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 tabletops 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 checkup. 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.’
Sons argue with their fathers to super size Quarter Pounders Value Meals and change juice and post mix to shakes. Daughters whine to their mothers they can’t possibly eat any more after one bite of their cheeseburgers. Toddlers’ chips turn cold and stale from neglect. And every parent is made to exchange the obligatory toy in happy meals for a more desirable option. Twelve-year-old boys get sick trying to eat two Big Macs, while same age girls show a heightened look of disgust from wearing too much make-up. Cavaliering teenage boys in their parents’ absence are out to impress. The teenage girls acting out a farce of maturity count calories and instead of burgers and fries ordered Diet Cokes and McFlurrys thickened with pig fat. And vegetarians chasing deadlines surrender under the golden arches and buy McVegi Menu Deal unaware the meat supplements is what made them taste so good.
The store is heaving and the level of voices rise like a flight of stairs to accommodate confabulations and screaming babies. Max can hear the craving of the bins wane as he continues to sweep cleans trays and feed them through the flap jaw of the disposal units – an assortment of waxed paper cups and burger boxes, fistfuls of unused napkins and straws, fingernail-picked polystyrene and carcases of half-eaten burgers.
The trick Maxwell learnt was not to fight the flow. There was no sense trying to beat a force that was unpersuasive, continuous and mighty like nature. Sanity would be forfeited cheaply to the unending cycle of clearing trash, cleaning tables and moping spills. Max carefully paced himself, trying simply to match the momentum. The hungry cavalcade would eventually subside and Max would find himself ahead. It was the small sense of victory he took out the store and home with him every day. Max could tell by the volume of rubbish the restaurant’s capacity for earnings was well above average. Marcy sent Dean out to help cover Max.
‘Hey Big Max, heard you need a hand out here in the jungle?’
Vexing as Dean was, Max was glad for his company.
‘Marcy wants you to do a toilet check. I’ll cover you till you get back.’
When Max returned Dean divided the dining area and covered it with Max until the restaurant emptied enough for Max to cope. Dean told Max to say he was on the toilet if anyone asked for him and nipped out for a cigarette break before returning to the kitchen.
Max began replenishing napkins and straws into the first dispensing station above the steps at the back of the pit. He then moved the stock up to the second station and repeated the exercise.
Max never recognised the precession of age within or around him until recently. Max simply found himself three years into his marriage unwilling to stay the pace in the proverbial race. The year was 1973. Maxwell was content to settle on vinyl, quadraphonics, polo necks and sports jackets. He didn’t read the shift in eyewear from a functional necessity to fashion accessory and didn’t notice the youthful positions fill around him who were more qualified to target the diverging market.
While people he knew started to cripple and bend like a misused coat hanger from arthritis and osteoporosis it was Betty’s mind that unfettered and unravelled. He couldn’t decide whether it was a blessing or a curse of evolutionary nature to weather old age. Betty used to enjoy chaffing Maxwell in company about his superannuated style and taste even though it endeared him to her. Now she returned more frequently to her teens and twenties where Max was excluded because he was some strange old man. He felt robbed. She had immunity. Her condition infused him with dissimilitude for life. Now he only saw her in visiting hours. How was he supposed to tell her? He took too long like asking after an introduction for a forgotten name, until he decided it didn’t matter.
Across from Maxwell sat at a table against the railing is a group of fifteen year-old boys. They’d finished devouring their meals, run out of conversation and are resorting to petty denigrations. Slurping on sodas the boys snigger, competing for the derisive lows they can attain at passing strangers expense. Max bows his head to ignore the situation.
‘What about the old gizzer over there. Is it legal to employ someone that old?’
‘This is McDonalds Lee. I’m sure they’d adopt children into their work force if they could.’
‘Do you think they let him touch the food?’
‘Fuck I hope not.’
‘He should be a nursing home, enjoying the twilight of his life.’
