It was possible that he could let the phone keep ringing and no one would question him. It was possible that the waiting customers would turn to stare at him like zombies disturbed from a trance and think what an idiot he was. Or it was possible that Greg could storm out and embarrass him in front of the sniggering morons in the kitchen and he would have to answer the phone anyway. He gave his scripted introduction and tapped in the order on the touchscreen. He hung up. He shouted an order was coming through. The phone rang again.
The walk-ins surely knew this was just a job and not reflective of who he really was, his lack of charisma and charm down to the hard, constant slog it entailed. They would sit across from him in the three curved, plastic seats; some would stand and lean on the pass, some would pace around, some would wait outside smoking or talking on their phone, peering in at him every so often. They didn’t know how smart he was or that this was simply a waiting area.
“Yeah, how much longer mate?”
“Erm… another two minutes,” he replied politely with a smile.
He shouted out order number thirty-seven was ready then placed the pizza box and hot plastic bag on the pass, the troll before him grunting as he clutched his peasant food. Such interactions occurred at least once every shift and only served to illuminate the tragic contrast of a gifted genius forced to slave away with the commoners, who of course despised and misunderstood him. When his old geology teacher had walked in, he’d immediately wanted to explain why he was working there and not well underway with a career, on the path to success like other people from school. Only forgettable, idle banter had blurted out, and the teacher stood still, blank-faced, watching him take orders and pretend to be busy doing something important and necessary behind the counter.
When would a change come? He had already accepted, at eighteen, that this was what life was: an endless cycle of struggling, desire and failure – all ending in meaningless void. Yet how he faced the inevitable was still his to determine. He could at least choose the how.
He logged another new order, moved a finished order from the kitchen pass to the main counter, and swiped a slice of pepperoni and handful of cheese into his mouth on the sly. In each silent and habitual action he felt the fate of all men. The strangers before him and the drones in the kitchen behind continued as a factory. In their ignorance they were better off, lobotomised to a peaceful acceptance. When he saw an expensive, luxury car tear past on the motorway outside the shop he would smirk, picturing the foolish owner’s false hope in such possessions. Vacuous materialism had overtaken religious escapism as the country’s core disease. Everywhere the young and old alike pursued money and status-objects over truth and a life of unbridled action and passion.
He never allowed himself to imagine his punishment. His mind always cut in wonder to the final dramatic scenes, the culmination – a flurry of chaos and fire as they tried to put a stop to his glorious moment. There would be no punishment. When it was over there would be no more striving, everything would have already been achieved. His taste of primal madness; unbound free-will. Of course people wouldn’t understand and would deem that some deeply rooted psychological issue was to blame, but his followers would recognise him as a god, who had forever ruptured the comfortable norm.
His phone vibrated against his leg – a message from his mum. ‘Do you need a lift home tonight sweetheart?’
He kept the phone by his side and quickly replied ‘no’ before pushing it back in his jeans pocket. He looked over to the kitchen workers. They were chatting to each other, heads down as they focused on their individual roles. How had he kept himself here so long? His phone buzzed again. ‘O.K darling, see you later.’ Maybe there was something left to say to her. He knocked then opened the office door to ask the shift manager for a break.
“Greg, I’m not feeling great. I’m just gonna take a minute.”
“Bloody hell, hurry up,” the fat old oaf replied.
He untied and tossed his apron on the bench in the corridor behind the kitchen and went out the back door. Outside stank of grease and the ventilation systems whirred. Nowhere could he escape the grey mundane world and the constant nagging on his senses. Nowhere but in perfect peace and isolation could he drift into his mind. No wonder – look at what his life was, people would say in their attempts to rationalise. All those years preparing for life, all his knowledge and creativity to end up here. Well there was no point going over it again. He knew where he was and what was going to happen. A man must take control of his own destiny.
The problem had always been that he was aware of the futility of life. He had first glimpsed the truth years earlier when he realised the absurdity of belief in god. There was no innate morality or meaning for humankind. His idols and guides had failed him, so now he was free to do what he wanted. Sometimes in bed or on the bus home it would flicker before him how absurd his dreams were, and he wondered if it might be better to just keep going, even in the agony of comfort. At least then he wouldn’t have to commit to a permanent change. He had never felt suicidal – it wasn’t about that, as it may have been for Harris or Klebold. They’d probably been wanting to die for a while and to do so in the grandest manner. He could keep on going, he could cope. This was about placing a pin in time, about leaving his image on the masses. It had to be about that.
