Chapter Twenty One: Early Days

It was half past eight when I arrived in Stockport, and shop shutters were being pulled up as I made my way through the streets to the car park which housed the staff entrance into the department store in which I worked. I nodded to Charlie Smith, who was on cloakroom duty as I made my way inside, and then walked up the uncarpeted concrete steps to the girl’s room where my fellow Catering Assistants were busy fixing their aprons. This done, we trudged back downstairs and handed our bags over to Charlie before making our way up to the fourth floor via the twisting and turning back stairs, emerging on to the shop floor via the ‘No Entry’ door near carpets and soft furnishings, the area adjacent to the café.

  By the time the first customers had arrived at nine, I was getting stuck into my first stint of the day on the Pot wash: a heavy industrial sized dishwasher, which opened and shut via means of a big metal lever-cum-handle which, when open, towered above even my head. It was fuelled by industrial grade washing up fluid that chapped hands within a matter of hours, making newer staff highly dependent upon the large vat of hand cream provided.  At 11am I handed over the reins to Kate, the undisputed Pot wash Queen, and took over from Carmela on the grill. My stint at clearing tables coincided with the initial dinnertime rush, which kept me busy shunting trays of leftovers and empties back to the kitchen, and ensured that I was collared every time I did so in order to take fresh orders out.

  My career as a Catering Assistant began in a different, and rival, department store when I was sixteen; the idea had been to earn some money whilst I studied at the ballet school. Once I had left that place, Catering became my occupation, and over the past four years I have been a Catering Assistant, Waitress, and Bar Girl. Of the three jobs, I tend to prefer the former, even though the pay is lower; I didn’t enjoy being a bar girl at all, even when I did drink, and after six months of it I diversified and went to work for Starbucks until another catering job came along.

  As I returned a plate of cheese on toast to the kitchen following a customer’s complaint that it hadn’t melted all the way through, I overheard Kate ask Sarah, our supervisor, if she could have a Panini for her lunch if she made and cooked it herself. I re-grilled the cheese on toast myself, then took it back out, along with a microwave’d pot of baby food, to a family group who came in every week. Kate reckoned that at least one of the women found something to complain about every time they came in, which frequently led us to wonder why they bothered to come at all. Mackenzie the Saturday girl reckoned that they liked complaining, Kate reckoned that they were secret shoppers.

  I spent my lunch break mooching about the town centre: We get a fifty percent discount on any food purchased in the brown and orange staff canteen in the basement, but aside from the coffee’s I survive on at break times, I tend to avoid it. I purchased a salad and a drink from Martins on Prince’s Street before mooching back to Merseyway and finding an empty bench on which to eat it, but it didn’t stay empty for long. The first to arrive were a pair of bickering pensioners who, from the sound of the argument, had been married for far too long, and they were soon joined by a woman with a baby in a pram and a sulky older child of about seven. After ten minutes or so, the woman and children, who appeared to be two siblings and their mother, had begun to compete with the elderly couple in sheer velocity, and what finally made them all move on was an elderly man in a flashers raincoat, bent trilby, and ruined boots: He was muttering to himself as he fed his sandwiches to the obese and cocky Merseyway pigeons, which spend their days mugging for food, flying into people, or else crapping on you. “Does nobody go to school these days?” he asked one of the pigeons as the sulky child, who had been openly gawping at the old man, was forcibly dragged away by his mother. “How do, m’am” he said as he nodded to me.

“How do,” I replied as I passed over the remains of my salad. “Do you want this?”

  He took it from me with a grave flourish, and proceeded to feed the pigeons with it as I took my leave.

  I found an unoccupied phone box that was working, and not too disgusting, and began to count out my change. Someone had stubbed out a cigarette on the handle, I noticed as I picked it up, but the phone box itself appeared not to have been set fire to recently. Fergus picked up his mobile on the fourth ring. “Keen,” I teased, “I like that.”

  He chuckled, “I wanted to be sure that I didn’t miss you. Got the number ready?” I read the phone box telephone number out, we hung up, and a few seconds later the phone in the phone box rang.

  I picked it up, and said, “Hello?”

 “Have you ever considered a double glazed conservatory, m’am?”

