The Last Meal Of Longbarrow

by: Adam William Inglis

A story, framed by a love of food and cooking, about hope. One that offers stirring commentary on the morality of capital punishment…

Warden Moore slammed the telephone back into its cradle and collapsed into the high-backed chair behind his desk, turning to look out the window. The Longbarrow Prison yard lay empty beneath several inches of pristine snow. On the horizon, dark clouds gathered, and the building’s window panes rattled in their frames with the growing wind.

“You doing okay there govenor?”

Moore looked up to see First Officer, Gabriel King, standing in his doorway.

“That was the superintendent,” Moore said, tossing his glasses on the desk. “Authorization for the boy.”

“You knew it was coming,” replied King.

“I know.”

Moore covered his eyes with one hand, rubbing at the temples as he did. His friend was right, but he wouldn’t have minded some ignorance from him for a change. “He’s a good kid though, and the papers are saying—”

“Never mind the papers,” interrupted King, “you shouldn’t have spent so much time with him. You’ve been warden a long time, you know better than to have favorites.”

“Please don’t tell me how to do my job, Gabe. It’s not helping.”

The warden snatched up his glasses and stood to leave the office. King gently caught him by the arm.

“Look, I know he’s a good lad, but you and Tabitha—”

The warden shot him a baleful look.

“Sorry! You and Mrs. Moore spoil him. What if he’s guilty?” King said.

“What if he’s innocent! That lad had dreams. What does he have now?” The warden felt a lump form in his throat for the second time that day.

“That’s not our call.”

“We decide what happens in here, Gabe.”

Moore knew that was only marginally correct. He was little more than a badge-wearing clerk and felt the powerlessness of it today more than any other day in his thirty-two years with the prison service.

A long moment passed.

“We’d better go.” The warden looked at his watch and thought of the two-hundred hungry men awaiting admittance to the canteen, and the one who would remain in his cell.

“Yes, let’s get today over with, and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow,” King suggested.

The warden let out a long sigh, as though the weight on his shoulders had doubled. Outside, the storm edged closer.

Leaving Officer King to oversee breakfast, Moore made his way to the catering block, where a final turn at the end of a long corridor hid a cacophony of clashing metal. Stepping through the double doors of the kitchen was like entering a war zone, but somewhere, amongst the steaming saucepans and clatter, his wife, Tabitha, kept order, just as she did at home.

“You’ll steam up your glasses coming in here!”

Tabitha moved to meet her husband, weaving around busy cooks and deftly avoiding elbows and hot frying pans, stopping here and there to peek over the shoulders of her staff. She took his spectacles off and cleaned them on her apron, placing a warm hand on his cheek as she set them back in place.

“His food’s ready,” she said, leaning in, blurring the line between warden and husband. “I’ve put a little extra in, so keep the lid on to keep it warm.”

The smell emitting from the pot wasn’t the same as the stench from the hot milk and oats the rest of the prison would receive this morning, and he could almost hear the angry words of the district superintendent asking why Moore, with all his experience, continued to break the rules for this prisoner.

To this question, Moore didn’t have an answer.

“Have you heard anything from your brother?” he asked.

“Don’t pull that face, Roy likes you. You could be nicer to him.”

“I’d like him a lot more if he didn’t sit on his fat surplus all day. Come on, has he said anything?”

Unlike his brother-in-law — whose surly company Moore had to bear each Christmas like a scab itching to get picked — Roy’s colleague, a fellow politician named Silverman, fought hard petitioning the government to end capital punishment in Great Britain. The warden had read an interview with Mr. Silverman in The Times. He’d suggested that total abolishment of the death penalty could be mere days away. The Warden had witnessed the hanging of twelve men. All killers, but a life for a life wasn’t the answer.

“No, nothing yet. Sorry dear.”

Moore solemnly nodded

“What is it, has something happened?”

“The Superintendent called this morning. It’s happening tomorrow.”

“Surely not!” Tabitha exclaimed. “With Westminster still debating it?”

“I’m sure. Tomorrow will be no different than all the others.” The words spilt from his mouth, but they were King’s words, charged with the cold indifference he had shared in the office earlier.

“It’ll be alright, won’t it?”

He shook his head. Tabitha’s smile faded.

“But he’s — ”

“I know.”

An oven-timer buzzed, prompting Tabitha to turn back to her staff. “Ten minutes until we serve ladies, please make sure the ovens are off, and you’ve returned your sharps to the locker.”

As Moore turned to leave, Tabitha held his elbow, and he stopped.

“Tell the boy I’ll make him something special, anything he wants.” She paused, lowering her voice. ‘You know, before…”

“Thank you,” he said, barely more than a whisper. “I’ll get the boy’s order.”

“Be strong. I’ll see you later.”

The warden carried the tray along a series of featureless passages, with the sounds of the kitchen fading behind him. The smokey smell of the breakfast tray did little to improve his mood, and in the unforgiving chill of the concrete corridor, he felt himself begin to buckle at the knees. The lid covering the food tray trembled and he fought to keep his hands from shaking. He needed to be stronger than this, but his well ran dry. The meaninglessness of it all crept up the back of his neck, urging him to drop the tray and run. He took a deep breath, and another, forcing his emotions down — like always — to focus on his duty. It helped, but his needle swung between moments of tremendous sadness and fierce, frustrated anger like a metronome. He battled to keep the turmoil from his face and turned the last corner towards D-block.

After the lone guard unlocked the door marked “6,” Moore dismissed him to join the others at breakfast, before stepping into the cell. Its occupant sat on the bunk mounted on the opposite wall, knees pulled up to his chest, sobbing.

It hurt to look at him.

