I’m skint! Just like most people at the moment. Christmas drains our pockets, rent then comes pinching swiftly after along with dinner and all the other bits and bobs we need to survive – or think we need to survive. I was doing alright; being conservative with my student maintenance loan, going for the yellow stickers rather than the gourmet on the food shop, trying to keep costs down as much as possible. But, alas, the new year popped up with all kinds of fees and it left me empty-pocketed and scared. I live on my own now – I am my own responsibility. I can’t rely on my dad to cover rent, or my mum to make lunch, or even easy access to a cuddle when these pressures come on top of me. A phone call can only plaster a small portion of lovesickness, but a train costs a mini mortgage nowadays so even a visit to my rents can stress me out.
I had a job that topped me up, too. But the severe depletion of my other resources meant I had to walk away from it. Money is great – it is needed in this world. But that job taught me to never chase the pound, but to chase mental wellness, rest, recovery, tranquility, kindness, self-respect and most importantly, creativity. I could write a whole newsletter bitching about that job – the one I was only in for two months even though it felt like two decades. I could go into great detail of all the things I didn’t like, all the ways it made me feel like shit, all the aspects that tampered with the rest of my being. But I won’t. I will focus on that most important quality to my existence – creativity. I wrote a piece about this job that I am really proud of. I want to share it for this month’s newsletter to bring some comedic relief in a month that many of us suffer through as it gets colder, poorer and slower.
I may be skint, but I’m full of excitement and inspiration when it comes to my music and my writing. What more could I ask for? Money will turn up somehow. But to be lucky enough to create and share is something not everyone has access to.
This piece is dedicated to my dear friend Roger Murphy. I want to thank him for his lovely encouragement and kind words for the story; they mean everything. He’s really the coolest dood about.
FEED YOUR HEAD
Watching YouTube for the third hour of the day and being very bored with my lack of busyness, I fell down the rabbit hole of job hunting on my laptop. I tumbled down, down, further down, until I landed with a thump! on the application form for a caff in my area.
I started my first shift the next Monday.
Upon entry to the caff, the colourful and vast display of goodies grabbed you by the gullet and endorsed your lusts to engorge yourself on them; they almost seemed to have EAT & DRINK ME signs all over; but of course, this was just my belly labelling. (And the intelligence of advertising placement.)
Lost in this wonderland of confectionery, I idled about the tables, unsure who to approach or what to do. At the back of the shop a little Romanian woman stood egg-washing. I advanced. She told me to unlock my way into the office downstairs, where I would be granted my mission by the King.
King/Manager; same same but different.
He was a Hungarian man, sat in the computer chair, tapping, tapping, with dark features, a hipster-patterned-buttoned-to-the-stubbled-chin shirt on, and a clinical case of halitosis. He asked “who are you?”.
Who am I?
The new chef. I think. I applied four days ago and already I’ve forgotten my title.
He pointed me back to the Romanian woman, who seemed the Duchess of the joint. With inner eyebrows permanently turned towards her clavicle; with a scar along the lower neck like a gangster committed to a leaf turned over; with off-brand Crocs on and a little, black porkpie hat without the brim; she gleamed in all the regalia of fucking-fed-up and bored shitless.
Every question I asked this chef (Where does this go? How do I prepare this sandwich? What temperature for the sausage rolls?) was answered with “who bloody fucking care?”, accompanied by the snarl of a pit bull and a lip like Elvis. It was like she was declaring my beheading. Soon that line started to sound like “off with her head!” every time I didn’t know something I’d never done. The front of house were useless as refuge. They fluttered around this Duchess with all the fragility of a scattered deck of cards. But they laughed like mad hatters. On jokes I didn’t feel a part of.
There seemed to be a finesse to working at the caff that I didn’t possess. I was used to alternative everything; this trip was my first into the mundanity of normal life and reality for most people around the world. My whole existence had been a kerfuffle in the unordinary. Left school at thirteen. Did yoga instead of maths. Went to music college at sixteen. Did drugs instead of studied. Started university at nineteen. Did creative writing instead of a science. Helped out at festivals on a pancake truck and cleaning cups behind the bar, worked with my mum on her food stall, with my dad on the railway, became the director of my own company for poetry at twenty. Never was a 9-to-5 on the table. Never was something normal on the table. Never was the average, back-breaking, long-houred, minimum-wage earning career part of the dream.
A tiny, chubby, very gay Italian man came in and out of the Duchess and I’s space for most of my first few shifts. He had the chilled out appeal of a spliff-smoker and the wriggling backside of a caterpillar. He walked with a strut – his arse being the main motor of his movements. He helped answer the King’s question to me, though. Who am I? I’m someone who cuts cornichons in half for the mini-salami and radishes in quarters for the chickpea-avocado. I’m someone who brings the cinnamon bun trays downstairs to the dishwasher and smokes out the back door for the whole duration of the cleaning. I’m someone who ducks behind the counter to eat things out of the fridge and use my phone without customers seeing. I’m someone who egg washes the vegetarian stuff after the meat feasts, without thinking of the contamination because even seconds are of the essence.
