Best Served Cold

by Matthew Hisbent

An unprepossessing semi, south of the river.

Overgrown garden, my imagination conjuring a tangled jungle teeming with carapaced creepy crawlies, slithering serpents, and biting bandersnatches. Stepping into an Edgar Allan Poe movie.

Shivering spine, slight terror. Run.

Too late.

Front door creaks open, revealing Sergei, a few tombstones in his wizened mouth exposed behind his smile.

“Welcome, come in, Karl. So glad to see you.”

Trafalgar Square. An old man munching nasturtium flowers, sipping tepid rose hip tea, nibbling his wild weed salad. A tiny chess board, delicate pieces carved from bone. My obsession too. A stroke of luck.

Sergei leads, I follow, my fears soon confounded. Army-spotless, regimented, air heavy with carbolic fragrance. Tired like so many homes that had survived the blitz and side-stepped modernisation.

“Come to table my young German friend. We eat then we play.”

A small table set for two, pearl-handled cutlery gleaming, plate sparkling. Sergei pours a glass of water and, after a short pause, places a bowl of soup before me. Thick and green, laced through with small but succulent soft green croutons. Attractive, appetising, slightly piquant.

“From my back garden. We could not grow anything in the shell craters, not back then.”

Delicious. I clean the bowl. Almost lick it.

Anxious to start, I put my little box of chess pieces on the table. Sergei scowls, then smiles. I say, “You spoke of memories, eating and survival. Some veterans prefer to forget.”

“I cannot, will not forget, young Karl. So vivid. Dogs and cats disappeared first you know, then the birds,” his faint accent thickening. “You know of the Ortolan? Ah, the French.” The scowl flashes again, briefly. “Tiny innocent birds, fattened, drowned in expensive brandy, plucked, cooked, and eaten whole, feet first, bones and all – everything but the beak.” The smile is twisted, mocking. “We ate everything, feathers, beaks, little crunchy legs too. Crunch crunch. Surviving, not feasting. We did not cover our heads to hide our shame from God. Devoured, just as the invaders were devouring my people. Not literally you understand, well, not at the start. We consumed everything, desperate to live and not go crazy. You father, mother, grandparents perhaps, they experienced war?”

I nod, remembering the old stories. Pigs’ brains, cow udders, squirrel tail soup, washed down like my new friend with rosehip or nettle tea. All things a fine restaurant might now charge the earth for.

“Putty soup, a little wallpaper mixed in to soak off the paste, for thickening and sometimes scraps of boot leather mixed in, meat. I know,” he whispers, rheumy eyes boring deep, “you really want to know, was there cannibalism? Of course. Our window ledges were our cold larder. My little sister yielding a tiny morsel each day to sustain her brothers who might live to fight and kill the enemy. Let me take your plate and bring the main course.”

He reappears placing a wide, deep bowl before me.

“What did you think of my caterpillar soup? Surprisingly tasty, yes?”

My heart jumps, thinking, crazy after all. Something squirms in my stomach. Joking?

A pond of cold brown liquid in which floats, like a lily pad awaiting a frog, a sheet of paper.

Short, clipped strands of hair floated above the picture which rested on a nest of tiny bones, interspersed with small lumps of meat.

Sergei sat opposite, an ancient pistol pointing at me.

“You have a treat today, my Chicken Liver Stew.”

It was a page torn from a recipe book, soaking in the broth, soggy and limp. Just as I felt.

They were not chicken bones.

Tony globules of fat pop on the surface.

“As a child I devoured books, not that we had many. Just the Bible, a few fairy tales. One slim volume of chess strategies, belonging to my father. He taught me chess; he taught me how to stay alive. Little did I imagine that as an adult I would literally devour books just to survive. Now I am fascinated by cookery books and their false promises. Food is so seductive when you have none. Tiny details, a leaf here, a spice or garnish there.”

I stir the broth. Whiskery filaments swirl to the top.

“Mouse, yes, so plentiful in this old house. I do not chase them away. Sliced lengthwise to release their slippery goodness which is saved for the broth. Better than shoe leather for thickening. Then roasted. We fought over the mice and rats when they were all that were left to scavenge. Eat, please. Do not be nervous. I will not eat you alive. The wild weeds sustain me with the occasional treat of rodent broth. Please, do taste it, tell me what you think?”

Watching the gun, steady in his hands, I dip my spoon into the broth, collecting bones and filaments, raise it to my lips, fighting back the bile rising in my throat. One mouthful and I lose that fight. My breakfast cascades onto his spotless tiled floor.

“Is this not the game you expected, Karl?”

I shake my head weakly, the dry heaving uncontrollable.

“You see Karl, I never forgot who made me eat putty soup and rats and my baby sister. Who slaughtered my parents. Never.” Fury now barely contained. “Occasionally, I get to share my lunch, play a game, supplement my rations. You are healthy. Succulent, one might say. In those days of nothing, people were executed for eating their friends whilst others, perhaps your forebears, were decorated for their crimes. No such thing as a free lunch, eh? Eat. All. Waste not, want not.”

I stare as his other hand emerges, a large serrated Bowie knife glinting.

I lift the spoon slowly, reluctantly, gagging.

I know now what is for dessert.

Matthew Hisbent lives in Scotland, cooks a lot, experiments with his food and writes mainly historical fiction — occasionally delving into the world of the surreal or off-kilter when prompted by an idea too luscious to ignore. He hates to waste a story idea, so if at first it doesn’t win — find another angle.
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