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book cover for Times of Triumph Times Of Triumph
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen


Hayes, the manager, hired Leonie firstly because what he thought was her English accent would lend the distinctive touch to the place that O'Hara's liked to maintain. And secondly because she was so unusually tall and strikingly good-looking the male customers were bound to be pleased dealing with her. Thirdly because she was young enough and seemed to lack the preening vanity that might offend the female clientele. And finally because he was convinced it would be a fairly easy matter to charm and seduce her, thereby keeping her firmly in her place as well as sufficiently on edge to be readily at his disposal. After all, she was young and newly arrived - just three weeks off the boat, she'd told him, and admitted to being uncertain of the ways of city life.

His initial impression, however, underwent a quick re-evaluation when, within an hour of starting work, she'd managed to make sense of the system and was properly directing customers to their tables, making certain that no one section of the restaurant was overloaded; seeing to it people were evenly distributed so that each station had its fair share of people to see to. She took it upon herself to approach the tables of those already well into their meals, to smile and ask if everything was to their liking. And, obviously charmed, the customers responded to her warmly. Which irked Hayes, because he liked gliding among the tables, chatting with the customers, and this too-tall girl with her airs and graces was usurping him. He'd have to see about that, he thought, rushing out to the kitchen to supervise the slow-moving waitresses.

For her part, after the first day, it seemed less of a job, more of an obstacle course: avoiding the oily overtures of Mr. Hayes, dealing with people who arbitrarily decided they didn't like the table to which she'd shown them and turned asking, "Why can't we have that table?" so that she had, smoothly and without pause, to fabricate some flattering lie that would convince them their original table was infinitely more desirable. "That one's so close to the kitchen," she'd say in a confidential undertone. "This one's much quieter."

She coped with boldly whispered invitations a number of men ventured to make. Outrageous sexual invitations she was forced to smile and laugh off gracefully, without offense. It wouldn't do to alienate the customers.

One or two of the waitresses quite often - too often, perhaps? - bumped into her, several times resulting in stains to her clothing. The girls challenged her with their eyes, waiting to see how she'd respond. Feeling sympathetic - their job being considerably less pleasant than hers - she'd say, "Just an accident," or, "My fault," and the collisions ceased. They accepted her. Although their eyes were still puzzled when connecting with hers. They couldn't make sense of her. Leonie didn't mind.

Frequently, things were dropped or spilled in the restaurant. And then Hayes materialized to apologize to the diners, hissing at the waitress or busboy in question to clean up the mess at once and then see him in his office off the kitchen.

In the kitchen, Leonie knew - having seen it happen almost immediately upon starting work at O'Hara's - Hayes, slit-eyed and furious, shouted at the girls, taking careful note of breakages, advising the damage would be subtracted from their week's wages. The girls, almost every time, began to cry, trying to explain. Hayes didn't hear, hadn't time. Unless the girl happened to be willing to meet him in the slack time, between three and, six, in his office. And even then, the girl in question couldn't be certain that her wages at week's end mightn't still come into her hands less the cost of the broken dishes. When this happened, there was usually a scene - most often ugly - that resulted in the girl's quitting. Hayes was unperturbed. The turnover in staff was tremendous, Leonie saw by her third day. The waitresses seemed to be the arena where Hayes proved his potency and superior strength. After each slack-hours encounter, he emerged from his office positively glowing with satisfaction. He beamed at Leonie as if the two of them shared some malevolent secret. When she failed to return his smiles, he stopped giving them and began regarding her with some of the same slit-eyed malice with which he followed the comings and goings of the waitresses.

She didn't like him, but failed to share the waitresses' fear of him. She simply wanted him to leave her alone, to let her get on with her job, collect her wages at the end of the week, and go home. But her every instinct warned her from the first that it wasn't going to be quite that simple. Hayes, she thought, lacked the intelligence to deal well with people, and preferred perfecting his role of martinet to attempting to keep both staff and customers happy. It was easier to charm clients and keep the staff on their toes by use of threats, sexual abuse if necessary, and the exercise of power.

From the beginning, everything about the place was alarming. And rather than becoming accustomed to any of it, she found it all more nightmarish with each day's passing.

