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.”