‘I don’t plan to ever get that old.’
The three other boys laugh out loud.
‘What the fuck are you going to do about it Tom? Kill yourself when you hit fifty.’
‘Fuck fifty – that’s way too old.’
‘My mum’s uncle already has a colostomy bag – and he’s always forgetting and falling asleep in front of the TV so the bag gets too full its bursts his own shit all over him.’
‘Fuck! That’s mingin.’
‘Fuck that – I’m going out like Oli Reed.’
A homeless man walks through the front entrance. He’s old and slender like a chewed pencil with wistful clumps of matted grey hair. He wears filth in layers and hides most of himself with a threadbare over coat stained the same colour as a brown paper bag round a bottle of booze.
Max recognised him as one of the vagrant souls who sometimes sold the Big Issue down outside the Palace Theatre, or begged for change across on the road under scaffolding by the pedestrian crossing and down at the Spar. As he hobbles forward fumes of human decay escape his layered clothing, where it malingered day and night and now floated with maturity out just ahead of him. He passes between the mirrored pillars, strikes a reflection and stops to observe it as if it’s an afterthought.
His back is turned to Max but Max can see the man in the reflection – thin white lips, large hairy ears and a gaunt pointed purple face full of fleshy cuts and crusted lumps of old rot. Stolid to the soundtrack of yelps and cackles from the pack of juveniles nearby his dull crystalline eyes set deep in puffy wrinkled sockets kindle with a faint recognition. He studies the beleaguered and denigrated remainder of who he was as if it’s someone vaguely familiar. Any disgrace or lament is lost to a look of confusion, like he’s unable to solve a puzzle, something beyond himself because there’s a part missing like a lost memory.
An ache in Max’s bones suddenly fills his chest like a burn. He momentarily panics thinking it’s a stroke until it abates. Like a long-lost friend he realises too late it’s his compassion. At the same moment the man’s eyes swell – he remembers. It passes like fire through the grit and hair on his face.
Max wonders how long it has been since the man last saw his reflection. He steps back and turns slightly to the side. He rubs a hand over his dry, prickly face then twists his undergarments into alignment, tugs on his overcoat and runs his hands down it to straighten the creases. He combs his kerbside hair with his fingers and finally licks his right palm and runs it over a stubborn quiff of hair standing up at the back of his head a few times to flatten it.
‘Must be here for a McShit and piss.’
All the boys laugh. Max bows his head in ignorance and shifts his attention back to clearing up his station. Maxwell’s cowardice makes his heart sink. If the bum heard the boys he doesn’t show it. After so many years on the street Maxwell wondered if he’d become immune to all the ridicule and scorn thrown at him along with cigarette stubs, half eaten deli sandwiches, cold coffee dregs and the odd coin. He shuffles towards the front counters.
‘Maybe he’s forgotten the address of the YMCA.’
The smell of the man hits the boys.
‘Oh fuck he stinks.’
‘Shit he reeks.’
Carrying a food tray with two late orders to a couple seated in the restaurant, Marcy notices the man and intervenes.
‘I’m sorry sir the toilets are for use of paying customers.
‘Coffee.’ he gruffs.
The man digs deep into one of his pockets and pulls out a fistful of coppers and small denominations of silver. They smell of rust and vomit and whisky and strands of hair and fluff are stuck to some of the pieces.
‘Max you know the facilities are only for customers’ use.’
Max wishes he were younger so he could fight for this stranger. But he was weak and tired of battles.
‘Please will you show him the exit?’
‘And see me before you leave?’
The boys slurp some more on their empty drinks and suppress chuckles in their open huddle. Max leads the compliant vagabond to the front entrance, refusing to raise his eyes until the back of the man is a faint blur down Oxford Road. He takes a moment to look up once again at the clock tower above the Palace Hotel. Age has made seeing eyes unnecessary. Based on the break in customers he decides it must be close to three-thirty before he ambles back inside.