Lawrence lay on his pallet, enjoying the solitude of his room after the day’s work had been completed. Solitude was something he had come to enjoy rather than dread. He had made friends with every mouse that crawled through the hole in the corner of the room, sharing with them his meagre nightly rations.
He remembered better days when he was head cook at the palace but now his days were filled with cooking for the prisoners – usually between fifty and sixty of them. Cold gruel in the morning and even colder gruel at night. He should have been able to cook more; much more, the supplies were there, but the chief jailor had stated gruel was good enough for scum.
Now in his room, the only light came from a single candle sitting on a stool he’d rescued from the rubbish, he contemplated the morrow. It was two weeks before Christmas and a new head jailor would arrive. Lawrence drifted into a troubled sleep punctuated by the cries of prisoners in pain.
Lawrence woke with a start as the under jailer shook him roughly by the shoulder. “Wake up, man. The new chief jailer wants to see you.”
A spread of dawn’s silver touched the far wall. Marvellous thought Lawrence, dragging himself out of bed. He probably wants to tell me how he wants the gruel cooked.
He pulled on the pair of breeches and shirt he kept for special holy days. May as well try to make a good impression.
“Ah, you must be Lawrence,” the chief jailer’s uniform was clean. The chief jailer was clean; scrupulously clean – very different from his predecessor who not only looked as though he lived on a midden, but smelt like one too. Lawrence offered up a grateful prayer that he’d worn his best breeches and shirt.
“Yes sir. I cook for the prisoners.”
The jailor smiled, “Did you know that St Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks?”
“Er, yes sir.”
The jailor pulled a spare chair closer to his desk. “Sit down my boy so we can discuss the menu for Christmas.”
“Christmas... m-m-m- menu?”
“Yes, you give the prisoners a feast at Christmas don’t you?”
Lawrence was beginning to wonder if the chief jailor had escaped from insane asylum. “Well, sir, the prisoners usually just have gruel... for breakfast and for dinner. Every day sir.”
“Not any more. No prisoner can do a good day’s work with nothing but gruel in his stomach.”
“But...” Lawrence began.
“But for now,” continued the jailer. “Let’s discuss Christmas dinner.”
“Soup?” suggested Lawrence.
“No, definitely not. We shall have goose and venison. There shall be five types of vegetables. Cakes, pies and a glass of ale for each prisoner.”
Lawrence stared at the jailer aghast. “But where will we get all of this... how do we cook it... what do we...”
The jailer held up his hand to silence Lawrence. “Can you cook it?”
“Well, yes... I think so, but...”
“Then you let me worry about where it comes from.”
True to his word, the new chief jailer provided everything Lawrence required. The lowest cell was taken over as a storeroom for the pies and cakes as they were cooked. The geese hung in the darkest corner, covered with sacking and soaked with cold water several times a day to keep them fresh.
Lawrence felt as though he were dreaming. He hadn’t cooked this much since he worked in the palace. Plum puddings were added to the menu and the ingredients appeared in the prison kitchen.
Early Christmas morning, Lawrence came into prison yard and found the guards had set up six spits, each with red-hot coals all ready for roasting the geese. Trestles were set up around the yard and were piled high with bowls of vegetables and plates of cakes, pies and plum pudding.
Expecting to be served their regular bowl of cold gruel, the prisoners could hardly believe their eyes when they saw the feast set before them. Suspecting a trick, they huddled in groups whispering until the new chief jailer, accompanied by Lawrence, beckoned them and indicated for them to sit at the trestle.
The feast was sumptuous, and not one goose bone was left with meat on it, nor was one crumb of plum pudding left on the plates.
“Well, Saint Lawrence,” the chief jailer said with a laugh. “You’ve lived up to your name. You’ve worked a miracle here.”
Lawrence smiled. “Merry Christmas, sir.”
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