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THE QUALITY CHOPHOUSE A Shiverton Hall Story

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For the students of Shiverton Hall, sometimes the holidays are every bit as strange as term time . . . * Anna Dryden’s parents wouldn’t be back for hours. Possibly days. Clearly they had completely forgotten that term had finished. Again. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Patricia’s mother had taken pity on her and given her a lift home, Anna might have been forced to spend the entire Christmas break in her cold dorm at Shiverton Hall, crossing the days off on her 1966 Davy Jones calendar until everyone returned in the new year. Anna’s parents often forgot about her. They were actors, and Anna had not been part of their plan. She was sweet enough as a toddler, when they used to cart her round their thespian parties, dressed as Cobweb or Mustardseed, where

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their friends cooed at her and blew smoke into her eyes. But once Anna was old enough to object to the boozy breath of Macbeth and to Puss in Boots pilfering her pocket money, her parents got tired of her and sent her off to a boarding school whose fees they could scarcely afford. Anna looked out of the window miserably. Their house in Clerkenwell was as dark and cold and damp as ever. They must have failed to pay the bills again, or change the light bulbs, because no amount of fiddling with the old, brass light switch in the drawing room produced so much as a flicker. At least it looked half-tidy – usually every surface was cluttered with empty gin bottles, ashtrays stuffed with cigarette butts littered the tables, and the mice sauntered, in a perfectly unhurried way, across the stained carpet. Anna wondered if they’d hired a maid. There was nothing at all for Anna to do. There was no television, no radio; even the magazines were yellow and curling. It was past supper-time, and Anna was starving. She knew better than to bother to look in the fridge though; it was only used to chill cheap champagne and keep the moths out of her mother’s cashmere. Anna sighed, and stuck her tongue out at the enormous portrait of her mother, which hung ostentatiously above the fireplace. It had originally been a nude portrait, which had made Anna too terrified to ever invite friends over to her house, but luckily when Anna was nine her father had 2

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taken a pot of paint to it, covering everything from the neck down in a black smear and adding a moustache and monocle for good measure. It had been one of the happiest days of Anna’s life, even though her mother had smacked her for laughing. Anna plonked herself down on the sagging sofa. She wondered what Patricia would be doing now. Patricia had been her best friend since they arrived at Shiverton Hall the year before; they were in the same house and hit it off immediately because of their shared love of Davy Jones, the lead singer of The Monkees. Anna envied Patricia her warm house in Kensington, her lawyer father and her mother, who smelled of lily of the valley. Patricia’s parents would never have forgotten Patricia’s fourteenth birthday, as Anna’s parents had her own, the month before. Anna imagined Patricia tucking into tea now – home-made drop scones and golden syrup and buttery crumpets – while her father ruffled her hair and asked about her term. There would be a Christmas tree too, of course, twinkling somewhere in the background and strung with hand-painted decorations. Anna’s eyes began to well up. Here she was, freezing cold and alone, with no parents to speak of, and not even a stick of wood for the fire. She started to sob. She had always enjoyed sobbing tremendously – it was the one thing that she and her mother had in common – and found that once 3

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she really got into the swing of it, she could wail and rend her clothes for hours. ‘I hate my parents,’ she moaned, throwing a cushion on the floor for greater effect. ‘Why can’t they just be normal!’ The pitch of Anna’s cry must have been even more piercing than usual, because it made the dirty glasses on the table ring out, and the age-spotted mirror give a long, high whine. The sound, though not unpleasant, was sufficiently unnerving to close Anna’s bawling mouth. The ringing faded, and was replaced by another, more strange and unlikely sound: that of keys in the front door. Anna wiped the tears from her cheeks and stood up to face her parents. She could hear them in the hallway, chuckling and stumbling about; probably already tipsy after a few ‘warming’ winter sherries. Anna heard her mother shush her father, and the noise in the hall came to an abrupt stop. ‘Do you hear that?’ Anna’s mother said. She must have smoked too many Cocktail Sobranie cigarettes the night before, because her voice was deeper and thicker than usual. ‘Is someone there?’ Anna’s father boomed. Anna stepped out of the darkness of the drawing room into the hall, and her parents shrieked in shock. ‘It’s only me,’ Anna said sulkily. Her parents stared at her blankly. ‘Your daughter,’ Anna continued, through gritted teeth. 4

