Maggie’s Kitchen

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Epub ISBN: 9781473550827

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Ebury Press, an imprint of Ebury Publishing,

20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,

London SW1V 2SA

Ebury Press is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

Penguin logo

Copyright © Caroline Beecham, 2016

Cover photography by Head Design; background © Harry Todd/Getty Images; title lettering: www.ruthrowland.co.uk
Cover: www.headdesign.co.uk

Caroline Beecham has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental

First published in Australia in 2016 by Allen & Unwin

First published in the UK in 2017 by Ebury Press

www.penguin.co.uk

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9781785035340

Contents

Cover
About the Book
About the Author
Title Page
Dedication
Prologue
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-one
Chapter Twenty-two
Chapter Twenty-three
Chapter Twenty-four
Chapter Twenty-five
Chapter Twenty-six
Chapter Twenty-seven
Chapter Twenty-eight
Chapter Twenty-nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-one
Chapter Thirty-two
Chapter Thirty-three
Chapter Thirty-four
Chapter Thirty-five
Afterword
Maggie’s recipes
Acknowledgements

About the Author

Caroline Beecham grew up at the English seaside and relocated to Australia to continue her career as a writer and producer in film and television. She has worked on a documentary about Princess Diana lookalikes, a series about journeys to the ends of the earth, as well as a feature film about finding the end of the rainbow. Caroline decided on a new way of storytelling and studied the craft of novel writing at the Faber Academy in 2012. She has an MA in Film & Television and a MA in Creative Writing and lives with her husband and two sons by Sydney Harbour. Maggie’s Kitchen is her first published novel.

You can find out more information about Maggie’s Kitchen and the events that inspired the novel at www.maggieskitchennovel.com.

For John – and for Sam and James,
whose love of reading inspires me every day …

On 5 November 1940 the British Minister of Food wrote to his civic heads addressing the problem of food supply:

I believe that many of these problems and dangers can be met by the establishment of community kitchens and feeding centres in every part of the kingdom. If every man, woman and child could be sure of obtaining at least one hot nourishing meal a day, at a price all could afford, we should be sure of the nation’s health and strength during the war …

By the end of 1940 a Director of Communal Feeding had been appointed and by midsummer 1941 there were just over two hundred centres operating under the ministry’s scheme and another one hundred and twenty operated by voluntary associations and local authorities.

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On 21 March 1941 Mr Churchill wrote to Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, in relation to the establishment of communal feeding centres:

I hope the term ‘Communal Feeding Centres’ is not going to be adopted. It is an odious expression, suggestive of Communism and the workhouse. I suggest you call them ‘British Restaurants’. Everybody associates the word ‘restaurant’ with a good meal, and they may as well have the name if they cannot get anything else.

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I saw three ships a-sailing

But not with food for me

For I am eating home-grown food

To beat the enemy

And ships are filled with guns instead

To bring us victory

Marguerite Patten OBE,

Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts from 1940–1954

LONDON, 17 APRIL 1941

THEY HAD BEEN inside the shelter for hours, the familiar warming of atmosphere despite the coolness of the ground, their collective breath forming a moving fog: the sweet sharp notes of mint humbugs; the faint aroma of Gillian’s fragrance, no doubt a gift from John; the sour smell of last night’s ale; the bitterness of stale cigarettes, woven into their clothes as tightly as the garments’ own fabric.

Maggie was conscious of every movement and each and every sound. There was the rustle of clothing, the fragile stillness of her neighbour’s breath waiting to be exhaled, the muffled gasps as another bomber roared overhead. And the growl of anti-aircraft fire that followed. Lord knew how many hours she had sat upright with nothing to lean against, the tiny pitch-dark shelter separating them all as surely as it bound them together.

Then the ground shuddered again, but it was only the weight of vehicles on the roads escalating the ferocity of sound, drowning out Henry’s coughing fit and her neighbour’s cries. She imagined the next blast and the weight of the debris and soil as it pressed down on them, weighing down their flesh and levelling the backyard as they all disappeared beneath … Mrs Armstrong from number fifty-two, soft belly protruding from the earth … Henry and Julia from number forty-three, arms still locked around each other … Gillian and her three girls from along the road … her own body, arms and legs sticking out at awkward angles like sticks from a game of jacks. Discarded clothes and prized possessions, brought to the shelter for safekeeping, lonely artefacts in their communal tomb.

She shook her head to dispel the image. I’m not going to die, I’m not going to die, she repeated to herself. If Peter were here he would have found a way to distract her.

Her breathing intensified and she struggled to think of something else, to grasp hold of a thread of something normal. She willed the thudding of blood and muscle to cease, to force her heart back to its normal size and her breathing to slow enough to stop overtaking her thoughts.

She could smell the fear in her own perspiration and sense it in the unease that had overtaken their shared space. Her legs were numb now, and her back locked rigid, muscles set in permanent contraction. The earth was so cold, and pressed against her so tightly, that the pain began to spread through her like the fire that surely engulfed the shattered homes above.

