There it is. Like a monster, like a disease, like rubbish lying uncollected on the streets after a humanitarian disaster, like toxic flotsam tossed onto a polluted shore. Like the bizarre and poignant aftermath of an aircrash in which hundreds died but the crockery was saved. There it sits, haphazardly stacked and waiting, mugs at crazy angles, plates toppled into pans. Demanding to be dealt with. Smugly assuming that he’ll be the one to do it.
But if he doesn’t, who will? Stan sighs, curses himself, and puts on his apron.
The washing-up has been a bone of contention since pretty much forever. Everyone assumes that because Stan washes dishes all day at work, he might as well do it when he comes home too. Every time he sees a smeared pile of plates tottering beside the taps he gets that sinking feeling. He never says anything, though; Stan hates confrontation, is wary of people in general. Best just to keep your head down, say nothing.
The Bow Road houseshare has been passed down generations of students and McJobbers for years; people too poor to complain, inured to cramped rooms and damp patches, dodgy wiring and dodgier landlords. Rent is paid, in cash, on the first of each month, to the man who runs the all-night corner-shop below the flat, whose name might, or might not, be Raj.
Stan’s job as a dishwasher at Corleone’s, the cheap Italianish restaurant behind Mile End tube, is just a stopgap, or so he’s been telling himself for the last two years. The problem with stopgaps, though, is that once the gap’s stopped, the urgency evaporates. When you’re drowning in debt or poverty you grab at the nearest straw, and as long as that straw doesn’t break, you cling on.
Tonight’s Saturday and there’s a new waitress on. The waitresses never stay long: they’re mostly design students living in Bethnal Green who aren’t quite pretty enough to work in the Brick Lane hipster bars. The service industry’s as brutal as the fashion industry: thin, hot bar staff are much more likely to get hired. Stan knows he’s not much to look at and that’s why he’s stuck in the kitchen. Never mind; beside the massive dishwashing machine, wielding his scalding hose over gleaming, steaming plates, at least he always feels clean.
At ten-fifteen he snatches his first break. He dries his pale, wrinkled hands, grabs a Red Bull and steps into the sultry midsummer darkness of the smoking area beside the bins. There’s two upturned plastic crates for staff to sit on during fag-breaks, and he notes with annoyance that the best one is occupied. The new waitress looks up from her phone. She’s petite and dark and surprisingly OK-looking.
“Hi,” she says, “not stolen your seat have I?”
He shrugs, ashamed of begrudging it; that’s not very gentlemanly. “Nah, you’re all right,” he says. She’s been on her feet all night after all. So’s he, but at least he hasn’t had to deal with customers.
“Rachel,” she says.
“Stan.” He leans forward to shake and remembers his hot, soggy hands. She looks down in surprise at their pickled texture.
“You’re the dish-jockey then?”
He grins. “Yeah.” He’s not heard that one before. He’ll have to remember it. Maybe girls in clubs will mishear and he’ll stand a chance of pulling for a change.
“Busy night?” she asks.
He shrugs. “No more than you.”
She nods, blowing a grey plume up to the stars. She’s smoking brand-name straights, Marlboro maybe, by the smell. Tips must be good. Stan can’t remember the last time he could afford anything other than rollies. He also can’t remember the last time he had a conversation this long with a girl. Just as he starts panicking she finishes her cigarette and stamps it neatly out.
“See you around, Stan.”
Stan is thanking God, the Fates and Baby Jesus that he did the washing-up this morning as usual, because in exactly one minute Rachel’s going to be up those stairs and inside their kitchen. After six months of waiting, wanting and lighting her Marlboros beside the bins, the staff Christmas party and a bottle of Rosso each has opened up unimagined possibilities. It’s four a.m. and she’s long missed the last train back to Bromley (she lives in Bromley! Who knew? Where is Bromley? Who cares?). Stan’s tentative offer of the kitchen couch has been gratefully accepted, and now he’s hoping to Christ the mice hear them coming and have the sense to stay out of the way.
They giggle up the stairs and she grasps his hand to steady herself. Stan bites his lip. She’s drunk: he’ll get her a blanket, cup of tea, be a gentleman about it. Then he sees the state of the kitchen and that sinking feeling hits him like a ton of dishes. Clearly, the guys have had an impromptu party, wrecked the place and staggered off to bed pissed, and clearly Rachel can’t stay in this filthhole. His heart is an egg and someone’s boiling it. The first time in … she’ll never … Stan actually starts sweating with anger.
“Ooh,” says Rachel, cock-eyed, clocking the carnage. “Bit of a party house is it?” She looks at the coats on the couch, which Stan only now realises also cover a semi-naked, sleeping couple.
“Occupado,” she says, and turns to him. “I can’t sleep here.”
Sinking, sinking, like the Titanic, like an anchor, like an uninsured iPhone spiralling to the bottom of a swimming pool, taking all his hopes and dreams with it.
“No, I suppose not,” he says hopelessly, “I’ll call you a –”
“I guess I’m in your room, then,” she says, with a saucy flick of an eyebrow, and takes him firmly by the hand.
It’s not that night, amazing though it is, that makes Stan fall in love with Rachel. It’s not the sex or the chatting till dawn, or the cute little mole on the back of her neck that he sees for the first time as he’s cuddling himself around her in sleep. It’s the next morning.
Because when he wakes at eleven, yawning and thinking about the incredibly hot dream he had, and stumbles from his rumpled, empty bed into the kitchen, it’s transformed. Rachel, wearing his special heavy-duty dishwashing apron, turns around and presents him with a cup of tea. The couple on the couch has gone. The kitchen’s spotless.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she says, waving at the piles of gleaming crockery, the towers of sparkling glasses that surround her like a fairytale citadel. “And I reckoned, you wash dishes all day at work, why should you have to when you get home?”
Stan’s sinking feeling is gone for the first time in two years, and he feels an absurd, warm lightness in its place, like helium sunshine. His heart is an egg and there is a tiny tapping at the inside, as of a little creature wanting to be born.
We will not go so far as to say that the name of this little creature is love, but it might grow up to be love, and that, for now, for Stan, is enough.