Pulp.net - Work

The Online Home of New Fiction

May 2009

Jo Lloyd
A while back, when I was going through a bit of a tough time, this guy I knew, Paul, bought himself a restaurant, and when it was still pretty new and he’d spent all his money on forks and skewers and real people who knew how to run a restaurant, he asked if I would help out, and I

said yes because I didn’t have a job and I didn’t seem to be capable of getting a job and I didn’t have a clue how to get myself out of the hole I’d fallen into.

I’ll pay you, of course, he said. But I’m afraid it won’t be very much.

And it was in fact a pittance that it was probably illegal to hire someone for, which was why it made sense to hire me. Later when I thought about it, and about how amazingly well the restaurant did, I thought he could probably have paid me more but I suppose that’s how he got to be rich and I didn’t.

I don’t know what I had thought I would be doing, perching on tables with a little notepad or making frilly garnishes out of lemons. But what I actually did was the things everyone else was too qualified to do, like mopping the floor and cleaning and then mopping the floor again and fetching and carrying and most of all washing up. And if you don’t know I can tell you, washing up in a restaurant is hard. It’s like being in the Titanic when it’s sinking, only hot, and no Leonardo di Caprio to make things better. The dishes come crashing in around you and steam billows up in great clouds and sweat drips down you, actually drips, like rain on a window. I swear there must be a big room in hell which is just washing up and nothing else where they put all the people who didn’t like to get their hands dirty.

I realized right on the first evening that this wasn’t going to be any fun, but once or twice while I was still in the middle of realizing it Paul smiled at me in a harassed sort of way and said Good girl, as if I was a dog or 10 years old. I’d thought that the part of me that’s meant to look into the future and want things was dead and gone, but there was obviously some murky corner where some little bit of it was still alive and had a teeny crush on Paul. So I wiped the sweatiest of the sweat off my eyebrows with the back of my sweaty hand and tried to look sophisticated and sexy and indispensable all at the same time.

Actually, I didn’t get to see much of Paul, who spent most of his time Front of House, as he liked to say, selling expensive bottles of wine, which I did not know before but found out when I was working there is how restaurants make most of their money. Who I mostly saw was Gareth, who was the under chef, or Sous Chef as they would say, which is just under chef in French, which meant he spent all his time skinning things and gutting things and chopping things and every now and then sweating things, which is, funnily enough, what you call it when you fry onions or carrots or whatever so they’re ready to turn into something more interesting, which I thought probably wouldn’t happen to me even if I dripped over that sink for the rest of my life.

Gareth didn’t complain. Gareth was a dopehead. He was lucky to have a job at all.

In fact, when you think about it, everyone there was lucky to have a job, and maybe Paul was actually some kind of a secret good samaritan and the ending up filthy rich was just a front and the restaurant was a place he made so that people like me and Gareth could be safe for a while.

Whenever we got the chance Gareth and I used to sit out by the dustbins smoking, and we got to be pretty good friends, as much as you can be friends with a dopehead. And what happened was we somehow formed ourselves into a kind of alliance against Paul, who was The Boss and therefore different from us. And Gareth said that that was a deep biological instinct, like monkeys or wolves or communists. It made me feel guilty, but after all Paul was still paying me the pittance and he wasn’t even noticing me except sometimes to stick his head out the back and say Leave Gareth alone will you, he’s got work to do. Which was insulting in at least two ways that I can count.

We were working what was called Split Shifts, which you might not have experienced if you’ve never had to do a lowly type job like that where you might as well be a donkey or a machine for all the life you get. It meant you did one shift in the day and one shift in the evening and in between was about two hours of free time to do absolutely anything in the whole world you wanted to do.

The early shift was usually pretty quiet. Not that there wasn’t loads to do, getting everything Prepped, as they liked to call it, for Service, but it wasn’t like it was in the evening, when you actually had to stop thinking just to get through it. Which is I suppose how donkeys and machines manage as well. In the day you could take a lot of breaks and Paul wasn’t always there and the chef, Marcus, who was the boss of all of us except Paul, and even a little bit of him too, was often busy planning menus or whatever, which meant you got more of a chance to sit out back in the cool.

Gareth was older than me. He had that shrunk-in-the-wash look of people who’ve spent a long time being too busy taking illegal substances to eat. He always spoke very quietly and he used to do this funny little giggle, usually when there was nothing funny that anyone else could see. But it was good that he could find something to laugh about. Also, he talked, in that quiet voice, more than almost anyone I’ve ever met, including 12-year-old girls. On day one, when I barely knew him at all, he told me practically his whole life story, which is a thing that I have noticed with people who take a lot of drugs, they have no discrimination, they don’t distinguish between their intimate friends who’d hold their head and their hands and their hair for them and someone who just happens to be sitting next to them scrounging their rollups and watching the flies buzz around the bins.

