:: Article

The Kulaks of Chelsea

By Tadhg Muller.

This is an extract from Tadhg Muller’s In Lieu of a Memoir (Open Pen, 2019)

Monday had been a bad day. I had been asked to assist in the merchandising of the new store. I moved a lot of cheese. I worked with complete disregard for my body, the way you work when you’re beat, when you think there is nothing to be got or to lose. My shoes were coming to pieces. I lost my footing while lifting a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was forty kilograms, and I pulled my hamstring. In addition to feeling miserable, I had a dumb limp too. Work is difficult — no, it’s impossible — and I can’t shake off the desire to leg it and to blow Britain altogether. I am sure I’m not the only one, that this feeling isn’t at all unique. 

I took the Underground and Overground home, all the time limping and moving awkwardly through the crowds of commuters and travellers, I didn’t pick up a copy of the Evening Standard, not today; the news was shit, bad news, fake news, fake bad new, bad real news, same old shit, same old story, I didn’t need a freebie to prove it.

But none of that bullshit was the worst of it. They were all just symptoms of the cause. The cause was a five-month week. It was week three and I was broke. By week two I was stung by a quarterly from Thames Water, and the telephone and internet with BT, Council Tax had gone up, the markets were doing all sorts of crazy shit and my interest rates were through the roof. I was late answering a question from HMRC, and my child benefit was cut. I had to write a letter to Glasgow explaining myself, and provide documents from my little one’s doctor, proving that she existed, and I had to pay ten quid even for that. It was a farce. I wondered, why the fuck isn’t anyone talking about a revolution? No, everyone was busy trying to poke a finger in the eye of Europe, glaring at foreigners on the Tube. The situation was dire. And the one in charge, a difficult human she promised to be, as if that was what the world needed, as if anyone gave a shit, or knew what the government were doing, and what all these fucking changes meant, or at the very least where the country was actually leaving for, that it wasn’t wandering aimlessly.

I got home. And that was a relief. 

That previous Sunday night we’d had a chicken for dinner, a real treat, roasted with spuds, with some flatbread I’d made while drinking BB9, just about the best beer in the world. That evening I boiled the white bones of the chicken, with just a sprig of thyme, an onion, and two cloves of crushed garlic. I could imagine the chook, the carcass was so thin and spindly, its bones were more like those of a reasonably large and super weird mutant fish… it must have been a bird beyond a battery hen, a kind of high-rise roosting matchbox hen squeezed in with countless others, I guess featherless, tortured, bored out of their brains, staring out between thin wire bars, staring out at a thousand other chickens in the same predicament, the ruckus of all those birds clucking at once. Imagine. We were at least showing the bird some respect, boiling the spindly bones down to nothing, chucking the grey remains to the dog. I had read some diatribe in a trade magazine that bone broths and marrow were all the rage. The very rich will go to no end to replicate the dietary condition of the poor.

When I got home the house stunk like boiled chicken. My Missus had started making risotto with the stock, and it was boiling away like a bad memory, we were short on the right kind of rice so she cut the Alborio with Jasmine, in the end, there wasn’t much in it just rice and grey chicken. I limped to the table with my steaming bowl, I dusted it with Parmigiano cut with table cheddar. No wine or beer, black tea and loads of white sugar. I’ll say it again, five-week months suck. They never used to suck this much. The writing is on the wall, we are all on credit eating boiled down chicken, all except for the super-rich and the hangers-on, and half of them are starving themselves in imitation of the poor, decked out in shiny finery, trying to stay beautiful. What happened?

It was a cold night and everyone was eager for bed: wife, children, the whole damn world. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep, I settled down with Grossman’s ‘Life & Fate’, some poor bastard was going on about the Kulaks, and saboteurs, and I wasn’t so sure about the saboteurs, but someone was getting the better of us all, even now, seventy years on. Those damn Kulaks. Those damn Tsars. Those bankers. Those politicians. Those masters of the deal. The deal… lorded over us.

*

The next morning I made my way to the office. The site manager, György, a Bulgarian from Varna, was in a state of high anxiety. The cause being his trials, mostly difficulties finalising his application for permanent residency, this was prudent measure on his part to ease the fear of leaving the country even for a holiday, being stuck abroad “without my papers.” I had heard the boys talking about the paperwork — seventy pages of bullshit. György was a good worker, a sure thing, he wasn’t going anywhere, and the residency confirmed this. More and more the promotions were going to the British in the company, no questions asked, most of us figured that this was a reflection of the cold realisation of management that the rest of us might up and go, if we weren’t booted out, or simply discouraged from staying — it all amounted to the same thing.

Anyhow, it was a big day, another part of town and a new shop opening. A new story, or chapter, or something for the company. So, first things first, I went to the production kitchen and made sure everything was in shipshape. The ops man marched into my office and started going on about how the owner Mr M wanted — no, required — no, insisted — on everything being perfect, not just perfect, no, but bloody perfect. He had a particularly painful high pitched voice as if his balls were mid-drop. And for the umpteenth time that day the kitchen was invaded by middle-management trying to terrify everything into order: it wasn’t yet 6.30AM. I had decided to head for the new shop when it opened and to avoid the high drama. The driver came, if it’s not Piotr too late it’s Piotr too early, I liked to say. He couldn’t put a foot right with management, and particularly the ops man. The ops man, always crying out for Piotr: Where is he? Why is he here now? no, he’s late, no, he’s early, etc. etc. We got in the van, and we raced about town. He put his classical music on, which was better than Ed Sheerbastard.

