Short Fiction by Ali Roberts
Mel will be the first one to turn up and there’ll be a yard-long prep list on the workbench so she’ll start with roasting squash for the soup. She’ll get the stock bubbling and skim its greyish foam. Around this time Rob will turn up and—if Mel got to work in good time because the bus drivers weren’t on strike or all off sick again—she won’t bother asking why half the list wasn’t done yesterday (in that passive-aggressive tone which is the only one available to a sous addressing the head chef). If she’s got gall enough to ask regardless she’ll be given an unsatisfactory answer. Something about staff illness or whatever (everyone and their mum is ill. Mel’s is, she’s sleeping on Mel’s sofa) in response Mel will mumble something like, “I have one day off …” which Rob will hear but ignore. By now the kitchen will be hot and the meaty steam off the stock pot will have drowned the smell of Rob’s hair gel and hangover.
“Caitlin in today?” Mel will ask Rob.
He’ll do a grunt that means yes.
“What time? Twelve?”
“You know it’s twelve.” He’ll say, raising an eyebrow. Mel will turn away in case her face has gone a bit red. If Rob comments on it she’ll blame it on the steam.
This will be about the time for Mel’s first Crohn’s flare-up, so her gut will get gripey and—if she’s remembered them—she’ll dry-swallow a codeine.
Martin should turn up by this point but there’s a good chance he won’t. Whether he has or not, there’ll be some trace of his half-assed work from yesterday. This will likely be an unemptied bin in the piss-reeking alleyway behind the kitchen porter’s station. There’s sometimes a few cockscombs shut in the bin lid. If that’s the case, Mel will tie up the bag herself. She’d never be ashamed of being frugal but if the punters find out she’s buying shagged-out cockerels, whole, direct off the chicken factory up the hill and getting Martin to pluck, gut, and behead them, The Pearl would have a hard time of it in The Gazette.
Mel will give Martin the benefit of the doubt and stick her head round the door of the walk-in fridge in case he’s in there watching videos on his phone again. If he is he’ll flick the screen her way and there’ll be—for example—a video of three people in a car being shot at on an empty motorway, all shouting in some indeterminate language, black clouds everywhere. His skinny arms’ll be wriggling and he’ll be going, “Oh man, oh man.” Mel will tell him if he doesn’t get to work, Rob’ll fuck him with the mop handle and she won’t get between them. Martin will laugh and say, “If he does, that’s your fault, Mel, and I’ll name you personally in my suicide note.” Mel will laugh back but also make a mental note that he’s mentioned suicide again.
After a bit more prep, Mel’s gut will be twisting and she’ll be staring at the clock waiting for the next pop of a codeine while sucking an ice cube. Glen, the owner, will either ring or turn up in person around mid-morning to tell them about some nonsense marketing idea. Last time it was a restaurant in the Widcombe Leisure Complex that has VR headsets so you can eat your dinner in the Bahamas or the Postojna Caverns. Then he’ll ask what the special is. Mel will say “trout.” He’ll say, “again?”
It’ll always be trout unless it’s winter. In winter, Mel talks to the beaters up at the estate and they hang a few brace of pheasants on The Pearl’s back door when they drive through Widcombe after the shoot. For the rest of the year though, it’s trout. Poached, baked, potted, smoked. Glen will no doubt complain about being so close to the sea and having no fresh sea fish on the menu. Mel will explain—as she has countless times before—that this is mainly the fault of Neil Hamblyn who brought his whole team down from London and only opens his restaurant, Samphyre, from April to August. During those months he employs the only tiny day boat in Widcombe and pays for their whole catch. The Pearl can’t afford even the scraps off that boat since Samphyre got the Michelin Star. Glen will look unsatisfied and nod them goodbye. Mel will decide that now is a good time for the next codeine; or, if she’s forgotten them, a diet coke or something stronger.
Although she already knows the answer, Mel will text Caitlin to ask if she’s coming in; call her a lazy fucker for still being in bed if she doesn’t immediately respond. Caitlin’s bed, Mel will imagine, smells like those sweets that look like little milk bottles.
Soon after Glen’s left, Jim Weston from Weston’s Fly Fishery will turn up at the back door in his waders. Mel knows him from school and, since she sorted the original deal with him in the interest of “keeping his trout population regulated,” she’ll give him a raise of the eyebrow and head over to look at his catch. Rob will cut in front of her and point to the spot where he’s had Rob Steer: Head Chef @ The Pearl Bistro, embroidered on his whites. This will remind Mel that he’ll be the one doing the negotiating but also that he’s the kind of bloke who’ll pay good money to satisfy his ego. Then Mel will peel and blanch potatoes while Rob spends forty-five minutes bartering over the plundered trout.
