The Shack Memoirs
Matt: arrogant, bombastic bold font
Luke: cock-eyed, pretentious italics
It was during my heaviest prolonged period of alcohol consumption to date that I applied to work at Whittaker’s Sausage Shack in Guildford, Surrey. Looking back I almost can’t believe we used to drink so much. It was abhorrently impressive not just in volume but frequency – rarely were there more than 2 nights a week I could confidently remember. Hangovers were so omnipresent they were now just the everyday state of consciousness to be routinely suffocated with booze, beginning daily whenever the Sun made a suggestion it was about to start its descent. Studying English Literature at University is little more than a glorified book club, it requires none of the intense lucidity demanded by a course in Biochemistry or Equine Dentistry, in fact to reach the creative mind-set required to properly crack most literature it’s almost essential to loosen up first with a couple of stiff drinks. I used to watch in wise, tipsy amusement as the more sober, industrious students on my course would plaster the walls of their room with dry notes and facts, jacked and frazzled from pints of coffee and permanently frustrated that their essays could never seem to muster high marks; they were always too sterile and cognitive, coldly dissecting novella like a piece of toad on a microscope slide.
So alcohol became a sort of study tonic that I didn’t like to go too long without, that was my flimsy excuse for borderline alcoholism at any rate. But a student loan can only keep you at low recreational levels of inebriation, especially in a county that falls within London’s price catchment radius. In the summer that divided my penultimate and final year of studying I reluctantly accepted I’d have to find a job, it was the only way to keep me in beers for that last dose of University work, the work that would determine what overall grade I finally staggered off campus with. No work meant no money meant no alcohol, which meant my writing would become vapidly functional with none of that vital boozy passion that lecturers love sensing because it makes them feel young and vivacious, like maybe they’re not wasting their time speaking to a wall of vacuous, doodling, mouth-breathing degenerates struggling to come to terms with the end of their teenage years.
I’d heard from my fellow profligate drinkers Luke and Peter that a new business was opening in the Friary Centre – Guildford’s main shopping hub. Specifically it was in the food court on the top floor, a sort of semi-circular amphitheatre of fast-food outlets under a brutally harsh sky of fluorescent lighting. The shopping centre did that tricksy arrangement of elevators that all malls do whereabouts once you’ve reached a level you have to circumvent the entire floor, subconsciously absorbing more advertising than a solid day of TV exposes you to, in order to reach the set of stairs that take you back to where you’ve started. I think they were hoping the combination of delicatessens would create an inescapable net of delicious smells, particularly alluring after two storeys’ worth of tiring shopping, but really the whole place just smelt old and salty, and not bracing sea air salty or even fried food salty, more the saline quality of a busy gym. There was a McDonald’s and a Subway that generated about 90% of the court’s income, and then various generic noodle bars and sandwich stalls desperately fighting for attention amongst the corporate big boys. The domed ceiling meant the acoustics were unkind, especially as, even if the whole place was seemingly deserted, you could always, somewhere, hear a baby crying.
Sausage Shack would go on to occupy the entire right wing of this gastronomic arena, in the shell of what was once a thriving artisan coffee shop, gone bankrupt through trying to compete with the cheap steaming cups of war-time standard Joe pumped out by the McDonald’s opposite. This new enterprise was intriguing, clearly the brainchild of someone with a penchant for both alliteration and innuendo, enigmatically hidden behind a partition during construction adorned with a small, single, almost-missable “staff wanted” poster.
I was 20 years old, and had never had a job before. It wasn’t like I had some personality defect or handicap that rendered me unemployable, I’d simply never found it necessary to earn a living until now, probably as I’d never before reached this level of alcohol dependence. The exam results I got at school were all OK but my CV, curiously bereft of any prior work experience, not even a newspaper round, still looked ridiculous. I tried to compensate for this by hamming up my own character traits, cringingly referring to myself as “energetic” and “exceptionally personable”. I think the phrase “giving 110%” probably slipped in too.
The aforementioned Luke and Peter had already sent across their CVs and been called for an interview by the time I got around to e-mailing over mine. I remember genuinely hoping the Sausage Shack proprietors would be of Christian faith, and see it as a blessed sign that their fledgling business was being steadily contacted by the namesakes of Jesus’ disciples. Such holy superstition might just blind them to the fact that I’d lived two whole decades without once clocking on and doing some actual work.
The interview was a simple process, on a hot day in May at the local Connections centre. I had hoped that it would be held behind the tantalising boards that displayed the banner ‘Sausage Shack coming soon’ at the food court. I turned up in an un-tucked shirt and borrowed black jeans with a skull on the back pocket, hoping to make a good impression on the undoubtedly astute businessmen that my interviewers would turn out to be. I waited in a small room that backed onto another small room; it had the feel of a shrunken doctor’s surgery. They beckoned me in and shook my hand. The two men couldn’t have been more different, except for the mouth-watering fact that they were both called Mike Whittaker and were in no way related. One was tall and slim, and would come to be known as Suit Mike and the other was a man of short rotundity who we came to love and know as Fat Mike, or Fat Michael on formal occasions. I don’t remember the questions I was asked because they must have been pointless and innocuous but I remember the glaring eyes of Suit behind his glasses as I attempted humour. As a final note they asked the question – why do you want to work here? to which I gave the standard answers and, piqued by Fat’s canine enthusiasm for all things Pork, I added – because I love sausages. The little man snatted with laughter while the taller of the Mikes glowered like a man catching somebody taking a shit on his carpet. Needless to say, the job was mine.
Borne of that day were a thousand in-jokes and scenarios to be played out ad nauseum, as Matt and a second friend had also found employment with the Shack – as had everybody interviewed by the dynamic duo. The question I find myself asking about this period – laughably miserable as it was – is what was any of that for? Propped up by student loans and extendable overdrafts I didn’t necessarily need summer work; we seemed to only need to make a good time of things. Somewhere in our addled minds we decided that taking on part-time work at a place requiring us to dress as baseball players and work long, empty shifts was a sure-fire way to have fun. Somebody said that we had got the jobs ironically but I don’t think we thought about things that much.
Suit phoned me the next day at around 5pm, while I was writhing in the middle of a beer-nightmare.
“How are you, Luke?”
“I feel terrible, Mike.”
“Well, I’ve got something that will make you feel a lot better.” I assumed he was going to tell me that they had to hire someone else. “You’re now a bonafide member of the Sausage Shack family. Start Monday.”
Usually getting a job feels like a success. Usually being told that you’re employable would make you feel good. I was glad it wasn’t Monday.
My interview too fell on a viciously hot day – it was, after all, the start of summer, and I had to make a 3-hour journey from the coastal town of Swanage where my girlfriend lived to reach Guildford’s stifling, halogen-drenched food court. I was wearing the only smart shirt in my possession which was jet black, perfect for soaking up every hit of the Sun’s heat to guarantee maximum discomfort, as well as sparking unspoken but obvious thought processes amongst everyone else on the train as they tried to deduce whether I was going to, or coming back from, a funeral. Throughout the journey I felt dense with the unfamiliar anxiety that I was purposely consigning my summer, which would usually involve music festivals, paddling pools filled with bottles of beer, and endless passages of sleep, to performing a completely unknown work duty at a completely unknown franchise. With this Surrey branch being the first to pop up there was no precedent I could check, I just knew it would involve (possibly metaphorical) sausages and may well be operating out of a (hopefully metaphorical) shack. I could vaguely approximate work hours as I gathered they’d be reasonably synonymous with the opening times of the surrounding shops, and I could also guess with some confidence that the pay would be poor, this being one of the most well known stigma of working at a fast-food chain, but besides that I was flying in blind.
I was so distracted by the fact the two disproportionate men interviewing me shared both an interest in selling hot tubes of pig and first and last names that I think I probably asked them more questions than they asked me. Learning I’d obtained some A’s at GCSE and that I didn’t have any past criminal convictions elicited both squeaks of excitement from Fat and grunts of almost fatherly admiration from Suit. I could already tell the dynamic of polar opposites the Mikes enjoyed; I bet that one liked salt and the other sugar, one was the domme and the other a sub. For some reason they were dressed identically in pastel pinstriped bowling shirts, and whilst I could appreciate Fat needing the vertical stripes to appear slimmer it just made gangly Suit look like a stick of Brighton rock on legs. A couple days later I was offered the job, my confirmation call coming from a lady who explained she was Mike Whittaker’s wife. She didn’t specify which one. Maybe they shared her.
I wasn’t quite at the stage of Luke’s miasma of despair at the news, in fact I was actually pretty excited at the prospect of working alongside my friends on a daily basis, presumably helping ourselves to free hot dogs whenever we liked as we casually ogled throngs of Guildford girls in their skimpy summer gear. Then again having never worked anywhere before I had no idea what to expect, plus in the midst of all our drinking I didn’t really have enough sober time to mentally calibrate exactly what I was signing up for. Luke and I had both hit a nasty period in our drinking careers where our main tipple was vodka mixed with imitation-brand lemonade called ‘Fizz Time’ which tasted of, and probably was a, disinfectant, and the vodka made myself in particular very skittish, violent and completely amnesiacal. It was unquestionable that we would get into that evil stuff the night before our first shift, Sausage Shack’s big opening day, so I knew that would be an unpredictable event to say the least.
The first ‘Shack Day’ as they would come to be known was looming and so we decided to have a quiet night in before. I don’t remember exactly what happened but vague, blurry outlines of a group of us walking through the train station footbridge with warm Budweiser and shopping bags of vodka keep flashing back. I imagine we spent the evening drinking steadily, possibly to ward off the pressing engagement we had the next day and to blot out the ridiculous uniform we each kept cloistered in the back of our drawers. I don’t think that was the night Peter cracked his head in the road to avoid dropping his kebab but it might’ve been – it would have offered some semblance of an explanation for what happened the next morning.
I think the lesson Suit should have taken from this saga (for I have assumed that he made the decisions in their relationship) would have been to learn to spot idiots who do not care about what happens to them. A phase many of us have to go through before we can become truly miserable.
That morning I woke up, having planned to meet Peter at the end of my street for our 9am start – Matt would be starting an hour or so later, for some reason. Bleary eyed I explained to my girlfriend that this whole thing was a terrible idea. She assured me that I should go; that it would be funny; that all of our friends were coming to the grand opening. Somehow, I decided to get dressed and I pulled on my jeans (which, thankfully were not provided by Shack) and reluctantly slithered into my stripy baseball themed t-shirt, emblazoned with the logo of my employer. Fat had told me how expensive these tops were, and that they had been imported from the U.S.
8.30am – there was no sign of Peter. 8.45am – still no sign. I called him and there was no answer. It first dawned on me that this might have been a joke constructed by him and Matt, to set me up to go and work for Sausage Shack on my own, like a real person with responsibilities. I decided that unless I was going to go in with somebody else I wasn’t going at all and promptly climbed back into bed, still dressed in the outfit of America’s national pastime.
Eventually, the idiot called me and explained that he had overslept and he was on his way to mine. I met him and we were forty minutes late. Shack was due to open in twenty minutes and we had no idea what we were supposed to be doing. Our lie for being late was a mixed-bag of excuses detailing the breakdown of Peter’s car – Suit seemed unimpressed as he was well aware that we both lived within thirty minutes walk of the shopping centre. Fat had no idea what was happening and was moving about the place like one of those robot hoovers you occasionally see a cat riding around on – bumping into walls and counters and occasionally falling through the door to the rear office. This might have been a Sunday, not a Monday.
The place was spotless and decked out with a gargantuan amount of staff. The Mikes would later discover, much to the chagrin of our bank accounts, that this quantity of personnel was in no way required. We posed for a humiliating photo and got to work. My stomach ached. Suit watched on with characteristic disdain.