One part of his life history that Gareth told me that day was about his childhood. His mother died when he was very young and he went all over the world with his father, who was something to do with the war against mosquitoes, which sounded pretty important to me. But Gareth said it was actually a little spat that distracted people from the True Struggle. And it meant Gareth got moved about from place to place like luggage and never had a home. And I thought all that moving might have added to his ordinary dopehead kind of indiscrimination, because another kind of people who can’t make friends properly, I have noticed, is people who’ve travelled a lot.

Another part of his life history that he told me that day was about a girl he’d been in love with. She was his soulmate, he said. When he knew her she was very sad, for reasons I couldn’t quite grasp, but god knows there’s enough bad things out there happening to someone, try making a list, it’s a wonder there’s anyone left who isn’t sad.

He used to send her poems and put flowers through her door and she treated him very kindly, like a little brother. She had all these suitors and ex-suitors that she was too sad to go out with, but she liked to have them around her. That sounded pretty weird to me but he saw nothing wrong with it, except that it made him unhappy. And he got more and more unhappy and eventually he took an overdose. He woke up in hospital and for a while he forgot how to speak. And this girl would come and sit with him and they wouldn’t speak at all but she understood him, so he thought anyway, I have my doubts. But you can form an idea like that, that there is only one person and one time and one place where you could live, and then for the whole of the rest of your life you’ll feel homeless.

He told me about all the jobs he’d done too. He’d worked as a postman for a while, but it involved a lot of rules, which had to be followed to the letter, ha ha, and he’d got sacked for emptying the postboxes in a different order, which it turns out is about the worst thing you can do if you’re a postman. Then he’d been a delivery driver, until one day he was on the motorway, and a lorry pulled out, and a car cut in, and I imagine with all the dope his reactions weren’t as quick as they might have been, and it was ok, nobody crashed or anything, but he realized he was basically spending his days in a race to the death. So he came off at the next exit and turned the van round and took it to the beach.

Then he’d got a job in an electronics factory. Most of the other people were women because the job involved putting together fiddly little things, which they do better with their small hands. And that suited him very well because there was music playing and you could talk. But then the company found a way to do it cheaper using machines or small-handed Chinese children. They asked for voluntary redundancies, so suddenly everyone thought someone else should go, the older ones or the younger ones or the single ones or the married ones, depending who was thinking it. They turned against each other, which Gareth said was how Capital kept people in a state of semi-consciousness.
Anyway, the end result was Gareth was out. After that he’d got his first job in a kitchen, and he liked that ok, there was no driving and he thought it would be pretty difficult to come up with a machine to replace him.

I didn’t get all of this the very first time we talked, but a surprising amount of it, and then more got filled in later and some of the same things repeated, along with a bunch of trivial stuff about the time or the weather or something someone had said just a minute before which is, after all, the stuff that takes up most of every day of your life, whatever it is you’re doing.

As it turned to winter it got pretty chilly but we still sat outside when we could. If you’ve never felt it, I can tell you it’s a vile feeling to go out all sweaty hot, and then get cold so the sweat clings to you like slime, and then you go back inside and it’s like you’ve been painted with some caustic chemical that’s slowly peeling off. I don’t remember them mentioning that sort of thing in Careers.

But on the whole, it was going ok for me. Another thing I didn’t know before and only found out while I was there, is that when you’re doing that kind of donkey work and you’re so tired at the end of it that you haven’t got the strength to keep up your usual barriers, you get close to your fellow donkeys pretty quick and you have a warm glowing feeling toward them, as if they were your actual friends. So there was that, and then I was sort of getting used to the split shifts, more or less, and by now I’d given up on Paul being anything other than The Boss, and the tiny pittance was making a tiny nibble into the big pile of debt I’d accumulated. Plus, most of all, I was starting to feel like maybe I could be a person who could have a job. And that was quite a leap forward for me.

When I say about this warm feeling, it wasn’t like that with everyone of course. There were some people you just couldn’t stand, and for Gareth and me it was the chef, Marcus. People come and go in kitchens pretty fast, but Marcus had been there from day one and didn’t look like leaving any time soon. Of course, as I said before, he got to boss everyone around, so it was a good job if you’re the sort of person who likes that. And he was.

