by Debbie Hewson
Yesterday It was all going so well. My life was happily dull. I have never understood why people complain about routine.
I had volunteered, as I did every time it had to be done, to clean the deep fat fryer where I worked. Nobody else liked the job, but to me, there was a joyful rhythm in the emptying, cleaning, scrubbing, and finally refilling, alone in the shop, with the radio playing quietly. It took time, but it was wonderfully satisfying.
I started early in the day, because it had to be completed before the fryers were needed for lunchtime. I wore my work overall, the really thick one. It would be a dirty job, and I always ended up getting splashed with the oil. The first job was to drain the huge vat. The hose slipped and slopped easily into the first empty can. The others were lined up and ready. The smell of used oil, dirty in the air made me wrinkle my nose.
Once the can was full, I stopped the flow and hefted the heavy can out of the way. The flow began again until the fryer was empty. The filter was next. It sat at the bottom of the fryer in a few inches of oil, and caught the bits of chicken, fish and stray chips that were missed, and bits of batter and breadcrumbs. I pulled out the filter, and slid it into the tray, where it would drip while I cleaned everything else. I was nearing the halfway point, so I made myself a cup of tea. The radio was playing a gentle love song which I half remembered from when love songs mattered to me.
My back ached a little, the big cans were heavy. I rested back against the counter and smiled at my distorted reflection in the stainless steel, while I sipped. I loved the shop when it was quiet like this, no customers shouting their orders, nobody pushing and shoving to get the orders out. People walked past the big window, bent into their umbrellas against the weather. It was dreadful yesterday.
I fetched the degreaser and pulled on my rubber gloves and washed and scrubbed, rinsed, scrubbed, rinsed again, until the walls and the base were clean.
The roll of kitchen paper was on the side, and I grabbed it and wiped the surfaces dry, leaning deep and wide across the fryer. The stainless steel shone in the overhead lights. The covers which sat over the top of the fryer sunk below the soapy water, and I moved on to the filter. It should have dripped through by now.
The drip tray was full of oil, dark and thick with the food that had bubbled in it, which needed to be tipped carefully into the last empty tin.
I was nearly there. My tea, when I tasted it was cold. I made a face. I would make a fresh one when the job was finished.
The filter was the last job. It was full. I was surprised, every time I did this job, how much fell off and floated away, over cooked dark brown pieces of batter, and nearly black chips. The food that slowly rots in the oil if left and turns it rancid and sour.
The filter needed to be emptied into the food waste, and it would be too heavy to do it in one go. Using the chip scoop, I shoveled the smelly mess into the food waste bin. If I could have done it in one lift, I suppose I would not have spotted it. But I did. It was lying on the top of a glistening mound of dark brown scraps.
I backed away, feeling sick. We had sold food from that fryer. How long had it been in there, floating around with the chips? Perhaps, more importantly, where had it come from? My phone was where I had left it, and I picked it up, dialing my boss. His phone went to voicemail, and I sat back against the counter.
“Freddie! Call me back, it’s important. I’m in the shop. Please hurry up.” I tried again and again, but there was no answer.
I wanted to run, to be out in the rain with the rest of the world, but I was fascinated. There were plastic bags on the side, so I pulled one off the roll and picked it up with the bag.
It was a finger, a human finger. There was no way we could open for lunch now.
My boss lived upstairs from the shop, he still had not answered the phone, so I would have to go and bang on the door and wake him. I tucked the finger under a dishcloth, it felt wrong to leave it exposed. I slipped out through the back door into the alley, and stood under the cover of the porch, banging on the door to the flat. Nothing. He must be dead to the world.
Then I saw the blood splashes on the door frame. If there had been no porch, the rain would have washed it away. There was a tremor in my hand when I pulled it back from the door. I needed help.
The man standing in front of the counter was almost as wide as he was tall, and he was very tall.
“Sorry we aren’t open.” My eyes ran over the dishcloth under which there was a fried finger.
“Cleaning the fryers today.” His eyes were very still, and he watched me with an intensity I found very difficult.
“Freddie worked for me. He’s gone.” His voice was low, but clear.
“Gone?” I heard the wobble in my voice. If I did, then certainly he would have.
“Very conscientious, coming in early to clean the fryers. I like that in a potential manager.” I stood very still. Did he just suggest I might be the manager? Where had Freddie gone? Or did he mean gone as in dead?
“I have always liked to clean the fryers. I know that’s a bit odd.” He shrugged.
“I can see how it would be satisfying. Do you want the job, Janice?”
“Do I get a pay rise?” He nodded.
“Yes. Quite a good one. You just need to have the money you have taken through the till ready every Friday, and the till rolls. I do the books, everything else. OK?” I nodded. He smiled. “There is one other thing. Freddie left something behind. Did you find it?” The intense stare was back. Did he want me to tell him I found the finger? I lifted the dishcloth, revealing the tip of the finger, and checked his expression. He nodded. “Yes, that’s what I’m looking for, and you’ve put it in a bag, how convenient.” He held his hand out and waited until I dropped the bag into his hand. “Good luck in your new job Janice. Nice work on the fryers.” He slipped the finger into his pocket.
The clean oil glugged into the fryer, and I checked the time. I had an hour. The oil would be hot enough for lunch.