“Very funny, you’re the second person to call me ‘m’am’ today.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Yeah”

  “Who was this other person?”

  “An old man who mutters to himself and feeds the pigeons in Merseyway every day.”

  “Oh.” He swiftly changed the subject, “I was wondering if you wanted to meet up after work tonight?” he asked, hopefully.

  “I can’t,” I sighed, inwardly cursing as I said it, “I have market research tonight; I won’t be back until late, after ten probably.”

  We talked of other things then, but I could tell that he was as disappointed as I was.

  It was probably a mistake to phone Fergus at dinnertime, on reflection, for it meant that I was distracted when I returned to work. After half an hour on the grill, Sarah took me off it and put me on Pot wash instead because too many teacakes were being burnt.

  I was feeling less distracted by four, by which time it was my turn to clear tables again. I returned a stacked tray to the kitchen and took possession of a plate piled high with four toasted teacakes. As I negotiated the corner of the counter, one fell off, and I hurriedly retrieved it before returning to the kitchen to inspect the damage. Anybody watching from the floor would assume that I had returned to the kitchen to swap it for a new teacake, but in fact all I did was to check it for carpet fluff or dirt and, finding none, returned to the floor with it. I felt slightly guilty as I handed it over to an amiable looking party of pensioners, but I felt marginally less so when they complained, a mere two minutes later, that the teacakes didn’t have enough butter on them.

  I reflected, as I cleared another table, that now that my life appears to be back on track again, what with the flat, Fliss, Fergus, and the band, not to mention Jenny Malone, that I want to move forwards. I moved to another table, and added a cafetiere full of coffee dregs, plus two coffee mugs, to the two plates, leftovers, cutlery, and two teacups and saucers already on the tray. Jenny was now officially our manager, Fergus was now officially my boyfriend, and I had a nice flat with a nice, albeit sad at the moment, flatmate. I didn’t see the child until it was too late, as carrying a tray loaded with empties tends to block your line of vision as regards anyone under about four feet. She stopped, and I also stopped, swerving around her as I tried to avoid walking into her; unfortunately the contents of my tray didn’t stop… Still, as I told Sarah about fifteen minutes later, at least nothing had hit the child, instead she had run off screaming, but unharmed, to her blissfully unaware carer. I surveyed the damage with a heavy heart: The cups, saucers, plates and cutlery were all, miraculously, fine, but the leftover food had splattered across the floor, and the cafetiere, which was made of thin glass and metal, had smashed, spraying ground coffee dregs everywhere and covering the area with shards of glass. I returned to the kitchen and retrieved the brush and pan from their place behind the bin, and set to work cleaning up. The mop and bucket were needed next, which drew daggers from Sarah, along with a reminder that the cost of the cafetiere would be docked from my wages. By the time I had finished, it was time to go on break, so I took the resulting mess down to the rubbish bins in the landing bay by the smoking room. As I lit my fag, and bopped about a bit to Fuzzbox’s ‘Pink Sunshine’ on the department store tannoy, I reflected that it was just as well that I’d already started looking for another job.

  My second job of the day started whenever I arrived at the market research offices in Hazel Grove: They employed people on a zero hours contract, so you could pretty much start and finish when you liked as you were only paid for the hours you worked. Less staff worked there in the evening, and those that did were mostly students or sixth formers, who existed as a socially tight group, and who spent at least equal time talking as they did working; they had never included me in any of their conversations, and I had long since given up trying to speak to them.

  I took my first fag break at quarter to eight. You didn’t get breaks unless you smoked, so some people had re-commenced smoking in order to get out of the office for ten minutes. Of those leaning back against the wall, fags in hands, a small minority had reached the stage where they were smoking hash on breaks instead of straight tobacco. It was a rare source of pride to me that I had yet to reach that level of despair as regards this particular job: I intended to leave before I reached that stage.

  When I arrived home around half ten, it was to find a huge bouquet of yellow and orange flowers waiting for me. “Fergus sent them,” said Fliss, in brooding tones, as she handed them to me. I read the attached card, “Happy one week anniversary, Love from Fergus.” I smiled happily to myself as I carried them through to the kitchen.

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