no laugh, no grin, she just stared glassy-eyed out the window. If there was one tiny thing in my life I could change, if it was anything, I’d go back and listen closer to that story.
Terry came in from the field, almost shaking with excitement at the thought of a hearty meal. He pulled the seat out for our son, Jack, and took great satisfaction in hearing the clunk of the plate as I put it on the table. Scraps, our golden retriever, sat dutifully in the corner, his head on his paws. Tonight was pie and mash, Terry’s favourite. He put the napkin down on his lap like a priest donning his robes and took a bite of the pastry. I studied his eyes. They dulled, his brow fell.
“What’s wrong?”, I asked.
“Ah, it’s nothing”, he replied. I put my hand on his weathered skin.
“It’s okay, if there’s something wrong with the food I want to know”, I said.
“It’s a lovely meal, Dot, it’s just the pie’s a little dry”. I was taken aback. I’d made the crust from scratch, and now I left like I’d wasted my time.
“Well, I love pie”, said Jack. He always saw what people wanted to hear.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything”, said Terry. We ate the rest of the meal mostly in silence, apart from the mooing of the cows through the thin walls. Then, as I started clearing the table, there was a thunderous boom from the direction of the field. Jack covered his ears. “What the bloody hell was that?” asked Terry. I put my hand on Jack’s head.
“Hey, it’s alright, it’s just a loud noise”, I reassured the boy. Terry was already getting his coat on. He headed to the old wooden door, and then, when he was an inch from it, there came two loud knocks like the sound of knives hitting the other side. Before Terry could reach for the handle, he was thrown backwards, the door swung open, thwacking into the wall. And there he was, on the other side: The Man in White Robes. We never found out where he came from. We’re out in the middle of nowhere, and there was no car or tractor outside, no tire tracks.
“I’ll let myself in, shall I?, said The Man, sarcastically. He spoke in a highly strung voice, set somewhere between a Scottish brogue and English accent. He strode across the threshold like he owned the place, and Scraps began barking up a storm, but The Man didn’t seem to notice. I pulled Jack away from him, he was frozen now. Terry got to his feet.
“What do you think you’re doing? My family are trying to eat dinner in here”, Terry bellowed. The Man walked over to a low table, picked up a coaster off it and bit into it.
“You call this dinner? Christ”. He dropped it and clapped his hands together. “It seems I’ve got my work cut out here”. Terry jabbed a finger in his direction.
“Right, you’ve had your warning. Get out or I’ll fucking clobber you”.
“Terry, language”, I said in a hushed voice. As my husband got within a foot of The Man in the Robes, he bumped into something that wasn’t there, like a forcefield.
“Let’s see your ingredients”, The Man said, pulling open a cabinet. He was staring at shelves of our old tableware and knick-knacks. He pulled out a blue and white teapot my mother gave me and licked it. “Jesus, how long has this been in here?”, he said.
“Don’t”, I screamed as he threw it to the ground, but it was already too late.
“I’ll call the police”, said Terry. The Man continued to pay no mind. He swept his hand along shelf after shelf, pushing plates and bowls onto the floor. I took Jack and ran him up to his room, placed him down on his bed, and made him promise not to go anywhere. I could still hear smashing and clattering downstairs.
I flew back down the stairs as fast as I could. There were shards of porcelain all across the dining room floor but no sign of Terry or The Man in White. I turned the corner to discover the intruder standing in the kitchen, and Terry slumped against the fridge, his eyes closed. I ran over to my husband, tried to support his back. I put my hand on his face, but he was cold to the touch and smelled of chip fat.
“What have you done to him?”, I asked The Man.
“Your head chef has got a serious attitude problem”, The Man replied. “Right, let’s dig in”. He opened the pedal bin in the corner and began pawing old soup can lids and fruit peels into his mouth. “That is rank”. He covered his mouth with one hand before speaking again. “I wouldn’t even feed that to my dog”.
“The dog”, I said, standing. “Where is Scraps?”.
“He’s out back, having a smoke. Your customers are going to be waiting all night at this rate”. The Man rubbed his hands down the length of his face, smearing them with sweat. He walked over to one of the kitchen counters. I stood stunned as he picked up a spoon and tried to saw through a pumpernickel. “When was the last time these knives were sharpened?”.
“What do you want?”, I asked. It was the first time he stopped moving since he’d arrived. Crouched over the bread, he turned to me and looked into my eye, beyond my eye. “I want to help you”. He suddenly snapped back to motion, like an electric shock went through him. He moved over to the sink, where he attempted to pour water into an upside-down saucepan. “This is so much worse than I thought”, he said.
I didn’t know what to do, but I had to do something. Terry wasn’t serious when he said he’d call the police. Driving all the way out here from the village, it would take them twenty or thirty minutes. But maybe I could keep The Man in White talking until they were here. He did seem pretty distracted now, trying to chop up the saucepan with a pairing knife. I had to wrench myself away from my husband’s side. I didn’t realise how light-headed I was until I started moving. I thought about what Gran would think if she could see me now. Making my way to the phone was like swimming to some far-off island, but I did it. Only, the receiver was missing.
