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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by John Sims

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The van stopped in front of his car and the orange lights on its roof started to flash. The headlights dazzled him a little as he got out into the freezing wind to meet the driver.

"Paul Davies?" said a woman's voice.

"That's me. I pulled over to make a quick call on the mobile and when I tried to restart the engine there was nothing. No lights or anything. And I'm freezing." He looked over her shoulder expectantly at the van.

She followed his gaze. "What is it?"

"Um... well, the car's broken down..."

"So you need a mechanic?" she said.

Paul looked confused. A long day at work had dulled his mind and the stress of breaking down had confused him further.

She took a pair of surgical gloves from her pocket and pulled them on with a snap. "And here I am - your breakdown service mechanic. Would you open the bonnet, please."

He got into the car and stared at the controls. He put his head out of the window. "Er..."

"There's a lever down in the footwell, just pull it."

The bonnet popped open and she fixed a light to it. After a few minutes and a quick test she said, "The battery's dead. I have some in the van if you want to buy one. No charge for fitting it."

"That's that bit, right?" he said, pointing into the engine.

"No, sir, that's the little computer that controls the fuel injection and the engine ignition system. Car maintenance isn't your thing, is it?"

He smiled. "To be honest, I had to read the handbook to see how to put petrol in it. I get in, turn the key and drive. That's the sum of my knowledge. Not very good, is it?"

"Well, I'd be out of a job if everyone could fix their own cars."

"Good point. OK, I'll take a new battery. I just want to get out of this cold and get home in time for Christmas."

She glanced at her watch. "Only three hours to go. Don't worry though, I'll have you running again in a couple of minutes."

When she'd finished they sat in her van to fill in the paperwork. As he got in she moved a carrier bag off the passenger seat, revealing for a moment a fresh, plucked turkey that was as thin as it was small.

"Your last call-out? " he said, and smiled.

"Last one in the shop," she said. "I was lucky to get it."

He looked at it. "I'm not sure about lucky," and sniffing it added, "It's not getting any fresher sitting in this hot van."

"I was on my way home with it when your call came in. My last job and then I'm off until tomorrow evening. Sign there, please." She handed him the clipboard and pointed to the spot. "I still have to read how to cook it."

He signed the form. "Slow oven for a long time," he said. "About three hours for that little chap, then check it. Personally, I like to slit the skin on the breast, peel it back and stuff some herbs and stuff under it, a bit of butter maybe, then close it back up and pop it in the oven. Tastes nicer and it's not so dry."

He looked up and saw her staring at him. "What is it?" he said.

"Um... nothing," she said.

"It's my job," he said. "I'm a chef and I have a fridge full of those to cook tomorrow so it's an early night for me."

"Ah, so we both have to work Christmas Day. I suppose someone has to do it."

"I don't mind. It's not like I have a family or anything."

"Same here. And it's not busy for us on the day... everybody's at home watching old films on telly and stuffing themselves with sprouts".

"Or in my place, having dinner cooked for them."

"Ah, if only..." She looked down at the turkey.

"Cooking's not exactly your thing then?"

"To be honest," she said, smiling. "I have to read a cook book to make beans on toast."

"And we never feel like cooking anything when it's just for ourselves."

"Exactly. But I suppose it's different for you professionals."

He laughed. "Are you kidding? I love beans on toast - and there's hardly any washing up after it."

They both stared out of the windscreen of the van and watched a few snowflakes blow onto it.

"Well," he said, and the words came out slowly, with reluctance, "I suppose I'd better be going, let you get that bird into a fridge. Thanks again for getting me back on the road. It gets scary out there in the dark on your own."

"You're welcome," she said as he got out. "Good luck tomorrow."

He looked back at the van as he opened his car door. His head told him the right thing to do was to get in and drive off, go home and get a good sleep ready for the next day. He hurried over to the van, tapped on the driver's side window and opened the door. "I don't know if I should, or if it's allowed or anything, but will you take my card? I think I ought to at least give you a meal or something. I'm sure I'd have frozen out here. Any time you like. Just call and ask for me."

Paul stood in the centre of his kitchen, surrounded by staff. Ovens blasted out heat and the smell of roasting meat. Pans simmered on hobs. Knives scratched against sharpeners as everyone worked flat out.

