I hobble through the door at one am like Quasimodo. But instead of “The bells! The bells!” I scream; 'My feet! My feet!' My (apparently psychic) mother hands me a cup of tea and points at a basin she has filled with hot water and salt.
'Put your feet in that darlinkkk.'
'Why do people always put salt in the water?'
'Because it draws out the pain,' she says.
I like the imagery this provides and sit there sipping my tea visualising depressed people massaging salt in to their temples and their hearts. I may be over tired.
'How was it?' she asks.
'Long,' I respond whilst rolling the most delicious cigarette of the day.
Due to circumstances beyond anyones control the restaurant is over run with guests. And there are only four of us working. We agree to work through until close because it would be cruel on the remaining staff not to and waitressing is just that kind of job. You go in to it knowing three things for certain:
- You can make ludicrously good tips.
- It's really hard work.
- Your feet will hurt.
Even if you have nothing else in common with your co-workers you will all huddle around outside on your cigarette break and talk about how much your feet ache and share tips on pain alleviation and good footwear. One of the kitchen staff claims to have lost a toenail after several weeks of long shifts.
Having decided to see it through to the bitter end we are filled with a sense of olympic determination. A few hours in I find one of the waiters staring at a wall and giggling.
'I feel giddy,' he says, smiling manically.
'Have you eaten?'
'Not yet. I'm not hungry. I'm powering through.'
One of the younger waitresses is in the kitchen polishing tray after tray of cutlery without blinking.
'How are you doing?' I ask looking at the mountains of yet to be polished forks.
'I – I just – I'm getting there,' she smiles bravely. Still she does not blink.
I love watching the front and back of a busy restaurant. On the floor it's all smiles and calm enquiries.
'How's your meal? Are you enjoying the lobster? Wonderful. Is there anything else I can get you? Mayonnaise? Certainly.' Glide away smiling beatifically. Enter kitchen. Skid past the apoplectic chef, dodge the frantic pastry chef, try to avoid the slip risk to the right, banging plates, heat, light, sweat.
'Where's the fucking buggery mayonnaise?? Spoon! Spooon! Give me a spooooooon!'
Pound back to the door. Chef screams 'SERVICE!' Grab the hot plates. Swear. Grab some napkins. Lift whatever you can carry. 'TABLE 25!' Skid through door laden with hot food. Glide across floor. Smile. Smile. Deliver. Smile.
'Your mussels madam, enjoy. Is there anything else I can get you? Wonderful.' Glide. 'Your mayonnaise sir. You're very welcome. Enjoy.' That table needs clearing, that one wants the bill. They would like more bread. Collect drinks. 'You ordered a bottle of the Muscadet?' Thank fuck for screw tops. 'Would you like to try the wine?'
You can always tell if a guest has worked as a waiter themselves. They stack their own plates for one. And they see you. Not just an apron and a smile. But a person.
There are lovely guests. I love the ones who have really been looking forward to a meal out. Maybe a night away from the kids, or an anniversary, or a normally out of their budget treat. You want them to have a really good time. You go out of your way. And genuinely, nothing is too much trouble. And then there are the others. The ones who look down on you, or don't acknowledge you at all. Who from the moment they arrive are looking for something to complain about. To be affronted by. To simply not enjoy. I vacillate between wanting to sit on their chests and force crustacea down their gullets whilst screaming obscenities and just pitying them. They don't appreciate, they don't take any pleasure in pleasurable things, they have no joie de vivre. And that's sad. And it says nothing about my life. And so I smile and I try to shake it off. Try.
I judge my friends by how they treat the waiting staff when we eat out. It's a very good gauge of a person. It's essentially about how you treat those with less power than you. And unless you've had truly awful service, always tip. Always tip. Always. Tip. The best tippers in the world are waiters. They know.
And so, something close to thirteen hours later I am sat with my feet in salty water talking to my mum.
'I remember that pain,' she says taking a drag on her cigarette.
'Your feet hum.'
'Oh yes. I would work a twelve hour shift at the care home and I would be walking home bouncing off the wall along Abbotts Barton. My feet. Urgh. And my ankles. So painful. And if I was too tired to soak my feet I would lie in bed in agony trying to rub them together, you know, like a massage.'
She did that job for thirty years. And her feet hurt every day. And now my feet hurt. Our feet are fucked. And for want of a better description, our feet are also considered to be quite spectacularly ugly.
'Do you remember how beautiful dad's feet were?'
'Oh my god! It was perverse for a man to have such lovely feet.'