And then it grew quiet again, and they waited for the shelter doors to open so that they could reluctantly reinhabit the streets outside, though they would not be allowed home until the wardens had checked the damage, until the fire brigade made safe or demolished any precarious buildings and any unexploded bombs were defused. She knew the drill by now: knew that there would be those who went straight back home, counting themselves lucky to be alive, while others, like Mr and Mrs Fox, would not take to their beds until they were sure that the local streets were clear and that their neighbours were all accounted for.

To pass the time between now and then she pictured Peter, handsome and authoritative in his uniform, only his dark brown hair unruly.

‘You can’t change what happens to you, only how you deal with it,’ he was saying to her.

It was what he always said.

So she would deal with it by focusing on what she needed to do for her next shift—if the radio factory was still standing, of course. There were new recipes from the ministry to master, food inventories to be done, the butcher’s order, two hundred factory workers to cook for …

As thoughts of store cupboards and frugal dishes replaced the darker images, she started rubbing the sodden dirt between her fingertips, feeling the same cold coarse texture as if she were simply making breadcrumbs for shortbread or the topping for a fresh fruit crumble. But the sensation that was so completely natural and reassuring evaporated as she remembered that, only a few miles away, people were likely being blown to bits.

Nearby, Mrs Brooks exhaled, providing the first movement of air since they had been down here. The poor old woman had been whimpering from the moment they were ushered into the shelter by the shrieking sirens and the brief gathering beam of light. It had taken them five minutes to get Mrs Brooks out of her house and securely stowed in the underground shelter; she was not very mobile at the best of times, hampered by her arthritis and considerable bulk. They had half lifted, half walked her along the cracked concrete path, across the uneven grass and down the seven steep steps to the shelter.

There was a loud explosion and a ringing in her ears as something whistled too slowly through the air a few hundred yards away. Screams shredded the space around her and the ground vibrated, setting her teeth chattering, and for a few moments it seemed as if they were caught at the epicentre of the blast.

Then she smelled the smoke and the acrid burn of rubber and Maggie knew that she was still alive.

From outside came the pandemonium of sirens and explosions. And as it subsided, the three girls began to cry: first Alex, the youngest, then her sisters Molly and Beatrice. There was the sound of boots scraping across the dirt as Gillian pulled them closer to her and began to sing.

Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb.

Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow,

and everywhere that Mary went …

But their mother’s verse wasn’t working and Molly became more and more agitated.

‘Come on, love,’ Gillian whispered. ‘What happened to my brave, brave girl? You’ve done this before …’

Then she heard a faint whooshing noise and a familiar grassy smell, as the thin warm stream found its way through a groove in the earth.

‘I’m sorry, Mummy. I’m sorry,’ Molly cried.

‘It’s alright, pet.’

She could feel Gillian’s body as it became closer and then more distant as she rocked back and forth in front of her, the humming loud and then softer as she cradled Molly and the cries gradually began to subside into low sobs.

After a few moments of waiting for the tears to quell, Maggie spoke. ‘Hey, Molly, do you know what I’m thinking about?’

There was no reply.

‘A delicious creamy Welsh rarebit that I’m going to make for you as soon as we get home …’

The crying stopped and Molly’s body twisted, her face turning up so that Maggie could feel her warm breath as she spoke.

‘Really, Maggie?’

‘Yes, really. I may even have some carrot cake left from Sunday, too.’

‘Are you sure you’ll have enough for us?’

‘Is there enough Welsh rarebit for me?’ Beatrice pleaded.

‘Oh yes. And I have been trying out a new version with just the right amount of Colman’s to turn the mixture a golden yellow, as bright as sunflowers. And there’s just enough milk to make the bread moist and keep the topping crunchy.’

Then she lowered her voice even further. ‘I was thinking of calling it Churchill’s rarebit … what do you think?’

She could hear the girls giggling in the dark.

‘I think that your generous invitation has been accepted,’ Gillian replied. ‘Girls, what do you say to Maggie?’

‘Oh yes, please,’ they chorused.

The noise outside had faded and Maggie was no longer thinking about the carnage and charred wood; her thoughts were on the bubbling cheese and the smiles on the girls’ dirt-smudged faces as they sat around the kitchen table.

As the door opened, a patch of moonlight flooded the shelter’s entrance, transforming the anonymous dark soil into a ghostly carpet of white.

Her neighbours’ silhouettes moved through the doorway, expelling the warmed air, the shelter’s condensation mixing with the ribbons of smoke outside to create a low groundcover. Her shaking legs steadied enough so that she could climb the stairs as her eyes grew slowly accustomed to the light and her nose and throat to the sickening fumes.

The whine of the sirens was receding, the earth had at last given up its tremor and only muted whistles echoed in the remote emptying streets.