The kitchen, hot, steamy, reeked of the clashing smells of too many different types of food all being prepared simultaneously. The sharp odor of broiling fish did battle with the fatty smell of roasting meat. Harried-looking boys frantically scurried around with trays of dirty dishes, slipping on the greasy floor while another boy of not more than ten tried never-endingly to mop up the spills, twice being in the wrong spot at the wrong time so that incoming waitresses pushing through the door crashed into him. Once toppling him backwards into his bucket and sending a flood of gray sudsy water cascading over the already slippery floor. The bottom of the waitress's uniform got drenched with dirty water, bits of food clung to her shoes. The girl, erupting angrily, kicked the child hard in the shin before flying over to the dishwashing area to grab up a wet cloth, trying desperately to repair some of the damage.

The second time, the boy was swabbing the floor by the sinks where the spillage was greatest. Flies hovered over the garbage barrels, the sinks. One of the busboys hurrying in with a fully loaded tray skidded on the soapy floor and the tray crashed with a long roar of shattering crockery and glass that was heard throughout the restaurant, so that everyone outside looked up, listening. A pause of several seconds before laughter began here and there and people returned to their meals, commenting about how startled they'd been. Leonie looked toward the kitchen doors, knowing someone would pay dearly for that resounding crash. Hayes fired both the boys on the spot. In the back alley outside the restaurant, the busboy - a sturdy lad of about fourteen - beat the other, smaller boy so severely the child was left dazed and bleeding behind the trash bins, where Leonie, coming out for a much-needed breath of air, found him.

She held the child upright and got him back inside to a relatively quiet corner of the kitchen, where she sat him on a chair and began cleaning him up, when Mr. Hayes arrived demanding to know, "Just what do you think you're doing, Miss Benedict?"

"The other lad beat him," she explained, gently examining around the boy's already purpling eye. "He's just a child," she said, touched by the thin vulnerability of the boy's neck, by his tears.

"It's none of your concern," he said evenly. "Your job is out there!"

"I'll only be a moment." She turned to smile, hoping to deflect him.

The clatter and din of the kitchen continued on as always. Waitresses demanded meals they'd ordered that weren't yet ready. The chef, a huge, truly alarming fat man brandished a carving knife, hurling obscene expletives the waitresses simply ignored; while the salad boys, and the pastry chef, and the dishwashers, and the cashier all continued at their jobs everyone moving within the steaming cloud of colliding odors. Pats of butter slid from their saucers to the floor. Soup splattered, sloshing over the rims of bowls. A blancmange slithered off its plate to lie whitely quivering near the OUT door while the waitress, near tears, turned with her tray and went back for another dessert.

"Get him out of here!" Hayes said dismissingly. "And get back to your post at once! You're not here as a nurse."

"At once, sir," Leonie said, wishing he'd go away so she might talk to the boy. He didn't look well enough to get home on his own.

"Be quick about it!" he snapped, studying her as she bent over the boy, feeling hot inside his clothes as he looked at her long hands gingerly dabbing at the child's nose, cleaning away the blood. Noting the slender, tapering lines of her back, the swell of her breasts. He wanted to strip her down, tear her apart. He moved away, saying, "See me in my office at three. I think it's time you and I had a little talk." She nodded, not really hearing, hurriedly attending to the boy, concerned. "Are you going to be able to get home on your own?" she asked, raising his chin in order to look into deep brown eyes, framed by thick dark lashes.

"Aw, I'm okay." He sniffed. "Wasn't my fault, though."

"I know," she murmured, bathing his face with a cloth. "How old are you?"

"Said I was ten." He near-smiled conspiratorially. "But I'm not. Won't be till next April."

"You should be in school," she said, rinsing the cloth.

He laughed, then winced. "School! Lemme go now," he said, suddenly impatient. "I gotta see about finding someplace else, maybe get another job before closing time."

He wouldn't stay, wouldn't allow his injuries to be seen to. He had to go, he said; had to get another job or his ma would be mad. He scooted out, darting through the kitchen, pushing his way out to the back alley. Cautiously he looked out just in case the older boy might still be waiting, then ran off. The alley door slowly swung to.

She returned the cloth and bowl to the dishwasher, then collected her stack of menus, and went out once more to the front of the restaurant, where Mr. Hayes turned her job back over to her, smiling for the benefit of the four waiting to be seated at table six, saying so pleasantly, "Don't forget, now, Miss Benedict. My office at three." You'd better be there, his thin mouth told her.

