And it's been a long December and there's reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I can't remember all the times I tried to tell myself
To hold on to these moments as they pass
- Counting Crows
The small yellow and black fish flickered through the turquoise water, darting just beyond the tips of his outstretched fingers. He reached out further but they stayed just out of reach, effortlessly outpacing him in their element, a shimmering drift of colour that rode the current then spiralled sideways. Dividing in a hundred flashing directions before rushing together again. A chimaera, always moving, always changing.
Joy welled up in him and he laughed, the sea cool in his mouth. His body moved through the water slower than the fish but he was at ease, weightless and slipping forwards with each stroke of his hands, each kick of his legs. Turning on his back he gazed up towards where the surface hung high above like a mirror: light striking down in shifting rays that gilded his body.
He laughed again because the weightlessness of his body extended to his heart. He was utterly, completely free and where he belonged. He watched the shifting wave-sky overhead and only then it occurred to him to wonder, how it was that he was able to breathe -
Sanji woke. His eyes opened and he gazed upwards. Not at turquoise waves shot through with sunlight, but at a shadowy ceiling that was badly in need of someone getting up there with a duster. He blinked up at it and felt the contentment of his dream ebb from his body, making room for the flat grey morning.
He let out an exhalation that seemed to push his shoulders into the mattress. Then turned his head and peered at the clock on the nightstand, but there wasn't enough light to see its display. He groped for it, snagging the clock on his third try, and pressed the button that lit the digital display. The feeble yellow glow revealed the joyous news that it was five AM.
Sanji groaned, dropping the clock onto his chest and shutting his eyes.
His brain was hard-wired for early morning waking after years of shift work in kitchens, and nothing he tried seemed to change that. No matter that this morning there was no need to be up at five AM because there was no actual shift to go to. Nor had there been, in point of fact, for several months now... But his stupid brain had, evidently, still failed to register that fact.
Sanji lay still with the clock clasped loosely on his chest and tried to pretend that falling back asleep again was an option. He breathed slowly in and out through his nose. Summoned peaceful thoughts. Sought that turquoise sea, with its school of black and gold fish.
Then somewhere outside a distant siren set up a reminder that in a city, disaster can strike at all hours of the day. Or night.
Sanji sighed. Opened his eyes and unfolded one arm, replacing the clock on the nightstand. The tempting option – of hurling it into a corner of the room – was not a practical one. Largely because four months down the line after being fired from his regular job and having to exist on whatever temping work he could find, he couldn't afford the luxury of gratuitous property damage. He kept his arm extended, groping further until his fingers located his smokes and lighter. Bringing both back he flipped the pack open and took out a cigarette, noting that only three remained. He inserted the cigarette between his lips and lit up while lying on his back, blowing a stream of smoke up at the dusty ceiling.
This is my last pack. That means a crappy shopping trip. Sanji inhaled nicotine and tried to remember how much actual cash he had left in his wallet. Enough for cigarettes he seriously hoped, because the ATM had eaten his fucking card three days earlier and he didn't want to have to revisit his old shoplifting skills. Not that he couldn't boost a pack of cigarettes, but to do that he'd have to walk several blocks because no way was he going to steal from the corner store just down the street from his apartment. Not least because Gin, the store keeper, would break both Sanji's arms if he caught him at it, using the aluminium baseball bat he kept under the counter.
The smoke filling his lungs was having its usual restorative effect. Sanji didn't often smoke in bed, not being a fan of dying stupidly by self-immolation, but this morning he felt like he needed a pick-me-up. It had been hard enough in the past, when he'd had to get up at five every morning to rush to work: he'd often wished that he could lie in bed a few hours longer. Yet now he had zero reason to get up, he dreaded mornings even more.
Snap out of it, you slacker. Sanji knew from bitter experience that the only way to deal with this dark morning mood was to ignore it. Thinking about his situation, trying to come up with solutions to his problems, led in ever-decreasing spirals down to a pit of gloom. Or worse still, anxiety. And climbing back up out of that pit took serious amounts of energy.
Break it down. Small do-able tasks. Sanji frowned up at the ceiling, exhaling smoke with a long steady out-breath. Get out of bed. Take a shower. Get dressed. Make coffee. He pictured a list, with square boxes for checking off when each task was done. Eat breakfast. Phone the temping agency. That last task was one he wasn't looking forward to. He needed the money, fuck did he need the money, but working on New Year's Eve was always a monumental pain in the ass. Customers always somewhere between annoyingly drunk or obnoxiously shitfaced, long shifts because everywhere stayed open till stupid o'clock, watching people have a great time partying while you worked your ass off... On the plus side the pay was usually double rates, but in Sanji's opinion it didn't anywhere near compensate for the aggravation.
