Tender Souls

The head cook waits, as she always appears to wait; in the same stance and in the same clothes. Her plump hat sits atop a barely visible strip of tawny fake hair tucked into a rough collar, which itself remains perpetually stitched beneath the top strap of her constricting apron. She is plump like her hat and ever bent and busy over the bowl on the table near the range, where she prepares the same fake meal, day in, day out…

*

Jo felt a frisson of anticipation as Kelsie pinned back her hair then pulled the kitchen maid’s hat down over her head. Kelsie helped her with the apron too, all the while ushering Jo towards the big doors behind which the Edwardian servant/maid experience awaited her. “Through there is it?” She asked. Alexander, Kelsie’ co-coordinator of the interactive tour, entered the antechamber through the more modern doorway that led away from the building’s entrance.

“Straight through there.” He answered, catching Jo’s question. Jo span round with a gleeful grin. “Oh I wish Mick could have made it here too.” They both looked at her and smiled in professional unison.

Mick, her boyfriend, had organised this surprise birthday treat for her weeks earlier. Though he couldn’t meet her that afternoon, couldn’t take two days off work like she had, he was all too ready to continue the birthday celebrations in the city centre later that evening. Until then, the day was Jo’s alone.

“Don’t forget to curtsy to the head cook straight away; she’s as strict as they come.” Kelsie advised with a wink as she gently guided her through the heavy wooden doors. “Enjoy.” Alexander added, leaning into the narrowing gap as they solemnly swung back. Jo waved at them as they stood side by side, perfectly presented like a sophisticated Ken and Barbie, until they were gone.

She immediately set herself to exploring the environment; the kitchen was enormous and apparently empty of people. An enormous array of spoons, pots, ladles, and pans lined the walls. She picked up what looked like a gnarled old scoop, tapped it against her palm and put it down. She picked up an ersatz half-cut loaf and the dish it was in and rapped them together (it sounded like horses clip-clopping). She set a clutch of knives and cleavers to swing and chime before reaching out to stop and steady them back into silence. “I love it!” She giggled to herself, “Oh Mick you’re a star, you really are!”

As if in response to those words an odd growl echoed around the walls. Stunned, Jo turned and looked; there was a long range in the centre of the room and a second halfway down on the other side; near it, in the dim light from an artificially lit window she saw…the head cook!

She hadn’t noticed her before but now her form was clearly discernible. Jo raced round the central range and headed towards her, her hand playfully outstretched to greet her. But of course cook didn’t turn and shake hands. Instead her figure yawed unrealistically to the left then to the right, a little up then a little down. Her movements were accompanied by mechanical groans as old as the puppet they drove. “Hmm she may be a ramshackle machine but the voice activated movements are spot on.” Jo thought aloud.

Cook responded again, as though in prompt confirmation of her comment, but this time her ‘noises’ were different, more organic, less wooden — in both a substantial and a metaphorical sense. The growl she emitted was the guttural analogue of a bestial maw lined with saliva; she sounded truly monstrous; Jo, for a moment, felt unsettled. Instinctively she stepped back and headed round the range, away from the creepy back-turned mannequin, setting more cutlery swinging to lighten the mood, looking to the doors for an assurance she couldn’t quite understand. As the knives clattered discordantly cook growled again, louder, she sounded angrier.

Jo suddenly realised how alone she was in that oddly manufactured kitchen, and as if in response to her unspoken misgivings Kelsie’s welcome face peered in at her discreetly through the doors as though she were interrupting an important meeting with an important message. “Cook’s angry because you didn’t curtsy to her when you came in.” She whispered with a mischievous grin. And again she let the door slowly close, all the while holding that smile, that inexplicably expectant smile. Cook growled loudly again, and her arms worked heavily in the bowl as though striving to pummel away a rising, swelling rage. Jo looked over at the grotesque spindles of her arms grinding with insensate purpose, and the painted hair on her dark forearms, and felt afraid.

She noticed too that the light was getting dimmer as though the daylight simulating lamps behind the opaque window had been set to mimic twilight. So far nothing memorable had actually happened to Jo since she began the tour, and she wondered now if the it was meant to start quietly from the kitchen and then lead upstairs to where the aristocrats, which she saw posing in a timely tableau on her ticket, would now be dancing and drinking. And where the actors playing those aristocrats would comically condescend to show her ‘her place’ in the particular role Mick had chosen for her. All in the name of fun of course. All in the name of fun.

Jo could indeed hear faint new sounds coming from behind the door at the other end of the room which lead into the grand hall of the faux manor, and wondered if she should just walk through it and leave creepy cook to her tasteless recipe; leave her there for good if there was another exit. She made her way in the gathering shadows but baulked momentarily when she saw how near cook was to the door to the hall. No, she thought, this is ridiculous — she’s not real! Scary yes but not real. And in defiance to cook, or more accurately, in defiance to her fear of the dummy cook, she curtsied and said “Good evening, m’lady.” And laughed.

Cook shook and spluttered and bucked inhumanly; she rose and fell with thumps, and her padded pinny swelled outward more and more as though the sheer insolence of this little wastrel had filled her foam lungs with gusts of dudgeon.

