© David Llewellyn
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Story 1: Mrs Murdoch & The Archangel
It starts with a greeting at a front door.
“Good morning. Mrs Murdoch?” The Archangel Ephrahim stood on the steps.
Mrs Murdoch looked the Archangel up and down. “And who are you in your fancy get up?” she said, eyeing his long white robes, his clipboard and the large pair of wings sprouting from his back.
“Ephrahim,” said the Archangel. “The Archangel Ephrahim,” he added for clarity. “God sent me. I have come about your complaint.”
“My complaint?” said Mrs Murdoch. She hesitated. “That was months ago.” She examined the Archangel once more. “I suppose you had better come in.”
She led the Archangel Ephrahim into her living room. “Nice place,” said Ephrahim, looking around. “Spacious. Love the chandelier. Have you been here long?”
“It’s up for sale,” said Mrs Murdoch flatly.
“Oh,” said the Archangel.
“Sit down,” she said.
When the Archangel was sitting comfortably in the sofa across from her own chair, she said, “So this is about the letter I sent.”
"That’s right ma’am,” said Ephrahim. “I have it here.”
Hidden behind the top sheet on his clipboard he found a neatly typed letter, paper-clipped to the envelope it had been sent in. “If I can read it to you, ma’am, just to verify its authenticity and to remind ourselves of the nature of your complaint.”
Mrs Murdoch thought this was probably a good idea.
“Here we go,” said the Archangel.
“Dear God,” he read,
“I am writing in order to register a formal complaint. As you are well aware, my husband, Frank Murdoch, was taken from me on 21st February. Frank was fifty three years old and in good health, until the train hit him.
Frank was a good man. He did not smoke, swear or blaspheme. He attended your church every Sunday and was always generous with the collection plate as well as being a regular volunteer for all church-based activities. He raised both of our children in the one true faith and, I believe, he troubled you rarely with unwarranted prayers.
In taking my husband from me so untimely you have left me emotionally distraught, not to mention the financial hardship I now face.
I do not know what you are able to do to correct this state of affairs but it is all so unfair.
This is not how it was described in the brochure.
S. Murdoch. (Mrs.)”
The Archangel Ephrahim leant towards Mrs Murdoch offering her the letter. She waved it away.
“I am well aware of what I wrote,” she said. “Do you work in the complaints department?”
“Customer Services,” said Ephrahim, the friendly, assuring smile back on his face. “I have been asked to review your case. I have a few questions, if you feel able?”
“Is this how it normally works?” asked Mrs Murdoch.
“To be honest,” said the Archangel, “this is new to us. As you can imagine, competition in the religion industry is very heavy. All sorts of churches are offering all sorts of special deals. At the Holy Name Reform we have decided to make frontline customer services a priority. As I am sure you are aware, other churches tend to contract out the answering of prayers to call centres. It is cheaper, certainly, but too many parishioners were finding themselves uncertain whether their prayers had even been heard. “
“Yes,” said Mrs Murdoch, recognising the feeling. “Tell me,” said Mrs Murdoch, “I’ve always wanted to know, is there only one true God?”
Ephrahim leaned in closer. “Between ourselves?” he said conspiratorially.
“Strictly,” said Mrs Murdoch.
“There is only one God,” said Ephrahim, “but religions are a bit like gas companies. There’s only one gas pipe but there are lots of gas companies, all selling you the same gas.”
“And God knows about this?”
“Of course,” said the Archangel, “as long as people buy the gas he doesn’t much care how it’s sold. But let me assure you, we at the Holy Name Reform Church care deeply about you, your loved ones and your unique belief system. “
“You said you had some questions?” said Mrs Murdoch.
“That’s right,” said the Archangel. “You say you husband did not smoke, swear or blaspheme. You didn’t mention whether he enjoyed a drink?”
A very indignant Mrs Murdoch replied quickly. “He wasn’t a tee-totaller,” she said, “but Frank only ever drank in moderation. Very moderation,” she said, not at all sure if this was grammatically correct. She moved on quickly. “And he certainly hadn’t been drinking on the day he was taken from me.”
“No,” said the Archangel, “I am sure. These questions are only a formality but you know what paperwork is like. I’ll come to the train in a second,” he said. “You also mention that Frank was in good health but our records show that your husband had high blood pressure and he was treated for a stomach ulcer, what, about three years ago?”
“Mr Ephrahim...” began Mrs Murdoch.
“Archangel Ephrahim,” smiled the Archangel, gesturing over his shoulders with a nod to his wings.
“Archangel Ephrahim, said Mrs Murdoch, correcting herself, “my husband’s blood pressure was not a cause for concern and the stomach ulcer had been treated successfully,” she said. “And may I remind you, it was neither his blood pressure nor a stomach ulcer that killed him. It was a train.”
