The night porter had stubble on his chin and his jaw was oddly twisted. He had a glass eye. When he talked it looked you over. I followed him with my bags in my hand as he took me through the half-lit corridors and stairs of the hotel. He stopped at the top of the stairs and took the fag from his mouth.
– You a student?
he bent his eye quizzically.
Satisfied, he screwed up his face, looked at the thin yellow fag in his hand, put it in his mouth, sucked it, and waited for me to pick up my bags. He walked sideways and pigeon-toed in a cloud of smoke.
My room was down the yard along a passage. We reached it down some greening steps by a drain that served half the hotel sinks and was plugged with tea leaves, slime, rubbish and weeds. The room smelt of damp, a smell like catpiss and fluff. The porter offered me a cup of tea but didn’t come back with it. He was a solitary man, mean with words, lived in a room above the stables and slept all day.
– You’ll be up at six tomorra,
The chef was another kind of being. When I think of him I think of those strange islands that erupt from the sea, olive-groves, lava, and the iguana. He was an elemental creature encrusted in stone. His shady blue skin hid crags and crevices, polyps and spitting boils.
– It is the god,
he would say, breathing deeply, straining every muscle in his frigid neck to release the tension, hanging like a hungry dog strung on a tightening leash.
– It is good,
you would say of the food, and he would say,
– No, no, you only say it, but I know it,
and he would dig his nails into the lines of his face and moan terribly, impossible to console, staring at the floor. His god was a dirty angel obscured by clouds, casting wide nets into the sea, who tricked him with pathos and wit and tangled him in guilt.
– You live for nothing. It is to die,
he would say,
– The God, he knows. He is leading you all.
And you would feel guilty because you could not feel like him. How could he care so much, about god, about food, about where the olive oil had been left the night before?
– It’s only a job,
you wanted to say,
– You’ve only got one life.
But for the chef every motion, every meal, was another step along the road to perfection, and perfection was an obsession beyond the self. He didn’t care how we felt, that his walks through the everyday storm turned our lives into a daily hell, that we staggered towards the end of every day hating him and his food and his god. It would not have mattered so much if the day had ever dawned when the kitchen had been cleaned to his liking or the sauce tasted as it was meant to taste. I wanted to grab him by the throat and shake him and say,
– Shut up,
but he wouldn’t have understood me anyway. I was the blemish that crossed the sun each morning and dimmed his horizon. What matter if his mouth was shut? He was still the boss.
– I am the boss,
he would say,
– because I understand. And you are nothing.
And it was true. I was nothing. I was a dishwasher, and my job was to be there at six in the morning, to keep the plates spinning through the soap in the sink and stacked in the racks to dry, and to throw the pans under the taps and keep them moving back across the kitchens towards him.
He wasn’t a happy man. He would erupt coldly, wreaking his vengeance on the scullions who mopped the floors, stirred the soups, cut the vegetables and scraped the pans. A Spanish lad who came to learn English worked in the kitchens for two days and went to the toilet, unknowingly out of turn, and was sacked. He couldn’t believe it. He had no money and nowhere to go. The chef pointed at the door and he left in tears. Later he came back and knelt on the floor, pleading and crying, tugging at the chef’s sleeve, but the chef turned his back on him and looked the other way.
– He should have looked out,
– The god is cruel. He doesn’t care. You see the spider. He gobbles the fly. No care. For me it is the same.
She was a student who worked upstairs, cleaning the rooms and changing the beds. I met her on my way to steal a towel from a guest room. I told her what I was doing and she laughed. Her hair was tied in a knot, sat still at the window, looking out on the damp yard under the kitchens. She wanted to talk, talked. Best not to count on it, scrutinise the form, diffuse precision clarifying shadow. The day lapped at the glass, receded, and we conversed with the dark. The words were clear, rich and slow.
We walked out on the beach in the failing daylight when there was no-one about. The pebbles crunched by the sea at our feet. Winged creatures stirred and flapped at the shadows. I felt the tide coming in, hot on my tongue, and her lips were soft and warm. We sat on a bench looking out to sea, with our arms around our shoulders, and I felt a melancholy shiver and an uncertainty that the wind blew in.
– Do you fancy me?
– I don’t know,
– What do you mean?
– I don’t know.
– I don’t have to.
We slept together in my room facing the yard. It was a cold, damp place. Everything was flat blue or grey, washes of dull colour, silence. The nylon sheets stuck to our bodies, and I liked her.
The days were slow. I rose with the sun colouring the sky. Jeans and socks screwed up on the floor. A reminding knock on the door. The aching light scratched the window. I would lean against the sink and rub the clouds of the previous night from my eyes. Dustbins tipped over, wrappers strewn. Bird’s Eye. Wall’s, walls, Bachelor’s, fishbones, tealeaves.
Outside the murky window the yard was slab coloured, clouded at the rim of the glass like a Daguerreotype negative. Days were like this, a strange affair, blurred and motionless.
– Where were you last night?
– With her.
– The chef’s angry.
– You’re late.
– Only five minutes.
The chef shouted at one of the kitchen porters, and I walked past, trying to blend into the background and be unnoticed.
– You are useless,
he told the porter.
– And you,
he turned on me.
– You are the worst.
Dishes. Dishes. All I thought about all day long was dishes. It had a curious effect on me. I stood over the sink in a self induced trance, moving the dishes from side to sink to draining board in a vague rhythmic dance, thankful at least that I wasn’t one of the scullions who danced to the chef’s tune and scrubbed the floors on their knees.
