tatpiyn


It always begins like this. A favour traded to secure a good deal before a loan can be made to see your dish on a menu or a name shouted across a dinner rush. When your entire life was a hundred square metres of red hot chef and ice cool front of house those complicated arrangements are the oil to grease the wheels that roll you out of tedium.

The next is your suppliers. All places run on good supply. If you can’t get the fish your competitor is laying out, or you can’t pour the booze your punters want, you’ll be putting out the welcome wagon to the all-you-can-eat student drug-fucked fiesta before you can say franchising. A good place finesses their suppliers and screws them in equal measures.

Gerald walks in the kitchen delivery door every Tuesday. He’d come Mondays, but we’re closed Mondays. So whaddya gonna do?

His parents were refugees-cum-market gardeners out of Otaki, and every week he fills his truck up with choice seasonal greens and hauls them down here to Tory Street, just to make our day with some of the best deals you can imagine. Citrus, dollar a kilo. Brassica, 30c a head. Tubers, depends. Only an refugee thinks they should let themselves get ripped off like that. Must be something to do with the debt to society. Or maybe they just aren’t paying taxes. Who knows? Who cares?!

Glenis spots him first. You can see him flinch when she starts in on the latest favourate gripe. Kaffir lime. But then, when she shouts like that, everyone flinches.

“Gerald you sorry-assed son of a bang bang me love you long time two cent immigrant show pony cock target… WHERE THE FUCK ARE MY LIMES!”

She’s standing behind the servery glaring through at Gerald. The heating lamps are lighting her face from above and it leaves her eyes in partial shadow, which accentuates her otherwise usual terror-inducing glare to a mere grimace of permanent dissatisfaction.

To his credit, Gerald laughs, “We don’t do Kaffir limes chef!” he shouts over the sound of clattering pots and the huge kitchen extractor fan, “You must be thinking of the last suppliers, the ones you threw out on their asses for trying to pass off imported Navel oranges on you! We don’t do limes!”

I can hear her mutter as Gerald begins to stack boxes in the delivery door, “Fucking Navels…” She she turns away for a second to check her stove-top then resumes the verbal assault, “Well for fucks sakes you slimy little cabin boys bunk mate, why don’t you find some goddamn Kaffirs, and their leaves, and goddamn well bring them to me to buy off you? Christ!” she exclaims, “Can’t you see we’re trying to fucking buy something off you!” She turns away again, muttering about the stupidity of bumpkins.

I’ve walked across to the delivery door and I’m grabbing a couple of 20kg sack of potatoes and I’m hauling them upstairs to the dry store. Gerald says gidday with his eyebrows and I flick him the chin. By the time I’ve come back downstairs again Glenis has him bailed up near the dishwashing station on his way back from out back and is berating him about “some Asians” who sell Kaffir leaves for a dollar a bunch at the Sunday markets near Waitangi Park. I grab a box of lettuces to be taken to the coolstore, and walk between the two of them, giving Gerald time to make good his escape to the exit. He says see-ya with his eyebrows again and he’s out of there.

I’m carrying another load to the coolstore, it gets stuffed under shelves so blood from the dead things can’t spoil it, and ask her, “So why so much shit about Kaffir limes?

She laughs, “Keeps the little fucker from getting too friendly.”

I laugh in reply and head out to the Charnel house with a final box of citrus. Inside, away from view, I take the lid off the box. And there it is. A bunch of leaves.

Big spiders in bigger webs. Finding out what was grinding Grant would take more than a quick word to the people in power, and sure as hell more than a favour owed.

It was two more night shifts before I could catch her out back cleaning the casi.

“I blimmin hate this blimmin job!” I could hear her shout as I walked out from the rear door of the kitchen. Sarah backed out of the small toilet she’d been spraying some worthless disinfectant into, and scrunched up her nose in disgust. The toilet wasn’t particularly stinky, but when you’re as well-heeled as she, anything other than roses or fresh lavender was something straight from hell.

University students on a furlough between Daddy and sugar-Daddy, we’d seen a bundle of them pass through the front doors of this place, as had ever other gig in town. I laughed, “You find anything valuable in there?”

