A swish of steam whistles from the kettle’s nifty little snout. Its melodic hiss echoes through the confined, clinical staffroom it finds itself in. A bite-sized inferno of frenzied energy, fleeing its chamber, sending slithers of condensation crawling up the cold vinyl and lifeless tiling.
I pour the simmering water into four cups. Aromas of overly sweetened coffee, incensed earl grey, elegant green and fiery black tea sail up my nostrils. The sundry of familiar aromas activates my amygdala and hippocampus, signalling the ritualistic union brought about by the blue shift’s break time.
How I ended up here is anyone’s guess. Not the staffroom. I walked here after the recess bell jingled. I’m on about the job. After all, working as a stock assistant in my early 30s wasn’t always on one’s agenda. I had grand plans, once upon a time. After university, I was going to be a screenwriting lecturer, or a film researcher, or something equally as academic. I was adamant I’d spend the rest of my days entertaining the part of my mind forever calling out for intellectual stimuli. Instead, I’m packing pet food on ramshackle shelving, day after day. All of this was meant to be a temporary affair; a side hustle as I saved my money in preparation for a PhD. One decade later, I find myself handcuffed to a mortgage and job I’m too afraid to walk away from.
I place drink number one down on the staff table next to Craig. A grunt of gratitude escapes his mouth.
Craig is 17, as charismatic as a bar of soap and perhaps as quick witted as one. On the surface, he’s moody, occasionally standoffish and somewhat rude. Deep down, however, there appears to be a bit more lurking. An enigmatic, likeable and strangely moreish chap who people seem drawn toward. Beyond work and study, Craig dedicates much of his time to working on his YouTube channel, which he runs with best mate, Barry. The pair post mindless prank videos, the sort where they venture into supermarkets and ask confused shoppers if they could point them toward the uranium. I’m still trying to deduce where the humour lies in such content, as difficult as such an endeavour may be.
The YouTubing duo’s goal is to someday transform themselves into global internet stars; scooping up enough revenue to make them wealthy beyond words. What’s most bewildering is the fact it looks to be coming into fruition. Much like the man himself, Craig’s channel is an imbecilic yet oddly captivating shambles. Like a grubby takeaway everyone knows is bad for them, people can’t seem to help themselves. Audiences lap his content up like famished pups, making the pair a surprisingly popular team. His decision to continue working here while he wraps up his studies is something of equal surprise. After all, it’s not as though you see PewDiePie or Logan Paul topping up the Pick n Mix counters at their local retailers.
Kayleigh holds her hand out to take mug number two from me. She smiles her warmest smile before miming a “thank you” in my direction.
Also 17, Kayleigh is as sharp as a shiny new razor. She aims to study Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at Oxford University after graduating college. A mind brimming with intelligence and charm. She’s a fire who bedazzles every room she enters. Sure, she appears a little distracted at times. But who wouldn’t be with a brain as brilliant as hers. So young, so smart, so rife with potential. It’s clear she’s going to go far in this world.
I pass mug number three to Cath. Her head pokes up from behind her weathered paperback of 22 Seconds. “Thank you, darling,” she utters, before hurrying back to the world of Lindsay Boxer.
Cath is one of those rarities who appears whole-heartedly content with her existence. Once upon a time she had plans to become a writer. Apparently, she was fairly good at it too. She even won a competition in which the prize was a mentorship with some big-wig author. Despite her friends and family screaming for her to run with the offer, she turned it down. She’d discovered her love lay within reading stories, not telling them. She let the prize pass on to someone she believed to be more deserving of the offer. Now at the age of 50, she boasts of having a loving husband, two successful boys, grandchildren she adores, an undying obsession with James Patterson novels, and a job she genuinely enjoys. She doesn’t have fame, prestige, roaring ambitions or a bank account bustling with cash, but that’s fine by her. She holds no desire for any of the things our society associates with fulfilment. While the rest of the world scramble past one another, fighting to make a name for themselves before the jaws of death consume them, Cath waits patiently for the next Alex Cross book to hit shelves.
