A Short Story
The Kid shouldered the fire exit door open, his face a scowl of concentration. In each hand he had a mug of hot black coffee that threatened to slosh out on to his already sweat and soup and gore-stained t-shirt and apron.
He sidestepped the waist-high A-shaped chalkboard sign with its inviting list of specials and prices and offers, he slow-walked along the row of empty wooden tables, each with a limp and logoed brewery umbrella sheathed in a hole in the centre of it. He stumbled on the same loose paving slab that caught him out every morning and he cursed both it and himself, the same as he did every morning.
Scowling still, with eyes downward on the overfilled mugs, the Kid reached his destination, the final and furthest table.
Because Chef didn’t believe in making life easy for the Kid.
‘Alright?’ The Kid handed Chef his coffee. Chef took it in his non-cigarette hand, the handle facing away and took a slurp and then looked into the brown-black liquid as if it had just insulted his mother.
‘Is it alright and everything?’ the Kid asked, eager.
Chef sighed his trademark sigh, a mixture of mild annoyance, exasperation and infinite resignation that all the floor staff, the regulars, the management even, would imitate and parody when he was out of earshot.
‘I, I can get you another if you like?’
The Kid was starting to pick up the basics of Kitchen Russian alongside knife skills and fryer skills and microwave programming skills. He knew all of the profanities and all of the utensil names. Which made up a good ninety percent of what Chef said, or yelled, during service. When the Kid did something right ‘Mal’chik’- boy- would be prefaced by ‘moy’- my- and when he did something wrong it would be prefaced by ‘glupyy’- stupid. Or worse. Much worse.
The Kid sat.
Chef crushed out his cigarette which he had smoked all the way down to the filter. The Kid watched Chef clap ash from those monstrous hands of his. Scarred and white and huge and vein-lined with a tattooed dot on each knuckle. And reportedly made of asbestos- the way that Chef would grab hot trays out of the salamander- or plunge them into a sink of scalding water when the potwasher fell behind the pace. The Kid had seen the fryer spit molten oil onto the back of Chef’s hand, burning cherry red dots into the flesh and the Chef hadn’t even flinched.
The Kid checked his watch and eased out his own cigarette pack from his checkerboard trousers and he thumbed the wheel of his lighter until he finally coaxed a vague yellow-blue flame out of it. He inhaled, and the accumulated tension of three hours of prep work began to release from his shoulders.
Chef gave the Kid a look. With no words and no gestures the Kid held out his pack in offering and that ink-dotted bear paw of a hand plucked out a cigarette, the movement deft and delicate for such a big and ugly piece of meat.
Chef lit up- his own lighter might as well have been a blowtorch- and the two cooks smoked in silence for a long minute, the Kids mouth attempting to form the beginnings of small talk.
But it was Chef who eventually broke the silence.
‘Mise?’ He said.
‘Put away, Chef.’
‘Everything’s labelled and rotated.’
‘Collected about an hour ago.’
‘Yep, all done, all put away and the invoice is in the office.’
Chef gave a single half-nod. ‘Blagoy.’
‘Just doing my job, right?’ The Kid said.
Chef took a gulp of coffee then a deep drag. He nodded to the Kid’s watch.
‘About eight minutes.’ The Kid said.
Chef blew smoke from his nostrils, his sigh now all resigned.
‘You like job?’ Chef said. It was the first time in the four months that the Kid had been in the kitchen that Chef had asked him a personal question.
‘Yeah?’ He was a little taken aback. ‘Well, you know, I mean at first I was obviously. But, er, you know I think I’m starting to get into the swing of it now I think. Right? Starting to speed up a little I guess.’
‘You are young.’
‘Yeah. Everyone says. But I’ll be twenty next month and in a year or so I’ll have graduated and then, well…’ The Kid sensed that Chef was losing interest, he was looking off to his right, thinking.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ The Kid said. ‘It’s not very interesting to most people. Chemistry.’
‘Why you here?’
‘This job you mean? Well, I need the money, you know? And they’re fine about me just working weekends and picking up shifts here and there. Taking time off if I’ve got any essays coming up or whatever.’
A slurp, a drag, a grunt.
The Kid took it as an invite to keep talking.
