While those around her tucked in ravenously, Anneka looked at what was on her plate. She turned to Finny and held up a hand to whisper.
"Please, Finny? What is it?"
Finny swallowed several times. Gristle had a habit of getting stuck in the throat but nothing could withstand a determinedly swallowing orphan for long.
"It's Tuesday so it's 'Snow an' Sludge with Grass'." She grinned a gravy smile at the little girl's furrowed brow of confusion. Finny used her fork to point at Anneka's plate. "See, Snow.
That's the mashed potato..."
Anneka looked at the translucent pile of white with the grey and black bits. It did not look like the creamy, fluffy white mashed potato she got at home. She shook her head.
"Don't wan' it."
Around the table, four pairs of eyes turned to look at Anneka's plate.
Finny's fork hovered over the green stuff.
"That's the grass, which is, um... probably cabbage. It's hard to tell after they've finished doing stuff to it..."
Anneka looked hard at it. It didn't look like cabbage. She sniffed it. It didn't smell like cabbage either.
"Don't wan' it."
Four pairs of eyes turned to look at Finny.
Aware of the scrutiny, Finny changed her grip on her knife into a stabbing attitude and held it poised for all the table to see. She hovered her fork over the... the...
the stuff that wasn't white or green.
"An' the Sludge, that's..." She remembered what the server had told her when she had once asked what it was that had just been ladled onto her plate. "... mostly horse."
Anneka blinked. She had seen horses. Everyone watched as Anneka lifted her fork and, after a little trouble, managed to coax some of the minced-up meat onto the end.
Breaths were held as she then transferred the 'mostly horse' to her mouth and she began to chew.
Held breaths were released in a team sigh of disappointment... but there was still the potato and cabbage. Forks began to slowly advance on Anneka's plate.
Finny lifted the knife a fraction and the steady march of the forks stopped. She turned to Anneka.
"So, you don't want the potato or the cabbage then?"
Anneka scrunched her nose up and shook her head. There was a blur of motion and Anneka's plate disappeared under an octopus of arms. Mere seconds later, the arms were gone...
So was Annie's potatoes, cabbage and about half of her mostly horse.
Anneka looked at her pillaged plate with wide eyes. Finny glared hard at her companions. Annie's bottom lip started to wobble. Finny couldn't blame her.
Her bottom lip would wobble, too if most of her meal suddenly vanished. She sighed. Tears would bring Silja. Silja would tell Joe. Joe would happily dock Finny's wages.
Finny lifted her plate and transferred all of her mostly horse to Anneka's plate. The lip stopped wobbling and was replaced by a huge grin.
"Thank you, Finny."
Finny, with a last glare around the table, hunkered down over her potato and cabbage.
As the meal progressed, so the questions started. All but one of the kids around the table worked in Joe's factory and they were eager for gossip.
Annie didn't disappoint and provided them with pure gold when she happily informed them about Joe pretending to be a monkey,
or a horsey or a monster whenever the game he was playing with her demanded it.
In return, Anneka heard stories about adventures had, tricks played, and dangers escaped.
Even though she hardly understood a lot of what they were telling her, what they were describing was a world away from her nursery games and her visits to the pond,
or to go and see auntie Hyle or auntie Tuki in Hope Springs. What seemed to be missing from their stories were the grown-ups... The Mommas and Poppas... So Anneka asked.
The good humour around the table slowly turned into embarrassed silence and Anneka's new friends shared glances with each other and chewed lips or showed intense interest in what was on
their plates. Anneka's face fell. She felt like she had done something wrong, and her chin hit her chest.
How they had all come to be at the orphanage wasn't something often talked about openly.
Finny and her three friends knew each other's stories because they were friends, and that's what friends did.
But Finny had no idea about how the girl on the other end of the table came to be in the orphanage, and the girl had no idea about any of them. That's just how it was. You didn't ask.
But now Anneka had asked.
That day when Taiyoko had done his little show pretending to be Joe, and Joe had called her up to the office, Finny had thought she was in trouble for something.
It turned out that Joe wasn't mad at her.
He had sat her in the same chair where people who wanted to buy ammunition normally sat, which was strange in itself,
and had told her the story about the glue and the paper and the scissors and everything right up to the bit about rats... and how Annie had looked at him blankly and asked what a rat was.
Finny had sat and listened, as much in awe of the fact that Joe was talking to her like a grown-up as anything else.
Then he had told her about how he was scared that Annie might grow up to be one of those rich, noses in the air and fuck-you people he despised. Finny was with Joe on that.
Everyone she knew had had painful run-ins with 'those kind' of people.
So, Joe had explained to her what he wanted her to do, and part of that was to tell Annie how she had ended up in the orphanage.
Finny had planned to tell her when she took Annie to see some rats which she and Onetooth had caught especially. But now...
now that Anneka had asked, the whole thing was in danger of going wrong.
Her friends were embarrassed, Anneka looked ready to cry and, over by the door, Silja was watching them and looking very serious indeed.
At that moment, Finny's and Silja's eyes met and Silja began to make her way around the dinner tables towards them.
Finny turned back to where Anneka was staring at her knees and touched her on the shoulder. She swallowed and then folded her arms on the tabletop and quietly began
"I was four. It was night time when they attacked our camp..."
Anneka lifted her head as Finny told her story. On the tables around her, other kids, even the girl on the end of their own table, had all leaned in to listen.
Silja hung back, but not far enough that she couldn't hear Finny's story unfold.
When Finny had finished, Anneka's head was full of running and night time, and bangs of guns and crying and coyotes and giant wasps and and and... and too much to take in.
She sat, staring at Finny with her mouth open.
Finny glanced nervously at the others. Had she broken her? She turned to look at Annie again.
"I seen Wapses. An' Cayotees. Me an' Silja wave at them when we go an' see Auntie Tuki."
The tension was broken and everyone grinned. There was a brief pause and then Casper spoke.
"I was left at the front door..."
One by one, the kids around their table told their stories. Abandoned, lost, parents killed and run away. Only the girl at the end of the table hadn't spoken. All heads turned to her.
The girl sat back defensively, eyeing the others, close to anger. It was none of their business... but she had listened to their stories. Scowling, she looked at her plate.
"I gets a free bed when I need one." She looked up with a challenge in her voice. "Okay?"
Everyone quickly nodded, even Anneka joined in.
"Yeah." "Sure." "Uh-huh." "Don't kill me."
Silja, ninja-like, sidled back to the doorway.
Dessert, or more accurately 'pudding' was, according to Finny, 'Dead Fly Pie with Yellow Pus', although the chalkboard menu actually described it as 'Current Tart with Custard.'
Whatever its name, Anneka liked it and jealously guarded it with an arm around her bowl and furtive looks at her dining companions. At the doorway, Silja smiled. The kid was learning.
After the meal, Finny coached Annie in how to wash up her own plate, bowl and cutlery.
She was slow, very slow but after Finny had turned and given them all a hard stare there wasn't a single murmur of disgruntlement from the kids waiting in line behind her, even the teens.