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“What about them Grundy tins?” I said.
“I aren’t quite done with ’em yet, Boss.”
I knew what he meant. When God invented fish he should have made it easier to clean up after them. Bony was scrubbing so hard to clear the tins of scales, the mermaids tattooed on his forearms looked alive. The sweat patch on the back of his T-shirt made me think of a map – South America, maybe, or Africa.
“Ever been to Africa, Bony?”
“Yeah, Cape Town, Boss. Spent too long in a bar, nearly missed the ship.” He turned from the sink, laughing. “One of me oppos did miss it. He got six months for that.”
“Don’t stop scrubbing.”
He grinned. “I’d rather scrub a deck than this.”
Sandra came up from below and showed me her tips.
“Stingy buggers, Red.”
“You’ll survive,” I said.
Pecs joined us, unclipped his bow tie and unbuttoned his shirt to show off his chest. He kept his tips to himself. They don’t have a tronc.
He said, “Yeah, Sands, what about that Kraut yesterday that tipped you a twenty?”
She pulled a face. “He was kale-eyed. Prob’ly thought it was a fiver.”
I saw Bony give her a look out of the corner of his eye. She ignored him and went to the far end by the fridge. Leaned her bum against it as usual to get the vibration. Says it’s as good as a massage. I thought I’d like to be that fridge, but decided that thought would get me nowhere and carried on wiping spice jars. Pecs rolled up his sleeves, joined his hands above his head, flexed his biceps. and turned his head back and forth, taking in me, Sandra, and Bony, obviously amused. Sandra checked her phone, maybe to see if she’d been called after audition. She’s a dancer, which is why she gives off “not really here” vibes. Me, I’m present, if you know what I mean, and glad to be.
Ahmed sidled up to me.
“We must be ordering more turmeric.”
“I can see that, mate.”
“Oh, you are sharp. Are you my friend? Not my friend?”
“I’m your friend, Ahmed.”
He’s small and thin but wiry – the opposite of Bony, who’s tall and wide but flabby, with an overhanging belly. Ahmed sends money to his family somewhere up-country in Bangladesh. Says now his daughter’s thirteen he has to pay for a jewel in her nose so she can marry. Thirteen!
He said, “I ask Mr Giorgiou I can make a cake.”
“No need to ask him, mate, you can ask me.”
“But he is owner. And chef.”
“And I’m sous-chef. That’s French. Do you know French, Ahmed?”
“Yes, I know, ‘Voulez-vous coucher?’ ”
“Yeah, but the important bit is ‘avec moi.’ ”
He smiled and nodded. “Too kallever you.”
He checked the dumb waiter. It was empty apart from one soup bowl, which he dropped with a flourish in Bony’s foaming sink.
The only time Mr Giorgiou gets fresh air is a twenty-minute walk round the block when the last punters leave. Who’d own a restaurant? At least when I’m tired of his moussakas I can go to Spain and make tapas. Back from his walk he makes us souvlaki for supper – one of the few perks of the job.
We cleared the island unit and stood round.
Ahmed said, “Mr Pecs? Lagow last night?”
Pecs knew what the word meant. “Many times, druh. Muff diving, the lot.”
He nudged Sandra next to him. She yawned and carried on texting. He tormented her by staring down her cleavage with its film of sweat. Mr Giorgiou undid his neckerchief and shook it out. His jacket was still pure white after the evening’s efforts. I never knew how he did it. Mine was well splashed.
He said, “This life. Why is it like this? I would like to go on one cruise.”
He says “one” instead of “a”, as in, “Give me one cigarette.”
Pecs groaned. “I worked on a cruise ship. We docked at St Petersburg. Bastard Russkis! Always if I went ashore they made me wait to go back aboard. Kept sending me to the back of the queue.”
Mr Giorgiou nodded. “They don’t like Ukrainians.”
“Fuck them. I nearly missed my ship.”
Bony nodded too, and laughed. “I know that feeling.”
Sandra piped up, “Who asked your opinion?”
A person’s haircut tells you a lot about them. Hers is lopsided like a bird with one black wing, and that broken. Pecs shaves his head to try to look tough. Mr G is naturally bald. As for Ahmed, I reckon his haircut is self-inflicted. Mine … don’t ask.
I pulled the pitta breads out of the toaster, showing off how I can hold them hot without flinching. We stripped lamb and onion and peppers off our skewers, dropped said skewers on the worktop like spillikins, then filled our pittas. A familiar ceremony. Ahmed squirted a sea of chilli sauce. I prefer mayonnaise.
Sandra said, “Boss, some customers ask why we don’t do kebabs.”
“What did you tell to them?” Mr Giorgiou asked.
“Same as souvlaki.”
“Yes. Kebab is a Toorkish word,” Mr G the Greek Cypriot said with a sneer. “Enough said.”
“In America they call them kabobs,” Pecs announced.
Sandra yawned again. “How interesting.”
Bony said, “I did them Grundy tins.”
He went to the rack and held up a couple. They flashed like mirrors.
Sandra said, “Bet there’s still fish scales on them.”
“No, no.” He ran a nervous hand over his hair, a long buzz cut, probably number four clipper, then fixed Mr G with a look. “Something I meant to say, Chief.”
The boss’s eyelids fluttered. “Yes?”
“It’s just … I has to keep me missus happy.”
Pecs laughed. “He is a chef not a sex advisor.”
Bony frowned. “Thing is, Chief, she says I has to ask you about me National Insurance.”
“What National Insurance?”
“She says you should be paying it for me.”
