I’m not allowed to eat the food at work. I do it every day though. Opening a plastic packet behind the counter. I don’t use a plate because I want to save myself having to wash up. Different things each day but they all come in plastic. I use the wrapper as a plate. The crumbs I’ll sweep and hoover and mop like everything else. The hiss and creak plastic will go in the bins.
I always lift the lid of the bin with the side of my little finger. I make a stack of plastic wrappers when I’m unpacking things so I can bunch as many in my hand as I can when I’m tidying up. I hate the hiss and crackle of bunching them but at least that way there’s less times I have to open the bins.
I was resting my arse on the back bar. Pushing myself away from too tight skirted legs as best I could till a door sound had me up and worried about the slump in my shoulders. A trouser swish and a face tunneling towards my own. My brows and eyes went up to his and I forgot to say hello. His key went down on the counter top and he said “how are you?” My silence went loud in my ears and I said “alright.” Then I said “how are you?” “Bye now” he said and wheeled out the door. I got a whiff of his cigarette through the half open window as I pulled up a stool.
Most days it’s slow here. It’s good because you’ve got time to do your own thing. Obviously the boss doesn’t like it when you do. But she doesn’t watch the CCTV all the time like the last one I worked for. You’re alone most of the time. Getting things done your own way.
My way is to put the milk cartons in the fridge with the handles facing out the way. The others put them with the handles facing to the side which doesn’t make sense and annoys me and I turn them round ninety degrees when I come on shift even though I don’t really care. My way is not to empty the bins until they’re full which the boss doesn’t like. She doesn’t like me giving people extra food either.
She has a seething step when she walks in. To tap at the till or drop something in the mouth of the bin. Her gaze goes round the edges of the room like a microwave tray and gives a ding when she finds something to shout about. When she doesn’t find something she makes something up. You feel the crawl of customers’ eyes on your back and shoulders while she shouts. Sometimes she shouts about Steve taking too many cigarette breaks and I want to say it’s not actually a problem but I don’t.
She gets to control the TV. She puts on royal weddings and people being arrested for things. Money saving advice and old couples buying houses in Spain. News and quiz shows with violent coloured desks. When there’s sport she turns the music down and the TV sound up. It rubs with the fridge sounds worse than a plastic wrapper.
I’d have gotten an earful if she’d seen me sitting but there was a scream in my hips. I edged at a door click from somewhere out of sight. Yesterday’s fear still fresh today. Like a plastic wrapped pastry. The corner of my bag hung limp over the edge of the shelf below the counter. I tugged out the book and opened.
The fog was about me and I didn’t know if I’d be able to read. I opened the cover and looked at the Rambam’s face. The lines of the drawing cut the fog. A face from some place else. But then whoever drew it can’t have seen the Rambam. I looked at the soft sanctity of his beard. It was the kind of thing he would have hated. But we need a face like that sometimes. I turned to where I’d left off. A bit about Aristotle that’d had me bleary. I tried to string the words but I was away back in that class on women and the canon of Western philosophy. I hadn’t read much of the canon of Western philosophy back then. That was good according to the lecturer but it made it hard to follow what she was saying. Someone said “the question we should be asking is can there be such a thing as feminism in philosophy” and there were nods. I think there was a sweat around my neck. I did ok in the exam.
“What are you reading?” Bone clench in my chest. The face staring down at me nodded clocklike. My hand was stiff on the book and I was worried for its spine. “Just something” I said “what can I do for you?” He said he’d have a look and ploughed his head around the bar. “You thinking beer, wine, whisky, something else?” The fridge sound swelled in his silence. “Any rough ideas?” “I’ll just have a pint of Tennents.” “Sure.”
I poured then sat back to my book. “So what’s that you’re reading?” I looked up the line of his suit and told him “it’s a book about the Rambam.” His look was steady. I said “Maimonides” and then “if that’s something you’re into” and then “sorry” and I looked back at the book.
“The guy who was here yesterday was a miserable bastard, no smiles, could hardly get a word out of him.” I let the book rest on my leg. “Steve” I said “yeah he can be like that sometimes.” “I mean” he said “I don’t get why you’d work in the service industry if you have an attitude like that.” I closed the book to hear his words. Wishing I too could be a miserable bastard.