None of us was aware, at the start of the first shift, what our jobs would entail. As it turned out the Mikes had also let this inherently important factor slip past their keen business-trained minds. About twenty minutes before we opened they assigned us each a role. I was to be a chef. That left Matt, Peter and the other Shack misfits who had evidently not gained this employment as a joke. Eva the incredibly hardworking Polish woman who never took lunch (a fact that Suit was in love with) was to be my second in command on the grill. Working on the other side of the small room would be Matt, Peter, Lucy, Harry and Kaiya. I remember literally nothing of those last three people other than they were all younger than us and seemed to be doing their first part-time jobs. Harry was tall. Kaiya was a racing driver and Lucy was also there. There were five members of staff for two tills. Plus the Mikes. That put nine of us in the room that Suit and Fat would later discover needed no more than two members of staff in at any one time.
At this point in my life I had done precious little cooking. Occasionally heating something up in the oven was a rare risk I took. The Mikes had brought in a George Foreman grill to do the cooking of the British Sausages and had left me and Eva to it. There was no room for two of us so one stood by waiting for printed receipts of orders that were placed on the tills (even though we were only ten feet away from the servers and there were never enough orders to warrant this technology – it broke down quite soon after anyway) and the other would put the Sausages on the grill. We also had a few Chicago Beef frankfurters and ‘Regular’ Pork Frankfurters floating in yellow water in the bain-marie like a couple of turds too stubborn to flush. The Mikes would soon realise that cooking the sausages to order was a bad idea as this would push our cuisine so far outside of the ‘fast’ food category that they so desperately wished to inhabit. Their solution was to cook several of the grilled sausages at once and put them into a waterless compartment of the bain-marie to fester, like a couple of turds that your cat leaves behind the kitchen door.
The first day had the potential to go well. There was enough staff that any crisis could, theoretically, be handled sufficiently. However, many of our friends had lined up in the food court for the grand opening. I think that our hubris at having been funny and getting a stupid job wore off the second the shutters came down to reveal their faces. I don’t know how many people there were, we weren’t especially popular, but there were enough and they were sure to order the more difficult things. To make us earn that £4.90 per hour.
One thing that strikes me about this was what it said about our generation, that the mere fact that we had jobs was such material for laughter. I’d worked before. In Tesco. And people came and laughed at me there too.
Sure enough, they lined up and ordered the Texas BBQ Melt. All of them. At the behest of Matt and Peter (who didn’t have to make it).
The Texas BBQ Melt was a curious concoction. I don’t remember all of the ingredients on it but the ones I do paint an unfortunate picture. There was the standard Shack bun, which was old before it was opened and crumbled away like cake. This was topped with the 1/4lb Chicago Beef frankfurter that Fat was obsessed with. Then a strange melding of disparate ingredients topped it. There was onions, cheese, BBQ sauce, roasted peppers that tasted like they had been stored in piss and, just for good measure, bacon… which had been heated up in the microwave until it possessed the delicious texture of duct tape. The unfortunate thing about making these items was that it took so long, far longer than it took to order them. Especially when some people opted to remove certain elements from the list of toppings and the Mikes had implemented nothing to make this easier for us. The Mikes had also invested in a warming cabinet which baked the whole thing to a fine, puffy crust, the BBQ sauce condensed on top like paint. Things ran but not smoothly. The receipts built up until we had twenty or thirty of them; Suit licked his lips with the prospect of booming business, entirely unaware that this would not, by any means, last. The receipts all had the exact same order on which made it almost impossible to comprehend where we had got to – Eva flipped out, I heard Matt shouting about Smoothies with a cup of brown mud in his hands. Suit dished out loyalty cards to the hapless customers. Nothing worked quickly. There were mushrooms melting into themselves in the bain-marie.
The excitement lasted about an hour before our friends went home. A place my head longed for, amidst the shouting of orders that didn’t coincide with the receipts that were printing out down our end. Lucy, Harry and Kaiya stood in the middle, between the servers and the ‘kitchen’ acting as ‘runners’. A child ordered a Little Franky which didn’t even fill the bun and nobody got a vegetarian option. It was hard work but that didn’t matter because I couldn’t foresee myself lasting longer than a week. Matt seemed to be enjoying himself once the crowd died down a little; speaking to people, giving out sausage based puns which many of the customers were probably only there to hear.
The excitement of that first day lasted no longer. We kept a steady crowd who were interested and perhaps enticed with disgusted intrigue. After 5pm we closed and went home stinking of pork. Suit informed us that we were not permitted to eat any of the leftover food and that it must be thrown away. Fat declared that he would be taking some home ‘for the dog’ which we quite rightly interpreted as his nickname for his swollen gut. Walking home dressed as a baseball player when you are not, in fact, a baseball player is a humiliation unbeknownst to most of the population. I got in and checked what my friends thought of the delicacies on offer and, other than our most charming friend, Joe, they didn’t think very much of it at all.
Our inaugural day was, indeed, a shambles. The only upside was that at least I wasn’t placed in food prep like Luke to get spat at by tanks of meat water on a rolling boil; boasting I was 110% exceptionally personable in my CV clearly paid off as I was given the much kinder job of customer server. This roster was truly a blessing as my cooking abilities were worse even than Luke’s. It is no exaggeration to say that I didn’t even know how to use a tin-opener.
Although the work was fairly stressful as no-one knew what they were supposed to be doing I felt comfortable that no matter how badly I cocked up I wouldn’t get in trouble, as the Mikes posed about as laughably feeble a pair of authority figures as you could imagine. About 2 hours into that first day as I was trying to close the sale of a Chilli Cheese Melt to a girl with lots of piercings, Fat was capering about behind me interjecting “Matt… Matt… Matt… Ask her if she wants potato salad…”
“I already have, Mike,” I explained slowly. “She said she hates potato salad and besides, all our potato salad is frozen, because you left it all in the freezer, not the fridge.”
“Yes but Matt…” he persisted, gesturing at the customer as if she couldn’t see him standing there 2 feet away, “a-ask her if she wants the potato salad.”
This became too much not to get angry at and I snapped “Mike! I’m trying to bag a sale here, stop treading on my toes! Just get out, Mike! Get out!”
I instantly cringed. Despite not having any prior experience in the workplace I could still appreciate that telling your boss to get out on your first day was a bit of a no-no. But, amazingly, he did. He sulkily moped out to the back office like a disruptive child who’d been sent out of class. It was so unbelievable I burst out laughing at him.
We regaled our friends with these anecdotes in the pub that evening. I’m perfectly happy getting myself into painful and/or humiliating situations if I can get a funny story out of it so I was quite content, drunkenly holding court on Fat’s expression when I told him to leave the premises of his own business. Luke stared into his pint of lager like he wanted to drown himself in it, clearly not looking forward to the next day.
The second shift passed much as the first, with the scarcely notable absence of Harry and Kaiya. Thankfully Joe and crew were already bored of seeing our suffering so weren’t there today to bait us. Chaos still prevailed though, particularly during the peak of the lunchtime rush when Suit dropped a full cup of Fanta that exploded on the floor, then stood there glaring at it morosely, arms crossed in his trademark stance. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Shack had an entirely exposed open-plan layout, so every spill, stumble, blunder and glaring violation of hygiene laws be they by the tills or in the kitchen were all visible to the paying public. Suit’s Fanta accident therefore prompted a chorus of pantomime “oooohhh”s from the amused queue.
By the end of Day 2 however even the entropy that dictated proceedings had become predictable and dull, so in the pub that night Luke and I decided we’d spice up our third day with a little challenge. In addition to the pasta salad and popcorn and smoothies and everything else we sold, we also did big hearty cups of coffee, and although the machine spent easily more than half of every day broken, groaning and hissing and dribbling milk like a dying cat, when it was working the coffee it spat out was actually pretty decent. At any point during our shift we too, as staff, were entitled to help ourselves to a cup of java, and it was agreed between Luke and myself that the winner would be whoever could drink the most free coffee throughout the working day.
We began in good spirits, both quaffing a cup of hot brown immediately upon walking in. Continuing our good pace we went up for another one just 5 minutes later, already feeling caffeine’s excitable effects. Suit was looking at us with disgust, but then he looked at everything with disgust, even his children, that was just how his face was built. The next coffee scalded our mouths but went down just as fast. By 09:22 we were striding up to pour our third cup of the day, and that was when Suit stepped in.
“Boys, in fact, everyone!” he announced. We all sluggishly amassed around him as he prepared his statement. I had a feeling this wouldn’t be a motivational speech. “We need to talk about the coffee situation,” he said gravely. “Some people are having 2, even 3 cups of coffee throughout the day. As you can tell, it’s gotten way out of hand. You should be having 1, or ideally no, cups of coffee.”
And so, not wanting to further exacerbate ‘the coffee situation’, we ended our game almost as soon as it had begun, sadly without even the chance to liven up the day by hitting the hallucinogenic stage accessible after 100 cups of caffeine.
This trend continued throughout the next few days and weeks with more and more consumables being placed off-limits. Staff refilling their soft drinks was next seen as being far too bourgeois and limited to one per shift, and even that had to be gulped back whilst crouched hiding beneath the till so no customers could see for some unexplained reason. The drinking of coffee eventually became a prohibited act altogether, a stupid move really as I need to be pumped full of coffee intravenously to even spark a modicum of energy at work so deprive me of the stuff and you may as well have hired a store manikin. This was especially true for the first month of Shack employment when I was living in a mouldy little room above a music student who practiced constantly and alongside another music student who practiced constantly, leaving me permanently sleep-deprived. And although the Mikes had less power and command than a Cub Scout they were fucking serious about these drink embargos. Even when they weren’t around and you thought you might be able to sneak in an extra snifter of Diet Coke as a treat for bearing these demeaning, underpaid conditions, Fat’s wife was a hawk-eyed Orwellian nightmare constantly ratting out who’d drunk what, when, and how much.
As the Mikes’ budget became tighter and tighter things eventually became so destitute that we were only allowed to drink the tap water out of the smallest of Shack polystyrene cups, and even then they hadn’t quite pinched every penny. We all dawdled into work one morning, acutely aware we only had hard Surrey water to reinvigorate us, to be confronted by Suit with another of his cost-reducing ideas.
“From now on staff won’t be able to use our cups,” he announced with the doleful pomp of a Communist dictator. “Staff will bring cups from home into work. That is all.”
I went with Lucy and Kaiya after work to go shopping for beverage containers to use during our shifts, which we did in a sour, mutinous mood; I think this was genuinely the only time I ever spent with them outside of work. Lucy was a quintessential girly-girl and I gleaned from her outspoken nature that she was used to getting her own way, so when she demanded we all buy our cups from the Disney Store Kaiya and I knew better than to argue. I bought a Hannah Montana one, with contours in the mug defining Hannah’s burgeoning pubescent breasts and hips, tactically thinking this would surely make anyone too uncomfortable to consider borrowing to drink water out of when I wasn’t around. Unfortunately I forgot Luke was just as debauched as me and he made full use of Hannah too whenever he could, the sick hairy bastard. This actually became my favourite mug until 2 years later when I awoke with a furious hangover and sadly and inexplicably found it smashed into a hundred pieces.
But even with this level of austerity Suit was aware within the first fortnight that Whittaker’s Sausage Shack was turning over less revenue than his most pessimistic of projections. To try to drum up business Lucy and I were sporadically sent to hand out coupons and free samples to the shoppers of the Friary; I because I’m convivial and can turn on the charm like a faucet, Lucy because she’s a teenage blonde with, as Fat often smarmily opined to us boys, “nice legs”.
We were sent to the very central atrium of the shopping centre, a pandemonium of noise and haste and scared lost children, truly the worst environment for a gaggle of faux baseball players carrying precariously overflowing plates of complementary sausage. It would be 10 or 15 minutes maximum until Friary security approached us to politely but firmly inform us that we weren’t allowed to be doing this, that we could offer free samples from within our stands’ premises but not out here in the main shopping piazza, that could we please leave before we drip any more hot cheese on an already frantic mother who can’t find her son.