“I apologise,” said the Archangel. “Just one more thing. We at the Holy Name Reform know that your husband was a good church man, and we assume that the brochures you mention are the standard ‘God Is Love’ and ‘God is Life’ variety?”
“That’s right,” said Mrs Murdoch.
“I can see how they may be misleading,” said the Archangel. “Which just leaves the question of the train,” he said.
“You should know about the train,” said Mrs Murdoch.
“Well we do and we don’t,” said Ephrahim.
“It was a chartered train,” said Mrs Murdoch. “Chartered by the Holy Name Reform Church to take parishioners from the whole region to the National Congregation in Sheffield. It was the first time Frank had ever missed a National Congregation in twenty years. The only reason he couldn’t go this year was because his mother was not in good health. He was on his way to see her. He went out the back way, across the field, though St Michael’s Wood and he was crossing the train line by the Dog and Pheasant when he was hit. If it hadn’t been a charter train then the barrier would have been down, but it wasn’t.”
“And he didn’t hear the train coming?” asked the Archangel.
“I don’t know what he heard,” said Mrs Murdoch, “I wasn’t there. The question is: Was God?”
The Archangel Ephrahim flicked through the papers on the clipboard. He studied one for a moment before looking back to Mrs Murdoch. “I’m afraid I am unable to answer that question at this time,” he said.
“So,” said Mrs Murdoch, “where does that leave us?”
“I think I will have to speak to my superiors,” said the Archangel, “but I am instructed to ask what you had in mind, assuming we could come to a ‘no fault on either side’ agreement.“
“You know what I want,” said Mrs Murdoch.
“I’m sorry,” said Ephrahim, “but we don’t do resurrection in the Holy Name Reform; especially after, what, three and a half months?”
Mrs Murdoch thought for a moment. The Archangel Ephrahim knew that she already had a figure in mind. “He was a good earner,” she said, “and he had a good few years ahead of him.”
“I can’t make any promises,” said the Archangel, rising from the sofa.
Mrs Murdoch also stood. “I still go, you know;” she said, “to the Holy Name Reform. I’ve got a lot of friends there who all thought Frank’s going was a bit... on the swift side. And they wonder if Someone,” she said slowly and deliberately, “Someone did something out of spite because of Frank not going to the National. Some of them are talking about moving to the Mutual Baptists. They’ve got a special on redemption at the moment.”
“Just leave it with me, Mrs Murdoch,” said the Archangel Ephrahim.
They said their farewells at the door.
Two weeks later as she made her way to church Mrs Murdoch quite literally bumped into Angus Thelwell. He was suitably apologetic and offered to escort her to the service. Mr Thelwell was a businessman, a homeowner and a very recent widower.
Story 2: Coriander Mason
Coriander Mason is a chef.
Coriander Mason is the best chef in the world.
But there is only one way to get Coriander Mason to cook you a meal. First, you have to kill somebody.
To understand this story I need to take you back a couple of years, to a time when Coriander came second at the International Chef of the Year awards.
Coriander Mason was not happy.
To fully appreciate this story I need to take you back further still. After all, Coriander had entered the competition five times, and five times she had come second.
Coriander Mason was born to be a chef. Her maternal grandmother had been the head chef at the Dorchester Hotel. Half Italian, half French, she brought the proud traditions of both these great nations to the table. Her grandmother had married the head chef at the Ritz, Pablo Chatterjee, whose signature dish of paella rogan josh was said to be a favourite of Winston Churchill and the old Queen Mother. And Coriander Mason’s mother was, of course, Vanessa Chatterjee, the doyenne of home baking.
It was somewhat of a surprise, and a bit of a scandal, when Vanessa took up with Coriander’s father, Elton Mason. Elton was Jamaican, of West African and South East Asian stock. Now Elton wasn’t a chef. Elton was an artist and a musician, unlike both of his parents who were, not surprisingly, chefs.
You may have thought that bringing together such a diverse range of culinary styles, tastes and customs might make for a peculiar hotpot but we have to face facts; Coriander Mason was a genius who could blend herbs with spices and sauces with soups.
So the obvious question is: why was Coriander Mason only the second best chef in the world?
The answer was George Vimto.
I suppose I should tell you, this is a bit of a love story. George Vimto adored Coriander Mason. Many people did. Put simply, Coriander was a beautiful woman, intelligent, independent and, like all great chefs, voluptuous. And if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Coriander knew the route better than any other woman alive.
It is, unfortunately, an unrequited love story. George was not a good looking man, at least not in the traditional sense. In the non-traditional sense he was gorgeous: a bit on the short side, slightly overweight, going thin on top.
But George was a chef. Not a great chef, not like Coriander, but he owned his own cafe across the street from Coriander’s world famous restaurant – Chez Mason. And every day he watched Coriander arrive and he would smile and sometimes wave but Coriander barely acknowledged his existence. Her mind was filled with new creations, new blends of spices, new fusions of textures and tastes.