He was asking me a question. He was asking if I was a student. I was shaking my head and he was saying “see these students” and then something else. I was thinking of a cartoon I could draw about the Rambam and his wife. She’d be cooking and asking him what he’s doing. He’d say “nothing…” with a jar in his hand and she’d be suspicious. He’d put it on a shelf and she’d yell “STOP CATEGORISING THINGS” and he’d run away. I could put that on Instagram but I don’t know who’d be interested.
I was glad to see he was halfway down his pint. “Does it get busy in here?” I said “it does sometimes” and he looked around the empty bar. “Why’s no one here the now?” I said “it’s usually quiet but sometimes you get quite a few people in.” He was looking at me. “Really?” “Yes.” “Really?” “Yes, really.” He poured a few fingers of beer into his mouth and smacked down the glass. There was still quite a bit left but he said “alright then, see you later.” I said “goodbye” and “see you later” as he walked out. I always do that. I wish I could be a miserable bastard instead. Once he’d gone I necked what was left in his pint.
I’ve said hello and goodbye here more times than I’ve said anything else. The boss doesn’t say hello or goodbye. She shouts or she stares. If I forget something she asks why I forgot it. I don’t know how to explain why people forget things. I don’t think neuroscience has advanced that far. I think about saying things like that when she’s not there. When she is I am silent except for when I say right and ok.
I hate the dogs she brings in. And I hate the men she’s friends with who stand at the bar in their suits and talk about society while I stand and pour drinks. They order beers and glasses of spirits and bottles of coke to share between them. They drink at different paces and it gets complicated. They say well I think and well I think. At least they don’t try to talk to me. Once one of them said, what politics in this country needs is an honesty party, and I had to gulp back a laugh. They all looked at me and I pretended I was laughing at something on my phone.
Between the fog and the fridge I hadn’t read much. I got to pacing and wiping the way I’m supposed to by the time Steve showed up. His grin shot up his cheeks as he came into the bar. He doesn’t act miserable or bastardy around me. He dropped his bag down and said “hello Hannah.” Then he went to sign in. He always drops his bag before he signs in. I always sign in with my bag still on my shoulder.
I’d got my stuff together by the time he was back. I asked him how he was and he said “oh just doing away” and shook his smile. I like the way he always says this. I wanted to talk more. Catch a breeze from his words to blow away some fog. But there was too much fog to find my own words. “See you tomorrow” I said “have a good shift.” “Bye now!”
The sun was falling from the tops of the buildings and I was thinking about freeing the food though I didn’t really need to. I’d freed a couple of beers and a roll of toilet paper from work and I’d enough to be eating for now. Should’ve gone home and got some tea but my paces were taking me where they always did. That bar where I could sink. Elbows into the wood. Eyes into the words of a book. Like I’m the stain of a spilt drink.
Morag and I first freed the food from a big Tesco down in Manchester. I was visiting her and neither of us had money. We’d enough to get some cheap wine so we paid up for that and let them check our IDs, heaping food into bags while it happened. The staff walked fast around in their blue shirts with smiles or frowns. We knew they weren’t paid enough to care.
“Wait” Morag said “get the receipt.” “Why?” “Because thieves don’t take receipts.” I don’t know if it ever made a difference but since then we always took the receipt. We went out by a shift of the guard’s eye and kept our breath for a few paces on the street before Morag shouted “we freed the food!” We jumped and hugged as much as we could with our bags. “Free the food!” “Free the food!”
We ate and drank with a lot of joy. Every ingredient became precious. There was love between us and our stolen food. It was better than being drunk. I cried when I tasted it.
Shops were different after that. I looked at them in a new way. I looked at how they were put together. What the staff all had to do. I knew who was tired, who didn’t care, who took it all way too seriously. I saw where people looked with eyes and cameras. And the flow of the customers and the way the music guided them.
But most of all it was the stuff being sold. My eyes went up from the cheap shelves at the bottom once all the numbers had fallen away. The numbers which you had to add up in your head to make sure you weren’t screwed over till you got your next paycheck. It isn’t easy with your head bowed beneath the music. The numbers which weren’t like other numbers. There were only two numbers in their system: for you and not for you. Shouting or whispering themselves to you as they please.