He moved among his staff to check progress, give orders and offer advice, on the edge of panic as the restaurant filled and more and more food had to be cooked. The phone rang. "Not now. This is NOT a good time," he said as he hurried to pick it up. "Hello?"

"Hello, boss, it's Jean in reception"

"I know," he said. "Nobody else can phone in to here."

"Right. Well I have a woman on the phone for you."

"Not now, we're flat out. Who is it?"


Paul thought it over. "I don't know any Claire."

There was a pause. "She says she's your knight in shining armour."


"Hang on." The line went dead for a moment. "She says to tell you she's the breakdown lady. Are you feeling all right, boss? I thought you were working too hard. I said as much."

"Ahh, I know who it is." He grinned and punched the air. "OK, put her through, Jean... and mind your own business, by the way."

Claire's voice came on. "Hello?"

"Hello, Claire. OK, Jean, you can go back to work now." He waited to hear the click of the reception phone being put down. "I'm sorry, I didn't think to ask your name last night. I hope you're phoning to take me up on my offer of a meal." He crossed his fingers.

"Ah. I didn't think to tell you my name either because it was on the copy of the form I gave you."

He frowned at his own stupidity in not noticing, covered the phone while he shouted to the staff. "This sauce is burning! Who's sauce is this? It's burning - look!"

"Are you busy?" said Claire. "Is it a bad time?"

"Lord no, just another day at the office," he laughed, and covering the phone again shouted: "Will someone check this oven? That bird should have been taken out half an hour ago. Now, please." He tapped a wooden spoon against the oven as he returned his attention to the phone. He glanced at his watch and started to panic. "I'm glad you phoned."

"Actually I didn't really know if I should, but I didn't know who else to ask."

Paul stirred a pan of gravy. "Of course you should. Is something wrong?"

"Did that turkey smell all right to you last night?"

The question took him by surprise. He'd been hoping she'd want a quiet table for two with a good wine. He switched his thoughts to the bird. "Yes," he said. "Smelled OK... but a lot would depend on how long it was sitting in that hot van, and your fridge temperature. Why, is it a bit ripe today or something?"

Staff with questions were starting to form a queue beside him.

"Are you sure you have time for this?"

"Of course. Just routine for us. All under control." Staff were beginning to call his name and more orders came in from the restaurant. "If that bird's at all suspect, please don't risk it."

"Oh dear. You're right, of course. It's not worth getting ill for a little festive meal. I'll have a nice frozen dinner, same as last year. Next year I'll be more organised and have a proper Christmas."

"Yes," he said as he tried to break up lumps in his gravy. "It's all about timing, cookery - plan it all well ahead and don't get flustered."

"OK. Well, thanks for your help. Bye."

"Bye, Claire. Wait a minute. Why don't you come around here for dinner. Plenty of room. Can you make it about three? I'll be finished by then."

"OK, if you're sure."

"Of course. It'll be my turn to rescue you." He put the phone down and turned to the queue. "Right, what's wrong? Why is nobody cooking?"

Claire arrived at the restaurant just before it closed for the afternoon. Jean showed her to a large table where Paul and some of the staff were sitting. He stared at her as she approached.

"What is it?" she said, checking her clothes.

"Nothing. Just you look strange out of uniform."


"Sorry, I mean different. I mean very nice. Ohh..."

Jean shook her head and sat. "He's hopeless. But at least he's not dressed as Santa this year."

"I hope you don't mind joining me with a few of the staff, Claire. You've already sort of met Jean." He introduced everyone. "It's sort of a little tradition that I cook a meal for the staff when we close after the lunch period. Gives us a chance to rest our feet before we open again for the evening shift."

"It's good, thanks. I'm glad to be out of the house and away from that horrible turkey."

Paul smiled. "It happens to the best of us, don't worry. Well, I hope you're hungry, because there's lots of it. And we have some great wine."

A waiter placed a large pot in the centre of the table.

"This is another little tradition on Christmas Day. None of us can bear the sight of turkey after the morning so we have this." Another waiter started placing plates of toast on the table. Paul opened the pot. "I know you'll like it. Help yourselves to beans, everyone."

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