Then we’d report back to Suit with these grievances who would flippantly say, and I quote, “just do it anyway.” If security hassled us again, we were to bribe them with free samples. And then we’d delve back into the hubbub to try again, only to return 10 minutes later, chastised by security for a second time.
“Why didn’t you sweeten them with a free sample?” Suit would ask.
“We tried,” I’d explain. “But they said this stuff was too bad to even give away.”
“Ah,” Suit would say understandingly, palpably feeling his invested money ebbing away. Then Fat would poke his head around the corner and ask how you spelt “sausage”, or if we’d seen his moonwalk, and we’d all laugh.
The food at Shack was not entirely putrid and the free lunches with which we were provided were adequate and added inches round the belly. Comparable with McDonald’s, at which Suit would grimace from behind his folded arms all day long, the food was of a reasonable quality. That being said, their menu had problems. Fundamental problems for a restaurant that sought to provide convenience.
They had spent a good proportion of the pre-opening time preparing a menu that had excellent graphics and was eye-catching, in the hope of alluring the youths of Guildford with their legendary love of all things baseball; they had, however, forgotten to plan what kind of meals and food would be available. Your standard meal consisted of a sausage in a bun (which became a nasal catchphrase to be hollered at passing customers), of which there were many varieties; a soft-drink or coffee, of which the former would be almost entirely ice, as per the Mikes’ insidious instruction; and a side dish.
Most people asked for chips or fries as their side dish. We then had to explain that we didn’t sell chips. They would always ask why and the Mikes’ excuse that ‘we don’t have a fryer’ just didn’t suffice. But our menu was nothing if not expansive. At the start of this debacle, the side dishes they could have were popcorn, pretzels, buttered pretzels, potato salad (made in-house!), vanilla ice-cream or the hugely popular nachos with sour cream. We rarely had enough pretzels to go round and I liked to save one for my lunch; the potato salad was frozen due to Fat’s inability to properly set a fridge temperature and nobody wanted popcorn because… it wasn’t the cinema. So, more often than not, people would opt for the nachos. A sound choice. And yet, when presented with a bag of ‘Cool Original’ Doritos and a small pot of watery sour-cream people seemed a tad unsure:
“Sorry, I didn’t ask for crisps, I had the nachos.”
These people must have been expecting a large plate of warmed, crisp tortilla, smothered lovingly with all their favourite toppings. It was always hard to have to look them in the eye and explain.
“No, sorry… these are the nachos.”
“These are Doritos.”
“Yeah… I know. They’re technically nacho chips,” we would say, hopefully.
I’m sure these customers never came back. Eventually we took it upon ourselves to pre-warn them, when placing their order, that the Nachos were, in fact, Doritos. Sales of which declined thereafter.
After a while, sales began to decline on all stock due to lack of interest from the public. A lack of interest that was probably well deserved. One man even suggested that we close down because what we sold was ‘just hot-dogs’. I couldn’t disagree with him. The Mikes decided that it was time to get creative and the next few weeks saw us develop our menu extensively – despite not updating the physical menu to which customers had access. Nobody knew what we would be selling from one day to the next.
Ben & Jerry’s is coming to Sausage Shack! Fat declared. The miniscule tubs were proudly displayed in a mini-fridge on the counter, blocking off space that could be used for trays. They added £1.80 to the standard meal price.
Shortly after this things became depraved. I would come into work to discover that we now sold Kit-Kats, and there they would be, in a strange container in front of the tills. The next day saw the popular mint with a hole, the Polo added to our stock – because what goes better with a Chicago Beef Hotdog than 30 mints? I think it must have been out of sheer desperation on the part of the Mikes. In one of their board meetings (probably held around a flaming metal bin near a railway track) they deduced that the way to ensure a steady stream of customers was to slowly become a Newsagent. I’m surprised I didn’t have to give out a copy of The Sun with every purchase of a Lincolnshire Onion.
To be honest, I can’t remember what else they added to our menu while I worked there. The exaggerative nature of memory leads me to believe that I was handing out crumbling buns filled with watercress and a side of Strepsils to customers paying £24.50 for the privilege. The real thing that sticks in my mind was their complete lack of faith in what they did, which makes me wonder why into the dark pit of Shack so much money was thrown. They didn’t seem to want to be proprietors of a sausage-based fast-food restaurant; it was more that they just wanted to be proprietors of something. Anything. The best thing on the menu was the German Bratwurst but it was discontinued after less than a week. Fat instructed that the customers ordering Curry Wurst meals were to receive a regular pork frankfurter (the kind you can buy at Tesco) with a dollop of curry sauce. For them anything would do, as long as somebody bought it.
Several weeks after we left they were still at the menu hacking and seemed to have found some success. I went along to say hello and see how things were going. On the counter was a strange looking metal box with pieces of bread on shelves. Fat must’ve finally cracked was the obvious first-thought.
“What’s that over there?”
“Oh, that’s the toasted sandwich warmer” said the server, vaguely aware of who I was.
“Oh, yeah, we sell toasted sandwiches now.”
“They sell more than hot dogs! In fact, we don’t sell many hot dogs at all anymore.”
Suit interjected: “That’s right Luke. It’s all about toasted sandwiches here at Sausage Shack. People can’t get enough.”
Of course the drinking continued throughout all this. The hangovers weren’t so much obstacles to work but they did endeavour to make the day, if possible, even more unpleasant. My main requisite to coping with a hungover day is to be dressed comfortably – loose plaid shirts and lounge pants so ill-fitting I have to hold them around me like a sarong. So to be decked in an imitation baseball player’s shirt weft from fibreglass, with a cap so tight as to trap circuits of blood screaming around my upper head, the average vanilla hangover went from debilitating to daemonic. Not to mention the stifling heat from the ovens, the nauseating, gastrointestinal gurgling noises from the bain marie, the smell of roasting larvae from the fly zapper, and Lucy’s endless diatribes about the world of celebrities, the combined effect was not dissimilar to the environment less salubrious governments would imprison enemy soldiers in with the intent of obtaining classified information.
It was on one of these ten-a-penny hungover days that it was reported a new member of staff had the misfortune of joining us, another teenage girl and best friend of Lucy. She bounced in cheerily, already shackled in her baseball outfit, and we all dismally grunted our welcomes before returning to whatever mindless toil we’d previously been engaged in.
I’d been landed the unenviable task of preparing the day’s sour cream, which went out in paper pots to accompany people’s so-called nachos. It was routinely the duty of some unfortunate fuck, usually whoever had pissed Suit off the most, to dose out around a hundred individual potfuls from the main sour cream vat. This was a chore I’d become quite skilful at avoiding, usually pretending I was in the middle of serving a customer and letting the job slide to one of the grunts like Eva or Luke, but my hangover had dulled my reflexes and somehow I found myself the one staring straight into this tub of curdled, glutinous scuz.
I don’t know if it was the way the industrial vat was stored, the poor quality of the product, or maybe this was just standard sour cream behaviour, but the liquid and solid of the stuff would separate to leave a claggy, white mass around the inside of the container and a pool of milky water in the centre, like the geological feature of some chalk cave. The sour creamer on duty was responsible for slopping the coagulated lumps and fetid cream-water together for each and every pot to create something, impossibly, that a paying customer would voluntarily put into their mouths.
For me and my hair-trigger gag reflex, especially on a hot hungover day when Kaiya is talking about nothing but alcohol it seems, this was a job that never failed to make me retch. And it was in this position that I had to make my pleasant introductions to the new girl, wrist-deep in what resembled a compound of semen and grout, almost going cross-eyed with nausea. Small talk passed harmlessly enough when suddenly, apropos of nothing, she announced “y’know, I had an abortion once,” and then taking my stunned silence as a cue to continue talked me viscerally through the entire procedure.
“And then I felt it just fall out of me,” she eventually concluded. I nodded along glumly, trying to stifle my heaves by way of common courtesy. This was the sort of conversation I’d feel uncomfortable enough having with one of my closest friends so to be smacked with this narrative by a total stranger, a hangover dancing its macabre samba around my skull and a disgusting job quite literally on my hands to boot, I could only focus on controlling my breathing and hoping I’d just pass out.
The Mikes had premeditated that the sour cream would be distributed with the nachos, but seeing as no-one tended to order the nachos because they weren’t really nachos, they ended up being the side-dip of choice for the pretzels. These jumbo-sized, optionally cheese-infused dough-knots were actually pretty tasty, certainly as a Shack employee they posed the best thing to pilfer for your 20-minute lunch break, but they looked like polished wood. And this isn’t a petty insulting simile, customers genuinely thought they were made out of wood. They were hung on a sort of mug-tree on the counter right by where people ordered, I assume to place them within an alluring proximity to boost chances of an impulsive “oh and I’ll take one of these too!”, but as they just resembled pine decorations people as they queued would often absent-mindedly flick them, squeeze them or downright snap them in half. Almost always they’d be most apologetic when they realized they were fiddling with a doughy snack for sale and not a wooden trinket, but I’d reassure them that it happened all the time.
In terms of size the pots that the sour cream went out in were unrealistically huge, they were like an entrée all of their own, and so most of the contents would end up dumped and smeared over the cheap blue trays the poor Guildfordian’s lunches were served on. Eva would extensively wash these to her industrious Polish standard but drying up was left to Fat’s wife who’d flippantly wave a disposable towel near everything and then go back to looking after her kids who always seemed to be there. Consequently I would have to set up food on a tray so waterlogged that a goldfish could live in it as the customer stared in disbelief at what they’d just paid for, their Mush Puppy floating slowly towards them like a tiny disgusting barge.
The Mush Puppy, whilst we’re on the subject, was commonly regarded as the worst thing we at Shack sold. Our menu described it as a “beef frankfurter served with Mushrooms topped with Cheese & Onion Flakes”; the onion flakes were dire, looking and smelling like stale fish food, the cheese was a watery juice the colour of smoker’s teeth out of a plastic bottle, and the mushrooms were these little slug-like entities that came floating in a can of brine. The end result was like a normal hot dog that had been exposed to dizzying levels of radiation, and everyone who ordered one at best politely advised us afterwards that “this doesn’t really work.” I believe the Mush Puppy was one of Fat’s monstrous creations as he’d be incredulous with rage when anyone complained, asking the customer, in no uncertain terms, whether they thought they could do any better, until Suit calmly interjected and apologized on behalf of both of them.
On the times when Suit wasn’t occupied with babysitting his bumbling, yard-wide business partner he would stare unblinking into the food court trying to discern visually why other outlets were thriving and his wasn’t. Ironically the grimace of discomfort he pulled as he did this was one of the main reasons why people weren’t approaching our counter. Occasionally he’d run a marketing theory or question by me when I wasn’t busy, so any time really.
“Spudulike,” he grumbled, squinting at the baked potato franchise which pulled in a reasonable turnover each day. “What d’you reckon they do?”
“Spuds I should think Mike. Potatoes” I answered.
“But what’s their USP? And who’s their demographic?” he asked. I confessed I didn’t know. “It’s old people,” he revealed. “Old people eat there every day. Why is that?”
I mused for a second before facetiously offering “minimal chewing?”
He slowly nodded his head, never once breaking eye contact with the potato stand in case he missed their trade secret. “I think you’re right there.”
I went to Spudulike only once at the behest of my girlfriend. A gentleman of extremely limited English handed me some slushy potato covered in mayonnaise from one of those big grimy bottles with a nozzle that makes a satisfied farting noise after every squeeze. It was served in a mauve plastic disc like a Frisbee, and the only utensil I got was a big, blunt spork, also mauve, such as might be used by a baby or someone admitted to a psych ward. My meal was like hot wet paper, served out of a deflated basketball. You were in trouble if you looked to Spudulike for guidance.
In fact the only eatery doing worse than Shack was Kebab Express, where they considered it a good day if they got any number of customers that was a plural. You could generate a healthy income selling kebabs between midnight and 5am to pissed-up revellers craving bread and fat, but less so during 9am and 3pm in a brightly-lit department store filled with fussy middle-aged women. The only time they ever bagged any revenue was from groups of deathly looking young men that had clearly been out partying all night, who without fail would order the biggest kebab on the menu only to instantly blanch upon seeing all that glistening speck and offal illuminated by the harsh halogen lights overhead.