The little white timer that magnets itself to the oven chimes again. It screams out for aid; it needs the press of my index finger, and nothing else, to soothe it into silence. It has all the frenetic energy of an albino bunny in a science lab. It finds me in my most tranquil states and rattles until I run to it. I can’t miss it; somehow, no matter how well I hide, its shrill call rings.
BRRR! BRRR! BRRR!
I charge from the till as I rearrange the display because the servers pretend this isn’t part of their job and log the freshly baked stuff into the iPad for wastage records, to my little white square of noise and nuisance, only to see the borekita need at least three more minutes.
The Caterpillar quit after three weeks of my being there. He was headed to be the main chef at the caff’s branch down the road. After a handful of shifts there he quit and moped back to Italy. I missed him until the other boys working there said he kept getting handsy without their consent and carried on doing it after they called him out.
The Duchess and I started to bond, gunky arm linked in gooey arm. I realised the “off with her head”ishness was only to get me in check; to test my waters; to see if she could trust me. “Who bloody fucking care?” wasn’t a statement of offence. It was a dismissal of the caff’s demands and their potential detriment to a good day. Instead of seeing the upturn of a lip corner as malicious, it became a sarcastic smirk… of our inside joke. But soon she was off to her trial; her day of verdict and life-changing chaos. Her daughter’s wedding.
This meant the kitchen was my garden to tend to; if only I had the right key to tap into the fountains of mainly memory and, kind of, skill.
I found the key. But I shrunk down to inches. I became tiny in the vast land of the kitchen and couldn’t access the slot. Every pastry was out of reach. Every pot was a swimming pool. Every crumb became a whole loaf. It was a disaster. I turned up fifteen minutes early and still everything I baked and made was late or wrong. I spilt the tub of pickled cucumber everywhere. I put the trays in the dishwasher wrong so none of them cleaned properly. I missed the cream buns in the top of the proofer so it meant the bestselling sandwich was unavailable all day. I muddled up the vegan buns with the meat buns so they couldn’t be sold either. The King came to my aid only at the finish line; I told him I wouldn’t complete it all at three, my scheduled shift-end. He said; stay till five if you like! I wanted his head off. I cried and cried and cried. Tears streamed and pooled and it felt like my ankles started to submerge. Before long my bum was wet with the outpour of frustration and anger. I only stopped once my chin showered. I walked home feeling massive, though; a huge character of redness, snot and glossy eyes. I slept with nightmares better than my reality.
The next day the Duchess welcomed me with open arms… ready for throttling. I felt like a little pig. A little swinish figure, ugly with the humiliation of failure and expectation for the educated to pick up my pieces. But with my cheeks still soaked and my throat still lumping, she must’ve found pity rather than a punching bag in me. She wrapped this little pig up in a blanket and directed all her kinking fury at the King. She told him he fucked up by giving me a mahoosive job that I was not ready for. His reply was simple; “maybe this job isn’t for you then”. With that he flipped his cape (skinny jeans) and stormed to his quarters (the office downstairs). The Duchess saw me, crumpled as a croissant piled before it cooled down, and said “if you want my help, I will give you it. I will help you like you’re my child. But only if you want my help”.
I did! I did! I did!
One young man from the front of house and I started to grow a bond. We would line our breaks up so we could smoke together and gossip about the crew. He had quite the temper, nonpareil to the rest of us dozy staff. He was a Gryphon; mismatching his tempestuous temperament with a sweet appearance. “No point crying over spilt milk,” I said to him one afternoon, as he literally bitched and moaned for all of twenty minutes after having to clean…spilt milk, because all of those “lazy cunts” in the front didn’t do it before his shift started that day. I caught the tiny droplets of red-hot spit that sprung from his tongue as it slapped its whips across the still vertical of my mush. He had been offered a promotion from mere barista to mighty team leader, but after a few of the girls said they’d quit if he got the role, he very angrily rejected it. “Sketty bitches can’t handle being told what to do”, he put it down to.
“We get each other, they just don’t understand me. They’re all so…”
“Foreign?” I offered.
“Scottish.” He replied.
Most of the staff at the caff were from around the world. There was Hungary, Romania, France, The Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Italy, Scotland, England. Aside from the Gryphon and I, there was only one other boy who fell into that latter country.
