by Damien G. Walter
Feliks Duda has eight weeks left in country on the morning the letter from the Home Office arrives. He fishes the ugly manila envelope from its hiding place amongst the glossy junk mail. 0% interest loans and 12 inch pizza offers accumulate around the door like drifts of snow. They have misspelt his name again. Felix, like the cat. He tells them and tells them but they do not listen. They tell Feliks he has to go back to his country. That Feliks can not do.
He came over to be in a band. Crazy guys he found on YouTube that play furniture and kitchen appliances. They Skype together and they say ‘Hey, come over!’ so Feliks comes. First night they get drunk on Smirnoff and then on a dank Sunday in a dark room in a big factory they bang on cupboards and whiz blenders whilst Feliks plays the viola, his own that he brought all the way from Sofia. They all go quiet and one says ‘Feliks. You are a bad musician.’ And they all nod. Fuck you! Thinks Feliks. Seven years in the Academy and they call me bad musician! He leaves without a word.
Feliks phones his brother in Sofia, reads the letter from the Home Office down the line. Januk hisses through his lips.
‘You no way want come back to Sofia. Whole family are proud of Feliks. If Feliks come back now you be failure again, just like when leave the academy.’
‘What do I do? What do I do?’ Feliks panics.
‘Get a job Feliks!’
Everyday he takes the bus into the city centre to look for work. Job Centre Plus. Office Angels. Local newspaper on Tuesday and Thursday. No luck. Only the Cheapside agency takes immigrant labour, so the Poles tell him. Work paid cash in hand, up at 4am and get in van to who knows where to do who knows what. But when Feliks goes there a big, fat Pole tells him fuck off or he will break his fingers. My fingers are my life, thinks Feliks more scared than he knew he could be.
‘There are no jobs for Bulgars here brother!’
‘Have you tried burger places? McDonalds? Kentucky Fried Chicken? Pizza Hut?’
So Feliks hunts the streets for places that stink of grease and chips. Starts with the big boys but at the golden arches they turn him away.
‘You’re too old.’ Says the ill girl behind the counter as she gives him a form to fill out.
‘They don’t employ old people because you qualify for minimum wage.’ Same story at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.
One week left and Feliks gets desperate. Roams the streets asking strangers to give him a job. Down a dark alley he sits head in hand on the curb, all hope lost. Looks up with tears in his eyes and there is the answer.
The sign says ‘Help wanted’.
Handwritten on paper hung in a dark window of the closed restaurant.
‘Hello?’ Says Feliks.
The door comes open in his hand. Calls two more times but still no answer. He can’t just walk in? Can he? It is that or go home.
It is an expensive restaurant. The bar is made of hard wood burnished like beaten bronze. High mirrors reflect deep shadows. Hundreds of upturned wine glasses, huge, line every table. Polished into sparkling invisibility.
Feliks catches the scent of smoke. The tip of a burning cigar glows among the shadows, gripped in thick fingers. The other heavy hand swills thick brandy, sticky and dribbling over curved glass. Black eyes squint at Feliks from a beefy face attached to a big square head that jutts from the open collar of a white chefs jacket.
“What you doing in here?” The chef mumbles through sausage lips.
“Help wanted?” Feliks squeeks.
He looks Feliks up and down as he sucks on his cigar.
Feliks shrugs, eyes wide with confusion.
“You chop vegetables?”
“Then you commis chef. Follow me.”
The chef walks like an expert drunk with Feliks trailing behind as they wind through row after row of tables. The place is bigger than Feliks realised. Much bigger.
The kitchens are yard after yard of shining steel, the stink of bleach and strip lights that burn away every shadow. Racks of knives gleam like razors.
“Kitchen.” The big chef says grinning. Then he pulls the doors shut, steeps up so close that Feliks can feel the brandy soaked heat of his breath, sticks a carrot shaped finger in Feliks face and whispers. “You never go out that way right? Understand?”
The furious grin returns.
Feliks chops vegetables. Feliks mops floors. Feliks polishes cutlery until the spoons shine like moons. Feliks hauls giant canisters of olive oil from the larder. Feliks stirs bubbling pots of sauce on the hob. And as Feliks works others arrive. Slim, dark featured men in spotless white chef’s jackets and blue check trousers. They do not look at him. They do not talk. They cook. They approach each new dish like a chess player approaches his next move.
It must be evening by now, Feliks thinks. The sound coming from the restaurant has been growing louder for hours. The clink of knives and forks, the pop and glug of wine poured into glasses, the low murmur of voices in conversation. The twitter, bellow and guffaw of uncontrolled laughter. It grows louder and louder until even the cacophony of the kitchen is drowned out.
Feliks cleans plates. What an easy job, he thinks at first. One squish from the power hose and the plates are as good as new. And then Feliks wonders why the plates come back so clean, with just the littlest bit of sauce stuck to the edges. They are licking the plates clean thinks Feliks, each and every one of them. These are some chefs.
Then on one plate Feliks sees something like the shape of a twinged butterfly, outlined in sauce.
The kitchens double doors flap open and the noise of the restaurant overwhelms Feliks. And then he hears a snorting, grunting puff. Looking back he sees a pig, a pink pig so shiny it looks as though it has been polished. The pig skitters on sharp trotters over the smooth kitchen tiles, squeaking and oinking.
The head chef lurches forward, using his vast weight and huge, outstretched arms he herds the pig back into the restaurant.
“Wrong way monsieur!” He bellows. As he pushes through the door he shoots Feliks a threatening grimace.
Feliks looks down at the unwashed plate, now clearly branded with a small, sharp trotter print.
Feliks can not help himself. With the horrendous languor of syrup dripping onto silk he is drawn towards the doors flapping open in the head chefs wake.
At first they do not notice Feliks. Hundreds of diners continue their feast oblivious of his presence. Men in finely tailored suits, women in delicate and revealing evening gowns. All of them talking and laughing far too loudly to ever notice him.
But Feliks Duda has seen these men and women before. He knows their faces, sees them smiling out at him from newspaper pages on TV screen everyday. Feliks recognises these people of fame and celebrity, gorging themselves on a feast of rich meats.
Far across the restaurant Feliks eye is caught by one woman more beautiful than all the others, hair of burning auburn piled high, head thrown back in laughter exposing the pale skin of her throat. Around her cluster many men of great power, politicians and businessmen all pushing against one another in a desperate jostle to be close to her.
Feliks looks at the beautiful woman. Transfixed he stares into violet eyes, luminous and deep. She looks at me, Feliks thinks.
Panic swells in Feliks chest. The restaurant has grown enormous, vast beyond his understanding. Reflected in polished mirrors the world of the powerful extends rank upon rank into infinity. But in the mirrors Feliks sees not people but pigs. Shining pink pigs sit wedged on their haunches in high back chairs, dark suits and delicate gowns stretched over corpulent flesh, forks and knives clutched awkwardly in ungainly trotters. For a moment they are silent, starring at Feliks through beady black eyes. And then they squeal as one, the high whine of enraged swine.
The hot stink of brandy fills Feliks nostrils as the fat chef spits the word into his ear and the huge arms thrust Feliks forward, pushing him towards the exit door.
Feliks flees as the powerful pigs slide from their seats to attack him. He hurdles over porkine bodies and bounds past snorting snouts. Pulling the door open he looks back. The chef stands hip deep in swine, screaming at the auburn beauty, one huge hand gripping a kitchen cleaver.
Feliks plunges through the dark night, running until his lungs burn and he collapses in the gutter. I will go home. I will go home. I will go home! The tears come when he realises that he can never go home.