Kebab Express sort of became a canary in the mine to the Mikes – as long as that could stay afloat, so surely could Shack, and so every day we opened our shutters to see our kebabish compadres doing the same we could breathe easy knowing at least we weren’t quite the worst place here. So you can imagine the sort of lugubrious scene it was to walk in one morning to find the Kebab Express shutters still closed, all the lights and appliances switched off, the fridges bare and no questionable animal abdomen skewered on the rotisserie. They’d been shut down, the canary had finally choked. Suit of course just maintained his wearily irked facial expression but Fat effectively prolapsed in panic, and had to spend all day in the back office to recuperate.
“I could see this day coming,” Suit told me. “This place isn’t made for a business doing just kebabs.”
I paused, wondering if he’d be able to concede “Neither for sausages to be honest.” But no, he stayed silent, and we both stared out at the gloomy husk of what used to be the worst food stand in The Friary, trying to ignore the sound of Fat’s wife in the back room yelling at her husband for being so incompetent.
I don’t think Fat’s wife liked me. She was a mean spirited woman from the first time I met her. Perhaps she was the only one who saw us for what we truly were; where the Mikes thought we were diligent and hard working she saw only feckless idiots. Fat’s feelings were hurt quite badly, understandably so, when one of us referred to him as Fat Mike to his face. His lower lip quivered and he ran outside flapping his arms like an overweight bird trying to take flight. I felt bad about that because, for all his inadequacies, he was a genuinely nice man and we had given him a painfully accurate nickname. Suit, on the other hand, loved his nickname. He didn’t, however, wear a suit. It was his mock-professional demeanour that meant that he always seemed to be wearing one.
I suppose that Fat must have told his wife about the incident because she was a vindictive person towards me thereafter. Her main issue was with me and my trousers. I didn’t own a belt and that dug at her so hard she must have been kept awake at night. When I bent over to pick up a small slug of a mushroom or wipe some spunky sour-cream from the floor she would be behind me, without fail, to chastise me for a slight riding of my trousers.
“It’s terrible. The way this happens.” She was trying to make me feel bad but never actually used the word pants as if through embarrassment.
“I can’t help it” I would protest.
“Buy a belt!”
“Pay me more!”
And so on, and so forth. This happened almost every day. I loathed times when she was working. Her problem didn’t seem to be with my pants being (ever so slightly) visible to the two people in the shack, but what the customers might think. I believe that she felt that it was my undergarments keeping people away. Or my 2 days of stubble, or my stupid stupid face.
One day I lost it. I was making a Texas BBQ Melt or a Mush Puppy or something else that is stupid and tasted bad and it was taking quite a long time. I often claimed that the artistry in putting a hot-dog together was, perhaps, the only thing about the job that didn’t make me want to throw myself in the river. It had maybe taken a minute and I was nearly done. There were a great many ingredients to put together so I didn’t feel like a minute was too long. Mrs Fat, however, did.
“Why is that taking you so long?” she said, within earshot of the customer who looked on sadly, clearly regretting his choice of food that day.
“It is! You’ve been doing it for ages now! There are other things to make.” I looked over at the counter. There were no other customers.
“It takes as long as it takes. You want me to make it right.”
She screeched at me. “Listen! Do it faster!”
Rage boiled in me. Usually I’m a very placid man. Matt has said that the only time he’s ever seen me angry was when I went up to a bar and was waiting for a drink, only to be told that there was, in fact, a queue. A QUEUE?! I exclaimed. IT’S A BAR! There is no queue, you just wait. I looked at all their idiot faces lining up behind each other. Each thinking that they were in a Costa or something. Dicks.
I told Mrs Fat that she couldn’t do it any faster and she was slowing me down. She scowled at me and told me to hurry up. Fat watched on nervously as she walked back over towards him.
Things rarely escalated beyond raised words in Shack. Indeed, there were fewer customers as each day went by so there were never any quarrels. Eventually I thought Suit might think it a cogent idea to pay people for their custom.
Eva became their number one chef after a few weeks. I’m not sure what I did to upset them but Suit made the executive decision. She wasn’t as good as me at putting patterns in the ketchup and mustard but she got the job and I was always on the tills from that point on; a job I had hoped to avoid for the humiliating position that it put you in with Guildford’s public. The people of Guildford, through the lens of a Sausage Shack worker, were all fifteen, rich and obnoxious. They laughed at you not because you had a job in the fast-food industry; they laughed at you not because you had a job that made you dress like a fool; they laughed at you because you had a job. Eva worked two jobs but they couldn’t see her very well behind the counter.
On one particularly busy day there were a few of us serving at the tills and due to the poor planning of the interior there was space only for Eva at the kitchen counter. It must have been a Saturday lunch time and, although Subway had a line that snaked around past our counter, we had a few customers ourselves. We were able to take two or three orders in less than the time it took to make one hot-dog. Eva was prepared for the onslaught and the orders started rocketing through. Each electronic order sent through to the receipt machine which Eva could use to keep track of her cooking. The digital buzz of the machine audible in the confines of Shack. Two Texas BBQ Melt meals, one with no peppers, one British Banger meal with onions, mustard and ketchup…
“Eva, that last one was a mistake. Cheese, not onions,” Suit would shout at her, from his position behind the servers. More orders buzzed through. Chicago Beef with sour cream and onions… pork frankfurter with mustard and crispy onions… Lincolnshire onion meal.
“Eva, not too many caramelised onions on that Lincolnshire… How’s the first Texas BBQ Melt coming?” Mike went to investigate. Eva had six hot-dogs still to make. “Eva, this Texas BBQ Melt isn’t right. You’ve not put onions on it.”
“You said cheese not onions.”
“No! That was for the British Banger. Put some onions on this please.” Suit walked back towards the servers. Orders buzzed through.
“Mike,” Eva shouted, “We’re out of hot frankfurters. There are none in the bain-marie.”
“Just chuck them in the microwave,” Suit responded, in earshot of the queue. Orders inexplicably still buzzed through.
“Eva,” Suit shouted, “Two Curry Wurst meals please.”
Eva handed the first of the Texas BBQ Melts to a customer. More receipts buzzed out of the machine.
“Two Curry Wurst meals please, Eva,” said Suit.
This was where Suit’s plan for organisation began to fall down. Eva got all of the orders buzzed through to her and, although she was busy grilling Lincolnshire sausages and watching pork explode in the microwave, she knew what needed to be cooked. Suit, on the other hand, chose to call out whatever took his fancy. Sometimes he would call out orders twice, confusing Eva into thinking she had to make four Curry Wursts instead of two. Sometimes he wouldn’t call out what needed to be made and this led to her thinking that some of the receipts might have been old ones. She was drowning in a pile of money, except that it wasn’t money; it was pieces of paper that had Mush Puppy written on them.
She fell to pieces when she was about to start on the third or fourth of the orders, Mrs Fat shouting at her like a dog guarding a front-garden. She positioned the 1/4lb beef frankfurter in the bun and turned around to get the correct sauce. When she turned back the bun, in slow motion, fell forward and out the 1/4lb beef frankfurter rolled. She screamed.
“Eva,” said Mike, “Take five.”
She huffed out of Shack for a fag, as red in the face as the ketchup on her shirt.
“Peter, take over down there would you?” Mike nonchalantly indicated the pile of receipts in the corner.
“But, but, how will I know what to make?”
Suit shrugged, “I don’t know, figure it out.” He folded his arms. He was in a good mood.
Peter Cryer, or “Crymax” as he liked to be known, our chirpy, fubby Chinese friend was actually something of a late addition to our friendship group. When we began working at Shack he’d only been inaugurated into our awkward little crew about 5 months prior, but we knew he’d fit in when we watched him sit in the corner of a party and stoically drink an entire bottle of port until his face turned brick red in hue. I quietly think he only applied alongside Luke and I to ingratiate himself further with our group, but as it transpired Peter seemed to rather enjoy working at Shack, and Suit became professionally smitten with him. Because Pete had both my debonair charm and Luke’s practical skills he was one of the only members of staff regularly permitted to serve people and also make the food as customer demand dictated, whilst Suit watched on, grimacing with pride.
But even perfect Peter wasn’t faultless. He suffered from an excess of creative joie de vivre in the kitchen and would emblazon people’s plain hot dogs, plain because they’d specifically ordered them plain, with mismatched garnishes and surrealist geometric designs in ketchup, constantly practicing his vocal impressions of MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace as he did so. On the tills he’d often get too preoccupied with trying to get girls to smile at him that he’d just forget to charge them any money, and what with the Mikes so strapped for cash this was a grievous err. One shift saw Peter with a deficit of £15 from simply failing to remember that he was supposed to be charging for this food rather than giving it away like a charity drive. Suit fastidiously checked the receipts at the end of the day alongside the takings in the tills and pounced on any discrepancy – he once even phoned my mobile several hours after a shift when I was lying in bed drinking beer and trying to forget about the day I’d had to inform me the contents of my till were 60p short, and that he’d overlook it this time but to be more careful in future. With a whole £15 unaccounted for Suit might likely take the matter to court, but Peter was unfazed.
“There’s still a couple hours left, so what I’ll do,” he explained proudly, “is just overcharge the next 3 foreign customers by a fiver. They won’t know will they?”
Right on cue a Chinese family strode forward to order, all eager anticipatory smiles for the patriotic British Banger. Peter totalled their order, and let’s say £9 flashed up on the till display, clear for both parties to see.
“That’s £14 please” Peter said unblinking. Heart-breakingly they paid it, happily no less, all for Luke to wipe his nose and then fish a tepid sausage out of the cage it’d sat in for the past 4 hours since it was cooked. Overcharging was a practice Peter was quite familiar with however, as after most of his Shack shifts he’d quit literally run to his night job at a pub called The King’s Head, where prices were so high you had to watch not to bang your head on them when you walked in.
Because it always took less time to serve someone than it did to prepare their food, and besides for vast swathes of the day there was no-one to serve anyway, when Peter and I were both on the tills we’d be forced to find ways to amuse ourselves. Suited & Fatted had given us a cursory tour of Shack on our first day but refused to mention or acknowledge a wall-mounted phone that sat just below the bug zapper. It was an unappetizing device because the zapper above it was poorly made and the tray for catching all the dead flies hung on a dodgy hinge, so the handset was constantly peppered with slightly charred bluebottles, but the fact it was curiously bypassed by the Mikes made it particularly intriguing. Eventually when Suit was occupied elsewhere, probably remortgaging his house again, Peter and I approached the mysterious phone and discovered there were hotkeys to contact every single other outlet in the food court, absolute pay-dirt for the quintessential restless prankster.
Instantly we phoned both McDonald’s and the snootily Bohemian smoothie bar it neighboured and told them both that we here at Sausage Shack had run out of milk, we needed milk and that they’d better high-tail some milk over here right now or someone somewhere would be furious. Then we’d pull out the flies that the handset had disgorged into our mouths whilst talking and hide beneath the counter, shaking with the most puerile of giggles as we watched confusion erupt amongst their staff as managers were consulted and cartons of milk gestured to questioningly. Behind the superficially sterile and swanky face of the food court that customers saw was a grotty stone viaduct full of leaking pipes and chicken wire that connected all the food stands; every staff member employed within would have to channel through this to reach the toilets or the main store room, and be they the sneering hipsters selling smoothies or the arrogant ‘sandwich artists’ of Subway or just the terrifyingly incomprehensible operators of Kebab Express there was always the feeling of inferiority being the smelly Shack rookies dressed as baseball players who couldn’t sell well. But the tables turned when we realized that we hadn’t been told of this pupa-bukkaked phone as it was meant for high authority figures only, and anything heard on the other end of this phone was thus considered gospel. Peter and I had staff from every single company running needless milk, salt and sugar to us, turning that quiet staff viaduct into a human hamster run, just for the gratification of acting perplexed and stating “well no, we didn’t order this…” when they arrived.
