"C'mon Girl, we'll be late!"
Shawn, my housemate, holds the front door for me. We always seem to leave for work at the same time.
On the street we pass my old art teacher, Miss Corbett. She looks like one of those wobbly spiders whose body is too small for their legs as she shivers onwards. She forgets who I am though she lives just a few doors down from me now. Her mean little face is tense with concentration, a paper bag in one hand. She's out for blood. The multicoloured messes of flowers: poppies, dandelions, and other wild ones sprouting in the half-moons of muck that her climbing plants inhabit. She sprays poison at the weeds, shielding her climbers with the flattened bag.
The bleachy stink of the weed-killer doesn't help my stomach, but the worst has passed for today. Shawn and I go right by her.
"She's trying to select what gets poisoned," he says, his voice melodramatic. "Thinks a big dirty bag can protect her plants, but she doesn't realize that poison spreads through soil, in the dark"—he's obviously practising the commentary for an imaginary arty film—" deep between roots y'know, her prizes will die with everything else, agonizing and slow."
He grabs a bunch of blooms roughly from a plant. Miss Corbett calls after us, her voice quivering, hysterical.
"They're doomed! I say," he shouts back at her. "Doomed!"
"What? She thinks plants that don't see the poison won't be killed. Not seeing things does not render them harmless!"
We part ways on Panna, both heading to work.
I'm good at seeing patterns in things. I see triangles in the darkness between chips as they fry. They swim to the surface, potato cuboids, creating tiny waves, barrels that only the smallest surfer in the world could use. I imagine a painting; a creature with beetle-tough skin. I see him, dead center, gliding on bursting hot crests of oil, deftly avoiding the iceberg-sized chips that sizzle in the storm. I doodle on a paper bag, but it's nothing like. There's only so much a biro can do.
"Know the limitations of your medium," Miss Corbett used to say, as we hung on her every word.
She always saw me as medium; those were the marks, never anything more than average. She couldn't believe someone like me, lumpy and ordinary looking, could produce anything worth anything. Guess she was right. Here I am. The closest I come to being artistic is deciding what order to put stuff on buns; ketchup first or onions.
I remind myself of happier things. Art is going to call in tonight. I'm so sure of it I've my apron tied up tight, giving me a waist. We've called him Art, myself and Sinead, because he sells his breath-taking paintings on the street, when he's not away selling at festivals. We christened him three years ago when he first arrived in town. We've been admiring him quietly ever since.
I have one eye constantly on the large window of McChicken's where I work, watching for his bouncy walk in the bright colored hoody. Imagine my delight a month ago when we met in the throng outside Tangantay's and he offered to walk me home. He was confused at first, thought I was someone else, but said he'd walk me anyway.
I see my big distorted face in the aluminium back wall of the fryer. It is red; excitement, desire, bright lights, big city. I imagine him coming in and seeing me, my eyelashes demurely lifting towards the front of the shop, his heart pounding in his chest, wondering if I'll know him after his time away, working at Glasto. The festival ended last week, so I'm expecting him back. I'll just smile and say "Hey, you," as if I've forgotten his name, all cool.
I'll reveal later that I didn't use his real name because I don't like it as much as Art. I imagine the tingle of his hand on my cheek. I've arranged my blue McChicken's hairnet with the elastic sitting right on the hairline, not half way down my forehead, so I won't have a big line across my brow.
The shop fills up by seven, it being Friday. People who'd got too hungry, too lazy to cook, some whose regular treat this is, all crowd in. Ann insists on being at the till early on. My older colleague, she complains of hot flushes a lot, but I think that's the fryers. She thinks she's been made manager by Harry, the calf-haired owner, because he lets her wear a blouse. This means she says ridiculous manager things to me and Paolo like "Time to lean is time to clean." She thinks she's my mother too, always saying things like "Did you meet anyone nicer than yourself?" and "Hope you're being careful!"
Of course, I normally am, careful. But with Art, it didn't arise. We were so far past the point of care. It's amazing how a fifteen minute walk can dwarf a life time. He said things about how beautiful I looked, the dance of eternity in the stars, stuff about childhood, his own hopes for the future, how exactly he'd like to remove my clingy dress, and what exactly he'd like to do next. Words turned the short trip into an agony of lustful longing. We didn't discuss whether he was coming in. There was no small talk. It was straight up to my room, one armload of clothes pushed off the bed, and two arms full of me laid onto it. The same gentle fingers that dusted pastel ballerinas into existence doing magical things to my excited body, impossible beautiful things.
Afterwards he said it was ok, it was his time of the month. He made me laugh. But then I made him laugh too. I thought he'd wake the house with his roars when he saw the McChicken's uniform on the floor. He told me it was his favorite chipper, and he'd definitely be in to see me in the cute little apron, soon after Glasto. I marvelled at his curls and knew he was lying about it being his favorite, since he'd never darkened its door, not in the past three years. I'd have noticed.
He surprised me by leaving before dawn. He had a job. A sexy artist practical enough to hold down a day job, while still getting out on the streets to share his gift. My stomach tumbled with joy and my legs danced in the bed as the front door closed. He'd even taken my McChicken's cap as a souvenir.
After the Friday evening rush, there's a lull when only wasters hang around. There's a gang of fellas who meet every few weeks to play cards, their leader, a pudgy Elvis-alike. They scream laughter and shout about changing rules, arguing impossible cards. They stay late and graduate to more stupid games, "pick-up sticks" using chips as sticks. Mick Prestley puts in the order for the chips tonight.
He smirks, "Make sure they're good and hard love, for the game like."
