Something was amiss. The rings were gold in colour, but that was where all resemblance ended. The so-called diamonds hung, heavy and dull against her neck, a shadow of green tainting her lobes. I glanced from her shoes, heeled with the diamante strap, to her head, brown, frizzy hair greying at the roots, lips pursed and painted red with something I doubted was a cosmetic in the traditional sense. The lines around her mouth told tales of a lifetime of smoking.
‘May I help you, Madame?’
‘The service here is despicable. Hours I’ve been waiting for a table. Famished. Not the kind of treatment I would expect from such an establishment.’
I smiled slightly in apology, but I had my second sign then that something was wrong. Her accent was affected and comically old-fashioned. The extra ‘h’ sound after the ‘w’ in ‘waiting’ showed me that she understood what sounds were meant to be refined, but had no idea exactly where to place them.
‘Of course, my apologies. Do you have a reservation with us?’
‘I hardly think that will be necessary. I’ll take my regular table.’
I nodded politely, suddenly conscious that this woman wasn’t just delusional in the new-money sense. I had worked upwards of two decades at ‘Le Laurier Rose’, (evidenced by the receding hairline and the wrinkles round my eyes. Not that I minded aging. I felt I managed it with grace, maintaining my slim figure and seeming tall and distinguished rather than plump and tired, as so many men in their forties do.) I had never seen this woman before in my life.
‘Right this way, Madame.’
I placed her on one of our more comfortable tables, near the window facing our garden. A water feature danced beautifully when it was lit up at night, although at this hour of the morning it was far less impressive. Thankfully, the bright, green turf made up for whatever mysticism the daylight lacked.
‘A drink?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she paused. ‘What would you recommend?’
I smiled, knowing I would have liked to recommend a visit to the neurologist, or at the very least a hairdresser.
‘Depending on the appetizer, I might suggest a Cabernet Sauvignon, or perhaps a Sauvignon Blanc?’
‘Champagne?’ she asked, hopefully. I chuckled.
‘But of course, champagne will go well with anything. Our house is a wonderful Dom Pérignon.’
‘Right, well, yes. I suppose that will do.’
She unfolded the swan napkin and laid it across her lap, smoothing it down anxiously.
‘One moment, Madame.’
Thankfully, it was around 10am and too early for a lunch crowd, so I had time to find, pop and pour the glass with an effortless smile before fitting in a tactful summoning of the police. After a brief description in which I tried to be as forgiving as possible (a considerable effort), I managed to detach myself from the excited operator, who was still babbling on when I hung up the phone:
‘Okay, from what you’re saying this fits the description of a missing person. The police are on their way, but sir…’
‘Merci beaucoup,’ I interrupted, as the missing person we were discussing was now standing in front of me. I hung up the phone as gracefully as possible. ‘Yes, Madame, is there something else I might I help you with?’
‘Toilet?’ she asked, and again I smiled. Of course she would say ‘toilet’ and not ‘loo’ or ‘lavatory’. With her accent so needlessly posh, she may as well have asked for the ‘shitter’ and it would have had the same effect.
‘Just this way, Madame.’
She was in there too long. I stood polishing the glasses, staring at the cursive font across from me, worrying that she might have escaped and I’d needlessly bothered the police for the price of a glass of champagne. Although, I must admit, the thought of her escaping did bring some small relief. While I found the woman amusing for now while it was quiet, who knew what trouble she might stir up when the real customers arrived? But, she returned after around fifteen minutes, emerging from the ladies’ room, smelling thickly of our personal spray, her Crayola lipstick reapplied. Her hair had been moistened and flattened down which, good lord, only served to emphasise the frizz, making her appear like a balding man or, even worse, a circus clown. She settled down at her table again and I came to take her order. There were no other customers, so it would have been strange if I didn’t.
‘Anything to start, Madame?’
‘Yes,’ she sighed. ‘I had scampi once. It might have been here, I can’t remember. It was delicious.’
‘In that case, might I suggest the fishcakes to start? Made with freshly caught cod and locally sourced salmon, lightly battered in breadcrumbs, served with our hollandaise sauce?’
‘Yes,’ she nodded, smiling. ‘Yes. That would be lovely. Will it go with the, um, the champagne?’
I laughed gently.
‘Madame, I’ve yet to meet a dish in this world that doesn’t go well with champagne.’
She laughed herself then, cautiously at first and then in longer, louder bellows.
‘Yes, quite right, good chap. Quite right.’
After taking her main order too, I was left with a quandary. Did I or did I not place the order with the kitchen? If she was taken away it would be such a waste of time and money. In my head, however, I already had an understanding of how the situation would play out. I imagined the upset daughter who would come to retrieve this woman, probably looking both guilty and harassed. No doubt that she would offer to pay, this imaginary woman in her forties, clicking along in her heels and writing a cheque while she apologised for her poor senile mother who was often going out and doing things like this. But then, the mad woman may well be under the care of the state, in which case we were doomed. I doubted the government stretched to buy Michelin star meals for mental-cases. I decided to order anyway. Without knowing how long they’d be to collect her, it would be suspicious if she was waiting for hours with no food, especially since there were no other customers to speak of.
