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Dinner lady




I know you asked me not to talk about this again, Martin, but I had to see the words on paper, if only to judge for myself how unlikely they now seem to you and the others. I'm sending you this copy for safe keeping; you don't have to read any further if you don't want to. But if you can read this account, please tell me once again how impossible it still sounds. It would mean a lot to me if you could at least hide this letter away, somewhere that won't be disturbed. It sounds like I'm being precious doesn't it. In a way I am. You were at the school when it happened, and yet you say you never even saw the dinner lady. If you had, or ever do, you might want to talk about it. You might want to go over the details too, so you don't forget what happened. We all have memories that we want to relive, to keep them fresh. Of course the danger is that you start to exaggerate and then you don't know what happened. You said I should forget these accounts, and I have tried to; it just doesn't work. You also said it would make a good story, so that's how it is now. I've written as much of it as I can, as truthfully as possible, and now I'm sending it off to a few places. Might be famous some day eh? Ha ha.

You remember the playing field don't you, with the tree at the far end, sort of overlooking the entire school. We used to climb it and get in trouble, swinging from its lower branches. Mrs Hodge would come out with her mug and her whistle to blow us all back in for assembly, and we would have to sneak down the back of the tree. Do you remember, Martin? She was always threatening to cut the lower branches away or cut the entire thing down, but we knew she never would. It's still there too. I drove past and glimpsed it over the school building. I had a quick look at the kitchens too, but didn't see anything but a few big bins. Do you remember the pipes, sending out steam that smelled of gravy? The gravy pipes we used to call them. We didn't have much imagination, in them days.

Anyway, the tree was where I first saw her from, in the field beyond the fence. There was that old barn, or shed or something; left to rot in the long grass. It seemed quite large then, but maybe it wasn't. I saw her as I reached the higher branches though, her pale blue outfit looking just like the other dinner ladies, her white hair sticking out form beneath her white hat. The shed must have been an allotment come to think of it, because she was cradling a basket of tomatoes. I saw the barn door flapping shut so she must have been in there. It didn't seem so odd at the time, but now, when I think about how horrible that barn was.

Mrs Hodges had blown her whistle when the dinner lady looked up and saw me and I started to climb down as fast as I could. She kept looking at me though, and it sort of put me off. I was scared she would tell on me. I got so scared that I lost my footing and slid down this thin branch. Well, you know how close the tree was to the fence; we were always daring each other to jump down into that field. You said you had done it once, and the long grass softened your fall. Of course, you were lying; it bloody hurt my ankles. I cracked my head on the concrete fence pole too as I fell back. I saw stars everywhere. I used to think people were lying when they said about the stars, but it's true, I've seen them. She came out of them as she approached; I know that sounds daft but that's how it felt, like she was coming out of the stars. She came through them and sort of rubbed my face. At first I thought she was touching me with one of her tomatoes, all cold and wet; but she had the basket in her other hand. I said to her that I'd hurt my ankles and my head and she made a sort of whistling sound, as if she was impressed. I got a good look at her then, and didn't recognise her. She looked ordinary enough, like an old dinner lady I suppose. You never really notice them though do you? Especially so far back. Too busy choosing your pudding. The only thing I could say was wrong about her face was the lipstick was a bit thick. I asked her to help me back to the school and she grabbed my arm to hoist me up. I think it was then that I noticed a little boy by the shed door. He was caked in mud, from head to toe. You always say that I must be exaggerating, but he was literally covered in it, with just his big eyes sat in the mess of it all. He had watched me as the dinner lady helped me up, and then vanished back into the barn. I wondered later if it was a boy at all, or some kind of dog. You always laugh when I say that. Mistaking a boy for a dog? I was half concussed remember.

I was still dizzy as the lady led me across the field, through the tall grass. My ankles were hurting a bit and I hoped she was going in the right direction, because for some reason I couldn't see the fence, for awhile anyway. The grass was very thick though, and eventually we were walking onto the pavement by the roadside. She took me through the side gates, where the teachers came in with their cars, and all the while she kept a tight grip on my arm, and kept asking my name. I knew I was in trouble, and I was scared. I wasn't a bad boy back then, but we still used to get a slap on the leg. Mrs Hodges hit the hardest; but you should know that considering the amount of time you spent getting into trouble.

A slap on the leg seems like nothing now though.

The dinner lady took me round the back of the school, past the cars and the big window to the dining room. I looked through and saw the other dinner ladies cleaning up, putting on their coats. I saw them and recognised them; the fat one with the red hair who served the meat and veg, the skinny younger one who did the puddings. Remember second helpings, Martin? Ha ha.

Anyway, I thought that this dinner lady must have been one of those who does the cooking in the background, behind all those big cookers and that's why I didn't know her face. She did smell a bit like gravy, but then we were stood close to the gravy pipes, still steaming. She took a sniff when she saw them. Then she opened this little blue door next to them and took me inside.