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‘Our daughter!’ Anna’s father cried. ‘Of course, our little, er . . .’ ‘Anna!’ she sighed. ‘Anna! Anna! Yes, of course!’ her mother said. ‘How are you, darling?’ asked her father. Anna looked at him and wrinkled her nose. ‘You’ve grown a beard,’ she said. ‘What?’ he asked. ‘Oh. Yes. Yes. Playing Lear. Needed a beard.’ ‘Your eyes look different,’ Anna said, peering at him. ‘They’re grey! I thought they were green?’ Her father chuckled. ‘Green! Whoever heard of such a thing? My eyes have always been grey.’ Anna frowned. ‘Come here, darling,’ her mother said quickly. ‘You must be hungry.’ They led her towards the kitchen and Anna glanced up at her mother. She had dyed her hair red, and was wearing a hat tipped low on her face. Every time Anna tried to look at her parents, she had the odd sense that they were tilting their faces away from her. ‘Is everything all right?’ she asked suspiciously. ‘You seem . . . different.’ Her parents stiffened. Her father said, ‘Quite all right, Annie –’ ‘Anna,’ she corrected. 5

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‘Anna. Yes. Sorry.’ Anna narrowed her eyes. ‘I know what’s going on,’ she said. Her parents clutched one another. ‘You’ve been to that doctor again,’ Anna continued. ‘The one who makes you look younger.’ Her mother and father burst out laughing. ‘Ah. You have us there, darling,’ her mother said. ‘Guilty as charged,’ agreed her father. ‘Well, he hasn’t done a very good job,’ Anna said. ‘You don’t look younger at all. You just look bizarre.’ Anna’s father thought it best to change the subject. They had entered the kitchen, which she noticed didn’t look half so dusty and full of rat droppings as it usually did. ‘What would you like for dinner?’ her father asked, opening the door to their enormous, wheezy fridge. Anna gasped. She had never seen anything like it. Gone were her mother’s jumpers and the champagne and the dead, curled-up spider in the corner, and in their place quivered a butcher’s shop of pink flesh. A fat, clove-studded ham stood proudly on the top shelf, above rows and rows of plump, glistening sausages, marinated chops and rashers of smoked bacon. Anna licked her lips at the sight of it. ‘Where did all this come from?’ she asked, reaching for a hanging, netted salami. 6

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Her mother slapped her hand away. ‘From the Quality Chophouse,’ she said, pulling a string of sausages from the third shelf. ‘What’s that?’ Anna asked, eyeing the sausages greedily as her mother threw them into a sizzling pan on the Aga. ‘It’s a restaurant round the corner,’ her father replied, cutting a sliver off the ham and passing it to his daughter to try. ‘It has a new owner.’ ‘And he simply loves actors,’ her mother continued, tossing some parsley into the pan. ‘All we have to do is go to the Quality Chophouse with a few of our actor friends, and in return the owner gives us all of this for free.’ ‘I don’t understand,’ Anna said. ‘Why would he . . .’ But Anna had forgotten what she was going to say, because the ham that she was chewing was so delicious, so saltily piggy, that everything else was completely knocked out of her head. Her parents smiled. ‘Tasty, isn’t it?’ her father said. ‘More?’ Anna nodded enthusiastically. ‘Good girl.’ * Anna had gone to sleep almost instantly, her stomach swollen after so much meat, and she woke up a few hours 7

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later feeling unbearably queasy. Groaning, she got out of bed, and heard a scuffling, and a low, engine-like rumble coming from the room next door. She pressed her ear to the wall. On the other side was a spare bedroom, never used because of an enormous hole in the roof above it. Anna knocked against the wall and the scuffling stopped, only to resume a few seconds later, more frantically than before. Anna crept out of her room into the hall and tried the door. It was either locked or stuck fast after so many years of neglect. ‘Is someone in there?’ Anna whispered. There was no reply, only the horrid, animal scratching. ‘Anna?’ Anna turned. Her mother was standing in the hall behind her, wearing a tasselled, velvet dressing gown and dark glasses. ‘What on earth are you doing?’ she asked. Anna hesitated. The noise had ceased. ‘I thought I heard something,’ Anna replied, trying the door again. ‘From in there? Don’t be silly, darling.’ ‘It sounded like something was trapped.’ ‘Oh well, it’s probably a bird that’s flown down the chimney.’ ‘Can we let it out?’ ‘We could, but I’m afraid your father lost the key to that 8

