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When I was leaving for work this morning, Polly and Tori were both on their knees in a cleared space in the dining room, singing along to the baby in strained, melodious voices. During the first few months, the baby had seldom appeared alert but lately something that was definitely intelligent was peeping out of his pudgy face. As I stepped into the doorway of the dining room, he looked up at me, smiling and with a crafty twinkle in his eyes, as though he had already enchanted two adults into kneeling on the floor and singing gibberish at him and he now had his sights on a third one. But I shook my head at him.

“You’re going to work, Biggy?” Tori exclaimed. “How boring! Stay here and sing to the Rodge with us.”

When she had named this baby, I should have been brave enough to ask her, “do you seriously think that we can go through with this?” I still suspect that she had named him after Roger Moore (she once had an actual oil painting of the actor, in a white silk tuxedo and doffing a vodka martini, framed above her bed). Perhaps she had thought that the baby would somehow grow into the name, or that the name would eventually sound natural on the tongue, but two months in and she was already searching for an exit route out of it. The Rodge?

“Yes, I have to go to work. They need everybody they can get at the moment.”

Tori can never remember where I work and I could see her struggling to connect with any swirling bit and then finally she had caught a flash of something. “You’re at the café today… in the hospital, is it?”

“That’s the one.”

To her, this hospital, where I had dutifully accepted shifts for over a decade, was worth less than a grain of sand. “Why don’t you go out to work on the lorries? I’ve heard that they are now paying fifty-five thousand pounds for people to do this dumbo job.”

“Dumbo? Aren’t lorries quite tricky to control?”

She laughed. “If I were a lorry driver, I would get one of my lorry-driver cronies to do all the complicated work of getting it onto the motorway. After that, I’d just point it at Newcastle, or wherever it was headed, and sit back. A lorry just rolls along like a snooker ball once it gets going, doesn’t it? And besides: you’re European. Aren’t you part of this class of servile, subhuman Europeans that people are always remembering nostalgically these days? Isn’t driving a lorry why you were put down on the Earth for us?”

“Driving lorries isn’t particularly good for you,” I replied haughtily. “The human body was never meant to be that sedentary. This is what the media are not saying at the moment. There are so few lorry drivers available today because most of them have undoubtedly died from the coronavirus. The remainder of them are all thundering along at top speed towards the same massive heart attack.”

At the hospital cafeteria, I had to plunge straight into the work – making coffees and paninis – and I barely had the time to exchange a word with Scott, my manager, who was the only other member of staff to be on the floor. Once Scott had been distant, important and serene and he had spent all of his time doing whiskery administrative tasks in a cabin office. Now he was jumping about in fifty different places at once, making the coffees and paninis, much the same as I was doing. He continued to be on the manager’s salary, I supposed, but I knew that he would take offence if I mentioned this discrepancy.

I dare say that I have grown rather set in my ways. With Edinburgh now basking in the rich, unearthly pink sunset of full employment, I am haunted by this guilty feeling that there is bound to be some bonanza job waiting for me too out there. No doubt I should put in an afternoon’s research to identify this position and then gird my loins with the necessary ruthlessness to quit my job here. I hold no loyalty to the hospital cafeteria or to any of the other odd jobs that I do. It is more that I am just a gloomy thing that is recoiling from the fresh air.

The hospital cafeteria is owned and run by Edinburgh University. It is thus additionally handicapped when it comes to hiring new staff due to its inability to increase wages quickly.

Whenever the time rolls around for another pay rise, the university will first undertake a four-month consultation period. After this, it will announce the new pay rise: a 1.1% increase. The unions will automatically appeal, occasioning another six months of renegotiations, spurred on by further rounds of voting by the bewildered membership. Eventually both sides will agree upon the updated figure of 1.2%, largely out of exhaustion. There will be another confirmatory vote and if the new figure is approved newsletters will be printed, there will be ceremonial luncheons and a kind of sour victory rally in which the union’s leaders will vow not to get cheated so badly the next time around.

Meanwhile, most private bars and restaurants will instead experience the same process rather like this:

“Hey, we haven’t got many applications yet for the new job advert.”