Jo froze and her legs, not yet straightened from the curtsy, nearly buckled under the weight of her terror. Cook’s body ballooned and shrank in turns, galvanised by her atrocious disrespect, it seemed. “Stop it!” Jo cried out. “I’m sorry. It was a joke, please stop it!” The thumping of her heart seemed as loud to her as did cook’s shoes which stamped and stamped in outrage invisibly behind the hem of her skirt. Cook roared and shook and veered and swooped and tipped and Jo fled.

“Please let me out!” she screamed to the debonair group of guests gathered around the grand staircase in the hall as she crashed through the door from the servant’s corridor. At once they all halted their stilted conversations and regarded her with mixed looks ranging from utter indifference to shock, embarrassment and disdain. A hidden gramophone began playing a generic number and in seconds most of the guests paired up and swept across the floor in an elegant dance.

All but one guest, that is. Jo rushed up to the tall dapper gentleman who was leaning against a capacious sofa, smoking the finest tendril of a cigarillo. “Please help me!” She cried out to him over the echo of the music, “I just want to go home. I just…” He looked down at her with a face so painted he looked as unreal as cook’s hair-bedaubed arms. “Please.” She implored him. His eyes widened and his lips drew back in a pale and greasy rictus. She recoiled from his leer but found she could not tear her gaze from his, and for several tense seconds she felt that he too fixed her with a look of desperation and horror which mirrored hers precisely. The moment passed.

“Well what have we here?” He trilled mischievously, malevolently, and Jo felt herself whisked away across the floor to where the others were skating over polished tiles. “A stray from the kitchen has found her way into the lion’s den!” He called out, and his words were met with laughter from the others. Jo struggled to free herself but he gripped her wrist, partly to stop her escaping and partly — it seemed to her — to steady himself as though he were too tipsy to stand unaided. She was crying now, begging to go home. “We’ll make a dancer out of you yet!” He laughed and he spun her round and round and round. He gripped her in a bear hug and walked her tightly in a circle.

The others stopped dancing and took their places around her now, turning and shoving her with the same ghastly masks that served poorly as painted faces: they were not human, they were not machines, they were merely – ersatz people.

As she tried to break through the circle Jo saw their faces expanding and swelling the same way cook’s body had done. Under the high lights and beside the standing lamps their cheekbones, noses, foreheads, pulsed and glistened in a grotesque caricature of non-humanity. Jo felt sick. She launched herself at the slim lady in silver who seemed too distracted with her own transformation to push her back into the centre of the circle. She broke through and ran directly through the servant’s corridor before finding herself back in the kitchen where cook had almost freed herself from her mechanical moorings and was in the process of twisting her head off with those dark and wretched hands.

Before Jo regained presence of mind to run for the double doors to the entrance cook attained her diabolical goal and ripped off her head. Her arms held out a screaming cabbage of a face for her alone to see but it was too late; the double doors were wide open and Jo had left the kitchen.

All was darkness in the anteroom but it represented to Jo a barrier to the madness behind her; she felt a great wave of relief wash over her, more so when Mick came hurtling through the doors moments later. “Mick!” She wailed and threw her arms around his neck. He was wearing a familiar looking high collared shirt, his thick black hair was slick and neatly parted, but it also swept wildly across his forehead; he sounded breathless to the point of exhaustion; he held her and stared gratefully and longingly into her eyes as he gasped and gulped for air. Jo looked up at him and recognised the desperate look in his eyes as that belonging to the painted dapper at the diabolical ball. But why could I not recognise him then and there? she wondered.

“I wanted to surprise you!” He blurted, “I went in first to surprise you and then…and then… something happened to me. Something happened and everything changed, I changed, and I couldn’t stop it. I saw you in there, I knew you saw me too, I knew it!”

“We have to get out of here.” Jo said, as calmly as the necessity of leaving the anteroom was paramount to their sanity. They felt their way around the room, unable to locate the entrance through which they had all passed that afternoon, Mick, Kelsie, Alexander, Jo. But it seemed out of reach, out of touch. After twenty frantic minutes of searching Mick stopped and turned.
“You know, it’s like they needed us to be a part of this…this thing that they organise.” He began. “I mean, when they first led me in I saw this look in their eyes, this hunger for what they knew I was going to think, to experience. You too.”

“You mean they want us to be terrified out of our wits, to be almost scared to death? But why?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. They haven’t been here that long. This is a vacant store, they’re on a temporary lease — when the month is out so are they.”

“How long have they been here?”

“Not exactly sure, I saw it for a week before I booked it, and the booking was made two weeks in advance. They may have a few days left, maybe none.”

“Where do you think they are now, Kelsie and Alexander?”

“I hope I’m wrong but I think they were part of the party. They were two of the guests. And now they’re in there, changing, changed.”

“If we wait here till morning perhaps we’ll see them back to normal, perhaps they’ll let us out?”

Mick inhaled deeply, clammy with sweat and getting colder. “I just wonder who all the other guests were too. I mean, where did they come from?”

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