BY JACK REESON - https://www.instagram.com/jack_reeson/
As Theo sat on the bus on his way to work, he reflected on his time spent within his role. Today was a day he had long been anticipating, just as most people who are unfortunate enough to have spent time working within the hospitality sector undoubtedly anticipate. Nine months of anticipation to be precise, the exact amount of time he had been serving glorified fast food to predominantly ungrateful, supercilious, and bitter individuals, who relish in their temporary position of superiority deriving from the bizarre notion that just because they are stupid enough to spend £16 on a burger and chips, they are entitled to regard the people serving them as little more than a slither of filth wedged between the tread of their shoes, all the while, the poor server is forced to look on and feign joy. Today was the day he handed in his notice and took a crucial step closer to retiring from the dysphoric bondage that is waiting tables. Despite the imminent nine hours of serving food that lay ahead of him, he was in good spirits and was very much looking forward to reclaiming what remained of his battered pride. He had long envisioned handing in his notice, with the visions growing more vivid and influential the ruder the customers he was serving at any given point. It was indeed a rare shift if he should not have to battle the urge to march up to his manager and resign.
He vacated the bus, walked down the busy high street, and was soon facing the front door of the restaurant. The day’s air had a melancholy tone, with strips of white cloud resisting the sun’s rays and painting the concrete landscape in an inescapable shade of grey. He stepped through the doors and made his way towards his manager, who was polishing cutlery behind a till. It was a cramped box of a restaurant, seating no more than thirty customers, with walls painted all in black and narrow strips of neon lighting running across the ceiling. Theo despised this interior and couldn’t imagine for the life of him why anyone would paint a restaurant a colour that produced such a gloomy and claustrophobic effect on all who entered.
On the bus he had been eager to arrive at work, replaying various potential scenarios in his mind, readily anticipating the sense of control he would soon claim. But strangely enough, the moment he arrived his eagerness rapidly dissipated and was replaced with something far less pleasant. In his mind, he had seen himself marching up to his manager calm, collected, and confident, but this was not the case. Morsels of sweat began to brew in his now quivering palms; he could sense that his voice would subtly oscillate and spurt out hesitantly. Above all, he began to feel guilt, which was something he had not expected in the slightest. Despite his loathing towards the work, Theo was rather fond of his manager, who had often been understanding and comforting in moments when he had been visually struggling, and he suddenly became aware of the fact his absence may make her job temporarily more difficult. She was a small, round woman of a gentle nature. Her wide eyes carried the hopeful glimmer of youth, and she always possessed an abundance of energy and spiritedness, but her face was veiled in deeply set wrinkles that gave her an unusual appearance of indeterminate age. Theo was grateful to have her as a manager, given her kindness and the admiral determination with which she went about her job, but it was not uncommon for him to wander downstairs to the staff toilets and catch a glimpse of her sitting alone, head in hands, quietly sobbing across the hall. In such instances, Theo would pretend not to have noticed her and proceed to the toilet, often justifying his actions by concluding that in her position he would have wished to be left alone. However, his real reason for pretending not to have noticed her sadness was that he was hopelessly uncomfortable around such displays of emotion and did in fact feel a twinge of guilt whenever he recalled these instances.
‘Hi, Sam,’ he said as he approached his manager, looking increasingly agitated.
‘Good afternoon, Theo. How are you?’ she replied.
‘I’m okay, thank you,’ he hesitated and cleared the lump in his throat. ‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. This will be my last week working here, I’m leaving Manchester soon.’
Sam’s face betrayed her frustration, but her hospitality instincts quickly kicked in and replaced this frustration with an artificial smile.
‘Aw… well, it’ll be a shame to lose you, Theo.’
‘Yeah, I’m sad to be leaving,’ he lied.
Theo became more and more unsettled as the conversation progressed and quickly jumped at the first opportunity to get to work and no longer have to bear the look of disappointment hidden within his manager’s eyes. As he walked away, he noticed that the hair running across his forehead was now plastered down with perspiration and his breathing was heavy and laboured. Why should he feel so uncomfortable and guilty for doing something he was entirely entitled to do and had indeed long been fantasizing about doing? The feeling of control he had been craving was discernible and yet strangely bitter. Despite this, once his initial uneasiness had passed and he settled into his shift, he did appreciate a different kind of feeling that had arisen. It is often the case that once one has handed in their notice of resignation, a subtle yet encouraging feeling of fortitude and tenacity emerges, along with a comforting knowledge that, for better or worse, it will soon be over. The work itself becomes more tolerable, given that any future mistakes will not be ferried around by one’s ego as they would be should they feel the need to retain their employment. Any wrongdoing is simply of no concern to the worker anymore, and so one starts to give way to the belief that they can do no wrong. This, in any case, is what Theo experienced during his shift. He even began cracking jokes and making light conversation with customers, something that in the past he had often struggled to do since he had always found it necessary to get away from customers as fast as humanly possible. He also began playfully flirting with the waitresses on shift, even those which he did not find particularly attractive or pleasant, just because it suddenly came so naturally to him.