We silenced their shouts and whispers when we freed the food. Things we’d never imagined we could own or taste were there for us. It wasn’t only the once I cried over stolen food.
Here I am. Stealing. Hating. My parents asking what I’m doing with myself. My degree is useless. The fog falls thick when I try to think of what I want to do. I’ve no boyfriend or girlfriend and I seem to be incapable of getting either. My best friend lives in another town and we’re both bad at replying to messages. I exist. I don’t like dogs.
I remember that time after the exams. Sunny boozey days but days when the fog was setting in and the lonely sense itched at my neck. Sitting around with the others in the class. Half their faces don’t get through the fog to me now. I’d barely talked to most of them anyway. We have drinks and coffees. I have both. I keep checking my phone and hoping Morag will message to say she’s free. It’s sunny and we’re in the quad of the sort of building that has a quad. I hate the word quad.
They talk about what they’re doing. Who was going on to PhDs and who’d been hired by what company or NGO. The whittling eyes settle on me. They had to eventually. I say “I don’t know” and there are silent nods. “Yeah” someone says “just take it easy.”
I went home to questioning relatives and the thickening fog. I tried to pull my head and eyes through it. The words graduate scheme trailed thin around me. I didn’t get through many applications. The fog was too thick. The lonely sense breathed itself in and out. People told me it was the weather. People told me to eat breakfast and drink less coffee and everything else I’ve been told and I’ve tried. Morag got me a job in the bar she was working in and the money was enough to find my own place. It helped me find some shapes in the fog. I gave up on applications.
Every six months I get sick of a job and quit. Even if I have nothing else lined up. Once I was at a party at Morag’s when she still lived here and I tried to explain this to someone. He told me I had too much negativity in me and I needed to take each moment as it comes and appreciate small things and love myself more. I wanted to shout at him to shut up but I didn’t. Later on he backed me into a corner and put his lips on my lips and his hands on my hips. I pushed him away and hid in Morag’s room and hated. I hated him and me and everything. I didn’t hate Morag.
I’ve other friends but it’s not the same. We had a mythology together. But since we freed the food at least we can feel close even when we’re apart. Every time I eat that stolen food it’s like I’m sharing it with her. It’s like a prayer. I knew that for her it was just one of all the mad things she did. Perhaps she didn’t think of me when she did it. Of course she didn’t. But that didn’t matter. It gave me a sight through the fog and I was grateful.
I had a dream once where she worked in the same place as me. The boss was shouting at her to go down to the cellar. But I knew the dogs would be down there and they’d get her. I tried to go with her but I couldn’t move. I tried to call to her but my mouth was full of plastic wrappers. I kept spewing them out but there’d always be more. I woke up late the next day and got yelled at.
The noise and heat heaped up and over as I stepped into the bar. At least they keep the music low here. It’s cheaper than most places but I can still only afford to come here because I free the food. Could spend money on other things. Spend money and go home with a fear. So I spend money and wake up with a hangover instead.
I come here to read or draw. The things I like to do. But I’ve started knowing people as well. At first I only chose the place because it didn’t have a TV. I still read or draw but when there’s people who know me I talk to them. Of course they’re friendly. But I still go away with a sense I shouldn’t be there. It’s worse if I meet a new person and I have to answer their questions. They always ask me about music. What I listen to. What I like. Sometimes music brings back the fog. I can’t listen to it much so I don’t know what to say.
This time the only person around who I knew was the bartender. Sam. He gives me an ease. Pouring two pints at a time and looking all coordinated but still just sloshing it everywhere. He was talking clear to some customers as I squeezed between tight armed bodies and put the shaking fog of me on a stool. He talks the way I imagine myself talking. “Have you got any good whisky?” they were asking. “No” he said “absolutely none, it’s all shite” and he’s got the right smile to make them laugh.
“So Hannah” he said “what’ll you be having?” I asked for a cider and hoped my smile could match his. He was busy though. He went straight to pouring and I went to my book. When I gave him the money he was already looking elsewhere and saying “what can I get you?”