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room years ago. So unless you want to axe the door in . . .’ Anna shook her head. ‘Right then. Back to bed. You’re looking a bit peaky, darling. You need your beauty sleep.’ ‘But –’ Her mother then did something astonishing. She awkwardly gave Anna a hug and offered to read her a story – a show of affection so rare that Anna meekly shook her head and went to bed, stunned. * The following morning, Anna went downstairs to discover her parents hunched in the corner of the kitchen, whispering. When her father noticed Anna, they sprang apart. ‘Bacon sandwich, darling?’ he asked, dishing some dripping bacon on to several slices of soft, white bread and shoving it towards his daughter before she had time to reply. ‘Cramming wants to meet you,’ her mother said, as Anna bit into her sandwich. ‘Who’s Cramming?’ Anna asked, her mouth full. ‘Arnold Cramming. He owns the Quality Chophouse down the road,’ her father said. ‘He’s the man responsible for that bacon.’ 9

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Anna rolled her eyes with pleasure. ‘It’s so good,’ she sighed, fat dribbling down her chin. ‘Well, you can tell him that yourself.’ * The Quality Chophouse was written in ancient, gold lettering above the smoky grey windows. Inside it looked like the café of a provincial railway station during the Second World War; the sort of place men went to have dinner with women who were most certainly not their wives. Its carved, mahogany benches, like church pews, groaned with customers feasting greasily on the lunch special, as neat waitresses in crisp uniforms ferried around plates sloppy with gravy. Anna looked down at the black-and-white-tiled floor, which had, in the grouting between each slab, a reddish, bloody hue. ‘That’s from dragging in the carcasses,’ said a voice above her. Anna looked up. The man standing over her must have been close to seven feet tall, lean as Jack Sprat, with a knifesharp centre parting in his white hair, a black, velvet suit, and an ebony, silver-topped walking stick which seemed the very image of the man himself. The odd thing, Anna thought, was that he couldn’t have been any older than thirty, perhaps even less, and so the white hair and the 10

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walking stick made him appear as though he were a boy playing the part of ‘distinguished older gentleman’ in the school play. The man nodded down to the bloody grouting. ‘I’ve had the porter on his knees every evening since we opened, trying to get the blood out, but it’s no use.’ Anna was speechless. Her parents cleared their throats. ‘Cramming, this is our daughter, Anna,’ her mother said. Cramming inclined his head politely. ‘How do you do?’ he said. ‘How d’you do?’ Anna mumbled back. ‘What a delight to meet you,’ he continued. ‘Please, sit down.’ A waitress had silently cleared them a space at a nearby table. ‘Your parents have told me so much about you.’ Anna very much doubted that. She gulped down her lunch as Cramming and her parents discussed some of their mutual actor friends. It appeared that they had brought a few people in the night before, and Cramming had been particularly pleased to meet them. ‘Miss Angelica! What a find!’ Cramming enthused. ‘So delicate and so terribly refined.’ ‘We knew you’d like her,’ Anna’s mother said. 11

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‘Everyone loved her! A real triumph. That isn’t to say that Mr Chortle isn’t equally as appreciated, but he’s a bawdier taste, really, isn’t he? The ladies aren’t so keen on him.’ ‘And what do you think of our daughter?’ her father said. Anna felt Cramming’s pale eyes drift on to her like snowflakes. ‘Do you want to be an actress, my dear?’ Cramming asked. ‘Not especially,’ Anna murmured through her second helping of chops. ‘And why not?’ he said, striking the table with his cane. ‘Acting is surely the most noble profession in the world!’ ‘I don’t see what’s so noble about putting on stupid costumes and showing off in front of strangers.’ Anna sniffed. Cramming tutted and Anna’s parents shifted awkwardly on the hard, wooden seat. ‘Can you keep a secret?’ Cramming asked, and suddenly his face was next to Anna’s, so close she could see his pallid reflection in her gravy. Anna nodded. ‘I used to be an actor myself,’ Cramming continued. ‘And I was rather a success too. The Evening Standard called my Julius Caesar “almost first-rate”. And then I 12

