Dizzy fingers. Key locking horns with keyhole. I’m buzzing. I’m bungling. The door swings open and there stands Josh.
‘Hey man.’ My first cock-a-doodle-doo.
‘I smashed it.’
‘No shit.’ High five. He was impressed. I could see.
‘No shit’. He grins and passes.
The dazzle from the bare bulb lighting the hallway made my eyes fizzle. A snapshot of a face like unearthly white porcelain flashed on the white wall. My euphoria was sucked out like gurgling the last few delicious chocolate milkshake drops with a straw. No more milkshake. That man with that face had seriously fucked me up. Dashed my hopes of becoming a medic. Such ages ago that I’d buried him deep. Deep man. And today that same bumbaclut had been next to me right through the recording. Man. Freaking shit.
I was frozen in the hallway. A storyboard of his actions played out frame by frame. His cooking station paraphernalia was pistachio green. Marzipan. Served in a dark chocolate coating it’s the best. So inappropriate for a jerk. Utensils placed parallel. Weird dish things with tiny concave centres for the food. Measly portions. Perfectly executed curlicues. Straight lines and silence. Smoothness and symmetry. We’d bumped at the spice shelves. I blustered, ‘Sorry.’ Not a blip from him. That was all. I shoved him away from my thoughts. Kicked him under the prep bench. My own cooking filled my heart, my head, my hands, my eyes, my nose. That’s what had to be.
I slammed my fist on the first door on the left. Mrs P.’s place. She was my side-kick: taster, critic, adviser. When she appeared, she frowned.
‘I’m not deaf. Didn’t you get through?’ She grabbed my arm and pulled me in. She is five foot, old and skinny. I am six foot, young and, right then, jelly. I babbled. She said, ‘I didn’t quite catch that dear. I’ll make a cup of tea. Never mind. We – you – got to the semis didn’t we?’ I sat down in one of the stiff armchairs which were packed with straw stuff which scratched and poked and bit. On the telly a paused and muted Rick Stein was monumental on a harbour holding up a fish. I won! The fish lost. That’ll be Gozzer dangling me after the finals, a rancid smirk cracking the porcelain.
The no-frills flats were built for single people. Mine remains sparse, except for the kitchen. Mrs P.’s living-room was over-crowded and could always make me feel as warm as precious memories. I breathed in the fustiness like it was a premier cru.
The furniture, bulky and sombre, deserves high ceilings and cornices, but this token room is impotent to oust the hidden stories which are curled up inside. There are framed family portraits all over, and knick-knacks and momentos cover the surfaces empty of photos. Mrs P. has no living family. We see each other a lot. Mostly we talk cooking.
She came back.
‘The judges must need their heads seeing to.’
‘No, I got through to the finals. But so did Eric.’
‘Oh well done dear. I knew you would. Who’s Eric?’
‘Gozzer. My old chemistry teacher. I just realised. In the hall.’
‘He’s in the hall? How nice!’
‘No, not here and not nice.’
‘What a funny name, Gozzer.’
‘Mr Goss. He spat. He hated me. I hate him.’ Mrs P’s features contracted into a frown.
‘He spat at you?’
‘No, not today. In the classroom.’
‘Good.’ She didn’t pause for breath. ‘Did Raymond Lenoir speak to you?’
‘He’d not heard of cho-cho.’ Mrs P. smiled.
‘Fancy that. What did they say to you after?’
‘Maria Fornaro said my West Indian veggie meal was inspired. Only that the orange nudged the cinnamon a bit in the baby cucumber dish. Overall, distinctive tastes, exciting textures.’
‘Did everything go as planned?’
‘No mistakes, no crises. A crackerjack of a mango cake. So now, bring on the final.’ I gave Mrs P. a wallop of a kiss. She laughed.
‘I’m so pleased dear. We need cake.’
I was on my own. I craned my neck at a photo on the side table. Must be a hundred years ago. Stiff-under-the-chin collar and goatee beard. Got it! A goatee beard! Gozzer’s new veneer. Sharp as a chef knife. Hair like a tailored oil-slick and iron grey. Pointed nose and bleached blue indifferent eyes: same as ever. My goose pimples were like those I experienced on a daily basis over ten years ago.
The gravitational force of his never to be forgotten delivery was inescapable. Soft voice, slow delivery, flat, dreadful.
‘When any reptile in this room infringes a rule, he or she will pay for it. Dearly. Note: I say “when”, not “if”.’ The sound was bleak like the stillness of the iced over arctic sea. The only movement came from his lips. When he spoke they quite naturally curled into a gift of a snarl. No kidding. The eyes, motionless, looked at nothing. Nothing slunk away.
