Chapter Fifty One: Silver Service

So, back into the world, and back into waitressing; a profession that, if it didn’t welcome me back with open arms, was certainly not surprised by my return to the ranks.  Of course, it’s been very difficult getting work at all.  The politicians may tell us that unemployment is the lowest it’s ever been in decades, but even the most unskilled of office work will only employ staff with a two-year clean bill of health.  Oh, they’ll accept the odd day off with a cold, the occasional virus, the rare bout of flu, but anything long term, anything un-seeable, anything vague and controversial, or, especially, anything mental, and they’ll hire someone else.  Catering is so much more pragmatic: as long as you turn up and do the job, they don’t care.

  I was thinking about this as I walked from the warm, cramped, organised chaos of the kitchen to the restaurant floor.  The coarse yellow linoleum changed to plush red carpet as I made the transition, and my mind turned itself to the business at hand as I began to walk towards my next table.  The man and the woman on table twelve were gazing into each others eyes, and their menus lay, forgotten, in front of them as they caressed each others hands.  I smiled, thinking that if Fliss were here she would enjoy speculating on their circumstances: Were they married? Engaged? About to be engaged? Maybe it was an affair; maybe they were business contacts, discovering that they had a little too much in common… “You watch too much soap opera,” I would tell her at this point, but Fliss never bothered with soap operas, with the exception of ‘The Archers’, which she listened to, religiously, every Sunday morning.  As I was thinking this, the man who had been paying so much attention to his date turned away from her and began to consult the menu, he tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear, evidently distracted, and at that moment, I noticed who he was.

  From that moment on, it was as though I was watching something unfold from a distance, like I was watching actors playing out a scene on T.V.  This wasn’t my life, things like this only happened in bad melodramas.

  I began to feel a kind of numb despair as I walked towards the table.  I wanted to keep my face blank and expressionless, because anything was better than revealing how I felt.  The society we live in is very good at teaching us how to talk about sex, but it’s not very good at teaching us how to talk about love, so it’s hard for me to write how I felt beyond the numb despair.  I felt hurt, but that doesn’t really cover it, it was so much more painful than simply pain, “May I take your order please?” my voice came out quieter than I had meant it to, and neither of them heard me at first.  I repeated my question, and he jerked his head as though he was startled.  His eyes met mine for a second before I looked down at my notepad and my pen, poised and ready.  His voice was bland and distant as he gave me his order, and I turned to the woman, who ummed and aahed for an eternity.  Three times she changed her starter, twice her main course, and when I read it back to her, it was still wrong.  Of course, it was my fault, the customer is always right.  I discreetly examined her as she made her decision, she was curvy and little, with blonde hair and brown eyes, and she was wearing a low cut dress that revealed an expanse of cleavage.  When she moved, a red satin bra strap slid out from under the dress, it contrasted with her golden tan and expensive seeming jewellery, the dress looked expensive too: A designer woman then, and older than me too, classier than me, more mature, more experienced than me.  As I wrote down her order for the final time, she stared, pointedly, at the long sleeves of my white poly cotton shirt.

  The shirt was something of a sore point; the uniform for this particular restaurant is a black skirt with flesh coloured tights, black shoes, and a white, short sleeved shirt, and I’d known that this would cause problems from the start. I’d tried various ingenious ways of covering my arms whilst still wearing a short sleeved shirt, with mixed success, but eventually I was forced to go out onto the floor with bare arms.  It had caused embarrassment with customers initially, and they had looked away with discomforted expressions, or open disgust, as I placed their food down in front of them, reactions that had only served to make me more self conscious of the problem. I tried to move my arms in such as way that meant that they couldn’t see my scars, but this twice caused me to drop things, and I was forced to give it up.  After a complaint from a customer, my scars and I were now allowed to hide ourselves in long sleeved shirts.

  I returned to the kitchen with my order.  Raisa, a young, spirited waitress with blonde plaits that she wore strapped to her head like a ballet dancer, was venting her spleen about something or other, and I stopped to listen.  It quickly transpired that one of Raisa’s tables comprised of a group of middle aged businessmen who, having taken a shine to her curvaceous figure, had proceeded to pinch and grope her, “FUCKING, FUCKING…” apparently no word could be found that was bad enough, “ANIMALS!!” one of her plaits un-pinned itself and flew down to her shoulder, and she growled out something very rude in Polish as she reached for the pins and clips and set about fixing it.

  “Which table is it?” I asked, casually.

  “Eight,” she snarled through gritted teeth.

  “Swap you for twelve,” I said, I liked Raisa, and aside from the fact that she was teaching me to swear in Polish, she would cope better with Fergus’ finicky girlfriend.

  She got up on her tip toes and, resembling a ballet dancer more than ever, peered through the glass in the door, “O.K,” she agreed, smiling happily as she returned to the fray once more.

  It was after midnight by the time I left.  Behind me, the shutters were being pulled down and locked as I pulled on my P.V.C jacket and then rooted through my bag for my bus ticket.  It was then that I sensed it: In the still darkness of the night, someone was watching me.  I looked up sharply, and began to wonder how best to set about defending myself should they attack.  There was a car parked opposite the restaurant with a man in the front seat, he was smoking a cigarette, and as I began to walk towards the bus stop, I heard the engine start.  Soon, the car had pulled up alongside me, “Can I give you a lift?” he asked.

  I looked straight ahead and carried on walking as I said, “I don’t get into cars with strange men.”

