Check our activities for The Cook here: https://eflshorts.com/category/the-cook-activities/
Is she mad…our are we?
The head nurse at Scullwell hospital went to the door and looked through its thick glass window. The rule was ‘Check the room first and then open’. Inside, everything looked normal. He turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open.
‘Please,’ he said to two men, one tall and one short but both in smart suits. The two men went in and he followed them.
‘What a lovely room,’ said the short one.
The head nurse smiled and locked the door behind them.
‘Lovely views too,’ said the tall one, looking out the windows.
Around them, men and women sat and talked or watched TV. A few stared beyond the bars on the windows to the garden outside and the bright flowers there.
‘Soon time for lunch, eh?” asked the short one.
‘Yes sir,’ replied the head nurse and looked at his watch.
‘So,’ asked the tall one, ‘what kind of patients do you have in here?’ ‘Well sir, most of them stay six months. After that, they are ready to…’
Suddenly, there was a noise at the door. All three men turned around. There, at the window, was the face of another nurse. It was red and sweaty. He unlocked the door quickly and came in.
‘Where’s Candy?’ he shouted. ‘She’s not in her room.’ ‘I thought she was with you,’ said the head nurse.
All four men looked at one another.
Candy was out.
With the wind in the trees and the noise of the London traffic rushing past, she just wanted to sit down in a quiet place and rest. But she did not stop. In her hand, she held a piece of newspaper tightly. It was an advert for a job – a job she really wanted. Luckily, she found 20p on the street and she used it to call the school and get an interview. The interview at was at 4pm and it was almost that time now.
Getting to the school was not easy. Along the way, she asked some people for directions, but most of them looked at her long purple hair, purple scarf and purple shoes and did not help her. Her feet hurt and he wanted to cry, but she kept on walking. Finally, an old woman gave her directions. ‘Turn left at the corner, dear,’ she said and pointed to the end of the street. She thanked the old woman. ‘Almost there,’ she thought. Right at the corner, there was a fish and chip shop. The sign above it said ‘Martin’s Fish Bar’. Lunchtime was over and now the shop was quiet. She stood at its open door and enjoyed the sharp smell from inside. She felt hungry. Breakfast was a long time ago, but she didn’t have time to eat. She walked on and turned left. A sudden gust of wind blew hard in her face, but there, above a huge wall, was the school. She pulled her purple scarf tightly around her neck. She needed to be brave.
She crossed the street and stood facing a high wall. Here was the school, but where was the entrance? She walked along one side of the wall then another. Finally, she saw a security camera above a metal door with a note on it.
The note said, ‘Press here and talk.’ It pointed to a button.
‘She pressed the button. ‘Hello,’ she said, ‘I’m here about the…’
‘Ms Pickles?’ asked a voice.
‘Yes, I’m here for the….’
‘Yes, yes!’ said the man’s voice. ‘You need to push the door hard.’
There was a buzz and then a loud ‘CLUNCK’. She gave the door a push. It opened and she went in. With a loud ‘CRASH’ it closed again.
No going back now!
Inside the school’s dining hall, two ladies in pink uniforms collected dirty plates and took them to the kitchen. Lunch finished twenty minutes ago and now it was their job to clean everything. They emptied the plates, put them in the dishwashers and went to fetch more from the tables. They did not pay much attention to the four people at the back of the room.
‘Ms Pickles,’ began the man, ‘you don’t have any cooking qualifications. Is that correct?’
This was Candy’s big chance. She wanted to work, to start again; but the man’s narrow, grey eyes and his small, sharp teeth frightened her.
‘Yes, I…eh…No…’ she said.
‘Oh, come on, Mr Tomkin!’ said the headmistress, a small woman with grey hair and glasses. ‘What about the last cook? She had lots of qualifications but her food was horrible!’
‘That’s right, headmistress,’ said Mrs Duffy, a tall woman with black, curly hair and a kind smile. ‘No one wanted to eat it. They all went to Martin’s fish and chips shop instead!’
‘But we need a COOK!’ said Mr Tomkin. ‘We need someone with experience. This young lady has no experience and no qualifications. None at all!’
The three interviewers looked at Candy.
‘I need to do something quickly,’ Candy thought. ‘I have an idea,’ she said.
‘What is it, my dear?’ asked the headmistress.
‘I want to cook a meal right now!’
The headmistress turned to the other two interviewers. ‘Well, what do you think? Mrs Duffy?’