The bombs hadn’t been close enough to hit them; the danger was now a distant grumble. They were safe.

This time.

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They had been lucky, but it was still unnerving to be making their way through the deserted streets, shepherding Mrs Brooks safely home, her neighbours drifting away with mumbled goodbyes, and Mr and Mrs Fox finally gone. Only moments now to see if the Victorian terrace was still standing and her landlady, Mrs Foster, unharmed. Then she would check on her cousin Rose, who lived not far away; Maggie hoped she had made it to the Tube in time.

The moon-touched streets emerged into view: first garden walls materialised, then hedges and porches, arbours of roses, low-pitched roofs and smokeless chimneys. Further on down the road, the Air Raid Precautions vehicles were parked outside St John’s church, a short comforting convoy of dark green.

Ever since the paint factory in Silvertown had gone up last week, the radio factory where she worked had been on standby, expecting to be evacuated at a moment’s notice. Their working hours were shortened so they could be home by nightfall, and the stone grey uniforms of the Home Guard were now a constant presence outside the gates.

She followed the progress of the ARP as they unloaded wooden crates from the backs of the trucks, passing the precious cargo from person to person. Maggie thought longingly of all the crates stowed safely deep inside the church, where there would be enough food and water for those lucky few who were sheltering there. For the rest of them it was a neighbour’s Anderson shelter, where she had been, or risking the short distance to the Angel underground before the bombs started and the wardens padlocked the station gates.

Another crate was retrieved from the truck and she caught sight of the dark lettering on its side: WILSON & CO. She had been relieved by whispers that the first American lend-lease food aid shipments had arrived; there were supposed to be Canadian hams and bacons, orange juice and eggs, and other produce that had been difficult to get hold of.

Shivering, she pressed her hands deeper into her coat pockets and her fingers brushed against the pocket watch. She curled them around its smooth brass case, reassured by the solid cool of the metal and relieved that it was still there. Peter had given it to her on their engagement; he had said some time beforehand that he wasn’t sentimental but then presented it to her, proudly declaring that it was a family heirloom and that he wanted to spend all his time with her, and the rest of his life. She was so intrigued by the old watch that she hadn’t realised at first that Peter had proposed, until he started to apologise for the fact that it wasn’t a ring, promising that he would buy her one as soon as he could afford to. She had known that would be years away—after the war ended, after their lives returned to normal—but she had been elated anyway; he wanted her to be his wife.

Head still bent in thought, she carried on across the road.

‘Maggie … watch out!’

A hand reached out and pulled her onto the pavement as an ARP truck roared past.

It took a moment for her to catch her breath before she recognised the figure in front of her, covered as it was in dust, dark metal helmet pulled tightly down.

‘Bill?’

‘You alright, love?’

Bill Drummond, the warden, was barely recognisable. It was hard to believe he was only in his early thirties, his face was so worn looking. Now it was covered with dirt, too—except for his eyes, large and white like a barn owl’s where he had been wearing a mask. Maggie’s fingers unconsciously traced around her own eyes, then flicked through her chestnut hair, loosening the dust that had settled there.

‘Thank you, Bill,’ she said. ‘I’m fine.’

‘You were a million miles away,’ he observed.

‘Wish I was,’ she said, watching as another truck accelerated by.

‘It’s been devastating, worst night by far—incendiaries and parachute mines. Lost a mum and her daughters on Highbury Station Road, two more houses over Liverpool Road too. Wiped out instantly, never stood a chance. But your street’s fine. No damage.’

‘Really?’ she said, her relief mixed with guilt. ‘What about Upper Street? Is Sutton Chambers okay?

‘Yes, Rose will be safe. Bloomin’ miracle, but she’ll find everything right as she left it. Wish St Paul’s had been as lucky. It’s tragic, Maggie, really tragic. Parliament and the National Gallery too …’ He sighed. ‘Well, you’d best be getting yourself home. I expect your shift will be starting soon enough and they’ll be needing good sustenance today.’

Maggie nodded. ‘Bye then, Bill.’

‘See you, love.’

Thinking about her boss hovering at the kitchen door, beady eyes watching until all the girls had arrived, she picked up her pace; for Mr Ferguson, not even the worst raid yet would be a good enough reason to be late.

But Mr Ferguson would just have to wait a bit longer. Right now Maggie had to collect the ingredients for Churchill’s rarebit and make her way over to Gillian’s house so that she could feed the girls before the older ones left for school. There was a small loaf in the pantry that she had been saving for tonight, she recalled, and enough cheddar for one—but that could be stretched for the three girls by mixing it with some milk and her last remaining egg. It would be good to give the girls this treat; this could be the last time Maggie saw them for a while, she knew, for Gillian was expecting the children to be evacuated again at a moment’s notice. Gillian was so isolated without her husband and family that she welcomed any company and support Maggie could give her. Maggie understood how she felt, with her own father dead and her mother no longer around.

