Meals On Wheels
Alfie slumped over the steering wheel with a groan. The horn blared across the street, propelling a cat off a nearby wall and startling a cloud of pigeons into the air. Curtains twitched. Eyes glared from the sleepy shadows. Alfie smirked, pressed harder for good measure, then sat up.
It was just after dawn, and a dim grey light had begun to seep across the quiet streets and neatly clipped lawns of Mickmore Housing Estate. Alfie imagined turning the wheel, jamming the ignition, smashing the van through one of those low brick walls; splattering the lawn, decimating the twee little flower beds. That’d serve em’ right.
The van was punishment enough; blocky and square, painted a cheerful baby blue, complete with So-Good Food Co’s grinning pink cat logo on the side: All Natural! All Home Cooked! Bespoke Meals On Wheels!
Those were the promises touted by So-Good Food Co, offering personalised home-delivery meals for the elderly and infirm.
Alfie had grown to loathe the van. Grown to loathe that logo every bit as much as he loathed So-Good Food and its herd of ancient, shuffling clients. He didn’t want to be awake. Didn’t want to be here. Didn’t want to be wearing this sodding uniform, driving this sodding van.
Deliveries would take all morning, interspersed with phone calls reprimanding him for driving too fast, or wearing the uniform incorrectly, or mixing up orders.
Alfie jumped from the driver’s seat, strolled to the back of the van, and let himself inside. He had twenty deliveries to make today, each of them stacked at the back in neat white boxes.
Alfie made himself comfortable on the van’s hard plastic floor and reached for the first box. It was weighty - always a good sign. He slid open the little plastic clasps and inspected the contents with a critical eye.
There was a container of soup (Mr. Wilkin always had soup; for his teeth) a piece of soft bread, wrapped in cling film. And there, in a little covered bow. Alfie grinned.
He pried it open. A perfect little blancmange glistened up at him. Alfie wasted no time in extracting it from the rest of the tray, grinning. He hated his job. God, Alfie hated his job. But there were perks. There were perks to everything if you were willing to find them.
Soon the floor at Alfie’s feet was covered in little plastic boxes of dessert; cakes and jellies and firm slices of pie, tiny individual tarts and helpings of smooth vanilla custard. Consideration made for every diet and dietary requirement.
So-Good Food Co believed in bespoke treatment of its clients, and bespoke treats.
It was the work of a moment each morning to gather them up and secret them away in the back of the van, and Alfie took a special delight in seeing all of them laid out before him. At first, he’d only taken the ones he liked the look of - wanted to eat - but he’d quickly graduated to pilfering the lot. Looked less suspicious, didn’t it? On no, Mr. Jefferies, we don’t provide dessert. No, no. We never have.
So far, nobody suspected a thing. Alfie was the ‘poor confused boy’ who’d done some mischief, but was helping out in the community now, and wasn’t that nice? The desserts were his. His reward for putting up with this stupid job and its stupid flock of old fogies.
Alfie reached for the final box. There was a little sticky label attached to this one, written in the neat cursive handwriting that was the only communication he had with So-Good Food Co beyond irate phone calls.
Special Meal- Handle Carefully!!
Alfie glanced at the address. It was new; a street he didn’t recognise, some European name he couldn’t pronounce. The box was heavier than usual. Alfie weighed it carefully in his hands before flicking it open.
A rich meaty smell filled the van, mingling with the scents of sugar and dust. Alfie surveyed the familiar collection of plastic containers: a bowl of stew, by the look of it, another bundle of grainy rye bread. And there, in its own little plastic tub. Alfie popped the lid.
What would it be? Another bowl of jelly? (a depressing regularity) A slice of pie? Some weird granola?
It was a slice of cake. A deep, rich-red sponge, frosted with white icing.
Alfie picked it up. It was moist to the touch and heavier than he was sure a sponge should be. The smell of the stew lingered on it, pungent. For a moment Alfie wondered whether he should leave it, or just chuck it in a bin on his way past. Maybe ‘special meal’ meant medication in the cake batter, maybe gluten-free or sugarless.
He took a bite, chewed thoughtfully.
Stopped chewing. Went pale. His eyes bulged.
Alfie spat the bite out into his hand, rubbing his mouth viciously with his sleeve.
The cake tasted rotten. Like spoiled meat, or the scent of hamburgers on a hot day. Sickly sweet and mushy. The clumpy, over-moist texture fell apart in his mouth, reminding Alfie of under-done mince. He stared at the remaining cake in his hand, clumped and moist, then threw it hard against the opposite wall. It landed with a sticky thwack, stuck there a moment, then began to slide down, leaving a long red trail.
Suddenly the other desserts no longer appealed. Alfie stared at them in the van gloom, punctuated by that meat-mould scent of cake, and fought down a wave of nausea. He stood, gave the blancmange box a vicious kick, then stomped to the van doors and back out onto the street.
The meat taste didn’t fade all morning. Alfie conducted his deliveries in seething silence, occasionally wiping his mouth. What kind of special meal required a clumpy meat cake as a treat? What kind of deranged old person requested it? Stupid old people and their stupid, disgusting food. Stupid job. Forcing him to be here, doing this.