But there was no gravy boiling away. That must have been next door. She had taken me into a small corridor, with a few doors, all pink, leading of it. It was so odd, Martin, seeing a part of the school that you had never seen before, or weren't meant to ever see. It felt like I was trespassing, like I was going to be punished for that too. I thought one of the doors must go to the staffroom, or the dining room. Mrs Hodges was waiting to slap me behind one of them, I thought, but I was wrong. The dinner lady pushed open one of the doors - which I don't recall - and guided me into a room full of coats. I thought they must have been coats because they were hung up on coat pegs, loads of them, covering most of the walls. But after a few seconds I wondered what they were really; they were all the same, pale leathery things, with buttons sewn on, as if randomly. They were muddy too, dried and stiff. The dinner lady pushed me on towards another little blue door, barely visible between the long stiff sleeves of the coats, sticking out. I opened the door myself, and rushed through. I still didn't recognise anything. Now we were in a kitchen, but it wasn't the school kitchen. For a start it was too dirty. The floor was naked cement, all the tiles torn up. Black footprints covered the cement and things that might have been potatoes were just piled up in a corner, under a frosted window. There was a sink and a cooker too, but they looked sort of past it, if you know what I mean; old fashioned and rusty. The dinner lady pointed at this stool, and she told me to sit.

I sat down and she left the room by another door. I was all alone with my aching ankles and head, scared of what was going to happen to me once we had gotten back to the school. It must have been just beyond the door that the dinner lady had used, even though I could hear her singing in there. She was singing an old war song; I've heard it once or twice since, on the TV. Can't recall what it's called though.

The dinner lady had finished her song and then she came back for me and grabbed my wrist again, helping me up. The she took me through the door. It was a room full of strange things. Old things, like from war time. There was a gramophone, its huge horn facing me with its mouth. Next to it was a table covered in old photos, stood up in shiny frames. All the pictures were yellow and sort of hard to see. I didn't want to look at them, Martin. Neither would you if you had the choice. They made me feel even dizzier, trying to make sense of them. And when I did spot something, I wasn't sure if I had seen it properly anyway. I saw robots in them crumbling photos and newspaper clippings, robots with the faces of men. Men dressed up as robots maybe. I asked what they were, and she told me they were her family and friends from long ago, from a time so long ago that I couldn't imagine. Well, the thirties is that old isn't it. The thirties is like another world compared to our childhoods. It certainly seemed that way from the photos. She told me that they were taken at Butlins. Even I had heard of Butlins, and I told her. It made her happy to hear it too. She let me play with this doll of hers. It was naked and sticky, like the plastic had begun to rot. I wanted to tell her that boys didn't play with dolls. I wanted to ask if we could go and see Mrs Hodges. But I didn't. She wound the gramophone up and dropped the needle onto a record. It must have been broken though, because the only noise that came through was a sort of wailing, like the wind. At first I thought it was meant to be like that, but it never ended, no music started up at all. But it was kind of nice and soothing. The dinner lady liked it too, I suppose she must have, because when it finished she rewound the gramophone and played it again. Then she took me to this tiny window. She told me to look out and I would see Billy Butlin. I almost laughed thinking it a joke, but she was serious, so I did look out, just to see where we were. I didn't recognise the small courtyard at all though. There was this large thing just to one side, like a black round bin or container. I watched as steam came out of a hole in the thing and then felt my head go dizzy again as a hand slipped around the side of this large plastic barrel. It was caressing it in circular motions. I can't tell you how it made me feel. I saw a bit of the man's red coat sleeve too, just before I turned away and asked if I could go to the toilet. She smiled at this and said it was in the next room. There was another door, lost amongst the junk in the room and she opened it with a creak. I saw a black spider run from the door and vanish under the table of photos. The dinner lady grabbed my arm and helped me through the door into another small corridor that at least smelled like the school books we used. There were two doors to take and she seemed to ponder over which lead to the toilet. She eventually pushed one open and there was a toilet. The dinner ladies own toilet I imagined. I closed the door behind me and tried to go, even though I didn't need to. It didn't have to worry about her listening for the sound of water splashing though, because there was no water in the toilet at all and none when I flushed. Broken like the gramophone. I tried to get a look out of the frosted glass window before I went back out, but could only see a big black shape and something like a pale bicycle crouching beside it. I didn't recognise it at all. The school was larger than I thought. But as I said, things always did seem larger when you were a kid.

It was then that I realised how late I would be for assembly. They would be looking for me now, wondering where I was. I told the dinner lady and this worried her too. She smiled though and said she wanted me to meet some of her friends. I nodded and followed her as she pushed open the other door and took me into another kitchen. This was the right kitchen this time, but for some reason the other cooks were still stirring big metal pots and cutting stuff up. They turned their white heads as I passed and I noticed what they were making, although I didn't recognise it at all. I thought the blue gluey stuff must be some kind of icing, but it was more like a stew, with chunks of black stuff melting in it. The woman stirring it smiled at me and I passed by noticing her strong perfume. The next lady was wearing pink rubber gloves as she sliced at a black lump with a knife. Was she preparing it for the blue stew? It looked like coal and yet cut like a potato. A door opened then, jarring me from my thoughts, and a tiny old lady in a red jacket and red skirt flew through and grabbed me by the wrist. She said something to the lady who had brought me here and then we were off into familiar ground. I was relieved to see the dining room tables and the door to Mrs Hodges room. I was even gladder to hear the sound of music from the hall. Dinner assembly wasn't over yet. The little old lady left me outside my classroom door waiting for the others to find me. It wasn't long before you all came and joined me, and the world was back to normal again. The routine of school and life back on track. I told you about it all at play time and then I came round to your house and told you again, but you said I was liar and we got into a fight. You said it couldn't have happened because I had been with you all through dinner assembly. I know that it did happen though, and that it wasn't a dream, because a dream couldn't possibly be so real and haunt you for so long.





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Get used to it? No, you never get used to it.


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