‘Fine with me.’
He looked angry.
‘Mr Tomkin?’ asked the headmistress again.
‘Yes. Okay. Fine!’ he said, ‘But I hope the food is very, very good indeed.’
The headmistress turned to Candy and smiled. ‘This is your chance, Ms Pickles. Do your best.’
For the next hour, Candy mixed, chopped, baked and fried. At last, the meal was ready. Proudly, she brought the plates of food out of the kitchen and put them on the table in front of Mr Tomkin, the headmistress and Mrs Duffy.
Mr Tomkin looked at the food. His sharp nose twitched. ‘Smells wonderful,’ said Mrs Duffy.
‘But how good does it taste? ’ said Mr Tomkin.
All three began to eat.
‘Wow!’ said the headmistress.
‘Amazing!’ cried Mrs Duffy.
‘I think,’ said the headmistress, ‘that this is the best school food I’ve ever tasted.’
‘I completely agree,’ said Mrs Duffy.
Mr Tomkin nodded his head a little. ‘Not bad,’ he said quietly.
The headmistress stood up and offered her hand to Candy. ‘Congratulations, Ms Pickles. When do you want to start?’
The next day, Tuesday, was her first day on the job. The day was still dark – it was only 6am, but she did not care. She loved to cook. She loved to see people taste her food. Cooking was her hobby and now it was her job too. It was perfect! She went to the school’s kitchen and one of the cleaning staff let her in. She took off her coat and, with a smile on her face, began washing some vegetables.
But there was one small problem. She had no money. Nothing at all. Last night, she found an all-night café and sat in it most of the night. After a while, the owner told her to buy something or leave. She left. Then she went to a park, sat on a bench and waited for morning. She had stayed there the whole night.
Candy washed her hands and looked at her watch. It was nearly 7.30. ‘I need to speak to the headmistress,’ she thought. ‘I can’t sleep in a park again tonight.’ She left the kitchen and went to the headmistress’s office.
‘Sorry,’ said the headmistress’s secretary, ‘she isn’t here. Please come back later.’
Candy returned to the kitchen and stood beside the window. There was lots to do; and she began peeling and chopping hundreds of carrots, potatoes and leeks. When the dishwashers came into the kitchen and the bell for morning break rang, she did not hear either. She was in her own little world.
Suddenly, shouting filled the air. She looked out the kitchen window: a fight. ‘No!’ she called, ‘Stop!’
The two dishwashers turned and stared at her.
‘They’re fighting,’ she said and pointed to two boys in the playground. The dish- washers continued to drink their tea. One said, ‘It happens all the time, dear. Don’t worry about it.’ She looked out the window again. Now there was a crowd around the two boys. ‘Don’t go out there,’ said the other dishwasher, ‘it’s not safe.’
But she didn’t care. She ran past the dishwashers and out of the kitchen. A moment later, she was in the playground. She pushed her way through the crowd and reached the two boys at its centre. ‘Stop,’ she yelled. ‘STOP!’
Everyone froze and looked at her.
‘She’s got a knife,’ someone whispered. Candy looked at her hand. In it was the heavy knife for cutting vegetables. It shone in the sunlight. She looked at the two boys who had been fighting. One had short, blonde hair and a grin on his face. The other was tall with ginger hair and glasses. She watched a trickle of blood run down the tall boy’s nose and drip onto the ground. No one moved or said a word. Then a door slammed and someone came out the staffroom.
‘What’s going on?’ shouted Mr Tomkin, walking quickly across the playground. ‘Ms Pickles?’
‘It was a fight,’ she said. ‘I saw it and I came out of the kitchen to…’
‘With a knife?’ asked Mr Tomkin.
‘I didn’t mean to bring it. I just…’ said Candy.
‘Pugman!’ said Mr Tomkin to the boy with blonde hair. ‘You again!’
Billy Pugman pointed to the other boy. ‘He started it. He said Manchester United were rubbish.’
‘So you hit him?’
‘Yeah, I smacked him. So what?’ He smiled and stuck his hands in his pockets.
‘My office,’ said Mr Tomkin. He looked at the other boy. ‘Are you alright Collins? Do you need to go to the nurse?’
‘No, I’m fine sir,’ he said and picked up his school bag.
‘And you, Ms Pickles,’ said Mr Tomkin, ‘please put down that knife!’
