The cooking house, p.1
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       The Cooking House, p.1

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The Cooking House


  The Cooking House


  by Z.N. Singer

  Copyright 2011 Z.N. Singer


  Bernard lived in a good house. But you wouldn't have known it to talk to him.

  It was very homey, warm and inviting. It was large but never felt empty. It had nice land around it. In fact, most people would have happily decided it was perfect, or at least close enough.

  Bernard was an inventor, or so he fancied himself. He believed it could be improved.

  Actually, what he believed was that houses could be improved in general. It was the year 1889, in England, and the bounds of what was and was not possible were being stretched daily: society was turning itself inside out about the various wondrous innovations that were being brought into the world. It was a time of exciting possibilities, and Bernard – with the help of a small private income – had his notions about how to bring this to the home.

  The problem with homes, the eternally single man had decided, was that the people living in them had to do all the work.

  Cleaning, cooking, and all the rest, what good was a home that didn't do it for you – he asked of the world in general and his home in particular – instead of relying on those females who didn't even understand his life's passions? None, he imagined the humble response to be. Yes, that's right. You're useless now, like all the rest. But it isn't your fault. It's mine. I haven't finished my invention yet. Then you will be perfect.

  His automated home, being a product of the late nineteenth century, involved a great deal of cogs and wheels. He'd experimented with steam and the like but found that trying to run such a thing in a home made for an atmosphere that distinctly lacked peace and relaxation. So, clockwork it was, and a complicated mess it was turning out to be. And of course winding the mass of contraptions was still quite a chore: he supposed a certain amount of regulated effort to maintain it was acceptable, as nothing was going to make the house take its own initiative, but ideally this process should not take too much longer than it would to, say, eat a piece of toast in the morning.

  Ah, toast. Yes. That was his one great success so far. The clockwork for cleaning, laundry, pest control, and all the rest still plagued him like the Devil's Advocate, but the cooking mechanisms – ah, those had worked marvels from the start. No matter how the rest of the house confounded him, he had only to look at that culinary success to know he would eventually succeed with the rest too. How could he not? He merely had to properly understand what had gone right, and apply it. Indeed he spent nearly as much time studying the cooking mechanism to solve this mystery as he did tinkering with the rest of it. For it still seemed to him, no matter how he pondered and tweaked and poked, that there was no significant difference or reason why the cooking machinery should work so well while all the others merely spat back oil at him, or threw parts of themselves about their respective rooms. It was simply beyond him, at least for the moment. But it was his own creation, and he was sure he would get there in time.

  And while all that was going on, at least he had three meals a day, plus teatime, exactly as man should: served and waiting for him, done to perfection, and without the nuisance of some fawning thing to thank or acknowledge or otherwise bother with. Yes, this was how life should be. And once he'd had his way, this was how all of his life would be. And everyone else's. And then he'd see what those snarky fellows at the pub had to say.

  It was his friend who gave Bernard his first clue. His dedication and focus were far out of proportion to his talent, with the results that he forgot to actually insert ingredients into and wind the gears of the machine three times out of four. But the only way he ever noticed his absentmindedness was when he found himself suffering the consequences of it, and so he never realized that most of his meals were actually happening in spite of himself. In addition, his shopping trips had always been last-minute binge affairs triggered by an empty cupboard, and so the fact that he hadn't had to buy food for over a year never quite made it through his head. In short, Bernard was quite capable of ignoring all the myriad signs that something unnatural was going in his everyday life, and, theory, could have continued this blissfully oblivious pattern for infinity – but then one day he invited his friend to dinner.

  Bernard only had one real friend in the village. Everyone else just labeled him a nut, but Frankie was different. Frankie had been willing to consider that Bernard might be capable of what he said, and for that he had become the sole witness to Bernard's success, and had eaten its creations several times in the past. Whenever Bernard felt the need to restore his confidence or spirit – not often – he would invite Frankie over and, over the course of the meal, watching someone else enjoying and praising the fruits of his labors, he would be restored. Frankie, in turn, enjoyed being the only one to know. They got along quite amiably. Today the machines he had been working on had been so rebellious as to undo weeks of work, and Bernard felt the need for an emotional pick-me-up. He went out to find his friend.

  “Tonight? Sure, I can come. Mary isn't due for weeks and cooking is hard for her, she'll be glad to have that much less to do. Usual time?”

  “Usual time. What's the order?”

  “Oh, I'll leave it to you. That wonder of yours always gets it right anyway, doesn't it?”

  And Bernard smiled, and agreed that indeed it did, and went off to buy ingredients for a more elaborate meal than he usually bothered with. He felt better already.

  His mood overflowed into his work, as it usually did. As the smells of success wafted from the kitchen, he set to work on the somewhat wrecked remains of the cleaning mechanism and found that being forced to work from scratch had its advantages: he was seeing things he hadn't before, was breaking patterns of problem-solving he hadn't even noticed he'd fallen into. Immensely pleased, he set to work, buoyed by the sensation that rather than remaking what had been lost, he was in fact re-inventing, and with great success he was sure. Perhaps today would be the day he made another part of his (eventual) automated house work.

