“Let’s get them served,” Joshua ordered.
They rushed back to the alley and worked like a machine. Mr. Mudd handed them cleaned tiles salvaged from the debris to use as serving plates. Joshua topped each with a glop of lentils, then a glop of greens. Lucinda topped it with a flatbread. The rest of them grabbed the makeshift plates and took them inside the hall via the side door. Inside the children lined the tables made of twine and old boards with mouths watering.
“Take your seats. One at a time. No shoving. You’ll all get some,” Sophie commanded.
The crowd obeyed. They believed in the magic. They filed in and sat down without complaint as the tiles with food were served.
They would have torn into the food instantly but the aroma stopped them. They ate slowly and savored the smell and the taste. And because they did so, the food filled their bellies.
Once everyone in the hall was served, Joshua came inside and sat down near the stage.
Everyone put their down plates and looked towards him and his friends. There was expectation in the air. He could tell by their gazes that they waited for something else. But Joshua was exhausted and nothing left to give.
Are they still hungry? He wondered. Did I not make enough? It can’t be. Most of them haven’t finished. Do they not like it?
“I think they want us to say something,” Mrs. Mudd offered.
Sophie drew a breath and was about to speak. Joshua put a hand on her shoulder.
“No need. The truth will do.”
He stepped forward.
“You’re welcome here. All of you. Tonight, we have food to share. As long as we have enough we will share it with you. No need to say anything, or do anything. Just eat.”
“Thank you,” said a small voice from the crowd.
It was followed by another, then another. Then a chorus of “thank you’s”.
Joshua wasn’t prepared to hear those words. Something surged deep inside his chest and he felt like he would burst into tears. But why should he? Wasn’t this a happy moment?
“Eat. Eat,” he managed to say. He wiped his eyes as he sat down with his friends.
They ate. There were moans of delight and few loud burps from the crowd. Joshua and his friends and the Mudds gathered to the side and feasted on the leftovers.
“Didn’t realize how tired I was,” Heathcliff said.
“And to think we have to do it again tomorrow,” Lucinda said.
“It’ll be easier. We’ll be better at this the next time,” Joshua said.
And they were. The next day, they had the bread patted out and on the grill in half the time. They completed lentils and greens almost too quickly. The crowd was back again at the same time. They poured inside loudly but orderly. They took their plates from the pile in the corner and returned them when done.
Joshua and his friends had time to walk around during the meal and meet the children they fed. Many were about their age. A few of them sported bruises.
“Benjamin Bastion?” Joshua asked a boy with a black eye.
The boy nodded.
The next day the meal preparation took mere moments. Joshua let Mr. Mudd and Lucinda take turns stirring the lentils and greens so he could rest. The throng came again, stronger than before but even quieter and more behaved. Joshua and his friends again walked around and greeted people. Dina introduced him to three little girls.
“Nina, Mina and Christina,” she said with a devilish smile.
“Is that true?” Joshua asked.
The three girls giggled. He couldn’t tell if that meant “yes” or “no.”
Joshua found the boy with the black eye, whose name was Peter. They talked a while after the meal.
Peter took care of his brother and sister. They begged on the streets near Rustington. Peter hoped to save enough to buy a shoeshine kit now that he didn’t have to pay Benjamin Bastion his kitchen toll.
He said with a bit of pride, “I can make pennies a day. It’s not much but after a hundred days I’ll have dollars.”
“That sounds great,” Joshua said.
Peter went on, “It’s nothing compared to what you’ll do. If you sell your food on the streets you’ll make a fortune.”
They chatted some more and Joshua went back to be with his friends.
“Is something wrong? You have your troubled face,” Lucinda said.
“I’m fine,” he answered.
But he was a little disturbed. It was what Peter had said that made him think.
I could make money selling food in Rustington, but I’ll never have the opportunity if I’m always working here and giving it away for free.
But if he left for Rustington who would feed all these children? How could he leave them?