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went on to become a notable stage manager. I’ve always loved the theatre.’ ‘So why did you leave it?’ Anna asked. ‘No money in it, you see. Not a farthing. But now . . .’ He spread his arms to take in the Quality Chophouse. ‘Well, I couldn’t spend all the money I make. Good, quality meat, you see. People will always pay for good, quality meat. None of your watery, pumped-up factory stuff here.’ Anna smeared a chunk of bread over the plate to soak up the remains of her lunch. ‘Would you like some more, my dear?’ Cramming asked, his finger already in the air to summon a waitress. Anna nodded. * When Anna and her parents hit the frosty pavement a few hours later, Anna gave a sigh of relief which crystallised in the air in front of her. She didn’t like Cramming at all, and said as much when they got home. ‘Cramming has been very good to us’ was all her father would say. The scraping and the scuffling and the metallic rumbling from the guest room continued that night. * 13

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The following night was the same, except this time Anna thought she heard the door open. Feeling brave, and cross from her lack of sleep, she leapt out of bed and into the hallway, but there was nothing to see. Apart from the interrupted nights, the Christmas holidays were shaping up to be the most enjoyable of Anna’s young life. Her parents were awful actors, and they were playing the part of doting parents terribly, but Anna didn’t care whether their affection was real or faked. It was the only love they had ever shown and she gorged herself on it like she filled herself up with Cramming’s bacon. Her waistband was tightening, and she could feel her legs wobble when she ran up the stairs, but Anna didn’t mind; she kept shovelling the delicious chops and the ham and the sausages into her mouth as her parents looked on approvingly. * On Christmas Eve her parents held a party, and all of their actor friends bustled into the drawing room in a fluster of velvets and sparkles and blue cigarette smoke. Anna was allowed to stay for an hour to pass around the sausage rolls and fill up the cocktails. She was already quite adept at making martinis and she sloshed them into the glasses liberally, getting into the Christmas spirit. As she topped 14

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up the famous Todd Casterley’s glass, she overheard a conversation between him and Mrs Birch, a portly, redfaced woman who swore profusely and played the cook in a popular television programme. ‘And Donald too,’ Casterley whispered. ‘Donald?’ Mrs Birch gasped. ‘Well, that really is peculiar. I mean, Jenny was a flighty thing – as was Dorothy – but Donald Chortle would never miss a show.’ Chortle. Anna cocked her head. The name rang a bell. She drifted closer to them, pretending to warm her hands over the fire. ‘What do the police say?’ Mrs Birch continued. ‘Oh, they won’t take it seriously! They’ll say that Jenny must have run off with someone or that Donald got stage fright. They think we’re all a bunch of libertines, you know – practically street people.’ ‘You’ve heard the rumours?’ Mrs Birch whispered, her voice shaking a little. ‘This has happened before. Some actor friends of mine were doing Cinderella in Brighton. Three of them disappeared, never to be seen again.’ ‘Don’t worry yourself, Mrs Birch,’ Casterley said, with a reassuring pat on her ample shoulder. ‘I have a friend who writes for the papers, and I intend to call on him this very night.’ Anna was now quite wrapped up in the conversation, and didn’t notice that her mother had appeared behind her. 15

