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Squid! by Daniel Draper

You put on the apron and try not to sigh. The bright red LobStars logo taunts you. It’s a lobster. It’s holding a whisk in one claw and an Oscar in the other. It’s starting to fade because you wash it at too high a temperature, but it’s the only way to get the smell out. You don’t mind the smell in the warehouse, but you hate it when it’s in the laundry, the dryer. You hate the smell when your roommate bitches about it.

You do not want to be here today, even though you said ‘thank you’ when management asked. They said you had the perfect face for filming. You’re at the sweet spot of being attractive, yet plain enough to be invisible. Still, you’ve put more make up on than usual. You convince yourself you can’t hate it that much.

Open your locker, take out a fresh hat. The hat’s paper and boxy. You unfold it and press down on the greaseproof bit with holes that covers your hair. Your head is too big for these hats, so you make a small rip in the bottom at the back. You do not want to get off your shift and find a horizontal line through the centre of your forehead. You can stand the fish smell, but not that.

Go into your supervisor’s office and say good morning. Do not scream at her. Read the schedule board thoroughly. Find you’re on stuffed calamari. Guaranteed screen time. You feel glad of the extra make up.

It’s your first time dealing with squid. You’ve been on seared tuna, bass, and once you were at a corporate event where you even served swordfish. And now squid.

At these events you stand over a bain-marie next to your colleagues. You’re told to call them colleagues, though in the four years you’ve been here you’ve never seen the same person more than twice. They might as well be robots. You might as well be robots.

You’ve been reading about the film you’re catering today. It’s the director’s big comeback after the allegations. You auditioned for him once. You can’t remember him being any different from the others. This is a deep discomfort for you.

Squid! That’s what it’s called, with an exclamation point. You’ve read the industry buzz, about how the monster movie is back baby. Big dumb fun, they’ve called it. A nuclear accident causes a mutation in the oceans and our only hope is a scientist with a jawline and perfect hair to run about and make exclamations like “Squid!”.

Your supervisor told you that LobStars are catering the set today for free. As promotion. Exposure. You learn LobStars will feature in ‘behind the scenes’ footage. “Look what we ate on the set of ‘Squid!’. Squid.” That kind of thing.

You doubt the fans of ‘Squid!’s special features require elite catering. You’re trying not to be cynical. You’re failing.

The rules are the same. You’re not to make eye contact. Answer any question about the dish if you’re asked, but otherwise stay silent. You sign NDAs regularly. You’re told that if you break an NDA, you’ll never work in this town again. You nod. You ladle. Silently. You make sure to never click your tongs.

You’re not a server, you’re an Experience Instigator. A personal experience. In silence. This means your clients can be confident that you know every stage of the cooking process. How the sausage is made.

You head out to the kitchen. Industrial sized pots bubble with chowder and the ovens are at what you consider an unnatural height. Fish pies are browning at your shoulders as you set out your trays. You imagine Hansel and Gretel.

You ask the cook what he needs you to do. He tells you to make stuffing. So, you chop tentacles and capers and breadcrumbs and parsley. He dilutes some of the heavy-duty white wine stock with water and uses a spray bottle to coat the griddle as the squid sizzles, waiting to be stuffed.

They catch squid at night, the cook says. They’re attracted to the lights on the ship. They snag them on a continuous rope turning over a pulley, hooked into machinery and yanked onto a boat.

They eject their ink into the sea on their way up, he says. He laughs. It’s funny because that’s their defence mechanism, he says. Bit late for that, you think.

He starts telling you about supply chains. About how they fish in California, then ship them out to the Far East to process them before shipping them back. It’s cheaper for a squid to go around the world than to go two miles, he says. You’ve stopped listening. You’re thinking of squid pissing their ink as they’re reeled in by the bright lights. You choke down sobs.

When you mix the stuffing, you spit in it. It’s not the spit like a dirty drunk, nor that dark slow spit of a tobacco chewer. It’s a thin line of heavy drool that looks pearlescent where the light catches it. Elegant. You could have been a dancer with spit like that. You stir.

On set now, and you try not to imagine slapping that teen vlogger who turned his nose up at the Cajun crab next to you. You spend a lot of time fussing, not setting up. The crew call you a bitch when you ignore them. Your colleagues stay silent. You tell them there’s something wrong with the calamari. They’ll just have to serve the crab, the chowder, the fish pies. You know they do not believe you.

Once the Squid! crew have been fed, it’s the talent. The director’s made a big deal about eating last, as if joining a queue entitles him to be a total bastard for the rest of the day.

He smiles at you when he approaches the table.

He speaks to you. You smile back, silent.

You serve him stuffed calamari.

 

Daniel Draper is a teacher and writer based in Derbyshire. His work has been published by Bandit Fiction, Northern Gravy, and in audio form on the Alternative Stories and Fake Realities podcast (2022). He came third in the Aurora Prize for Fiction (2020), second in the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize (2021), and was most recently longlisted for the Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize (2023). Shirley Jackson, Muriel Spark and Hilary Mantel are his biggest influences. He’s particularly drawn to their domestic gothic writing, as well as the way in which they tackle the horrific with a blackly comedic edge. Daniel is currently working on his second novel. 

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