Beggars can't be choosers. He pulled a wry face at the ceiling. He'd long ago accepted the antisocial hours and hard labour that working in kitchens required, but there was a big difference between sweating blood as a chef in a good restaurant and toiling for minimum wage in some piece-of-shit catering outfit. As he'd found out only too thoroughly over the past few months.
He found himself wishing, for the umpteenth time, that he had managed to keep a lid on his temper that day four months ago at L'Escargot Blanc. Or that the craphead customer who'd complained about his lemon soufflé and insisted that Sanji be fetched from the kitchen so that he could complain to the chef in person, had instead choked on his first mouthful and collapsed face-down in his plate. Or had gone to another restaurant. Or been run over by a cab. Or decided to stay home and order take-out – anything, just so long as he hadn't barged into Sanji's life and started insulting his cooking.
He had tried to keep his cool. He really had. You didn't become as good a chef as he was without having to take a lot of heat both in and out of the kitchen; and seeing as how he'd spent his formative years under his old man's tutelage, Sanji had learned to handle a lot worse than what most customers dished out. But it had been the wrong end of a long dinner service: he'd been summoned out front right in the middle of a rush of orders that he knew were piling up, while he stood there and listened to a flabby whiner in a silk suit disparagingly describe Sanji's lovingly-created soufflé as “third rate” and declare that he wasn't paying for his meal.
Sanji knew that the soufflé had been perfect when he'd sent it out. More than that, he knew that throwing a hissy fit at the end of the last course to avoid paying for a meal was a dodge that well-heeled diners used all too often. They relied on restaurants wanting to save face: preferring to write off a bill rather than deal with the embarrassment of someone making a loud fuss in front of all their other customers.
He had known all that, and he had still stayed calm. Politely offered to bring out another lemon soufflé for the customer, with a complimentary after-dinner liqueur. Kept a lid on his temper. Right up to the moment when the dickhead at the table had sneered at his offer of another dessert, before telling Sanji his cooking was only fit to be used as an ashtray. Following this up by pointedly stubbing out his cigar in the remaining portion of soufflé.
When he had called his old man afterwards to tell him the bad news, at that point in his story there had been a long pause on the other end of the line, followed by a heavy sigh. “Tell me you didn't let that asshole provoke you into doing something stupid.”
Sanji, phone pressed to his ear, had scowled. “I kicked his shitty ass. Which he was seriously asking for.”
“Since when has aggravated assault been part of a chef's remit?”
“That fucker stubbed his cigar out in my food. In a soufflé that I put my heart and soul into.”
“Customer's prerogative, to be a dickhead. You don't know that by now, you ought to.”
“You telling me you'd have let someone get away with that kind of shit in your restaurant?”
“He certainly wouldn't have eaten in my restaurant ever again. But I'd have found a way of dealing with it without causing a scene.”
“Zeff, you are so full of shit - ”
“Watch the lip, kiddo. You're not shouting at some jerkwad customer now.”
Sanji had tightened his hand so hard on his cell phone his fingers had ached, before counting to ten. “Nghhh...”
“You got fired. That's what you're calling to tell me, right?” Zeff's voice had gone quieter, but had lost none of its firmness.
Sanji had bent forward until his forehead thunked heavily against the wall. Leaned there hopelessly. “...Yeah.”
“When are you going to learn to keep that temper of yours on a leash, little eggplant? You seemed like you were settling in okay at that place, getting a real good foothold on the ladder. Now you've blown it all, just because you can't keep a lid on yourself.”
“Look, I've fucked up, I know.” Sanji had swallowed down the tightness in his throat. “You don't have to tell me that.”
“Hmm. Someone needs to.”
Sanji had shut his eyes. Focussed on breathing in and out.
“Well. No use crying over spilled milk.” Zeff's tone had shifted from admonishing to practical. “You'll just have to find another place to work.”
“I will. But it won't be easy... It's not like I'm going to get a good reference from L'Escargot.”
“Another good reason not to go decking customers.” Zeff had paused. “How are you off for money?”
“I'm fine.” The reply had come automatically.
“Because if you get short you can always come back and work here for a while, as a temporary fix. You know that.”
“That's... Yeah, I know... But... I'm okay for a while. Thanks anyway.”
“Okay, brat. I know it'll be a cold day in hell before you take me up on that offer. But remember, the option's there.”