First homework: ‘1. Memorise my rules.’ (Notable for their idiosyncrasy: HB pencils; diagrams with parallel and vertically aligned labels, lower-case letters, printed; ironed lab coats.) ‘2. THE PERIODIC TABLE.’ (Number one reference and complete intimacy thereof.) From tomorrow.
Tomorrow I, Ambrose, mutated into number one victim.
Dyslexia to Gozzer was posh for useless. Grasp of ideas and virtuoso lab skills worth zero. Ergo – a jack-knifed medical career.
‘Ambrose, you have the brain of a slug.’
‘Ambrose, a stick insect writes better than you.’ Animal metaphors a speciality.
You bet I believed I was a woodlouse. My parents’ verdict: ‘People like us don’t go to university.’
When Mrs P. brought in the cake, molten rock was bubbling red-hot in my stomach. I’d had dreams. Gozzer’s acid had digested them. My new dream, Dishes From Your Heart – I had touched it, grasped it, almost hugged it. Now he’s dumped on me again. I saw my new dream drifting away, trapped in a bubble, too hot to touch.
I watched Mrs P. rise with the lightness of airy dough, and haul it back in.
‘My dear Wynton Ambrose, get your own back.’ My laugh was as brittle as tumbleweed.
‘You’ve got the opportunity. Use it. Put plaster dust in his flour, salt crystals in the sugar. I remember a time way back when everybody was petrified to eat oranges because it was on the news that some were injected with mercury. Deliberately.’
‘Blunt his knives. Do something.’
‘People, cameras – all over. Impossible.’
‘Beat him. Go. Prepare.’ She opened her door. I didn’t get up. Her threatening cloudy eyes forced her forehead wrinkles up into her hairline.
‘Okay, okay. I’m going.’
Up in my flat I fell on my bed. I woke next day in time to get to work. Supermarket manager. Quite an achievement for a student with straight A’s. Not. More than enough to have studied medicine. But Gozzer had minced my dreams and spat them onto the floor.
It’s a dreary supermarket in a dreary London suburb. My parents are proud. They boast to anyone who’ll listen.
I sneaked past Mrs P.’s door on the way back from work. She’d quiz me. She scared me. What had I planned? Could she help? Upstairs, I read the Dishes From Your Heart final spec. ‘Celebration Dinner for a Golden Wedding Couple. Cook for two. You will serve your themed menu to a couple who are commemorating fifty years together.’ I had no ideas. I was a woodlouse with no ambition, a slug with no trail. I was a reptile who snapped his teeth shut, always missing his prey.
‘Mrs P.’ She waved a notebook and a flask of black tea. Taste buds stirred. My starter motor coughed.
‘Gold, yellow.’ Flashes of squash and apricots. ‘Not too adventurous, not too spicy, light.’ Sure thing. Mrs P. joined in.
‘Special, different.’ Goes without saying. ‘Jaded taste buds, digestion, teeth.’
‘They’ll be my age, thereabouts.’ She rattled her teeth. Got you.
‘Now a time-table.’ Mrs P. had a unique gift. With her sane briskness she motivated this wrung-out woodlouse to plan its winning meal.
‘There’s six days.’
I couldn’t let my friend down. Mr and Mrs P. just missed out on their golden wedding. I knew that already. This would be for them. The competition faded. I’d make the full menu on Friday night, and we’d celebrate together. Mrs P. was golden. I’d treat her; do all the planning, develop the dishes, test, taste, tweak. Just me. If the meal got past Mrs P. unscathed, then I’d bust a groove.
I think: not enough time. I think more: man, get on with it. I buy, I fiddle, I cook, I fail, I spit. What’s Gozzer doing? Forget him. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. I practise and go to work. I don’t sleep. Gozzer doesn’t need sleep I’m sure. I forget to order stock, I forget an area meeting, I get caught by speed cameras. The menu’s coming together. I look in the mirror. When did I last shave? Gozzer and the mirror must be married to each other. I invent. I stick post-it notes everywhere. I make up mnemonics, I write ‘stuff it!’ and scribble ingredient names with coloured felt tips. I can memorise. Gozzer, I can memorise! Periodic table – zero bother. A pushover.
What if I could give Mrs P. the best meal ever, win the competition, and stuff Gozzer up? A complete meltdown was the best I could hope for. A long shot though. Too much and I’ll be thrown out. I’ll be happy to rattle him. I’m zinging and wired to go.
Friday night and Mrs P. joins me. She’s dressed up and brings me flowers. I give her a golden rose. I serve, we eat and chat. We drink champagne. We talk about Mr P. As we sip saffron tea to ease our digestion, she says,
‘Nice one Wynton. You’ve really smashed it. I believe that’s how you’d put it.’ Mrs P. knew how to make me smile. ‘Now, you’re not going to let Gozzer whatever-his-name-is spoil it, are you?’