“We’re still on £10.30 per hour aren’t we? Put it up by 50p and see what comes back.”     

Scott’s only remaining option was to apply for agency help. Often the agency had no soul to send – it was rather like one blind man asking to be pointed in the right direction by another – but today we had managed to between us wondrously scrape together a real, physical human being.

Her name was something like Irmchen and she looked as devoid of individuality as any extra in a movie. At first I was very cautious around her, afraid that I was about to tip us both over into some epic conversation in which we would merrily recount our entire lives to each other. Soon, though, I realised that she was just as cautious. She did not desire to make any more connection with me or with this place than one would with a random bus stop in a city that they were passing through.

At eleven, and pausing midway between the coffee machine and the panini toaster, I asked Irmchen to go and clean up one of the breakfast seating areas that had been just closed off. This was apparently a signal for the book to sprout. Once she was in the vacated zone, Irmchen drifted between the tables, wiping absently at them with a cloth that she held in one hand, whilst the other held a book up rigidly into her unblinking face. Next she was pushing a broom along the floor with one hand whilst the other continued to lock the book into its position.

I had to stop finally – once again midway between coffee machine and the panini toaster – to obtain a good enough look at this book to discern its title. It was called something like The Practicalities of Contemporary Sex Therapy. Maybe Irmchen’s dream was to one day become a professional sex therapist, although she had struck me as a lady who had ambitions rather than dreams. I was then troubled to notice that there seemed to be the silhouette of a whale on the cover of this book and so perhaps it doubled as a veterinary textbook. Irmchen was clearly, I concluded, a student within some discipline that featured sexual fulfilment and gigantic aquatic animals.

Scott had seen the book as well. “I’m paying over £50 per hour for this worker,” he said dolefully.

“She’s completing the work… loosely at least,” I reasoned. Irmchen was now marching past, directing a mop in one hand but otherwise as totally absorbed in the book that was planted in her face as any bumblebee would be in a thistle flower. If many people were in my shoes then they would have pointed out long before now that they merited an urgent pay rise. If £50 per hour was the going rate to be only a quarter here and three quarters engrossed in the libido of the ocean, then why was I receiving significantly less to be here in full? But I knew that Scott would take offence if I mentioned this discrepancy.

After the cafeteria I set off with Pablo in his van. Pablo has lately succumbed, with a fervour that I find startling, to this craze for delivering meals for Deliveroo. More people in Edinburgh seem to have joined Deliveroo’s workforce during the pandemic than have joined Death’s army. 

There are certain hours of the day when Deliveroo will suddenly offer double pay to its drivers. When this occurs, Pablo will phone me repeatedly until I have capitulated and dropped everything. He is the one who sits waiting behind the wheel and I am the one who always has to scamper up and down the flights of stairs. We nonetheless split everything equally, as far as I am aware. We have been never visited by any interest in educating ourselves about the tax implications of this work.

Pablo usually spends the evening muttering under his breath about how we never get any tips. Sometimes he indicates that this is my fault for not cutting a visually appealing enough spectacle on the doorstep, though he is restricted in how far along he can proceed with this complaint. His malodorous hangdog would hardly fare any better.

“I have only been tipped once,” I reflected. “And that person did not appear to be all there. He was wearing furs and some kind of replica gold crown.”

“If they tip us they can wear what they fagging want,” Pablo snarled.

Although Pablo is bitterly contemptuous of the UK’s welfare state, he still thinks that a law should be introduced in which every driver who delivers a pizza pie automatically receives a complimentary slice of it. A tithe for the twenty-first century, one might say.

“And these people are never naked,” Pablo continued. “In Barcelona, the – how you say? – the old wifey, she answer the door with her breasts jigging and her legs open. In Berlin, everyone in the flat answer the door in this way, all laughing and waving. But in this fagging country they still don’t have the basic sexual sense of the farm animals to try it with the new male who comes to the door.”

“Pablo,” I said fairly, “most of these people who eat takeaway all the time will not look presentable naked. You would find them, well to put it bluntly you would find them pretty yuck.”

“No tips, no naked breasts… why do I even get out of the bed, eh?”