“Blimey!” She exclaims, “It’s amazing we even get customers with these loos the way they are?”

I stop and lean against the way near to where she’s working. It’s the wall to the Charnel House, and I can feel the buzz of the coolers through the faux-oak panelling. Gary had given this particular job to the front bunnies long before I came on board, and it was the one thing that always reminded them of their place in the world. While I scraped plates and burnt myself daily, they got the shit from customers in all ways possible.

“Well, surely your job is to get them into the right kind of state then?” I ask inquisitively.

“I’m not a bloody miracle worker!”

We laugh and she glances over her shoulder to me. ‘You have that look like you want something.” She says.

“Well… maybe I do” I answer coyly.

She stops what she’s doing and pushes one of her locks off her brow with her wrist, the rubber gloves making her the iconic domestic goddess. “You know, getting me cutlery is only ever going to get you so far, dishy.”

“I know” I say, reaching out and lifting a lock of hair gently, and pushing it back behind her ear.

Her eyes smoulder. She steps towards me, her chin raised, one shoulder dropped, and says, slowly, cautiously, “I know Grant thinks I’m his Christmas Turkey, and if you can prove it, I’ll tell you everything. Micky. Nina. I’ll give you everything I have.”

For a farm girl, this one was alright.

Whether she was scared or concerned I couldn’t tell, but that she came to me meant something was happening. It could be the usual bitch-spat between front bunnies. It could be the usual spat between the chefs and front bunnies. Or it could be something serious enough for her to be scared. Real scared.

I finished up the folding and headed through the dry store, back downstairs and into the kitchen. The kitchen was it’s usual acerbic self. The chefs swearing and grunting. Dirty stories and dirtier secrets. I checked my station. The dishes hadn’t piled up beyond a little tryin’ since I left, and the chefs were starting on cleaning floors, so I made my way out back to the cool store and the bins.

Thing about front bunnies is, they think they’re the heart of any good place. All because they make the coffee that keeps a kitchen bopping they think they’ve a licence to see us out. Nothing is further from the truth. The true heart of a good place is the exchange. The waiters bring us the coffee, and we don’t piss in their food. It works real good like that.

Glenis was the knower in this place. When Gary decided to take over the old premises of Il Casino on Tory it was Glenis who pulled the strings to get the lease handed over clean and simple. God knows we didn’t need a turf war on our hands. These Italians get real stroppy about anyone burning the edge of their pizza.

The Charnel House I called it. A cool store packed to the gunnels with dead… things. There’s a legend of a dishbitch in the time before I joined the crew, a “vegetarian”. Christ only knows what the hell he was thinking, coming to work here. The story goes he was a talker, so to give him a nice big cup of shut-the-fuck-up Glenis sends him out back here to the House. One look of a three day old veal and four suckling pigs dripping blood into the hand-made pasta and the asshole never walked back into the kitchen. Man never even got hisself enough time to kill something for real.

Glenis is round the side of the House, perched on an upside down bucket and looking like death, warmed-up, sprinkled with chilli, smothered with parmesan, dumped on a plate, grilled, and served as staff dinner. She’s got a half-smoked cigarette hanging out her mouth, a filthy apron, and no light on her saves the orange glow of the fag end.

“Why you coming to bug me, bitch?” She asks. She always calls me bitch. I think it’s affection, but I’ll never let myself within arms reach the way you’d have to, to know properly. “You got something broke again? Or… you need something breaking?”

“Though I’d come see how much reefer you gotta stuff in that fag to make you nice, chef…”

She laughs. “Christ boy, not sure those Kaitaia Māori could make enough to see me nice. But bless ‘em for tryin’.”

I crouch back out of her way, away from the smoke fumes, closer to the rubbish.

“So… I got to know. When you giving Grant his next day off? That bastard is riding me like he thinks I’m his favourite pony.”

She laughs again, draws a long draft of her stick, staring at me through the citrous light. Her eyes have the hunger I’ve seen in a hundred chefs in a dozen shitty places. Too much caffeine, too little sleep, no food for days, blood pooled in their feet. Their faces go numb, the marks around their eyes like moats on castles of apathy.

“He leaves when he does the job we need done. Not a second before, capiche?”

