‘Are those pans ready yet?’
‘Yes, Chef.’ It was a familiar call-and-answer that rang out like the song of slaves in a field, but empty of their desperate musicality. Zoe used one rubber-wrapped finger to flick aside a stray red curl, re-adjusted her hairnet, and scrubbed down with a vicious, jerking motion.
To her right and just past her elbow, the stainless steel box stood open in the raised position. It was poised and hungry, tireless, and currently empty: She stacked, racked and packed, and then fed the hungry machine another grimy crate-load. Well-oiled, the squeak of the box as it descended carried a moribund hint of glee, much like a fat cat pouncing on a pre-trapped rat.
The operation of a commercial, high-powered dishwasher was an exercise in heat, pressure and the mild scaldation of bodyparts. For Rupert, that meant unwieldy blue gloves and sweat-lined cheeks. He’d been last to arrive through the back gate at start of shift so—the Rules of Serafino’s Kitchen being absolute—Zoe had taken the coveted spot of Left Washer. As the gangly youth had duck-stepped in past the walk-in cooler, she’d already been standing by the small door that swung out onto Enoteca Sileno’s main dining floor.
She’d held up a wilted scrubbing brush as he’d approached.
‘But I, ah…the tram was—‘ She’d grabbed a rubber object from under the large sink behind and let it dangle by fingertips under his nose. ‘Look, I’ve been, uh— oh, just gimme the damned gloves.’
Rupert had snatched it up. Thwack.
The stretch-and-release as Zoe’d let go had flicked a fetid wetness across the curve of his upper lip.
‘Damn it, Zoe,’ he’d said, as he’d dabbed at his face with a frayed hand towel. ’You don’t wanna make any friends tonight, do you?’
‘Rupert, my lovely—today has been some special kind of bastard. I just want to get tonight over with.’ She gestured at the cluster of pre-soaked dishes, a lurking titanic that sloped up from the murky sink. ‘You want to leave here alive? Then let’s wash.’
‘Ehh, Zoo-ee!’ a voice called out from behind them. Zoe turned, taking in Rupert’s bright grin and wink as she swept her gaze around to the huddled back entryway.
‘Chef Serafino. How are you this afternoon?’ The old lizard-lidded Italian frowned and shook a wide finger at her across the kitchen.
‘I tell you before just to call me Serafino, ehh? How goes it? Not too busy.’ Before she could part her dry lips to comment, he continued. ‘Zoo-ee, I can no believe it. I just watched the best porno. Anal Initiations Part Three.’ Serafino raised his hand and joined forefinger and thumb in what was a harmless but vaguely sexual gesture. ‘Five stars!’
‘That’s…that’s great.’ From the corner of her eye, she could see Rupert’s raised eyebrow, his pursed lips. Sleaze.
Serafino closed in and grabbed the other washer by his shoulders. ‘Eh, Rupert, my favourite boy! How is it?’ The head chef sounded happy to see them both, but then he always did.
‘Excellent, Serafino! I’ve noted down your recommendation for later.’
‘Heh. You a funny guy, eh? I like that.’
Serafino was head chef at the Enoteca: that meant wandering in for a measely half-an-hour during busy hours—once daily and nightly—to supervise the other cooking staff. She’d see him saunter back and forth, as he tasted a ravioli here, a bruscetta there, his eyes always bloodshot, but whether from weed or drink, Zoe didn’t know. Probably weed.
Other than sharing his porn obsession, Serafino left her well enough alone. That was what she needed.
The head chef did his lightning rounds. As she was handing a clean set of pots over to one of the chefs—Greg, bald, possible cocaine addict—she saw him turn to go, but then turn back. ‘Oh, Zoo-ee, I forget. It your last night, eh? Well, we gonna get you some tiramisu later when I come back and we have a lemonata or two, okay? We celebrate!’ He flashed his yellow teeth and waved. In a second, the back door had clicked to and he was gone.
She turned to her washing partner. Rupert piled up another row of plates. His long hands were spiders that flexed and stretched, but he was silent.
That was because, just like Zoe, Rupert knew that once the Head Chef was gone he wouldn’t be back.
* * *
Zoe focused on a splodge of carrot embedded on the wall ahead of her as her arms blurred and—with a long, unhurried blink—time surged forward. Her worries were forgotten in the kinetic fray of cleaning, a rhythm of hot metal and porcelain on skin that made her hands throb.
The eight-to-ten evening rush came on with all the fleetness and guerilla tactics of a monsoon. It brought a waiter spinning through the doorway, trays of sullied cutlery and half-forked meals in hand, his neat beard askew and well-veined hands trembling. Huddled voices spilled through the entry as it flapped closed.
She didn’t look up, a slave to the washer’s rhythm.
Rupert shoved the handle of the dishwasher down and stepped back. He watched as the harried waiter dumped the cluttered trays on the once-clean countertop, the sounds of the burners loud in the relative silence.
‘Hey, Nathaniel. How’s it going out there?’ Rupert asked as he clapped the tall waiter on the shoulder.
Nathaniel shrugged the hand away. He shook his head, combed a hand through his facial hair, and kicked at the door like some haughty dime-store detective. Then he flounced out.