And so his shift continued in much of the same way, until around about the seven-hour mark (which was usually about the point when his desire to go home and kill brain cells with television, beer, and skunk became somewhat overbearing) when he was forced to serve a table of what can only be described as shameless degenerates who seemed to be more bent on terrorising Theo than actually sitting down and enjoying a meal. It all began with that most universally condemned gesture amongst hospitality workers, the snapping of a pair of fingers in the air. Theo’s nostrils expelled a small burst of air and he set off in the direction of the snapper.
‘Can we order?’ asked the snapper, a young man with long, greasy, slicked-back hair and a thick Liverpudlian accent.
‘You can indeed,’ Theo replied.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Theo. What can I get you?’
‘Right, Theo. I want this burger here,’ he said pointing out an item on the menu. ‘The one with the chili jam.’
‘I’m sorry, but we are out of chili jam today.’
‘What do you mean you’re out of chili jam?’
‘I mean we don’t have any left.’
‘Why not?’ the greasy stranger barks as he turns to his associates with a confused and disgruntled face.
‘I’d hazard a guess that it has all been eaten.’
‘Alright, Theo. There’s no need to be rude now, lad. Go ask if there’s any more.’
‘Sir, I’m telling you there isn’t any.’
‘How’d you know if you haven’t even asked? Go ask a manager now, we’ve come all the way from Liverpool for this burger and you’re telling me you won’t even ask?’
Theo, becoming ever more exasperated, went and explained to his manager how he’d been commanded to ask if there was any more chili jam, to which she performatively shook her head, both knowing full well that she had told all servers that chili jam had run out about an hour ago and that they should be sure to inform the customers should they order it. He returned to the snapper’s table.
‘I’m sorry, I’ve just asked and there’s no more.’ Theo explained.
‘That’s disappointing that, Theo, I won’t lie to ya. Alright, I’ll have this one instead.’
Theo proceeded to take the table’s order and hastily made his way to the other side of the restaurant, suppressing his frustration as he did so. It wasn’t long until, much to his dread, he could hear his name resounding across the restaurant.
‘Theo… Hey, Theo. Come here, lad.’
Theo quickly became aware that what lay in store for him was not going to be pleasant, given there were plenty of other servers far closer to their table. They were singling him out, presumably because they had something in mind that, no doubt, they thought would be hilarious. Initially, he tried to block out the sounds coming from the snapper’s table, but they simply would not relent. He slowly took off in their direction.
‘How long’s it gonna be, Theo?’ enquired the snapper, with lips curled up into a malicious smirk.
‘Food usually takes about twenty minutes or so,’ he replied.
‘That’s not what I asked, is it? How long is our food gonna be?’
‘Well, you ordered about ten minutes ago, so I would say about another ten minutes.’
‘Fucking ‘ell, bit long for a burger enit, lad? Maccies’ll feed ya in about five minutes.’
Theo had to strain every muscle in his being to resist the urge to shout: Well, fuck off to Maccies then, you scruff! Instead, he just stared into the snapper’s face, unsure how to respond, feeling utterly powerless. Suddenly, one of the snapper’s acquaintances piped up, a young man with an excessively square face, shaved head, and a wispy collection of facial hair dangling from his chin.
‘Fucking hell, you need to cheer up, lad. Crack a smile, why don’t ya? Look, she’s smiling,’ he gestured to a waitress serving a couple of tables away, who did indeed possess a smile, which Theo knew all too well was far from genuine.
Theo, still stood in silence, waited to see if they had any actual request of him, and upon realising they were finished with him (for now, at least), he once again retreated to the other side of the restaurant.
Approximately ten minutes later, the snapper and his associates’ food was ready to be taken to their table. He braced himself, took a deep breath, and ferried the food in their direction. One by one, he dropped the plates down, to which they remained in complete silence. He thought that maybe he’d get away unscathed this time, that maybe they’d grown tired of tormenting him. That was until he turned to leave them.
‘Hang on, lad’ said the snapper. ‘I ordered a chicken burger, this is beef.’
Theo’s frustration was spreading rapidly, and he began to feel as though it would soon possess his entire being and send him into a frenzy, as he knew for a fact that the snapper had indeed ordered a beef burger but had an apparently greater hunger for mindless harassment than food.
‘Are you sure?’ asked Theo.
‘Yeah, lad. I defo ordered chicken.’
‘And I had peri fries, I don’t see any peri salt on them fries, do you?’ asked the box-headed acquaintance. ‘Tell you what, you’re fucking shite at your job, you. Fucked up the food and won’t even crack a smile. Go sort this out now, lad.’