And the new store was in a state of uproar. There was a monumental bread disaster concerning one supplier, amongst the vegetables five products were missing tickets, and worse still the fruit and veg hadn’t been fully displayed, and the staff didn’t have aprons and badges. As for the merchandising manager (a young hack promoted by the ops man to advance the ops man’s ambitions), well he was getting in everyone’s way, hand in pockets, face breaking out in spots, and all the time him blundering about nervously. I wondered, was he fucking stoned? And even Mr M had come down from the Cotswolds and was blustering around, making everyone scared shitless, dressed like he was fresh from some covert hunt. The clock was moving perilously, and the customers weren’t allowed in, and there was a line outside like it was a new iPhone launch, and the doors just couldn’t be opened until everything was perfect, and I wondered about those weird customers, didn’t they have something else to do, those sick bastards. And it opened with a bang. 

Mr M took us — us being the main players — to a cafe for a debrief. There he settled into his allocated role, shifted to instruction, and authority, his sense of isolation in the world and amongst others only broken by the execution of authority, I imagined his folk had done it for a thousand years or more. Shop 19 would be opening soon, in 6 weeks! We would need to make notes while our ideas were fresh, to record all our wrongs like a confessional. I was meant to be meeting a winemaster for a tasting, I sent her a message apologising for the delay — this business could go on till lunchtime. There was the ops guy, six members from the PR department, the merchandising manager (that poor sod), marketing, and Mr M’s assistant who was carrying Mr M’s golf clubs, fuck knows why. I had only eaten the last half a box of Italian biscuits (samples that had been sent to my office on the previous day) since morning. Menus were laid while each of the us that wasn’t me studied their mobiles, sending messages, answering messages, checked facts and figures from the previous day, everyone busying themselves in an attempt to suggest they were busy. I studied the menu, my eyes rested on eggs Benedict, the waiter asked what we’d like. Everyone paused. Mr M answered.

Green Tea, his eyes dropped to the menu again, I won’t have anything else, giving his cue. Maybe he had a round to play that afternoon.  

I pondered ordering scrambled eggs, settled on liquid. The meeting was a bore. No victories, just the usual criticisms, the usual plan for a quick fix. We had been here before, and we realised the futility of good results and the implications of failure. All apart from the ops man, who was like some ancient eunuch. He bought into it in totality, right into the company, his boss, his role. It was better to eat boiled up battery hens, and hope for a getaway or something close. Or something fucking close… 

I was the first to grow restless with the conversation. I took my leave. I rushed out the door with the appearance of being in a hurry, being very busy, committed. I turned a corner and limped to the station. In approximately thirty minutes I was at Highbury, and straight up the hill, late for my tasting with the very celebrated winemaster. She had twelve bottles laid out, glasses, spittoons, tasting notes. I asked her if she had a calculator — she got me one (the shit you ask for!). It was evident that I was exhausted, and she was more than astute enough to gather this. The tasting was constructive, and plans were laid for a spring and summer range. I didn’t approach the meeting with any real gusto, the energy I might have had at week two on a four week month when I was rested, well-fed, and agreeable. I declined the tasting of two very good wines (the winemaster’s favourites), I had tasted the wines, the very same vintages, only recently. And the winemaster insisted on me taking the wines in a box. That at least would be pleasing! I would have something to drink that night, and a second bottle I could give to one of the other workers.

Limping with the box I made my way back down the hill. I jumped on the first train and switched from line to line en route to Sloane Square. I would go straight to the office and check emails, make phone calls.

On the platform at Sloane Square the usual crowd was exiting, west Londoners in the main. A lady stopped me, a not so old woman, in very fine attire, physically striking. I am in truth not so very fancy, but what does that mean, and does it matter?

She asked abruptly, with an air of authority, Would you have the time? We had been in the carriage together. I sat the box down with the bottles of wine, she fidgeted and irritably studied me. The bulk of the passengers cleared the platform. I pulled my phone from my pocket.

One o’clock. 

I picked the box up, we both started walking side by side, both moving quickly towards the exit.  

Do you work here? She asked, harshly, with frustration. I was in old trousers and wearing a tired coat, carrying my box. I didn’t look like the people in the neighbourhood, the people on the platform. This wasn’t my part of town, yet there was nothing to indicate that I worked at the station. In fact, I had been in a carriage with the woman and exited with her. The two of us were passengers, just the same.

Pardon?

Do you work here?

I studied her, and I could see the anger in her eyes, a faint glow like the onset of a rash on her dull, thin, swan-like neck. She needed the question asked, it would relate to other questions and requirements that would need to be met, and met immediately.

Are you a Kulak? I asked. 

Pardon?

Are you a Kulak?

What on earth are you talking about? 

I asked, are you a Kulak? That class of peasant that the communist reviled, and Stalin did his very best to eliminate.

And I turned and made my way out of the station, and hurried to my office and my desk, all the time limping, and everyone in the office wanted reports on the new shop. The truth was they were all excited by a second box of wines that someone had left on my desk. I shook my head. What I would have given for some lamb, or bread, or potatoes, or cheese in the way of samples. And then Piotr the driver came through and I palmed him a bottle. 

Suck on one of those bad boys, and tell me what you think

A pro, I is the real pro, he replied with a wink. 

And then György, that hack, stumbled in and tried to work out if something was amiss, still miserable, and still dreaming about his British residency, and that did it.  

Fuck the residency, pal, I slung that miserable son of a bitch a bottle. It was at 3 o’clock, and time to jack it in. Work, Britain, all the bullshit. Time to jack it in.

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tadhg Muller grew up in Hobart, Tasmania, and spent most of his adult life in London, England. He now lives in Sable-Sur-Sarthe, France. His short stories have been published widely.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 22nd, 2019.