Marcus was older than all of us, with grey hair, and he had that look some men have of seeming to have a moustache without actually having one, which I have always thought makes a person seem sly and untrustworthy. He was an alcoholic or maybe an ex-alcoholic. And he was very tall and what you might call gaunt. It’s funny that we were dishing out all this cream and butter and treacle pudding but everyone who ever worked in that kitchen was skinny as a dog in a war zone and looked like they were starving right there in the middle of all that food, like there was some vitamin required for normal living that their body couldn’t process.

Marcus was a bit of a tyrant, but it turns out it’s practically obligatory that the chef should act like a sergeant major or the teacher that everyone hates. And of course I was so lowly he didn’t speak to me that much.

But Gareth was Marcus’s second in command, his Sous Chef, and Marcus ordered him about like his very own personal Sous Dog. And Gareth said Yes Chef, No Chef, Three bags full Chef just as promptly as anyone, but when he was out back he would sometimes be simmering, you could see it, all worked up so he had to sit with his eyes closed humming until it was time to go in and get shouted at some more.

Gareth never argued or complained or sulked or even twitched an eyebrow, but there was this one thing he would do that you could see really got to Marcus. It was pretty much a rule there that everyone got in early. It was part of the whole thing where we were all supposed to be sucking up to Marcus like all we had ever wanted was to wear his fancy hat. But what Gareth would do was he’d turn up early but not go in. He’d stay out front, sitting on the wall opposite the restaurant, and just wait. We all knew he did it because we would have to walk right past him, and Marcus knew that we knew because Marcus himself would have to walk right past him. Then right on the dot, Gareth would come in, not even half a second late, so Marcus couldn’t say anything at all. And you could see it ate him up. And then he’d shout at Gareth a bit louder during the next service, and then Gareth would have to keep his eyes closed and hum a bit longer, and so it went on.

So it got to be December, and some people had left and some new ones had come, and one of the new ones was Mair, who used to sit out by the bins with Gareth and me. Mair worked there part-time, when her ex could have the kids, and she was one of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet. She was a recovering anorexic – she said she was recovering, although I never saw her eat – and she looked as if she’d snap in two if you touched her and also she had scars on her arms from where she used to cut herself with knives and scissors and probably the whole Batterie de Cuisine. She said she didn’t do that any more, so there you are, people do get better sometimes.

Gareth liked Mair. Which meant, it turned out, that when she was around he stopped speaking, so you started to see where he’d gone wrong in his former relationships. He did, however, at some point pluck up the courage to say something to her and she said no way no, you’re kidding aren’t you, only more kindly than that I’m sure. She told me afterwards that what with the kids and the job and the ex and some guy who came over sometimes, she had quite enough to take care of already.

Gareth didn’t say anything about it, but you saw him sometimes looking at her quite mournfully.

So Gareth and Mair and I were out back one day. It was getting towards Christmas, lots of office parties wearing paper hats and tinsel like they were in some kind of weird ceremony. They laughed a lot but they looked scared out of their minds, of what I don’t know, of what they were laughing at, or the people they were laughing with, or how another year had gone by and here they were celebrating it. Anyway, they made a lot of extra work for us, getting blotto and throwing silly string and ordering everything in sight because they weren’t paying for it, and we were all even more tired than usual and most of us weren’t exactly looking forward to Christmas.

So when Marcus came out telling us to quick march into the kitchen and stand to attention no one felt much like moving and he had to come out again. And probably because she was the most timid of us, he started on Mair. Do you want this bloody job or not? he said. And you could see Mair was going to jump up and go in, and normally that’s what we’d all have done. But maybe because it was Mair, or maybe because it was Christmas, or maybe because of the True Struggle, Gareth put his hand out to stop her and said, We’re taking a break. We’ll be in in a minute. He didn’t even say Chef.

Marcus looked taken aback for a second because no one ever ever ever answered him back and then he said You’ll be in when I bloody say.

We’ll just be a minute, said Gareth.

You’ve had warnings, said Marcus. Which was news to me.

Gareth didn’t say anything and Mair and I didn’t know what to say.

Maybe none of you want this bloody job, that can be arranged, said Marcus, and he turned round and walked back in and after half a second Gareth got up and said This isn’t on, and followed him in. And Mair and I looked at each other and she said Oh shit. And then we went in.

We could hear Marcus shouting in the cold room, with silences that must have been Gareth answering very quietly. I thought it might be a good idea to give the floor another mop and Mair started on the veg. Then Paul came in and wanted to know what was going on and everyone just looked at each other and said nothing and Paul went into the cold room and then very soon after that all three of them came out of the cold room and went out into the dining room in a single file, Paul first and Marcus last with Gareth in the middle and no one saying anything any more.

