THE MEANING OF HARD WORK • by Alex Fleetwood

I came to England when I was seventeen. I know what hard work is. Or, with the mistake in English I still always make, I know what is hard work. You speak a little of my language, or I would not trust you with this story.

Daniel Mendonça operates the till all night while I pull coffee, so he can afford to work. He has a smart job in an office, for the parliament, but they do not pay. He waits until they offer him a real contract when he will never have to know what is hard work.

I would like the same thing for my son, but only if they pay.

One night last month, three men in jeans and blazers came to the café. They wore pink shirts and they laughed with women. Daniel tried to change places with me so they would not see him. It was too late. They recognised him and laughed like drunkards. One of the men, a ginger, stayed behind. I heard him say to Daniel, “We’ll hook you up, but first you must…” And then he told what Daniel must do. I was right there but that did not stop him. Perhaps he thought I did not speak or I am slow.

Same morning, when we closed our shift, the owner came. Daniel and I have zero-hours contracts. Nothing guaranteed, but you work when called, then you are paid. By custom, still, the night belongs to me and Daniel. The day before, a daytime girl had left. Daniel must take her shift instead. “No,” said Daniel, “there’s my other job.”

“You work for me,” the owner said, “or you do not work, you choose.”

I followed Daniel to see what he would choose. He did not go to his other work. He took the bus from Fulham past the estate where he still lives but stayed on almost to Hyde Park. I pulled my hood up so he would look through me. He walked up to a huge apartment block. It had its own driveway, with water running through a piece of art. He knew the combination for the gate but I was lucky and slipped straight through after. I told myself he would see only the cleaner. He already learned acting like he does not know hard work.

He went to the third floor, and also there he knew the combination. He let himself into one apartment. It had no rooms, just like the place the party gave my grandmother but twice the size. In the round bed was an Arab man. Daniel saw the man asleep and smothered his head under a silk pillow.

And now Daniel does not operate the till. I saw him in a newspaper at work. That is a story of success, it said, this bright young Portuguese lad from a council flat.

I will send my son back home to Belgrade, where no-one laughs at waiters and we know what is hard work.

Alex Fleetwood is a writer and anthropologist who lives on the south coast of England. Her fiction has appeared in Collective Fallout and The Future Fire.

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