  As usual, he stopped not at a particular time but at a particular state of hunger. But by now he knew around when this usually happened: 'the usual time' was planned around that, and sure enough, glancing at the clock, it was roughly fifteen minutes to when Frankie would arrive. Brimming with self-esteem, Bernard wandered into the kitchen to gaze on the night's feast. He stopped.

  The food was perfect. The table was set.

  For one.

  Bernard's good mood vanished entirely. “Whyyyy?” he howled. “Why NOW?” Years, for years now it had worked perfectly, and now, when he was about to have company – now, for the first time, something goes wrong? Oh Frankie would probably understand, say something like 'well, it was bound to happen sometime right?' But Frankie didn't understand, it wasn't his creation. It was supposed to be perfect. It had been perfect, till now. And now his night was ruined and he would have to figure out how to fix it when he still hadn't figured out what made it work better than the other machinery in the first place. What if he broke it for good? Damn bloody machine!!!

  Muttering furiously, eyes wild, Bernard stomped towards the door to head off Frankie and explain why dinner was canceled. Someone knocked on the door as he reached to open it. He yanked it open with a snarled “What is it?”

  On the other side of the door, Frankie's son Ben jumped back and said as quickly as he could, “Father said to tell you Mother's water broke early and he can't come sorry got to go!”

  It was a clue, but one Bernard did not recognize until later. Some men might have been spooked, but Bernard was a man of science and reason, and he scoffed to interpret coincidence as anything but freak convergence of chance. So the machine had broken at an op
portune time after all. Very well, he would not complain. Discovering that Frankie need never know anything had even gone wrong went a long way towards soothing his nerves. He ate the food – still perfectly cooked, he noted, already thinking about just where to find the problem – and went back to work, this time on the cooking mechanism. He did not allow himself to think about whether he might break it further. He had studied it un-endingly, knew it inside out. If nothing else, he knew how to put it back together again exactly as it had been. He only needed to find the part that wasn't how it had been. Anymore.

  Except he couldn't. The machine still looked perfect, just as it had after every successful attempt to cook for company. He couldn't even find the food remains from the extra ingredients that should have been around somewhere. He experimented. He put in enough for two, three, seven, eight. Every time, he got meals that were enough for one person: himself. He was utterly distraught. What had gone wrong? And what could he do about it? Yes, to him, a machine that only cooked for one was quite sufficient for most things, but he knew almost anyone else would consider it a severe defect. How had this happened? And why now? It had never failed to cook for other people before, but now he couldn't get anything more out of it at all. The idea of trying to cook more when he had invited a proportionate number of guests never occurred to him, because he was still almost quaintly ignorant of his situation. Bernard's work became steadily more infuriating, and he still couldn't solve the problem.

  That is, until the beef.

  Bernard loved meat. He craved it, but couldn't afford it – all his money went into the needs of his inventing. As a rule, he buried all such dissatisfaction with his larder under work, with images and innovations in cogs and wheels and fan belts, coming to view his meals merely as restoration. But the longing was still there, and one day, unable to take another day of futile tinkering on the one thing he thought he'd perfected, he did something he hadn't done for two years: he took a day off. He left the house in the morning, and spent the day in nearby London. He browsed through shops of various gadgets, fiddled with parts that interested him, and had lunch – however cheap – at an eating house. And, inevitably, wandering about with his thoughts unfettered by metal gears, he found himself thinking about food in an obsessive way he had not done since his last vacation. And, also inevitably, what he thought about was food he could not have: beef. Perfect roasted meat, a succulent slab in gravy, no silly vegetables to spoil the carnivorous fantasy of ripe red flesh. He had, in fact, forgotten to even set the cooking machine at all – again – but he'd forgotten that. For the last hour and a half before going home, he thought of meat, and dreaded, as he went home, the much simpler and less desirable fare he knew was waiting for him. All the way to his door he thought this. As he opened his door he thought this. As he imagined the smells he thought this.

  Then his thoughts stopped cold, as if everything in his head had suddenly frozen solid.

  The smells were real.

  Slowly, like a sleepwalker, he went into the kitchen.

  Beef. Perfect roasted meat, a succulent slab in gravy.

  He had never bought any meat. There was no meat in the house. No one he knew would pay the expense and time to leave it for him. No malfunction could create food that hadn't been there.

  It was impossible. But it was there.

  Hunger forgotten, Bernard fled to the cooking mechanism in a frenzied panic.

  Bernard felt dazed.

  There was nothing wrong with the machine. In fact, there wasn't enough wrong with it. Where, he now suddenly wondered, was all the dirt, the caked bits of food, the crumbs, the stain spots? The gears looked as if nothing had ever touched them: pristine as the day he'd installed them. As if they'd never churned dough or baked bread or cut vegetables. In short, as if they had never been used at all.

