The System of Locks
In the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, every surface had been decked in chocolatier tones of purple and orange; narrow silver-wire structures were dotted across a red carpet floor, supporting bouquets of white roses, lady-slipper orchids and white palm leaves. Above Julia, the ceiling was sprinkled with winking LEDs, a bright-burning electronic cosmos. Maroon satin drapes, backlit by evening light, erased the Thames from view. The guests were scheduled to arrive at six.
Julia stood in front of the drapes, a tray of twenty white wine glasses balanced on her open palms. When you worked trays, white wine was not the worst drink to be given — but everyone wanted to be serving champagne: guests snapped it up at a pace, giving you the chance to rest your muscles and work some life back into your arms, as you headed to the bar for a restock. Also, the glasses were smaller — they made for a lighter tray overall.
Fanny, Fabricio, Pavel, Sara and Katja were on champagne. Julia shot Pavel a look across the hall. Probably the strongest person on staff and he’d been given champagne. What’s more, he was cheating, holding his tray about waist-level, transferring the weight to his belt buckle. He smiled back. Pavel’s row of tray-waiters was arranged in front of a large canvas banner, which sported the event logo: a golden clapperboard, embellished with a single rose. Underneath it was the slogan, flamboyantly typeset: “The Distinction in Television Awards: Lights, Camera, Passion.”
Beneath her blouse Julia felt stifled. The air was thick. Across her back, pinpricks of sweat began to adhere to her shirt.
The room started to fill with artificial smoke, which spread the coloured spotlight beams in the air, like Chinese fans.
Red wine was the worst drink to be assigned. It came in the largest glass, and no one touched it. It was a mealtime drink, a bad fit with lipstick. You could be holding red for an hour without someone taking a glass, lightening the load. Tonight the new girl — Ana or Anya, Julia couldn’t remember — was on it. She was tiny, birdlike, next to Julia. Her tray was already beginning to shake.
Julia sniffed. There’d been a needling in her sinuses since Robbie had come around the staff area, tilting their heads upwards and spraying them with some type of musk. Julia fought back the urge to sneeze. The guests were beginning to trickle in.
Robbie burst through the staff entrance. He was a man of round edges — soft-shouldered, pudding-jowled and puppyish. He looked younger than Julia, and was. Spitting the occasional word into a walkie-talkie, he made his way along her row. Julia smirked at the quick, snapping gait, the way he held his walkie-talkie at a cocked angle — he was trying to look like a slick operator, but Julia was under no illusions. She’d seen him once outside Tower Hill station before a job, sucking down a cigarette as if it were his last. He hated his work as much as anyone.
From her left, Julia heard a sigh. She turned to see Ana trembling, the glasses on her tray rattling like the dining car of an old Hollywood train. Watching her, she felt the weight of the tray in her own hands, the dampness of her palms, the hardening of her biceps. The sweat on her brow flashed cold. They couldn’t have been on trays for longer than ten minutes.
Robbie drew up in front of her.
‘Alright Jules? Ready?’
Jules. She hated that Robbie could remember her name. It meant that she was on his speed-dial for any odd jobs or favours that needed doing.
‘Yeah, ready.’ Julia made a quick assessment. If she could draw Robbie’s attention to Ana’s struggles, he might be convinced to put Pavel and some of the other boys on wine. If there was a reshuffle she could land herself a champagne tray. She tilted her head towards Ana. ‘You should let her switch trays though. I think she needs to be on champagne.’
Robbie fixed Ana with a stare.
‘What’s this? You can’t do the red?’
Eyes wide, Ana looked at Robbie, at Julia, then back at Robbie. She gulped.
‘It’s not actually complicated, you know.’ His voice was low, a murmur. ‘Not really brain surgery, is it, holding a tray?’
‘It’s fine. I’m okay.’
‘No I don’t think so,’ Julia cut in, watching Ana’s arms and feeling her own, ‘look at the shaking.’
Julia tried to pass Ana a smile of consolation, conspiracy. As if she had everything all under control.
Robbie wiped his brow. Groaned.
‘Fuck’s sake. Right, Jules, give me your tray.’
Julia passed her tray to Robbie and for a moment her arms felt blessed.
‘Right, now you,’ he said, turning to the girl, ‘give those to her.’
