The cook looks up from a pile of dirty pots and dishes, rolls her eyes at Tony and comes walking towards him standing just inside the kitchen door. Her thick auburn curls are tucked inside a hair net and she wears wire glasses, her expression is warm, but distant. ‘You’re not supposed to be in here.’ She dries her hands on a chequered-red dishcloth. Up close she is deceptive, majestic as a two-legged grand-piano, but not much bigger than Tony. The washing machine drones and goes into a spin cycle.
Tony knows he’s been staring, feels a bit weird and echoy in his head and his limbs, wooden. He tries not to look sad, cloak the shadows around his eye and smile in the way that puts adults at ease.
‘It’s OK honey, but this place is out of bounds.’ She eyes him up, critically. ‘You hungry? I’ve got some apple turnovers that are just goin’ to waste.’ She sashes towards the oven, and pulls open the door, pulls out a tray and steps back from the heat. The wafting smell makes Tony’s mouth water. Her laughter is like the leavening ding of a cash register, and using the folded end of dishtowel, she juggles a pastry and pitches it towards him. ‘Better when they’re hot.’
He bats it, hand to hand, before taking a bite. Cinnamon mugs his mouth and makes fruit of his senses and he scoffs the lot and is handed another snack fresh from the tray. Her dark eyes shine. She seems almost as happy watching him eat as he is eating.
‘You’re a growin’ boy,’ she growls and laughs. She picks up an apple turnover and takes a nip out of the corner, and bangs the oven door shut with a sideways swipe of her foot. ‘You get all sorts here. Some are in for a wee while giving their mum and dad a wee break. And some have been here a wee bit longer. She dabs and brushes pastry flakes form her bottom lip and chin. ‘What’s your story then?’
Her simple question turns him inside out. His forehead flushes and a wave of vinegar washes through his veins and he wonders if he can speak. ‘My mum’s dead.’ His voice goes up the scales. ‘She had cancer…’ his breathing flattens and he finds it hard to speak, impossible to say the words, because then it’s like no longer believing in Santa, because it’s mum and dad, and there’s no going back and he’s falling, ‘and my da is dead, murdered, and whoever did it will kill me too. I jist know, he will. He’ll come and get me, next. He’ll come and get me’.
The cook catches him before he topples in a faint and he wraps himself in her doughy body and cries into her shoulder. His cheeks feel red as a blowtorch and his skin grey and febrile. She makes cooing noises, pats and rubs the back of his head, smells of home, of the Menthol cigarettes, which peek from the pocket in her nylon bib, the ones his mum sometimes smoked.
‘Poor wee soul,’ she says. ‘There, there, let it all out. You’re safe here. If anybody comes to get you they’ll have me to deal with.’ Her easy laugh reassures him, he clings to her warmth for a few seconds before letting go.
‘Macaroni and cheese for lunch, with chips,’ she says. ‘Want to help me make it?’
‘Whit’s macaroni and cheese?’ he scrunches his nose and squints at her.
‘You don’t know what macaroni and cheese is?’ She bats her big boobs as she coughs. ‘Well, you’re in for the best treat ever. ‘It’s scrumptious and it’s good for yeh.’
She whips out her cigarette packet and disposable lighter, giving him time to consider, while she lights up. ‘I’m tellin’ yeh. I wouldnae be this size if I didnae love it.’
‘Can I just borrow him from a minute?’ Alice stands in the hallway between kitchen and dining room, a beamer of a smile on her face ‘She’s right, you know, macaroni and cheese is not to be sniffed at.’
Tony shrugs. The cook pats and kneads his shoulder, in sympathy, and turns back to the clatter of dishes as he turns to go.
Alice waits for him. ‘Some people weren’t sure you could talk, but I told them to bide their time. You’d speak when you’d something to say.’
Marie, his social worker, sits with a cup of coffee in the office, a sprinkling of biscuits on a plate on the desk beside her. She smiles, uneasily at him as he comes in. ‘Sit down, Tony,’ she pats the cushioned seat next to her. When he sits down she takes his hand and squeezes it.
Alice tiptoes around the other side of the desk and sits down. She leans across the desk and tugs at her ear, clasping her hands in front of her, as if in prayer, and gives Tony her full attention.
‘I want you to know that I’m here for you,’ says Marie and looks across the desk at Alice, correcting herself, ‘we’re here for you.’
He tugs his hand from her grasp and sits staring down at the sameness of grey carpet. His gaze shifts the bin beside the desk. Not looking at her, but knowing what she is going to say, his shoulders slump.
‘I’ve got a bit of bad news about your dad…I’m very sorry to have to tell you that he’s no longer with us. He’s had a very bad accident and he’s dead.’
‘Can I get my book back?’ he asks, straightening his shoulders, looking into her dewy eyes.
Marie looks to Alice for guidance.
‘You do know what Marie has just told you Tony?’ Alice leans across, her boobs flatten onto the table and, speaks very precisely. ‘She’s just told you, your father is dead.’ A slight nod of her head and it’s Marie’s turn.
Marie tries to take his hand again, but he pulls away. ‘We’re very, very sorry.’
‘Can I get my book back, please?’
‘What book is that Tony?’ asks Marie.
‘It’s in my house, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I really need to go there and get it. I really, really need it.’
Something passes between Alice and Marie.
‘OK, Tony,’ says Marie who speaks for both of them. ‘I think that can be arranged.’
‘When? I need it now.’
‘I’m not too sure,’ says Alice.
‘Now,’ says Tony and stands up.