BY HELEN E. PATTERSON
Copyright is held by the author.
IN A non-descript laneway in a down-at-the-heels part of the City of London stood an unexceptional gentlemen’s social club. It had stood on that same spot for nearly 100 years. Which was about how long it had been since anyone of any significance had been a member.
It had been almost as long since anything of any note had occurred within its walls. Despite this fact, the reactions of the members sitting in the dining room, were those of resignation, stoic almost, when the fruit salad exploded.
“I see Smythe has confused pineapples with hand grenades again,” said Higgins, as he fished a maraschino cherry out of his ear.
“Good heavens! You mean he’s done this before?” asked the new man, Reginald-Jones, as he brushed a sliver of pear from his cuff.
“Sadly, yes,” replied Forbes-Robinson. He lifted a slice of cling peach from his lapel and placed it on his side plate. “The last time the cook’s assistant was lucky enough to get to him before he tried to peel one.”
“It could have been much worse,” said Higgins.
“Oh, indeed,” agreed Forbes-Robinson. “There was the time he put shredded camouflage netting in the green salad. My stomach wasn’t quite right for weeks afterwards.”
“My own personal least favourite was the meal with golf balls, smothered in garlic butter. He apparently mistook them for new potatoes. I still have nightmares about that one,” sighed Higgins.
“I don’t understand,” said Reginald-Jones. “Why don’t we just sack him?”
Higgins shook his head sadly. “Not possible, I’m afraid. Smythe’s a legacy. His great-great-grandfather was the very first cook and it’s in our letters patent that we have to employ a member of the family as such. Sadly, due to a number of unfortunate accidents – food poisonings, severe allergic reactions and such — Smythe’s the only one available.”
“But can’t anything be done?” asked Reginald-Jones.
The others shared looks of paternal benevolence. “Oh, the innocence of youth!” they seemed to say.
“My dear boy,” began Forbes-Robinson, in as kind and gentle a voice as he could muster. “Please don’t think we haven’t tried. However, far be it from me to discourage youthful enthusiasm. Feel free to have another go at it. We could look at it as a kind of initiation ceremony.
“Grand idea!” they all chorused, then retired to the smoking lounge, cigars and brandy in hand.
Early the next morning, Reginald-Jones made his first tentative foray into the realm ruled by the being known only as “Smythe the cook”. He entered the kitchen by the back door and was greeted by the enticing odours of bacon, eggs, sausage and freshly-squeezed juice. It was an encouraging beginning, and, feeling a little bolder, he ventured farther into the unknown.
Suddenly, he came face to face, more or less, with the infamous cook himself. Smythe looked oddly out of place in the tidy kitchen. Among the gleaming countertops, burnished appliances and polished floors, he conveyed an air of seediness and grime with his stained jacket and unshaven jowls.
“Oh, uh, good morning, Smythe,” began Reginald-Jones in what he hoped was a voice that was warm and friendly without being overly familiar.
“Who the hell are you?” asked Smythe in a gravelly, phlegmy growl that made him sound as though he gargled with drain cleaner.
“My name is Anthony Reginald-Jones. I’m a member at the club.” He was beginning to feel like a new boy at public school, confronting a notoriously stern headmaster.
“Hmmph . . . what do you want?” asked Smythe as he lit the tattered butt end of a cigar.
“Well, you see, it’s about the food, I’m afraid.”
“And what’s wrong with the food?”
“I . . . you know . . . the others said . . . Dash it all, Smythe! The fruit salad exploded at dinner last night. We all could have been killed . . . or something,” Reginald-Jones’ voice trailed off lamely.
“Oh, that,” replied Smythe. “Accidents will happen, you know. Anyroad, that was your members’ own fault. You will keep buyin’ supplies from the army surplus, and storin’ them in me pantry. Serves you right if I occasionally makes a little mistake.”