She’ll go and get some cockerels herself if Martin hasn’t turned up. Even if he has she’ll have to get them herself because he’ll likely be squirreled away in the dry store having the day’s first rail of shit coke or good speed or whatever it is that makes him twitch. While she’s kicking the door shut and setting up a raw meat board she’ll ask a possibly-present Martin how he’s been. He’ll come out with something like, “I’ve been growing distrustful of my electric toothbrush.” When Mel gives him an incredulous look he’ll say, “Well, why’s the handle so big if it’s only got a battery in there? D’you know what I mean?” He’ll then carry on with something about GCHQ collecting your dental records so they can bump you off and plant a fake set of teeth on an arson victim’s corpse. Mel will laugh but also bank that for later when— if Caitlin wants a drink down the Miners’ Arms after service—she’ll use it for flirting.
Once she’s spatchcocked the cockerels and thrown the spines on to roast for the stock, Mel will need a piss; or, if she’s forgotten her codeine and she’s not sufficiently backed-up to hold it in, a shit. Somehow their toilet schedules seem to match so Rob will already be in the bogs, at the first stall—the one without a door—apron still on and tucked under his chin like a schoolboy. He’ll go, “alright,” and his voice will strain as he squeezes his piss out harder in order to convince Mel his dick’s big and his flow’s vigorous. It’s likely Mel will have nothing to say to Rob so she’ll slam and hold the broken stall door closed with an extended leg. Whatever she’s doing in there, Rob’ll start banging at it, making shit splatter noises and she’ll wonder why she ever told him about her Crohn’s while she’s wrist-deep in the bogroll dispenser, scratching for the last few shreds. If Martin hasn’t turned up, though, she’ll be able to deflect Rob’s attention onto that by asking him if he’ll make one of the waiters do a KP shift, the whole time calling him “chef” both to flatter him and remind him it’s his responsibility. “They’ll listen to you, chef.” She’ll say. No matter her mood, Mel won’t want to talk to the waiters, they’re normally posh second-home-summer-job kids and they never stick around long enough for her to learn their names anyway. As she’s appealed to Rob’s ego he’ll likely agree. She’ll wipe. Rob’ll zip up, give his hands a cursory dash under the water and make one desultory fart-splat sound as he leaves.
Mel, following Rob back to the kitchen, will catch him pulling a pack of Rennies out of his ass-pocket and chewing one for the heartburn he’s brought on with his forced piss. Caitlin and her waiters will have turned up by now. Before she trots over to Mel, Rob’ll grab her and whisper something in her ear with his hand against the back of her thigh. She’ll slap his chest and call him Robbie, then he’ll tell her to make him a hazelnut latte. Caitlin will come over and peck Mel on the cheek which she’ll pretend to dislike. Then they’ll go over the menu while Mel’s finishing the last bits of prep for lunch service.
“Same as yesterday,” Mel will say.
“What’s the special?”
Mel might ask about Caitlin’s week but she’ll likely bring it up herself. Specifically she’ll mention her cat, Candy, who’s perpetually lame from fighting other cats. If Martin’s there, stacking clean plates on the pass, he’ll tell the same story he always does when someone mentions cats; that his ex-neighbours once tried to cut his cat’s ID chip out of its neck so they could rob his computers by opening the kitchen door through the cat flap. Mel will wonder how Martin is capable of keeping a cat alive.
When he clatters into the back with a stack of gastro trays Caitlin will bump shoulders with Mel and whisper “Why’s he so weird?”
Rob will overhear and say, “He used to work in a print shop. The chemicals make you go fucking nuts.”
Mel knows better. Martin went a bit wrong after a bloke robbed him at knife point on the forecourt of a motorway petrol station. “He held the tip of the blade right up against my Adam’s apple,” he’d told Mel once, drunk, down the Miners’ Arms, “and when I swallowed, I felt it nick the skin.” He left his car there, off the M5, and hitchhiked home. Mel will keep that to herself though. She’ll say, instead, “He got sacked from the print shop for slipping pamphlets about UFOs into old ladies’ photo albums.” If Caitlin laughs Mel will ask her, “Do you want a pint down the Miners’ later?” and because Caitlin’s already laughed, she’s pretty certain to say yes.
Service will start slow and, if she’s remembered them, Mel will have another codeine. If she’s forgotten, she’ll pinch a gobful of whiskey from the bar and suck another ice cube while sitting on an upturned bucket, waiting for covers.
