Health and Safety
by Liza Cody
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
It was a warm August afternoon and the sun fell like a lover’s hand on the back of my neck. I was walking away from the kitchen of a party house, hoping for a couple of hours’ rest before a flock of bridesmaids showed up to make life hell.
My backpack was heavy because I carry all my kit with me. You can’t trust hens even with a second-class stamp. After a few cocktails they’re all thieves and vandals.
I cannot tell you how much I hate chief bridesmaids. They are anxious and peppy. They try to force booze into the others as quickly as possible, ensuring that their judgement will vanish along with their inhibitions. They are the ones who ring me in the middle of the night because they “forgot” to tell me that two of the hens are gluten intolerant, one is sensitive to lactose, and the bride’s little sister will die if she so much as sniffs a nut. Everything, in fact, she should’ve told me at the planning stage.
I ask up front if any of the party has food allergies or religious prohibitions. There’s even a form to fill in and sign. But does she? Oh no. She’s so keen to acquire the services of a reasonably priced personal caterer that she keeps information about difficult eaters to herself.
“No problems,” she’ll say, all perky and peppy.
I can’t tell you how much of a problem the “no problems” people are.
I am a professional. It’s my job to deal with food allergies. But tell me about them while discussing menus, not at two in the morning when you’ve woken up depressed and anxious about a party for ten beginning in three days’ time.
So, I was thinking about Margie “No Problems” Dawson in a mood of simmering fury while walking away from the hated henhouse. To distract myself, I watched my own shadow. The low afternoon sun stretched it out ahead of me, and for a while I could kid myself that I was super-model tall and thin. I fantasised that there was a companion shadow walking beside mine—a broad-shouldered shadow so close to me that our hips merged.
My companion shadow’s name was Axel—which distressed me in a different way: Axel had departed with most of my client list and my whole heart only three months ago. That was why I couldn’t afford to give Margie “No Problems” Dawson the push for lying to me.
No, there was only one shadow—mine. And there was only the illusion of height and a slender shape.
And then, out of nowhere, another shadow suddenly appeared to join mine. I heard nothing—no footsteps behind me. I felt nothing—no touch, no jostling. But I saw clearly on the pavement in front of me the shadow of someone seeming to interfere with my backpack.
I swung round fast, letting the backpack fall from one shoulder. I saw a woman. No. All I focussed on was a skinny hand, a claw, grasping my wallet and my phone.
The front flap of my pack gaped wide. Without thinking, my hand flew to my most precious possession—my set of Damascus knives. Almost of its own accord the handle of the santoku knife came out of its holster into my right hand. Not wanting to drop the fine blade on the stone paving, I gripped it tightly as I lashed out.
It’s so weird what’s crucial in a crisis. It wasn’t the wallet holding cash, credit cards, and driving licence, or my phone with its vital contact list. It was my insanely expensive set of knives. Did I want to save myself from harm, or worry about injuring another human being? No, I was protecting the blade and tip of a santoku knife.
And when I saw the thin red line on a human wrist split and blossom into a gush of blood my instinct told me to wipe the blade clean rather than to help the human being. What kicked in was a Health and Safety rule about never allowing human blood to contaminate food. So before even seeing the real problem, I was registering the fact that I’d used a vegetable knife on meat.
Then I saw a young woman with the body of an eating disorder.
Enormous, hollow eyes, wide with surprise, met mine. She looked down at her bleeding wrist, dropped my wallet and phone, and sank to her knees.
Someone erupted from a nearby car. A man shouted, “What the hell you done? You kill her!”
At last my brain started to work. I shoved the knife into its holster, dropped the backpack on the ground, and tore off the cotton scarf that was binding my hair. The woman was cradling her left hand in her right arm as if protecting a baby from bad weather. I grabbed her and started to wind the scarf around her wrist. She resisted me. But her wrist was hardly bigger than a pair of chopsticks.
“I’m trying to help,” I yelled at her.
“You attacked her,” the man said. “She’s afraid of you.” He snatched the scarf out of my hand and tried to wrap it tightly around the wound. But the woman struggled against him too. She scarcely had the strength of a day-old chick. He was clumsy and even though he was wrapping fast, he couldn’t beat the blood.
Someone else said, “Call an ambulance.”