– You are a useless pig. You no enjoy work?
– Stupid. I want shine.
Waking up was more difficult with each new day, especially when she was lying next to me, soft and warm, and she didn’t have to get up for another hour. I would lie there and sniff her breath, her soft flesh next to mine, the smell of her hair, unwilling to move.
One morning there was a loud knock on the door. It woke me with a start. I was asleep, slept in again.
– Wake up.
– I’m coming.
– The chef’s mad with you.
I rolled over the top of her and pulled on my jeans and shirt, and crawled out of the room, still trying to flatten my hair with my hand and to push the tails of my shirt into the top of my jeans. I ran into the yard, up the back steps and into the kitchen, eyes half-open, lids slipping shut, and affected an air of nonchalant indifference I did not have, but he saw me.
he shouted, standing back on his heels, swaying. I smiled at him.
– You’re having me on.
His face flickered, the temperature rising.
– No way,
I said, trying not to catch his eye, and walked round him to the sink. I ran the tap, and tested the water with my fingers.
– This is no good,
he said, untying his apron and throwing it onto the bench. He sat on one of the kitchen chairs.
– You go, or I cook no more,
he said, and waited as I began to wash the plates,
– I cook no more,
he said, and folded his arms. He gave me half a day to pack my things and leave.
She hid me in her room, but it was difficult. The housekeeper slept in the room next but one to her, and we had to talk in whispers and never be seen as we came and went, which was hard, because the housekeeper was always tramping around the corridors in a flurry of bedsheets and pillows. During the days, when she was working, making the beds in the upstairs rooms, I had to go out.
I spent the last of my money trying to find a job in the area, knocking on doors and hanging round the back entrances of hotels. I went to the employment, sat beneath the warning posters and waited to be called. The clerk was a small man with a flop of hair that had been swept across his balding pate. He faced me with an air of resignation and futility.
– I want to sign on.
– You haven’t filled in your address.
– I haven’t got one.
– I just don’t.
– You have to have an address to sign on.
– Not without money I won’t get one.
– Where you staying?
– I cannot say.
– Well, I can’t help you.
– How’n I supposed to eat? I want a job.
– You give the winos money. Why not me?
I stood up and pushed back my chair.
– I’ll not be an apprentice,
She had no more money than I did. She brought back whatever food she was able to find, but she had no reason to be in the kitchens and pilfering the leftovers was not easy. One evening she came back with nothing and we lay still on her bed, curtains open as the dark fell around us. We watched the clouds and it began to rain, slowly across the roof of the wing of the hotel, penetrating everything, overspilling a blocked drainpipe and gushing out of the corner, splattering loudly in the yard below.
When the rain stopped I said,
– I know what I will do.
I went along the corridor beside the housekeeper’s room, down the stairs and along the passage to the yard to raid the kitchen store. The yard was streaked with shadow. I hid behind the steps and watched as one of the scullions went down into the cellar and came out with something in his hand. He locked the door behind him, and switched the yard light off as he went back into the kitchens. I could hear the distant bangs and clatter of falling pans, and the chef’s angry shout.
– No. No.
– Where is the ladle?
– Here, give it to me. I will show you.
I ran across the yard and pushed the door but it would not move. The kitchen door came open. It was another one of the scullions, stood in the light while the chef shouted at him. He crossed the yard to the store, and I moved back into the shadows. He fumbled with the with the keys, swearing, and I thought for a moment that he might see me.
– Fuckin’ cook,
I heard him say, and he banged about inside the store, shifting boxes here and there. He came out with his hands full, and pulled the door shut with his foot. He tried to lock it, but couldn’t reach the key.
he said, and I waited as he stumbled across the yard into the kitchens, the boxes in his hands overbalancing him as he shoved the door open with his foot.
I pushed the door into the store and it came open. I felt my way around the shelves in the dark, anxious in case he returned, and grabbed what tins I could. A tin fell, clattered onto the floor. Footsteps. A sound in the yard, closer than the kitchen din. I pushed myself back into the shadows. Somebody moved in the doorway.
– Who’s there?
a voice said, but I didn’t speak. Stood stark still. It was the night porter and he was scared.
– I know you’re there,
he said. The light from his torch flickered nervously up and down the shelves and landed on my shoe. His voice trembled.
– Who is it?
– It’s only me.
– What? Student. Get out.
– Just a couple of cans.
– No. Get out. Me job.
He grabbed my shoulder and pushed me.
– Wait on.
– One tin?
– Get lost,
he said, and I scrambled across the yard, still clutching what tins I had. There was a tin of prunes and a tin of peaches and a tin of baked beans.
Back in her room later that night, she lay naked across the chair, scratching her leg and smoking. I lay on her bed on my side, my head in my hand, wondering at her lack of self-consciousness, her stomach pouting slightly through the shadows. I said to her,
– Why don’t you come with me?
– I can’t,
– You can.
– Why not?
– You’ve got no money.
– That doesn’t matter.
– It does.
– I’ll get a job.
– I can’t.
We left at first light next morning. She didn’t leave a note or tell anyone she was leaving. We snuck out through the corridors with our bags over our shoulders, and stood at the roadside in the first grey light of day.
A lorry stopped. The driver was glum, elbow steep on the wheel, read the SUN on the boards. And the sun on the roof, burnt. We sat high in the cab, and watched the road as it came towards us, a long black snake of dust and tar.