Reginald-Jones pondered this. On a sudden impulse, he picked up a spoon from the counter and lobbed it at Smythe. The spoon bounced off Smythe’s forehead. Smythe wildly thrashed the air about him.
“Wozzat? What happened? Are we under attack?”
Reginald-Jones smiled with grim satisfaction. He had deduced the source of all the problems. He began pacing and Smythe, his head swivelling like an oscillating fan, followed the sound of Reginald-Jones’ voice.
“Smythe, don’t you see that all this unpleasantness could be avoided if you would simply go and get your eyes checked?”
“Nuffin’ wrong with me eyes,” said Smythe.
“But look at all the mistakes you’ve been making. Surely that must tell you something is amiss!”
Smythe frowned. “Are you trying to tell me how to run me own kitchen?” he snarled, as he advanced menacingly on the coat rack. Reginald-Jones sighed.
“I’m over here, Smythe. Think of it as a morning off then,” he said.
“With pay?” Smythe asked in Reginald-Jones’ general direction.
“I’m not sure about that . . .” Reginald-Jones began.
Smythe’s reply was to turn abruptly and walk out the kitchen door. His aim was off by about a foot. He staggered back from his collision with the door jamb in time to hear Reginald-Jones say, in exasperation “Oh, all right. With pay then!”
Smythe smiled happily at the refrigerator, and the deal was done.
Reginald-Jones was a little late for lunch the next day and when he arrived at the club, he was greeted by no welcoming aromas. He remained ungreeted by any sort of aroma at all, which puzzled him. Even on Smythe’s worst days, he had some sort of meal prepared, edible or otherwise.
Entering the dining room, Reginald-Jones was met by stony stares from all sides. As he made his way to his accustomed table, muttering and hissing broke out around him. As he took his seat, his tablemates began their attack.
“Smythe didn’t show up for morning tea or for breakfast. The assistant cook is trying to cobble something together but the kitchen is in utter chaos. What on earth did you say to Smythe?” demanded Higgins.
“I simply convinced him to go and get his eyes checked. I told him he’d still be paid. He wouldn’t have gone otherwise. He should have been back by now.”
“Well, he’s not,” said Forbes-Robinson. “I’m afraid you’ve rather put your foot in it this time, old boy.”
“Absolutely,” said Jenkins. “You know, of course, that members have been ousted for much less than alienating the club’s cook. Smythe may not be the finest cook in the world…all right, he is far from being the finest cook in the world but he is the best we can do under the circumstances. The other members are not going to look too kindly on this, let me assure you.”
“All I can do is see if I can find him,” said Reginald-Jones. “I know where he’s gone. Will that square things, do you think?”
The others looked uncertain.
“I don’t suppose it could make things any worse,” said Forbes-Robinson. “But do try to be back in time for afternoon tea. Otherwise, the assistant cook is going to need a great deal of help cutting the crusts off the sandwiches.”
As it happened, locating Smythe was relatively simple. Reginald-Jones found him sitting happily on the top of the High Street bus, enjoying the afternoon sun.
“Smythe, you myopic fool! What in heaven’s name are you doing on this bus?”
“Who’s that? Oh, it’s you. What do you think I’m doin’ on the bus? I’m goin’ back to the club. Or at least as soon as I gets to me stop, I am.”
“You’ve already missed your stop, several times, by my estimation. Smythe, why aren’t you wearing glasses? What did the doctor say?”
“He said I don’t need glasses, jus’ like I told you. Said my vision was the best he ever tested. I got the whole eye chart perfect, you might say.”
“Smythe, that just isn’t possible.”
“Oh, all right, so I cheated a little. I got real close to the chart afore the doctor came in. Memorised every line. When the time came, I spouted off like a bleedin’ fountain. Now, shaddap and let me get back to me racin’ form.”
Reginald-Jones slumped in his seat.