Mug number four remains with me. We already know my story. Unfulfilled, a touch bitter, and not utilising all my potential. Not exactly the sort of story that plucks heartstrings, warms souls or inspires enthusiasm. Then again, I’m sure I’m far from alone in donning such a fable. If anything, people can take comfort knowing they aren’t the only ones out there wondering when they took a wrong turn on life’s highway.
Craig gulps from his coffee cup, smiles, licks his lips, then sighs.
“Jeez. This baby’s loaded with sugar!”
“It’s as many spoons as you requested,” I remind him.
“I know,” he adds, taking another sizeable gulp. Another smile, lick and sigh, “It’ll give me a kick for the gym.”
“Just a suggestion,” Cath interjects, “but instead of working overtime on the stair stepper, have you considered not placing a pond’s worth of sugar water into your blood?”
He frowns, “don’t be daft. It all balances out.”
“She’s got a point. That stuff will rot you daft,” Kayleigh chimes in.
His eyes roll, “I enjoy what I enjoy. Let’s leave it at that, yea?”
Kayleigh shrugs. She blows on her steaming hot mug of green tea. The condensation summersaults across the staff table, vanishing up and away into nothingness.
Paperback in one hand, her cup of earl grey clasped in the other, Cath remains lost in the moment. With each sip, she exhales, expressing her approval of the tea’s predictable, perfumy perfection.
“Oh!” Cath snaps into life, nudging Kayleigh with her elbow as she does, “I meant to say, I saw Daren last week.”
“Hmm.” Kayleigh continues to fixate on the steamy, tanned liquid perched before her.
“He was with some young lady. Oh, she was ever so pretty. Could have been a model.”
“She is.” Kayleigh sloshes the mug from left to right, making the teabag dance amidst the light-yellow liquid.
“I’m not sure Kay wishes to talk about her ex, Cath” I suggest in as calm a tone as I can muster.
She pulls a face, burrowing her brain back into the text and tea.
“You two broke up?” Craig barks. “Want me to have him?”
She shoots him a don’t try it look.
Craig’s been attempting to date Kayleigh since the pair started college together. He’s as smitten as a kitten about her. She wasn’t so fussed by the idea at first, until he asked her to keep it on the down low. Apparently, it doesn’t look right for a rip-roaring bad lad like him to date a goodie two shoes like her. Fortunate for Kayleigh, she possesses enough self-esteem up her sleeve to tell him where to stick it. It’s safe to say the pair won’t be handholding in corridors any time soon.
“Sorry,” Craig adds. “I mean, I guess it was for the best. What with you moving down South next year.”
“If,” Kayleigh says. “I’ve got some serious work to plough through beforehand.”
“Whatever, you’ll smash those exams, smarty pants,” he smiles in her direction. Despite not wanting to, she finds herself cracking up a smirk in return.
She zones back in on her cup. Not that she’s drank a drop of it. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her finish one in the time she’s worked here. She just gawps at it each time, behaving as though it’s a peculiar piece of furniture. I’ve offered not to make her one, yet she insists she wants it. Such a waste of water. Such a waste of a teabag. Poor things.
“Aren’t you heading down that end next year too?” Cath asks Craig. Her eyes examine him from behind her paperback, “maybe the two of you can hook up!”
Craig blushes red. Kayleigh looks as though she’s trying to prevent herself from hurling.
“Yea, well Baz and I have been eying up some sweet flats in Camden,” he confirms.
“Camden?” I wonder, “a bit steep for a teen. Surely pranking isn’t that lucrative?”
Craig laughs, “Trust me, acting a fool pays by the truck load.”
“Then how come you’re still working here?” I didn’t mean for it to sound judgemental. Then again, I guess such a question is inherently bad-mannered.
“Sorry,” I add.
“No fret,” he winks, “Gotta do summit productive with my free time. Plus it means I get to spend it with you lovely ladies. Always worth the extra pocket money!” He downs his sugary coffee, climbs from his chair and vanishes into the hallway.
“For a big time celeb, he sure seems keen to stack them shelves,” I say as the staff door slams shut behind him.
“I don’t believe he makes that much, you know,”
“He posts enough flashy tat on Facebook. Flashier than anything affordable on this wage,” I remind her.
“Probably has a meaty inheritance on hand.”
She takes a sip from her tea, pulling the most blatant of winces as it brushes past her taste buds.
