Everyone says I don’t look 64, but on Mondays I feel every day of it, and I can’t wait for my 65th birthday. I suppose it’s the prospect of five full days at the diner ahead of me that does it, because on Fridays, when I’m cleaning out the ovens, I always feel like a young woman again, looking forward to the weekend ahead, full of plans and excitement. At that time, my retirement in December is very far from my mind.
This Monday morning I’m in the kitchens, busy hauling steaming plates out of the dishwasher, when an arm roughly encircles my neck from behind and I find myself being dragged backwards out of the kitchens, heels scraping along the floor. I experience an overwhelming rush of shocked indignation at being treated like this and, oddly, it’s tinged with a hint of embarrassment and self-pity as I catch a glimpse of my thin white shins trailing out behind me, festooned with drooping pop-socks.
There’s anger too – I’m too old to be treated like this, I think. This must be someone’s idea of a joke but they’ve made a big mistake here. Whoever’s dragging me along bursts through the swing doors into the restaurant, and the doors slam back, painfully catching my legs as I follow through. I’m definitely going to raise a grievance with the management over this.
The scene that meets my eyes in the restaurant is horrendous, and I can’t believe I haven’t heard anything while working out the back. There’s blood everywhere, and at least a dozen customers are huddled against the walls, surrounded by broken plates and glassware. Two men, dressed in black, their faces masked in balaclavas, are waving guns and shouting wildly. One of them, using Arnold, the short-order cook as body-armour, is pacing near the windows, watching the police massing in the car park. I’ve never seen so many policemen; I thought they were supposed to be understaffed or something.
It’s not looking good though. I should have thrown a sickie today, as Jason, my grandson, would say.
I’m pushed to the ground, right next to young Mr Palmer, the restaurant manager, who’s shaking like a leaf, and looks like he’s about to pass out.
“What’s going on?” I demand, still bristling at the way I’ve been manhandled out of the kitchens.
“Keep your voice down, Duffer!” he says.
“It’s Duffy,” I say, though I know he knows this. It was something he started when he first took over here, and now he can’t help it. He’s so unfunny it’s almost painful. But right now his eyes are beginning to roll back into their sockets and his head is swaying from side to side, so I shove it down between his knees. None too gently either; he’s always treated me like an idiot. His hair, as usual, is covered in some kind of greasy gunge that he uses to make it all spiky, so I take the opportunity to wipe my palm clean on the jacket of his smart Italian suit. This makes me feel a whole lot better about the ‘duffer’ business.
There’s a young man leaning against an upturned table, and I can see he’s in a bad way with blood pumping from a wound in his leg. He needs a tourniquet on that, I think, and I start to shimmy across the floor, peeling off my pinny as I go. I take my duties as staff First Aider quite seriously. I realise no-one else would have touched the job with a barge-pole, but even so, I sometimes feel as though I’m defined by that little piece of paper from the Red Cross. It sets me apart, I think… gives me that little edge. And the extra £1.50 a week comes in handy – you can buy an extra line at Bingo with that.
One of the gunmen barks an order at me, but another pulls at his arm and draws his attention to some movement amongst the ranks of the police outside. Someone’s trying to talk to the gunmen through a loudspeaker, so their attention’s diverted. This allows me to quickly wrap my apron round the young man’s leg, pulling tightly until the flow of blood slows. He must be around sixteen, I guess, because his upper lip is fringed in downy dark hair, now slick with perspiration.
“It’ll be all right,” I say, though I suspect, looking at his wound, it will be anything but.
Peering round the table, I see Flash, the pastry chef repeatedly jerking his head at me and I wonder if he’s having a fit. Another job for a First Aider, I think, slithering across the floor to him. I’m just about to start clearing his airways when he knocks my hand roughly aside.
“I’m in touch with them,” he hisses.
For a minute I think he’s talking about the other side, you know, spirits and things; I wouldn’t have thought he was the type for that, but then you might not think I was. Or maybe you would, I don’t know; it’s amazing how old women get stereotyped.
“Really? In touch with who?”
“The police,” he says, “look …”
He pulls his mobile phone out from his jacket and I can see he’s halfway through sending one of those text thingies Jason’s always banging on about.
“They’re going to create a diversion out front and then break in through the rear entrance,” he whispers. “They’re telling us we have to keep low and make a run for it if we can.”
“Just as soon as it all kicks off … which will be any minute now. When they’ve put some men on the roof. You need to tell the others.”
I look round at the other hostages; most of them look to be half out of their wits.
“Why me?” I don’t fancy drawing attention to myself again. I’ve always wanted to work front-of-house, but now that the opportunity’s presented itself, I suspect Mr Palmer might have been right. I probably am better suited working out back, washing dishes and tending the deep-fat fryer.
“Because I’m external liaison, Mrs Duffy… I have to keep in touch with them. You’ll have to be internal communications. Besides, you’re a First Aider, you’ve got the perfect cover. You can pretend you’re seeing to them. Start with Ellie, she’s going hysterical anyway.”