“Smythe, that is bloody amazing. It’s depressing as hell when one considers the implications, but the fact itself is bloody amazing. At any rate, I came out here to find you and bring you back to the club in time for the lunch preparations. Once that is done, we’ll have to discuss the next step.”
The meal that evening made Smythe’s previous fiascos pale by comparison. The mashed potatoes tasted strongly of plaster of Paris; the soup included generous helpings of egg shell; the main course of Swiss steak featured a clot or two of steel wool and the dessert, a tipsy trifle, was a garden of inedible delights — a cork, a rubber drain stopper, cigar butts and other unidentifiable objects.
“That’s it,” said Higgins. “I can’t take this another day. If we don’t find a solution to this immediately, I shall either have to resign my membership, or hire a full-time personal physician to be in attendance at each meal.”
“Quite right, gentlemen. It’s either he or we, and I for one do not intend to give up without a fight,” Forbes-Robinson declared.
Jenkins pounded his fist upon the dining table, rattling the cutlery and upsetting his water goblet.
“As I see it, there’s really only one way out of this dilemma,” he said.
“And that is?” asked Reginald-Jones.
“We have to have the silly beggar put down.”
The following day, at dawn, five men assembled on the tennis courts: Higgins, Forbes-Robinson, Jenkins, Reginald-Jones and the poor, doomed Smythe, lured out of his bed with the promises of racy French postcards.
“Are we ready?” asked Jenkins. Higgins stepped forward and held out his palm. Jenkins took a silver pillbox from his outstretched hand and opened it. Inside lay a single cyanide capsule, another army surplus bargain.
“Smythe, come here, there’s a good chap,” said Jenkins. With some assistance from the rest, Smythe managed to navigate the six feet separating him from Jenkins.
“Here, Smythe. Come and take your medicine like a man. No, over here, Smythe.” Smythe made one or two ineffectual swipes in the general direction of Jenkins’ voice before finally locating him. Jenkins quickly pressed the capsule into the cook’s sweaty palm.
“What’s this then,” asked Smythe as he peered near-sightedly at the tiny blob of red in his hand.
“It’s . . . it’s . . .” stammered Reginald-Jones.
“It’s a vitamin, old boy,” replied Forbes-Robinson, calmly.
“And since when did you lot take such an interest in me health?”
“How can you ask such a thing?” replied Jenkins with an impressive imitation of hurt surprise. “You know we always have your welfare at heart!” He glanced over his shoulder at the other members. They nodded enthusiastically.
“Absolutely! To be sure! Hear, hear!”
Smythe looked from the red capsule in his hand to the row of members, and back again, several times, muttering under his breath.
“Well, all right then.”
Smythe popped the capsule in his mouth and swallowed, taking a long swig from his hip flask.
Higgins leaned over to Forbes-Robinson, still keeping his eyes on Smythe.
“Er, how long do you think it will take before?
“Before he snuffs it?”
Higgins’s face took on a pained expression. “I say, that’s a rather crude way of putting it, but . . . yes.”
Forbes-Robinson stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“I’m not entirely sure. It rather depends on body weight and metabolism. Not to mention that I have no real idea what vintage the capsule is. It could happen at any moment though, I suspect.”
The members formed a small circle around Smythe, each one of them peering into his face, looking for any indication that the capsule was doing its work.
Smythe suddenly straightened.
“Here,” he said. “I feels very odd, very odd indeed.”
“This is it!” Jenkins whispered loudly, and grabbed Higgins’ arm.
Smythe stared off into the distance, a look of wonder on his face. “By gum,” he said. “I do believe that vitamin has cured my lumbago.” Smythe smiled for the first time in several years.
“I feels 10 years younger! Here, you got any more of them vitamins? Maybe I should take them regular! I feels like a new man!” Smythe spread his arms and twirled about.
“Thank you kindly, gents! I am sorry I ever doubted you! Crikey, look at the time! I better get to the kitchen and start getting ready for brekkies.” Smythe began trotting off then stopped and turned back.
