The cafeteria was open but at this hour it was still very quiet and you could even hear a radio playing distantly in its back kitchens. We had all drifted to the cafeteria’s entrance, where we peeped in on to its inner world of eerily shiny floors and counters. There was no natural light, which made it resemble the glistening interior of one of those catacombs that are built by insects.
“Remember, you have fifteen minutes,” the supervisor recited, in that sinisterly plain voice that is only ever used by unamused officialdom.
Everybody nodded obediently.
“I timed the team yesterday and it was almost twenty minutes until everybody was back at their work stations. You are allowed to take food from the breakfast buffet as a perk. It is a perk that can be withdrawn. You have fifteen minutes and fifteen minutes only. That’s fifteen minutes in which to take your food, eat it, go to the toilet, do whatever medical thing it is that you need to do, and be back at your positions. Fifteen minutes!”
The supervisor looked away and down at her planner to dismiss us. We hurried to grab plates of breakfast food with all the peals of her “fifteen minutes” still ringing in our ears. In fewer than five minutes, the last of the stragglers was sat and we were all sat, as ever, at the longest table in the cafeteria.
Our table lined the far wall below a display of watercolours. These had been at some point loaded on to the hospital by a minor local artist and the hospital had never gathered up the energy to have them replaced. All bar one of these paintings were scenes from a bedroom, where a woman in black lingerie posed looking irritable and depleted amongst rumpled bedclothes. The artist had not managed to capture any after-sex glow in the woman. I wondered whether she knew that being replicated in this way all around our cafeteria was ever part of the deal.
The dissenting picture was a flamboyant watercolour sketch of a warthog, which appeared to have been dashed off in the back of a jeep during a safari. It must have been that the artist had absent-mindedly embarked on his safari with only a single sheet of paper. The warthog and his garish greenery had been slipped in rather clumsily amongst the post-coital paintings and their soft, early-morning colours.
“Fifteen minutes,” Juan laughed. “Remember that we have just fifteen minutes.”
“Fifty minutes,” James echoed. “Why, how generous.” As his sausages cooled in front of him, James was continuing to try to pick open a tiny sachet of tomato ketchup.
“Now, did anybody take stock of the time?” Mrs MacRowbotham worried.
“Don’t worry Mrs MacRowbotham, Sandeep is here today.”
Sandeep always timed the break for us and told us when it was time to get up. We had been so late yesterday because he had had a day off and we had not realised that he was not there.
“We mustn’t be late today, children. She’ll be standing there waiting for us, counting on her watch.”
“Please don’t worry Mrs MacRowbotham, we still have… Sandeep?”
“Nine minutes and thirty-one seconds, Mrs MacRowbotham.”
Mrs MacRowbotham pulled a disapproving face, as if to say “see that it is!,” before tucking into her porridge. She was a good thirty years older than all of the other staff and this made her the granny of the family. I often thought that it would be more fitting if she agreed to sit ceremonially underneath the warthog.
“James, I have a present for you,” Cherisse gushed. “But I haven’t seen you in ages. I didn’t know that you did shifts here anymore.”
James was still trying to break into his ketchup sachet. Now he was gnawing delicately at a promising corner.
“He mostly works elsewhere now,” I told Cherisse. “In a student bar at the moment, I believe.”
James paused in his gnawing. “What a disaster in the bar last night. I was almost fired.”
“Goodness, what happened?”
“We were just beginning the England-Scotland Six Nations game, when the televisions suddenly lost audio. You know how they are always on the blink – how they are always freezing, for example. So I shouted across the bar to my boss, ‘looks like we’ve lost the sound, but don’t worry, I know how to fix it!’ Then I assured all of the students around the bar, ‘don’t worry, we’ll have the audio back for you as soon as possible!’ And next I was running around everywhere, pushing things over and hunting for the remote controls.”
“And did you get the sound back?”
“It turned out that in the stadium they were holding a minute’s silence for the victims of the Christchurch massacre. What a disaster! I had that thing where my face became bright crimson and I was frowning frantically to try to make it white again.”
After some intense and deeply intimate chewing, he had finally burrowed a microscopic hole in the ketchup sachet. He spat out a tiny piece of plastic and then found that it was still stuck to his tongue. He picked it out of his mouth angrily and wiped it on his plate. Squeezing the sachet produced a jet of ketchup so meagre that you could not have drowned an ant in it.
“I must give you my present,” Cherisse persisted. “You know that I did the Camino de Santiago last month?”
“How was that?” James asked, impressed.
“Such a spiritual experience. It’s like taking mushrooms and meditating and doing a big long walk, all at once.”
“I had to carry and pull the suitcases,” Shamster grumbled. Shamster was Cherisse’s husband.
“We all got such lovely presents,” Juan enthused. “It was so thoughtful.”
“You should thank me,” Shamster snapped. “I had to carry them all.”
“Some present you gave me,” Mrs MacRowbotham said indignantly. “A horrible, dirty little thing – yuck! – a kind of egg cake that was made out of octopus! I said to Grandpa, ‘I am not eating that’ and then later I could not even look at such a slimy horrible thing. It gave me the creeps. I made him flush it down the toilet.”
I was going to ask if it swam back up again but Mrs MacRowbotham never understands my humour.
“I didn’t want it in my bin,” Mrs MacRowbotham maintained obscurely. “I didn’t trust it in there.”