  “Don’t you trust me?” he seemed hurt.

  “No, I don’t,” I snapped, “and besides, didn’t you have your girlfriend with you? Where’ve you hidden her?”

  I got the impression that I’d hit a nerve, “I’ve already taken her home; she’s waiting for me back at my place.”

  “Then go to her.”

  “I’ll drive you home,” he insisted, “it’s on the way anyway.”

I stopped walking, and turned to face him, “Did you come back for me ‘specially?”

  He nodded.

  I shrugged, there was no answer to that, “Well,” I managed at last, “you didn’t have to.”

  “I wanted to,” he said stubbornly.

  I think it was because I was too tired to argue that I got into the car.  I couldn’t look at him, so I stared grimly ahead as I willed it to be over.  He held a cigarette packet under my nose, but I waved it away, “I’ve given up.”

  “Very virtuous of you,” he murmured, a little sarcastically.

  “Not really,” I muttered.

  We drove for about ten minutes in silence before he spoke again, and there was a nervous inflection to his voice as he said, “You look well.”

  I wanted to cry, nothing had changed, I was still a monster to him, and he was still scared, “Yeah,” I snapped, “must be all the Loradine and psychiatry.”  I don’t see a psychiatrist actually, but he wouldn’t know that.

  His hands tightened their grip on the steering wheel as his shoulders tensed, “I’m sorry,” he said carefully, “if anything I said whilst you were ill…”

  I didn’t give him a chance to finish, I could feel a surge of emotion tearing through me, giving me only two options: attack or cry, “Stop treating me like an animal in the zoo!” I yelled, “Stop treating me like something in a cage that’s dangerous!” he seemed baffled by my outburst, but I couldn’t stop myself, “Everyone’s so quick to judge me, to judge any of us! I have doctors, and journalists, and record company people, and… and everyone trying to dig around in my head, trying to understand me, like I’m some bloody lab rat under observation!! They’re all trying desperately hard not to upset me, or set me off, that they’ve forgotten to treat me like a human being!! And now you’re doing the exact same thing! Trying to get rid of the guilt you feel for dumping me whilst I was under sedation, and it won’t work! I don’t know what you want…”

  “I don’t want anything” he said quietly, “Its over.”

  “Then why are you driving me home?”  He didn’t say anything, but then, I didn’t really expect him to, and because it is over, I decided that I had nothing to lose.  “You asked me once why I didn’t drink alcohol,” I said quietly, “Well, aside from the fact that alcohol interferes with my medication, I don’t like to get drunk.  When you get drunk, you lose control, and it leaves gaps in the memory as to what you actually did.  Because of things that have happened to me, I have gaps in my memory, and I’m aware that, if I get drunk and lose control it’s all one big laugh, but if I involuntarily lose control, I make people afraid, and they start clamouring for me to be locked up.  I don’t want to lose control, so I don’t drink.  No one cares how I feel, nobody cares about treating me normally because I’m not normal anymore, and my feelings don’t count.  In the past, they’d have put me in an asylum for the rest of my life and left me to rot, and they can still do it now, they can strap me down and give me E.C.T if they think I’m mad enough, they can dose me up to the eyeballs so that I don’t even know my own name, but they won’t lift a finger to help me lead a normal life because, as far as they’re concerned, I’m not normal, I don’t deserve their help because they think I did it to myself, that it’s all my fault.”

  “I shouldn’t have said it,” I confessed to Fliss later as we drank hot chocolate with marshmallows, “but it was like I had to say it to someone, if anyone else asks me how I’m feeling, I swear, I’ll kill them… I’m not feeling anything, that’s…”

  “Yes you are, you’re angry,” said Fliss, her eyes puzzled.

  “Do you blame me?”

  “No, not at all, you’re also hurt and upset; all feelings you know, and all genuine.”

  “Maybe I’m becoming tolerant to my medication,” I muttered bitterly.

  “Maybe he really hurt you tonight,” she murmured shrewdly.

  There was a long pause before I said; “I hate it when you’re right.”

  Fliss smiled wisely as she stroked Marmalade, who was curled up asleep in her lap.  Gone were the tight tops and super short skirts, the naively applied make-up, her hair hung loose to her shoulders, and she was wearing a plain yet well-cut print dress.  It hung to her knees, and the blue flower motif brought out the blue in her eyes.  She seems comfortable with herself these days, more self-assured, more mature.

  “You’ve grown up without telling me,” I accused.

  Her smile became a little superior as she replied, “I’ve been grown up for a long time.”

  Having worked our way through ‘Buffy…’ and ‘Xena…’ comparatively recently, we settled down with our ‘Daria’ videos.  As Fliss fast-forwarded the adverts, I asked, “Did you know,” I tried to sound casual, but a note of uncertainty crept into my voice as I added, “that he was seeing someone else?”

  Fliss focused even harder on the T.V screen as she nodded, I could sense her awkwardness as she said, “Jenny told me, she and Liberty have seen him around,” she pressed play, “with various women; one night stands, never the same one twice, but, similar type,” a note of distaste had crept into her voice.

  “Couldn’t you have warned me?” I murmured.

  She hesitated, “It seemed better not to,” she said carefully, “I’m sorry,” her voice was surer now, and she was speaking faster, “I should have done.”

  “Well” I muttered as we returned our attention to the screen, “at least he got what he wanted.”

  That night in bed, I cried for the first time since my breakdown.

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