“Just to show my appreciation, I’ll fix up something extra special for you gents!”
Giggling like a school boy, Smythe skipped merrily off in the direction of the kitchen. The members watched him go, glumly.
“Well, that was a waste of time,” said Jenkins.
“We’ve made things worse, rather than better,” moaned Higgins.
“What in the name of the devil went wrong?” asked Reginald-Jones.
“I have a theory,” said Forbes-Robinson.
“And what is that, pray tell?”
“Perhaps after tasting his own cooking for so many years, Smythe has developed a cast-iron digestive system. He is impervious to poison.”
“I wish we were,” muttered Reginald-Jones.
Higgins shook his head sadly. “What are we going to do now? Emigrate?”
For the next several minutes, the members were engaged in a discussion of their various options, none of which seemed universally satisfactory and most of which implied some degree of bodily harm either to Smythe or to themselves. The one thing that they all agreed upon was that, despite the sun not being over the yardarm, they needed a drink. They were making their way back to the club when a huge explosion shook the ground, knocking the members off their feet.
“Good lord, what was that?”
The members ran towards the clubhouse kitchen from which dark grey billows of smoke were issuing. As they approached, they encountered the assistant cook, soot-smeared and bloody-nosed, staggering about near the kitchen door.
“What happened, man?”
“It was horrible,” gasped the assistant cook. “Mr. Smythe said he wanted to make something special for you gentlemen, on account of you curing his lumbago. He was going to make you your favourite flan, so he put the pan into the oven to warm up. Except I don’t think it was the right kind of pan.”
The members looked at one another, nervously.
“Er, what sort of pan was it then?”
The assistant cook wiped his face with his sleeve. “He got it out of the pantry. I’m not sure but I think it might have been a land mine. It were awful. He put it in the oven. Closed the door and…boom! I am very sorry to report, sirs, that your kitchen is no more. And neither is Mr. Smythe.”
For the next few days, the assistant cook tried his best to manage on his own, while the members toiled unceasingly to find a suitable replacement for Smythe. They were on the point of giving up when Higgins erupted into the members’ lounge, shattering the air of staid decorum and shrieking “Eureka!”
“Good heavens, Higgins! What is the meaning of all this hubbub!” said Forbes-Robinson. “If you have something to tell us, sit down like a gentleman and speak. Don’t burst in like some uncivilized heathen!”
Higgins scrambled into the nearest arm chair and, leaning forward, eyes gleaming, said, “I’ve found her!”
“Found who?” asked Reginald-Jones.
Higgins took a deep breath to calm himself, and to make sure he had the attention of all the members present.
“I have been doing some research as my contribution to our little problem.” At this point he sat back in the arm chair and regarded the sea of faces that surrounded him.
“Well, go on, man. Say what you have to say!” said Jenkins.
“I am willing to wager that none of you knew that old Smythe had a daughter.”
This was indeed news to all of the members. Higgins grinned like a Chesire cat, as the implications — the full implications — of his news sank in.
“But that means that Smythe . . . and some woman . . .” said one of the members.
“Some desperate . . .”
“And near-sighted . . .”
“And bereft of taste buds . . .”
“Appalling . . .”
“Be that as it may,” said Higgins. “She does exist, I have spoken to her, and she is coming this afternoon to speak to us. She is quite willing to take up Smythe’s old position, if we can come to terms.
“I’m not sure we have much choice,” said Forbes-Robinson. “We have to maintain the legacy or the club must be dissolved.” There were murmurs of assent all ‘round.
“We must do our best then, to retain her,” said Reginald-Jones. “After all, she can hardly be worse than old Smythe was.”
Precisely at 3:00 p.m., the doorman announced that there was a young woman seeking to speak to Messrs. Higgins, Forbes-Robinson, Reginald-Jones and Jenkins.
“This must be she,” said Higgins. He was so excited that he practically squeaked. “Please ask her to come in.”