When she stepped inside her gate she had to duck beneath the old apple tree that dominated the small walled garden, its splayed branches home to dozens of young dew-speckled apples, now covered with soot. In just a few weeks she would be able to make a rich apple pie or something more adventurous that she would never have the chance to try at the canteen: pork stuffed with apple and sage, perhaps, or an apple charlotte. Maybe she should speak to Mr Ferguson today about a vegetable garden and then see if it might tempt him to introduce some new dishes; anything to improve the meals they were serving at the moment.

Approaching the house, she pulled the keys from her pocket.

The Victorian house was built at the same time as the rest of the houses in the street; solid brick walls, slate roofs that seemed to float above the buildings and meld with the grey of the dawning skies, windows tall enough to allow in the long reach of summer but small enough to keep out the drafts since the summers were never long enough. Only the front doors were unique, each one painted in a colour of the owner’s choosing—at least, they had been until recently. If you had looked down the street twelve months ago you would have seen pops of bright red, cornflower blue, grey and green. Now they were all dark grey or black, military-issue colours for the blackout. Mrs Foster’s door had been postbox red, a clear streak of which was now visible beneath the lock; her hand had been shaking so much that her key had missed the keyhole.

Maggie took a deep breath and waited for her hand to stop trembling before trying again. Pushing the door closed behind her, she leaned back against it, slipped the keys into her coat pocket and closed her eyes.

Her eyelids blinked open to see a small group of grazing cows, among them a number of calves suckling, the broad open fields flattening out around them and the hills rising up behind. The walls of the hallway were filled with her landlady’s paintings, rich oils of pastoral scenes that Maggie would never have chosen herself but had grown accustomed to in the short time she had been here. These small rooms on the ground floor were her own private sanctuary, and although they were furnished according to someone else’s taste—velvet sofas from a previous era and curtains that would look better in a nursing home—this was her home for now and she felt relieved as she looked around, and grateful to Mrs Foster for accepting the low rent that was all Maggie could afford on her wage.

Her sense of relief was abruptly shattered by a noise—footsteps creaking across floorboards and an unexpected screech as a lock was wrenched, splintering the wood.

She tensed, unsure which way to run, not knowing whether the noise was coming from inside or out. But then she saw a dark fleeting outline that sent a shiver up her spine, causing every hair on her body to stand on end.

Her exhaustion and fear suddenly forgotten, Maggie rushed down the hallway and into the small kitchen, just in time to see a pair of shabby black boots disappear out the pantry window.

‘Hey!’ she cried. ‘What are you doing? Come back here!’

The small kitchen had been ransacked; stone jars pulled from shelves, tins and pots upended, the contents spilled across the worktops. The breadbin was empty, her weekly ration and homemade soda bread gone. She looked in the meat safe; the bacon was gone too. That was everything for the week; there was no way she could replace them now, nothing she could do. She could try to eat at work, but Mr Ferguson was so mean it was unlikely he’d allow it. She had the emergency larder concealed at the back of the pantry for safekeeping, although the small portions of flour, baked beans, coffee, evaporated milk and rice recommended by the Ministry of Food wouldn’t last her long.

Standing a cream china pot upright and replacing the lid, she reached to the back of the pantry. But there was an empty space where the emergency food pack should have been.

Her mouth fell open in dismay, then she raced for the back door.

Outside, she noted that Mrs Foster’s prized hen, Matilda, was still in her coop. That was something to be grateful for, at least. The back gate was never locked so she easily pushed through and out into the back lane in time to see a nimble figure turn the corner into St Peter’s Street.

Maggie ran for the corner and was soon sprinting down the tree-lined avenue, passing people as they straggled back to their homes from the Angel underground a few streets away. It was where she would have gone if they had been given more notice of the raid.

‘Hey, miss, you okay?’ an MP shouted after her.

‘Yes,’ she replied over her shoulder, realising how odd she must look, running so fast after the raid was over. ‘I’ve got to catch my dinner …’

The figure seemed to be getting further ahead but, even though she was short of breath and her body still ached, she wasn’t giving up. She had lived in Islington most of her life and knew it like the back of her hand; they were headed towards Regent’s Canal, which was mostly deserted now, its residents long gone. There certainly wouldn’t be many places to hide; the rats had moved in as soon as the men had left for war and the women and children for the countryside, but even the rats had now set their sights higher and were beginning to inhabit the crowded streets around her.

Across the road another Georgian terrace gave way to a landscape of rubble and earth and there was the thief, scaling a mound of debris with the confidence of a mountaineer on a bona fide expedition. Behind the rubble stood Maggie’s old school, Noel Road primary, a three-storey Victorian building; proud sole survivor, erect and defiant.

She watched as the small figure disappeared inside.

As she squeezed through the temporary fencing, taking care not to snag her clothes, Maggie felt a lot calmer, her anger transformed into curiosity about this thief who had come all the way to Danbury Street to steal her food.