It’ll be hot so every one of the soppy day tripping punters will be wearing floppy hats and gauzy linen blazers with a slick of sun cream down their noses. They’ll file in, only a few at a time and Mel will silently lament the open kitchen as she keeps her head down—pretending intense focus on chiffonading an iceberg lettuce—as they try to catch her eye.
The orders will takeaway boxes: bunless burgers and dressingless salads, and it’ll be so easy that Mel will skate through it barely caring about Rob who’ll no doubt have checked out under the pretence of sorting next week’s rota. He’ll actually spend the whole service thumbing through his phone, showing Caitlin pictures of his son for her to coo over. Mel will think, as she always does, that it’s hard to believe Caitlin carries on shagging the fat little prick when his missus is in most of the photos Rob shows her; lifting the boy into a treehouse by the armpits or finger-digging a moat around a sandcastle turret. Mel will make a mental list of her superior qualities: half a foot taller than Rob; in better shape than Rob; her house isn’t filled with shirtless pictures of herself like Rob’s. During a lull she’ll take a look in the front-facing camera of her phone. Maybe it’s her nose? Her nose is quite large. Then she’ll think about buying a nose job or a puppy.
Unless it’s a particularly nice day, service will just peter out. If it does spontaneously fill up Mel won’t call for Rob. She’ll push a fist into her belly to try and calm the gripe. Then, if she’s got them, she’ll finger the blister pack of pills in her pocket—just to know they’re there—and watch the clock.
This is when Mel might be borderline panicking because the cheques will start coming; piling in like knotted handkerchiefs from up a magician’s sleeve. Mel will fear, with every cheque the ticker prints, that she’ll go catatonic and everything will come unmoored. She’ll recall a memory in which she’s been left afloat on a lilo in the deep end of the Widcombe swimming pool and some boy’s come off the back of the big inflatable turtle. He’s swallowed a load of water and got stuck under the tail flap where he’s spluttering and gasping, stretching his hand out to her but she can’t move because she can barely swim. In her nightmares the boy has her own face or sometimes she’s the boy stuck under the turtle. Then the boy’s eyes bulge and he lets out a piercing, rattling scream that keeps ringing until Mel wakes up.
After she’s done and everyone’s got their orders, she’ll look to Caitlin and lie: “you can’t beat that adrenaline rush,” then splash her face with tap water.
“Well done, Mel.” Caitlin will probably say.
Around the end of lunch service Rob’s missus might turn up with their son on the walk back from nursery. They’ll both look knackered. Everything will go quiet. By then Mel will have headed to the back. If Martin’s in, he’ll have had another line and a can or two of export. He’ll underarm one to Mel from the walk-in door as soon as he sees her coming. If he’s not in she’ll suck a double’s worth from another can of diet coke, fill it back up to the brim with whatever brown thing first comes to hand off the bar, and use it to wash down another codeine. About now, Rob will bundle in, yawning, and take two cans off either Martin or the back shelf of the walk-in. He’ll down them on his own in the dining room while listening to Skid Row.
Whether Martin’s there or not, the waiters will be. They’ll be hanging around, watching Mel work, not quite comprehending anything. They’ll probably ask her what happened to the rest of the chefs. The truth of which is the last six commis and chef de parties somehow got the same illness, they went from migraines to bedbound in a matter of weeks. They got signed off sick and, as far as Mel knows, they’re on the dole. Mel thought it was bullshit at first but then her mum got it. After the pound shop refused to pay her statutory sick leave, she had to give up the bungalow and move into Mel’s flat with only one suitcase and a bag of photo albums. Now she can barely get up off the sofa. Mel won’t tell the waiters that.
“One of them,” she’ll say instead, “a little posh boy like you lot, never came back because he fainted on the kitchen floor after he took the tip off his thumb while he was mandolining potatoes for the pavé.” They’ll chortle uneasily but ask her what a pavé is to which she’ll say, “a complicated hash brown.”
She did the industry standard lobster trick to one boy, the same way a mechanic gets you to ask another for a long weight so he can jack up a car; or, a decorator sends you out for tartan paint. She probably won’t tell the waiters that one because they won’t get it. If Martin’s there he’ll drag it out of her. He likes it, especially when he’s had a couple cans. “Alright,” she’ll say, “when Glen first bought The Pearl after he’d left his marketing job he sent me and this boy down to the Widcombe Lobster Festival to make lobster rolls. So I tell the boy ‘keep an eye on the lobsters while I make a dressing but If they go red, they’re fucked, and we’ll have to chuck them.’ So he’s watching the pot for a bit and I’m watching him watch it. Then he starts getting twitchy. Next time I look, he’s legged it halfway along the sea wall. I’ve never seen him again.” Only Martin will laugh. The waiters will mumble some shite about Mel being cruel and having possibly broken the law. One of them will no doubt mention that they have a particularly litigious father who wouldn’t let that happen without repercussions.
