Sparkling Pink Sequins ~ Joseph Ridgwell

April 16, 2008

It was drinking all night and 6.00am starts that did it. No it wasn’t, it was the crazed supervisor, but the 6.00am starts and hangovers of death didn’t help. I’d done it in England, waking up in the dark, going home in the dark, like some sub-human nocturnal work beast. And here I was in Australia doing exactly the same thing. Now how did that happen? Wasn’t I meant to be surfing at Bondi or playing a didgeridoo in the outback somewhere?
     I was a catering assistant in a small private hospital. In the hierarchy of the hospital the catering assistants were at the bottom, even below the cleaners. Of course the doctors were top of the tree, especially the plastic surgeons. My job was to serve breakfast, lunch and tea to wealthy, but ill people.
     The supervisor, a brick-shaped middle-aged German woman, was obviously crazy. She looked like someone’s mad aunt, or demented cousin, fresh out of the nuthouse. Her first words to me were, ‘In here, the doctors are God, got dat? And I’m ze boss, got dat?’ I got it alright. All the other co-workers were middle-aged women, but unlike the supervisor they weren’t mad. I was the only man.
    Most of the woman did two jobs. They worked the morning shift, 6.00am- 2.30pm and then went to another hospital and worked the evening shift, 4.00pm-7pm. That made it a minimum fifteen hour gig, and they did it everyday.
     Often I found myself gazing at these women and wondering. Were they bionic women, possessed of secret powers, and incredible endurance levels? Strangely I possessed none of these values. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, a basic malfunction of the brain, or born under a bad sign. 
     But back to the supervisor, crazy, blonde, and fiercely German. She had me by the balls from the very first day. She took me to the kitchen and told me to peel a paw paw. I grabbed a knife and was about to start, but the German stopped me dead in my tracks,
‘NOT LIKE ZAT!’ She screamed.
She grabbed the knife and pushed me out of the way. ‘Zis is how you do it English boy’
I watched as she skilfully sculpted that large orange thing, it was like a work of art, a carving of love. Afterwards I was handed another paw paw, the medical wonder fruit, and told to follow her example,
‘NOT LIKE ZAT!’
   Once my senses had recovered from another verbal attack the supervisor instructed me on how to clean work surfaces. I was handed a cloth and a variety of cleaning liquids, but just as I went to start scrubbing another scream shattered my already battered eardrum,
‘NOT LIKE ZAT!’
     Then she showed me how it should be done. She scrubbed the surfaces until she was blue in the face. I was impressed. I thought she was going to have a heart attack, whilst scrubbing. The rest of the training continued in the same vein. I didn’t learn anything, except how it feels like to be shouted at by a mad woman.
     For the first week or so I was late for my breaks. I would get to the staff canteen, breathing hard, sweating, with just enough time to stuff a slice of toast in my mouth, and then back to work. I couldn’t understand it; those women always seemed to make it on time.
     How could they be faster than me, a young man in his prime? On the second week I decided to find out. I pulled one of them aside, a Fijian Indian, late thirties, sexy, always wearing layers of red lipstick.
‘Sabrina how do you guys manage to finish on time?’
‘You still do service like the German bitch tell you?’
I nodded.
‘And do you only do two toast at a time?’
‘That’s the way the Soup told me, do any more and they get cold.’
‘Who cares what that crazy lady say, you toast eight slices at the same time, got it.’
I nodded.
Then Sabrina informed me of all the other timesaving measures necessary to be able to complete the service in time for my own breakfast break. I was shocked,
‘Why didn’t anyone tell me before?’
Sabrina looked at me and laughed, ‘Because we need to know if you have what it takes, otherwise what’s the point.’
I had to admit there was some logic to this reply.
   With the short-cuts the job became almost doable. But it was the 6.00am starts that began to kill me. Most nights I was drinking till two or three in the morning, singing songs, smoking cigarettes, and defying the dawn. I lived five minutes walk from the hospital, but gradually the drinking and early starts began to have a strange effect. I began to lose all sense of perspective and became reckless, even suicidal.
     One morning I woke surrounded by empty beer bottles with a knife in my hand. I looked at my wrists. It could be done easily, just two quick slashes. No more 6.00am starts.
     Then I thought about the mad German supervisor, telling everyone she had doubts about me all along, a weak personality, no gumption. Then there was all those middle-aged women doing two jobs, fifteen hour days, seventy-five hour weeks for years and years. I threw the knife to the floor and clambered into my uniform.