He was soft as butter left out for the made-to-order breakfasts, which, when sent through whilst you’re alone in the kitchen, are stressful enough to induce a stroke; they make you all twitchy with spleen. The baked eggs get slopped around on their metal shifter, shoved into the oven with a slick wrist and a slack passion. The avocado-on-toast gets smeared like shite on a nutter’s cell walls. The bacon is strung out and cooked so measly that you can almost still hear the swine squealing; always complained about for being too soggy. The bread always burns, just like the zealous fury invoked by this rushed, crushing flush of panic when the fucking ticket prints out and… where was I?
He was doing this job to work out what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He arse licked the seniors with swirling ardour, trotting about doing whatever he was told, agreeing when he thought he was supposed to and kicking back when the others did. He got fiery too, snapping like a turtle under threat. But these yaps were only shallow. He was more of a mockery than a martyr. A Mock Turtle.
The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle were best friends outside of work. They had met many moons ago and joined the caff as a twosome. This created a fumbled atmosphere at the tills.
Due to the almost magical messiness of the caff, I had to work some days away from my Duchess, with the hand-holders at the front, in the maniacal mayhem of the shop’s mouth. We handled everything with the risk of pregnancy in the kitchen; gloveless and wet handed. At the front you had to use different tongs for different products: brown for meat, blue for fish, green for veggie, black for bread and sweet. You had to serve a line of dedicated customers that often tailed into the street. The glass cabinet display ran up to the front door, with the tills on the other end. You’d serve a customer at the rear of the queue, and it often went something like this:
“Hello, how can I help?”
“Hi. I want three dark sourdoughs, sliced, two sausage rolls, an egg slider, a BBQ brisket sandwich, a pistachio rose cake, three chocolate almond croissants, five cinnamon buns, three cappuccinos, one with oat milk, one with soy milk, and one extra hot with an extra shot, a decaf americano with one sugar, a babycino and porridge.”
[You will then ask them to repeat the order, taking you through it step by step, trying to make them understand it takes you quite some time to collect and pack it all, as they look at their phone, then start speaking, to which you answer, only for them to give you a stinky look because obviously they were directing to the person on the blower and not you.]
“Is that everything?”
[Now you repeat the order back to them (keep some Strepsils handy).]
“This is to eat in, not for takeaway. I want it on plates.”
[You have to unpack all the things they watched you put into paper bags and rearrange them on separate dishes.]
“It should be ready for you now.”
[You point to the card reader.]
[They hand over a wad of cash.]
“Oh, sorry. We don’t take cash. Only card.”
[They don’t have their card. Only cash. Of course. They leave, with nothing.]
I ensured to escape any shifts dealing with customers. Keep me in the kitchen or kill me round the corner. Fuck dat.
The head barista was a Polish guy with glassy eyes and a creepy smile. This Cheshire Cat sat on the work-side and chatted, when he was seen, otherwise he would dip downstairs doing Dog-knows what, just dilly-dallying, presumably. He dis-and-re-appeared a million times a day, to many a tut from the Duchess. You would know if he had been where you were, though, from the lingers, the lingers. He had a stench so aggressive, so angry, so abominable, that the putrid pong of the day-end bins actually became olfactory detox. It was like sauerkraut forgotten for months in its fermentation, smoked with paprika and tossed with onion and Sunday-night-at-a-festival pussy. He earned himself the sarcastic nickname Coco Chanel, which stuck like the stink of his pits did to any sniffer in sight. It wasn’t only the customers that turned me off a spot up front.
One day the whole caff was turned upside down. Everyone was actually cleaning! We all had the proper uniform on! Nobody looked at their phone until break! All the labels in the kitchen were spot on! We only put the allowed six bakeables on a tray instead of the eighteen we usually crammed on to save time!
What on earth was going on?
Or going in. The Queen was due. She was scheduled a snoop. A check of the shop and its honeybees.
In she advanced; a presence heavy and powerful. She was the boss of the boss; the manager of the manager. Index finger pads drifted over surfaces in search of dust. Our motley crew was chatted to pleasantly and juried privately with the King. She audited us on a Saturday.
Now let me tell you, Monday to Thursday – no skin off my teeth. The weekend? That’s the whole flesh suit pulled from each fang with pliers (and no anaesthetic). Every cunt and their mother seemed to lose the ability to cook and brew for themselves. This meant hundreds of customers in and out all day, which also meant a bit of slacking in the cleaning and on-top-of-things department. It was hectic, rushed. So to have the top dog come sniffing around unexpected only meant mistakes and missed must-dos. We got a RED: this meant… FAIL! You guessed right. But as the Duchess would say, “who bloody fucking care?”. Afterwards we carried on as usual, doing things our way, just hoping for a heads up of the Queen’s incoming so we could pretend we did it her way when she was there.
