On Tuesday morning, the agency sent me to work in the hospital canteen, where they have a large three-tank dishwasher. The dishwasher is like a peasant’s idea of industrialisation – a huge diabolical contraption, foaming and hissing, with the perpetual gnashing of pistons and monstrous internal rumblings and bumpings. My job that morning was to stand at the end of the conveyer belt and wait for the dishwasher to defecate baskets of plates and bowls. I would then stack this crockery into piles, which would be duly returned to the canteen. I had been given an assistant for the morning – my friend Renata, as it happens – and her job was to polish the cutlery.
As I have indicated, this dishwasher has three tanks, and when I arrived to work that morning I discovered that the “door” of the first tank was broken. During the shift, one occasionally needs to stop the dishwasher and pull up the doors, in order to scrape out all the gunk which has accumulated inside the machine’s filters. Yet the springs which held up the first door had burst, with the result that if pulled up, it would come shooting back down like the blade of a guillotine.
I briefed Renata about the situation. “That door is extremely dangerous. If it fell on your arm it could sever it.”
“It would break it. I don’t think that the arm would be severed.”
“If it fell on your wrist it would lop off your hand.”
“I doubt it.”
At that moment, a chef had wandered in with a tray of lasagne, which was evidently so cold that it had been banished from the canteen kingdom. I slid my fingers into the tray and pulled out two handfuls of cold lasagne mulch.
“What are you doing?” Renata gasped.
I was working away and gradually the shape of a limb was emerging. I was compacting the lasagne and then smoothing it into a droopy arm-like tube. I finally took off my polo shirt and tucked the lasagne-arm into its sleeve.
“Now pull up the door,” I told Renata.
“Biggy,” Renata huffed, “an arm is full of wires and tendons and muscles. It’s not just a lump of pasta.”
The lasagne-arm now rested beneath the door. “Right up to the top,” I instructed.
Renata glared at me. When she let go of the door, it plummeted rapidly down – as quick and suddenly vicious as a pouncing cat – and we both jumped back with a yelp. I then showed Renata where the lasagne-arm had been severed clean. She rolled her eyes. “I’m going to complain to the management,” I said.
The manager was called Ken, and he was a pompous little man with a fat red head and thin glasses, which vaguely gave the impression of somebody having taken a pen and drawn a pair of spectacles on a testicle. Occasionally, a little scenario plays out in my mind in which Ken is marching around a gentleman’s club in a top hat, waving his umbrella at terrified waiters, and shouting “I’m a very important testicle!” His office had been fashionably refurbished – rather against his will, I gather – and today I found him sitting unhappily on top of a large Pilates ball.
“Biggy! Come in!” As he waved me towards another Pilates ball, he lurched unexpectedly to the left and grabbed hold of his desk to steady himself.
“You should get stabilisers,” I suggested.
“Those little wheels which are put on the side of children’s bicycles, to keep them upright.”
“I hope you haven’t come here to be smart. What do you want?”
“A door on the machine is broken. It’s very dangerous. Look at this.”
I showed him the remaining half of the lasagne-arm. This, it turned out, was to be a mistake.
“What is that?” Ken snorted. “That is filthy” How dare you bring that into my office!”
“But I am trying to illustrate…”
“This office has been refurbished.” Ken was now bouncing away on his Pilates ball in indignation, his testicle head crimsoning with anger. “Take that away and throw it in the bin. And then I suggest that you stop messing about and get back to work!”
I silently walked out of the office. In my mind, the scenario had been amended, so that Ken was now remonstrating “I’m a very important testicle!” before a revolutionary firing squad.
When we finally needed to empty the filters inside the dishwasher, Renata’s solution was to prop up the broken door with one of the shovels which are used on the canteen floors. The shovel fitted snugly under the door, creating a space of about two feet through which I could get at the filters. I was not happy about this.
My hand hovered tentatively under the door, awaiting amputation. “Stop being silly and get on with it!” Renata snapped.
“This is incredibly dangerous,” I muttered.
“It’s probably no more dangerous than those springs ever were.”
My arm extended into the machine and I pawed at the filters. I imagined the sweeping apocalyptic crunch as the door shot down to lop off my arm, and then the fantastic white pain, turning to spray the shrieking Renata with my hot innermost juices, blood everywhere, the frantic, hopeless reassurances as we waited desperately for the ambulance, squirming blindly in the lap of the pain, the grim job of retrieving the rubbery severed arm from inside the machine and then not knowing what to do with it once it was found, and then the slow, painful years of adapting to disability, of living incomplete and unbalanced, of trying to catch up with where the previous life had been broken off, and the bitterness cherished like a baby that so much had been needlessly and irrevocably lost!
“Woah!” Renata screamed.
I scrambled back out of the machine, gibbering with panic.
Renata was bent over, shaking with laughter. “Good one, eh?”