In the dim light of dawn she could see the school windows were boarded up. Signs warned DANGER: KEEP OUT and UNSTABLE BUILDING and for a moment she hesitated; perhaps it was best just to let the culprit get away. But no—she was intrigued now, and so continued on, slipping under the rope that cordoned off the dilapidated building, stepping over the wreckage and edging around the larger fragments of fallen masonry, one of the building’s once-elegant gargoyles staring up at her from the ground. Reaching the front door, she tugged at the brass handle. The door’s bottom edge screeched across the stone floor. She stopped for a moment, listening.

There was only the whisper of wind down the long corridors and the banging of a forgotten window somewhere. She stepped inside.

The musty furniture, the faint chemical smells, damp books and lingering cooked lunches; she wasn’t sure if they were real or imagined as memories of her own school days came flooding back. It occurred to her suddenly that the thief she had been chasing might be a child. Who else would hide in a school, know their way around, be small enough to fit through her window and daring enough to try? The thought of a child living here, scavenging for food, made her more determined to find him or her. But the school was vast; where should she begin to look? As she moved past the empty classrooms she thought about where she would hide—near a kitchen or toilet, somewhere with running water, if there was still any available.

Mrs Stoner’s thick Scottish brogue echoed around her as she passed the home science rooms: ‘Maggie Johnson, you will not handle the utensils before you have washed your hands.’ She was the only teacher Maggie ever truly liked, the only reason that she finished school when so many of the other girls left before they were fifteen, and one of the reasons she had become a cook.

She moved past empty classrooms into the back part of the building, where hardly any light penetrated into the concrete rooms; the common rooms were here, she remembered, next to the kitchens. It was as if the intervening decade had vanished; she was looking at the same chipped wooden doorframes and breathing the same clouds of chalk dust, inhaling the same bitter smell of boiled cabbage. She was a schoolgirl again, struggling to swallow inedible meals. The only difference she could see was that the metal lockers and filing cabinets had gone—no doubt taken away to be melted down and reinvented as objects that might help in the war effort.

A shallow light flickered from under one of the doors; it was the entrance to one of the storerooms. Her footsteps slowed: instinct told her that she was getting closer now, but she hadn’t even considered what she was going to do when she confronted the intruder.

She flexed her fingers, suddenly aware that she was empty-handed, carried no weapon or tool with which to defend herself. Was this how Peter had felt before he was killed? She didn’t even know if he’d had a chance to defend himself, the details of his death had been so vague. She pictured the telegram, its stained paper and the uneven typeface; ink thicker on one side of the letter than the other, the typewriter clearly damaged or the ribbon nearly at the end of its life, and she remembered thinking it a mark of disrespect to send notification in such a way. And then she had read the words:

It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office notifying the death of Peter James Marshall. The report is to the effect that he was killed in action.

She had tried to find out more from the men he served with and from the ministry but it was pointless; the rest of the infantry were still drafted or convalescing, and the injured soldiers hadn’t been able to help. Lieutenant Douglas Potter had been a friend but was either unable or unwilling to talk; he didn’t reply to any of her letters and finally they had been returned unopened from the Surrey address where they had been sent. Peter’s captain advised her that he was very sorry but he was unable to discuss the matter. And so she had been left to her own imaginings, in which he had endured hours, perhaps days, of unimaginable pain before suffering a violent and lonely death. Or perhaps he was in a prisoner of war camp somewhere, or recovering in a hospital here in England, but with no memory of who or where he was. She had read stories like this and heard reports on the radio of families being reunited when loved ones had long been given up for dead. Why not her, why not Peter?

She placed her hand on the doorknob, readying to turn it.

It was possible, after all, that these last eleven months had just been a terrible mistake. That somehow, somewhere, Peter was still alive. That one day, he might return.

Her heartbeat had settled, her breathing more regular now.

She turned the knob and eased open the door.

The momentary brightness faded and she could see a small figure sitting cross-legged on the floor in the centre of the room, scruffy black boots tucked beneath him. He was holding her bag of bread in one hand, while feeding himself with the other, only his big brown eyes moving as they flicked up and down her.

He was much younger than she had thought, only about eleven or twelve, but with a knowing look that was usually the reserve of an older child. His light brown hair was matted and longer than was the norm, his complexion pale except for a scattering of freckles. From his grubby hands and torn clothes she guessed he had been living rough for a while; the freckles could even be dirt.

He didn’t stop eating, but carried on watching her as she looked around, scanning the room for signs of anyone else.

But there was no one else, she quickly realised, nor any signs of the storeroom it had been. Once textbooks and boxes of pencils and chalk had filled the floor-to-ceiling shelves that lined three walls of the room, but now carved wooden toys, metal cars and model planes, all made from discarded junk, had been carefully arranged so that they looked as if they were ready to take off or drive away. There were half a dozen flickering candles propped upright in glass jars beside them, giving the collection the appearance of a bizarre childish shrine.