He’d thought about whether any understanding would be gained by the public afterward. Would there simply be anger and awe? He had left sufficient writing in his bedroom, enough of an insight. Perhaps some people would see that the mundane cycle they existed in served only to perpetuate their void, but nobody would ever truly understand him, just as he had never figured out the last thoughts of Klebold as he had left home that morning. Now was the time for a new mythology. Nothing would be the same again.
“Right, come on. The phone’s ringing and people are waiting,” Greg shouted, bursting out the door.
For a moment he stared back, wide-eyed.
He walked towards the fat stinking mess, each step an embarrassment.
“Are you all right?” Greg mumbled, holding the door open, uncomfortably shuffling aside to let him through.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
He saw the newly arrived customers waiting, watching him enter. The kitchen staff were staring too.
“Oh, I forgot my apron,” he said, turning back to the hall where the staff lockers were.
“For god’s sake,” Greg muttered before scurrying back into his hole.
He donned his apron, grinning as he heard Greg’s mumblings, and returned to the front.
“Hey Simon, you O.K, man?” Adam, a Polish kitchen worker, asked. “You look pale, man. Are you sick?”
“Yeah you look like shit mate,” shouted Jimmy, a forty-six-year-old kitchen porter. “No change there then.”
The kitchen bubbled over with muffled giggles. Approaching the counter once more, he nodded at the same nothing-banter, bit his lip and smiled. He focused his wide eyes on the middle-aged mum who must have been holding her kid’s hand – a pink balloon hovered on a thin plastic stick to the left of her.
“Hi, welcome to Ludo’s. How may I help you?”
He peered over the counter to see a little girl in a white, fluffy cardigan and thick pink-rimmed glasses look up at him. She smiled at him, showing the gaps in her teeth.
“Hi, you all right?” the woman said. “Can we have a vegetarian, medium pizza please? No jalapeños or onions, but can we have extra black olives please?”
He nodded his head and turned away from the girl looking up at him. Time had become heavier, clouded. A twinge of sadness hit him. He told himself he was done. I can’t stand this shit anymore. What the fuck am I doing? His hand instinctively reached to the computer. He pressed the order in.
Medium – 11.5”
SEND TO KITCHEN
It was in these moments of complete degradation, humiliated, when his will urged him somewhere else – to some plateau. In the depravity there was direction. He was prepared this morning, as he had been the day before, but the thought of tomorrow had still been present, as it always was. The possibility of tomorrow. He felt his strength once more as he looked back to the woman’s eyes.
“Just a few minutes,” he said to her.
“Thanks.” She smiled and moved to the corner, between the wall and the window that faced the motorway. “Are you looking forward to your pizza? Shall we give Daddy a ring and let him know we’ll be home soon?” she said to her little girl.
He took the order of the next person waiting – a tall, skinny, long haired guy wearing glasses, around his own age. A middle-aged Chinese man was waiting in the queue reading the menu above the counter, smiling, content. These were good people. The young man with the glasses ordered quietly, as though it was his first nervous outing in the world. Sadness weighed down his throat again and sat behind his eyes like a cancerous shadow. Always was he in tumult. He pressed the order in. He felt like reaching out to embrace this shy, kindred stranger. The Chinese man approached, looking up to him with a kind smile, as if he was looking upon his own grandson.
“Hello, how are you today?” the man asked him.
He nodded a silent response, tears and emotion brewing, his cheeks twitching.
“I would like a big Hawaiian pizza please. And can I have three cans of Diet Coke? Oh, and one small fries, please.”
He tried to gulp down the sadness, unable to look at the man anymore.
“Is that a large, thirteen and a half-inch pizza?”
“Oh, yes, please. Sorry.”
Perhaps ignorance was bliss. No. The light airiness he was gliding on was pathetic. He felt his pain moulding. For god’s sake, I’ve had enough. Too great was the pull on his emotions and reason. The images he had envisioned for so long began to play once more, on a constant reel before him. There was his focus. There was his end. Only there would he find joy. He remembered playing with his new Lego sets at Christmases; when he had passed his driving test and took his first drive to the supermarket on his own; when he had found the pond with the frogs two summers ago with Matt and Danielle. Even in his happy memories there was sorrow.
