Jacob is reminded of past horrors.
The year 1995
Jacob Cohen’s life hadn’t been an easy one, a fact he reflected on during those long nights when his dreams caused him to wake in a cold sweat.
His attempts at forgetting the past were usually successful, but a cry from a child, the rattle of a train or a scent on the breeze, would sometimes be enough to send his mind reeling back to the dark days.
He, his family and hundreds of others endured the nightmare of an endless journey. The sound of steel wheels on iron rails replayed still, much like a constant rhythm beating time throughout his soul.
He remembered the lack of water and food; the bone chilling cold, the cries of the babies and the soft moans of the dying, the stench of unwashed bodies and excrement.
Some long nights, when sleep was especially elusive, memories would burn into his mind as though the scenes were lit by a photographer’s flashbulb.
Flash! The door of the cattle truck crashing open. A sudden stream of light blinding him after five days in complete darkness.
Flash! An old man, pleading, kneeling on the frozen ground. A Germanic voice, “Rous! Juden swine!”
Flash! Harsh arc lights illuminating the dark, moonless night. Snow flakes fluttering, twirling, falling through the air on to the mass of humanity.
Being little more than a child, his only saving grace was being taken for a much older boy than his twelve years.
He’d made himself useful, desperate to keep alive during those harsh winters when there'd been little to no food and many of the camp died from starvation. His parents and little sister amongst those destined never to see freedom again.
He awoke, from yet another restless night’s sleep, to the sun shining into the bedroom, pooling onto the rug where his dog, Shakespeare, lay curled up, waiting for his breakfast.
Jacob stretched and yawned, his pyjama sleeve slipping to display the tattooed number on his forearm.
Feeling each of his sixty-four years, he rubbed his whiskered face. Relieved the night was over, he glanced at the clock on the bedside table.
“Come on, dog, time to go to work.”
“Do you have a busy day ahead, Jacob?” Ruth, his wife of almost forty years asked, refilling his cup.
“Always busy, my love. I’m looking forward to retirement. Next year we can spend time with the grandchildren, maybe take them on holidays.”
He looked over to the old sideboard, where the photographs of his three grown children and their families stood. His gaze lingered on their smiling faces in the silver frames. A familiar pang of regret and guilt, which only a survivor can know, engulfed him. He had no photographs of his parents, sister, or any of his extended family. A loss for him time couldn’t heal, a loss of which he rarely spoke.
England had been good to him over the years. The strong Jewish community in London helped him as best they could when he arrived in war-torn London as a refugee after six years as a prisoner in the camps. Jacob tried to put the loss of his family behind him and make a new life for himself in his adopted country. Homeless and penniless, he survived by doing any job available. When the council offered him the job of rat catcher down in the sewers, he found it suited him, when perhaps it would repel others. The years of starvation and eating anything he could get his hands on, gave him the skills needed. After enduring terrible conditions and beatings for years, being paid to be up to his knees in sewage caused him no concern.
Over the years he studied to improve himself, attending night school, learning English, whilst continuing to work for the council.
Now as head of a team of health inspectors, he worked hard to ensure the safety of patrons of hundreds of restaurants and cafes all over the borough.
The bell above the door of the cafe tinkled when he entered. The place was small, with a few formica tables and chairs for customers.
A very overweight man of Greek extraction wiped his hands on a filthy tea towel, before wiping the sweat from his brow. “Yes. What can I get for you?”
“Nothing. Thank you.” Jacob showed him his ID.
“Again?” Baros held out his hands in disbelief.
“Yes. I’m afraid so, sir.”
“What is it this time?” The cafe owner pointed to the floor. “I replaced the cracked lino, as instructed.”
“Rats? Seen any running around?”
“If anyone says they’ve seen rats, then they are nothing but liars.”
“Mr. Baros, it’s imperative you keep on top of things. Vermin can cause many illnesses. You are running a business where you provide food to the public.” Jacob passed the man a piece of paper.
“What’s this? Don’t tell me you’re closing me down.”