‘These are amazing,’ Maggie said, momentarily forgetting what had brought her there. ‘Did you make them?’

The boy shoved another handful of bread into his mouth.

‘You by yourself?’ he asked, still chewing.

She nodded. ‘You’re clearly very hungry, but why steal from me?’

‘I’ve seen you,’ he said, spraying crumbs. ‘You work in the canteen.’

She was surprised. ‘That’s right.’

‘Must have plenty of food over there. Figured a cook would be taking a bit extra home.’

‘Well, you’re wrong, and that food is supposed to last me. What are you doing here anyway? How old are you?’

‘None of your business.’

‘Where’s your family?’

‘That’s none of your business either.’

He looked younger now, the bravado gone and the fullness of his stomach enabling him to relax as he leaned back against the legs of a chair.

‘I could report you, you know. Stealing, breaking and entering—they’re criminal offences. You could be in a lot of trouble …’

‘You wouldn’t,’ he said, his bravado deserting him now.

Maggie raised an eyebrow. ‘Wouldn’t I?’

‘They’d lock me up,’ he said, looking panicked. He sat up straighter.

‘It’d teach you a lesson. Come on, tell me where your parents are and I might let you off.’

He said nothing, so she waited, moving over to pick up one of the model aeroplanes. It had beer bottle-top wheels, a crushed tin can body and its rough edges had been filed down, the intricate wires and clips that knitted it together crafted into shape. A tiny pair of pliers sat on the shelf below alongside another half-built machine.

‘So you making your own private fleet?’

‘That’s a Spitfire,’ he said, adding, ‘One of ours.’ He pushed the fringe out of his eyes.

‘It’s really good,’ she said, rotating it in her hand, examining the detail of the tiny propeller and the small door at the back that opened for the imagined cargo it might hold.

The boy’s gaze also stayed on the machine, the hint of a proud smile playing on his lips. He reminded her of Ernest; not just in his appearance but because her brother, too, had loved making things, building with his hands. One week a cubby house for them to play in, the next week a billycart to take up to the highest point of the heath and race, screeching and breathless, to the bottom. He had always been the one to invent the games and the one to break the rules, with Eddie and John constantly following in his wake, trying to repair the damage he left behind.

‘Helps the nights go quicker—especially when there’s a raid,’ he said, rising and coming over to take the model from her, placing it carefully back on the shelf.

‘Don’t you go to the shelter?’

‘Waste of time. Get blown up trying to get there. I’m better off just stayin’ ’ere.’

‘But what do you do for food … when you’re not stealing it?’

‘There’s good allotments round here, few hens for eggs too, if you know where to look. I get by.’

‘When was the last time you had a proper meal … a hot meal?’

He looked at her, the vague ghost of memory flickering across his face.

‘Can’t remember … a few weeks ago, I suppose. Last time I had some meat, anyway.’

She considered him for a moment as he lowered himself stiffly back down to the floor.

‘So you a real good cook then?’ he asked.

Suddenly she was aware of the time passing. ‘Do you know how late you’ve made me?’ she demanded.

‘What kind of things do you make?’ he asked, as if he hadn’t heard her.

‘Lots of things, but the food at the factory is pretty simple; it’s all soups and stews. Best thing when you’re cooking for lots of people. Heaps of potatoes and vegetables makes it go further. Other than that, it’s whatever we can get hold of.’

‘You make shepherd’s pie?’

‘Of course.’

‘What about scones, can you make them?’

She smiled. ‘With my eyes closed.’

The boy’s face had transformed, his expression dreamy—so like Ernest’s when it came to food; she thought she could almost see his mouth watering.

He sighed. ‘Here you are,’ he said, holding out the emergency pack he had stolen from her.

Maggie reached for it, then let her hand drop to her side. ‘You keep it. You look like you need it more than I do.’ She considered him for a moment. ‘Tell you what, I’ve got to go to work now, but you know where I live. Come by tonight at half past six … you tell me where your family are and I’ll give you a good hot meal.’

He looked at her suspiciously. ‘You mean it?’

‘Yes. What’s your favourite?’

His face lit up. ‘Apple crumble and shepherd’s pie … no, hotpot … no, wait, toad-in-the-hole.’

‘I’ll see what I can do,’ Maggie said, turning to leave.

‘But I like my pudding first—before the meal, that is.’

She raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. ‘Yes, I bet you do. And your ma always serves your dinner like that, I suppose?’

His eyes twinkled. ‘Of course.’

So he did have a mother then …

‘What did you say your name was?’ Maggie asked.

‘I didn’t.’

‘I’m Maggie.’

‘I know. I saw your mail.’

She was about to tell him off but changed her mind; it was more important to find out who he was, and why he was here on his own.

‘Okay, but I can hardly have an anonymous dinner guest, can I?’

He relented. ‘Robbie. My name is Robbie.’