Last delivery of the day: a drab little house on a grey little cul de sac on the edge of the estate. Curtains drawn, roof sagging. A garden overgrown with weeds and tangled rose bushes.
Alfie had been avoiding this one, partially out of spite, partially because the gorge rose in his throat whenever he thought about it.
The new address. The new meal. The rotten cake.
He pressed the doorbell. It rang once - a muffled ding dong back inside the house - followed by a long moment of silence. Then came the sound of slow, shuffling footsteps. Dark shapes moved indistinctly behind the glass. Finally, the door was opened by an immensely old woman.
She was small and hunched, with a mass of grey-white hair and tiny, beetle-black eyes. Her nose was sharp and triangular - like a beak or a wedge of cheese - and she wore a shapeless grey dress that hung about her knees. Alfie tried not to notice that she wore no shoes and that her feet were cracked and dirty.
She squinted up at him suspiciously, before her face broke into a wide, toothless smile.
“Oh, how nice,” there was an odd tinge to her voice-- not exactly an accent, but a crackle. As if her throat was lined with something thick and rough. “A visitor.”
“Morning,” Alfie glanced at the name on the box, trying hard not to breathe. “Mrs. Padury.”
“That’s Padurii, dear,” her eyes darted to the food container. She licked her lips. “Oh, and you’ve brought my little box. So early too! Come in, come in,” she motioned Alfie inside.
Alfie stared over Mrs. Padurii’s shoulder into the gloom.
The curtains were drawn here as well, wrapping the house in shadows. A strange, dusty odour crept out from around the old woman, imbedding itself in her hair, her clothes, the grey, sagging wallpaper.
“Actually, I’m supposed to just give you the box...”
Alfie felt a hand on his arm - wrinkled and dry, but surprisingly strong - then Mrs. Padurii was pulling him through the door and into the house, calling cheerfully as she went.
“Not at all, not at all! Just pop it on the table, dear. I want to get a good look at it!”
Alfie found himself being dragged down a dark, messy hallway to a tiny kitchen. The carpet crackled underfoot. Picture frames lined the walls, depicting strange twisting shapes that could have been trees, could have been people, but were too shrouded in gloom to tell. Furniture clogged the rooms, giving Alfie the disquieting sensation of creatures lurking in the dark, of never being quite sure just how tiny the space really was. A naked bulb light flickered overhead, providing the only suggestion of light. The dusty-sweet scent was stronger now, mixed with a cloying back-in-the-throat floral smell that made Alfie gag. He hated old people’s houses. Hated old people.
Mrs. Padurii snatched the box eagerly from his unresisting hands and set it down on the kitchen table. The tablecloth, Alfie noticed, was marked with brown and red stains, as if something had been smeared across it long ago and left to fester.
“Lovely.” Mrs. Padurii licked her lips doubtfully, eyeing the tray’s meagre offerings. Alfie turned to go-- he’d done his job. Delivered the crazy old woman’s food. Now he could leave.
“Oh, but wait-” Mrs. Padurii lifted a finger. “Where’s the cake, dear?”
He turned, raising his eyebrows innocently.
“Cake, Mrs. Padurii?”
“Cake, dear. There should be a slice of cake.”
“Don’t think so, Mrs. Padurii. We don’t do cakes.”
“Oh, but I requested it specifically. Specifically.” Mrs. Padurii licked her lips again, rubbing her crooked old hands together. “I’m afraid this simply won’t do.”
“I can have a word with HQ if you like.”
She shook her head.
“No, no. It should definitely be here. I have very particular dietary requirements, you see. Very particular.”
Something about the way she said it. Very particular. Alfie suppressed a surge of revulsion. What had he eaten?
He wanted out of here. He wanted out of here now. Away from this mad old woman and her stinking house. Away from the smell of meat and the rising taste of cake.
“You didn’t take it, did you dear?”
Her eyes were on him now, searching his face, small and darting. Alfie tried to calm himself. It wasn’t as if she could do anything. Her grip had been strong, but she had to be over 90. He could take her if he had to.
She just grabbed me! She’s insane! I had to!
“Of course not!”
Mrs. Padurii sniffed the air. Hard and sharp. Then she smiled.
“You smell of it, my dear. You smell of meat and blood and offal. You smell of everything I need.”
She snatched his arm. So sharply that Alfie jumped back with a yelp. This time Mrs. Padurii’s grip was like iron. Her nails dug into her skin.
“Look, I ate it, alright?” he gasped, “I ate your stupid...”
Alfie was suddenly aware-- horribly aware-- that Mrs. Padurii was standing between himself and the door. She seemed to have grown larger in the last few minutes. She filled the space from wall to wall until the sparse light from outside was blocked entirely by her shabby grey dress and wiry grey hair. Her eyes gleamed.
“Oh, well,” she said, and smiled with a mouthful of small, needle-sharp teeth. “That can be remedied, dear.”
Georgia Cook is an illustrator and writer from London, specialising in folklore and ghost stories. She is the winner of the LISP 2020 Flash Fiction Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, Staunch Book Prize and Reflex Fiction Award, among others. She can be found on Twitter at @georgiacooked and on her website at www.georgiacookwriter.com