“The chef told me not to drink beer until AFTER the shift, but by then I was already drunk.”
Desmond grinned and sidled off to the windowless cleaning station.
Desmond is the kitchen porter, the foot soldier of the catering world. Being a non-EU immigrant, the dizzy heights of the cell sans-window, ten feet below the Soho streets are about as high as he can expect to rise.
Desmond is a mate, yes, though the only thing we really have in common is a love for booze. Consequently our relationship is pretty one-dimensional.
Today has a revelatory feel for me, due to the fact that this morning I woke up in my bed sadly aware of another entity sharing this, the most private of all my domains. It had been a pretty heavy night. Though I remembered pretty much nothing past the act of purchasing a second bottle of whiskey, this unidentifiable presence means that potentially I managed to pull. It is, admittedly, extremely unlikely though.
The last big night a couple of days back resulted in the utter soiling of all that I have to sleep on. Consequently, my bed has no sheets, just a cheap acrylic duvet from the local market. The hangover is extremely bad but if, just if, under the mass of uncovered polyester and lint there is a girl, it would at least give me some sordid kudos to the whole night. I begin to peel back the cocoon in trepidation. Whoever it is has really entangled themselves into the bedding. Still, it could be a girl. Then my heart sinks at the sight of an all-too-familiar grinning face.
It’s Desmond. Grim.
“I have to be honest with you Desmond, I am extremely disappointed to find you here”
“Laurence, good morning, what? It’s normal no?”
“It’s definitely not normal Desmond” and I trail out of bed to throw up. Again.
The only thing that could make the situation worse is if Desmond and I had to go to work in the next half hour. Unfortunately this is exactly what we have to do.
It is 6:30 in the morning and the ten minute walk to the bus stop is marred by an intense introspective feeling of lowness. This feeling is not improved by Desmond’s presence as he starts on a six-pack of Stella Artois he has unbelievably garnered from the 24 hour offie on the corner. I feel sick. Then I am sick, on the bus stop. Good job it’s early.
I’m pretty amazed I haven’t been fired yet. For some odd reason my punctuality and commitment are actually pretty good. The overhanging issue is the fact that I am almost always hungover. Still, I never call in sick. Even when I am the physical embodiment of the word. I always hated those folks that didn’t turn up. I appreciate the irony of this last sentence as several times I have been sent home mere nanoseconds into my shift but there was never any deception accompanying this act. No lying. The decision was management’s, not mine and therein the crucial difference lies. It is this warped logic, coupled with London’s commendably thorough night transport system that has kept me in employment this long.
Such joys the City of Westminster burps up at such regular intervals. There is very little pleasant about the West End, from rotting squids and ducks in a generic Asian-themed communal trough to the shite clubs full of blokes in metallic shirts and girls painted “Dorito yellow”. This month’s joyful issue is a little different, taking the form of a fatberg.
There is a Chinese chef next door who sells knock off cigarettes, single handedly coating the lungs of the Soho service industry in some sort of carcinogenic Chinese tar. Smoking one is like sucking burning hair through a catalytic converter. On the plus side they are £3 a pack. From this pillar of society I was able to garner that apparently Westminster council charges quite heavily for the removal of cooking oil, safe in the knowledge that Chinese food is floating in the stuff. Consequently, and far from surreptitiously the staff at The Golden Dragon/ Lion/ Palace etc chuck the stuff down the sink. It all comes together with the rest of Soho’s subterranean joys and there can be only one result.
Every day the shit and piss from every nationality to use the crapper at the Slug and Lettuce or O’Neill’s has been slowly building up behind the fatberg, its noxious presence futilely searching for an escape route, eyeing the ancient pipe work beneath our building with greedy envy.
I had been at work for an hour when the build up exploded into the wine cellar. Superlatives can be overstretched in this sensationalist age but I am fairly convinced that I will never smell anything as bad again. I go to the bog and throw up, taking the day’s tally to four.
If you would assume that the cumulative affect of a few inches of human excrement coating the food prep area would be more than enough to close a place down, you would be wrong. Theatrically, the show must go on. It would have to be cleaned and for that, there was only one man that people would turn to – Desmond.
Just like in “K-19 The Widowmaker”, it would fall to one man to dutifully save his colleagues. The only difference being Desmond was on £6.50 an hour regardless of what he did. That and he had no choice.
He took the news well, which speaks more for the miserable nature of his job (rather than his questionable work ethic) and set about his business. To tackle a couple of inches of human waste spread evenly over about twenty square feet he was kitted out with the standard tools of the trade. A mop, bucket and some bleach. This would take some time.
I came down to check on him a couple of hours later. Being the pragmatist that he was, cleaning the usually locked wine cellar was not without its benefits for Desmond and indeed he had helped himself handsomely. Pretty worse for wear, he was scooping the last scrapings back into the small hole in the floor from whence they came. The hole bubbled and belched ominously, a plaster sphincter connecting our world to the world below. To his credit, Desmond had done a pretty decent job considering his limited equipment. He was pretty drunk though, more so than usual which was unusual for a man who sets the bar so high.
The life of a kitchen porter is so often riddled with extra disappointments to augment an already thankless job. The grass is never greener. Today would be no exception. As Desmond slowly made his way to the door and relative freedom, he stopped, checked and threw up all over the floor which seconds earlier had been cleaned by his own hand. I looked at him and he looked back at me, grinned and then went off to get some more bleach.
Artwork by Roy Blumenthal