‘So, er, you always been a chef, Chef?’
Chef sighed. He took a final drag on his cigarette and then a real final drag and crushed it out in the plastic ashtray. The Kid ashed his own cigarette which was only halfway done. He too only smoked on shift. Too expensive otherwise.
Chef looked at the Kid’s hard pack on the wooden table there- smoking clogs the arteries and causes heart attacks and strokes- and the Kid said ‘help yourself’ and tried to sound like he didn’t mind.
‘Thanks’ Chef blowtorched the cigarette end and held down a lungful of smoke before eventually exhaling a grey-blue plume out of the side of his mouth.
‘No.’ Chef said.
A pause. ‘I was not always cooking. When I was your age I did not cook. I was studying like you. I was studying medicine. Like Chekhov. You know this man?’
The Kid shook his head.
‘It doesn’t matter. I want to work with the heart. How you say in English, cardio-’
‘Yes. I study very hard and I win place to top university in my country-‘
The Kid knew that Chef was from one of those Russian speaking non-Russia countries. Estonia, Latvia, Belarus- one of those. It had never come up and it had never felt like the right time to ask about it.
‘Study, study, study.’ Chef said. ‘I must be top of class, you understand? This what my father say. To be second is to be er, disappoint.’
‘You’ll be a disappointment to you family if you not top of the class?’
‘Yes. So I do this. I get best grades. Father is not showing he is happy. He is expecting big things. So next thing is to study in top hospital. I do this. I am little bit older than you are now at time. I am working at hospital all time, even longer hours than this place.’ Chef gestured to the pub with his cigarette hand, a speck of ash falling to the floor like a grey snowflake. He let out a bitter ghost of a laugh.
‘I am working with top doctor, he is like new father-‘
The kid took a silent sip of his own coffee. It was now somewhere near drinkable temperature. This was the most he had ever heard Chef speak in one go, about anything. The Kid kept eye contact and nodded along, scared to do anything else in case Chef took it as a cue to clam up.
‘And then.’ Another one of Chef’s famous sighs. ‘And then my father, my real father dies. So I must leave my studies and go home to help my mother, brother and sisters. This is during hard time in my country, you understand. Is not like here where you have jobs, and money if you cannot work.’
‘So you became a chef.’
‘No. I get job at Vokzal, at big train station. With bags and tickets. Is okay. Easy work but I am very boring. And pay is not good. So-‘ Drag, ash, exhale, drag, exhale. ‘I steal. Small things from bags of rich people, very careful, and I either sell them on black market or make trade for food and this things. But I am caught. Someone who is working with me reports me to authorities. So I am caught with ladies brooch in pocket of my uniform. I am arrested, go to court, sent to jail. Ten years.’
‘Yes, I was looking for where Jesus Christ is. So it was in prison that I begin to cook. Where I get this.’ Chef pointed at the inkdots on his left hand with the fingers of his right. ‘And this’ Chef rolled up his chef jacket sleeve to show further homemade tattoos, a blue trail of inelegant doodles and phrases written in Cyrillic. God knows what it all meant but the Kid knew that it all meant something.
Chef rolled his sleeve back down. The Kid realised that he had never seen Chef in anything but his whites, had never seen anything but his head, neck and hands.
‘Every day is making soup for hundreds of prisoners. They are hungry and thin and all we have to work with is shit, is little bit potatoes and water and old vegetables with hard bread to dip. No meat. I want to give everyone more, you understand, good food, but I am not able with what I have. My heart breaks, everyday putting soup in bowls and men have eyes sink into faces and are pleading and trying to grab cherpak. Every day same. But so I live with this and I do my time and then my country changes and I am free man. I work, save money and eventually get passport and come to this country. And then here gives me job, which is crime same as stealing things from bags in train station. But I don’t care. Jail here is not the same.’
‘Now.’ Chef wrapped one of his giant calloused paws around the Kid’s wrist and angled it towards him so he could see the lad’s watch face better. ‘Is lunchtime.’
Chef stood tall, cricked his neck and downed the rest of his coffee in two gulps. He flicked his cigarette and sent it flying towards the distance.
Through a mouthful of smoke he said ‘let’s cooks these people something nice, huh?’