I never found out if Gareth was sacked or if he resigned. I asked Paul and he refused to discuss it. He’s not coming back, he said, and that was all he would say. And I asked for Gareth’s phone number but he wouldn’t give it to me, so I had to go into the office when he wasn’t there and look for it. There wasn’t a phone number, only an address, so I wrote it down on a page I tore out of Paul’s desk diary, which was blank and just for show or because someone imagined it was the kind of thing you would need to run a business, which wasn’t true, it seemed to me, obviously what you needed was a cold hard heart.

A couple of days later, between shifts, I went to the address I had written down. I had to take two buses and I wondered how Gareth had managed that every day as well as everything else. He lived in a bit of town that was probably nice when Queen Victoria was on the throne and no one had bothered making any repairs or even cleaning it since. Everything was slumped, and half the windows were boarded over and most of the rest were covered with that thick grey dirt that takes years to build up.

Gareth lived on the top floor of a place that had about 10 doorbells although it didn’t look big enough for that number of fully grown people. I rang his doorbell and when nothing happened I rang the rest of them but no one answered, so either they were all out at work which didn’t seem likely or they thought I was the bailiffs or the social or someone else who might prise them out of the hole they’d managed to wedge themselves into hoping to wait it out until the tide came in.

But then this woman opened the door, not to let me in, but to come out herself. You could see immediately she was one of the ones who’d gone altogether. She had shopping bags full of stuff that was not shopping, and no teeth, real or false. She looked at me suspiciously, but probably she looked at everyone that way, it wasn’t that she recognized me as one of her own.

I went past her through the open door and up the stairs to the top, where you had to stand one step down and reach up to knock on the door. I hammered away for a while and I shouted through the door that it was me. And that was the end of my ideas. But then I heard a shuffling inside, and Gareth opened the door. And he looked so pleased to see me, I felt bad for not being more pleased to see him.

He looked like he’d aged 10 years. He hadn’t shaved, and his eyes were red, and he was wearing pyjamas with an old, worn coat over the top, like one of those shell-shocked convalescing soldiers out for a walk in the grounds.

We went into the kitchen, which was also I suppose the sitting room, it had a couch in it, which we didn’t sit on, but no table. Do you want a drink? Gareth said, but he looked anxious when he said it which made me think he might not have anything to drink, or not enough to give away at least. I was standing next to the cooker and there was a pan there with some soup in it, a bit of thin soup which didn’t look like it would nourish a dormouse.

I asked if he was alright. He looked at me like he was still listening to bombs exploding somewhere off in the distance. I told him what had been going on at work, how upset Mair had been, what Marcus and Paul and everyone had been doing. He said some things which seemed unconnected. I talked about the bus journey. And the weather. Asked what he was going to do.

It seemed that everything we had talked about together, that had been like a cosy blanket we were knitting between us, each of us with a pair of needles, clickety click, all of it had been left behind the bins, and we had to start all over again.

Then Gareth said You’re a kind person. Which I knew I wasn’t. And he came over to me and leaned, keeping his feet in place, just leaned, until he was resting his head on my shoulder. And I didn’t know what to do but I felt panic coming up in my throat like moths so that I couldn’t speak. Him leaning on me in this way, as if I could possibly bear his weight, as if I could stay upright under it, as if I wouldn’t fall over into the dormousy soup at any minute, was intolerable. I had to stop it.

You’ll be fine, I said, which was patently not true. He kept leaning and I said I have to go now, I have to get to work. And the word landed at the end of the sentence with a big thud, as if I was just rubbing it in that I had somewhere to go and he didn’t.

He did a kind of reverse lean then, lifting his head off my shoulder and returning to perpendicular, and he stood in front of me, in his pyjamas and his coat, swaying a little.

You’ll come again, yeah? he said.

Of course, I said. I mean, if I can. Of course.

And of course, I didn’t. And in fact I never saw him or heard of him after that. And even now it makes my stomach hurt to think about what might have happened to him and to know I didn’t help or even try to help but just went back to Paul and Marcus and mopping the floor, as if there were sides and I’d picked one.

I kept working in the kitchen for quite a long time after that, until hardly anyone remembered I hadn’t always been there, and half the time I hardly remembered myself. Mair left, and other people left, and even Marcus left in the end. But whoever was there, however things changed, somehow it very quickly felt to me like it had always been that way, and always would be.

Gareth wouldn’t have been surprised by that. He used to say that work is like dope. The Dope of the Masses he used to call it. Sometimes it makes you high, and sometimes it makes you sick. But mostly it just softens the edges, so you won’t wonder what your days are for, or notice that they’re passing.

© Jo Lloyd 2009

This story won the 2009 Willesden Herald Prize and appears in the linked anthology New Short Stories 3.