That phone offered about the only job satisfaction one could hope to glimpse at Shack. Working in retail is certain to dampen your feeling of authority, particularly retail of fast food, particularly retail of badly cooked fast food by idiots for idiots, so it was healthy to occasionally flex your megalomaniacal muscle by giving Spudulike a call on the magic phone and telling them of a fictitious spill just outside their stall which someone should attend to immediately before a customer slip and fall. It wouldn’t be long before a Spudulike employee headed out with a mop to gormlessly scratch his head and pace the area several times searching for this elusive mess. We once tricked that poor guy with this same lark thrice in one day.
Conversely, when I was serving and a rowdy teen dropped his full cup of Coke outside Shack I saw this as an opportunity to dissuade custom, thus freeing up even more time to make juvenile prank calls, so gave him a replacement drink on the house and shook his hand heartily. He called me “cool” or “safe” or whatever the parlance of 2010 was, and walked away as possibly Shack’s only satisfied customer.
That was practically the limit in terms of employee benefits; that phone was our dental plan and pension scheme rolled into one. The only other advantage was the occasional haul of free food on offer after hours. Whoever saw a shift to the end got lumbered with the chore of mopping up all the sour cream and mustard and what putrid juices had been sweated out of pork and staff alike that formed a daily fen around the food prep station. This was a task I was particularly bad at considering I never even clean my own house, the most I’ll contribute is using my urine stream to blast specks of excrement off the inside of the toilet bowl. Often I’d just hide the biggest and most incriminating bits of food debris under the oven or the fridge and call it a day at that.
When Suit wasn’t around and it was just Fat captaining the HMS Shack he would share out what remained in the warming cabinet between you, him and “his dog”. This point in the day was easily when you would see Fat Michael Whittaker at his happiest, diving into those meaty treats like a kid attacks their candy on Halloween. As Eva always had to dash off to her next job before she could take advantage of this it was often just me and Fat gobbling down 6 hot dogs each inside of a minute like some crazed, ad hoc world record attempt. Then I’d meander home, crippled with indigestion and stoned on saturated fats, to pass out naked on my bed with both my office fans focussed on me at full blast, trying to catch a moment’s rest before my music student housemates got back on their synthesizers and tried to deafen God.
“We’re launching a new product!” Fat proclaimed excitedly to start the day. “The SHACKUCCINO!” Everyone groaned.
Now the Frappuccino is a registered trademark of Starbucks, and so the Mikes were careful not to tread on any legal toes by calling their portmanteau the same, but I think they needn’t have worried about a lawsuit; the Shackuccino would only be on the menu for three weeks and the name was the least of their worries. A Frappuccino is made by blending coffee with ice in what is quite a delicate process, while the Shackuccino was a cup of regular coffee, left to go cold, with some ice cubes plunked in. Fat revealed this was invented by his 3-year-old daughter, “by accident!” he’d add astonished as if, like penicillin, the Shackuccino would forever be regarded as one of the great serendipitous discoveries of our time. We started selling them as of that morning, Fat naturally cavorting about behind us on the tills pushing a Shackuccino with every sale. For each one that went out, a complaint would come in, usually along the lines of “this is not a Frappuccino. This is just cold, regular coffee.” Combined with the amount of criticism we received about the food on a daily basis anyway, Fat’s wife had to nominate herself as a full-time one-woman complaints line to assuage all the livid customers. Often the queue for the complaints would be longer than the queue to purchase food, and short-sightedly both queues ran parallel right next to one another, creating an interesting dynamic as a customer would order a pretzel and a Shackuccino only to be wincingly told “ooh, wouldn’t do that mate” by the malcontent standing just beside them.
The Mikes truly were exemplary connoisseurs in the fields of contriving bad ideas and losing invested capital. Between them they could squander money as fast as Alan Sugar could make it, quite impressive in a twisted sort of way. Fat once soberly clued me in on the sort of financial oblivion this sausage enterprise had left him in.
“I’m very poor at the moment,” he confided in me once, his pudgy smile straining slightly. “All my money’s tied up in this place so in terms of what’s in the bank, pfftt..”
“Do you mind if I ask how much you’ve put into Shack?” I inquired out of morbid curiosity.
“Oh, well in the vicinity of half a million” he stated, causing me to choke on my own saliva.
They’d both budgeted with the devil-may-care attitude of two morons on a stag night. Everywhere you looked you could see signs of shallow, thoughtless investment. Let’s set up business in the biggest block of the food court. Why? Because being big is cool and macho. Hire staff with previous cooking or sales experience? Nah, let’s just get a load of funny mates, and some blonde teenage girls. And what shall we sell? I don’t know, sausages? Ha, yeah, why not?!
The limit to their market research, Fat told me, was travelling to Germany as a pair to drink beer and eat sausages for a week. They came away from this intense brainstorming expedition solely with the knowledge that Germans like sausages. Arguably the Curry Bratwurst was the product of this trip but that was just a regular frankfurter with some cheap curry sauce ejaculated over it, not particularly something to justify over a thousand air miles each. I think this fact-finding mission was really just a flimsy façade for a lad’s holiday, and I can picture the Mikes sauntering through the Reeperbahn bedecked in lederhosen with suspicious ease.
For Suit this fall into economic strife was even more galling as before he met Fat, the man who coincidentally shared his name and would grow to be the bane of his life, he enjoyed a cushy, well-paid managerial position at McDonald’s, and hence was now tortured daily watching his past burger empire strive just a couple dozen feet opposite his own business squib. It was like the CEO of Schweppes leaving to set up a handmade lemonade stand just outside the company grounds and getting his fat friend along to help squeeze the lemons.
Being forced to stare at those smirking golden arches, day in day out, seemed to inflict some degree of deep-seated emotional damage that left Suit comparable to a shell shocked war veteran. Sausage Shack’s laughably inaccurate motto “It’s all good!” did smack weirdly of McDonald’s equally optimistic slogan “I’m lovin’ it!”, and when Suit once heard Kaiya absent-mindedly whistling the McDonald’s jingle I actually thought he was going to hit her. Suit couldn’t grasp why for every 10 customers McDonald’s had Shack would only get 1, and that 1 would probably ask for a refund. An insane paranoia burned within him that the only explanation was a filthy, underhand one.
Suit gathered us around conspiratorially one afternoon to share his theory. He looked like he hadn’t slept. I told him we had a customer waiting but Suit said his McIlluminati revelation was more important. This was fine by me as the day’s shift was less than enjoyable – the drinks machine had broken and only dispensed carbonated water rather than any soda, but Fat’s wife commanded we serve it to people anyway (and everyone ordered soda with their meal, it was either that or spend £2 on a fucking 200ml bottle of Fruit Shoot), responding to complaints that their Coke was transparent and flavourless and not Coke at all with the prepared statement “I’m sorry, I can’t help you. Next please.”
With a quick glance backwards over his shoulder, Suit leant in and just said “Spies”. We employees all quizzically looked at one another from beneath the brims of our ubiquitous baseball caps. Suit nodded his head slowly. Then, thankfully, he elaborated. “McDonald’s are sending over moles to gather intelligence on this place. We had a lad in a while back for a job interview, and he was particularly interested in how all the appliances worked. Then the other day, I saw him ordering from the counter of McDonald’s.”
He raised his eyebrows to indicate there was no more to be said. Covert agents were clearly being dispatched in just another one of those fast-food espionage cases you’re always hearing about. Anxiously he asked us to keep a watchful eye out for any suspicious behaviour without actually telling us what was classified as “suspicious”. I wouldn’t have put it past him to pat us each down to see if we were wearing a wire, but no, we were just furtively ushered back to our stations to continue selling cups of fizzy diluent and telling people we were sorry for it. Bizarrely Suit never raised mention of this conspiracy again, perhaps when he got home that evening he had a long think and realized how ludicrous the whole notion was. Or perhaps a gang donned in robes and Ronald McDonald masks were already there waiting, ready to pin him down and inflict upon him a painful night of hypnotic reprogramming. I guess we’ll never know for sure.
The shock at someone’s stupidity, let alone your own manager’s, can progress into full-fledged pain if left unchecked, and it was certainly injuries to one’s dignity and sanity that were the biggest workplace dangers to a Shack employee. Sure you got spattered with hot grease and developed edemas of the ankles from standing up all day, but these were nowhere near as excruciating as when Suit would demand one of us drones approach a table of pretty young people trying to enjoy their afternoon and keep pressing menus into their faces until they acquiesced. I suppose I should have been grateful that at least I didn’t have to do this dressed up as a giant hot dog or something.
The gaggles of attractive summer girls that I’d hoped for as a distraction were indeed present but were always, every single time, assaulted by Suit’s sales pitch of “Ladies, sausage in your bun today?” Then they’d turn as one to see what raunchy lothario would yell such a thing, and find me, Luke, and Suit, standing in a line, all frozen in the same surly stance, arms crossed, rancid pork water wafting from our direction like a signature cologne. Their answer, in case you were wondering, was always unanimously “no”.
As the days rolled by I thought I might be lucky enough to enjoy some base, nihilistic liberation at the futility of this job and my apathy towards it. Work makes you free, as the residents of Auschwitz were assured. But I couldn’t disconnect myself from it enough to become entirely indifferent, I always held a modicum of pride in my work which, try as I might, I couldn’t get rid of. Innately I wanted to provide a half-decent service to customers, if nothing else to apologize for the smorgasbord of bile and tuberculosis they were about to tuck into for lunch. And, clowns that they were, I probably felt a grudging sympathy for the Mikes as well.
Occasionally I’d feel guilty at how sullen and short-tempered I, and certainly by extension Luke, were being on every shift. As I glowered out into the food court, spasming with anger slightly as Kid Cudi’s Day ‘N’ Nite song clicked around on the audio system for the fourth time in two hours, Kaiya and Harry would be frolicking about behind me trying to squirt each other with ketchup and laughing hysterically as they did so. I yearned to know if there was some existential coping method they had for this shitty job but really the answer was obvious – they were both only 16 or 17 years old, an age when this type of demeaning work was justifiable. Doing this in your twenties, the period in life to really start scaling the career ladder, was achingly pitiable. I recall one customer who asked how old we were, just making conversation as Luke languorously assembled his meal for him, and when I announced I was 3 years Lucy’s senior he barked cruelly with laughter and rather derisively asked “what the hell are you doing working here?” Even a wordsmith like myself couldn’t find a self-respecting answer and was reduced to abashedly looking at my feet, muttering “well, ah, y’see ah, me and my friends ah…” until Luke thankfully interrupted by dint of producing the man his British Banger.
For me, time spent at Shack was wasted time, but with money from maintenance grants running low towards the end of the summer, and overdrafts in dire need of expansion, there was precious little else that I could do to fund any kind of lifestyle. It was hard though, to spend time in a processed-pork emporium with a man who knew nothing of life’s social requirements. After a few weeks of painfully slow business Fat went back to work. I can’t imagine what a person of his calibre could have been doing for income but it must’ve been ridiculous. That left Suit with the day-to-day running of Shack. I had to give credit to him; it couldn’t have been easy to work seven days a week in a place as you slowly watch it dissolve into obscurity. All of his money simmering away to mush like so many day-old unsold frankfurters in a bain-marie. They had devised an economically viable way of utilising staff under Suit’s regime: only bring one in each day. The plan being that Suit would sit in his office while one person manned the tills. Orders were scarce so Suit could spend time going over the numbers in the back office, only being called to action when somebody ordered something that he was required to make. The hardest part, as the hours cracked and imploded in on themselves, was the knowledge that there could be no relaxation while Suit was in. He just sat out back, looking like Hank from King of the Hill, being miserable. Sometimes he would come and stand just behind you to one side, arms folded in disgust, as though he was some kind of conscience figure, alarmed at how stupid everybody was. These eight hour shifts were spent in silent meditation. Meditating on how much I’d like a drink, mostly.