“You have a week. Then I’m going to do a full inspection of the premises. Good day, Sir.”
Closing the door behind him, Jacob proceeded to his next port of call.
Feeling hungry, he sat on a park bench in the Spring sunshine, opened his battered brown briefcase and found he’d forgotten to bring his packed lunch.
Deciding to stay there for ten minutes to enjoy the smell of freshly cut grass, he gazed fondly at the young mothers with their children on the playground. A rumble from his stomach urged him to his feet, seeking sustenance.
Walking back to where he’d parked his car, his thoughts projected to the following year when he would become a man of leisure. Retirement beckoned, visions of just he and Ruth going for day trips into the countryside, picnics with the grandkids and…
Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks as an odour reached his nostrils.
A man who’d been walking behind him almost collided with Jacob before veering around him, but not before giving him a dirty look.
“I’m sorry, Sir,” Jacob apologised.
For a minute or two he felt as if he couldn’t move. Walking over to the side of the street where the shops and restaurants were, he leaned on a wall.
He felt sick to the stomach, all thoughts of eating gone.
Continuing at last to walk towards the carpark his heart rate slowed, and he wondered if he might be ill.
As he approached an Italian restaurant called Pappa’s, the smell assailed him again. His head spun, and he made his way to a street bench and sat down. Tears filled his eyes as he realised the smell had resurrected a long forgotten memory. A memory buried so deep he’d forgotten its origin.
Standing, he walked with a purpose and opened the door of Pappa’s.
“A table for just the one, Sir?”
“I’m not here to eat.” Jacob flashed his ID.
“Then what can I do for you, Sir?” The waiter asked.
“Just show me to the kitchen. Is the owner around?”
Jacob walked into the large industrial kitchen. It was hot. Pots were boiling on the stove and a large man wearing a grubby white apron and a chef’s hat looked up. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Health Inspector. What’s cooking?”
“My speciality. Pampanella. It’s classic street food. I have customers who come for miles to eat it.”
Jacob stared at the Chef who was sweating profusely. “Tell me more about the Pampanella.”
“It’s simply pork cuts, marinated in sweet ground red peppers, garlic and salt. I add white vinegar to the meat when it’s baked in the oven.”
“Maybe I’ll come and try it one day.” Jacob slowly looked around the kitchen before saying, “Make sure you’re following the health regulations.”
Leaving the restaurant, he hurried to his car where he sat and wrote out the orders for a full team inspection of Pappa’s the next day.
Entering the kitchen of the Italian restaurant, Jacob sent his two associates to inspect the ovens, fridges and store cupboards, whilst he made his way to the two large freezers.
“What are you looking for, man?” The Chef asked. He paced up and down, attempting to keep his eye on what the inspectors were doing.
“It’s an inspection, that’s all. You’ve got nothing to be concerned about.” Jacob looked up from the freezer. “We just need some samples and then we’ll get out of your hair.”
The frosty air fogged up Jacob’s glasses when he stuck his head inside the huge deep freezer. Chunks of meat, wrapped in plastic were packed tightly.
“We need to take samples from the whole workplace. Nothing to worry about. It’s all standard procedure.” Jacob took several plastic wrapped pieces of frozen meat, placing them in a cooler box.
Following the inspection, the samples were sent to their forensic unit, which returned findings of human remains from the freezers at Pappa’s Restaurant. Leading to a police investigation.
“What led you to suspect the chef was cooking human flesh, Mr. Cohen?
Jacob sat on the other side of the desk in the bare interrogation room. “A memory, Sergeant.”
The police officer saw the man struggling with emotion and let him take his time before asking again. “A memory, you say?” he said, encouraging the man opposite to explain.
“I was a child. In Auschwitz. Concentration camp.”
“It was the smell.” He stopped speaking for a couple of minutes. The silence filled the room. “Human flesh. Burning. Maybe even my family.”
“Christ.” the Sergeant whispered.
“I just knew. It was the smell. It brought it all back.”