First time I’d met him I’d been sat up at the bar making a cartoon. This one was about Buddha’s wife and Plato’s wife having an argument. There was a bag of freed food at my feet. I remember my ankles balancing the butternut squash at the top of it all. Not often I can sit still but that time it was alright. Sam didn’t ask about what I was doing but I asked him if it worked. He didn’t laugh much but his smile threw open his teeth. Since then we’d fit our words between his pourings. I never saw him outside that bar.
Now and then I’d look up from my book and he’d send me a smile to soak in. Then he looked past me with a different smile. A customer smile. And there was a hand below my shoulder and a voice saying “oh hello how are you?” It was the man who’d said I’d too much negativity. “Hi.” “Do I get a hug?” I put my forearms on his back while he pulled my head to his chest. I was glad it didn’t last long.
A smiling face shouting “Hannah” ran up. I only remembered who he was when his arms went round me too. Scott, that was his name. I couldn’t remember the other one’s name. “I haven’t seen you since uni!” I realised I was smiling. “How are you doing?” “Ok.” The other one asked if he could get me a drink and I said “I’ve got one” and he made a noise and leaned and I said again “I’ve got one.”
Scott took a scumpled plastic thing from his pocket and gave it to his friend saying “can you bin that for me?” I shifted on my stool, My book was on the bar and I pressed my hand to it. Flicking the cover with my thumb. “So what have you been up to?” he asked. “Just doing away.” I tried to sound like Steve. “What are you doing these days?” I said it before he could ask any more. “I’m a journalist” he said and nodded largely. “Yeah, just finished an internship and got my first paid position.” His friend put a pint in his hand and they stood shoulder to shoulder. “Well, cheers!”
I kept my eyes on my glass as I put it to theirs but I could feel their smiles on my head. “This guy’s just got a new job” Scott was saying “off to the exciting world of consultancy.” They talked and I nodded.
There was a fog in me and a heat strung between the ears. I pressed my fingers to the bridge of my nose. They were laughing about something. I let my hands fall and didn’t know what to do with them. “Sorry, what was that?” They didn’t hear me. I finished my drink quick. “Sorry, I have to go.” I picked up my book and walked. Feeling a thread of their goodbye as I left.
On the street I held the book to me. I felt small but the pavement was smaller. I wanted to be less and nothing but their thoughts were on my heels. How they’d be wondering what was wrong with me. And the one whose name I’d forgotten would be talking about what happened at the party and about my negativity. Laughing maybe. I shouldn’t assume that. Maybe. Everyone has to laugh. They could if they liked. They would. Of course they would.
I went into a bar I hadn’t been to before. It was loud and the drinks cost more than I’d usually pay. I didn’t know why but I wanted wine now. I wanted something. I sat at the bar and the TVs flared round my eyes with women waving their bodies to a song that wasn’t the one coming through on the speakers. I sat and sipped and tried to hide my eyes in the rim of the wine. Then I took out my phone to stop me seeing the stares. Morag had sent a message.
“Hey! How are you? Been a while since we chatted. What are you up to? In the pub I hope! I miss you! xxx” I don’t usually straight up reply to things but I did this time. Took a while though and I typed shakey. I told her how things were and tried to make them sound nice. “Bit down about stuff though, but still freeing the food ;-) how are you?”
I put the phone away but her reply came quick. She didn’t say how she was, just that she’d managed to free a steak. It had been her challenge to do that. She asked if I was in the pub I usually go to. Made me think about how she always says pub and I always say bar. But I clicked out of that and wrote back.
”I was, yeah, but then this guy came in who I’d had a thing with and it was weird so I left.” Took me sipping time to form the words. Then she asked what happened. The TVs had men looking straight into the camera and women looking sideways. The men’s lips moved to a song that wasn’t the one coming through on the speakers. I finished my drink wondering if I should say who it was and ended up ordering another. The woman behind the bar took a while to notice me. I liked that she wasn’t smiling at anyone.
