Monday had been a bad day. I had been asked to assist in the merchandising of the new store. I moved a lot of cheese. I worked with a complete disregard for my body, the way you work when you are beat. When you think fuck stopping; when you think there is nothing to be got or to lose. My shoes were coming to pieces. I lost my footing while lifting a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was a 40 kgs and I pulled my hamstring. Instead of just feeling miserable I had a dumb limp too. Work is difficult, no it’s impossible, and I can’t shake off the desire to leg it and to blow Britain altogether, I am sure I’m not the only, I’m sure all things considered this feeling isn’t at all unique.
The day passed and I took the underground and the overground home, all the time limping and moving awkwardly through the crowds of commuters and travellers, I didn’t pick up a free copy of the Evening Standard: the news was shit, bad news, fake news, fake bad news, bad real news, same old shit, same old story, I didn’t need a freebie to prove it.
But none of that bullshit was the worst of it, they were all symptoms of the underlying cause of my bad mood. The cause was a five week month, don’t you know it. It was only week three and I was broke. By week two I was stung by a quarterly from Thames Water, and the telephone and internet with BT, council tax had gone up, the markets were doing all sorts of crazy shit and my interest rates were through the roof. I was late answering a questions from HMRC, and my child rebate was cut, I had to write a letter to Glasgow explaining myself, and provide documents from my daughter’s doctor, proving that she was alive, and I had to pay 10 quid for that too. It really was a farce, I wonder why, why the fuck isn’t anyone talking about a revolution, no everyone was busy trying to poke a finger in the collective eye of Europe, glaring at Poles on the tube, muttering at blacks and Asians in the underground, the situation was dire. And that lady was saying how she’d show everyone how she was a difficult women, as if that was what the world needed, as if anyone really gave a shit, or actually knew what the government were really doing, and what all these fucking changes really meant.
I got home. And that was a relief.
That previous Sunday night we’d had a chicken for dinner. A real treat. Roasted with spuds, and some flat bread I made while drinking BB9 which may I add is just about the best beer in world. That evening I boiled the white bones of the chicken, with just a sprig of thyme, an onion, and two cloves of crushed garlic. I could imagine the chook, the carcass was so thin, and spindly, it’s bones were more like those of a reasonably large weird fish…it must have been a bird beyond a battery hen, a kind of high-rise roosting matchbox hens squeezed in with countless other hens, I guess featherless, tortured, bored out of their brains, staring out between thin wire bars, staring out at a thousand other chickens in the same predicaments, the ruckus of all those birds clucking at once. Imagine. We were at least showing the bird some respect, boiling the spindly bones down to nothing, and making the most of it, chucking the grey remains to the dog. I had read some diatribe in a trade magazine that bone broths, and marrow, were all the rage. The very rich will go to no end to replicate the dietary condition of poor. How’s that.
When I got home that Monday the house stunk of boiled chicken. My Missus had started making risotto with the stock, and it was boiling away like a bad memory, we were short on the right kind of rice so she cut the Alborio with Jasmine, in the end there wasn’t much in it just rice and chicken. I limped to the table with my steaming bowl, I dusted it with Parmigiano cut with table cheddar. No wine or beer, black tea and loads of white sugar. Five week months suck, they never use to suck this much. The writing is on the wall, we are all on credit eating boiled down chicken, all except for the superrich and the hangers on, and half of them are starving themselves imitating the poor, decked out in shiny finery, trying to stay beautiful. What happened?
It was a cold night and everyone was eager for bed, wife, children, the whole damn world. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep, I settled down with Grossman ‘Life & Fate’ some poor bastard was going on about the Kulaks, and saboteurs, and I wasn’t so sure about the saboteurs, but someone was getting the better of us all even now seventy years on. Those damn Kulaks. Those damn Tsars. Those bankers. Those politicians. Those masters of the deal. The deal… as if that was something to be lorded over, if ever there was such a thing.
