It was August and the garbage-men had already been striking for two weeks. The back of the restaurant was rotting and flies hovered around the entrance to the kitchen. The bluebottles got in through the air vents or maybe in the kitchen porter’s clothes; they were wriggling inside of the celophaned tubs of grey prawns, pressed against the plastic.
I knew her primarily as Delicious but then later as Margaret Junior. Margaret Junior: I told her that I wasn’t sure that the ‘Junior’ part applied to girls’ names, (‘but my mother was called Margaret too!’)
It was hot when she looked at me and said, ‘We’ve got exactly half of the money.’
Margaret Junior: gently touching the notes, like a child.
‘You’re just like a child,’ I said and she looked up at me, alarmed.
Protesters broke the front window of the restaurant and fragments of glass flew into an elderly woman’s soup. She got glass in her soup because she was sat right at the front of the restaurant with her brown-spotted husband.
‘Oh!’ shouted Hariko and he ran over to the couple apologizing and making like he was praying with his hands.
The elderly woman rubbed her gums together and blinked like a frog.
‘Here, three new courses, take your pick, are you okay? No glass in your skin?’
The elderly couple’s eyes glistened.
‘We sue ya, ya know,’ said the man slowly.
Hariko’s head shined with sweat.
‘You expecting an easy ride because you’re in the U.SofA. You gotta make sure your windows don’t go on people here. Look, here, it’s a big ole’ mess. We could sue ya, ya know.’
The man didn’t move at all, only his mouth opened and closed.
I swept up the glass while the couple slurped their way through the three courses. I saw the old man quietly undo his belt buckle when the deserts arrived; lychee and leaves of ice-cream, mounds of white panna cotta, dribbling flames of mandarin and jasmine flowers amongst flakes of orange pastry. I picked the squares of glass out of the woman’s mohair jumper while she fixed her eyes on the food, her fingers shaking, the breeze from the broken window unsettling her white hair.
We sat in the darkness counting the money. The electricity had gone off soon after Margaret had arrived.
‘I’ll go put some money on the key,’ I said.
‘You wanna waste money on electric?’ she said. ‘Look at this shit!’ And she turned and stood facing the wall so that the red light from outside silhouetted her figure.
‘We’ve got to sort this Michael!’
I was surprised because Margaret Junior never called me Michael, only hun, babe, sweetie.
A customer at the restaurant cornered the new waitress when she was coming out of the bathroom.
‘I want some more wine, what were you doing in there? And why does this place fucking stink?’
‘I’m sorry Sir,’ said the new waitress, ‘it’s the garbage strike. They won’t come round for the bags.’
‘Garbage strike? I think that stink is coming out of your ass sweetie. All this garbage? All this stink? Tell me I’m wrong?’
The new waitress smiled.
‘Why did you smile at him,’ I asked her while we waited for Hariko to count the money and file the receipts away.
‘They’ve got the money. We don’t. We’re powerless. What do you think is going to happen to us when this restaurant has to close?’
‘Fuck!’ shouted Hariko, ‘This fucking calculator!’
‘We nearly have it,’ Margaret Junior said, breathlessly.
‘We should go out for a drink to celebrate,’ I said.
‘Should we?’ she said.
‘Of course!’ I said.
‘We can’t,’ she said.
During my break on Tuesday I walked down the twist of streets that surrounded the restaurant, looking at posters that the rain had washed, the flaking greyness that people had torn at, slashes and teeth in the advertisements and slogans. Graffiti covered the walls and I followed the trail of angry words, reading and listening to the shouting and beeping of car horns in the distance, until I realised that I had walked all the way to Margaret’s club in the middle of the City.
‘Hello, welcome to Sabrina’s,’ said the woman at the door. She wore a feathered tit-top and earring that tugged on her lobes and pulled the holes open wide.
I sat down and watched Margaret dance for a group of men in suits until she walked in my direction and I caught her eye.
‘My names Delicious,’ she said. She moved quickly, her round belly glistening in the green light.
‘Hello Delicious,’ I said, stuffing a handful of our savings into the space between her breasts.
As she danced, I looked towards the back door where Margaret had told me bags and bags full of sanitary waste; condoms, sperm and hairbrush fluff were piled, the smell of humankind overwhelming.
Margaret took off the paper hat that I wore at the restaurant and threw it on the floor, rubbing my head and grabbing hold of the lapels on my polyester uniform. When the lights flashed, she moved like a wind-up doll.
Hariko said that he had to dock my wages because I had damaged my uniform outside of work.
‘Come on man,’ I said, pushing the ridges out of my hat.
‘Listen Mickey, just because we are buddies it does not mean that I can make allowances for you, there is no such things as buddies in work Mickey.’
I looked at him, disbelieving. The stink of the restaurant filled my nostrils.
‘Are you serious?’
‘Oh yes, I am very serious!’
I shook my head slowly and threw my crumpled hat down on the counter, the tall glass door swinging, a Chinese dragon breathing fire at my heels. I walked fast for twenty minutes, catching sight of my reflection in shards of smashed windows, my shoelaces undone, jacket ripped and worn at the elbows and then, I returned, red-cheeked.
‘You’ve really fucked me man,’ I said, pointing at Hariko, ‘you’ve really fucked me.’
‘Yes, and I have served twelve customers all alone now. I will take that little break out of your wages.’
I stared at the empty restaurant and my hands moved as I began to polish cutlery.
We both looked at the paper takeaway carton.
‘Shall we count it?’ I said.
‘Okay,’ she said.
I emptied the contents onto the dark carpet. Margaret squealed when a coin rolled out from the notes and wound in circles until it was lost under my bedstead. I piled the notes in stacks of the different values, 10s, 20s, 50s, we had one 100.
‘Did you steal it?’ said Margaret, her eyes wide.
‘No, I didn’t steal it,’ I said scornfully, ‘Hariko, gave me a Christmas bonus.’ I looked away.
‘It’s Christmas?’ she said.
‘Well, sorta,’ I said.
The clinic looked ill, yellow paper covered the windows and the reception area was empty save for a few documents rustling on a high desk, at least six feet off of the floor.
‘What do we do now Michael?’ said Margaret, cradling her stomach.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. And so we stood looking up at the desk like two children waiting for ice-cream outside the mobile van, until a woman peered over the edge and asked us for our names and we went upstairs in a tiny lift and for a moment, I held onto Margaret’s hand but then the nurse said, ‘Ain’t that sweet,’ and I let go of it like it was dead flesh.
It was dusk when we left, shuffling guiltily past the high desk and into the dusty sunshine. We shared a bag of chips that were too hot to eat but I crammed them in to my mouth to save myself from talking and then I dropped the limp wrapping in the river, watching until it disappeared when there was still nothing to say so I took my paper hat out of my bag and lightly dropped that too. The hat wound off down the river like a swan or a serpent. Before it got dark I felt Margaret leave my side, and I turned to watch her walk away, her ass swaying.
In the distance I saw a dump-truck travelling fast, towards to clinic? Towards the restaurant? Towards Sabrina’s? Would all the waste go in together and be dropped… where? I briefly resisted the urge to chase the truck down the street.
By Alice Ash
Alice Ash is a writer and the co-creator of Femmeuary.
Artwork by Georgia Flowers