Candy lowered the knife and stared at Billy Pugman. He stared straight back. Then he turned and began to walk towards Mr Tomkin’s office. She watched him go. ‘What a project,’ she thought; and from her pocket, she pulled out a handkerchief and gave it to the boy with the blood on his face.
‘I really need to speak to the headmistress,’ she said to herself, ‘and not just about some money.’
But first, it was lunchtime.
It was now 2.30pm. Lunch finished an hour ago and she still felt happy about watch- ing all the children eat her food. She took off her apron: now it was time to talk to the headmistress. She said goodbye to the dishwashers and left the kitchen. Soon, she was in the headmistress’s office outside her door. She knocked and went in.
‘Oh, hello Ms Pickles,’ said the headmistress, ‘How are you? I heard lunch was a great success.’
‘Well, please come in.’
She closed the door behind her and took a seat. She felt tears coming to her eyes. ‘What can I do for you?’ asked the headmistress.
‘I don’t have anywhere to stay and I need some money,’ she said in one, big breath. The headmistress stared at her.
‘I slept in a park last night and…and…I was so cold and…’ She began to cry.
The headmistress jumped out of her seat. ‘My dear, I had no idea!’ She pulled some tissues out of a box and gave them to her. ‘Wait here,’ she said and left the room. There were voices outside. A moment later, the headmistress returned. ‘Look, she said, ‘take this.’ In her hands, she had two hundred pounds. ‘Is that enough?
‘Thank you…It’s all I need for the moment. You’re very kind…’
‘Well then,’ said the headmistress, ‘you can pay the money back at the end of the month. That’s two weeks from now. You get your salary then. Is that alright?’
‘Yes. Thank you.’ She dried her face.
‘Now, is there anything else I can help you with?’ asked the headmistress.
‘Yes….is there much….fighting at the school?’ she asked and she twirled a long strand of her purple hair in her fingers.
The headmistress was silent for a moment. ‘What a strange question,’ she finally said. ‘Actually, yes there is far too much fighting and bad behaviour.’
‘And is Billy Pugman…..often in fights?’
‘Billy Pugman!’ cried the headmistress. ‘He’s the worst of the lot! He fights with ev- erybody over anything! You know, we have at least six or seven fights a week here and Billy Pugman’s usually in four of them! Sometimes, we need to…
But she did not listen to the headmistress.
Instead, she just smiled and thought ‘He’s perfect!’
That night, she found a room near Euston train station. It was small and not very clean, but it was cheap and not too far from the school.
‘Give me fifty quid now and the rest at the end of the month,’ said the landlord. She agreed and paid him the money.
After the landlord left, she counted the money in her pocket. She had one hundred and fifty pounds left. There was no time to waste. Near the train station, she found a chemist and a grocers shop. She bought all the things that she needed and returned to her room. She began working. Soon, there were pots – lots of pots – bubbling and boiling on her cooker. She added powders and liquids from dark jars to the pots. She watched, she stirred and she sniffed. Then she began to empty one pot into another. Soon, just one pot remained on the cooker. For hours she watched it.
Finally, just before 5 am, the pot began to shake. Suddenly, there was a loud bang and a puff of yellow smoke rose into the air. She jumped back and opened a window. Cold morning air came in and the yellow smoke cleared away. She picked up a spoon and took some of the liquid from the pot. She looked at it and smiled.
The liquid from the pot was deep, deep purple.
Lunchtime on Wednesday.
Inside the dining hall, all the tables were full. Every time Candy looked up, more chil- dren came in. Everyone looked happy and she felt great. She listened to a conversa- tion at a table near the kitchen.
‘Brilliant grub,’ said a tall boy with brown hair.
‘Yeah,’ agreed his friend. ‘I am never going to the fish and chip shop again!’
Then Billy Pugman walked in.
‘At last,’ Candy thought. She watched him push his way to the front of the queue and stand in front of her. ‘Good morning, Billy. What can I get you,’ she asked.
Billy’s blue eyes cut into hers. ‘What’s this muck here?’ he asked and pointed to an omelette. ‘Looks like a dog’s breakfast.’
She took an empty plate and picked up a large spoon. ‘Do you want to try some?’ she asked.
‘No chance!’ he replied. ‘Gimme some of that,’ he said and pointed to a steak pie full of meat and rich gravy.’
She put a big slice of it on his plate. ‘Anything else?’ she asked. ‘Yeah, gimme some chips.’
Now was her chance.
