Judith Sharma, twenty-three-year-old possessor of an MFA in Art History, an unparalleled aptitude for project management, and unusually small feet, needed a job. Which is to say, she had a job; of course she had a job, because idleness bred poor habits and slovenliness, and she thrived on targets. No, what she needed was a better job. Judith had been waiting tables for six months, since she graduated, and her suggestions to streamline the greeting and seating process had not, as yet, been met with much more than polite derision. Insofar as such a thing could be polite. Was it too much to ask that the sections of the Bloody Bonnet, Whitechapel’s first – and unsurprisingly, only – Jack the Ripper-themed restaurant, be split and allocated clockwise, rather than a hotchpotch left-to-right? Said sections needn’t have been colour-coded or thematically named, even if her laminated, twelve-page proposal in her stylish A4 binder did strongly favour such an approach. The Nichols wing (claret) was right by the windows, which meant it should be filled first, because nobody wanted to eat at an empty restaurant. The Chapman (malachite) and Stride (lemon chiffon) sections were found respectively beside the fire-escape and the bathrooms, meaning anybody desiring easy accessibility wouldn’t need to skirt past the kitchen and the bar to get comfortable. The upstairs Eddowes gallery (mauveine) was a large balcony that could easily have doubled as a function area if so desired and booked, as Judith suggested, a mandatory three weeks in advance. As for the Kelly booths (blueberry) – well, no happy couple ever chose the Bloody Bonnet for date night. Judith had petitioned for these to be redecorated a few months ago; new curtains, a fresh coat of paint. She’d even volunteered to choose accentuating hues on her own time. Request denied. As always.
‘This goes well beyond the extent of your duties,’ her manager, Eleanor, said, as Judith scrubbed stains from the ketchup bottles and refilled them. ‘We can’t afford to give you a pay rise.’
‘I was just offering up some ideas.’ Trying to stave away the monotony, more like.
Eleanor flicked through Judith’s laminated planner, but slapped it shut. ‘Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll worry about division of labour. You practise stacking plates on your arms – and smile more. If the others could nail punctuality like you have, we’d be a perfect team.’
Eleanor was mid-forties, unmarried, and as Judith understood it, a part-time cabaret performer at a local club. She wore a black suit and bowtie, a white shirt with a high collar, and faux-blood stains down her hands and face. Her black hair was coiffed high and short, beneath a stiff top-hat that screamed prop department. Powder afforded her cheeks a sun-starved porphyria. Although the murky décor of the Bloody Bonnet might suggest otherwise, Eleanor, beneath the accoutrements, was almost certainly a warm-hearted human.
‘I’m not asking for a pay rise,’ Judith said, mentally adding the word yet. ‘I’m not even looking for extra shifts. I just want to do something.’
‘I like your eagerness, Jude, but there’s just no need. The Bonnet’s doing a rip-roaring trade.’ A hearty arm-swing accompanied this tired gag. ‘Why change what ain’t broken?’
Judith didn’t need to be told. They were, for lack of a better word, rammed. Nightly. The only other staff they had on hand besides the kitchen staff were Jean, a sommelier with a perpetual cold, and Gemma and Aaron, a couple younger than her, who worked tables every night since they’d moved in together. Prematurely, Judith thought to herself, but that was none of her business. Judith had recently thrown herself into a flatshare with a couple of fellow neat-freaks who mostly kept to their own rooms and argued over the dishes: specifically, drip-drying versus towelling.
‘Here.’ Eleanor slid the project planner over the table, beside the ketchup bottles. ‘I liked the colours, mind. Nice shade of purple, that.’
Mauveine. ‘They’d look even better when printed. I chose them to complement the wine list. Jean told me which bottles were the most frequently purchased–’
‘Drop it, Jude. I’m not interested. Now, tonight.’ She held up two equally tasteless costumes, and grinned. ‘Tart or Ripper?’
Judith sighed and slipped her binder onto a chair. ‘Ripper. You know I always pick Ripper.’ While she changed in the back room, she and wondered if she should layer the pepper-shakers. There had to be some pink corns in the storeroom. Like blood on cobble, she thought. Back in the restaurant, clad in her collar and cuffs, Judith watched Eleanor retreat up the staircase, through the would-be Eddowes gallery and into her office. Gemma and Aaron chose this moment to turn up, giggling and arm-linked. Waited ‘til it was safe, no doubt. They swung in through the double doors, which shrieked electronically on command, and their amusement dropped away when Judith glared at them.
‘Guys, come on. I’ve had to do all the tables myself.’
‘Sorry,’ Aaron mumbled.
‘Just got to change,’ Gemma added, and they skirted around Judith and towards the staff area. ‘Please don’t say anything.’ Judith would make no promises. She shrugged, and pulled a spray-bottle from her apron. In the kitchen, someone flicked on a radio and stationed it near the serving hatch. Sugar-sweet pop blared out, but Judith was in no mood to sing.
They opened at midday. Thursday lunchtimes were generously lethargic. Thursdays were never Monday enough for absolute apathy, nor Friday enough to merit celebration. Judith revelled in relative peace. Three tables apiece; even Aaron could handle that much. What Eleanor seemed to overlook was that it was always Judith who propped him up come Saturday night. Aaron was friendly, but had no memory. Judith imagined each table like a corkboard, pinning dishes to faces. Steak for the bald chap. The lady in the thin glasses wanted thin chips. The father and daughter wanted nothing but milkshakes. Maybe she could work in a casino, she thought idly. Or play one, counting cards. But where was the fun in that? There’d be no one to tell her what a good job she’d done. Judith didn’t crave acclaim, or even recognition. Merely appreciation. She spent most of the evening wondering how many people merely wished for the same.