The heat of the cigarette's tip burning down close to his fingers jolted Sanji back to the present, pulling him out of his memories. He managed not to drop the glowing end into the bedclothes, but there was nothing smokable left. Rolling onto his side he stubbed the butt out in the ashtray on his nightstand, before swinging his legs over the bed's edge and standing up.
Okay. Enough wandering down memory lane. Seize the fucking day, and all that.
A shower went some way towards making the morning more tolerable. Once dressed Sanji made a cafetière of Jamaica Blue Mountain, inhaling its reviving fumes while it brewed. Top-end coffee was a luxury he couldn't usually afford: the Jamaica Blue was something he'd bought while still working at L'Escargot, and there wasn't much of it left... But he needed something to get him through this day. After sufficient time had elapsed he poured himself a cup and sipped it slowly, savouring every mellow mouthful.
Daylight slowly infiltrated the small kitchen. He lingered over the last half cup of coffee, with a scratch breakfast of toast and honey. His 'fridge and cupboards didn't lend themselves to much else. He had a few basics left but until he knew whether he was working tonight the option of buying more groceries was on hold, so if he wanted to eat later then toast for breakfast would have to do. That was another crap thing about no longer being employed by a restaurant: chefs always got fed at least one meal when you were on the staff.
Speaking of which... Time to check in. Slowly he picked up his phone; mentally geared himself up, then scrolled to the agency's number and tapped dial. It rang three times before someone picked up with an offensively perky, “Good morning, Diamond Hospitality Agency - Kim speaking, how may I help you?”
“Good morning, Kim.” Sanji made his voice deliberately charming in response. “It's Sanji Black... Just calling to see if you have anything for me?” He crossed the fingers of one hand as he spoke, although he wasn't sure what he was wishing for.
“Ah... Mr Black...” Some of the perkiness evaporated from Kim's tones. “Didn't you check in with us just yesterday?”
“Yeah, I did, but... your colleague said to try calling again this morning.” That wasn't true, they hadn't said anything of the sort, but Sanji had just enough dignity left that he wanted to avoid giving off an aura of desperation.
“Oh, well... Okay, sure...” There was the slightly distracted noise of a keyboard being tapped. “As it happens, I think something did get booked in just now... Wait a minute...” More tapping. “Yes: bartender, a ten-hour shift for tonight. Greedy.”
Sanji thought for a moment her last word was some bizarre criticism of him. “Sorry?”
“Greedy. The name of the club.”
“Oh.” Give me strength. “Bartender. Uh...”
“Did you wish to take up the position?”
Bartending. On New Year's Eve. Fucking purgatory.
“Yeah, I'm...” I'm a chef. A fucking good chef. Who just happens to have anger management issues. Crap, find me a chef who doesn't. “What's it pay?”
“Industry standard, double-weighting for New Year's Eve.”
I'm also fucking broke. “Great. Sign me up.”
After receiving a list of instructions for the job – smart dress code, arrival time for (unpaid) induction one hour before start of shift, directions to the club's location in a fashionably central part of town – Sanji hung up and sat for a while gazing out of the kitchen window. The sky had cleared to a clear wintry blue, low morning sunlight striking the buildings opposite and sharpening every line, every texture of stone and concrete and glass. Almost without thinking he reached for his cigarettes: opened the packet and saw the remaining two left. Put the packet down again.
C'mon. You've got work. Work equals money. Money equals all manner of life-enhancing necessities, like food and rent and cigarettes. He calculated how much a ten-hour bartending shift at double rates would put in his pocket. The figure was depressingly shoddy. So: charm the customers like fuck and clean up on tips. That was the only upside to bar work, the fact that you could walk home at the end of a shift with more cash in your pocket than the actual pay cheque you received.
The rest of the day passed slowly. Mindful of the fact that he was going to be on his feet working from early evening almost through to dawn, Sanji took things easy. Choosing a work outfit took a while. It had to be something smart but comfortable to work in, cool (every club he'd ever worked in turned into a sauna once the dance floor got seriously active) and stylish enough that he'd look like adequate eye-candy behind the bar. He settled in the end for a turquoise shirt with darker blue silk tie, black vest and pants. The jacket would come off the moment he started work, and if it got too warm he could always fold up the cuffs of his shirt sleeves: he'd play that by ear, see how tight-assed the management was.