Moments later, the door to the members’ board room opened and a young woman strode in.
At first glance, it was as though a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth the First had come to life. She was quite tall, pale of complexion, and possessed of a vast quantity of red hair which was piled upon her head, adding at least another six inches to her height. She stood, dressed in a charcoal grey suit, perfectly cut to fit her thin, sinewy body, and surveyed the men at the table.
“Mr. Higgins?” Her voice was clear, commanding, containing just a hint of disapproval.
Higgins got to his feet, and sidled towards her.
“I am Mr. Higgins,” he said, trying not to sound as intimidated as he felt. “I am so pleased to finally meet you, Miss Smythe.”
“It’s Mrs. Smythe-Smythe, actually,” the young woman said. “I have married up. Now, please introduce me to the other members present.”
Higgins did so, whereupon Mrs. Smythe-Smythe seated herself at the head of the table and regarded them all carefully, taking time to make eye contact with each man in turn. Not a one of them was able to meet her gaze for more than a second or two. Mrs. Smythe-Smythe made a small sound of satisfaction.
“Mr. Higgins has explained your situation to me. I understand that following the untimely death of my late father, you are in desperate need of a member of his family to replace him so that this club may continue.” The members nodded but did not speak.
“Gentlemen, let me assure you that I do not intend to take advantage of your dire need. Nor do I expect any special treatment because of my recent bereavement. My father and I were estranged for many years, due to philosophical differences regarding culinary practices. I understand that the level of compensation, if I may be so blunt as to address it, is minimal at best. That does not deter me. I am on a mission, a crusade one might say, to provide good, wholesome, filling food to those who require it. The personal satisfaction that provides is more valuable to me than any amount of mere money. If you will have me, I accept the position.”
There were more smiles around the boardroom table than had been seen in many a year. Forbes-Robinson got to his feet and cleared his throat. All eyes were now upon him.
“Thank you for your forthrightness, Mrs. Smythe-Smythe. I don’t believe I am overstepping my role as Chairman of the club if I speak on behalf of all present. We shall be delighted to have you as our new cook.”
A chorus of “Hear, hear!”, “Well done!” and “Oh, thank god!” went up.
“When do you think you could start?” asked Jenkins. “Tomorrow? Today? Now?”
Mrs. Smythe-Smythe smiled. “Your enthusiasm is inspiring, gentlemen, as is your appetite. I shall have to delay my investiture at least until the end of the week. I will need to contact suppliers to ensure that I have the proper ingredients for the splendid meals I plan to prepare.”
“We are already well-supplied,” said Forbes-Robinson. “You have a brand-new kitchen to work in as well as a rebuilt and refurbished pantry. We’ve even moved the remaining war surplus supplies to an outside shed.”
Mrs. Smythe-Smythe frowned. All the members slid back in their chairs.
“Mr. Forbes-Robinson, I do hope this is not an indication that I will not be allowed to manage my own kitchen in the manner in which I desire.” Forbes-Robinson took a step back, shaking his head.
“Good,” said Mrs. Smythe-Smythe. “In that case, I plan to fill the pantry with a bountiful supply of organic, gluten-free, GMO-free, nut-free, low-fat, low-sodium, locally produced vegan wonders which, from the look of all of you, is precisely what you need. And I plan on instituting the practice of a mandatory brisk 10 km. run before breakfast, which I shall lead. Now, if there is nothing else, I would like a tour of the kitchen before I leave.”
Higgins slowly and shakily got to his feet and proceeded to open the door for Mrs. Smythe-Smythe.
“Good day, gentlemen. I look forward to working with you,” she said and marched out with Higgins following behind.
The members sat silently for the longest time, before anyone spoke.
“We’re doomed,” said Reginald-Jones.
“I am beginning to miss old Smythe,” said Forbes-Robinson.
Then, someone began to cry.
Helen E. Patterson lives in London, ON.