She examined him again; yes, he looked like a Robbie.

‘All right, Robbie, half past six then.’ She walked to the door.

‘Wait …’

Maggie turned.

‘Can I bring Spoke?’

‘Who is Spoke?’

He leaned towards a pile of hessian sacks that lay close to the shelves and lifted one of them. Underneath was the dark brown fur of a mongrel, little more than a pup, its sides extending and contracting like a pair of heavily drawn bellows as it slept soundly.

‘Unusual name … I don’t suppose he talks?’

‘That would be something.’ Robbie grinned. ‘No, he got run over, ended up caught in my bicycle wheel. Had to pull the spoke out of him myself. It’s in that tank up there,’ he said pointing at one of the larger, more complex models.

‘Right. Well, in that case, Spoke is also welcome.’

‘Great,’ Robbie said, jumping up and brushing the crumbs from his jacket, catching a few of the larger ones and putting them into his mouth.

‘We’ll set off early then. He’s got a bit of a limp.’

‘Fine.’ She smiled. ‘Until tonight.’

‘And Maggie?’

She sighed; she really was going to be terribly late.

‘Yes, Robbie?’

‘You’re a lot prettier close up.’

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There is no vegetable more useful than the homely potato. It is a valuable yet cheap source of energy, and one of the foods that help protect us from ill health. It contains vitamin C as do oranges and 1-lb of potatoes daily will give half the amount of this vitamin to prevent against fatigue and help fight infection.

Ministry of Food, War Cookery Leaflet No. 27

MR DRUMMOND’S REPORT of the local losses and the incident with Robbie had unsettled Maggie; it had left her with a queer feeling—relieved that it wasn’t her but also guilty for thinking as much—and all wobbly too, like the jelly she’d be scrapping off the dripping when she got to work. Perhaps it was because she was also breathless from running, frustrated that she hadn’t had time to cook for Gillian and the girls like she’d promised.

She slowed to a brisk walk across the gangway and could see her supervisor, Mr Ferguson, watching from behind the glass window above the factory floor. Then an immense cloud of smoke rose from one of the machines, obscuring him from view.

‘Morning, Maggie …’

She turned towards the muffled voice to see two men in heavy metal masks struggling to push a trolley towards the far end of the workshop where three covered lorries were parked.

‘Hi, Tom,’ she called, recognising the eyes just visible behind his protective visor. ‘Roast joint today. You want me to save you some?’

Tom Washington had gone to school with her brothers and remained close right until they joined up, their friendship strengthened rather than weakened when he was found not medically fit to fight. She liked the fact that he was here now; seeing him regularly made her feel closer to them all somehow. And it reminded her of happier times, when they had all been together, when her father was still alive and before their mother left. When Tom could often be found at their kitchen table; she was feeding him even back then.

He took his hand off the side of the bucket to give her the thumbs up and it wavered precariously, looking as if it might tip. Tom quickly grabbed hold of the handle to steady it and he and his partner continued on towards the trucks, passing dozens of other workers in overalls and protective masks checking gauges on the growling machines, pulling levers and watching fixedly under the dull spluttering light of bare bulbs. Behind them, the factory’s huge double doors stood fully open to let in much-needed light; the narrow strip of windows at the top of the building’s brick walls were blackened from the dust of destruction outside and the stain of creation within.

She glanced up again to see Mr Ferguson’s figure retreating. Then a thunderous crash below made her jump, followed by another eruption of sound and an explosion of sparks a few yards away as a large piston bore down, forcing a piece of sheet metal into the radio casing mould before releasing it, the conveyer belt carrying it away. It had a hypnotic effect on her and she never tired of watching as the piston slammed down again and again. At the end of the row, a lever arm shifted upwards, tipping the conveyer belt and nudging the newly formed metal casings along, so that they clattered into a tray beneath. She had forgotten how noisy it was down here, and why the supervisors encouraged the canteen staff to take the other entrance and exit; she usually did when she wasn’t late. Mounting the metal stairs as fast as she could, she was soon on the wide landing of the mezzanine, leaving the mechanical hum and the overpowering smell of oil and molten metal below.

She hesitated for a moment and then pulled back the double doors leading into a vast kitchen where geysers of steam sprang from the two banks of stoves that ran down the centre of the room. Amid the clinking and whirring of the machinery here, a dozen women in white aprons and matching headscarves were equally industrious, moving between benchtops and stoves, retrieving pots from cookers, whisking mixtures in bowls, washing vegetables and chopping food. As Maggie slipped past them, she wondered how different it might be in one of the British Restaurants she had read about a few weeks ago. The scheme sounded like such a good idea that it had played on her mind ever since.

She took off her overcoat, rolling it up and squashing it into one of the open shelves next to the door before smoothing down her crumpled white apron. No one seemed to notice her except Eliza, who appeared tired, grey eyes ringed with red; Maggie expected they would all be unnerved today, the raids having lasted so long.