Where was everyone coming from? One minute I’d been alone with my shadow, and now there were two men shouting at me and an anorexic woman at my feet, bleeding to death.
I picked up my possessions and tried to open my phone, but my fingers were slippery with blood and shaking with shock. I dropped it. The glass cracked.
“Oh, for chri’sake,” the new man said, and whipped out his own phone.
“She’s a thief.” I found my voice at last. “She was stealing . . .” I held out my wallet and broken phone as if they were evidence.
“I didn’t see stealing,” said the kneeling man. “I saw attack.”
“Honestly,” I babbled. “When I turned around she had my things in her hand.”
“Be quiet,” said the second man. “We must stop the bleeding. Hold her arm up, up, up, up.” He pulled his tie off and wrapped it tightly round the woman’s arm above the elbow.
My hands were bloody. I took my dish towel out of my backpack and tried to wipe them. My phone and wallet were sticky. So was my precious santoku. The blood wouldn’t come off without soap and water.
“Give me that.” The second man held his hand out for my dish towel with such authority that I gave it without question.
I always take my own dish towels to a job. They’re boiled for at least half an hour as well as being bleached and ironed. If someone got ill because I’d wiped up with a dirty towel my reputation would be wrecked.
Now I watched the first man wad it into a pad while the second man held the thief’s arm perpendicular, and I saw him secure it tightly over her gushing wrist with my blood-soaked headscarf. It’s another law of hygiene: Keep your hair out of your clients’ dinner.
My teeth were chattering and my mind was running in circles while I stood, paralysed, watching two strangers trying to repair the damage I’d done.
“It was an accident,” I stammered. “I was shocked. I hit out.”
“With a knife,” the first man said. “You tell cops, eh? This is a knife crime.”
I hadn’t thought about the police—just the ambulance. If the second man asked for help with a knife wound then of course the police would be informed. I was even more frightened.
“But she was stealing,” I whispered.
“Were you stealing?” The first man spoke directly to the skinny woman.
She said nothing. She gazed at me through strands of lank hair that looked as if it were dying too.
“Tell them,” I pleaded. But she just stared at me. Panic rose from my chest to my throat and tears began to slide down my cheeks. I sat down on the kerb to stop myself falling over.
The second man said, “Don’t you dare faint.”
He was helping. Maybe he would help me too. He was more comfortable-looking than the kneeling man.
He said, “She hasn’t run away.”
“She can’t run,” the first man said. “She’s weak.”
“No, her.” The second man jerked his chin at me. “She’s going to be sick. She’s a problem.”
“She should be sick. She should pay for this.” The thin, aggressive man had been angry with me from the start. If he thought I’d attacked the woman for no reason, he could only have seen half of what happened.
“I was protecting myself and my property.” I tried to make both of them believe me. “Especially my knives. I’m a caterer—they’re the tools of my trade.”
“What’s your name?” The comfortable man looked hard at me.
“I don’t think she’s lying,” he said to the angry one. “She can talk to the cops later. Now we must deal with this one.” He gestured to the woman. To me he said, “You are allowed to protect yourself if you use reasonable force.”
The angry one butted in, “This is reasonable?”
His hands and clothes were wet with the woman’s blood.
“I want to do the right thing,” I said feebly.
The comfortable one said, “The right thing is to save this one here. Write down your address, Becky Elias, and give it to me. Then leave. You are not helping.”
“You trust her?” The angry one turned on the big one.
“The police will find her,” he said.
I was crying now. I wanted him to put his arms around me and tell me that I would be forgiven. I fished in my backpack. Underneath the knife holster and the sticky santoku I found the notebook I write all my lists and instructions in.
“She won’t stay,” the angry man said. “She’s a tourist—she carries a backpack.”
The softer one looked in my bag. “She’s a cook,” he said. “She carries the tools of her trade.”
I tore a sheet out of the book and wrote the address of the B and B on it. I handed it to the man who trusted me.
“Go,” he said. “We’ll deal with this.”
“Will she be all right?” I thought maybe I shouldn’t leave.
“You better hope so,” the angry one said.
“An ambulance is coming. Let us worry about her. You’re in the way.”
That was the permission I needed. I scurried away like a rat in a gutter. The sun was still behind me, but now my shadow looked hunched and mean.