Time was palpable. At one stage I remember we didn’t get a customer for one hour and nine minutes. That was 69 minutes of standing completely still. It was like being a guard outside Buckingham Palace, but dressed even more stupidly. My hands took a chemical sheen from the amount of times I would use the antiseptic handwash to have something to do.
Sometimes the Mikes would suggest that a certain day was going to be busier and they would bring in more than the one member of staff for a shift. They were naive to think this but time after time they did. Suit often suggested that June was ‘statistically the worst month for selling hot-dogs’ and that things would pick up in August, or maybe September. It was quite a strange phenomenon to have two people come in for shifts, with a fair days pay for a fair days work on their minds, only to be unceremoniously told by Suit or Fat that one of us would need to go home. The first time this happened I assumed that one of us would get to go home and still be paid, as we were contracted to a certain number of hours. When I asked this, Fat barked and Suit informed me that this was not the case; that one of us would have to go home and remain unpaid for all but the one or two hours we were there. Despite the fact that you couldn’t buy a meal in Spoons for one hours Shack pay there was always a mad scramble to see which of the staff would be lucky enough to go home. Usually I’d frame it sympathetically, and say that the other person could take the shift, I’d lower my head in faux-disconsolation and the other person would begrudgingly thank me. This scenario happened so frequently that I believe I was sent home without pay from more shifts than I worked. If Fat was on that day his emotions would overcome him and he would offer you the chance to take home a hot-dog, as a consolation prize. But not one from the warming cabinet, thankfully.
That summer was hot and I was temporarily staying at my girlfriend’s room on campus and, unfortunately, didn’t have a key. So on the frequent days when I would be exiled from the lush pastures of the food-court, I would have nowhere to go. The only other person who might be in the halls-of-residence was an angry man called Andrew who looked like a cricket blown-up to human proportions. But I couldn’t ask him because he would ask me to clean the grill. He always wanted me to clean the grill. This meant that I could either stay in town and drink at spoons or go to the student bar and drink there. It was a hard choice considering that either way I would be sure to spend more than I had made that day at work. The main issue was the fact that wherever I went I would have to go there dressed in my baseball uniform, with my cap in my hand. One occasion saw me so desolate at the prospect of traipsing around town being hounded by school children for looking like a twat, that I bought myself a jumper. It was £20 and it was 30 degrees out. So that gave me my sweaty, uncomfortable disguise. Nobody would know who I truly was. Then it was just the time to kill. I opted for a drink-included meal at Spoons which saw my total for the day rise to £25, up to £30 at least by the time I could feasibly walk back home.
“Good day at work?” my girlfriend would ask.
“I made a loss of £25” I said, as I wiped the pork sweat from my forehead.
“No, no, no, I’m not doing it, I can’t, I won’t!” were the wails echoing around the food court. We watched the source of this commotion with only half-hearted interest as we’d seen this display several times before.
Being exposed to the public all day meant you witnessed a pretty generous slice of society as the weeks drifted by, and of course every society has its share of oddballs and eccentrics, Guildford being no exception. You were in for some entertainment if you spied the portly adolescent male who would take the elevator up to the food court to try to overcome an unusual phobia of his.
The guy was terrified of escalators.
“No I’m not doing it, thank you! Not today!” he’d cry in fear as he stood at the summit of those chomping metal stairs. He’d be visually shaking and shiny with perspiration.
“Go on, you can do it!” were the supportive yells from presumably the boy’s mother stood several feet back.
“I don’t know, maybe not today, maybe tomorrow, not.. not.. not today I think!” By this stage the lad’s performance would be generating a lot of stares to add to the pressure, not to mention a queue of impatient shoppers forming behind him for whom the escalators didn’t pose such a ghastly threat.
“Come on!” the mother encouraged. “We’ve discussed this! You have to just do it darling, you have to let go!”
He’d hover a quivering foot over that endless churning tide of sharp steel edges, desperately hyperventilating with his eyes screwed shut, before always ultimately bawling “NO, NO NOT TODAY THANK YOU!” and wrestling his way back through the crowd that had formed behind him. Some of the girls used to feel quite sad for the young escalaphobe but the circus act he put on would make me laugh so hard I had to sit down for a bit.
However the main freak to keep an eye out for was the Guildford Bearded Lady. For some reason during the 3 years I lived and studied there I never really gave the town’s bewhiskered female resident much consideration, she was just a noteworthy local feature that you became accustomed to seeing, like The Cathedral where they filmed The Omen or The Star Inn which used some haphazard building contractors and thus was slanted at a 20 degree angle for over a year. It was only after I’d graduated and moved out that I stopped and suddenly thought, good God, there used to be an actual bearded fucking lady wandering around.
Brenda, as she was allegedly named, measured in at 5 foot nothing, was never seen without her floor-length leopard-print coat, and of course modelled a great shaggy grey beard to complement her wild white mane of a haircut. This was a few years before Conchita Wurst came onto the scene to make stubbled sisters a bit of a style icon, so back then Brenda’s hairstyle made her true carnival freak show fodder. But she’d happily shuffle around town buying cups of tea and sitting down to clumsily reapply mascara, in fact the food court was one of her regular haunts so I knew it surely couldn’t be too long until I’d actually have to serve this creature.
I was out soullessly distributing fliers in the busy shopping centre bottleneck when I saw her approach, her biologically improbable beard swaying in the summer breeze. It was my tendency to try to unload a pamphlet on literally everyone who walked by as the sooner I was rid of them the sooner I could return upstairs to sit on a kickstool playing the snowboarding game on my phone and watching Eva struggle to stay awake as she sailed into her 113th consecutive hour at work. Shamefully my first instinct was to overlook the bearded lady and instead hand a flier to a normal human being. To be honest I likely would have thought the same even if she was clean-shaven; this deranged, mad-eyed crone tottering down the street, 70 years old if she was a day and I suspect a long-term homeless. Something had clearly gone wrong in her life for her to become this lame, shuffling misfit – who was I to make her life any worse by encouraging her to eat at Shack?
But as she shambled nearer I realized I’d seen her a couple dozen times and yet never once heard her speak, and was suddenly flooded with an inexplicable desire to know what she sounded like, something I could surely achieve by invoking conversation about the new fast food chain I was poorly publicizing. Would her tone be light and feminine, or gruff and masculine and tobacco-starched, or even rich and mahogany like the very Father of Christmas she so resembled?
I waited until she was within a veritable whisker of me before ambushing her with a copy of Shack’s menu and the latest laughable offer the Mikes were pushing (“buy a coffee and get 5 boxes of popcorn for the price of 3!”) She appeared shocked and confused that this man was speaking to her seemingly utterly free of prejudice, and he was wearing a smile that was quasi-genuine rather than the everyday reaction from the public of fingers being pointed and children crying and loud anxious denouncements that “there is no God!” Eventually, in a slightly cracked but clearly womanly voice, she gratefully said “thank you” and began poring over the flier she’d been handed.
Indeed she was so pleasantly surprised that just a couple hours later she actually approached me at the till to buy a meal, which she ordered in her same convincingly female pitch. In addition to the obvious feature Brenda was famous for another was her incredibly rigid dietary routine – she would show up on the Food Court most days but only ever go to McDonald’s for one cheeseburger and one cup of tea, so for her to venture into new culinary pastures was a big deal. I suppose it was a day of unusual firsts for both of us: it’s not every day you find yourself dressed as a baseball player talking sausages with a bearded lady, not unless you live solely on a diet of peyote.
The legend behind Brenda, by the way, goes that she’s actually a man who became unhinged after the death of his wife and began wearing all her clothes, perfume and make-up, presumably to help him imagine she was still alive and going around doing her shopping, buying microwaved hot dogs, etc. It would certainly explain the grimy state of the fur coat, all stained and mottled like Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. But Brenda clearly hasn’t totally lost it; she was still astute enough that once she’d finished her soggy Mush Puppy, frozen potato salad and room-temperature Shackuccino, I never saw her buy from Shack again.
It was the summer of 2010 and the world cup had begun. The sport of football can often put people in a festive mood, or a violent one, and Sausage Shack were looking to capitalise. For some time I had been suggesting to Suit that we should sell beer at the Shack; that hot-dogs and pretzels would perfectly accompany a nice cool lager. Obviously the perfect setting for this would be at some outdoor event, in the sunshine, probably as part of a loud enraptured crowd. As things stood, the food-court had been battling with the TV audiences of the world cup for dominance over the hearts and stomachs of Guildford’s population, and the food court was losing.
“We should sell beer, Mike” I said to Suit for the tenth time as we looked out on the dwindling lunch-time shoppers. “Maybe get some flat screen TVs to go above Shack, so people can watch the football here.” Suit seemed pleased at my enthusiasm for Shack’s success. Little did he know that I actually thought it was a crazy idea and that, by selling alcohol, the shopping centre would devolve into chaos and Sausage Shack would be ultimately unlikely to benefit.
“I’d love to sell beer, Luke. Lord knows I would.”
“So why don’t we?”
“We’re not allowed. I’ve asked the Friary management who told me it was an outlandish idea that they would never go for. They don’t have the licensing for it either.”
Obviously, this was a sensible move on the part of the Friary management team. Why would any shopping venue that closed at 5pm every day think it was a good idea to sell beer? Suit was letting himself be deluded by my desire to drink watery lager from Matt’s Hannah Montana mug. That would’ve been great. Fat didn’t care, he still firmly believed that the Shackuccino would come to their rescue; he held out little hope for the Shack Smoothie, which was terrible.
“Maybe we could just sell beer on the sly. Give it to people in an unmarked cup.” I just wanted to see Peter Cryer pouring pints in both his day and night job.
“Maybe, Luke, maybe. That’s not such a bad idea.”
With the beer idea firmly planted in Suit’s head I thought it would only be a matter of time before he did something stupid. The world cup would soon be drawing to a close and enthusiasm would die well before that upon England’s exit. He didn’t have much time and the customer base was low. Even during neutral matches there was little business to be had. Suit always kept the faith, however.
“You see, this will actually work in our favour” he said, trying to pique my interest on a quieter than normal day.
“Well, there are going to be far fewer people visiting McDonald’s and Subway on days like these.” And that was true, there were fewer people visiting those outlets. “So, we can probably capitalise on that and get their old customers.”
I didn’t want to point out the fatal flaw in Suit’s logic. He had fallen into a Fat trap and said something completely nonsensical. It was far more tragic with his sullen gaze, however, as he said it with absolute business sincerity and without Fat’s trademark maniacal head swivelling.
Typically, in a new food outlet, there might be a week where free samples and flyers are given out to boost sales and awareness. This had lasted five weeks at Shack and it seemed to show no sign of slowing down. We would waste product putting an unclean tray of hot-dogs out, cut up into bite size pieces that were of a far greater bread to meat ratio than would successfully entice a potential customer. People would walk past on their way to Subway and taste one, feel the crunch of the stale bread in their mouth, grimace, and walk away. But the most humiliating aspect of their marketing ploys was when they asked us to approach tables of youths with special offer posters (posters that the Mikes also expected me to deliver to people around campus while I wasn’t even working). These youths were intimidating for their money and arrogance. I was always sweaty and smelling of pork but both Fat and Suit insisted that we act up to the task; that we really sell ourselves and our brand. What this generally consisted of was a gradual approach towards a table, shuffling sideways like a crab, chucking the flyers into their midst and revealing that ‘my boss wanted me to give you these’ – said as quickly as possible before running back to the folded arms of Suit Michael. On one occasion Suit went over there himself and was with one group for a considerable amount of time. I felt sorry for them, I thought he would drag them over to the counter by their ears. Fat would have done a little better, in hindsight. He had the air of a less insidious Boris Johnson and people might have reacted to him like they would a clown with a flower in his lapel.