‘Sorry, I got caught up. I’ll tell you about it later.’

‘I told him you were in the ladies,’ said Eliza. ‘You’re lucky he’s not been back since.’

She could forgo the lecture for now; she knew he wouldn’t be pleased, particularly since making her assistant supervisor while Janet was away after she’d petitioned so hard for it.

‘Thank you. I owe you.’

Maggie and Eliza had been close since school and they always looked out for each other at work.

‘You do look a bit ragged,’ Eliza remarked. ‘The veg is ready but you should probably go and do something about your hair …’

Maggie’s fingers darted upwards; her hair always seemed to escape and she tucked away the stray wisps inside her snood. Eliza smiled at her and she finally relaxed for the first time since entering the shelter the previous night.

Then, thinking about Mr Ferguson and all that she had to do now she was running late, she grabbed a pair of thick oven gloves and bent low to retrieve a large metal tray from the oven. She groaned involuntarily as she placed the heavy load down onto a trolley already laden with several other trays of equal or larger size. Each held food for the early shift’s lunch; a tray of pale creamy mashed potato, a pile of steaming shredded greens, thin slices of brown meat layered with rivers of gravy that trickled from the highest point to form a translucent grey lake at the base.

‘Number three ready to go, Liza,’ she shouted.

Eliza, her round youthful face pink from steam, banged the potato peeler down.

‘Right you are, Maggie.’

Eliza grasped hold of the trolley and manoeuvred it towards the closest set of double doors, butting them open to reveal the vast dining hall beyond.

There were ten long tables in the huge open space, men and women sitting side by side in oil-smeared overalls, the low clink of cutlery and hum of chatter echoing around them. Maggie saw Rafferty, the canteen cat, crouched under one of the tables waiting for scraps, occasionally stroked by a friendly hand. It made her think of Robbie and his gentle mongrel, and Robbie’s poor mother—wherever she was—who was no doubt missing him.

Then the doors swung shut, and the momentary glimpse of the relative quiet of the dining hall was replaced by the noise and heat of the kitchen.

‘Maggie?’

Maggie looked around to see Maeve, stirring wildly at a pot on the stove.

‘Maggie, come here …’

She could smell the bittersweet aroma of burnt custard before she even reached the saucepan. Taking the spoon from the girl’s hand she slid it through the yellow-brown liquid, feeling the resistance from the lumps as she did.

‘Honestly, Maeve,’ she said with a sigh. ‘You’ve used too much powder again, and too high a heat.’

‘I’m sorry, Maggie.’

‘It’s okay, but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve shown you. We just can’t afford the waste—it’s a shilling each time you get through a packet of powder.’

The spoon scraped against the bottom of the pot, bringing up burnt and caramelised blobs of custard stuck as hard as barnacles to a ship.

‘You start on a low flame, sieve the powder with a little water and then gradually stir in the rest.’ Maggie carried on trying to mix out the lumps.

Maeve shook her head, eyes filling with tears. ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t seem to get the hang of it …’

‘It’s no good, I can’t salvage it,’ Maggie exclaimed. ‘I don’t know what we’ll give them with the steamed pudding now.’

Then, seeing how upset the girl was, she turned off the flame, shunting the heavy pot to the back of the stove. Speaking more gently now, she said, ‘Perhaps we should move you on to prep. Would that suit you better?’

Maeve nodded, pressing her lips together as she tried not to cry.

Maggie took her by the arm and led her through the maze of benches, noticing another girl on the other side of the room waving frantically at her.

‘I’ll be with you in a minute, Annie,’ she called, relieved that the other cooks all seemed to be coping with their own areas.

She had shown them how to be organised in the same way she had learned as a trainee at Battersea College, when cooking had been her life; before she and Peter had shared plans to open a restaurant of their own. Now all she wanted was for the war to be over so she could do something else, no longer be reminded daily of their lost dream.

‘Okay, Maeve, you swap with Helen,’ Maggie said when they reached two women in a quieter corner of the kitchen.

Here the smooth white ceramic tiles replaced the cold grey steel of the industrial cookers and created a brighter, calmer space. She watched as Maeve took in the long trough sink that ran under the window from one end of the room to the other, where it was separated in four places by drainers, and where upturned cutlery and cooking utensils released tributaries of water that flowed back into the sinks and the branches of pipework below. Directly behind them, the parallel benchtop had been divided into separate stations with chopping boards and double bins underneath.

‘That’s your pig bin, the other is for general waste,’ Maggie explained, picking up the peeler.

She began peeling a carrot, moving the blade away from her in long rhythmic strokes and then, taking a knife, she swiftly transformed carrots into miniature orange batons and the glistening courgettes into symmetrical discs.

‘Come on, you have a go …’

Maeve picked out the correct vegetable knife and carefully sliced through a carrot creating unequal-sized sticks.

‘That’s a good start, but they need to be the same size so they cook evenly.’