The mangers were kids dressed up. The rest of the casual employees had barely hurdled puberty. Their uniforms were loose fitting polo shirts and matching caps of prime corporate colours. They called Maxwell, ‘Big Max,’ ‘Max,’ ‘Haich,’ and ‘Old Man,’ which widened his feeling of disparity in the fluid, non-stick, cream polymer landscape of facility and ergonomics that issued a counterfeit of aesthetics. Bucket seats and fixed swivel chairs melted into plastic table tops and inoffensive paintings called art because they were framed and hung on walls.
Max caught his reflection in the mirrored square pillars that stood guard just beyond the front doors. They funnelled patrons into the dining area of equal halves with an express take-away conduit separated by chrome railings ran from the entrance to front counter. Maxwell wore a tartan splashed formal uniform in punctilious state and poise from a lifetime of work.His copper penny face with a ring of white hair around his bald head and chaste manner made Maxwell a fallacious symbol of convenience food. He guessed it was possibly the reason he was employed for FOH duty so he couldn’t complain. He felt extinct, like a stuffed specimen on display, turned kitsch and upgraded by the McValue Menu Deal.
A hard slap fell on Maxwell’s back.
‘Morning Haich,’ said Osmond.
A road bicycle tick-ticked a trail behind the large, black, Nigerian-born man at exactly eleven minutes to eleven every morning. Oz covered the insane midday and early evening rushes. He was a lifer. That’s what casual employees called the older, skeletal full-time crew. They had been in the game for years and never looked like ever quitting. Oz didn’t mind. He looked flattered by the association whenever it was spoken too loudly behind his back. He was one of the more decorated members of staff because of his eccentricity, bathos and experience. Oz was thirty-six with a wife and two kids. Over time he slowly accumulated the capital to move his family from estate housing to a modest abode in Levenshulme where he was raised as a child. And Oz had been around long enough to see some of those boisterous casuals slowly transfer to his crew and become close friends.
‘Nice work with the trays old man. Don’t keep them a secret to long. You know how precious front counter is about them.’ Oz leered his bulk down close to Max’s ear and consciously reduced the volume of his voice, ‘if Marcy doesn’t have anything to bark at we might discover she’s human after all.’
Oz’s ineffectual subterfuge to mask suggestion or instruction proved annoying after a time. But Maxwell found it hard to be unpleasant. His inattention had indeed serviced an impressive accumulation of trays. And Oz was right about the counter staff. About an hour before the rush Max always noticed the staff psychologically prepare themselves – lowering expressionless, shrivelled wooden masks over their faces, like they were a band of demure clowns.
‘Righto Oz. Will do.’
‘You’re all right old man Are you set for the lunchtime stampede? Just to warn you school holidays today so it’s bound to be mayhem.’
‘Just a walk in the park.’
A roar exploded from Oz like an accident. The force of his laugh arched his massive torso and head back in pantomime over his centre of gravity. Then he pendulously resiled forward, and cleft his arm down on Max’s right shoulder like he was scared he wouldn’t be able to stop.
‘You crack me up Haich. See you out on the battlefield.’
Oz’s clopped away in his bicycle shoes. His broad shoulders swayed like a gate in strong wind. Oz always left just enough time to change out of his waterproofs, brew a cup of tea and punch in a minute before his shift began. Maxwell’s ingrained work ethic routinely caused him to suffer up to fifteen minutes wait for the manager to open the store at 7:30 am because he always arrived early. He worked through breakfast and lunchtime shifts, clocking off at 3:30 pm when the midday crowds started to subside.
Max backed up against the shop front glass. He stared out through sea-filtered eyes down Oxford Road to the grand, red brick Palace Hotel and clock tower with a copper green helmet punching the grey heavens like an extended fist. It was the same unfocused glare customers regularly feigned when they walked in through the doors. The same look reminded Maxwell of the city eye clinic where he worked for sixteen years. That’s why Maxwell hadn’t been for a check up. He couldn’t read the time, but the ebb of city congestion made him certain it was mid-morning.
McDonalds was a convenience Max religiously refused in the past, before he retired. But after Betty’s diagnosis and he was forced back into the job market, it became a refuge from the traffic and city dwellers. He continued commuting into the city each week and lamented his days in McDonalds because of their bottomless coffees and affordable McMenu Deals.
Alex, an assistant manager who left shortly after hiring Max with an auspicious promotion to store manager of an outlet opening north of the city, approached Max, mistaking him for an applicant to fill their full-time host vacancy. Alex’s sympathy for old men like Maxwell was equivalent to farm animals. And he found their phlegmatic acceptance to the forces that were putting them out to pasture obscene. However they had perfect attendance records.
Maxwell had just left another informal appointment. He felt like a walking yardstick prospective employers waved discretionally about at the viable ranks of eager young candidates. He realised all he offered was neutral comparison when the decision of the successful entrant was especially difficult. He sat slumped in a sullen partition by the window. He challenged the remnants of a McChicken Value Meal with a straw like it was his brain he persistently dissected for the right words to confess to Betty when Alex approached.
Alex wouldn’t admit to himself that he detested old people like Max. They reminded him of his own fear of the future. Alex knew the reality of a career in fast food. But he kept it hidden, deep down in his thoughts where he could avoid it. Yet the perverse display of diligence from old people like Max, continually faced with tedious and meagre tasks made Alex uneasy.
Alex and Maxwell’s shared a small serve of disingenuous laughter to suppress any embarrassment over the mix-up. But it only seemed to widen both party’s discomfort of the situation. But Max was the perfect candidate for the job. And Maxwell immediately accepted the position when it was offered.
Max carried the clean food trays to the counter and passed them over to Ling, a terse, industrious work pony with a golden complexion and face like a tear drop standing on its tail.
Dean, a sebaceous ginger adolescent launched himself at the encounter.
‘Hey Big Max there’s spill up in the top section?’
‘Bugger – I must have missed it.’
‘You walked right past it – getting old Big Max.’
‘That I am Dean.’
‘Shut up Dean,’ Ling ordered.
‘Dean, get back to your station,’ said Marcy walking through the kitchen from the back office.
Max didn’t share the passion of hatred in the lower ranks for Marcy. She was born and bred in Stockport – tall and truculent, coated in a flawless almond foundation. She wore only shades of black outside work and her caustic manner was measured in degrees. But she made no excuses for her behaviour. Maxwell saw it was simply who she was, she was consistent and transparent and he didn’t find any reason to disapprove of that. She had treated Max well. And Maxwell quickly learnt to use his years to his advantage, extracting preferential treatment from a few of the shift managers. This brought recognition from the trained eye of experienced team of shift workers and approval from younger workers who related to an ethos of modest work habits.
‘Maxwell can you take care of a spill for me? Some kid has dropped a shake over the floor up there. Don’t use the kitchen mop. Actually when you get a chance change the mop heads? They’re getting a bit scabby. And make sure you put out the warning signs. Last thing we need is some codger slipping and suing us.’
‘Not a problem Marcy.’
‘Had a break yet?’
‘Have a quick one after you clean up the mess ‘cos we’ll be getting busy soon. And be sure to check the toilets when you get back. You know where we keep the sanitary products? Ask Dean if you have any trouble and stock any soap or paper dispensers that need it.’
‘Righto – will do.’
Follow or Subscribe so you don’t miss the next instalement Big Nothing: Part II