‘Fish cakes and sirloin.’ I shuddered before continuing. ‘Well done.’
‘Bit early, innit?’ our chef, Michael, asked. He had tattoos creeping up his arms, neck and face, and for some reason it was felt this enhanced his credentials.
‘Well, a surprise customer came without a reservation.’
‘Hardly. I’ve called the police to collect her, but an order’s an order.’
‘If you say so. Worst comes to worst it’ll be my mid-morning snack.’
I nodded curtly, and went back to pour the mad woman another glass of champagne.
She had time for the starter which she finished with relish, her spoon scraping the bottom of the plate, but hardly had the sirloin touched the pan when the police arrived. And what a ruckus! There were three cars in total. The lights flashed blue and the sirens were alight and blaring. The officers all had batons tucked into their belts. I wondered if my mad customer had noticed, but she sat still, staring out into the garden. She continued to smile. She smoothed down her napkin. There was no time to greet the eight police officers that rushed over to her.
‘Alright, Christine. It’s time to come with us,’ one said, firmly, already in the process of restraining her.
‘Who are you?’ she asked, indignantly. ‘If you don’t mind, I have been trying to enjoy my lunch. I have a steak arriving shortly.’
‘We can do this the easy way or the hard way, come on.’
It looked very much to me as though they were already attempted to do things the hard way, but she sighed and stopped resisting.
‘Oh very well,’ she stood up and was immediately cuffed. Her body was thrown, not particularly nicely, against the table. ‘I mean, really,’ she scoffed, and I couldn’t help but think the same.
‘Can someone please explain what’s happening?’ I asked the nearest officer. She was a young girl, red hair tired up into an elaborate plaited bun. She wasn’t wearing any make up, and I couldn’t help but think she seemed too pale.
‘Are you the one who rang us?’ she asked.
‘Yes, but all the same…’
‘This is Christine Powell. The murderer.’
I froze. A cliché I know, and I wish that it hadn’t, but unfortunately my blood did run cold. A thousand questions ran through my head, too panicked to be clearly articulated. How close had I been to death? How close to endangering our staff and customers? How could I have handled this so recklessly? I didn’t know who Christine Powell was, but the word murderer was enough to chill me to the bone.
‘My God,’ I said. ‘Who did she kill?’
But at this point, the pretty police officer was walking away with the others as they wrangled Christine through the back entrance and into the police car.
‘We’ll obviously be closing this area for a while,’ another officer said to me.
‘But we have lunch reservations.’
‘Well, I doubt it’ll last that long, we just have to get her back to prison and then we can reopen the roads.
‘Prison,’ I laughed. ‘She’s in prison.’
‘She was,’ he said. ‘Broke out about a week ago. God knows how. We found her tracksuit in a skip outside the suburbs.’
I cringed, thinking of how I had belittled her outfit internally. I suppose she’d probably done her best with a bad job.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘One moment.’
I rushed back to Michael in the kitchen. Of course he and his sous chef hadn’t heard a thing. Chefs are amazing for their ability to recognise a slight hint of incorrect spicing while simultaneously being completely unaware of the world outside their hectic little steam sphere.
‘No need for the sirloin,’ I said.
‘Fuck’s sake, it’s done. And far too overcooked for any of us lot to enjoy.’ Michael threw down his spatula. It was a generally accepted fact, also, that the angrier the chef, the better the food. ‘Done a runner?’
‘Sort of,’ I began. ‘She’s being arrested. She’s a murderer,’ I added, hardly believing it myself.
‘Oh, fuck!’ Michael shouted.
His sous chef stopped dicing potatoes.
‘I wish I was,’ I laughed, and realised then how jittery I felt. My reflection in their metal stove-backs was pasty. I looked unwell.
‘Well, who is she?’
‘Pauline or Christine something, I don’t know.’
‘Christine Powell?’ the sous chef asked. He grabbed his phone from his apron pocket, began scrolling through the news articles. He ran his hand over his beard in thought, although it was covered in its little, blue net.
‘Yes, I think that was it.’
‘I’ve heard of that one, she’s all over the news. There’s a whole debate about letting dangerous ones out of maximum security, even if they’ve been in decades.’
‘What did she do?’ Michael asked.
‘Well, she escaped.’
‘Before that, you daft twat.’
I smirked. This kind of aggressive masculinity was something that escaped my understanding. Not for the first time I was grateful to be on the other side of the swinging doors.
‘Oh fuck me…’ said sous chef (Tom? John? The turnover was so fast here). ‘She ate the bodies.’
