TIGERS DON'T CRY - Prologue
In the harsh environment of a British pub kitchen, young Nate will have to come to terms with his growing attraction for one of his male colleagues.
TIGERS DON’T CRY - WIP - by Nat Lewis
TRIGGER WARNING - Strong and sexual language. Explicit sexual content.
Our first meeting was nothing like the movies. You know, when you have the swanky, mysterious new kid starting class and everyone’s looking at them, all captivated. The setting wasn’t a classroom but a pub kitchen – a tiny, stifling corner of the Earth where nobody ever dreams to find themselves. It was lunchtime and it was madness.
As always I worked my arse off, sweating half my body weight and pushing through, wishing for the hours to pass and for the day to be over.
My shifts were nine and a half hours long – I started at five in the morning and finished at half-past two. Plodding through infinity, like.
Cam shouted for the food to be prepared faster, for the salads to be made and for the stakes to be turned on the grill.
The microwaves were my responsibility. I had to keep an eye on the timers and make sure the food was properly defrosted and hot enough to be served. I regularly had nightmares of the microwaves stopping working one by one and Cam screaming, ‘Fuck sake, Nate! Where’s the jacket potato I asked for forty minutes ago?’
I’d learnt to turn off my brain and become an automaton, completing tasks through muscle memory. There was nothing enjoyable about being in that hot room with a middle-aged man bellowing like a horn, slicing tomatoes and shoving frozen curries in the microwaves as if my life depended on it.
The other guys who worked in the kitchen had learnt to make do too, playing the hand they were given like I did. Maybe they weren’t as overwhelmed as I was, though. They were all at least three times bigger than me and rough at the edges. It was not easy for me to keep up with them lot.
When Ethan showed up at work for the first time, I barely noticed him. I was in survival mode, breathing hard and battling with the mental strain I was under.
I glimpsed at him, at his “Oh-my-God-what-am-I-supposed-to-do” face and carried on working. New guy. Another one.
We’d had a million of them, coming and going, hating and leaving. The job was hard and the wages meagre. There was little to no brain stimulation – your arms were bound to become a battlefield of burn scars, your hands calloused and your fingers insensitive to heat. Eventually, the mind would shrink too, the neurological activity to be spared for moments that weren’t spent working like an animal and sleeping like a fat log. Those moments of clarity in the week were rare and brief.
As it often happened, the new starter was relegated to washing-up duty. Doing the dishes didn’t require a high level of organisation or knowledge, that’s why it was the least stressful thing to do in the kitchen. Physically, it still was hard as hell – there were seriously tall piles of dirty plates to rinse, put in the dishwasher and gather up for us to use again. To make things worse, the cunts from dining didn’t bother to scrape the leftover food off the plates half the time – as if our job wasn't miserable enough.
In a moment of relative calm, when a ginormous order had been successfully sent out and I only had a leg of turkey and a mixed-veg pasta in two of the microwaves, my curiosity won out.
What had attracted my attention was a peal of soft, feminine laughter which I recognised as Lynn’s. She usually worked at the bar but she covered a dining shift from time to time and she was the prettiest girl within a close radius.
She wasn’t an absolute looker, to be honest. Lynn was alright – blond, cute – and just about the most entertaining thing about this place. Something nice to think about.
The new guy and Lynn were talking and a peek was enough for me to tell that he was full-on flirting with her with no shame whatsoever.
Ethan leaned on the hand-wash-only sink and brought his chest out, smiling like a twat from a toothpaste advert. Lynn smiled back, batting her lashes and stroking her hair. Everyone knows that when a girl touches her hair like that in front of a bloke, she’s got plans.
I’d overheard the guys talking, that's how I knew his name was Ethan. The others had been chatting to him, or rather yelled whatever they said in short bursts. I’d vaguely taken note of how friendly they were to each other. They bantered in a way that came difficult to me. I got along with my colleagues well enough, although I wasn’t really on friendly terms with any of them. They’d say hello to me on the street if we crossed paths, and I to them, I suppose. We’d known each other for a bloody long time at this point. To be honest, I was afraid of letting myself go in their presence, not because I didn’t want friends but, in a blokeish environment such as Cam’s kitchen, I would be an easy target.