‘I say – someone’s done an awful job on this rib-eye. Excuse me?’
Judith made sure to roll her eyes before she turned around. Get it out of the system. Eleanor had told her about that before. It was nearly eleven. Dark outside. The kitchen was winding down. You couldn’t blame the cook for being tired.
She turned. ‘Can I help you, sir?’
Gangly plank of a man, eating alone in the would-be Chapman section. No older than she was, but spottier, and he had a big chin, too. Looked like he’d dressed himself with good intentions that morning, and descended towards shabbiness as the day drew on. Silver-grey suit. Tie loosened. Messy hair. Trouser-legs muddied. Red eyes.
‘Indeed. I asked for medium-rare. This slab of carbon’s nigh-on indistinguishable from the coals on your hearth.’ He gestured to the crackling centrepiece. ‘Any chance you could whip up another?’
Judith did what she always did when customers asked her to whip up another ten minutes before the kitchen closed. She smiled, and she said, ‘One moment, sir.’
She burst into the steaming, gleaming kitchen, stepped out of sight of the window and the hatch, and poured herself half a glass of wine at the sink.
‘Long night?’ called the chef, over the ovens.
‘Ermpf,’ said Judith, into her glass.
A moment passed, and Judith adjusted the hairpins under her hat, then headed back into the restaurant.
‘I’m afraid that’s the last one, sir. Delivery’s tomorrow. You could always come back.’ She rather enjoyed the sight of the young man’s face when it fell. ‘If you like it bloody, you could always slather it in ketchup. Some people would argue it’s much the same.’
‘Some people are just plain wrong.’
‘I concur, sir.’
They both smiled, and he held his hands up apologetically. ‘I’m sorry. Ignore me. It’s fine. I’ll make do. Been a long day, is all. Say, is this your binder?’
He held it up, and grinned. It was.
Judith gaped. ‘How did you–’
‘It was on the other seat, and it’s got a floorplan of the restaurant on page five. You know, four pages is much too long for a CV.’ He scooped his messy hair off his forehead and laughed as he flipped through its laminated pages. She bristled, but kept quiet. About time her work received some enthusiasm. Then he looked up at her, eyeing her Ripper costume. ‘Why do I get the feeling you don’t plan to be an evil vampire-doctor forever?’
Judith thrust a hand over the table and beckoned her binder’s return. ‘They never concluded whether or not the Ripper was a doctor.’
‘Wasn’t it obvious?’
‘Sweeping assumptions, both of them.’ She pointed. ‘That binder could belong to the manager.’
‘And should.’ The young man pushed his plate to one side, lay the binder down on the table and tapped the front page. ‘Says her you have an MFA in Art History, Ms. Judith Sharma? I need someone organised and energetic, with a wit to top my own.’
Judith frowned and leant on the back of the vacant chair. ‘You’re hiring?’
He shrugged coyly.
Hiring a babysitter by the looks of him, she thought. But then again… the cattle-cufflinks on his shirt suggested farmer, or cattle-trader. Mud on his trousers – family estate, or public park? Spoke the Queen’s English, but not afraid to get his hands – or his boots – dirty. Odd one, certainly.
‘I assure you I’ve a brilliant business plan,’ he said.
‘Do I take that to mean no actual business?’
‘Well, more of an idea, than a plan.’
‘Do you have a business partner?’
‘I have two members of staff. One of them is me.’
‘She’s a cow.’
‘Insults don’t inspire loyalty,’ she teased, but he seemed to think she was serious.
‘No, I mean she’s an animal.’
‘No need to get personal.’ Now she was toying with him.
He stammered. ‘N-no, I mean she’s livestock and lives on a farmyard! Four legs and a tail. Moos a lot. Likes bales of hay for dinner. I only bought her last week. Farmer’s market. She’s a charming breed. Holstein. That’s like Friesian, only American. Uppity temperament, but I think she’s starting to like me. I saved her life, see.’ He tapped his chest with his palm. ‘They were going to slaughter her. I’m going to employ her. Sorry, am I going on?’
Judith smirked. ‘You have a pet calf, and you ordered the steak?’
He grimaced in the direction of his plate. ‘I see your point. Might need to make some changes, if my work should take off.’ Then he smiled a smile she did not care for. ‘What time do you finish? Can I buy you a drink?’
Judith’s smirk fell away. As disarming as he was ridiculous, and hardly the first customer to try this shit with her. ‘I’m gay.’
‘I’m still hiring.’
A pause. She recalculated. ‘You’re serious?’
‘Yep.’ Perhaps the smile wasn’t supposed to look so… puppy-dog. Perhaps that was just how he looked.
‘What’s your name?’
The young man rose, and offered her his hand. ‘Wesley. Daniel Wesley.’
She shook. ‘Nice to meet you.’
‘Here’s what happens next.’ He pointed upstairs, where Eleanor surveyed them both from the should-be Eddowes Gallery, a plastic cleaver in her hand. ‘Go and tell your manager you’re clocking off ten minutes early because you work hard and you’ve damned well earnt it. Change out of that ridiculous nightmare-magician outfit, or whatever it is, and meet me in the pub down the road. Bring your binder – and some sensible shoes, if you have them. Have you ever gotten drunk in an interview before?’
Judith assured him she had not, and certainly never would.
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