The next morning I made my way to the office. The site manager György, a Hungarian from Szolnok was in a state of high anxiety, the cause being his own trials, mostly difficulties finalising his application for permanent residency, this was prudent measure on his part: ‘to ease the fear of leaving the country even for a holiday, and being stuck abroad without my papers’. I had heard the boys talking about the paperwork – 70 pages of bullshit. György was a good worker, a sure thing, he wasn’t going anywhere, and the residency confirmed this. More and more the promotions were going to the British in the company, no questions asked, most of us figured that this was a reflection of the cold realisation that the rest of might just be leaving, if we weren’t booted out, or simply discouraged from staying… it made no odds.
Anyhow, it was a big day, another part of town and a new shop opening. A new story, or chapter, or something for the company. So first thing first I went to the production kitchen and made sure everything was in ship shape. The op’s man marched into my office and he started going on about how the owner Mrs M wanted, no required, no insisted, on everything being perfect, not just perfect absolutely perfect. He had a particularly painful high pitched voice, as if his balls were dropping. And for the umpteenth time that day the kitchen was invaded by middle management trying to terrify everything into order: it wasn’t 6.30 AM. I had decided to head for the new shop when it opened and to avoid all of the high drama. The driver came, if it’s not Piotr to late its Piotr to early, I liked to say – he couldn’t put a food right with management, and particularly the ops man, the ops man always crying out for Piotr: where is he? why is he here now? no he’s late, no he’s early etc. etc. We got in the van, and we raced about town. He put his classical music on, which was better than Ed Shereen (maybe we just didn’t get it, maybe we were getting old, maybe it didn’t have much to say about real people and real life, who knows, but we agreed Ed sucked even if he had 10,000 #1 and however many million $).
And the new store was in a state of uproar, there was a monumental bread disaster with one solitary supplier, amongst the vegetables five products were missing tickets, and worse still the fruit and veg hadn’t been fully displayed, and the staff didn’t have aprons and badges, as for the merchandising manager (a young hack promoted by the op’s man to advance the op’s ambitions and block head to boot) well he was getting in everyone’s way, hand in pockets, face breaking out in spots, and all the time him blundering about nervously, I wondered was he fucking stoned? And Mrs M was blustering around, making everyone scared shitless. The clock was moving perilously, and the customers weren’t allowed in, and there was a line outside like it was an I-Phone store on an opening day, and the doors just couldn’t be opened until everything was perfect, and I wondered about those weird customers, didn’t they have something else to do, those sick bastards. And it opened with a bang.
And Mrs M took ‘us’ the main players to a cafe for a debrief. And Mrs M settled into her allocated role, and place, a shift to instruction, and authority, her sense of isolation in the world and amongst others only broken by the execution of authority, I imagined her folk had done it for a thousand years or more. Shop 19 would be opening soon, in 6 weeks! We would need to make notes while our ideas were fresh, to record all our wrongs like a confessional. I was meant to be meeting a wine master for a tasting, I send her message apologising for the delay – this business could go on till lunchtime. There were the ops, three members from the training department, merchandising (that poor sod), marketing, and the Mrs M’s personal assistant who was carrying Mrs M’s gym bag for her. Since morning I had eaten a box of Italian biscuit (or the last half of a box), samples that had been sent to my office on the previous day. Menus were laid while each individual studies their mobile, sending messages, answer messages, checked fact and figures from the previous day, everyone busing themselves suggesting they were busy. I studied the menu, my eyes rested on eggs benedict, the waiter asked what we’s like, everyone paused. Mrs M answered.
–Green T (her eyes dropped to the menu). I want have anything else, she finished and gave her cue.