‘Oh dear,’ she said, ‘these ones here are a bit cold. Let me get you some fresh ones,’ and she swung around and disappeared through the kitchen doors. In a flash, she put two drops of the purple liquid onto Billy’s steak pie and stirred them into the gravy.
Back outside, she gave Billy his plate. ‘Enjoy!’ she said.
‘Yeah, right!’ said Billy and went to find a seat.
That night, she found it difficult to sleep. She kept thinking about Billy Pugman. ‘Did it work?’ she kept wondering. ‘Did I use enough of my formula? ’ Finally, the morn- ing came and she got up early and went to the school.
As usual, she worked beside the window in the kitchen. There were carrots to chop, swedes to smash and potatoes to peel and they all took so much time to do. Slowly, the sun rose between grey clouds. At around 8.15, the first children came through the security door and by 8.45 most of the children were in the playground.
She looked and looked for Billy, but there were so many children and none of them stayed in the same place for a second!
Soon, it was 9am. The bell sounded and the children began to gather in their class lines. There were still a few boys with a football and lazily they kicked it from one to the other. Suddenly, one of the boys gave it a huge kick and it soared over his friend’s head and flew towards one of the lines.
‘WHUMP!’ it landed right on top of someone’s head and knocked the person to the ground. Suddenly, people began to run in all directions and a space opened up around the person on the ground. ‘What’s happening,’ she wondered. Then she understood. It was Billy Pugman’s head and it was Billy Pugman on the ground. ‘Now we’ll see,’ she whispered. In a flash, Billy jumped to his feet and looked around.
Who is he going to tear apart?
Who is going to be Billy Pugman’s next victim?
The whole school wanted to know.
But Billy Pugman brushed the dirt from his trousers and quietly took his place in the line again.
‘Interesting,’ she thought. ‘Very interesting.’
That lunchtime, the line stretched from the dining room door, across the playground, and along the wall. Everywhere in the queue, the talk was about food. They guessed about starters! They wondered about main course! They wished about pudding! It was food, food and more food!
Inside the kitchen, the headmistress, Mr Tomkin and Mrs Duffy stood at the window and looked out. ‘My goodness Ms Pickles,’ said the headmistress. ‘What a queue! You are a star!’
‘Thank you,’ said Candy.
‘The kids just love your food. We all do!’ said Mrs Duffy.
Mr Tomkin said nothing.
‘What’s for lunch?’ asked the headmistress.
‘For starters, we have chicken soup or a potato salad. For main course, we have brown rice…’
‘Oh stop!’ cried Mrs Duffy. ‘Let’s just go and eat!’
The headmistress laughed. ‘Yes, come along. Let’s leave Ms Pickles alone. She has a lot to do and we are in the way.’
Candy followed the three of them out of the kitchen and into the service area with all its trays of delicious, fresh food. Quickly, the headmistress, Mrs Duffy and Mr Tomkin went to the head of the queue. They chose their food, pushed their way through the busy dining hall to the staff table and began eating. At once, their eyes opened wide and big smiles spread across their faces. All around, it was the same story. Happy faces, lots of eating and plenty of empty plates!
Candy looked at the service area and noticed a tray with one of the main courses, the beef with red peppers and brown rice, was almost empty. Quickly, she went into the kitchen and brought out a fresh tray.
‘Good morning!’ said a voice.
She looked up.
It was Billy Pugman.
‘Good morning, Billy. How are you?’
‘Fine thanks. How are you?’ Beside him, two boys suddenly stopped talking and stared at Billy with their mouths wide open.
‘I’m very well, thank you.’
‘The beef looks great,’ Billy said.
‘Do you want some?’
‘Yes, please!’ He gave her his plate.
Now the mouths of the boys at the table next to Billy fell open too. More people be- gan to listen and watch.
‘Here you are,’ she said and handed Billy the dish. ‘I hope you enjoy it.’
‘Thank you so much,’ said Billy.
A hundred eyes in the dining hall followed him to a table. What next?
He stepped up to a table of silent boys. ‘Is it okay to sit here?’ he asked and pointed to an empty seat.
One of them slowly nodded his head.
‘Thanks,’ said Billy and smiled. He picked up his fork and began to eat his food.
Suddenly, everyone began to talk at once. ‘Did you see that? What is going on? Ev- eryone wanted to know.
At the staff table, the headmistress and Mrs Duffy did not see a thing. They were too busy eating and talking about Ms Pickles and her great food.