“C’mon, Michael. It’s time to eat.”

Moore placed the tray of food beside him, laying a hand on his shoulder. His skin was cold beneath the grey, prison-issue button-up shirt.

Michael Burr was a skinny lad, not flesh and bone yet, but well on the way to it. His blonde hair had not been through the fingers of the prison barber in a few months, leaving it a straggly mess on his head.

“I’ll fetch the guard’s stool. Get that breakfast in you, lad. It’ll warm you right up.” He tapped the lid of the tray, and was tempted to open it, but resisted.

Moore dragged the stool in and sat, noticing the warmth from the guard’s backside.

Burr opened the lid of his tray to reveal a steaming plate of cooked breakfast with all the trimmings. Bacon, sausages, beans, black pudding, and something that bred envy in Moore’s heart: poached eggs. He didn’t even get poached eggs at home. The entire breakfast was special, but the eggs were the “something extra” Tabitha hinted at. She had a method Moore hadn’t figured out, something about putting vinegar in the water, with the eggs ladled in from a separate bowl. He couldn’t put his finger on the exact element that made them so mouth-watering, but this was the effect they had on him. It lifted Moore’s mood, if only for a moment, as he watched a smile creep onto Burr’s face, despite his red-ringed eyes.

“Thank you, Sir. Thank Mrs Moore too, this is…” he trailed off, wiping fresh tears away with his sleeve.

Moore told Burr about his call with the district superintendent, and that he was doing everything he could to slow the process down.

The hollow words did little to comfort either of them, and Burr tucked into his food, forcing mouthfuls between shuddering breaths.

Moore recalled the circumstances surrounding Michael Burr’s arrest. He’d attempted to steal from a corner shop. The proprietor, Mr. Leary, an Irishman of some renown in the taverns of Longbarrow Glen, lost his life. Burr ended up here.

Seventeen years old. A murderer, destined for the noose.

The version that brought Burr the death penalty was in all the papers. He’d entered the shop, armed with an old war pistol, fired at the good Mr. Leary, and left the premises, running into the arms of an off-duty constable who later testified to hearing the shot and valiantly catching the killer.

Moore, however, believed the truth to be the version he heard from the lad himself.

Mr. Leary, drunk, had produced a pistol when Burr tried to push a can of high strength lager up his coat sleeve, by order of his equally drunk and abusive uncle waiting for it at home. Mr. Leary dropped the pistol in his attempt to grab Burr, it hit the floor and fired. The shot took Leary through the eye, splattering brain and tissue across the cabinet behind him. Burr panicked and ran straight into the arms of the man whose evidence would seal his fate.

Burr’s only hope for the last few months had been the rumour of abolition or a stay of execution. But as prison days blurred together, it became a rumor Moore deeply regretted sharing with Burr.

As Burr finished his breakfast and pushed his tray to one side, he thanked Moore again while pulling his knees back up under his chin.

“Listen,” Moore said, “Mrs. Moore has asked me, to ask you, what you would like to eat. You know, for your meal.” The warden cleared his throat, finding it difficult to look in the boy’s eyes. “When the time comes.”

Burr looked up and grinned. The red around his eyes remained, but with a full belly, he seemed like a regular kid again, as though the food filled a void beyond his stomach.

“Anything I want?” There was excitement in his tone. The sound relaxed Moore for the first time in months.

“Anything you want, as long as she can make it on her own, with whatever is readily available.”

Burr relayed his request to Warden Moore with a level of detail that made his stomach grumble, and his mouth salivate. Roast potatoes sprinkled with rosemary, boiled first, just for a little while, and then tipped into a pan of hot goose fat.

“…like ships cast out to sea,” he’d said.

He asked if Mrs. Moore could make lamb chops, so the fat remained during cooking but would be cut off for him, afterwards. He didn’t like the fat, but it added to the flavour while in the oven. Parsnips next, also roasted, but with a squidge of honey, or salt, he didn’t mind which.

“…and for pudding?” Moore prompted, “don’t forget the best part.”

Burr fell quiet, looking at the ceiling, eyes moving as if reading some invisible text hanging there. He seemed to find the words and looked back at the warden.

“Hope you don’t mind me asking, sir, but what does Mrs. Moore make you?”

The question caught him off-guard, and Moore pictured sitting at his kitchen table, finishing his supper, but instead of his wife’s company, he saw his mother, and he was a boy again, his legs swinging beneath the striped tablecloth as she brought him a bowl of…

“Rice pudding,” Moore answered, laughing. “I don’t like it the way most people do though. It needs to have a thick skin on top, and a pinch of salt.”

“Can I have jam?” Burr asked, with no concern whatsoever for the skin.

“I should think so. Would you like that?”

“Yes please, sir, that would be a real treat.”

“It is lad,’ he said, turning his face so Burr wouldn’t see the sorrow building. “It really is.”

That evening, far from the concrete walls of Longbarrow Prison, Moore sat at his kitchen table and relayed the request to his wife, using the same vivid descriptions he had heard from Michael Burr. When finished, his wife sank into the chair beside him, dropping her hands into her lap. After a long moment, she came to a similar conclusion as the Warden had, earlier that day, before locking Burr’s cell and returning to his rounds with a heavy heart.

“He seems to know a bit about food?” She said.

Moore nodded, taking his wife’s hand, and told her that the boy — whose short life would end in his prison — grew up wishing nothing more than to be a cook.

Just like her.

The rain arrived in a torrent as the storm finally broke, and the two of them wept for the boy, alone in his cell, dreaming of the last meal he would ever eat.

“I hope it’s—”

“It will be,” Moore said. “It always is.”

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