Margie “No Problems” Dawson had ordered asparagus sushi for finger food, with homemade mayonnaise and champagne. The main course featured venison escallops with puréed potatoes, served with a Barolo 2006. Last, I’d made a strawberry cream (lactose-free) sponge (gluten-free) with more champagne—the bride’s favourite foods.
I’d been pleased because a lot of it could be made in advance and chilled. I was more grateful now because my usually orderly mind had turned feral. Images of knife and blood, blame and denials, bared their teeth and tore my neat to-do list to shreds.
I concentrated on trying to reconstruct the timings Margie had given me. Party games would take place between courses but the meal had to finish at eleven sharp because the limo would arrive at eleven-thirty to transport the hens to the first city-centre club. As soon as they’d gone I was to make hummus and Mediterranean vegetable wraps for when they got home. Also I would prep brunch. That would be between midday and two, when the masseurs and reflexologist were due.
I looked at my lists. They were lying on the bed because my hands were shaking too much to hold them steady enough to read. Was there any point in studying them? I was waiting for the police.
I’d scrubbed my knife and hands. I stared at the santoku. It was a thing of beauty, but would I ever be able to chop carrots again after seeing how easily it sliced through human flesh? My phone’s screen was cracked, but it worked. Should I ring Margie “No Problems” Dawson, or Kath, the event planner who’d recommended me? What would I say? That their caterer was in danger of arrest for murder? But I couldn’t bear to tell anyone what had happened. So I showered and washed my hair. When the knock came on the door I wanted to look clean and innocent.
I dressed in my work clothes—a tailored grey trouser suit and a white shirt, decorated only by some discreet pin-tucks. I tied my hair back and bound it with a silver-grey scarf. I wanted to look sober and professional while also seeming warm and approachable. An hour passed and then it was time for me to leave. I looked at my phone. It hadn’t rung, so I told Mrs. Landlady the approximate time I expected to return. I did not tell her the address of the henhouse. The police would have to wait till I’d finished work.
Mrs. Landlady gave me a key, saying, “I’ll be asleep by the time you get back so I’ll thank you not to slam doors.”
“What’s the name of the nearest hospital?” I asked.
“St. Stephen’s. Why?”
“A young woman was hurt in, er, an accident. I was just wondering what happened to her.” It’s so despicably easy to tell the truth dishonestly.
I left the lodging house and hurried back to the henhouse. I didn’t look at my shadow, and it was a relief to fall straight into work mode.
Kath turned up with armfuls of flowers and nets full of pink balloons. As the sun went down and she lit the lamps the reception room began to look festive and childish.
“All parties resemble children’s parties these days,” Axel told me once when we were catering the eightieth birthday party of a successful barrister. We’d spent nearly a week making and icing a cake that looked like a steam train circa 1935. The cake drew a standing ovation. It took the two of us to carry it. We worked well together. We created together, we shared the load. Then he met Estelle, an “actress” filling in as wait staff. Now I carry the load alone.
Anger isn’t helpful when you’re setting out champagne glasses. It used to be pure grief, but grief isn’t helpful when you’re trying to rebuild your business almost from scratch. There’s more energy in rage; more destruction too. I saw the dead-eyed woman again. Had I been thinking about Axel when her shadow appeared on the pavement in front of me? Had I been wishing I’d hurt him as much as he’d hurt me? If only I’d just hit her. I might have cracked her wrist, but I wouldn’t have had to watch her life-blood drain away.
“Are you okay?” Kath asked. She’s just as perky as Margie but she’s better at it—she’s been running this, and four other party houses, for over six years.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Have you eaten?” And then, distracted by a wayward balloon, “I say, those asparagus thingies look simply yummy.” She took one.
“Perfect.” She smiled, relieved she’d recommended me to Margie. “I know everyone says ‘save the best till last’ but in our business it pays to start with the best. By the time they get to that beautiful sponge pudding no one will be sober enough to tell it from a pot of cold tapioca.”
In the ten quiet minutes before Margie was due, Kath and I systematically ran through our lists. At one moment I looked up and saw her shadow on the kitchen wall. I thought of the angry man. What had he told the police? When would they come? The accusation—you slashed a woman with a sharp knife, cutting her to the bone, and you stood there wasting precious seconds until two strangers showed up and fought to save her life.