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‘Anna!’ she said. Anna jumped. ‘Go and mix up some more drinks, won’t you?’ her mother said. ‘Let me talk to Mr Casterley.’ Anna was sent up to bed not long afterwards, but it was difficult to sleep with the party in full swing below. * At three in the morning, Anna decided she had had enough. She pulled on her dressing gown and stormed down the stairs. A voice made her freeze as she reached the final stair. It was Cramming. He must have arrived after she had gone to bed. A record player was spinning The Rolling Stones at full blast, but Anna could still hear his thin, reedy voice hovering above Mick Jagger’s. It appeared that everyone else had left. She crept to the drawing-room door and peeked through the crack. Cramming was standing over Casterley, who was lying, seemingly asleep, on the floor. It wasn’t the first time that Anna had seen one of her parents’ friends passed out from too much drink, but there was something about the way that Cramming stood over him, as her parents cowered in the corner, that made her think that something odd was going on. 16

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‘We can’t do it, Cramming,’ Anna’s father said. ‘People are already suspicious. If Casterley disappears too –’ ‘We have no choice,’ Cramming replied. ‘Casterley is planning on alerting the press.’ ‘Casterley is in no state to tell anyone anything tonight. And we only need to stay until tomorrow,’ Anna’s mother pleaded. ‘We just need to get through Christmas lunch at the Chophouse, then we can disappear again, like we did with Brighton.’ Brighton? Anna thought. Her parents had never been to Brighton. She started to feel a little faint. Who were these people? ‘Brighton was different,’ Cramming replied. ‘We need to be far more careful here. I don’t want any loose ends.’ ‘What about the child?’ the woman asked quietly. Anna held her breath. ‘That was an error,’ Cramming admitted. ‘But how were we to know that Mr and Mrs Dryden had a child? There are no photographs, no letters, and they never spoke of her.’ Anna flushed – that sounded like her parents. ‘I suppose we’ll have to add a special to the boards.’ Cramming sighed. ‘Veal, perhaps.’ ‘No!’ the man playing Anna’s father cried. ‘We will not harm a child, Cramming. Even we couldn’t stoop to that.’ ‘And why not?’ Cramming asked. ‘You were happy to pretend you were her parents, knowing where her real parents are.’ 17

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Anna didn’t know what to make of this. She strained her ears to hear Cramming as his voice dropped to a threatening whisper. ‘Would you like to go back to playing bit parts in provincial theatre?’ he asked. Anna’s not-parents shook their heads. ‘No. So do away with Casterley and do away with the child.’ ‘We will not hurt the child,’ the woman repeated. ‘Then I’ll have to,’ Cramming said and pulled apart his walking stick to reveal a thin, silver blade. Anna turned to run, but her bedsock caught the edge of a nail, and she went crashing into the hall table. Before she could even get up, Cramming was above her, his blade at her throat. ‘I’m sorry, my dear, but you really will make an excellent amuse-bouche,’ he said with a sneer. ‘Oh no she won’t!’ said Anna’s not-father, in a booming voice honed from many years of pantomime, and he hit Cramming on the head with an enormous frozen ham. Cramming dropped his rapier and slumped forward. Anna could see a dent in the side of his head where the skull had crumpled. ‘I’m sorry you had to see that, my dear,’ Anna’s notfather said. ‘But it had to be done.’ ‘I quite agree,’ her not-mother replied, and helped a shaking Anna to her feet. 18

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* Anna sipped some hot milk and honey in the kitchen. Silvia and Fernando Florentine-Cruz waited nervously while the information they had just relayed to her sank in. * Silvia, Fernando and Cramming had been working together on a dreadful travelling production of She Stoops to Conquer when one of the show’s actors went missing. Cramming, the stage manager, assumed the man had bagged a better job, and swiftly replaced him with a young stagehand. Nobody gave the actor a second thought, until a few days later, when he was fished out of a decorative fountain in Sheffield, having drunkenly stumbled in and drowned. The evening of the discovery, hunched around the lukewarm electric heater of a damp bedsit, hungry but with only a single soggy sandwich between them, the FernandoCruzes grimly discussed their prospects. Cramming had come in to crouch over the measly heater, and he was feeling every bit as depressed as they were. The play was a resounding failure: it would almost certainly close that week and none of them had a penny to their name. The younger members of the cast would get by somehow, but what were they to do? The Fernando-Cruzes weren’t getting 19