“Sorry, was just getting another drink. Umm, nothing too bad. He just wanted to chat but I wasn’t up for it. Don’t even know why. Oh, and Scott was there if that’s interesting.” “Ah ok” she replied “is Scott still an absolute fanny?” “Haha, pretty much, he’s a journalist now.” “Are you fucking joking? well, guess that makes sense.” I gave a “haha” and then she said “by the way I’m off weekend after this one, thought I might come visit, can I stay at yours?”
“Yes of course! Aaaah, can’t wait to see you!”
We finished up the chat the way these things go and I put my phone away. I sat in the noise and drank the wine in silence. A fog of my own around me. I scrounged a cigarette off someone as I went out. The fog was warm.
I got the shape of a fear as I went back to the other bar. Turned out Scott and his friend had gone though. It was quiet and Sam was ringing last orders. A couple of his friends were at the bar and I sat easy with them. Sam poured me a cider and I told him about Morag. Don’t know why he was interested. I was talking too much. Perhaps I was just talking more. But his head was bent towards me as he stacked and wiped.
I let him get on with the clean up and turned to the others. Sam’s friend Sarah was talking and I heared the name Hobbes. “I did a cartoon about Hobbes once.” All the sips of wine and cider went back up to my throat as the eyes turned on me. “It’s just stupid but.” Sarah asked what I’d said. I showed her my cartoon of Hobbes meeting the Duchess of Newcastle which ends up with her inviting him for dinner and him saying he’s busy. Then you see him in his bed probably masturbating and shouting “EUCLID’S AXIOMS!” Sarah laughed and asked me about the Duchess of Newcastle.
Sam let us stay after the others were kicked out. Said we could all come back for a drink at his. Sarah walked next to me on the way and I talked about Margaret the First, the Thrice Noble, Illustrious and Excellent Princess, and we laughed in Sarah’s lofty warmth and I felt like I could share a fog with her. But I let Sam fill my eyes in front of me. We all talked together at his place. With gin and whisky. About novels and films and I was drunk enough to give myself words. I’d forgotten how much I knew. I hadn’t known how much I felt. It was a dusty room full of night and there was music without a fog.
Sarah got up on yawning feet and said it was time for her to leave. Everyone else got up saying things like yes time to go. “No” she said “I don’t want to kill the party.” “We do actually need to go.” “Ok, fine then.” Sam turned to me. “Hannah, are you going as well?” “Alright if I stay?” “Sure.”
I got up and stumble hugged the others. Sam walked them all to the door. The way my grandmother would. I liked that he did that. He sat next to me when he came back. I lay against his bones. Sore on mine but I didn’t care. “I can’t wait for you to meet Morag.” “Yeah, she sounds great.” I kissed his lips. “Can I stay?” He put his hands on my shoulders and stared serious. “Have you maybe had a bit too much to drink?” “Yes, but I want to, it’s the moment.”
I wasn’t all that late for work the next day but enough to get me yelled at. I didn’t pay much attention to the yells or the work. I was messaging Morag a lot. She was at work too. “I HATE THIS” she said. “TELL ME THE FUCK ABOUT IT.” I told her about the boss. She told me she’d been drunk the previous night and had wandered around a posh part of town jumping into people’s hedgerows. “IT WAS GREAT BUT NOW I’M COVERED IN FUCKING SCARS.” Most of what we said was in caps.
“What are you doing?” I looked up from my phone. My book was face down on the counter. “I don’t pay you to play around on your phone and read stupid books all day.” I put the phone down. “You don’t pay me the living wage either.” This time I said it. She stared. I shook.
“If you don’t want to work you can get out of here right now, in my day we used to work, and I’ve noticed quite a bit of stock seems to disappear since you started here.” There was a ping from my phone. Morag. Morag was thinking of me and I was thinking of her. I took a plastic wrapped croissant and broke it open. My hand shook but I kept my eyes steady as I shoved the lot of it in my mouth. I let the wrapper fall on the floor as I chewed.
The boss hoisted her shoulders. “I have never seen such a disrespectful attitude, I want an apology right now or you won’t be coming back in tomorrow.” A cough or a laugh from spattered crumbs across the counter. I picked up my book and my phone and left. I shook as I sat on the street and opened my phone to message Morag. Fingers weren’t much up for typing. “Oh fxud og fuco oh fuck.”