I'd normally say "Didn't your mother tell you never to play with your food?" but not tonight. Their laughter is painful, loud explosions startling the other customers, cutting through my head.
At 10:30 when I've "refreshed" the ketchup bottles with water, (a trick that has Harry convinced we're going to survive the recession) Shawn arrives. I get us the usual and sit facing the door. I sit up straight with a serious expression, so that no one would think Shawn and I are more than platonic. I wish he wouldn't lean so far forward.
Shawn gives up after his third attempt to explain the plot of The A-Team to me. There's something loose in my head making his words all slippery. They won't stick on anywhere. I just can't pay attention. I'm suddenly very tired.
He leans back, as far away from me as he can.
"I'm going to Spain," he says in a grand voice. He's always talking about this, going to teach English. "It's a foreign language to me too, that's why I'd be great. The locations for movies are superb." He bunches his mouth up after the announcement, trying to look like he really means it this time. I picture briefly what'd happen if he moved out. There'd be a party; maybe Art would come. I try to imagine life without Shawn's soft friendliness every day, and I think I'll be fine without it, once Art is there filling the gap.
Five seconds into my non-reaction, Shawn drains his coffee and heads out the door in a huff.
Sinead and Lewis arrive later. She's on a Buckfast buzz, meaning they drank mostly at home, coming out for last orders. Lewis is her tutor, which is why they avoid going out till late, as if anyone would bother reporting them. He doesn't even grade her, just gives her a few Physics tutorials. They'll split when he runs out of lessons. The danger will be gone.
Sinead demands a strawberry milkshake, Lewis a cheeseburger and coke, which I sell to him with a bottle of water for her. We don't do milkshakes.
"Guess what?" Sinead asks, picking up a straw.
"We saw Art."
"Yeah, the Art with the tart!" says Lewis.
"He was not with a tart." Sinead says, "He was in The Pipers with his sister, she looked very very like him"
My heart flips. The Pipers is the nearest pub, only three doors up.
"Are you sure?"
"She was practically his twin," Lewis says sarcastically.
"Sure we're sure," Sinead says, eyes wide and lips rubbery. I move on to the next customer, a blush that's a mix of excitement and nervous doubt engulfs my neck.
The pace of the night quickens as pubs spew out their drunken customers. There must be two hundred hungry faces. Four hundred grabbing grotty hands. One-hundred-and-ninety-nine slurred face-to-face orders, and one shouted from the door, yerman smoking outside, only coming in when it's cooling on the counter. I take the cash, count coins back to them, splash salt, sprinkle vinegar. None of these things need thought. I go automatically, a low ache in my back pulsing silently as the hours fly.
At 2:30am I catch a glimpse. Looks like Art, passing the window in a hurry. He doesn't look in. The hood covers the face and whoever it is turns the other way to roar up the street. He's gone from view before a girl follows, passing the window in a scurry of skimpy clothes, provocative movement. I see her laugh a dirty laugh that I can't hear through the buzz of the chip shop. My face feels hot. I grab dirty bags and vinegar-soggy cardboard off the tables. Even if it was him, he wasn't shouting back at her. And if he was, then she probably is his sister. I remember again the tender way he held me that night.
I have it, I think. The blush returning. Maybe he'll be outside when I finish. He'll surprise me, he wants me to meet his sister, get her approval on me.
I get the day's grease off my face in the ladies after closing, hand soap cutting through the grime. Ann shines the brass. She has a bag for me when I'm leaving, a few spare quarter pounders.
"For Shawn," she says. "Make friends?"
She has a silly secretive smile, like she notices everything.
I take it and head out breathless into red lemonade coloured streets. My chest tingles uncomfortable in the cold.
My rattling heart slows when I see a deserted footpath both ways. It mustn't have been him.
On the way home I begin an argument in my head. He should've called in. He could've waited for me. He might've thought I worked in the other McChickens, I fight back, maybe he's calling tomorrow, first thing in the morning. He'll prefer calling to the house. Maybe he knew I'd be embarrassed to be seen in the uniform. Maybe he's embarrassed to be seen with me. I think of my distorted red face in the aluminium wall and the one with the skimpy clothes and what her face looks like right now, perhaps ecstatic in his laughing embrace.
I'm nearly home. When I come to the first of Miss Corbett's climbing plants I kick at the tendrils, scuffing my sneaker along the wall. I pull at the leaves of the next, thinking of her withered delicate vindictive hands. Putting down the bag of burgers, I yank the next one from the muck completely. Then I separate two more from the lattices they were climbing, wooden creaks make my offbeat soundtrack. The one opposite my house I shred, rip it limb from limb, I hurl pieces angrily over the wall and lash part of the wooden lattice against the wall until I hurt my hands.
I look back as I cross the narrow street. It's a mess, a line of someone's dreams more and more destroyed till they stop just here. The rest of the street is undisturbed, life continuing to stretch ever upwards, the insatiable need to grow.
I collapse into bed in my uniform. Sick time comes, early and unavoidable as ever. Shawn gets up. He's in the kitchen when I emerge from the toilet.
"Y'know what," I say, "I couldn't care less what time it is."
He puts his arms around my belly from behind, a friendly embrace.
"Will you come to Spain with me?" he whispers close to my ear after a pause, the fluff of his jaw tickles.
"We'll see" I say. Then "I have some gardening to do."
There's a knock on the front door, neither angry nor weak.
"I'll go" he says, and I want to hug him. I sit heavily at the table to wait, spread out my hands to see ten varying frowns of dirt trapped under the nails. I grab a biro and some paper to draw. When the front door is opened I shift so that I've my back more fully to the door, so that whoever it is will see I don't care who they are or what they want.