‘Not at all Mrs. P. You bet I won’t.’ Before I went to bed in the small hours I gathered up all the post-it notes and stowed them in a small box. I took the box with me in the taxi next morning. While I was driven through the London suburbs to the studio, I went through all my memos, muttering, repeating, swearing under my breath.
At the studios my body felt like a Formula One car before a race. A team of experts co-ordinated their allotted jobs at top speed until I was powdered, fine-tuned and revving. This was my time and I was going to grab it. Please let Gozzer be put next to me. I deserve that much luck, don’t I?
And he was, and we were off. First, get the lemon and mint sorbet into the freezer, and let fortune burst forth. We met at the spices and herbs. I pictured a post-it note on my toilet cistern. My voice was the clearest whisper ever.
‘Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium; 113, 114, 115; Damn You, Horrible Eric.’ He didn’t speak, but I heard a sort of strangled gasp. We carried on our prep. Was he concentrating, or – or – what? I sneaked a peek. Make the flatbread dough and don’t lose your nerve Wynton. At the warming drawer he joined me. I didn’t want him to think he’d imagined it.
‘Iron, Cobalt, Nickel; 26, 27, 28; Feel Confident Ninny?’
‘Stop….it.’ No more than a hiss. I’d turned back to my station. I’d give it a rest for a while, let him think that was it. I spotted him separating egg whites from the yolks, and mixing them all up. He chucked the whole lot away. I did a secret fist bump with myself.
Next. What next? Don’t let him get to you. A minor victory, that’s all. You’ll get behind schedule, so gather up the ingredients for the orange almond syrup cake, the golden crown for your anniversary couple. They must glow in the jewels of Morocco.
I pictured crystals of sugar raining down on eggs and yellow butter. Selenium 34 Semolina; Aluminium 13 Almonds; Francium 87 Flour. It was working!
Several times more I was able to unsettle him. I heard some china shatter. I saw him wipe his forehead. What if he called someone over? That was my dread, and it was likely. Who wouldn’t complain that someone was trying to unnerve them? I was prepared for this and would take away my failure with a large helping of triumph. I could laugh right in his face. But he’d never admit weakness. Of course!
He was turning into a bull terrier. Growling and holding tight. There was one more opportunity. I loved this one.
‘Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluorine; 6, 7, 8, 9; Crazy – Noxious – Old – Fart.’ If only I’d had post-it notes back then.
My couple were lovely and appreciative.
‘So full of colour.’ The judges seemed impressed.
‘Subtle spices, fruity, and excellent balance.’ The other couples were celebrating in separate spaces, and I’d no idea what was going on there.
Gozzer and I went back to our cooking stations to clear up. Surely he’d say something now. I was wary and skirted well round him. We were called together and I stood at one end of the line of the four of us finalists. He was at the other end. The two contestants in the middle chatted away. The longer the wait the more I wanted to get home. I realised my head hadn’t seen this far.
The judges came in looking fresh and knowing. They talked to each of us, starting with me. Several times they stopped, for technical reasons or a need to huddle together for a council of war, or so it seemed.
Then, we were all winners apparently. Did it matter who was the Heart Of Our Kitchen? Not to me, not anymore. For the record, it was Deirdre. Look out for her. She may earn a Michelin Star in a few years.
On our way out Gozzer and I found ourselves together in the revolving doors.
‘Ambrose.’ He paused to look me up and down. ‘I once told you you had the brain of a slug. I was right.’ With the sole of his shoe he screwed me into the ground. I withstood him. I didn’t ooze over the floor like he wanted.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘You’ve given me enjoyment and hope.’I walked into the street, tried to look simultaneously triumphant and casual, rounded a corner and skipped.
I met Josh coming out of our building as I was going in.
‘Well?’ he asked.
‘I’m a winner,’ and I felt the stupidest grin grab hold of my face.
‘Respect,’ he said.
I slammed my fist on the first door on the left. Mrs P, I still need you. We must chew over what I should do next. With cake of course.
I swung her tiny figure into my arms and spun her round the room, singing my new song,
‘I’m a Dyslexic Alchemist.
I stir and beat and mix.
I cannot spell zirconium
but I’m a wizard with my tricks.’ I was careful not to knock over her memories.
Bio: Having retired from music teaching Bridgett Kendall came to writing late. Successes: shortlisted in the Fish Short Story contest 2015, the Fish Short Memoir contest 2015, the Doolin Short Story Contest 2016, and the Writers’s Forum contest 2017. She lives in Burgundy where distractions are often limited to cows.