    But something had to give. Something had to happen. And the day came. It was a Monday. That morning I’d eyeballed the roof of my apartment buildings. Ten floors high, concrete pavement, instant death, brains splattered across the road. A white tent constructed, police cordon, an outline of my body drawn where I fell. I headed to the hospital.
     At work the Soup was up to her usual tricks, shouting at her staff, finding imaginary faults, making the job a thousand times harder than it actually was. We were two short, and the German bitch loved it. The power trip working overtime. With two short it was going to be a tough day, and boy did she let us know it. Several times during the shift I had to stop and take a count of ten, so as not to grab her by the throat and throttle her. It was tough, but I managed, somehow.
      The seconds passed like minutes, the minutes like days, the hours like weeks, but after an eternity the end of the shift finally approached. I’d been avoiding the clock all day, but with less than ten minutes to go, I began eyeing the hands studiously.
     Despite being two short, the shift passed uneventfully, no mishaps, minimum fuss. The supervisor was disappointed, deflated.  She revelled in mini-dramas and calamities. She needed to find fault in everything and let others know, that unlike her, they were incapable.
     I was finishing my last task of the day, washing the trolleys down. There was less than a minute to go. Sabrina was next to me, folding serviettes. Although it was almost time to go home, I could feel something in the air, something ominous, a trace of dread in the pit of my stomach.
     I clocked the supervisor. She was tapping a pencil on her desk and looking around. Then I sensed it coming,
 ‘Somebody needs to refill ze zalt an pepper pots!’
Somebody needs to what? I looked at Sabrina. Her ever-present smile had disappeared, her big brown eyes filled with barely-concealed fury.
     The Soup made a beeline to me and put a hand on my shoulder,
‘Ze zalt and pepper pots need to be refilled. You don’t mind to do them do you?’ She asked sweetly, making each word sound like it were covered in huge dollops of honey and maple syrup.
     My head began to spin. I looked at the salt and pepper pots. There were over four hundred of the fuckers. What did she mean clean them? ‘Huh?’
At this the Soup suddenly came alive, eyes twinkling, smile radiating insanity, ‘You empty each pot, one salt, one pepper, den wash out each pot, dry each pot, and re-fill each pot, and then top up with new zalt and pepper.’
Was she serious, was she joking? I looked her dead in the eyes. Nope, there was nothing there, total blankness.
‘What?’
     The Soup repeated the nonsense, sensing victory. Sabrina shot me a worried glance, her eyes pleading with me not to react. I spotted an industrial meat mincer to my left. All I had to do was shove her into it head first, along with the four hundred salt and fucking pepper pots. I bit my lip, counted to ten, and then twenty,
‘Ok.’
The Soup smiled warmly and dusted her hands, ‘Goot, goot, you are a very goot boy, it vill not take longer zan one hour.’
Thirty.
     I resigned myself to the task of emptying the salt and cellar pots, but on the way out the German made sure to have the last word,
‘And remember English, I vill be checking them in ze morning, so make sure you do dem properly!’
Forty and counting.
     Sabrina remained in the kitchen. Everyone else had gone home for the day. She poked me in the side,
‘Don’t let her get to you kid. If you walk off the job, she wins.’
I could see where Sabrina was coming from, but pleasurable images of stomping on the Soup’s head flashed through my mind. I smiled weakly.
‘Come on I’ll help you, we’ll get them done in twenty minutes.’
     We worked fast and with no one else around Sabrina began to relax and even flirt with me. She was married with three kids, a reliable husband, a good man. I began flirting back, the pointlessness of re-filling hundreds of salt and peppers pots quickly forgotten.
     We emptied them, washed them, dried them, and then refilled them. Soon it was over. Sabrina looked at me and I looked at her, and suddenly the connection was made, one of those rare events that perhaps only happen once or twice in a lifetime, and sometimes never. She took my hand and led the way.
      Inside the changing room Sabrina unbuttoned her yellow uniform, revealing black underwear adorned with sparkling pink sequins. The shiny sequins took me by surprise and fascinated me. I mean, despite everything, the gruelling job, the mad supervisor, the endless shifts, Sabrina was still holding something back. A little bit of magic, a little bit of fuck you!

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