I was the youngest of the lot, me being only nineteen and everyone else older than twenty-four. Also, I was short – an inglorious five feet two – and skinny, with barely any muscle, while my colleagues were each a different version of a “sturdy chap.” I’d always been scrawny and my father had busted my balls for my weakness a lot when I was little and kids in school weren’t exactly nice either. Children can be nasty, everyone knows that, but adults too if you give them the chance and I was a walking opportunity.
So yeah, I’d avoided becoming the butt of everyone’s joke by keeping to myself. But that also meant no friendly banter for me to be part of.
This Ethan guy was smashing it socially, though. He was one of those charismatic people everyone was naturally drawn to. He was good-looking, with short dark hair and a complex array of tattoos marking his neck and arms, a pretty-boy face, well-kept beard and a nice body. The guy wasn’t big or muscly or anything, but fairly tall and well built. Nobody would have said, ‘That’s the most handsome dude I’ve ever seen,’ but he definitely caught the eye. A big part of his charm had to do with the way he carried himself and the confidence exuding from his voice.
I took a good look at him and frowned, feeling oddly pissed off.
‘Is this your first day?’ Lynn said, all sweet.
‘Yeah.’ Ethan cocked his head to the side and grinned, the utter cock.
‘How are you finding it?’ She played with the long strands of her hair and rocked her shoulders.
‘No problem at all. A piece of cake.’
Her eyes travelled over his figure; she didn’t even try to hide her interest. ‘Great. Well, I’d better go now. Downstairs is quite busy.’
‘Sure. Catch you later.’ He wagged his eyebrows once at her and she giggled, actually giggled, before leaving with a giant smile.
Sam, the guy in charge of the grill and fryer, peered through the open space between the hot shelves and whistled. ‘We have a player, everyone!’
Ethan smirked and rubbed his stomach. ‘Don't know what you're talking about.’
Pete raised one of his ginger eyebrows as he put two plates in the food elevator. ‘Yeah, right.’
First day on shift and Ethan had already earned a reputation. Cam called him “toy-boy” for a laugh, since it turned out that Ethan was twenty-one and Lynn a whopping twenty-eight. Neither of them looked their age.
It made me dislike him even more to find that he wasn't much older but so much better than me, both in terms of looks and personality.
Later that day, after I got home and crashed in bed, I thought of the brief exchange between Ethan and Lynn, reflecting on how strong and unreasonable my dislike of Ethan was.
I squinted into the darkness and clutched the edges of my duvet. I am envious of him. I'm such a stupid little kid. Grow up, Nathan.
For about a week, Ethan showed up for the afternoon shifts only. That's what Cam liked to do with the newbies: he had them come when it wasn't too busy and the physical work not as demanding, to have them get used to the new environment without scaring them off. The management had been breathing down his neck recently because the new starters kept leaving after only a few months. That's why he was good as gold with Ethan – much nicer than he'd been with me when I first started.
Everyone had taken a liking to Ethan immediately, aside from me. For that first week I saw very little of him since he started at two and I, who was ninety per cent of the time scheduled to do the openings, was off by half-past two.
Ethan tried to talk to me – to be friendly – but, like others before him, he found that I didn’t have much to say and I didn’t care to mess about. I just wanted to be done with work as soon as possible and go home.
On Sunday, at the end of my shift, I was about to scoot out to freedom when Cam pinched my collar and grinned. ‘Off in a rush, are you? Don’t forget Ethan is going to open with you Tuesday morning. I’m trusting you to teach him everything he needs to know, alright butty?’
I nodded and flushed a little when Ethan met my gaze from the washing-up station, his hands sunk deep into a pool of soap and sooty mayhem. He lifted his chin in my direction as if to say, ‘Alright?’ and it was then that I noticed his eyes were dark blue.
What happened next is history.