  He opened the cupboards. It took some effort. The smell was atrocious. He had, he realized, been absentmindedly taking the ingredients from the first place he saw them: on the counter. But he'd never put them there. In fact, judging from the almost mobile remains, there hadn't been edible foodstuffs in the house for months at least.

  That he'd put there, that is.

  The gas stove in the mechanism was full: he'd never refilled it. The pots – or the parts of the machine that served as pots – still shone bright as the day he'd bought them. There was no sign that the machine had ever been put to any use at all. Logic and observation, at last applied to his own stocking habits, said there had been, for a year and a half at least, no means to put it to use with.

  In short, every meal he'd eaten over the last year and a half at least had been fundamentally impossible. But they had been there. He had eaten them. And there was the beef, the impossible beef, still staring at him from the table. It was still warm. It had been joined by a draft of his favorite ale, exactly what he'd been wanting most as he'd begun to comprehend the depths of what he faced. He had no idea when or how it had gotten there.

  When had he installed a mechanism to put the food on the table? He hadn't.

  When had he installed a mechanism to set the table in the first place? He never had. He'd made it to cook, only to cook. But he'd come, seen the food on the table, and ate without a second thought.

  It was getting late. But he couldn't sleep. He stared at his creation – or rather, he realized, what he'd thought his creation – from the doorway, tentative and wide-eyed, ready to bolt, half expecting it to start moving. It did nothing. Bernard was not reassured.

  The weather was warm. He slept outside.

  The next day, he began making plans to sell the house. He didn't care what he got for it. He'd return home and take the job his father had offered him years back. It didn't seem so demeaning anymore.

  He never did sell the house. Eventually he moved anyway, but no one wanted a house filled with mechanisms. Bernard had taken walls apart, made unconventional openings and spaces, and generally turned the entire place into his experiment. Now no one else wanted to live there. He didn't dare tell them the house's most unique feature: infinite food, cooked to perfection, always precisely what was wanted, and in correct proportions.

  He couldn't tell them, because he no longer knew why it was so. And so for many years, the house had no one to cook for.

  It was very lonely.

  In 1940, someone found it again. Several someones, in fact. Very small someones.

  It was World War II, and the time of the terrible bombing of London: right and left children were being orphaned suddenly and brutally, and all the best efforts of the nation could not have hoped to find and help them all in such chaos. The city of London struggled to survive alone against a monster that threatened to devour the world, and amongst its streets, gangs of such young ones also struggled to survive their own trials in their own way. Three of them – two boys and a girl, all siblings – decided that the best way to do this was to leave London entirely. They were unsure how to do this, but the bombs clearly did not distinguish between those who had houses and those who didn't – they could as easily be killed in a raid as anyone else, and possibly easier, with no shelter. They didn't dare go too far from London, but they thought perhaps they could find some abandoned place not too far outside it, where they could still reach places with food. The Germans would not bother to drop their bombs outside the city proper.

  Bernard, in his dreams of fame, had picked a house as close to London as he could manage.

  On first sight, to the ragged children, Bernard's now long abandoned home seemed like a dream come true. Yes, it was clearly abandoned, old and neglected. But abandoned was exactly what they needed, and for all it had been neglected it was still in good condition, if you just looked at the essentials: solid walls, windows, unbroken roof. Even the doors and window shades seemed sound. It was almost too good to be true – which made the older brother suspicious.

  “Stay here and watch,” the oldest, George, told them. “Run if I say so, or if something happens.” They were familiar instructio
ns – both boy and girl nodded immediately and solemnly.

  George approached the house slowly: he looked around him, and down, as he went, trying to find signs of someone who'd been here before them. He was sure anyone who had managed to find it first would have laid claim to it, and such people were often reluctant to share. But in the end he couldn't find any signs that anyone else had been here, even when he got up to the door and examined it. It was locked, and the handle was stuck in a way that made it clear he was the first for some time to try turning it. He was still couldn't shake the uneasiness that everyone surviving difficult times develops when faced with unseemly luck, but so far as he could tell his suspicions were groundless. He waved the 'all clear' to his siblings, who promptly ran all the way up babbling ecstatically.

  “Calm down, calm down!”

  “We're really gonna live here?” Grace squealed.

  “Maybe, we haven't gone inside yet,” George said, feeling helpless to dampen her enthusiasm with his own unfounded skepticism. “We have to check it out properly, and carefully,” he said sternly. “Stay quiet and no running around without me, okay?”

  Grace pouted but nodded. She was only five. Peter, eight, who loyally trusted every word his older brother said, also nodded, but much more firmly.

  As it turned out, just getting the door open took work. They could have broken a window but then they would have had to live with it, and the glass might have hurt Peter or Grace. The handle had stayed just as it was for possibly decades and did not seem to see why it should have to move now. The door barely budged when slammed. Finally Grace had the idea of taking the doorknob off, which, with some further effort and creative use of available material, they did. Thankfully, there was no deadlock or anything else like it to deal with on the other side, out of reach of tampering.

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