We stare at our own mangled offerings. I love my feet. They've never said a bad word about me.
And they do their best despite having not the slightest arch whatsoever. When mum was twenty four she went in to hospital to have bunions removed from both feet. She awoke after the operation in horrifying pain with two steel rods through her big toes. She says it was the worst pain she has ever experienced. It's a much less invasive procedure now but I think i'll live with mine as long as I can.
Slowly the salt and the tea drain away the ache and we chat about guests who complain and don't enjoy. And mum tells me about residents who were like that.
'They would arrive and move in to their room and I would go and introduce myself and tell them I was there for them if they needed anything at all. And they would look at me sideways, not even in the face. Their heads turned up slightly. You know? Nose in the air. I was beneath them. And so I would think 'Ah ok, one of those' and I would leave them to settle. Then the bell would ring. I go back to the room. 'How can I help?' She needs to use the commode and she requires assistance to get there. So I hold on to her and help her along and all the time she is shoving her elbow back in to my chest again and again. And so I stop and I look at her. Properly look at her, in the face and I say 'Are you ok?' And she sneers 'Yes! Why wouldn't I be?' 'Well why are you pushing me away?' 'Well you don't need to be so close.' Ah I think. So I help her to the commode and when she is comfortable I say 'When you are ready ring the bell and one of the other girls will come to assist you back, because I don't wish to.' The look on her face. So shocked. I smile politely and leave. The bell goes and I tell one of the girls to go and help her. I can hear her saying 'Where is the other one?' 'I'm afraid she's busy at the moment.' I stick my head around the door 'I'm not busy, I don't wish to help you. I told you that.' And then a little while later, the bell again. 'Where is that girl that was helping me before? I would like to speak to her.' And so I go back to the room. 'Yes?' A pause. And then very stiffly. 'I didn't mean to speak to you like that.' 'Okay, so why did you speak to me like that?' And then she trembles. 'Well I never wanted to come here....' And she cries. And I think, aaahhh. Fuck. 'Okay,' I say. And I sit by her and put my arm around her shoulder. 'I know you don't want me too near but do you want a cuddle?' 'Yes!' She laughs. 'Yes, I want a cuddle.' Then I stay with her, with them, so many like that. And I tell them; This is your home, and don't let anyone tell you differently. If you want a cup of tea you ring the bell and you tell us and we make you tea. Any time. And this is your private room. People must knock before entering. Be at home here. You have paid a lot of money and this is your right.' And they feel a little better then, they appreciate it, you know? They come feeling that the world sees them as an old burden waiting to die. They don't want to be there. No one does. Oh the loneliness.'
I talk of my almost thirteen hour shift as though it were anything at all. Nineteen years ago, mum, through circumstances out of anyones control, worked for thirty six hours straight. Thirty six hours. Can you even begin to imagine the madness? She did a night shift at the home from 8pm until 8am but in the morning the Sister in charge was frantic. Everyone had called in sick with a bug. You have to stay at home if you are ill and work with the elderly. Showing up for work sick transforms you in to the angel of death, you've no idea how many you might inadvertently cull. Mum said she'd stick it out until two pm when the next rotation started. At two pm, no one showed up. Mum worked until 8pm and then hobbled home on her little feet quite delirious. No sooner had she walked through the door the phone rang. It was work. One of the residents was dying and had requested mum be her 'special.' A special is the person you want to be with you as you die.
'Of course I had to go, I wouldn't let her die alone.'
I remember mum telling me when I was little that it wasn't sad when somebody very old died because they had had a long life and were so tired. The only tragedy would be if they were alone. We are greeted when we arrive, and there should be someone there to see us off when it's time to leave again.
And so she turned around and hobbled back to work.
'But the lady wasn't peaceful. She was uncomfortable and she kept wanting me to sit her up higher. Fretful. I had to help her be comfortable you know. Soothe. After a very long night she was finally peaceful and she passed away. By this time I couldn't speak properly. I sounded drunk. I went to the desk and talked such nonsense one of the other carers put me in her car and brought me home. And I crawled in to bed and I thought I don't know if I'll wake up tomorrow, I don't care. And then the phone went again. Your sister had gone in to labour with Oliver. Colin came to get me straight away and I went to Maria's house to be with her and to look after the other little ones. They didn't know I hadn't slept and I didn't tell them. It took me a while to recover from that week.'
It's past two am by the time we stop reminiscing and my feet stop humming. We make more tea and head off to our respective rooms. She reads. I write. We both smoke. We both have ugly feet. I am very blessed and very grateful.