It was during one of England’s world cup group games that I was working a shift at Shack that these delusional marketing ploys reached a new nadir. Suit was out back going over the numbers (which must have all been either zero or negative) and I was stood out front. The food court was as bare as I had ever seen it. We hadn’t had a customer in half an hour and there were now maybe one or two people left sitting at tables. Suit called me back to the office.
“Luke,” he said, handing me some flyers, “go and hand these out.”
“But Mike,” I started.
“To young people! We want the young crowd in here.”
I took the flyers and went out the door to the food court. There were well over 100 tables littering the open-plan layout and not a single one was occupied. The food court was completely empty. For the first time I had ever seen it this way. There weren’t even any cleaners around since everything had already been cleaned. Somebody behind the counter at McDonald’s saw me with a handful of flyers and I met their eye. I shrugged.
I went back and told Suit that the food court had completely emptied out. There was nobody to give these flyers to. There were no potential customers. He came out to the tills with me to check for himself. He seemed calm, passive even.
“Well, Luke… Summer is statistically the worst time for selling hot-dogs.”
Of course it is Mike. Of course it is.
Around this time I had a friend’s party to attend in the affluent climbs of Godalming. My ex-girlfriend would be there, and although we’d broken up a while back and were on perfectly civil terms I still had some neuroses about making sure I turned up looking the epitome of well-being and success, like I had to prove I was capable of living my life well without her in it. But I had no time to change after work and it was a shitty South West Trains service where it seems compulsory for all the toilets to be filled to the brim, to the very millimetre, with dark amber urine, so I didn’t fancy getting changed in the lavatories either. The upshot was I had to turn up the party, late and bedraggled with bloodshot eyes and stinking of pissy trains mixed with undercooked meat, still in my condiment-spattered baseball gear, attracting gawks and uproarious laughter from the chilled-out gregarious party goers drinking around the pool. Whilst I had a bag of clothes to get changed into a drink was thrust into my hand before I had the chance and so I spent about half the night in my ridiculous get-up, which at one stage had near enough a whole bottle of rosé wine spilled over it.
I woke up hungover the next morning and had to go straight to work still in my pinot grigio’d uniform. Happily Fat didn’t seem to notice that I stank of stale wine, or if he did he didn’t mention it, he was far too busy blustering about in a sort of lazy panic knocking things over and tripping up on power cables. Fat relied heavily on his slimmer, smarter, suited business partner, so on days like this when Suit wasn’t around to quietly inform Fat that his flies were undone or he had his hand in the George Foreman grill again there was the unmistakable shared feeling that absolutely no one was in charge. During Shack’s early period the couple were nigh on inseparable but these days, either as there wasn’t enough custom to keep them both busy or, more likely, they could no longer stand the sight of one another, Suit and Fat alternated when they oversaw proceedings. Shifts with Suit were dull but calm; shifts with Fat were chaotic but funny.
The main benefit of only having Fat supervising was that he was often so distracted by his own myriad problems that he couldn’t keep tabs on you. Luke, Peter, Lucy and Eva were all working on this day when both my clothes and brain were saturated with wine, and as I knew Fat would doubtless be occupied with his tie caught in a shredder or having dropped his car keys in the bain-marie or something I was able to slink out to the staff bathroom, perch myself on one of the toilets, and have a little snooze using my baseball cap up against the cubicle wall as a pillow. It wasn’t the most comfortable nor the most dignified of sleeps but in my ailing state I was thankful for it, plus I was getting paid to do it, albeit a mere pittance.
Unfortunately of course to minimize staff costs the Mikes sent almost everyone home after the lunchtime rush had diminished, leaving only one person to man the tills and one person slapping the food together. Despite clearly not being fit to work I was the delegate left to serve customers, watching enviously as Peter, Luke and Lucy merrily packed up and bounced off home. The remaining hours dragged; there was nothing to do, no one besides overworked Eva to talk to, and without anyone else to watch the tills I couldn’t even sneak out for another lavatorial siesta.
Somehow I made it through to the end of the work day without falling asleep on my feet or vomiting into my hat. With just 5 minutes until closing time we were all occupied with the general mundane groundskeeping like mopping floors, filing receipts, binning mountains of unsold produce, etc, that was necessary before we could shut up shop after yet another unprofitable day. Fat had set himself the easy task of checking the temperature of the 2 freezers with a little digital thermometer – as long as they measured minus 18 degrees centigrade or less then things were fine, and all the expensive Ben & Jerry’s miniatures would keep until morning.
A customer approached just as I was finishing stacking trays, a youngish, inquisitive type who’d never seen us before and was curious about what we sold. I explained the basics of what we offered, what was good value for money, and what she should definitely stay clear of if she valued her sense of taste, and she actually seemed impressed and intrigued, as if she were about to take the bait and make a purchase. But it was difficult to concentrate on securing the sale as I could detect Fat just beside me becoming increasingly exercised, and just as the girl was about to open her mouth to order something I heard “oh my God Matt, look!” bellow from my tubby manager.
I twisted a pained smile at the customer as if to assure her this was just the way we did things at our unorthodox little food outlet, muttered “just one moment!” to her and turned to see Fat thrusting a small red box at me with a screen that read ‘1’.
“One!” Fat yelled. “One!”
For a moment I thought he was brandishing a calculator and had only just realized that numbers existed. I stared at him with my heavy, tired eyes, not even trying to disguise my contempt.
“Sorry.. what?” I managed.
“The freezers! The bloody freezers! They’re at 1 degree! Plus one!!”
He was fidgeting and gibbering like a madman but I managed to gain from him that clearly both our freezers had bust and all the stock inside was melting. “OK, so what do we do?” I asked.
“I don’t know, we’ve got to.. come on we’ve got to..!” he spluttered, before desperately waddling to the freezer, wrenching the door open, and scooping two dozen pots of ice cream into his cradled arms. Instantly he began dropping them, each container making a quiet, hollow schlop noise as it hit the floor and burst open. I honestly thought he was about to cry.
“Come on Matt, grab the rest!!” Fat ordered.
“But I’ve got a customer..” I explained, gesturing at the patiently bemused girl watching all this unfold.
“Oh leave her!” he shouted. “Who cares about her?! All our ice cream’s melting here! COME ON!”
I shrugged apologetically at her and wrestled the remaining tubs into my grasp. Fat was nowhere to be seen but I easily found him by following the trail of spilled ice cream he left in his wake. He was in the central store room shared by all the food chains in the court, dumping what little ice cream he still held into the main freezers. The front of his shirt was soaked and he was beet red with exhaustion, but once my supply of Ben & Jerry’s was safely stored away as well he looked up at me with genuine happiness. For once, without Suit’s supervision, he had successfully resolved a problem. He’d been quick-thinking and resourceful, and probably saved them £100 in what would otherwise have been spoiled goods.
“Thank God for that,” he said. “Good work, Matt!” I smiled at him wearily, my head pounding – all that running and carrying had catalysed what was an abating hangover. Just as I was about to wander back to see if, amazingly, that customer was still there awaiting service, Fat frowned and murmured “wait there one second…”
Slowly and pensively he lowered the thermometer into the industrial freezer where our ice cream now sat. He must have been concerned that whatever had tripped the power to our freezers had also affected the Friary’s main one, something I found doubtful as no other fast food managers were running out here to save their defrosting foodstuffs, and besides you could feel the iciness emanating from it even with the doors shut. There was surely no way this freezer could be defective as well?
We stood in the supply closet uneasily, waiting for the thermometer to adjust to its new surroundings and register a temperature. Fat would have willingly sold a testicle at this point for that thermometer to now read minus 18. He retrieved the device from the ice box which contained all the Ben & Jerry’s, and we both leaned in to see the read-out.
“One! One degree!!” Fat roared. “All the freezers are at plus one!! What do I do??”
He hauled all the ice cream out again and held it in his sweaty grip, running around impotently for somewhere cool he could store it, looking like a grief-stricken mother clutching her miscarried foetus. I could feel my hangover pulsating through my body. My baseball shirt was blotted with day-old wine and my trainers covered in melted Phish Food. My lower back ached from sleeping sitting upright on a toilet. Having never had a job before, I couldn’t even be sure these weren’t the same symptoms to be found from all employment.
So there I was, there in the supply room of the Friary Centre. Watching a fully grown man clutching gallons of ice cream to his breast, howling like a wild animal. The pathos of this would stay with me for an eternity. I knew I had to leave this job, it must have been intensely psychologically damaging to have to technically consider this creamy beast of a man an authority figure. How had I found myself in a position where this guy was in charge of my salary??
Fat looked at me again, the confused look of a dog lying on a veterinary stretcher. “What do I doooooo???” he yelled again.
We found out the next morning, when Suit was in, that it was the thermometer that was broken, stuck on 1.
That evening saw Luke and I in Rubix, our student union club. We were both so densely fatigued from our pitiful job that even a dozen Jägerbombs each couldn’t perk us up. Just as we were staggering back to the bar an attractive Fresher girl wheeled around and cried “hey, I recognize you guys!”
Luke and I smiled at one another. We were often being identified as the hosts of a series of videos on YouTube called Will It Post?, where we filmed the surprisingly entertaining process of posting ourselves things that have no right being posted, such as a cactus, a hard-boiled egg, a used pregnancy test etc, sans packaging just with our address scribbled straight on the item wherever there was space, to see if they returned. It became strangely popular, and fans would not infrequently ask us for photos with them.
Since our constant hangovers had eclipsed making episodes for the last couple months our level of celebrity was down so it was nice this girl recognized us to let us know we were still on the radar. We were used to the patter by now so smiled and expressed our gratitude and told her “keep watching Will It Post?!” and went to walk off, but she just frowned and said “eh? Will it post? What’s that? No I recognize you from that food place in the Friary! Selling sausages yeah? Shit is hilarious!” Luke and I shamefully acknowledged that that was us, and the girl told her crowd of friends who promptly burst into hysterics. “Mate, where’s your baseball outfit??” one particularly punchable-looking lad yelled, further inflaming the cruel laughter. What with yesterday’s pool party this was now the second group in as many days to physically point and holler with laughter at me. Kid Cudi’s Day ‘N’ Nite song came on again as we two young adults wallowed in the ignominy of our employment. The queue for the bar was too long to get any more Jägerbombs so we dejectedly sidled home, besides, we had sausages to sell come morning.
It was becoming tiresome, this Shack malarkey. To think that six weeks and three measly pay-packets had come and gone on the back of a joke application was staggering. I would never be one to dismiss any type of work, having had some other vile employments in my time, Shack was actually a step up from some. But I wanted independence from the monopoly that Shack held over my time; never being assured that I would have a full shift, and thus a full days pay, but still being contractually obliged to remain without plans for that period in case Fat had another harebrained scheme that required me to do something humiliating. I was tired of it and wanted freedom. I sensed Matt did as well.
Money didn’t come easily to me (except during term-time when I would be saddled with debt in the form of student loans) so I knew that I couldn’t just quit and expect to continue having fun. We needed a plan to make a fast buck. I had some success in eating and drinking through a combination of carefully structured complaints and praise aimed at companies just small enough that they might respond with free product. It worked surprisingly well, especially with Italian restaurants, well-known high-street chicken restaurants and purveyors of delicious strawberry cider. I enjoyed these spoils for a while and also took to raiding the bins of various supermarkets and shops. The Co-Op had a wildly enticing selection most nights; éclairs, butter, rolls… always lots of rolls. While this kept me in food I will still going to be lacking, once I parted ways with the Mikes, a source of strong drink.
My finances mirrored Luke’s. You can’t really build a nest-egg when you’re working for less than £5 an hour and most times that you turn up for work you’re swiftly sent home again. Worse, the tenancy at my student house had expired and I couldn’t move into my new one for another month; ordinarily I’d return home to Reading and spend my summer there but my contractual ties to Shack meant I had to temporarily find somewhere in Guildford to stay. If my Shack pay hadn’t been so insulting I might have lodged in a B&B for that time, but with the wallet-crumbs the Mikes disdainfully tossed me once a month there was no way that was viable, I couldn’t even afford a hostel.