“Excited for Oxford?” I ask her.
“I guess.” A melancholic emptiness echoes beneath her response.
“Your mum and dad must be so proud,” Cath beams, squeezing Kayleigh’s hand.
“Do you ever think other places may be better?” she asks no one in particular.
“In what respect?” I wonder.
“It all feels a bit like Hogwarts, you know? All those medieval buildings and hubris. I like the chill vibe other opening days had to offer. Plus all my mates won’t be there. Is it really all that good?”
“Then why don’t you consider other options?” I suggest, “it’s your life.”
“Oi!” Cath yells, “this young lady has everything at her fingertips. Don’t say something so ridiculous!”
I’m too shocked to think of anything appropriate to respond with, so I just gawp at her instead. I feel my face glowing a deep red. An image of me hurling my cup at her daft face flashes before my eyes. I tell myself not to. It’ll only make everything worse.
Cath’s expression shifts from angry to embarrassed.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I don’t know what came over me.”
I smile and take a sip of my tea. It’s bitter, sharp, and a little too cold for my liking. Not quite as lively as it is when hot. My own fault. I should have enjoyed it while I had the chance.
Cath pulls herself away from her seat and tucks her book back into her bag. “I think I might head back down. Lots to put out before home time. You girls enjoy your break.”
She scuttles out the door, like a kid whose just been dismissed from the headteacher’s office.
I guzzle my lifeless cupful of caffein, praying it will help cool the inferno still foaming within.
“Hey,” Kayleigh whispers.
I glance over, only to see she has her fist raised out to me. Unsure on whether I’ve read the situation correctly, I bump it with mine. As my knuckles tap against hers, she opens it up like a budding flower. I had no idea kids still did that sort of thing. Perhaps she’s just paying homage to my crusty, has been generation. Either way, it’s a sweet gesture. No malice intended, regardless of context.
“Maybe I won’t go to Oxford.”
“No?” I ask.
“We’ll see. I hate being the smartest kid in the room. I guess going would make that a thing of the past. Then again, I hate anything Hogwarts related, so who knows”.
I laugh. She giggles back.
“You do you, yea?” I tell her, “you’re in control, despite what everyone will have you believe.”
“Right back at you,” she winks.
Kayleigh gathers the three empty mugs on the table and returns them to the sink.
“Maybe I’ll see you and Craig down in South someday. When the three of us have all hit the big time,” she suggests before leaving me and my drink to stew alone.
The lifeless room hums a dreary hum. The fridge, the rusty air conditioning unit in the corner, the rumble of delivery vans pulling away outside. So silent yet noisy.
Really though, how did I get here? When did this place become my future as well as my past? It was only meant to be a transient chapter between the major chapters of my story. None of this should have become part of the furniture.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the job. Work is work. Everyone’s got to pay the bills. Everyone’s got to get out of bed in the morning.
The job isn’t the problem.
Where’s the passion gone? The fire that once burned bright has fizzled into nothingness. My days of debating film theory, working to bring studio projects to life, drafting out treatments for screenwriting professors and planning presentations to defend dissertation topics with; that was when I was most alive.
These days I’m a cool, bland, bitter cup of grubby liquid. I left myself unattended for longer than planned.
I get up, tip the murky remains of my drink down the drain, then fire up the kettle one final time.
Is it normal to envy a kettle? I’m a vastly intellectual being whose species has dreamt up capabilities divine enough to make the Gods themselves proud. Yet here I am, the subject of a glorious civilisation, expressing resentment toward an appliance which serves brews to a gaggle of thirsty shelf stackers. There’s a glimmer of logic to my thinking, I suppose. It’s not as if I wish to literally become a beverage brewer. I’m not that down on my luck. What I would appreciate, however, is a nifty little snout of my own. A charming old gizmo designed to let the anger and passion fizzle from my soul in a controlled manner. Perhaps then I’d be less weighed down, less overwhelmed by existence and less prone to exploding into fits of frenzied despair whenever the inner madness gets too bloated for its own good.
As the appliance hisses and bubbles, I punch Film PhDs into my phone’s search bar.
Right back at me, indeed. A swish of steam whistles from the kettle’s nifty little snout. Perhaps it’s about time I did the same.