George knew there was only one way to be noticed.
The process of entering the International Chef of the Year competition is complicated. One place is reserved for the current incumbent. Six more go to the highest ranked, Michelin-starred chefs on each of the major continents. Five more enter through televised competitions where there are round upon round of heats and reheats. The final places are awarded through a written contest to find the four most original recipes.
Chez Mason had just been awarded its third Michelin star and for the first time, Coriander was invited to enter the competition. Not only that but she was the favourite to win. Coriander’s reputation had now spread to every corner of the gastronomic world
George submitted a recipe, and from twenty three thousand entrants, George was one of the chosen few. George was not surprised.
Nor will you be surprised to learn that a competition as prestigious as the International Chef of the Year Award is shrouded in secrecy, not just by the organisers but by the contestants themselves. No chef wants to give away their secrets, their ingredients, their recipes until the last possible minute, and not always then.
The first year that Coriander and George entered, the finals were held in Budapest. George was excited. He’d never left the UK before. Coriander, or course, had travelled the world, cooking for kings and queens and presidents and rock stars, some of whom now made up the judging panel to select the International Chef of the Year. George wasn’t interested in celebrity. George wasn’t particularly interested in cooking. George was interested in Coriander.
On the day of the competition, sixteen chefs stood in their kitchen areas on the stage of the Hungarian National Arena. The opening gong sounded and fifteen of the best chefs in the world began three hours of slicing and dicing, boiling, broiling, simmering, stewing and roasting. For more than two hours George did not move. He watched transfixed as Coriander prepared her dish of Scottish lamb marinated in guava and honeysuckle. With ten minutes to go before the final gong, George started cooking.
Of course he won. Don’t misunderstand me; there is nothing wrong with rich sauces, spiced foods or exotic ingredients but when you are in the right mood there is nothing in the world that will beat baked beans on toast.
At first Coriander did not hate George. She blamed the sponsors for choosing George’s recipe and the judges for going along with the joke. In Coriander’s eyes, George was just a silly little man looking for five minutes of fame. He was no more than a streaker at a fashion show.
This was not the effect George had hoped for. George had hoped Coriander would notice him both as a man, and as a man in touch with the tastes of the common man. Coriander shook his hand but she did not look him in the eye.
George saw this as a challenge. The following year, as the holder of the International Chef of the Year title, George was invited back to the competition, now held in Vancouver.
While Coriander Mason flambéed a wild Canadian salmon and prepared a bed of Senegalese Thieboudienne rice, George sautéed, deep fried, garnished and infused. There were many who praised Coriander’s vision but there was universal acclaim for George’s egg and chips with a slice of buttered bread and a nice cup of tea.
Coriander was really starting to dislike George and dislike turned to utter contempt twelve months later when George won for an unprecedented third successive year with a reheated Morrison’s sausage roll and a can of orange Fanta.
By now many of the other chefs had changed their approach to the competition. Not only that but restaurants around the world had adapted their menus to suit the changing taste for simpler foods.
Against this tide of barbarism, Coriander clung on to all she held dear. She knew the wheel would continue turning and her creativity and inspiration would one day be fully recognised.
It wasn’t until George Vimto claimed his fourth victory, with a Walker’s cheese and onion crisp sandwich, that Coriander’s thoughts turned to murder. George had become the focal point of all the evil that festered in Coriander’s mind but this now extended to food critics, food writers and especially competition judges.
The following year the competition moved to Florida. This year there was a twist. The finals were to be held in the Animal Kingdom Theme Park and the contestants were free to include in their ingredients any of the animals in the zoo. Perhaps if she had opened her eyes a little wider Coriander might have spotted a return to traditional restaurant values of exotic ingredients at wildly inflated prices.
Compared to many of the other entrants, Coriander kept things relatively simple. Not for her the chargrilled panther steak or pan-fried lemur. Coriander went with a Belgian D’Anver chicken in a medley of herbs and almond-scented wild mushrooms.
George knew that times were changing but he secured his fifth title with the classic pot noodle. Lifting the trophy was the last thing George did in this world. Coriander had invited him to taste her dish and along with the five members of the judging panel, George fell victim to cyanide poisoning. Indeed it was the cyanide that had given the almond-like tang to the wild mushrooms.
Coriander was now the undisputed best chef in the world. She was also serving the first of six consecutive life sentences for murder. She was spared the death sentence by offering her services as the head chef on death row: the chef who prepares the last meal requests of those about to be executed. And, with the encouragement of the prison Governor, many of her customers now chose Coriander Mason’s signature dish of herb chicken with almond-scented wild mushrooms.
Thanks for taking the time to read these stories.