The girl transferred her tray onto Julia’s hands, which dipped under the weight. The underside of the tray was slick with sweat.
‘Now take these,’ Robbie handed the tray to Ana and a tremor of her muscles set the glasses chiming.
‘Just stand there, smile, and remember that I’m really, really fucking busy. Don’t bother me unless it’s an emergency — clear?’
Ana nodded. Julia bit her lip. She scanned the room: the first guests were dignitaries, producers, press. No one recognizable. They helped themselves happily to champagne. Julia tried to catch Pavel’s eye again, but he didn’t notice.
The drape behind Julia lost its warmth as day passed into evening. As Julia had feared, no one was taking the red. She had shifted the tray in her hands so that it was now clamped by her thumbs. Training forbade it — people didn’t want a thumb near their glass — but it helped stop the shaking. She felt the lactic acid build in her muscles, the chemical burn, the heat beneath her sleeves.
The arrivals turned from industry insiders to public faces: Johnny Myles, the soap actor, sprang into the reception, strikingly short and sporting a tan that turned almost terracotta under the foyer lights. A dress of some peacock-down fabric clung to every angle of ‘it girl’ Gwynevere James, while Sir Marcus Forshaw made Ana’s night by sweeping up two glasses of Chardonnay and thanking her until she blushed. Julia watched the feather boa trail down the back of his jacket, an expensive-looking tweed. She had worn Pat’s long coat to work that morning, an aging Barbour. It covered her to the knees in the dark walk to the bus station. Recently, she had been able to appreciate the silence of being awake before the others, the feeling of having stolen time on the world around. The vulnerable quality of every shop face and lamp post. The stillness of the mornings. Without Pat she had time, and she still hadn’t figured out how to use it, how to make it work, how to make it pass.
Soon the foyer was full. Well-tailored shoulders rubbed up against dagger-blade dresses, all taking calculated sips of champagne. Most of the tray waiters had been moved to clearing duty, and were drifting through the crowd like shadows. Ana had gone to the bar for a restock, and had not come back.
Julia was still on trays.
The acid ache had spread outwards from her biceps, sweeping down to her fingertips. Her arms were heavy. Knots of muscle screwed tight across her back like a system of locks. No one was taking the wine. She felt her tray shaking, saw the wineglasses trembling at their dark hemispheres. No one was taking the wine. She couldn’t remember how long she’d been there: forty-five minutes, maybe an hour. She focused on anything she could: the faces, the names — there was Angus Wright, Izzie Baker, Ronnie Bergkamp; the top-forty playlist, restyled as lounge jazz for a cultivated diffidence. Thoughts of Pat came to her, his body stiff on cold linoleum, the dark fluids diluting in the shower-spray. When they released her nothing changed: no one was taking the wine.
She was eyeing the bar — an island of glassware, backlit in phasing violets, azures, emeralds — and was imagining a desperate course to it, through the crowd, when a small, wiry man in a leather jacket stopped in front of her. He wore a quizzical expression, a half-grin, a humour to his eyes. She recognized him from a television talent show. A singer.
‘What’s that you got there?’ His accent was unmistakably North-Western. Liverpool, Julia guessed.
‘Oh, this is a Californian Merlot, from Blackstone Winery.’ The importance of mentioning the sponsor names had been drilled into them.
‘Fancy that.’ His smile morphed into a frown. ‘Are you okay? You’re shaking.’
‘Oh, don’t worry. I’m fine thanks. I’m used to it.’
‘That looks heavy.’
‘I’m used to it.’
‘Fuck. How long have you been working here?’
Julia tried to smile. ‘What time is it?’
The man sucked his teeth, looked downwards.
‘Shit. Well, let me have one of those. Give me two.’
He plucked two shivering glasses from Julia’s tray, and though the relief was not great, it was something. Julia took a breath, and nodded her thanks.
‘Cheers,’ he said.
The music faded to nothing as an announcement came over the PA system.
Ladies and gentlemen, we would like to ask you to please start making your way to the auditorium, where tonight’s ceremony is about to begin…
‘Better be off then,’ he said, and made to turn.
Please be advised that drinks are not permitted in the auditorium.
He rolled his eyes at her and slowly, deliberately, poured the contents of the wineglasses into a nearby flower arrangement. Returning the empty glasses to her tray, he grinned:
‘Good luck with it.’