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Locked out

Lauren Burfield describes the long boredom filled days of working in catering during the beginning COVID-19

In the weeks where the potential closure of hospitality was aired out in rumours, the oddity of silence in the sudden detachment from normality confronted the industry’s growing abandonment. Standing in the static confinement of the front line, I had never come to realise just how many pots and pans could be stored on the shelf above the stove, consequently retired from the choreographed tag team, between the hob and pot-wash. A pile that had grown so unstable in the absence of demand, that failure to stack any higher, would disturb the subdued statement in a covet distraction.

The burger skewers forced into the chip tin above the expo in ambitious preparation, resigned from the perpetual chore of being refilled. The timestamp of 16:49 illuminated on the server call machine unfolds a parody in retrospect of a normal shift, where that very same chip pot would be almost empty and vacant for another round. Yet they stand untouched and in solitude under the heat lamps, unnecessarily being kept warm.

The fight for space before stepping out onto the floor in the narrow quarters of the team room was a daily phenomenon. The cotton hooks of our jackets that once continuously stretched out to claim territory on the coat racks, now reflected a picture of spoilt choice, they could now hang loose and alone without competition. The unwritten ‘first come first served’ rule of the racks was replaced with whichever hook was your favourite. We had both the time and the space to run laps around the staff room in procrastination, hurdling over the piles of unused and pristinely clean chef whites; which now unbalanced the ratio between clocked in staff, to the folded and spare uniform.

We found ourselves joking with the idea of soiling a bit of fryer grease onto the white shirts, in a somewhat Jackson Pollock tribute to the busy shifts, now unexpectedly prayed for. Ironically we missed the battering of the weeds. The stains, the sweat and the sores on our feet reminded us that we worked for the hourly wage. Now it was a case of watching the clock tick by every hour, whilst wiping down the stainless steel counters, again and again, to reflect our bored impressions. In a positive light, that daily exposure to the food waste bins might have resulted in potential herd immunity from the virus. The withdrawal of bookings, resulted in the bins remaining clean, lined and queued up in storage at a healthy distance, escaping the violation of the returning unfinished plates from front of house.

The anomalies of urban solitude that clouded a town, renowned for entertaining the weekend carousel of intoxication, now flooded the vacant streets with infectious silence. The concrete hallways leading to the square that used to carry the body cons, checkered trousers and Perspex soles, now only holds a reception of uninterrupted evening shadow. Shadows that willingly accepted the responsibility of occupying the obsolete car parking spaces. The simultaneously painted white lines became cut away from the scheduled weekend congestion, in a questionable state of abdication. The exposed double yellow lines, leading down to the beach, survived the violation of desperate tourists illegally parking, in order to begin an early celebration of the Friday night disco. The presence in absence resided in compensation for the divorce between motorised congestion and the customised urban landscape, solely constructed for the weekend travellers.

There was no justifiable purpose to furnish the empty spaces with unnecessary occupancy, when there are strict orders to ‘stay at home, save lives and protect the NHS’, or was it ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’? Or maybe it was ‘hands, face, space’. Despite whatever message the government was choosing to enforce that week, there was still a confronting lack of clarity in comprehending the severity that this virus could and has inflicted upon the functionality of society.

The boarded-up storefronts of each deserted venue became decorated with garlands of sudden apologies and notices of temporary closure. The translucent windows framed an uncomfortable uncertainty through models of inverted interiors, virtually empty of inhabitants. Chairs were overturned onto tables, where the menus remained plastered onto the surfaces in place of the customer's absence. The outside furniture barricaded the restaurant floors in a crowded private theatre, locked up and awaiting the undecided return of the consumer; a stage set solemnly lit by the reflection of sunshine and lampposts, seeping in through the folded curtains and drawn blinds. And with months into our new adopted reality of social detachment, we remain restlessly in limbo, restrained in a subdued domestic stalemate of static confinement, with a growing deterioration of muscle memory of our craft. We stand here, out of demand and in perpetual solitude in our homes, unnecessarily being kept warm.

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