Edna glanced anxiously at the clock on the wall for the second time in as many minutes, then continued stuffing the bloodstained apron into the small plastic bag she had taken from the kitchen drawer. Placing the bundle beside her raincoat, drying in the corner of the storeroom, her attention was then directed at clearing up the mess around the large wooden chopping board. Holding the board under the tap, the blood streamed down into the white enamel sink, circling around briefly before finally disappearing down the plughole into the drain below.
The long black-handled knife, honed to a razor-sharp finish earlier that morning, was next to receive Edna’s attentions at the sink, just as her bespectacled assistant Marjorie appeared through the doorway. The two exchanged the normal brief greetings that two incompatible colleagues would do in any other place of employment, hardly glancing towards each other as they did so.
Edna had worked at Hatton Secondary School for nearly seven years, inheriting the role of Head Cook – but still referred to by all of the pupils and teachers simply as ‘the dinner lady’ – shortly afterwards when the previous incumbent retired. Most of the pupils went home for lunch: home to one of the many pre-war council houses on the estate that surrounded the Staffordshire school. The remaining forty-or-so who elected to sample the delights of Edna’s cooking were a motley mixture, ranging from well-mannered to extremely rude siblings.
One of the boys in particular – Jimmy Gorman – had irked Edna ever since he started at the school four years previously, and was by far the most abusive of the lot. Every day seemed to present a new opportunity for Jimmy to make some kind of derisive remark about either Edna or Marjorie, or to generally show off in front of his peers. He took great pleasure in ridiculing their physique and appearance, making jokes and rude comments about the meal that they had painstakingly prepared, and embarrassing them in every other way imaginable.
Other boys – and even some of the more outspoken girls – would be encouraged by Jimmy’s impetuous behaviour, making their lewd comments and then looking around as if to gain approval of their actions from their friends.
A wry smile appeared on Edna’s face as she reflected on the events earlier that morning. She had silently endured his verbal abuse for long enough, but had finally snapped and decided to do something about it. Mixed feelings of relief and trepidation came over her, but she knew that what she had done was right: Jimmy certainly wasn’t going to annoy her any more, that was sure …!
Marjorie shuffled past, muttering incoherently to herself, as if to remind her colleague that work had to be done. Edna lifted the lid of the largest pan on the stove, the contents heaving in the thick sauce as if trying to escape from the heat. For one brief, heart-stopping moment Edna imagined Jimmy’s startled face peering up at her through the steam, his outstretched arms reaching out pitifully towards her.
‘Yes’, thought Edna as she emptied more curry powder into the pan and stirred vigorously, ‘Hatton Secondary is going to be a far better place to work in future, now that you’ve been sorted out!’
A movement near the pile of rubbish bags outside caught her attention, and she rushed outside to frighten off the stray collie that was frantically tearing away at the bulging bag Edna had taken out earlier that morning. She threw the bag back on top of the pile, covering it with some sodden cardboard boxes that had been lying outside in the rain for several days.
Looking up towards the copse in the distance, Edna recalled how she had approached the oblivious Jimmy from behind, as he sheltered from the rain. She had hesitated momentarily, catching her breath, before bursting out of the wet undergrowth towards her tormentor. Turning, he had raised his arms instinctively in front of his face as Edna bore down on him: reminiscent, she reflected, of the shower scene in ‘Psycho’. The sheer look of terror in his eyes would haunt her forever.
Now, several hours later, Edna shook visibly and wondered if anyone had seen her return to the kitchen in such a bedraggled state. Looking down, she realised that her shoes were still soiled from the school’s rugby pitch – resembling a battlefield after the previous day’s inter-house competition – which stood between the copse and the rear kitchen door. She stepped back inside, wiping her shoes thoroughly on the worn coconut mat, and then inspecting them carefully to ensure that all the mud had been removed.
Edna smiled nervously as she returned to the four large pans steaming on the stove. Long-grain rice, runner beans, carrots, and the gently simmering pan of curried meat – just the thing for a cold, wet day. ‘Why I ever bother with carrots I’ll never know’ said Edna indignantly. ‘Most of those kids that have them will leave them on the side of their plates anyway. Just curry and rice is only half a meal, they need their vegetables as well’. There was no reply or acknowledgement from Marjorie, who was busy piling up the plates at the counter.
Glancing once again at the clock, Edna watched as its second hand completed another circuit of its white face, ticking gently at each jerky movement. On cue, the school bell rang at precisely twelve-thirty.
‘Here we go,’ said Edna, bracing herself and looking towards the panelled door at the far end of the dining room. The neatly aligned rows of melamine-covered tables and orange plastic chairs stood between the counter and the door, surrounded by the pale blue walls which were much in need of a fresh coat of paint. Three of the walls were adorned by wooden-framed photographs: of pupils and teachers from years gone by, staring silently towards the kitchen. The faint sounds from the corridor outside gradually increased; the parquet floor echoing the approaching footsteps. In an instant the chattering, bustling pupils swept through the door as it was thrust open. Led by a pair of lanky boys jostling at the front the left side of the dining room was soon lined by the hungry throng.
Marjorie removed the lids from the pans containing the rice and beans, as Edna attended to the others: the steam engulfing them both momentarily, before vanishing into the air above.
The incessant chatter of the children and clatter of cutlery being snatched from the trays leading to the counter increased as more joined the queue.
‘No carrots’, came the order from the head of the queue; a fair-haired boy who, judging by the green and blue smudges on his fingers had just finished his art lesson.
Emptying a generous helping of meat on one side of his plate, taking care to leave room for Marjorie to add the rice and beans. Edna looked on anxiously as the boy examined the curry closely, then nodding his apparent approval before passing his plate to Marjorie.
The queue now stretched back into the corridor, where she could see the teacher on lunchtime duty talking to a flustered-looking Mr.Pearson, the Headmaster.
‘Where’s Jimmy?’ enquired one of the boys close to the counter.
‘No idea’ replied his friend two places behind in the queue. ‘I saw him disappearing towards the copse after the break, but he didn’t turn up for R.E. afterwards. I reckon he’s skived off again’.
Edna glanced apprehensively at the boys, then returned her attentions to the pans: emptying rapidly as the queue passed by with their plates held out in front of them, as if imitating Oliver Twist.
Twenty, thirty, forty filed by, seemingly on their best behaviour for once with only a few of the usual comments directed at the dinner ladies. Some of the pupils who had finished their meal were already beginning to leave, filtering back into the empty corridor, where the teacher on duty had disappeared long ago on the heels of the Headmaster.
‘I’ll have the same as her … please,’ said the familiar voice at the counter, indicating the plate of the girl whom Edna had thought was the last in the queue.
A dishevelled Jimmy looked nervously over the counter at Edna, who glared defiantly back. Leaning forward slightly, with his hands braced on the edge of the counter, Jimmy lowered his voice, intent on not being overheard by anyone else in the dining room.
‘You won’t tell Mr.Pearson about this morning on the copse will you … ?’, he faltered, ‘I mean … if he tells my dad that you caught me smoking pot he’ll murder me!’.
There was no response from Edna, as she emptied the remaining curry onto Jimmy’s plate. He waited for a reply in vain as Marjorie handed back his plate, then made his way silently to his friends in the far corner of the room.
‘At last’, thought Edna, watching him as he slouched dejectedly into a chair. ‘We should see some changes around here from now on!’