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U3A Writing: The Cheese Chef

Derek McQueen tells of a significant encounter in a Tunisian hotel lift.

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The Cheese Chef had a black beard. It disappeared into his traditional white chef’s scarf. He was one of ten chefs spread around the huge Carthage Hotel dining room, each supervising their own Tunisian speciality. All wore ‘tower of Pisa’ chef’s hats, long white aprons and white shoes.

The buffet was spectacular, the food delicious, and Janice and her mother Mary were delighted. The Carthage was better than they had dared to hope. Room 504 overlooked the pool, palm tree gardens and nearby beach.

Brilliant sunlight danced from the lines of balconied rooms on the opposite wing. Soaking up the sunshine, with a pre-dinner glass of Tunisian red wine, was as near to idyllic as they could imagine.

But the Cheese Chef disturbed Janice, spoiling her heaven. She hadn’t mentioned it to her mother, but she was sure he was watching her.

Mary and Janice desperately needed this October holiday.
At the beginning of June, Janice Jameson married Graham Woodhead, a double first biochemist with a brilliant career in prospect. Graham was in his final year at Sussex University, two years ahead of Janice, when they first met. When he was offered a job as a research chemist with Oakley Pharmaceuticals in Nottingham they decided to get married.

The white wedding should have been a day to remember, Flockton Parish Church packed with family and friends on a glorious June day. Later a hundred and twenty guests enjoyed a champagne reception at the five-star Moat House Hotel.

Mary and Arthur, Janice’s mum and dad, were very proud of their only daughter, and it showed. Both families had pulled out every generous stop to make the wedding a success.

Three months later Graham went to New Zealand on holiday with a woman who worked in his laboratory at Oakley’s. Janice had a nervous breakdown and was forced to leave college. It was unbelievable. Arthur Jameson’s garage was piled high with dozens of boxes and unopened wedding gifts, including a cooker and a fridge, all in temporary storage until the newlywed’s house was ready.

Arthur had taken out a five thousand pound bank loan to pay for the wedding. He would be paying it back for the next five years.

The family was demoralised and embarrassed and Janice chronically depressed. Studying for her English degree was out of the question.

Normally the mildest of men, Arthur had several times threatened to kill Graham Woodhead.

“I’ll swing for that bastard son of yours,” he had raged down the phone at Grahams father on the day they cancelled the honeymoon booking with Cook’s.

Mary had hardly slept for weeks and finally Arthur insisted that she take a holiday with Janice.

“Have a couple of weeks in the sunshine Mary love,” he said. “I’ll be just fine. It’s time we all got our sanity back.”

**
The Cheese Chef had not been behind his cheese array in the dining room, for several days.

“Maybe he’s left or on holiday,’’ Janice thought. “Thank God for that.”

At last she began to relax.

Thompson’s had a small office on the Carthage mezzanine terrace, overlooking the swimming pool and gardens. Eileen Granger, the rep, was there between nine-thirty and eleven each morning to answer queries and take bookings for exotic coach excursions. Mary and Janice decide to book a full day outing to El Jem, a Roman amphitheatre, claimed to be in better condition than the Coliseum in Rome. It was a very early start but well worth the effort, Eileen said. “Some scenes from the film The Gladiator were filmed there.”

That always put a few more bums on the coach seats.

Janice spotted the Cheese Chef from the coach as they left for El Jem. He was on the breakfast and lunch shift in the Carthage kitchens. He didn’t see Janice but the sight of him almost made her panic.

It rained heavily for the first time as they headed out in to the arid Moroccan countryside. It was a three-hour journey. Maybe it would be fine by the time they reached the amphitheatre.

Janice and Mary wandered through the maze of ancient stone vaults and grim claustrophobic passageways where lions, prisoners and slaves were all incarcerated before being dragged towards the blinding glare of the arena.

Mary shivered.

“Shall we go to the show tonight mum?” Janice suggested, back on the coach. She was determined to get the Cheese Chef nonsense out of her head once and for all. “Graham Woodhead has left me paranoid,” she thought to herself.

“Lovely idea”, Mary said.

“We’ll get dolled up. Only five more days left. I’m beginning to feel my old self again Janice. It was so kind of your dad to persuade us to take this break.”

**

Janice had first bath, put on her favourite emerald green dress and headed downstairs for the lounge while Mary got ready. The lift was waiting at the fifth floor as she pressed the ‘down’ button. At the fourth floor the lift stopped and one person got in. It was the Cheese Chef.

Janice froze. As the lift doors closed there was an ominous scraping noise and the lift shuddered to a stop between the third and fourth floors. It seemed to bounce on the suspension wires.

The Cheese Chef stood between Janice and the alarm button. He was looking at her now for sure. She was about to faint.

From somewhere in his chef’s garb, he pulled out a knife. It appeared as if by magic in his right hand, its long blade glinting in the yellow light of the lift.

Janice closed her eyes in terror.

“This is it! Stabbed to death in a foreign lift,’’ was all she could think of as she blacked out and fell to the floor.

**

She could see the Cheese Chef’s white shoes.

“I can’t be dead,” she said to herself, as she came round.

As Janice looked up she could see that he was doing something with the knife. It was one of his cheese knives. But now he had his back towards her. What was going on?

“I’m unscrewing the control panel. I know how to get this stupid lift working. It’s happened to me before.”

The Cheese Chef smiled down at her. “Are you alright? There was no reason to be frightened to that extent. We’ll be down in reception in a few minutes”.

He smiled again, helping Janice to her feet.

“His English is brilliant,’’ she thought.

“I finish at eight,’’ he said. “Will you and your mum have a drink with me in the bar after dinner? I’ve not been able to take my eyes off you since you arrived.”

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