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any younger, and Cramming was as dreadful at stage managing as he had been at acting, though nobody would dare say it to his face. The sorry conversation eventually wound its way round to the dead man. Fernando observed that, had the young Boy Scout not stumbled upon the body, no one would have known – or cared in the least bit – that he had gone at all. This thought made Silvia burst into tears and remark that actors have no family and no home, and move around so much they may as well be ghosts. As Silvia wailed and Fernando comforted her, Cramming’s pale face reddened, and he sat up straight as though someone had poked him with a cattle prod. ‘What?’ Silvia sniffed. ‘Don’t you see?’ Cramming laughed. ‘We can use this to our advantage!’ Cramming explained that his father had been a butcher, and that during the years of rationing that had followed the war he had often accepted meat from a source that was not strictly above board. ‘What do you mean?’ Fernando asked. Cramming was quite matter of fact about it. It was actually rather common, he said, as the Fernando-Cruzes looked at him in horror – many butchers at the time had done so. It was highly likely, therefore, that they had all, at 20

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least once, nibbled on an old woman’s femur or fried up the rump of a vagrant. It was nothing to be squeamish about. It tasted exactly like pork! Almost exactly. If Silvia hadn’t been so hungry it might have been different, but her rumbling stomach, and Cramming’s persuasiveness, made her far more amenable than she would care to admit now. That evening, over a bottle of watered-down whisky, they hatched a plan. Cramming would deal with the more unsavoury parts: the butchery, and the sale of the meat. But Cramming was an odd fish; sulky and short-tempered. People simply didn’t like him. That was where the Florentine-Cruzes came in. All Silvia and Fernando would have to do was befriend their chosen victims and then impersonate them for a few weeks after their deaths, which gave them the time to spin some story that would explain their disappearance to friends or relatives. It would also grant them access to other actors who may not be missed. The scheme had been hugely successful in Brighton, the first city where they tried their luck. The meat sold so well that, a few months later, Cramming insisted on opening a restaurant in London, a city with no end of showgirls and faded starlets and balding leading men for them to pick off. The first people they chose in London were Anna’s parents. They had been singled out for their 21

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large group of noisy, partying friends, who seemed to Cramming to be like a larder ready for raiding. But they had not counted on Anna. * Anna sipped her milk, apparently unmoved by this gruesome tale. Silvia and Fernando glanced at one another apprehensively. Anna set down her mug. ‘Where are my parents now?’ she asked, quite unemotionally. Fernando cleared his throat. ‘Well, you see, we’re in a rather unusual situation, my dear. And Silvia and I would like to strike up a bargain with you –’ ‘Anna,’ Silvia interrupted, ‘how would you like to see your parents again?’ That was when Anna threw up all over the kitchen table. * Fernando’s hands were shaking as he fumbled with the key to the spare room. The scuffling inside was as frantic as ever, and Anna felt herself clutch for Silvia’s hand. The bolt drew back with a click and the scuffling stopped. Fernando hesitated and turned towards Anna 22

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and his wife. He was sweating and he slicked the moisture from his temples into his hair with his palm. ‘You see, Anna,’ he stuttered, ‘Cramming said we needed something extra-special for Christmas lunch, something cosmopolitan that would have the customers begging for more.’ ‘Just open the door,’ Anna whispered. It took a while for her eyes to adjust to the rancid gloom of the spare room, and for her nostrils to adjust to the smell. Anna peered through the darkness towards her parents. She recognised what the machine was at once. The term before they had had a lesson on animal cruelty, and the teacher had explained how the French made foie gras pâté by force-feeding geese. Anna smiled at her mother and father. ‘I think I like my new mummy and daddy better,’ she said. Her real parents couldn’t speak, of course. Not with all the tubing. Anna took the key from Fernando, shut the door, and locked it.

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Bloomsbury Publishing, London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney First published in Great Britain in December 2012 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP Text copyright © Emerald Fennell 2012 Coat of arms illustration copyright © Theo Fennell 2012 Axe illustration copyright © Tom Percival 2012 The moral rights of the author and illustrators have been asserted All rights reserved www.bloomsbury.com

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The Quality Chophouse  

A Shiverton Short Story by Emerald Fennell

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A Shiverton Short Story by Emerald Fennell

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