Lighting up takes a look at our choices and what future they can bring us
“Most enjoyable job, you ask me?” he snorted, shovelling in the last of his beans. “Not one of them. None of them’s been enjoyable!”
“None?” I asked, trying to intervene.
“Not a bloody one!” he snapped as his gnarled hands rolled tobacco into a perfect tube, unsupervised by his eyes. “An’ I should know. I’ve had hundreds of ‘em. Hundreds. Bosses, they just work you raw. Don’t give a damn.”
“Surely not all of them,” I suggested, realising that slipping in a comment was like slipping a small cheque into a pile of bills; it might help but was overwhelmed by the pile of demands.
“Nah, they’s all out for what they kin get,” he mumbled, his unshaven face frozen in a grimace.
The sleet outside, brought in by wet boots, was constantly wiped up by the two waitresses. The foggy windows added to the feeling of being trapped. Trapped by life and work. Trapped by this stranger’s misery.
“You can’t smoke in here,” I said, as he slapped the cigarette into his surly mouth.
“You can’t, huh? More bleeding rules,” he whined. “Just like bosses the world over. Order ya round, waste ya time so I don’t do none any more. Government pays me dole.”
“That’s okay?” I asked tentatively, knowing the sad answer.
“Bloody boring an’ ya gotta’ front up every week and fill out their stupid forms an’ rules an’ rules. Na, not enjoyable. Job or no job.”
“I enjoy my job,” came a small voice behind us. I turned to see a petite, blonde woman serving a customer.
“You said that?” I asked, ever hopeful for light in the gloom. “You like your job?”
“Yes I do,” she said, smiling to her customers and then coming round to our table. She had the wrinkles of a hundred lost loves and the weathered hands of a labouring girl but the eyes and the smile of a hopeful child – shining beacons in the storm.
“You’ve had a care-worn life, I’m guessing,” I said. “You work hard in this diner for these rough people and probably for a pittance…”
“And I enjoy it,” she said, interrupting gently. “I enjoy it because I choose to. Simple as that. I choose it.” A big, bearded logging man bumped her as he walked past, without apologising, and she smiled.
“You get knocked around and you smile?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ve been knocked around and I smile. What’s my other choice?”
“You smack ‘em back and bugger off. That’s what you do!” said the stranger.
“Look around here,” she said quietly and I did. The red formica counter and the glistening coffee machine smiled back and I felt comforted; a haven from the blizzard outside. “There’s hope and despair, pain and sweetness all mixed up in here in these bush shirts, hard hats, and big boots,” she said.
Serve it up
I looked again at the bowed, bearded faces and felt the mix of a hundred emotions as they tucked into hearty plates of breakfast.
“My job is serving food, yes, but my job is serving love,”she said, getting out her little pad.
“Whatcha’ get back for that?” the stranger demanded. “Ya give and ya don’t get back!”
“I get back love a hundred times,” she said licking the end of her pencil.
“Even when you get knocked around?” I asked.
“Look, my first husband was a harmless drunk. Died in the gutter and I had to work to feed our two kids. The next two were violent.”
“So you buggered off!” said the stranger, vindicated.
“I left with my bruises and kept my smile. That’s what I get to choose.” I felt a flutter in my stomach and the only word I had for it was hope. Perhaps it was something else though.
“So you’re done with love? With relationships?” I asked, dreading the answer as I imagined her in the arms of another man, the courage of the optimist.
“Well, for now perhaps, but I still get to choose a lighter future. Who knows!”
“People just cause ya crap as far as I can see,” said the stranger.
“You choose shite and I choose light,” she said, putting her pad on the table and our hands brushed, sending sparks up my arm. Our eyes warily looked and then locked in smiling memory for the future.
“What time do you finish?” my mouth blurted before I got control of it.
“About when you finish, in an hour. You want our standard breakfast and coffee?” she asked and I nodded, afraid to speak.
“Aah, hell, I need a fag and now me wallet’s gone!” complained the stranger.
“S’okay, I’ll pay,” I said, happy to try sending light into the shite.
“What’s the catch?” he asked warily.
“The catch is you get to light up outside while I get to light up inside. I think I’ve got an enjoyable job ahead of me today!”
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