But the police hadn’t come. Did that mean Ms. Hollow Eyes was still alive? I felt my phone in my pocket. I should ring St. Stephen’s and find out.
I watched competent Kath. She’d know what to do. But Kath was not a friend. She was a client. She would not recommend a suspected murderer to her chief bridesmaids. She’s a party planner, not a charity.
Margie rolled in on a blast of night air with the photo board. We set up the easel and helped decorate it with floating balloons and swags of fairy lights.
In the middle was a studio portrait of the nearly-bride, Cheryl, smiling angelically, maybe aged eighteen, looking forward to uni. Around this innocent image were smaller photos following her descent into drunken depravity: stoned on the floor of a student-union bar; dancing with three drunk guys in Magaluf wearing only a feather boa above the waist; topless and hungover at someone else’s hen party—pictures of a young woman having a good time. All the good times involved sex, drink, and humiliation.
The first guests arrived and Kath left. A little later, the last hen led in the bride-to-be, blindfolded, giggling, disoriented. They gathered around her, a perfumed, joyful coven helping her to squeal with delight and surprise at the arrangements. I opened the fourth bottle of champagne.
Walking back to the lodging house in the small hours of the morning, I took no notice of the shadows cast by streetlamps. But I kept turning to look over my shoulder. I was convinced someone was following me.
The lodging house was dark and silent. There was no note from Mrs. Landlady on the hall table, no note pushed under my bedroom door. I showered quickly and quietly. The white easy-iron sheets clung, cold, to my damp skin, and the artificial fibre-filled pillow accepted my guilty head without protest. But when I closed my eyes I saw a woman bandaged from hand to elbow, attached precariously to life, transfused blood dripping into her veins to replace what she’d lost in my moment of panic.
I turned on the bedside light again, took my phone off its charger, and looked up the number of St. Stephen’s Hospital. Then I found my earphones and plugged them in, comforted myself with Leonard Cohen, and woke to the alarm at nine-thirty.
This was too easy. I hated my cowardice. So after brushing my teeth I called St. Stephen’s. There was an interminable wait while someone with an accent I couldn’t recognise put me on hold. I was halfway to work before a brusque voice with a Midlands accent told me that unless I could supply him with a name and convince him I was a blood relative he could give me no information.
At the henhouse, Zahara, Kath’s cleaner, was sighing and trying to put the reception room to rights without using the vacuum cleaner. Hens need peace and quiet on a morning after.
The room was now festooned with party poppers, toilet paper, and dead sparklers. Three posing pouches hung from the light-fitting—one gold, one silver, and one scarlet. The no-smoking rule had been ignored.
Zahara showed me the downstairs bathroom. A quantity of last night’s skillfully cooked dinner was now on the tiles and porcelain. It was one of those sights that convinces me that my life has no purpose whatsoever.
We sighed in unison. It says something about party culture that neither of us was shocked.
I went to the kitchen and saw that the hens had played cricket with the wraps that hadn’t been gobbed. Hummus and Mediterranean vegetables were smeared over floor, window, and walls.
I rolled up my sleeves and got busy. When the surfaces were hygienic again I made a pot of the strong mint tea Zahara likes and set a few custard creams on a plate.
She washed her hands and sat down at the kitchen table. She lives in this city, so I said, “Is St. Stephen’s the only hospital with an emergency room in this part of town?”
She thought for a moment. “Yes. Only one. But serious cases sometimes go to United. Why?”
So I looked up United’s number. And told her a version of yesterday’s story that didn’t make me look as despicable as I’d actually been.
She blinked at me. “This woman was stealing? You hear nothing, feel nothing?”
“I know I don’t pay enough attention—” I began.
But she waved a hand to stop me. “This woman is, how do you say? Yes, professional. An artist.”
It was my turn to blink at her. But at the same time we heard a door bang upstairs and a pitiful voice began to wail, “Coffee, coffee.”
Zahara grimaced and took her tea and biscuits through to the dining room to begin work again.
I put beans into the coffee grinder. There’s no finer method for keeping hungover hens out of the kitchen than turning on a coffee grinder. I made two large thermos pots of strong coffee and set them out with milk and sugar on trays in the reception area.
“Oh God,” said Margie Dawson, who had managed to exchange her party dress for a pair of pyjamas but hadn’t cleaned last night’s makeup off her face.