“But it was very nice Mrs MacRowbotham,” Cherisse said, with her eyes shining sadly. “You know, there is only one village in the world where they make that dish.”
“I’m not surprised!” Mrs MacRowbotham guffawed derisively. “Anyway, I don’t like foreign food!” She said this very bravely, with her chin tilted nobly up, as if she expected to be crucified for it.
“Ah,” James was disconcerted to find that he had a present. “So what have I got?”
Cherisse snuggled her hand down her top, rather luridly, and pulled out an item wrapped in a napkin. James took it uncertainly and shook it out of the warm paper. It dropped, black, dry, and withered, down next to the sausages.
“It’s a bull’s ear!” Cherisse announced proudly.
Everybody had frozen and put down their knives and forks.
“Cherisse,” Shamster explained patiently, “a matador only gives the bull’s ear to his lover.”
Cherisse continued to smile, undeterred. “Well, ‘lover’ is to round up rather than down. But you never met him – he was so magnificent.”
Shamster shivered. He is not a man who would be described as “magnificent” once in a hundred years.
“And besides, it was on that day when you were so slow and so far behind. Some of us stopped to see the bullfights. It was amazeballs totes – there was so much blood! You could see the intestines dancing along in the sunshine!”
“Of the bull, I hope?”
Sandeep, who always eats a small heap of seeds for his breakfast, tutted. He would have thought it fairer if the matador’s intestines had fluttered in the sunshine.
“Cherisse,” Shamster resumed in the same patient voice, “you only give a bull’s ear to your lover. You have accepted a bull’s ear from Mr Magnificent and you have given it to James.”
Cherisse corrected him. “This is not all of the bull’s ear. I sliced some of it off as another present for Biggy.”
I put up a hand and waved apologetically at Shamster.
Shamster bit his lip. Everybody looked down and busied themselves in their food. It was as if a spell had been cast that was transforming us all into bobbing wooden puppets who could not somehow hear the impending argument. “Maybe you should think,” Shamster raged, “about how… urrgh!”
A second, very fine jet of ketchup had sprayed across the table from James’ surgical operation on the sachet and directly into Shamster’s right eye. For a second he was shovelling the sauce swiftly out of his face. He then stared at us aghast and bleary eyed, to check that he could still see.
“Sorry man,” James said glumly. “It’s these sachets – I don’t understand why they need to be quite so tenacious.”
“It’s the same with these annoying little stickers that they stick on the satsumas,” I said, mechanically peeling a sticker off my satsuma. “Now I ask, can any of you tell me what this sticker actually says?”
Everybody looked up at me expectantly.
“None of you have the first idea. This is the stupidest and the worst advertising campaign in history.” I did not know where to put the sticker and so I quietly transferred it to the underside of the table. “You have seen thousands of these proliferating stickers – stuck to every satsuma and afterwards to every chair and tray and floor tile – until soon the whole cafeteria will be buried under them – and yet nobody can remember the name of the company. You don’t even need to know their name – these satsumas are bought in bulk, from some outfit with an industry-wide monopoly, on our behalf.
“On my summer holiday, I’m going to book a flight to Morocco. Here, I’m going to go to the factory or the installation where they package these satsumas. I’m going to inquire after the address of the gentleman – and I know it’s a man – who sticks all of these stickers on to them. Next, I’m going to visit his house with a pile of stones and I’m going to break each of his windows one by one and thus will I…”
“Now children, stop with all of your carrying on,” Mrs MacRowbotham interrupted. “It must be time? Surely it must be time by now?”
“There’s still two minutes to go Mrs MacRowbotham,” Sandeep confirmed blandly. “And eighteen seconds.”
“You with your eighteen seconds. We need a minute to get back to our work stations.”
“I’ve factored this in. I always subtract a minute from the beginning.”
“I can see her from here, hovering about, waiting for us,” Mrs MacRowbotham gibbered worriedly.
Shamster scowled and put down his fork. “This is getting silly. As soon as you ask whether the break is over, the break is over. You can’t relax again after this.”
“It’s like a dream,” I agreed philosophically. “Once you realise that you are dreaming, you are awake.”
Sandeep was anxious for us to settle back into our seats. He had been rendered a muddled-up Grim Reaper who was attempting to press ever more life on to the dying.
With one last sorrowful glance at the ketchup sachet, James flung it aside, swept all of the sausages into his mouth, gnashed them up like a demented cement mixer, and then gulped hugely. For a moment they were stuck but then they gently yielded and James’ shoulders sank and an expression of great peace came to his face.
“So let’s get up.” Mrs MacRowbotham was egging us on anew but without being quite able to stand and plant the first foot back into our work. Supposing that nobody followed! Supposing that she trotted away alone, with everyone sitting in silence and watching her!
“Hey, what happened to the ear?” cried James, looking down at his empty plate with amazement.
“This wasn’t fifteen minutes!” Sandeep lamented. “If we go back now, it will seem like it was fifteen minutes and so when we genuinely take fifteen minutes, it will seem too long!”
“It was probably fifteen minutes,” Cherisse decided complacently.
“I’m going,” Dorota told us.
“It isn’t fifteen minutes even now,” Sandeep despaired, but to the gods rather than to men. Bodies were rising all around him.
Was that really fifteen minutes?