Oh dear. He’s never paid it for Sandra, Pecs, Ahmed, or me. Did Bony think he’d be the exception? Mr G wiped his mouth on a napkin and went up to him. Bony backed away against the sink. Mr G stopped with his nose a few inches from Bony’s. You see that on TV when there’s a ding-dong, but I’d never seen it in real life.
He said, “Well, Mr Bony, you can tell your missus to fuck off.”
“Here, Chief, that’s not nice. I don’t mean to cause trouble, like.”
“You are trouble from day one. You upset my waitress.”
Sandra, watching this exchange, put on a convincing scowl. I knew what this was about. To raise the dumb waiter from the restaurant you shout, “Up please!” or if you’re feeling crap just, “Up!” What you don’t do is jerk the rope without a signal. Old Bony must have thought he was raising the ensign double quick. Sandra’s hand got trapped between the dumb waiter and the hatch. No damage to her wrist or fingers, but Pecs sneered that she couldn’t forgive the threat to her nail extensions.
Bony said, “I told her I was sorry.”
“Then did it again,” Sandra hissed.
But I also knew the dumb waiter wasn’t the issue. One slack half hour, when there was just her and Bony and me in the kitchen, Bony took me aside and asked why she “had a sad on”, as he put it, and I said, “Her mother’s dying.” Next moment he had her in this great bear hug and whispered something. Sandra screamed, “Get off me, I don’t want sympathy, got it?”
Mr G was still on Bony’s case. “Why do you make difficult my life? You think it’s easy to run a restaurant? And look at you now. I see all the anger in you.”
“I didn’t mean no offence.”
“I don’t want to hear any more. I have work to do.” He moved away, but a thought struck him and he came back. “And always you are watching the clock.”
“It’s a habit. In the Navy you have to—”
“This is not the Navy!”
“I thought you’d be pleased with my work, Chief. You got a testimonial from my skipper.”
“Fuck your skipper!”
That was too much. I saw Bony’s right hand reach behind for the worktop. He grabbed a fillet knife and waved it in the boss’s face.
“Ram it!” he yelled.
Now it was Mr G who backed away and Bony who pursued him – the previous action in reverse, like some horrible tango. They were both the same height and similar build, the main difference being Bony’s torn T-shirt and the boss’s white jacket. Sandra scooted out of the way. I kept my station – I wasn’t going to intervene. Pecs tried to, but Bony – his eyes rolling now – made a feint at him, and Pecs wasn’t going to risk his lovely muscles. Mr G ended up cornered by the fridge, with Bony making jabbing motions.
I don’t know how long that standoff lasted. Probably not long, but it seemed it. A year before I’d have enjoyed it. My life was crap then. I was full of resentment, in and out of dead-end jobs, emptying several bottles of vodka a week, yelling at people, lucky not to get a beating. I was hooked on graphic war movies, cage fighting, the worst TV news. Then I ran into an old girlfriend.
“Bloody hell, what happened to you, Red?” she said.
I woke up. She and I are together now. I’ve got something to live for. And violence turns my stomach. So watching Bony threaten to slice Mr Giorgiou’s neck I felt like puking up my souvlaki. I wanted it to end – but how? I saw Ahmed shake his head and turn away from them. He saw my expression and looked shocked. Next thing I knew he was on hands and knees between the two sets of opposing legs, worming his way upright. His head was no higher than their chests. He faced Bony.
“This shall end,” he announced. “Give to Mr Bossy the knife.”
Bony was so surprised he loosened his grip. Ahmed felt carefully for the handle, took the knife off him, and gave it to Mr G. Bony put his hands to his face and moaned.
“I didn’t mean to flash up,” he muttered.
“Now you have crossed a line,” Mr G said, in the same tone as when he said, “Toorkish”.
Bony said, “We can sort this, Chief. You had to with shipmates. You couldn’t let things fester.”
“You have crossed a line.”
“Can’t I pull back from it?”
Mr G still had a firm grip on the knife. I thought he was about to stab Bony. I’ve always thought a kitchen’s the worst place for an argument. I passed out and sank down on the quarry tiles. I came to hearing Mr G say, “Give Mr Red one glass of Metaxa.” I normally hate the stuff, but it did the trick. I struggled up. Mr G draped his arm round Ahmed’s shoulders. “Bengali Babu,” he said.
Ahmed looked at me. “Are you being all right now, Mr Red?”
“Yeah.” The brandy must have loosed my tongue, because I said, “Christ, I thought one hothead Greek in a kitchen was enough. Now it’s like there are two.”
Sandra laughed. Pecs joined in. Mr Giorgiou came up to me, his eyes very wide. “Are you saying Mr Bony is like a Greek?”
I felt my job was on the line. But something made me blurt, “Yes!”
He turned away, went up to Bony – who was standing stupefied – and grabbed a handful of his T-shirt.
“Fucking Greek!” he growled.
“He made a bloody good job of them Grundy tins,” I said.
About Alex Barr
Alex Barr's story collection ‘My Life With Eva’ was published in 2017 by Parthian Books in Wales. ‘Take a Look At Me-e-e!’ a book of stories for children about farm animals, based his experience as a smallholder, was published by Gomer Press in 2014. He won first prize in the 2016 Doolin Writers Competition in Ireland. His recent fiction can be read at mironline.org/whatwouldyoumothersay, litrostorysunday/greeks, and samyktafiction.in/sybil. His poetry collections are ‘Letting in the Carnival’ from Peterloo and ‘Henry’s Bridge’ from Starborn. Before moving to Wales he taught architecture at Manchester Metropolitan University.