The bride, Cheryl, was still in her purple satin dress. She looked down her own cleavage and said, “It’s when you find your mascara’s dripped into your bra that you know you had a good time.”
“Oh God,” groaned Margie. “Did you have a good time?”
“The bra says ‘yes.’ I can’t remember a thing.”
The rest of the hens trailed down one by one looking like unwashed laundry. They’d seemed as sleek as seals when they went out last night, bouncing with anticipation and bubbling with champagne. Now they collapsed and sprawled over the chairs and sofas.
After the afternoon massage and reflexology, the hens were booked into a West End musical. There was a pre-show snack to make—shrimp tartlets with a quinoa salad. And a post-theatre pudding—tarte aux apricots—although how you make good gluten- and dairy-free tarte aux apricots is a secret I will take to my grave. I certainly never told Axel. That’s one piece of my ingenuity he couldn’t steal. He nearly stole my knives. I caught him at the door with my holster in his hand. “Those are mine,” I said coldly.
“Oops, sorry,” he said. “Honest mistake.”
“There’s nothing honest about you.” I hugged my knives to my unloved chest. “And as for your mistake, her name is Estelle and you deserve each other.”
“Ooh, bitter,” he said.
“Like your mango sorbet,” I said. “We had complaints about that. You don’t know a ripe mango from oven cleaner.” I didn’t begin to cry till he slammed the door.
The limo left early for the West End so I was able to get back to the lodging house before Mrs. Landlady’s bedtime. She scurried into the hall at the sound of my key.
“A plainclothes police officer came to see you,” she said, jagged lines of anxiety scraping at her eyes and mouth. “I didn’t know where you were. I could’ve looked in your room for the address, but I don’t suppose you’d want him turning up at your place of work, would you?”
“That’s very thoughtful,” I said, as calmly as I could. “What was it about?”
“I think it was that accident you witnessed.”
“Okay,” I said as if my heart hadn’t jolted every time I thought about it.
“He was hard to understand,” she went on. “Honestly, you never know who they’re going to take into the police force. Half the teachers at the school up the road are from Somalia or somewhere.”
Mrs. Landlady thinks she has old-fashioned values. She doesn’t realise she’s a racist, and because I’m not very brave, I have never told her I am a Jew. She runs a clean, orderly house that I can afford, but one day she’ll force me to stand my ground. And then I’ll have to find somewhere else to stay when I’m working for Kath.
“He asked when I expected you home and he wanted your phone number. I hope I did the right thing.”
At that moment my phone rang, making us both jump. I didn’t want Mrs. Landlady to overhear so I turned away and took the call while going upstairs. But it was only Kath, who was organising a reception for a tenth anniversary in December. Might I be available?
I was just scribbling the date in my diary when the phone rang again.
“Miss Becky Elias?” a deep male voice asked.
“Yes.” My heart sank. I looked at my watch. It was after midnight. No one but cops and event planners would ring so late. No one but freelance cooks with guilty consciences would answer.
“I will come to your house.”
“No. Wait.” I said, panicking. “Are you the police?”
“Then I’ll come to the police station tomorrow. You can’t come here—people are sleeping. How is the young woman who I . . . who was cut?”
“She is dead,” he said flatly. “This is a crime.”
A fist hit me in the stomach. “It was an accident. I swear. I never meant to hurt anyone.”
“I come now. This is murder. Witness saw.”
“I’ll wait for you outside,” I offered, defeated. This was terrible. I was responsible for a hollow-eyed woman’s death. Me! She was a pickpocket. But so what? I caused her to bleed to death. I saw the santoku knife in my hand. I saw the lovely blade flash in the afternoon sun as I struck out. A scared, thoughtless act of self-protection. Two seconds later, the damage was done and I watched the scarlet flowers bloom.
Axel doesn’t look after his knives. I do. A few quick flicks with the sharpener before and after use keep the blades razor-sharp. It only takes a couple of seconds. Axel doesn’t realise what a waste of time and energy it is to work with a dull blade. Or maybe he does, and that was why he was stealing mine.
If only he’d succeeded. If only the santoku I’d laid my hand on yesterday afternoon had been Axel’s blunt one. If only I wasn’t so proud of my knives.
