DOWN AND OUT

By: Sophie Bowles 

 

8 a.m. I rise, from unsettling dreams – last night it was the security guard at Morrison’s caressing my thighs in the back of a mauve van, as we headed for Plymouth to escape a Fourth Reich in London. Arms retreating under the mugginess of my duvet, the first thought of the morning is I’m Fucking Freezing. No central heating in the flat, so it’s twenty minutes clung to the fan heater before I head into the kitchen for a breakfast of stale toast and old beans. Monosodium glutamate, sugar, refined vegetable fat – I couldn’t get through the morning without them, as well as a cup of freeze dried coffee, falsely pledging affinity to the doomed coffee workers of the Honduras. After a piss and brief examination of the mould on the tiles, it’s time to get ready for work. A quick dive under the dribbling shower, back to the barren bedroom for my sweat stained jeans and out the door I go. I take the 29, run in the last door and don’t bother tapping in, though I know the Driver can see me. He doesn’t care, he’s dead inside, consciousness dimmed by the sound of swearing toddlers and weary mothers fighting for a seat.

Usually I’m about ten minutes late. Ignoring the constipated greetings of my fellow Half Dead’s, I grab my apron and head straight for the kitchen where the KP, origin unknown, stuffs his face with clandestine leftovers – half eaten pizza crust, a forkful of spaghetti. I join in. We make small talk over untouched jam and toast. Our mutual disgust at the customers is shattered by the arrival of the Beast. The manager, pompously fitted in cheap acrylic, demands me on the floor, immediately. A panicked frenzy. Four of sixty seats have been occupied and I, loyal slave, rise to the occasion. Table set, smile fixed but a crushing blow – they only seem to want tea. What can we do, mutters the manager – what can we bloody do? You take care of this table. He disappears into the office to ring his cousin, who’s also managing an unsuccessful restaurant in London, and complain at length – of our indifference, our inability to carry hot plates and the audacity of a member of staff to take time off for a dental appointment.

I smile, oozing falsities. You have to be friendly. Give them all you’ve got. You never know who might come in the door. I’ve got this childish fantasy that these people might be important. They’ve come to rescue me from obscurity. Celebrities can always be found in airports and cheap cafés. I’m next. They’re artists; they’re eyeing me up, intuitive whisperings that I might be the Next Big Thing.  Forget the steak, I saw you in the window and I will make you a star. Post spectacular debut, it’s onto bigger things. A writing career, clothing line, retiring as an ambassador – the voice of every slave to minimum wage below the Watford Gap. I ponder their dithering faces – will the apple tart give me a heart attack or diabetes? The sheen fades to grey. They eyeball me because they’re hungry, not dumbstruck by my quirky beauty. They’re office dullards who saw the lunchtime discount and thought it made for a nice change from a meal of crisps and Mars bars. I’m nothing to them, just a waitress who gave up on smiling.

They eat, they leave, it gets busy, we fuck up, the manager screams. Table three throw a tantrum, which cannot be soothed by tiramisu. I thought I showed you how to do refunds on the till, how long have you been working here? I mop, I savour pizza crust, I’m almost there. Can you stay another hour? I lie – I have to meet my friends, when really I’m just going to check my email at the Star Express Internet Emporium on Seven Sisters Road. This is the highlight of my evening. Nothing exciting, mostly cheap tickets to warm places. I write false promises to Mother that I’m one step further to my dreams – depicting a life of spontaneity and whim. Truth is, I’m in a vegetable state, crippled by long hours and scraping dirty plates.

I spend a lot of time looking up celebrities. I’m obsessed. Who went where? Does being an Aries help? Who got bullied at school? I want to know it all. Did they do time deep cleaning the sink? It’s comforting to know I’m not alone; it’s a stint we all have to do. A means to an end. Some of them never went to school. In two years I’ll be there, in a sparkling dress, blowing kisses to the manager as he watches from his TV set. I log out and my daydream ends. The future remains certain. Nothing will change. It’s useless to think otherwise. I’ll lie in my squeaky bed for years to come. I’ll buy reduced, I’ll wear my faded jumper to the bitter end. I guess at some point I had my ambitions too, but they were quickly swallowed up by bigger, more menacing fears – a roof over your head, money to eat and to get into noisy clubs where you might find true love. But I don’t go out anymore, I’m just too tired.

I get in, watch TV. Ignoring the warning, I help myself to my flatmate’s bread and butter – just to spite him. I trip in the darkness and crawl into bed.  Someday I’ll tidy my room, but for now I cosy up to some loose change, a bottle of stale lemonade and some toenail clippers, all which have their place in my little bed. After a final peek through the threadbare curtains at the body sea below – rude boys on bikes heading home to Mum, couples fighting, corner shop men leering – I drift off to The Sound of London. Sirens wailing, neighbours shagging, pigeons dying and the thoughts of every lonely soul echoing from here to Wood Green.

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