Read the previous chapter, Chapter 6, here first.
Chapter 7 of Deviance, London Psychic #3. Click here for buy links to the full book.
“It's not much, but we try to look after our own round here,” O said as she pushed open the back door and stepped into the Kitchen. Jamie followed her inside to find a storage area, shelves stacked high with tinned goods, all labeled and ordered by date. Many were over the sell-by date and O caught Jamie's sideways glance.
“We get a lot of the tins from supermarkets when they go over date,” she said. “But there's a period when the stuff inside is still fine. The food bank gives out specific rations, but then we let people take what they want from the over-date bin. Sometimes that makes all the difference.” She pointed at a tin of sticky toffee pudding. “I mean, come on, what's not to like about that?”
O laughed, a silvery sound that lifted the dank atmosphere of a place set up to feed the increasing number of poverty-stricken Londoners. She led the way into a commercial kitchen area where several other women had already started work. They called greetings to O as she passed.
“Can you help Meg with chopping vegetables? We've got to get the stew on.” O pointed Jamie towards an older black woman with dreadlocks tied back in a blue patterned scarf. She stood by a large sink with a mountain of potatoes in front of her and a box of carrots and other mixed veg next to it.
“Of course.” Jamie headed over and introduced herself, grabbed a peeler, and started on peeling the carrots. Although tentative at first, Jamie was soon into a rhythm. There was a meditative state in food preparation, a repetition that left the mind free to wander.
“This stew is for the evening run,” Meg said. “It's best to cook it for a long time to soften the offcuts of meat that we get, so we have to start cooking it soon. We get a load of regulars every night and then we take any leftovers out into the parks round here.” She smiled and Jamie saw that her teeth were crooked and bent. The wrinkles in her skin were deeper than a woman of her age should have and there were faint scars around her neck. Meg put down her knife and Jamie noticed her hands shaking, perhaps a symptom of long-term alcohol abuse.
“For some who sleep rough, it's their only meal of the day.” Meg pointed to a number of round mixing bowls on the side, covered in tea towels. “That's bread, too – we make it ourselves. We have an allotment out east. That green veg is from our garden.” There was a quiet pride in Meg's voice and Jamie wondered about her past. Her own tragedy was just one voice in a city of hurt and sometimes it was good to get some perspective, to realize how much others suffered too. Everyone dealt with life in their own way.
O's laugh rippled through the kitchen area and Meg looked up.
“She's magic, that one,” she said. “Keeps everyone's spirits up, even when we're overrun. She can bring a smile to the most depressed of our clients, and I've seen her face down a huge man high on meth. She's fearless.”
Jamie watched O as she organized the various teams with a smile and a personal touch that left people beaming. She made them laugh with light remarks, always remembering their names. Jamie thought how different this place was from the police, how isolated she had been there. Her own independence had been partly to blame, but as a woman in a male-dominated environment, she had definitely felt left out. But here she might find a place in a community that really seemed to care for its people.
“Time, everyone,” O called out and went to the front door, unlocking it to allow a stream of people into the front area, set up with long tables and benches. They had clearly been queuing outside and they knew the drill. They were quiet as they came in, taking a bowl and lining up for thick porridge liberally doused in white sugar.
One woman with cardboard pieces tied around her body hefted her plastic bags into one corner and stood silently in line.
An old black man shuffled forward with little steps, his gait evidence of Parkinson's, his hands shaking as he reached for a bowl.
A waif of a girl slid through the door, a dirty denim jacket over a short dress, her arms wrapped around herself for warmth. Her eyes were black with kohl and darted around with nervous energy, her movements jerky and jolting.
The smell of unwashed bodies pervaded the cooking area, but no one reacted to it. Jamie supposed it was nothing unusual here. She finished the carrots and began chopping the bunches of green leafy veg. Meg pulled two huge saucepans from a rack and began browning onions and garlic, her shaking diminished as she concentrated on working.
O served strong instant coffee from a big vat, handing it to each person with a smile and a welcome. There was no judgement in her eyes as she looked at them, and Jamie saw that her respect gave the homeless more dignity. They walked to the benches a little straighter in posture, their humanity restored even for a brief moment. Jamie had seen the other side of poverty in the police: the crime and domestic abuse that often resulted from money problems. She had seen these people as criminals, but O and her team saw them as people needing food, warmth and a community.
After everyone had been served, O went around the benches, speaking in low tones to each person. She carried a bunch of
leaflets, clearly trying to help with advice as well as food. The waif-like girl kept her head down as O approached, turning her face away. But O sat down next to her, whispering soft words and after a few minutes, the girl reached out a hand and took a leaflet about the sexual health services she could access.
The breakfast service soon finished and as each person left, a young man on the door gave each one a brown bag. He had a blue streak in his blond hair and Jamie recognized him as the guitar player from the Cross Bones memorial. Some people snatched the bag away without thanking him, but others were effusive in their gratitude. One woman had tears in her eyes as she left, clutching the bag close to her chest as she walked out into the day.
“Right, let's get the benches to the side and start weighing out today's rations.” O rallied the team as Jamie helped Meg add the meat to the pans and begin to brown them, adding some oregano and other herbs. A delicious smell began to waft through the warehouse, drowning out the unwashed stench that still lingered. The smell of cooking reminded Jamie of the opulence of Borough Market, where food carts overflowed with amazing produce at prices only few could afford. This place was just a few streets away and yet here, they were scraping the barrel to feed the hungry.
“We can't give people anything they want,” Meg said, noting Jamie's interest in the rationing preparations. “There are rules for the food bank and we have to weigh out rations for people who come to make sure there's enough for all. We give them three days' emergency food based on the stamps that they bring for themselves and their families.” Meg shook her head, a look of despair on her face. “Problem is that some days we don't have enough food here to feed all who come. Makes you wonder, don't it?”
O organized the packing of boxes, some with more perishable food in them than others. Jamie knew that some families didn't even have a way to cook, so there was a balance of tins to whatever fresh food they could get hold of. O made sure to add a couple of apples to each box and Jamie noticed her frown as she surveyed the room, a shadow crossing her beautiful face as she calculated what they had left.
Meg crumbled some stock cubes over the meat, added salt, and poured in a kettle of hot water on top of each pan, then covered them with lids.
“We'll let these simmer for a while now,” she said. “I'll get the bread on. Why don't you go help pack boxes? I can manage here.”
Jamie walked through the kitchen area and joined in the packing production line, finding a place next to the young man who had been on the door.
“First day?” he asked Jamie, as he added a tin of beans to a box before passing it on to her. Jamie added a packet of macaroni cheese and passed the box to the next woman.
“I guess so,” Jamie said, realizing that she would come back here. Looking at the Kitchen made her doubly grateful for what she did have, and she knew that it was only luck and circumstance that put her on this side of the fence.
“We have our ups and downs,” the young man said. “Some days we win and we feed everyone. Other days one of our regulars doesn't show up and we hear of suicide or death in the streets. But Southwark is our community and this is our way of caring.” He smiled at Jamie. “This place saved me, that's for sure.”
O stepped up to the table, a broad grin on her face.
“Ed is one of our regulars. He's a superstar.” Ed blushed under O's praise and Jamie saw a glimmer of the unspoiled youth beneath his harder exterior. O brought that out in people. “How are you finding it, Jamie?”
“I'm amazed at everything you do here,” Jamie said. “I had no idea, honestly. I'd love to come and help again.”
O smiled. “We'd love to have you back.” She looked at her watch. “Ten minutes,” she called across the room and everyone on the line speeded up their box packing. “Hungry people incoming. Let's feed them all today.”