Thankfully my friend Sasha was moving back to Wales until the Uni term began and gave me permission to squat in her room until she returned. I turned up gratefully on the day she left carrying nothing but a rucksack of baggy clothes and my temperamental laptop to find that she had stripped the room practically bare, all the bedding was gone, all the towels, even the curtains. I found a sheet in the spare room covered in indecent mucousy stains to wrap around me at night, and rectified the lack of curtains by covering the windows with a collage of Bob Marley posters appropriated from the living room. The window was East-facing, so every morning the Sun would beat onto my grotty bed illuminating Bob’s huge, burbling, stoner face, until the heat relaxed the blue-tack sufficiently for it to lose its adhesion and send the posters plummeting down onto the wood flooring, kicking up an explosion of dust into my sleepy miserable face.
This groundless nomadic lifestyle might suit you if you’re Jack Kerouac and your main daily concern is what U.S state to get laid in that night, but when you have to serve the public with an ostensibly genuine smile on your face under the authority of a halfwit who resembles the very pigs he sells it all becomes just too much. Luke and I agreed there must be another way, so after work we put our entrepreneurial minds together and concentrated on dreaming up a get-rich-quick scheme.
Myself and Matt hatched a plan to invent a small business selling t-shirts. It was going to be a revolutionary affair and, in the sunshine with bellies full of cider, we actually saw ourselves potentially making a fair old bit of cash. Idealistically we mulled over print designs and dye styles, fantasising about selling them on Brighton’s seafront to legions of tourists. Going over the numbers in our heads in the back garden of Matt’s squat; all of the numbers a lot more optimistic than what Suit must have been staring at.
All throughout this time I would go to work at Shack, but I stood motionless at the tills, envisioning myself making a steady income and spending it all on warm Fosters and miniature cigars. Suit’s daily exclamations of statistics in relation to monthly hot-dog sales were getting to be a depressing bore and the customer base was miniscule. Kebab Express reopened its shutters (it had been a temporary closure) and Suit said with derision: “It’ll never last.” and he folded his arms. The future of Shack was most uncertain and we, the employees, expected a maximum of two or three more months before it went under and Fat ate all the stock in some kind of misguided protest. Quitting would be the perfect way out into a life of ease and self-determination. Matt and I even decided that we would quit while Peter Cryer was on holiday so that he returned to work and was miserably the only person still required to dress as a baseball player out of our immediate friends.
Early one Sunday Luke woke me up by way of text, my phone erupting into a deafening spasm against the hard wood it lay on. I jolted upright, my natural reaction to this foreign bed I was sleeping in, and clattered over a tower of empty cherry Tango cans beside me, they being my go-to hangover cure at the time. Bob Marley smirked maliciously at the scene unfurling before him.
Luke’s text was to alert me that today we began our ascent to affluent T-shirt magnates. I was to meet him by the lake on campus for some experimental research, and I was to bring a plain coloured T-shirt that I “didn’t mind ruining”. Clutching an old green shirt and some breakfast beers I met up with Luke who was carrying a bottle of bleach, and with a cheerful perfunctory warning to shield my eyes he started splashing the chemical all over my T-shirt which lay on the ground. “This will dye the shirt” he explained, “to create a really cool, trippy pattern.”
To his credit, the bland T-shirt was soon decorated with a white kaleidoscopic spiral and did indeed look better for it. It was of such a good quality that when I wore the top out that evening people refused to believe that Luke and I had created such a garment. With just a small investment in some plain shirts and a drop of hydrogen peroxide our potential seemed limitless, right up to Tuesday of that week, when the bleach splatters had begun to slowly corrode holes in the shirt’s fabric. Luke surveyed the tattered T-shirt forlornly. “Maybe we should think of a different way of dying them,” he said, slightly nasally, and arms crossed subconsciously in an eerie reproduction of Suit.
The T-shirt business would ultimately be both a success and a failure. We called it Latthew Hose Independent Retailers, or something stupid like that. We settled on Tie-dye t-shirts and would sell them online and in Guildford, as well as to our friends, but the dream of travelling to Brighton to sell them on sun-bleached seafronts was never realised. We started small and I put an order in to a wholesaler for around 20 t-shirts (all medium) and we bought some dye, which was actually extortionately expensive. A glorious day was spent, looking back without nostalgia at our time at Shack, dying the t-shirts while drinking away another summer afternoon. It was a promising start and, even though the designs were probably 80% terrible, we thought we would be able to sell them.
However, like most of the heart’s desires, things soon turned to shit. We had sold about half the stock (the good half – the other ten were poorly dyed and just looked like all-blue or all-red t-shirts) and we had some money with which to buy more t-shirts. The plan was to buy extra stock and sell them. With that next batch of money we would divide it between buying more stock and getting drunk and eating Wetherspoons mixed grills. Our plan almost went well apart from a disaster involving a lift in a friend’s car to Wales that never materialised. We had to spend the Latthew Hose cash on train fare. Leaving nothing left for t-shirts.
Needless to say, after this our momentum died. We had no enthusiasm for the t-shirt game in which we had been somewhat profitable; our loans would soon be coming in and the money situation could be deferred for another year. I suppose, as our zeal for t-shirts faded in much the same way our enjoyment of Sausage Shack deteriorated you might say that the moral of this story is that nothing is ever as good as it first seems and that we’re all doomed to fail and be unhappy. Or there is no moral and it was just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Luke had sent the probably not even fraternally related employees of Brothers cider a complaint letter pretending he’d found an odd white residue floating atop the last batch he bought, and they’d been good enough to send an entire crate back by way of apology. We mirthlessly dove into this crate and every other alcoholic fluid in Luke’s room, sitting amongst piles of unsold T-shirts and piles of undistributed Shack fliers. The place was like a shrine to our idleness.
After both slurring our hatred for Shack the whole night long we agreed that the next day we’d definitely quit. We’d both escape on the same day and if we could do so without telling Peter then maybe we could pass off the whole terrible couple months as just one elaborate practical joke. Normally I succeed in forgetting everything when I drink but this was such a significant pledge that “I quit” was on the tip of my tongue instantly upon waking. It was 8am, I had to be at Shack by 9 but having never had a job I was completely ignorant to the notion of handing in a notice and guessed I could just phone Suit, tell him to stick his shitty under-paid job in the bain marie, and go back to sleep for 12 or 14 hours.
The Mikes had given us their personal mobile numbers in case we ever needed to get in contact, naively assuming a couple of jackasses like Luke and I could be trusted with them. This came back to bite them when us two, drunk and a little high at the Greenman Festival in Wales, the one we were forced to exorbitantly travel to by train as Luke alluded to above, amused ourselves for hours by calling Fat and Suit simultaneously on different phones and then putting the receivers to one another to hear the confused conversation. “Hi this is Mike” “Oh hi Mike!” “Hi Mike!” “..how can I help Mike?” “Sorry Mike?” “How can I help Mike?” “But you called me Mike…” “No, you called me Mike” “Mike no, I’m certain it was you, Mike, who called me, Mike, Mike.” “….” “….” “You’ve lost me Mike.”
Suit’s number was at the apex of my ‘most called’ list therefore, but this was not a time for practical jokes. He answered “Michael Whittaker” in his imitable nasal tone.
“Hi Mike, it’s Matt” I groaned down the phone. “I’m afraid I can’t come in today, actually I have to quit, because I have a dissertation to do so won’t be able to commit time to working at Shack. Thanks for all the experience though!”
This sounded a comprehensive enough soundbite in my head but Suit was having none of it. “No you’ll still need to come in today. And we’ll talk about your future shifts when you get here. Thanks Matt.” And he hung up.
I left the call just as employed as I had been 5 minutes ago, and ran to be sick in Sasha’s toilet. My drinking had been so excessive the night before I was vomiting blood and papery shreds of stomach lining, not the ideal candidate to be working at a food station that day. I buttoned up my baseball shirt with blood-stained fingers, my eyes furiously locked with the papery ones of Bob Marley, appalled that I’d let my life become this.
I quit by text. One morning that I had no shift (I didn’t want to completely screw the Mikes that day) I text Suit and gave him some falsified information about having to work on dissertation and it was final year and it was all very important. It was three messages long and, I think, very sincere. If you discount the fact that it was a text. Once it was sent I was relieved, I thought that this whole thing was finally over and I could do something else; hang up my spatula as it were. But soon after sending, a text came back from a completely unemotive Suit. “Fine Luke. Still need you to finish out the week.” Crap, I thought. My last shift was something that I don’t remember. Suit gave nothing away about how he felt about my quitting. He just seemed determined to make sure that August, although a statistically poor month for hot-dog sales, was more successful than June or July. He said goodbye and I promised that I would pop in from time to time, when studies allowed, of course. On my way out Fat accosted me and said that he needed the baseball shirts back and reiterated that they were very expensive and had been imported from America. I thought what a bad idea that had been. I gave him the sweaty shirt covered in yellow pork water and put my hoodie on over my bare chest. It wasn’t ideal but at least it wasn’t a Shack uniform. Fat’s wife said nothing to me. I asked if I could have a Chicago Beef for the road and Suit gave a soft hiss from his pursed lips and informed me that I could not.
I left the food court and the shopping centre with the itchy inner-fabric of my hoodie against the flesh of my abdomen. I didn’t look back at that place once; I just kept going for a future that I was sure would be both excellent and other positive adjectives.
Somehow I managed to keep my shirt. I still have it in my wardrobe now, 4 years later, as a reminder of my first job and the impotence of employment in general. I’ve had many ludicrous jobs since: solar panel salesman, garden furniture catalogue writer, restaurant critic, administrator in both a mental asylum and a sperm bank, but nothing compares to the fleeting time at Sausage Shack. It left me with such a defined contempt for authority figures, and perplexed scorn at anyone, at any level of their career, who treats their job with anything other than mild indifference. Now as I sit behind a desk in a suit selling advertising to reluctant clients I can’t help but feel a synonymy with standing behind that counter in a puddle of coffee, sour cream and Fat’s spittle, dressed as the New York Yankees, handing out soiled sausages to gullible passers-by, wishing the hours away until I could go home and drink as much as my minimal paycheck permitted. You never truly progress past the misery of your first job, you just grow older and number. You’re still dressed like an idiot somewhere hot and hostile to your olfaction, upselling goods you yourself wouldn’t touch for love nor money, slaving under some vacuous and false slogan like “It’s all good!” At least the motley Shack had soul.
Peter Cryer was pleasantly disturbed to arrive at work one day and hear from Suit that Luke and I had quit. “You’re not going to give me this rubbish about quitting because of your dissertation too are you?” Suit asked sternly. Peter assured him he wouldn’t and then, 2 days later, did precisely that. He was replaced by two airhead teenage girls, making the staff all female with the noticeable exception of the Mikes (lanky homosexual Harry seemed to have dissolved into absolute obscurity some weeks prior). On Pete’s last day he reported a rabidly excited Fat proclaim that with the new swing towards an all-girl workforce he’d taken the liberty of ordering them all new uniforms. Employees would no longer be attired as baseball players, they would be cheerleaders! Cheerleaders with breast-hugging, navel-exposing tops and labia-glimpsingly short skirts. And yes, these uniforms were mandatory. Lucy and friends giggled with sultry excitement but poor Eva, the middle-aged drudge who worked round the clock with a quiet but dignified diligence, dropped her pot of onion flakes in horror. She left soon after that dress-code announcement, leaving just Suit, Fat, their increasingly unsupportive wives, and four 17-year-old cheerleaders who spent all day texting, standing under the big neon word “Sausage”, selling toasties.
Three months later Shack was gone, a gaping hole in the side of the Friary food court, no evidence it had ever been there but the odd shred of the Stars & Stripes bunting that adorned it, the lingering narcotic smell of microwaved frankfurters, and the haunting echo of their slogan in the wind. It’s all good. It is alllll good.
From left: Suit, Peter, Matt, Luke, Fat, Kaiya, Eva, Lucy