Tom/John read robotically from his phone.
‘Christine Powell was working as a house and groundskeeper for the Maxwell family when she killed, cooked, and ate them on December 23rd, 1984. She had asked for a live-in position after the coal strikes started to impact her living situation and she was left without heating. When the Maxwell’s declined, she bludgeoned them to death with Clive Maxwell’s Social Enterprise in Wealth and Society award. She killed his wife, Shirley Maxwell, and two children, Josephine and Oscar, in the same manner, before hacking off their limbs and roasting them to eat. She was arrested ten days later when Maxwell’s business partners reported him missing. Powell was found wearing Shirley’s clothes and jewellery, insisting that she was the rightful owner of the property. The family’s remains were found in various soups and stews…’’
Tom/John stopped reading. I wished the kitchen didn’t smell so much like soup. A killer. A cannibal. I’d given her champagne.
‘Fucking hell. Glad she didn’t have the steak in the end,’ Michael continued. ‘I’m good, like, but I don’t think I can make cow taste better than human.’ Tom/John laughed and I backed out of the door.
Not that outside the kitchen was much better. I didn’t understand how it could take so long to organise an arrest. The officers were still milling around, even though Powell must have been clasped tightly in the backseat of their car already.
‘Were you the one that rang us?’ a different police officer said, this one short and slightly overweight, old enough to have been on the original case I would imagine.
‘Yes,’ I said, stiffly.
‘We’ll need a statement.’
‘Of course sir, right this way.’
I sat him down at the nearest table, this one facing out into the street. I kept looking at the line of police cars, wondering where she was and what she might have been thinking when she was uncuffed and sat here, right in my bludgeoning vicinity.
I told the story from beginning to end, leaving out some of the more needless details.
‘Did you recognise her picture?’ the officer asked me.
‘No,’ I said. ‘No, I’ve only just now learned who she is. I’m flabbergasted. Did she really kill and eat that poor family.’
The officer nodded.
‘Big time. She had Clive Maxwell’s flanks for the Christmas roast, slathered in Bisto gravy apparently.’
‘Christ,’ I winced. Michael really needn’t have worried about the quality of the steak, the woman clearly had no taste.
‘If you didn’t recognise her, how did you know to call us?’
I paused. What way was there to explain the plastic earrings? The awful diamante strap?
‘I don’t know. Gut feeling. She didn’t seem like she belonged here, I thought she might do a runner…’
‘Good instinct,’ the officer nodded approvingly. ‘You’ve done half our work for us.’ He stood to leave. The rest of the officers had started to file out too, and were waiting by the pavement.
‘Listen,’ I began, thinking about how smug I’d been when I’d had no idea this person was so dangerous. It must have shown on my face. ‘I don’t mind admitting, I’m a quite shaken up here. If she got out once, she can get out again. What if she comes for me? I mean I’m the one who rang you, she knows where I work, I…’
‘I wouldn’t worry, if I were you,’ the officer shook his head. ‘Lightning doesn’t strike twice. Anyway, even if she did get out you’d be the last person she’d want to hurt.’
‘What?’ I asked. ‘Why?’
‘I dunno, mate. You must be good at your job. She asked us to pass on her thank yous.’
‘She said thank you?’
‘Oh, she said more than that,’ he scoffed. ‘She practically waxed lyrical about you. You must be the first person that’s ever acted like she’s the posh bint she pretends to be. Anyway, ta-ra. We’ll keep you informed if there’s any changes, but this should be quickly resolved now.’
He walked away. With my statement taken, they could leave, I suppose. I followed him out, desperately needing fresh air. Michael and Tom/John were also there by the kitchen exit, smoking cigarettes and watching the drama unfold. Michael held up his hand to me in a wave and I smiled back. I turned to look at the cars. In the last one, I could see her, just. It was hard through the slightly-tinted windows, but there was definitely the shape of her frizzy hair, flattened at the top. For some reason I don’t know, maybe to protect myself even further, I smiled to her too. I thought I saw her wave back.
When they’d all driven off there was an eerie quiet. Of course, the roads were closed. I leant back against the brick wall as I listened to sirens slowly disappearing.
It was nothing, really. It would be an eventful story to tell at dinner parties. People would gasp in shock and slight amusement. You saw her? In the flesh! Tabloids might contact me, but I would turn them down. Still, I felt slightly despondent. There was a profound sadness to it all, although I couldn’t explain why. I suppose it was just the adrenaline rush fading.
I returned inside to wipe the tables. It was nearly noon and the lunch rush would flood in soon. The customers were famished and I had a job to do.
Cathleen Davies is a writer from East Yorkshire, currently completing their PhD in Creative/Critical writing at the University of East Anglia. Their work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies. Their debut collection of short-stories 'Cheeky, Bloody Articles' will be released in August '22. https://cathleendavieswrit.wixsite.com/cathleendavies-com