One keen rim-jobber of her majesty was the King. I found out that all the staff thought he was a twat. One day he was really stressed out and the Duchess came close to my ear, whispering “maybe this job isn’t for him, if he wants to say that to you”. This proved true. He handed in his resignation after two months employment as manager of the caff. I stopped feeling pissed off at him and felt sympathy. I wanted to do the exact same thing more than a few times. But all I could do then was hope the next muppet walking through the door wouldn’t try to pressure me into sixty hours rather than my contracted thirty-five and that they enjoyed chewing gum opposed to drinking coffee with an udder full of milk and six sugars in. Word on the coffee kerb was that an argument I had with him about my working hours over Christmas was what pushed him to resign. I got fist bumps for days. I also got knuckled by the knot of guilt twisting in my guts.
It changed from a melodrama that made work interesting to a bit of a tumble into darkness. I worried my unapologetic behaviour was the cause of a man’s job being lost, even if it was his own brain that ran the final verdict and his own hands that gave it in. Wonderland became Thunderland. As my grievances with him subsided, the rest of the staff got more riled up, however. Stomping about the shop with insults under breath, clenched fingertips round coffee cups and swear words tickling tongue tips; no wonder the King felt he had to get out of there as quick as he could. I’m not promoting the idea that their opinions of him were wrong; but they were severe; and I wouldn’t have been able to cope with a gaggle of people going against me every gallop, making it skip.
A new girl was to train to help in the kitchen with the Duchess and I. She would experience all the knock downs, knock outs and knock backs I did. She would run all the steps with a duplicated duff ankle. She would bead sweat and burn hips and bleed fingertips just like me.
I gave her the notes I wrote that held the key to every job, in chronological order, that the days needed doing in that furnace of fumbling, finding and finessing. I could only share my experience and watch her try to find her own.
I walk out of the shop. I go home; it takes seven minutes exactly. I shower. I scrape smoked salmon stink out of my fingernails. I get changed. I sit on the train for an hour. I’m somewhere else. Somewhere familiar. I forget about the caff again. I remember it when my alarm sounds at 4:15am the next day to start my shift at five. But once I cross the concrete barrier of shop and street, I become Me again. I am taken back down to earth; or back up to it.
It all just depends on how you see things.
I layered this piece with references to one of my favourite stories – Lewis Carroll’s: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. My first draft of this piece was a chronological, scalp to toe tip run through of everything I experienced in the caff. It was boring as fuck. I needed another aspect, another twist that ramped up the creativity. I then got the idea to pair it with Carroll’s brilliant story as I felt it related a lot.
At work, I was what my role was. I wasn’t a poet, or a performer, or a writer, or a musician, or a vegan, or anything special. I was another cog in the system. Another number in the line-up. Then when I left after my shift would end, I became all those things in that list again. It felt really strange. It really did feel like Alice’s trip in the rabbit hole then her reemergence to normal life afterwards, but still with this awareness of the otherness experienced.
I was embarrassed when I quit. I felt like I was too much of a pussio to do a job most people can crack on with. I felt like I was weak, like I was worthless. I really was quite humiliated. But after many an hour deeping it, I realise I have to let that shit go. I am not a failure because I don’t want to destroy myself over a job that would spit me out the first chance it got. A job that wanted me to spend Christmas alone just so they had a baker for Boxing Day; a time when no one leaves the bloody house anyway. A job that started at 5am everyday, with a ten hour shift following, over every weekend, when I have university in the evenings, band rehearsal on Saturdays and many other things to do. It wasn’t until I was out of there for a few weeks that I realised how much of a toll it took on me. My diabetes was out of control, with more hypos than stability. My appetite was crazy and I was eating so sporadicly that my body was in free fall. I was getting about three hours sleep, if I was lucky, each night. I walked out of the shop crying more than a few times.
I can hate myself for not being able to handle what may sound relatively alright, or I can be honest and just admit it was not for me. I’m going to choose the latter.
Please, never break yourself for something that can be changed or amended. Stand up for yourself – never take anyone’s shit. Don’t make your life miserable to placate someone who couldn’t give a fuck about you. If it doesn’t feel right, you’re probably correct. Don’t ditch something the instant you aren’t into it, try it out. Experience it. But listen to your body when it tells you enough is enough. In whatever capacity it chooses to do so.
I hope you all had a wonderful start of the new year and that 2022 is going to be your best one yet.
WIAEA (What I Am Excited About):
Song: More Pressure by Kae Tempest – how do they do it! Write things that explain my life better than I could… Kae’s new album is out soon and this single spits it out to a banging start. Intelligent, powerful, insightful lyrics that are both personal yet relatable paired with a cool, synthy sound that again brings a new noise to their genius.
Book: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – naturlich, ja? Just had to be. I love this book so much. What a wicked story, with so much psychedelia and strangeness. We’ve all seen the film, which is just as good, but the book has an innocence and originality that is exciting as you’re reading what Carroll poured out by his own pen.