What was he on about? she wondered. Nothing here really made overmuch sense to her, she thought, showing the four to table six, giving out the menus once they'd seated themselves. Saying, "Have a pleasant meal," before heading back to her post near the front door, shivering in the surge of cold air every time the door opened and more customers came in. She couldn't get warm. The only relief came in those minutes she could snatch in the kitchen when she claimed her employee's meal, which wasn't anything like the food served to the clientele. Strange, sauce-disguised plates of leftovers, the scraps given to the staff; smelling foul, tasting worse. She couldn't imagine serving food of such deplorable quality to anyone. But all the staff, except the chefs, ate it. Quickly. Mopping up the sauce with crusts the chef saved in a large bowl, cut from the croutons for the French onion soup. Everyone ate fast in their ten-minute breaks, gulping the food down before, hurrying back to the restaurant. She gave up on the sick-making meals and nibbled the crusts of bread, drank cups of tea, feeding herself a proper meal once she got home at night after her twelve-hour day at the restaurant.

The tea-and-coffee lady was a dear old soul, to whom Leonie took an instant liking. And Mrs. Blainey provided Leonie with those cups of good strong tea, urging her in a whisper to drink them quickly, "... before that Hayes one comes in, sees." Going off into a corner of the kitchen to drink down the bracing tea, she tried to make sense of this chaotic place, of why she was here. She had to do something, couldn't sit idle in her apartment waiting for a letter or for Gray to come find her. And the only thing she knew about was food, having prepared all the bread, the meals for her father and herself at the mission; working her way through the old cookery book of her mother's. She'd gone right the way through "Salads" and almost all the way through "Soups and Stews," making substitutions when the recipes called for items she'd never heard of. Things she'd supposed the English must eat. During her time in England she'd discovered that the English with whom she came into contact seemed to eat mainly gammon rashers and runny eggs, roasts of beef with soggy Yorkshire puddings and overdone roasted potatoes. No salads, to speak of. And Cousin Augusta had informed her she disliked stews intensely, considered them fit only for the help belowstairs. In any event, Augusta refused to allow Leonie anywhere near the kitchen.

Now, here she was in this mad, dirty, noisy city; working in this mad, dirty, noisy restaurant, and Mr. Hayes was storming across the kitchen toward her, red in the face, coming up to her to mutter, "I've been waiting fifteen minutes! When I tell someone to be in my office, I expect that someone to be in my office!"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Hayes," she said, setting down her cup. "I'll come straightaway. Is something the matter?" she asked his departing back, her eyes moving to take in three of the woman standing by the small counter built to accommodate staff meals - to be eaten standing, and as quickly as possible - pushing food in, wiping at their mouths with agitated fingers as more food went in. Everything so fast. The chef screamed something at the pastry chef, who grabbed up a long-bladed knife and screamed back at the huge fat man whose face glistened with running sweat; his sweat dripping into the food he was preparing. Leonie's stomach rose, imagining some customer hungrily dipping into a plate of something containing that fat man's exudings.

Mr. Hayes was small, dapper; hair meticulously center-parted, combed down to the sides, kept flat with some sort of lavender-scented pomade. Pin-striped suit, white spats, highly polished black shoes, a white carnation pinned to his lapel. His shirt collar looked lethally sharp. She entered his office, her nose assaulted by his various smells. The pomade as well as some sort of cologne. And underlying these was the faintly rank odor of not especially clean male flesh. What am I doing in this place? she wondered, seeing this man as a banty little rooster. Chest outthrust, face arranged into an indulgent smile.

"Come sit down, Miss Benedict." He turned his smile on her full-force. "We'll have a little chat."

"I'd prefer to stand, thank you, sir." She smiled back, finding him odious, knowing at once he was offended by her refusal to accept his generous hospitality. The smile lost much of its self-indulgent pleasure, hardened at the edges, like the blancmange congealing on the kitchen floor. She wanted to be somewhere clean and silent, somewhere green and warm; wanted not to feel as close to vomiting as she did.

"You're taking a little too much time to yourself," he said. "I understand that you're new, that you don't know how things are done here, so I'm prepared to be a bit more lenient with you. But you're going to have to pay closer attention, We don't pay you good wages so you can waste time involving yourself in the petty squabbles of the kitchen staff. You're to be out there at the door, ready to seat the customers as they come in. Not in the kitchen."

"I understand."

"And all this talking with Mrs. Blainey. You're holding the woman back from doing her job - "

"But - "

"And you're being a little overly familiar with the customers. That's my job, not yours. Furthermore, it's none of your business if one of the waitresses cuts herself."

"But it was a nasty cut - "

"It's none of your business!" he repeated, coming around from behind his desk to stand near her. Too near. He was slightly shorter than she, so that she had the distinct feeling she was looking down at him. He seemed aware of her advantage in height, and as if to emphasize his control of the situation, perched on the edge of his desk, crossing his arms comfortably across his chest, smiling again; saying nothing, simply gazing at her, smiling.