‘Well, that was just rude. Some people,’ and here Rupert swallowed hard and breathed in noisily through his nose, ‘can’t stand the heat.’ He raised the dishwasher’s handle and ducked back as steam billowed out. ‘I know I can’t,’ he said as he coughed and squinted into the bowels of the box. ‘Zoe, I’ve considered preparing a will. Why, I hear you ask? Because this hell-machine will be the fucking death of me.’
Zoe cracked a smile. On the surface, Rupert was a pretty funny guy. She didn’t mind working shifts together, unlike with others over her five years at Enoteca. Humour made time pass like spicy chicken through a lower intestine.
But she had also seen another side of him, a more erratic Rupert. Initially, he seemed easy-going but that was because he actually put in a lot of effort and worked at people until they liked him—no, admired him.
She remembered a few months back when the restaurant’s stone-faced owners had stepped through to the kitchen to give an investor a behind-the-scenes tour of the business. Rupert had greeted them like a game-show host, loquacious and quickwitted in his remarks, the two owners attempting a smile as they looked up at him, as he’d tugged their marionette strings.
Zoe had watched, fascinated. There was an art to the way he moved, the cadence of his voice, the way his eyes drew you in. He had charisma.
Soon, the owners were asking after his family. Even the elderly investor, a sullen old man in bright white pants and a cracked leather jacket, had hovered nearby and droned like an eager wasp. The four had chatted for a full hour while Zoe had wiped down the benches and stayed as invisible as the everyday spectrum of light allowed.
Clapping a hand on the investor’s back, Rupert had waved as the three had exited through the back lane. He’d farewelled them with a ’Have a great day, Antonio, Margarite, Benecio.’ Then he’d stepped over to help Zoe struggle to lift the safety mats up from the floor.
‘What a bunch of entitled old cunts,’ he’d said, voice raised, his smile not quite reaching his eyes.
No fear in those depths. She’d been uneasy around him ever since.
Zoe’s current theory was that Rupert was a serial-killer-in-training. She’d politely refused when he’d dared her to hop the fence of the graveyard opposite the front of work with him last Friday. At 2am, was there any better place to store a body?
At work and in small doses, though, he was fine.
‘It’s not about how overworked the waiters are, and you know it,’ Zoe called out, on her knees now so that she could stack bowls on the lower shelf of the central island. ‘The waiting staff have always had it in for us. First, the chefs supposedly cooked us better meals. Okay, that was true, but only because we see them all the time—they know us. We’re also closer to the food prep area, so it’s easier to get first dibs.’ She glanced up and over the counter. In the back of the room, Chef #1 picked up a carving knife. He turned to Chef #2 and made rapid stabbing motions behind her back. Chef #3 smirked and tossed his linguine as he watched. Zoe stared at this, rapt, but went on. ‘Then, suddenly we were getting too many freebies. Out went the perks—no free San Pelligrino, no free tiramisu. And now?’
She paused. Her eyes were fixed on the scene unfolding in front of her. Chef #2 was sautéing, oblivious. Chef #1 continued the pantomime. Stab, stab, stab, went the blade. It was a sharp knife.
‘Now we stay back and mop the kitchen and the main floor because the waiting staff think that job’s beneath them. It doesn’t help that they sit there and drink wine at us while we’re doing it.’ She stood up and arched her back; somewhere near her tailbone, parts clunked.
‘You have a point. So what do we do, Zoe? Form a union? Contact our local MP? Or do we start a revolution.’ Rupert clenched one gloved hand aloft, the other over his heart. ‘Washers unite! All you have left to lose are your…yeah, actually, we have nothing left to lose.’
Chef #2 turned sharply, somehow avoiding a quick slice ‘n’ dice by a rice-grain margin. She frowned and slapped Chef #1 in the forehead.
‘Zoe? Earth to Zoe?’
She blinked, glanced over at Rupert and then walked back to the sink. No anger, no outrage—inside, she was numb. ’Ah well. This won’t affect me after tonight, anyway. I’m out of here.’ And I’m never coming back. The thought rang out like a liberty bell, clear and sweet inside her head. She could almost believe it.
‘Lucky you. I need to suck up to these idiots so I can keep my job. Daddy Rupert’s got uni books to pay for.’
‘I thought your parents were well-off?’
‘Yeah, but they’re trying to make me as independent as possible.’ He slumped up against a shelf, dark red t-shirt peeking out underneath his apron. ‘Doesn’t help that I’m midway through my second year at VUT and they’ve just restructured half the courses, including mine. A quarter of the lectures from semester one are redundant now, so I need to redo at least three units. It’s a Grecian tragedy. What’s worse, I’ve had to cut back the time I spend with my organ to almost half.’ He pouted, hands on his hips. ‘And you know how much I love to touch my organ.’
Zoe groaned and pretended to shove her fingers in her ears. Rupert did own an organ and—through his rich family’s connections—was allowed to play the Grand Organ at St Paul’s Cathedral once a week. That didn’t make his jokes any less relentless.
‘Hey, my playing isn’t that bad.’ He traced a finger lazily down his apron and bit his lip, a caricature of a big-haired gigolo.
Clang. Rupert’s sleaze was interrupted by Chef #1 as he slammed a pot down on the stainless steel benchtop behind them. ‘Are those damned pans ready yet?’