But not Mr Tomkin.
His sharp, grey eyes noticed everything.
The next day, Friday, she finished cutting the potatoes and went outside for some fresh air. From a grey sky, a few drops of rain fell here and there, but it was not cold. Some children saw her and waved.
‘What’s for lunch, Miss?’ they shouted.
‘Wait and see,’ she called back and loosened her purple scarf around her neck. It was almost nine o’clock. She stood beside the wall and watched the schoolchildren slowly go into their class lines.
This time, it did not take her long to find Billy Pugman. At the end of one line near the gym hall, with his big fists quietly at his sides and a gentle smile on his face, he stood and waited.
‘Good,’ she said quietly, ‘very good.’
Out came Mr Tomkin from the main building.
‘Good morning everyone,’ he called.
‘Morning, sir,’ replied the children.
‘Today, we have a special guest and we are going to go to the gym hall to listen to him.’
‘Yeah!’ cheered the children. They loved having guest speakers.
Suddenly, a police officer stepped out of the main building and stood beside Mr Tomkin.
‘This is Sergeant Roberts and….’ Just then, Mr Tomkin caught sight of their new cook’s face. It was as white as snow. ‘What is happening? Why is she looking so afraid? He finished his sentence: ‘…the sergeant is going to talk about road safety today. Please go the gym and sit down.’ He decided she was just strange and began walk towards the gym hall with all the other children.
But not Sergeant Roberts. Now he stood on the steps of the main building and stared hard at her. She stood completely still. ‘Oh, no,’ she thought, ‘he is trying to
remember. Please don’t remember.’ Then the sergeants faced changed. His eyes be- came wide and his mouth dropped open: the poster on the wall in the police station. The woman from Scullwell! He took a step forward, but it was already too late.
In a flash, she was across the playground and at the security door. She took a quick look at dining hall behind her and ran into the street. The security door closed behind her.
The surprise stopped Sergeant Roberts from moving; but only for a moment. He dropped his hat and ran after her. He was just seconds behind. He pulled the security door open and ran into the street. His mouth dropped open. He looked one way, then the other. He ran to Martin’s Fish Bar and looked up that street. Nothing. He turned around and began to run all the way around the wall, but she was not there. ‘Now what do I do?’ He thought about the poster in the police station – about the informa- tion on it. ‘I must warn them,’ he said and rushed back to the security door. It was still half-open. He looked down. On the ground, between the door and the lock, was a long purple scarf.
Sergeant Roberts ran to the gym hall. At the same time, he spoke on his radio. ‘The Scullwell woman. She was here,’ he shouted. Inside the hall, he ran to Mr Tomkin and pulled him outside.
‘What’s going on? What are you doing?’ he cried.
‘That young woman – the one with this purple scarf – what did she do here?’ asked the Sergeant.
‘Ms Pickles?’ asked Mr Tomkin, ‘She was the school cook. Why? What’s happening?’
‘Oh no,’ cried the sergeant and called his station again. ‘Bring ambulances,’ he shout- ed into the radio. ‘We need ambulances here immediately.’
‘What’s going on?’ shouted the headmistress and she ran out the main building to- wards the two men. ‘I’m the headmistress of this school and I saw Ms Pickles run away. What happened?’
‘That woman,’ replied the policeman, ‘is dangerous.’ ‘What?’ said the headmistress.
‘She escaped from Scullwell mental hospital last week. In her diary, we found her plans to poison a whole school.’
‘I knew it. I was right about her! I didn’t trust her one little bit,’ said Mr Tomkin.
‘Be quiet,’ said the headmistress sharply. She turned to the sergeant. ‘This can’t be true.’
‘I’m sorry, but it is, madam,’ said Sergeant Roberts. ‘She said she discovered a peace formula.’
‘A peace formula?’ asked the headmistress.
‘That’s right,’ replied the policeman. ‘Before she went mad, she was a scientist. She worked for the government. She said her formula changed nasty people into good people.’
Mr Tomkin’s eyes grew wide. The headmistress smiled.
The policeman continued. ‘She told everyone she wanted to try the formula in a school.’
Mr Tomkin and the headmistress stared at Candy’s scarf. In their minds, they saw Billy Pugman – the new, kind and gentle Billy Pugman.
‘She is completely mad,’ said Sergeant Roberts. Suddenly he stopped and looked at Mr Tomkin. ‘Are you alright, sir?’ he asked. ‘You look…a little strange.’