"Will that be all, then?" she asked, his many smells too strong now at this range; battling down a tremendous desire to move well away from him, but knowing he'd take immediate offense. She noticed his small hands. Exceptionally small, like a child's, except for the black hairs escaping from beneath his shirt cuffs, like dozens of miniature snakes crawling over the back of his too-white, tiny hands.

"You've got a lot to learn," he said, as if doing her a great service in imparting this bit of information.

"I expect I do," she agreed, closely watching his hands, bothered by them.

She was too clean, too properly put together. He'd have liked, right at that moment, to see her take a spill on the kitchen floor; to stand in the doorway of his office and see her go down, come up soiled. Putting on airs and graces. He knew the type. Airs and graces. Having to work, nonetheless, for her four dollars a week. Niggled, though, by her qualities. Because in spite of himself, he recognized that her air and her grace were not manufactured, but infuriatingly genuine. Effortlessly, naturally, she possessed the dignity and elegance he'd never have. It made him all the more anxious to see her debased, soiled in some critical fashion.

"Will there be anything else, Mr. Hayes?" she asked again, her stomach going tighter and tighter, the floor of her mouth filling unpleasantly with fluid.

His hands itched to fasten themselves to her breasts, to pull at her clothing.

"Just make sure you stay where you're supposed to be," he said. "This isn't a social club."

"It's frightfully cold by the front door."

"Cold? It's not cold."

"Where I come from - "

"Wear a shawl," he said, becoming annoyed. "Unless, of course, you're not interested in the job ...?" He left the question dangling.

"Yes," she said, risking taking a step away. "I will. I hadn't thought of that." She escaped.

It was like entering hell every morning. Leaving the relative quiet and comfort of her apartment on Tenth Street, she made her way to the restaurant, where the waitresses and busboys were frenziedly setting up the tables for breakfast. Latecomers were shouted at by the ever-present Mr. Hayes, while in the kitchen the chef screeched and raged over his steaming pots and brandished his carving knife, and Mrs. Blainey with a bandage wrapped around her scalded hand filled the huge urns, standing on a chair to do it. A new little boy pushed the wet mop back and forth across the already fouled floor. The noise echoed as Leonie hung away her coat in the staff room - a tiny cubicle designed to hold all the outer garments of the staff as well as supposedly being of a size to accommodate those of the staff taking their ten-minute breaks. There wasn't anywhere to sit. And Mr. Hayes kept the room locked, to protect, he said, the staff's valuables.

On her fifth day, someone rifled her handbag which she'd left in the supposed safety of the staff room, taking eleven dollars and change, a lace handkerchief that had belonged to her mother, and, puzzlingly, her smelling salts. It was as if whoever had perpetrated the theft knew how dependent she was upon those whiffs of salts to enable her to tolerate both the stink of the kitchen and of the staff, who, for the most part, reeked of body odor from their frenzied rushing about.

She doubted seriously any of the waitresses or busboys was responsible, because she'd managed to gain their trust, even a kind of fleeting friendship with the majority of them. Mr. Hayes, she suspected, was walking about with her money, her handkerchief, and the small bottle of smelling salts. But why?

On her eighth day, he cornered her in the staff room, his eyes screwed down to slits, silently advancing upon her with a terrifying twist to his mouth; muttering something about her place - why wasn't she in her place instead of forever sneaking off either to disrupt the staff or hide herself in here - allowing her no room for response, allowing her no room, forcing her into a corner.

"I've only just arrived," she tried to explain.

He said nothing, his hand moving out as if he was going to touch her. Something inside her head seemed to click, and she put out both her hands, shoving him away from her, exclaiming, "Get back from me!" She stood breathing hard, prepared to kill him; wanting to. For his cruel ways with the waitresses and busboys, the kitchen staff; for his forays among the girls, his invitations into his office to the more innocent of them; for his lack of stature, his meanness, his complete failure to possess any redeeming qualities whatsoever. She pushed him, and his hand shot out, catching her hard across the side of her face.

"You don't push me!" he said in a voice soprano with barely controlled rage. Visibly trembling, he again advanced on her. But, not before closing the staff-room door. Meaningfully.

No one had ever hit her. No one. Not ever. Her vision seemed to be clouded, as if the blow had caused her eyes to fill with blood. And she struck back with all her strength, sending the little man crashing against the wall. She wanted to scream, feeling all the anger, the injustice. She leaped at him, hitting him again; losing control of herself temporarily. She hit him, in dreadful silence, while he cowered, defending himself; regarding her with horrified eyes as if a wild animal had suddenly been released in his presence and his life was imperiled, telling her to, "Get away from me! Crazy! Damned crazy ..."