He’s right. We all have our part to play and we all need to step up to the plate in an emergency. Besides, I’m beginning to feel a bit important now, almost like I’m an essential part of the team instead of just some add-on out the back. Keeping my eye on the gunmen, I crawl across to Ellie and pretend to take her pulse. Ellie’s the Work Experience girl who waits on tables, and when I pass the message on, she seems to calm down a bit, knowing help’s close at hand. I pull her skirt down over her knees; girls these days, I think to myself.
The gunmen, still pacing around, glance at me from time to time, but a harmless old biddy busy playing Florence Nightingale doesn’t seem to bother them too much. They’ve dispensed with Arnold, the short-order cook. He’s fainted, and he’s a big bloke to be dragging around with you, so they’ve dumped him by the vending machine and commandeered a middle-aged man who only ever comes in for a toasted teacake on Mondays. It’s a shame really, but apart from me, he’s probably the only one in the room who’s a bit underweight, and therefore slightly easier to manipulate. I hope he doesn’t faint… I don’t fancy being dragged around like that.
There’s not much I can do for Arnold except place him in the recovery position after checking his airways. He’s going to be really embarrassed when he finds out he’s wet himself, so I drape a serviette over his trousers to spare his blushes. Arnold’s always been all right with me; he doesn’t complain if the chips are a bit slow in coming forward when I forget to switch the deep fat fryer on first thing in the morning. And I’ve heard him telling Mr Palmer that they’re going to miss me when I’m gone. Retired he means. I think that’s what he means, anyway.
One by one I get round to customers and staff, checking pulses, stroking brows, shoving heads between knees and telling them what’s about to go off. Everyone seems to understand.
The colour is coming back to Mr Palmer’s cheeks now, but he has tears in his eyes. When I tell him what we have to do he looks terrified and seizes my hand.
“I’m not sure my legs will hold me up,” he gibbers, “I’m feeling all wobbly, Duffer.”
“It’s Duffy,” I snap again, “and if they don’t, we’ll be leaving you behind. Simples.”
I like that – ‘simples’. My grandson Jason says it a lot, and I once saw it on a television advert though I can’t recall what it was about. Then I remember I’ve got a job to do – never a slack moment in internal communications, is there? Mr Palmer grabs me as I prepare to move off.
“What if we get caught in the cross-fire?” he whimpers, “I’ve got a young family, you know.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Mr Palmer, man up will you?”
Where did I ever learn stuff like this?
I’ve got round to almost everybody now. There’s only the young boy with the leg wound left, and he looks to be semi-conscious anyway. But you’ve got to be thorough in this job, I think. Give it your best shot, girl. When I reach him, he opens his eyes.
“Listen carefully now… the police are coming in the back,” I say, “through the kitchens, just as soon as the SAS arrive on the roof.” I wasn’t sure Flash had actually said SAS, but it seemed appropriate under the circumstances. “Will you be able to run for it with that leg?”
The boy looks at me incredulously. He’d be attractive if it wasn’t for that silly little bum-fluff on his top lip. He doesn’t respond, just stares at me like I’m barmy or something.
“”Well, you’ll have to try, sonny, or you’re dead meat,” I say briskly. This doesn’t sound right coming from me but you do your best. It’s not like I’ve had any training in internal communications.
I slither back along the floor to Flash.
“What’re the police saying?” I ask.
“They’ve asked how many there are. I’ve told them four.”
I glance over my shoulder. “Three, there’s only three of them.”
“No,” he says, “that wounded lad with the bleed over there, he’s with them.”
“Oh…right.” Shit! I’ve just told him the plan!
Now I’m seriously considering whether I’m altogether suited to this communications stuff. Suddenly the dish-washer and the deep-fat fryer are looking like a very attractive option. You can rise beyond your own level of competence, Jason’s always saying.
The wounded lad’s struggling to get to his feet, so I hurry across. He’s trying to catch the attention of the gunmen who are still staring out of the window at the police.
“Sorry, lad,” I say, whipping my pinafore off his leg, “I’ll be needing that back now.”
The blood gushes out of his leg like oil out of a geyser, and he glares at me, before promptly passing out.
And thankfully, at that moment, the back door bursts open and the gunfire starts.
Emerging from behind the upturned table, I begin to wonder whether I remembered to turn on the deep fat fryer before I started to empty the dishwasher, but it all seems a bit irrelevant now … it is what it is, as Jason would say.
Right! Here we go then… onwards and upwards… stiff upper lip and all that…just run girl… Our Jason’ll be proud of me…
After being short-listed four times this year in the Writers’ Forum competition, I was beginning to believe I was forever destined to be the bridesmaid. But hey … shove up at the altar there… give a girl some room… 🙂 Head judge Lorraine Mace said it was “one of the most delightfully wacky stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading”.