8am Monday morning found Ethel loitering with intent on the ground floor, behind the fake shrubbery in the lobby.
Right on cue, Nurse Kelly arrived with sheets of paper and a staple gun. She stapled new memos over the old ones on the noticeboard and headed back to the nurse’s station. Ethel came out of hiding. With her hooked nose a bare six inches from the board she scanned the despatches. This was her daily routine. Ethel needed to know what was going on in the camp if she was to keep one step ahead of the filthy Gestapo.
The memo of most interest was titled “Dinner ladies industrial action.” It informed all residents that because of a company-wide kitchen employee strike, an external contractor would cater today’s evening meal. Dinner would now be served at 7pm.
“Seven?” Ethel muttered to herself as she yanked the notice down. “They’re trying to bloody starve us, the dirty rats.”
She crumpled the dirty rat’s communique and made it disappear into one of many hidden pockets within her voluminous housecoat. A furtive glance over both hunched shoulders confirmed no one else had seen the notice. Satisfied, she shuffled off in her pink bunny rabbit slippers to find her partner in crime.
Ethel had a plan to share with Enid.
She found Enid’s room empty but knew where to look next. Down in the common room, Enid was hard at work trying to swindle poor old Percy Wainwright out of his weekly tobacco allowance. They sat crouched at the back of the room, over a well-worn scrabble board atop a card table. Ethel navigated the obstacle course of mismatched furniture and dozing octogenarians to reach them.
Ethel wasn’t sure if Percy’s suit and tie meant that he considered the scrabble match a business affair or he’d just forgotten that he didn’t work anymore. His headmasters face stared intently at the row of letter tiles, pondering each combination before rearranging them into a new one. It must have been his turn because Enid sat back in her chair opposite him, each hand tucked inside the sleeves of her favourite yellow cardigan. She didn’t seem to pay much attention to her tiles or the game in general. But that was all a facade.
Percy was out of his league.
Ethel watched Enid work her swindle, impatient to begin the planning for tonight’s strike against their captors.
Extra tiles hidden inside cardigan sleeves facilitated the construction of “JEZEBEL” on a triple word square, thus saving Percy’s lungs from another week-long nicotine onslaught.
Enid grabbed her spoils and her cane and levered her generous frame from the armchair. The two comrades in arms returned to their barracks to plot.
At ten to six that evening, John, on his mobility scooter as if some kind of pied piper, led the residents of Fairhaven rest home, B Wing, into the dining hall.
There appeared to be two new serving ladies at the buffet counter tonight. Their aprons were ill fitting. The elasticized hygienic hair net on the taller lady, who seemed in charge, had slipped down over one eye, squeezing it closed. The large silver ladle she waved served as a cutlass to complete the picture of a somewhat deranged pirate.
At the helm next to Captain Ethel stood first-mate Enid, barely able to see over the counter. At least her sight was unimpaired by elastic, although her hairnet was slipping up her head and threatened to go pinging off into the kitchen behind her.
Ethel surveyed the arriving POWs. John was first, plate in hand to receive rations. She had to lean over the counter with her ladle to plonk a massive scoop of French vanilla ice cream right in the centre of his plate.
John looked up, bemused. “What’s this? Pudding first? and we’re never allowed that much ice-cream.”
“We are tonight!” Ethel cackled. “Move along now; you’re holding up my operation.”
Enid pitched in, rosy cheeks aglow with delight as she removed the rest of the covers from the tubs of ice-cream misappropriated from the kitchen freezer.
When the nurses arrived on the scene, having discovered an empty common room and mounted a search, the entire B Wing company was finishing lashings of French Vanilla.
Running to the tables, Nurse Kelly shouted at Ethel, who couldn’t hear well at the best of times, much less with a hairnet pulled down over her ears.
“What’s she yelling about Enid?” She enquired of her co-conspirator.
“I dunno, something about not tolerating black toads” Enid shrugged as she battled with her apron strings, ready to escape through the kitchen before the advancing nurses arrived.
“Black toads? Who’s she calling a black toad? I’ll report her for that!” Ethel declared.
Nurse Kelly arrived at the front line, a look of panic on her face.
“I said LACTOSE intolerant! some of them are lactose intolerant!”
“Eh?” Was all Ethel could manage, having no idea what the young whipper-snapper was on about.
Percy, the sufferer nearest to this confusing conversation, had bent over his empty plate. “Oh dear, I apologise. I appear to have come over a bit windy.”
Kelly bravely went to his aid as a couple more diners also reacted to their forbidden diet.
Ethel’s look of confusion morphed into one of horror as the first airborne assault hit her.
She hastily turned to catch up with the departing Enid, who’d only made it halfway across the kitchen, her cane slipping on the slick linoleum floor.
“Faster Enid! The blighters are trying to gas us!”
The two made a hasty retreat to barracks, ditching their disguises behind them.