"I want my money," she said from deep in her throat, where the outrage pulsed hurtfully. "Eleven dollars and seventeen cents. And my handkerchief, my smelling salts." Her chest heaving, she stood before him with clenched fists, wanting, desperately to annihilate him. Her face hurt from his blow and that film of blood was still in her eyes, the stink of him in her nostrils.

"What the hell're you talking about?" His eyes gave him away as he drew himself upright, pretending indignation while his eyes carefully tracked her slightest move.

"Four dollars for my week's work, as well as two dollars for this week. Eleven dollars and seventeen cents. All together, that makes seventeen dollars and seventeen cents. Give it to me!"

"You'll get nothing! You're crazy!" His eyes were on the door now, as if he'd summon help - the fat chef, perhaps, with his carving knife. "Collect your things and get out before I call the police!"

"You'll give me my money, Mr. Hayes," she said firmly.

"I'll give you nothing!" he insisted. "Crazy damned foreigner!" He knew at once he shouldn't have said that, because her eyes seemed to ignite.

"I'm an African," she said in that deep voice. "And I have powers you've never dreamed of, Mr. Hayes. Are you willing to risk my powers?" It was a bluff. And she could hear her own laughter inside her head. But she'd succeeded in terrifying him. "A bit of your hair," she said quietly, "one of your buttons. That's all I'd need."

In the end, he threw three bills on the floor at her feet, then tore open the door and literally ran out, yelling back at her, "Be out of here in five minutes or I'll have the police come and take you out!" He ran straight into the audience of staff gathered by the door. Screaming, "Get back to work!" he shoved through them, slamming into his office.

The fat chef bellowed with laughter, clapping the pastry chef on the back, exclaiming, "First time anyone made that son of a bitch wet his pants." He made up a thick roast-beef sandwich for Leonie to take home, pushed it over the counter toward her with a surprisingly shy smile.

And Mrs. Blainey said, "You take care of yourself, dear. Nice girl like you, you don't belong here, in a place like this."

Back at the apartment, she looked at the notes she'd picked up from the floor. Two tens and a five. She laughed, thinking of her threat. A hollow feeling in her chest as she went to stand by the window looking out at the rain, thinking about the madness of the entire episode. No sense, no reason, no logic. All those people running, sweating, colliding. Glasses and dishes smashing, food dropping to the floor. Small children hired to clean up the messes. Big boys beating little boys. Mrs. Blainey scalding herself trying to fill those big urns. It wasn't the way life was supposed to be. I wouldn't treat people that way if it were my restaurant she thought. Feeling tears easing her eyes, she stood looking out at the rain, wondering if she was supposed to subdue herself, suppress her feelings, abase herself in order to have a job and survive. Surely there was something else, some other way to earn money, have a life.

I'm afraid, she thought, watching the rain make random patterns on the glass. Is that what life is in America? The restaurant. People calmly eating. Well-dressed, affluent people, sitting down to expensive meals, while behind the swing doors there was filth and panic and violence. One view for those with money, another for those without. I don't want to be here, she thought, looking past the rain at the nearby buildings.

The nausea caught up with her finally and she was sick. After, with a cup of tea, she went to sit down on her bed, holding her hands around the cup for warmth, deciding she'd get a newspaper first thing in the morning and begin looking for another job. But what, she wondered, if the next job were just like this last one? I couldn't bear that, she thought, more frightened. There had to be something else she could do. Perhaps Gray's answer to her letter would come soon, save her having to offer herself up to another inexplicable, degrading experience. It was only a month since she'd stepped off the ship. It seemed years. Only November, and it was colder than she'd have believed possible.

She sipped the tea, idly wondering if the little boy had managed to find himself another job. Nine years old. Wrong. A little boy with a thin neck, too thin-looking altogether to sustain the weight of his head. And an old woman with bandaged hands grappling with heavy pots of water, struggling up onto a chair to tip the water into the urns. Frantic young girls coping with the demands of the customers, the lunacy of the chefs, the deductions for breakage from their wages, the unwanted attentions of the manager upon whom their jobs depended.

I won't allow myself to be defeated, she vowed. There had to be something else, somewhere else, something.

She unwrapped the sandwich, thought of the fat, red-faced chef who'd displayed such unexpected kindness; thought of his sweat dripping over the blood-oozing beef and put down her cup to go into the bathroom, sick again.

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