Sadly, I took the knife holder out of my backpack and laid it gently on the dresser. I packed a clean shirt, my sponge bag, and two pairs of knickers instead. If I was going to spend the night in police custody I didn’t want my knives with me.
On the street outside I thumbed through my contact list and found that I didn’t know any solicitors. I’d never needed one before. I’d have to ask for the help of a duty solicitor at the police station. And that raised other questions, like, would I qualify for legal aid? And if I didn’t, how could I afford representation? I’d been doing fine, well, Axel and I had been doing fine. His charm with clients, his talent at cutting a deal, coupled with my . . . My what? Reliability, knowledge of health and safety rules and sharp knives?
“No!” I said out loud. “Don’t do this to yourself. You’re a good cook. You have flair, and a feel for food.”
But the woman Axel left three months ago replied, “Yeah, so that’s why you’re working for a woman with a degree in Event Planning, while Axel walked off with the banking contract. That’s why you’re waiting for the police outside a cheap lodging house, while Axel’s sleeping between your sheets in a king-size bed.”
A car door slammed and a man crossed from the dark side of the road to where I stood under a streetlamp. I hadn’t noticed him arrive, so I was startled. He was in plainclothes—a lightweight windbreaker over jeans. The brim of his baseball cap was pulled low over his eyes, which made him tilt his head back and look down his nose at me.
“You are Becky Elias?” he said as he approached.
“Yes.” I held my hand out.
“Get in the car,” he said, ignoring my hand.
“What’s your name?” I asked, following him across the road. “Where are you taking me?”
“Where do you think I’m taking you?”
“Yes, but which police station?”
“You’ll find out.” He opened the back door for me.
I got in. I wanted to make a connection with him, to break down this angry indifference and show how helpful and well-meaning I was. I wanted him to realise that someone as inoffensive as I was couldn’t possibly, with anger and malice, have sliced through the wrist of a sneak-thief. Just a few seconds before I became a killer I was the helpless victim.
And yet, I recalled, the first man who had run to help the thief didn’t think so. I felt his contempt and anger all over again as I sat in the back of a car that reeked of cigaret smoke. Obviously he hadn’t seen the thief reach into my backpack, but he had seen my fury as I spun round and lashed out with the santoku.
He knew I’d meant to hurt her.
“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” I said now. “She was stealing from me and I was frightened.”
The policeman didn’t even look at me in the rearview mirror.
I thought that if I’d spun round and seen Axel with his hand in my bag I’d have used the point of the knife. I’d have pierced his heart—revenge for smashing mine. That’s what the first witness saw—rage and revenge.
I was guilty. Strangers like this plainclothes cop who wouldn’t meet my eyes could see through my calm competence to the knife-sharp anger and grief beneath the skin.
The smell of cigaret smoke was making me sick. I twisted in my seat to open the window.
“Stop that!” the cop snapped. He’d been watching me after all.
I withdrew my hand as if it had been burned, and as I did so I saw, by the light of a shop window, a piece of cloth that I thought I recognised. Stealthily I hooked a finger round it and drew it closer. Yes! There was no doubt in my mind at all.
“Stop the car,” I cried. “I’m going to be sick.” I retched. I wasn’t pretending.
“Don’t dare to be sick.” The cop turned for an instant, and what he saw made him pull over to the kerb.
I tumbled out onto the pavement—my backpack in one hand, my headscarf, so stiff with dry blood that it felt starched, in the other.
Instead of being sick I scrambled to my feet and started running back up the road we’d just driven down.
There was an ominous whine behind me. I looked round. The plainclothes cop was reversing after me.
I ran faster. But I’m a cook, not an athlete. The cop caught up.
Thank God this city never sleeps: Traffic was passing sporadically in both directions. I ran into the middle of the road, jumping up and down, windmilling my arms. Cars, vans, lorries hooted, yelled, swerved around me. No one stopped. But at least they noticed me. The plainclothes cop just rolled down his window and waited.
“What’s going on?” I yelled at him. “Where were you taking me?”
He didn’t answer. Either he couldn’t hear or he was too disgusted to answer.
“What’s my scarf doing in your car?” I shouted. Surely that was all wrong? And this road—didn’t it carry on south, straight across the river? Why was he driving me from north of the city all the way to south of the river . . . ?
Copyright © 2018. Health and Safety by Liza Cody