I spun around. I didn’t know where I expected to see the handset, but I didn’t expect to see it in The Man’s frying pan. It began to simmer away in there with a watch and my nail file. “It’s simple, quality ingredients like this that are going to help you turn this place around”, he said. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Can I- Can I have the phone?”, I asked. I didn’t know how he would respond, but his mind seemed to work differently than ours. Maybe he’d actually let me have it. He looked frustrated. He pursed his lips. He sliced his hand through the air next to his head when he spoke, emphasising his words.
“I came here because I genuinely thought you had a shot at saving your business. But if you don’t want this, tell me now because I can’t do anything for someone who doesn’t respect their establishment.” He stepped back from the pan. I almost wished he’d said “No”. Then I’d know where I stand, but in his body language, he seemed to be offering me the receiver. I moved forward slowly, expecting him to lash out like a wounded animal if he saw me grab for it.
As I crept towards him, his mouth opened slowly, like he was beckoning me. I heard a loud metal grinding and jumped backwards before realising that I’d bumped into a knife sitting on the counter and scraped it against a ladle. I breathed out. “Christ, you’re slower than a Southwest train”, he said. I took the hint and reached towards the pan. The next second, pain like I’d never felt shot through my right side. I felt faint as I saw The Man had pinned my hand to the counter with a carving fork. He held his fingers up by his temples.
“I have tried to make you understand, and you’re just not listening. I’ve got to save this restaurant from itself”.
“Please, don’t do this”, I pleaded.
“I’m going to show you how to create a beautiful lamb shank that will have your customers raving. The first step is making the right cut”. He took a meat cleaver from the drawer and swung it in my direction. I leapt to one side before I knew I’d done it, but I wasn’t going anywhere further with that metal through my palm. He swept another arc with the cleaver, and I could barely lean out of the way. He sliced across my neckbone. Not deep, but enough to cut the skin. I didn’t feel it, though, or the fork in my hand anymore. I guess this is what they mean when they say the adrenaline takes over. But I’d inched back as far as I could. The Man’s eyes were unfocused.
“The trick is to be really firm”, he said as he pulled the cleaver back one last time. The metal caught the warm glow of the kitchen bulb, and I shut my eyes. I heard a loud hit and the sound of The Man falling to the floor. Terry was standing over him, holding the kettle in one hand, a blood stain in the shape of a trident left on it. Terry pulled the fork from me and hung onto my arm like I’d fall apart if he didn’t hold me together.
“You don’t think I’d really let him hurt you, did you Dot? Come on, we’re getting out of this kitchen”, he said, pulling me backwards. The fear started to wear off, I was breaking down, but I had to keep moving. The Man in White got up like he was falling in reverse.
“That sauce has a hell of a kick to it”, he said. “Right, now let’s check back in on my main dish”. He went for the cleaver again.
“Run”, Terry said. He pushed me in front of him, and we bolted up the stairs, right into Jack’s room. I collapsed to the floor. He pushed my face to his shoulder and placed one hand on my forest of hair. “Come, it’s gonna be alright now”. I pulled back quickly and scanned the room.
“Jack, where’s Jack?”, I screamed. My son was missing. I lept to my feet. I turned the doorknob, smearing it with crimson.
“Dot, no!”, Terry cried after me. When I made it back to the kitchen, The Man in White Robes looked like he was in a trance, watching a marigold glove rotating in the microwave. Behind him, hunkered down in the corner of the room, was Jack, praying not to be seen.
“I’ve had less rubbery food at a tire dealer’s”, The Man said.
“I’m sorry Mommy”, said Jack, clutching at his sweater. “I heard Scraps and I went to make sure he was okay”. I ached to tell Jack that he was going to be safe, but I couldn’t risk getting the killer’s attention. I knelt down slowly and pressed a finger to my lips. I coaxed Jack over. He took a few terrified steps from the corner before The Man wheeled around to the stove.
“The customers are going to be here any minute and we’ve got a deadline to reach”, he shouted before turning on all the gas hobs. “It’s time to really get some heat going”. Jack froze, and when The Man turned back, he bumped into him. “Where have you been hiding this?”, he said. Both I and Jack were speechless. “Hoarding is so common. Chefs get the ingredients and then they don’t know to do with them”. He placed his hands on the side of Jack’s face.
Terry, who was now behind me, spoke. “Please, don’t hurt the boy. You can do whatever you want to me, but don’t hurt my wife and don’t hurt my boy”.
“Listen, you haven’t got anything to worry about. I’m here to help”.
It’s a scorching hot day here in Los Angeles, but there’s no rest for the wicked. I’ve been called to Dot’s: a beachfront grill with an ill reputation. After meeting with the cantankerous manager and discovering some truly putrid stock, I was finally able to some fresh food I could work with. I’m going to teach Dot and Terry how to make a delicious fillet of fish. There have been a lot of tears on the road here, but I’m confident they’ll be grateful in the end. Time to start the deboning.