His working armour organised, he settled down on the couch with his laptop to check emails and scan the latest posts on the various cooking blogs he followed. Reading about food was usually a sure-fire way to distract himself, but for some reason it failed to hold his attention. He found himself gazing morosely at a lengthy article about Asian-Pacific cuisine, feeling not so much inspired as envious of the writer. It felt like standing on the pavement outside some five-star restaurant, nose pressed to the window, looking longingly in. All those glorious ingredients, all those amazing possibilities, all the ideas he had running through his brain... And no way of accessing them. In the couple of dozen temporary catering jobs he'd had in the last few months, the opportunities he'd had to really exercise his chef skills had been virtually zero.
Which led on inexorably to tonight's uninspiring prospect. At the club, Greedy. Wonder what craphead thought of that name. He clicked open a new tab on his browser, keyed in the club name and location and pulled up some reviews.
- Crowd was wicked, entry kinda steep but keeps out undesirables. Def the place to be!
- Love the vibe, great DJs, when the music gets going this place is really banging.
- Fantastic nite out, great atmo. Lovin it, keep it real you guys!
So far, so predictable. He quickly scanned through some photos taken by punters, of indistinguishable clubbers in varying hip poses of enjoyment. From the blurb on the club's own website it seemed to be a newish venue, owned by a big chain that also ran at least two other clubs in town. It looked high end, a designer night out for the young and affluent and metrosexual. That meant potentially high levels of obnoxiousness; though on the plus side, also potentially big tips to compensate. The other thing in the club’s favour as far as Sanji was concerned was that it was just within walking distance of his apartment. At least he wouldn’t have to find bus fare.
He was half-heartedly scanning food blogs again when his phone rang: he picked it up and saw Nami's number. Swiping his thumb across the screen, he lifted it up to take the call. Her voice sang melodiously into his ear. “Happy New Year!”
He smiled wryly, before replying. “Not New Year yet. Unless you're in Samoa, in which case why the hell didn't I get an invite to come with you?”
Nami's chuckle purred down the line to him. “As if. Just wanted to beat the rush, wish you a happy New Year before the midnight frenzy.”
“Same to you, thanks, gorgeous. You planning to party the night away?”
“What else. You want to come with?”
“I wish. Got to work.”
“No way... On New Year's Eve?” Her tone grew critical. “Ditch it, and come partying. I'll make it worth your while.”
Sanji let himself slide down the couch until he was horizontal. “Temptress.”
“So be tempted.” She made her voice coaxing now. “Y'know what they say, all work and no play...”
“They also say, he who pays no rent finds himself sleeping on the street.”
“One night won't make a difference,” she wheedled. “C'mon out and have fun. I can lend you for tonight, you can pay me back... whenever.”
“Thanks, my lovely. I appreciate the offer. But I've already taken a job, so... I gotta do it.”
“Party pooper.” She huffed with disappointment. “So what's the job? You gonna be cooking for some classy private party?”
“Not so much.” Sanji propped his feet on the end of the sofa. “In fact, not chef work at all.”
“Don't tell me you're waiting table somewhere again... Sanji, you have to get your life back on track.”
“Yeah, that seems to be the consensus. Unfortunately there are about a zillion wannabe chefs out there and we're all chasing the same ten jobs.”
“But none of them are as good as you. You just have to show people what you're capable of.”
“Duly noted. But for tonight that won't be an option.”
“Because I'm working as a bartender.”
“On New Year's Eve? Ugh.” Her response was dismissive. “Whereabouts?”
“Some club uptown. It's called Greedy, would you believe.”
“Never been there... But isn't it kind of a cliquey upmarket place?”
“Judging by the website, I'd say, yeah.”
“Well... Enjoy pouring drinks for the rich and undeserving.”
“Flutter your eyelashes and get them to shower you with tips.”
“That's the plan.”
She laughed. “I bet. Hey, maybe you'll get lucky and snag some rich heiress and end up going home to her penthouse apartment.”
“That would be a nice way to end the evening,” Sanji agreed, smiling up at the ceiling. “If a tad unlikely.”
“Stranger things have happened. And it's about time you got some action between the sheets.”
Sanji winced. “It hasn't been that long.”
“Since that fling or whatever you had, with Ariel? It's over six months.”
“Actually, five months.”
“Whatever. What about that guy you were dating, before? He was hot.”
“Nathan? He was... okay. But it didn't work out.”
“So what? You've still got his number, right? Give a him a booty call.”
“Okay, sure. Because that won't make me seem at all desperate.” Sanji laced his reply with as much sarcasm as he could muster.
“Sanji, it's New Year's. Everyone who has a halfway decent shot at it will be slamming the sheets with somebody. Grab some action, why don't you.”