“Ah, god,” he sighed out loud, burying his head in his arms on the counter.
He stood up straight again. The kitchen continued behind him. Greg’s door remained shut. The customers were on their phones or looking out the windows to the passing cars. Only the Chinese man, order number forty-five, was looking at him, arms folded, no longer smiling.
Turning to the kitchen, Neelam was laying out toppings on one side of the pass. Her black hair was tied up in a net and head scarf and she was working in her own world just like he did. He thought about how much he had wanted to kiss Kathryn at the prom, but she had only said ‘hello’ and gave him a hug, before going off with the cool crowd. She had looked wonderful.
Order number forty-two was up. He passed it to the fat couple who had been sat down waiting.
He’d tried endlessly to find some order and structure to life – a model of guaranteed happiness. His diaries would show his torture, would reveal his true, tragic self. It had at one time even occurred to him that such constant struggle was the lot of all great men. He’d told himself to accept the natural meaningless of being and live each day spontaneously.
But the ordinary emptiness of life without dazzling peaks would always drag him back to the depths of sheephood. No one had ever helped him or allowed him a way out. Now they needed to know. That was the only way.
“Drove All Night” by Roy Orbison cut through the inane chatter on the radio. His mum had told him that his dad would play this song when they were together, before he was born. Maybe I should have called you first, but I was dying to get to you. Four guys and three girls in their early twenties walked in talking and laughing amongst themselves, looking up to the menu above the counter.
“Neelam, can you take this one for me please?”
“Yes, O.K Simon. No problem.”
He walked past her, past Jimmy and Adam’s gargoyle grimaces and straight out back. Nobody could touch him now. Now was his time. Nothing else would change. This was everything. He tried to think in silence and clear his mind, with no emotion hindering him. The Chinese man, the shy student, Neelam, the young bearded man who had waltzed in leading his pack – all their faces were in his mind. He pulled out his phone, squatted to the ground, inverted the camera to his face and pressed record.
“Mum, I’m sorry if this causes you any problems. I love you.”
He looked at himself in the screen, focused and controlled. He smiled into it.
“This is it. Year Zero. Just know that I’m doing what I wanted. Keep my things safe.”
He looked into his eyes for a second, smiled, and then set the phone down under the bin, leaving it to record the shadows.
Inside, he went to his locker in the corridor before the kitchen. Here there was no CCTV. He heard the kitchen idiots laughing again – probably at him. Well the painter is approaching his canvas. Keep laughing. He sniggered, opening the locker, carefully pulling his backpack and his dad’s old gym bag out, resting them on the bench against the lockers, bottles clinking. He didn’t care if the world despised him, his name would be known forever. He was giving people a glimpse of the chaotic, natural world as it had once existed. He took out two bottles from the backpack, one a wine bottle, one a vodka bottle and unscrewed the lids. The fumes hit his nose and he placed them on the floor in front of him. He took out a half-bottle of brandy and white dishcloths, pouring the brandy over the cloths and stuffing them tightly into each of the waiting bottles with his middle finger.
Nothing erases this feeling between me and you, ohh. I drove all night to get to you.
He smiled, preparing another wick. Here he was at last, finally the master of the universe. He thought of how the old, rotting couch and the tyre-less bike in the woods had been engulfed when he had first tested the cocktails; the same woods where his dad had taught him to ride a bike. Was that a memory or a photograph? Maybe neither. Maybe his imagination. He prepared a third cocktail which he’d leave on the bench for now. That was the last one, for the kitchen. Three more bottles were in the gym bag with with their lids on, ready to be prepared when he got out. Standing up from the bench he untied and tossed his apron back into the locker, took three long kitchen lighters from the backpack, leaving one on the bench and putting another in his jean pockets. He placed the large chef’s knife from home on the bench and tossed the empty backpack into the locker.
“All right, let’s do this.”
He had never felt more alive.
He had never felt more real.
He had never felt more human.
Nicolas Townley is a writer and musician from Manchester. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and vignettes which fuse literary realism with his philosophical studies. His first published story, ‘A Good Job’, appeared in Lunate in 2019. He is on Instagram here.