I pondered ordering scrambled eggs. But we settled on liquid. The meeting was a bore, there were no victories, the usual criticisms, the usual plan for a quick fix – we had been here before. We realised the futility of good results, and the implications of failure. All apart from the ops man, who was like some ancient eunuch, he brought in totality right into the company, his boss, his role – the only pause from work he took was time spent with his boyfriend, his interest in fashion, in cosmetics, in the gym, how do you put a price on selling your soul. It’s was better to eat boiled up battery hens, and hope for a getaway or something close. or something fucking close…
I was the first to grow restless with the conversation. I took my leave. I rushed out the door with the appearance of being in a hurry, being very busy, committed. I turned a corner and limped to the station. In approximately 7 minutes I was in Kensington, and straight up the hill, late for my tasting with the very celebrated wine master. She had 12 bottles laid out, glasses, spittoons, tasting notes, I asked her if she had a calculator – she got me one (the shit you ask for!). It was evident that I was exhausted, and she was more than astute enough to gather this. The tasting was constructive, and plans were laid for a spring and summer range, I didn’t approach the meeting with real gusto, the energy I might have had at week 2 on a 4 week month, when I was rested, well fed, and agreeable. I declined the tasting of two very good wines (the wine master’s favourites), I had tasted the wines, the very same vintages, only recently. And the winemaster insisted on me taking the wines in a box. That at least would be pleasing! I would have something to drink that night, and a second bottles I could give to one of the other workers.
Limping with the box I made my way back down the hill. I jumped on the first circle line- the train would stop off at Sloane Square, I would go straight to the office and to check emails, and make phone calls.
On the platform at Sloane Square the usual crowd exited, West Londoners in the main. A lady stopped me, a not so old women, in very fine attire, and physically striking. I am if the truth be told not very fancy, but what does that really mean, and does it matter.
–Would you have the time. She asked in an abrupt manner, with an air of authority. We had been in the carriage together. I sat the box down with the bottles of wine, she fidgeted and studied me in her irritable manner, the bulk of the passengers cleared the platform. I pulled my phone from my pocket.
I picked the box up, we both started walking side by side, both moving quickly towards the exit.
–Do you work here? Harshly, and sharply, with frustration. I was in old trousers and wearing a tired coat and carrying my box. The two of us were passengers, just the same.
–Pardon, I asked…
–Do you work here? She repeated.
I studied her, and I could see anger in her eyes, a faint glow like a rash on her dull, thin, swan like neck. She needed the question asked, it would relate to other question and requirements that would need to be met and met immediately. Something was amiss with her? So what.
–Are you a Kulak? I asked.
–Are you a Kulak?.
–What on earth are you talking about?
–I asked are you a Kulak, that class of peasants that the communist reviled, and Stalin did his very best to eliminate.
And I turned and made my way out of the station, and hurried to my office and to my desk, all the time limping, and everyone in the office wanted reports on the new shop, the truth was they were all excited by a second box of wines that someone had left on my desk. I shook my head. What I would have given for some lamb, or bread, or potatoes, or cheese in the way of samples. And then Piotr the drive came through and I palmed him a bottle.
–Suck on one of those bad boys, and tell me what you think.
–I’m a pro, he answered with a wink.
And then György, that hack, stumbled in and tried to work out if something was amiss, still miserable, and still dreaming about his British residency, and that was it I had it.
–Fuck the residency pal, I slung that miserable son of a bitch a bottle. It was 3 o’clock. And time to jack the city in too.
About the Contributor
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf - Gaito Gazdanov
More from Issue Six:
- Give Sorrow Words by Anna Vaught
- Pull me in by Melissa Fu
- Variations on Girl with a Red Balloon by Tessa Torgeson
- Written in Advance by Nathan Fidler
- Mrs Fox by Marian Womack
- Tomorrow by Vivienne Burgess
- The Kulaks Of Chelsea by Tadhg Muller
- Some Kind Of Happiness by Heidi James
- Dust Covers and Margins by Jennie E. Owen
- Sitting, Standing, Mending by Alison Jean Lester
- Ghosts by Catherine Mitchell
- And I was filled with such delight by Catherine Edmunds