“Thanks for the pep talk.”
“I'm serious. You're bisexual, that means you get at least twice the opportunities to get laid. Take advantage.”
Sanji let out a long sigh. “Would it be tedious of me to point out that promiscuity is just one of the many stereotypical assumptions that reinforces negative prejudices against bisexuals?”
“Yes.” Nami snorted. “I'm not being biphobic, you dolt. I'm telling you to have some fun.”
“Thanks. I'll bear it in mind, while I'm working my ass off behind a bar for ten hours.”
“What will your ass be wearing, while you're working it? Something tight ought to help get people's attention.”
“It's a smart gig. I've got to look presentable.”
“Mm... The turquoise shirt, right?”
“Yeah. How'd you know?”
“You look killer in it.” Nami sounded satisfied. “Okay. Go forth and pour drinks. And bat those eyelashes.”
After that they exchanged happy wishes for New Year's Eve one more time, before Nami rang off. Sanji dropped the phone on the couch, folded his arms across his stomach and lay motionless for a while gazing up at the ceiling. His mood, which wasn’t exactly stellar before the phone call, hadn't lifted much after the banter with Nami. Part of him had wanted to blow off the crappy bar job and agree to meet up with her, go out for a wild night of partying. Forget about his lousy financial situation and lack of anything looking like a good prospect on the horizon, just for one night.
Not an option. He knew that if he fucked over the agency by not showing up for work, that would pretty much guarantee he wouldn't get anything else from them. Not to mention the whole needing to pay the rent issue... Because while he would have been willing to let Nami loan him some cash for a night out, there was no way he was asking her for anything more than that.
- Sanji, you have to get your life back on track.
Nami's words echoed in his mind. Understatement of the fucking year. He wondered how it was things had gone so wrong. He'd had it all planned out, from the day he'd left Zeff's kitchen. He'd started out as a commis chef in a hotel, refining his skills and learning as much as he could. Within a year he'd graduated to chef de partie, taking responsibility for specific stations in turn. Then the chance had come to work at L'Escargot Blanc, with his ambitions set on making sous-chef within another year... Or so he'd hoped.
I'm not giving up. That was what was really making him grit his teeth and do shitwork like this bartending job tonight. Because the alternative was to be a quitter, and that was one thing he definitely wasn't. Whatever it took, however long it took, he was going to make it back into a decent kitchen and be the kind of chef he knew he could be. That would be a New Year’s resolution worth keeping, for sure... Although Sanji didn’t believe in resolutions, not least because for most people they seemed to consist of wish fulfilment rather than resolve. But maybe it was what he needed, right now. Instead of his daily mental tick list of uninspiring chores, tedious reasons to get out of bed: one actual ambition that meant something. Meant fucking everything.
Even when he’d still been working for his old man, he’d known what he wanted. To work at being the best chef he could be; learn as quickly as he could, in the best kitchens. And ultimately, set up his own place. Somewhere on the coast, overlooking the sea. Simple elegant interior, big picture windows, lots of natural light. A menu that had both classic dishes and his own creations, using ingredients that were distinctive, seasonal, local. Lots of seafood. He even had a name planned for it: Tout Bleu.
It was his dream. What he wanted most from life. And to make it happen, he’d had to let a lot of other stuff go. Working the kind of antisocial hours required of a chef played havoc with your social life: most friends had found Sanji’s unavailability at weekends and evenings too difficult to square with their own urges to party till the small hours. The few people who stuck with him, where the friendship was solid, like Nami... Sanji could count those on the fingers of one hand. And for dating it was the same problem. He didn’t want to be on his own, but that was just how it worked out. Nami could joke about him hooking up with someone while he was working, and for sure he’d had offers. He’d even acted on some of them, because when he’d done a long and dull catering shift for minimum wage then the idea of once again returning home to eat alone in an empty apartment had little allure. A night of shared warmth and - hopefully - good sex was worth the potentially awkward morning-after-the-one-night-stand. Usually.
The alarm on his phone chimed, signalling it was time for him to get his shit together for work. Sanji reached for the phone and turned the alarm off, before getting up off the couch.
Okay. Get through the last crappy day of this crappy year. Start the new one fresh. Things can only get better. Life back on track. That’s the program.
He shoved every other thought away into his subconscious, hopefully to stay there. Headed towards his bedroom to change into his working clothes; pocketed his wallet, phone, keys, lighter and remaining two cigarettes and was out the apartment door in under fifteen minutes.