Once again, the hair across Theo’s forehead was plastered down with sweat. All four tormentors looked up at him with vicious little grins. He literally had to chew his lips to stop his irritation from spilling out of his mouth in a wave of verbal assault. He felt he was a second away from hurling all sorts of abuse at them when, instead, he had a much better idea. He wanted to show them just how shite at his job he was and shock them into a state of complete perplexity. With wobbling hands, he took the ‘incorrect’ dishes back to the kitchen and politely requested that they add some peri salt to the fries and whip up a chicken burger as fast as they were able. He remained in the kitchen the entire time, so as not to give the snapper and his acquaintances another chance to find fault in his performance before he was able to carry out his plan. Upon noticing that Theo was in an intense state of disquiet, the chefs produced a chicken burger and peri fries for him in next to no time.
‘Thank you, kindly,’ Theo said, spinning round and marching back out of the kitchen with an air of determination.
The snapper and his associates followed him with their eyes all the way from the kitchen back to their table. However, they did not find the look of distress on Theo’s face that they had been thoroughly enjoying thus far; he appeared far more self-assured than he had previously. Taking extra care, Theo placed the peri fries and the chicken burger down on the table.
‘That’s better, lad’ said the snapper.
‘Will that be all?’ Theo enquired calmly.
And with that, the snapper went to reach down towards his burger, only to be ferociously intercepted by Theo’s hand, which had buried itself deep into the bun. Bewildered beyond words, he watched as Theo raised the burger away from the plate and up towards his lips, paused to deeply inhale the burger’s scent, and proceed to tear out an excessively large mouthful. Chewing loudly, Theo then dropped what remained of the mutilated meal back onto the snapper’s plate, helped himself to a napkin that lay next to the plate, and wiped clean the mess of food that remained smothered across his palm. All four were lost for words, their eyes darted between the half-eaten burger and Theo’s smug jaw bouncing up and down noisily, with no regard for the basic etiquette of eating with one’s mouth closed.
‘What the fuck is your problem, lad?’ enquired the snapper, who seemed overcome with confusion as to what he had just witnessed.
‘Definitely chicken,’ mumbled Theo in response, spraying chewed-up fragments of food across the table.
Theo was incredibly satisfied with the little victory he had just taken over these insufferable reprobates and the manner by which he had reclaimed the feeling of control he had so craved. Unfortunately, this victory was rather short-lived. Upon uttering his witty little response, a chunk of food had slipped into the back of Theo’s throat, blocking his windpipe, and depriving him of oxygen. He attempted a subtle cough to dislodge it without making his opponents aware of his misfortune, but no joy. He tried to exhale with a little bit more emphasis, but again this was no help. As they became aware of what was happening, the looks of confusion on his opponents’ faces gradually gave way to their previous vicious little grins.
‘Steady on, Theo, lad, fuckin’ hell,’ laughed the snapper.
Theo became progressively more panicked as the chunk of burger wedged in his throat seemed to have thoroughly set up camp, and the tiny little bursts of air passing through his windpipe were far from sufficient. He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and aggressively tried to push the food back up his throat, becoming increasingly animated as he did so. Ten seconds of this passed by, twenty, thirty… By which point, even his opponents were no longer amused, but rather concerned. It climaxed to the point where Theo was in such a state of alarm that the whole restaurant had taken notice of his performance. He was pouring sweat from every orifice in his body, waving his arms frantically, and unable to fix himself in one position. Someone across the restaurant let out a faint scream of distress. It did not end until, at last, a rather bulky customer on the table behind the snapper stood up and landed a tremendous thwack on Theo’s back, ejecting the chewed-up piece of burger out of his throat and into a slimy ball on the restaurant floor. Theo promptly inhaled vigorously, cherishing the once again free flow of oxygen. Only then did he notice the abundance of sweat pouring from his body, the specks of half-eaten food scattered about his black shirt, and the concerned glares fixed upon him from every eye in the restaurant. Sam quickly rushed over to check if he was okay, imploring him to sit down for a moment.
Shortly after order had been somewhat restored, and the looks of alarm began to dispel, Theo was led into the back office by his manager, asked to explain what had happened, and upon doing so was, rather understandably, politely asked to leave the restaurant and not to return. He was, at least, permitted to leave through the back exit, so as not to have to face the same swarm that had just witnessed him desperately battle a lump of chicken, and for this, he was greatly appreciative.
As Theo sat on the bus journey home, he could not escape a deep sense of regret and embarrassment concerning the whole ridiculous scenario. He felt truly rotten and pined for a chance to go back and undo what he had done. What seemed strange to him, was that he was not so much embarrassed about having nearly choked to death in front of an entire restaurant (although he was by no means proud of this), but more the fact he had been stripped of his role forcibly. And though he had ultimately achieved his end goal of vacating his role, he had had no say in the means of how he had vacated it. He now had the most devastating desire to be allowed to carry out his final week of waiting tables and to march out triumphantly, on his own terms, with his head held high. He had been denied that pleasure, and what a pleasure it surely would have been.