I’d been there for two years before she came to me for help. I was standing in the laundry, my space, when she put herself between me and the door. I could tell it was her by the perfume, lilting, sweet, that masculine musk some women avoid sitting scarcely concealed beneath a layer of tumescent flowers. I kept folding the tea-towels. Half, half again, stack. Half, half again, stack.

These towels were my haven. This small laundry a mild, relatively dry hiding place from the chaos, debauchery, clamour of the kitchen below. I’d climb up the stairs at the end of the night and hide in here from those bastards, drag a pile of dried towels out of the machine and fold them, then sit on a drum of washing powder and be alone with my thoughts. I prided myself on this room. The stacks of towels raised near to the ceiling, each one a boon that kept an angry or psychotic chef that one step further from riding my arse for no reason. It had been empty before I came, forcing chefs to jealously guard one damp, slightly smelly towel for hours on end, eying each other warily, lest another steal their towel while it dried on the oven doors. Crazy people chefs. Like cave men with sharp knives, more hair, fewer women to fight over.

My heart almost stopped when she said it, “I need you”. I kept my head down, but could see she leaned against the doorframe, her arms folded.

“What are you doing in my laundry Nina, everybody knows this is my space. I bring the towels to you, capiche?” She hated Italian. She hated Italians. Her pretensions swung to French, the patronising dramatists of the food world. God only knows why she chose to work here.

“It’s not the towels” she stated, “I need your help mon ami… there’s no one else I can ask.”

I turned to face her, my frame towering above her by at least a foot, I put down my towel, and sat on the drum of powder. Taking off my baseball cap I brushed the hair out of my eyes and looked her over. Her hair was brushed forward. It framed her face and accentuated the blue eyes, her lips a deep red this evening, slightly opened in anticipation, I could see she needed something, real bad. She wore the black shirt all these waiters wore, unbuttoned just enough to flash that tip-inducing décolletage, a broach the perfect excuse provided the leering gentleman caught admiring her high-set breast. The shirt only slightly masked her feminine hips, hid her midriff, and sat atop her black slacks. Sensible shoes, as always.

“Why would you need a pig like me?”

The words had stung deeply when she spoke them, I, the eye of the storm trying to save her bacon on a breakfast shift when she snapped, giving me the broadside meant for the barista.

“I… I…” these words were never easy for a haughty bitch, one used to twisting men like oh so many napkins, trapping knife and fork in a lovers embrace, trying to spoon a flat surface with the cold back of a stabbing tool. The fork, that’s what she had always been, the cold shoulder to a straight-up-and-down man.

“I’m sorry.” She said meekly, “It’s just Micky you know, he’s… he’s… in out of his depth.”

“In what exactly?” I asked, knowing this was always going to be about Micky, her neurotic boyfriend, too stressed to drink coffee, tied to an expresso machine day and night, pouring hate into the cups of unwitting patrons. If projecting bad karma gave cancer, this place was an epidemic waiting to happen. I breathed deeply, exhaling cool air into the slightly dusty room.

She composed herself. Stood up and away from the doorframe. She lifted her arm and checked her hair. She glanced back down the staircase that descending next to the door to the laundry. She came forward, and crouched in front of me, placing her hands on my knees. Her perfume wafted through the slightly moist air, cutting through my own fug of dishwater, filthy boots, soiled uniform.

“It’s Grant,” she whispered, rose petal lips leaning close to my ear, “I think he’s going to snap.”

A cupids lips, the dusty, boyish hair of the habitually modest, Nina walked behind Micky‘s shoulder, her eyes cast to the profile of brow in astonishment of his consternation, and thinks, “but i have been here always, there is meaning in that alone.”

The hunched shoulders of the cautiously optimistic, the furrowed, pinched brow of the perpetual worrier, the glazed, distant focus of the compulsive dreamer, Micky turned his collar to the cold of Courtney place, “in the end, it is meaningless.”

It had been a day much like any other, Glenis attendance at work only noticeable by the slow movement of her shoulders as she breathed out the minutes to smoko. That, and the impressive bulk of her frame.

She looked again to the doorway of the shop, and returned to gazing out the windows at the apartment over the road. Soon… soon… he would appear. (more…)

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