Eventually it’ll get near dinner service and the waiters will start asking about their staff meal. Having spent too much time chatting and drinking with Martin Mel will tell them she’s busy finishing the prep, throw them some of yesterday’s bread, and tell them to make themselves some fucking sandwiches.
Before dinner service starts Mel will ask Caitlin how many covers are booked in. It won’t be many. If nothing’s changed there’ll be fewer than the night before, and the night before that. Caitlin will have taken some calls over the last couple of hours from punters gasping apologies down the phone about being too ill to make it in. Locals mainly, cancelling anniversary meals or middle-aged birthdays. The ones in the new seafront houses will still come in. Probably only a table of four though; maybe a couple of walk-ins.
Once service starts Mel’s codeines should be keeping her clogged-up enough to get through it with no issues. If she’s forgotten them, her bowels will be giving her a fair amount of stick. It’s the adhesions from when they took a bit of her intestine, she’ll tell a sympathetic Caitlin between grimacing mouthfuls of water. “Cheque on!” Rob will boom when the first order comes in, jolting the solitary table of dopey, sunburned punters, “two soup, one beetroot, one pâté, follow: two chicken, two pies,” then he’ll stare at Mel until she shouts “Oui, chef!” at the volume he wants, maybe making her do it twice saying, “I can’t hear you.” Then, just as loud when the plate’s up, “Service, table two.” Chances are Caitlin will tell him, “Shh,” at which point Mel will likely join in, trying to top his volume to see if either of the flouncily dressed wimps will complain on behalf of their wives. None of them will order the trout.
During service, Mel will notice Rob’s had another tattoo or got a new knife—either will be something Japanese—and fight the urge to ask how much more he’s being paid than she is. Shortly after she’ll be reminded that Rob’s really good at his job. He’ll move with a precision and attention that’ll make her not only envious but almost obsolete. Even on a busy night he could do it all on his own, she’ll think, and if she’s forgotten her codeine, he’ll have to. After about an hour Mel will be sat on the staff bog again, leg against the door, hunched over while Martin blindly passes water and paracetamols over the stall wall. Rob will stick his head round the door during trips from the walk in to make a couple of fart-splat noises and giggle all the way back to the grill. That’ll be the end of it. She’ll re-emerge when service is over to see everything wiped down and cleared away, she’ll ignore the suggestion that she go to A and E, then watch as Rob slips his hand into the back pocket of Caitlin’s jeans and says he’s giving her a lift home.
With the codeine, though, she’ll be loose, half-pissed, and overconfident. She’ll rip through the cheques in a kind of blur, quicker than they can dribble out the ticker. Her plating will be sloppy and unphotogenic but they’ll get the food out. she won’t feel time pass until the last table leaves and the lights flick on.
Best case scenario post-clean-down is: Mel will remind Caitlin that they were going to the Miners’ Arms. Rob won’t come because he’ll be driving plus he isn’t allowed back late and Martin will hang back to hotbox the dry store and sleep on boxes underneath the workbench again. If that’s what happens, which is likely, Mel will do one of Martin’s spurious lines off the glass surface of the induction hob, link arms with Caitlin and they’ll scamper off down the Miners’.
After they’ve settled into a booth, Mel will tell her the thing about Martin and his toothbrush. They’ll both laugh. Caitlin will rub her hands together as if they’re cold even though it’s been hot out and the fire’s always going in the Miners’. Mel will inch her hand across the table to cover Caitlin’s but leave it long enough that she’ll become self-conscious of her grated thumb, the oil splatter burns up her knuckles, the knife scores on her index finger, and she’ll pocket it, offering to buy several shots of Jameson instead. If Caitlin refuses, Mel will just get her a couple of pints and then get turned down when she leans in for a kiss as the landlord’s calling time. If Caitlin accepts the shots, she’ll get drunk and sloppy, and she’ll be the one to initiate a kiss. Mel will turn her down out of shame and embarrassment because she’ll feel slightly predatory but she won’t say that. She’ll say, “I’m not into that ‘gay for a day’ shit, Caitlin,” and call her a taxi.
Whatever happens, Mel will go home alone. Back to her mum who’ll have left the heating on all night so it’ll be roasting. Wanting to postpone another night of fitful, sweating sleep, she’ll walk the long way back to the flat and, if she’s had enough to drink, she might climb up on the harbour wall and scream into the sea.