This went on till three o’clock without much variation, except that about eleven the cook usually had a CRISE De NERFS and a flood of tears. From three to five was a fairly slack time for the waiters, but the cook was still busy, and I was working my fastest, for there was a pile of dirty plates waiting, and it was a race to get them done, or partly done, before dinner began. The washing up was doubled by the primitive conditions—a cramped draining-board, tepid water, sodden cloths, and a sink that got blocked once in an hour. By five the cook and I were feeling unsteady on our feet, not having eaten or sat down since seven. We used to collapse, she on the dustbin and I on the floor, drink a bottle of beer, and apologize for some of the things we had said in the morning. Tea was what kept us going. We took care to have a pot always stewing, and drank pints during the day.
At half-past five the hurry and quarrelling began again, and now worse than before, because everyone was tired out. The cook had a CRISE DE NERFS at six and another at nine; they came on so regularly that one could have told the time by them. She would flop down on the dustbin, begin weeping hysterically, and cry out that never, no, never had she thought to come to such a life as this; her nerves would not stand it; she had studied music at Vienna; she had a bedridden husband to support, etc. etc. At another time one would have been sorry for her, but, tired as we all were, her whimpering voice merely infuriated us. Jules used to stand in the doorway and mimic her weeping. The PATRON’S wife nagged, and Boris and Jules quarrelled all day, because Jules shirked his work, and Boris, as head waiter, claimed the larger share of the tips. Only the second day after the restaurant opened, they came to blows in the kitchen over a two-franc tip, and the cook and I had to separate them. The only person who never forgot Us manners was the PATRON. He kept the same hours as the rest of us, but he had no work to do, for it was his wife who really managed things. His sole job, besides ordering the supplies, was to stand in the bar smoking cigarettes and looking gentlemanly, and he did that to perfection.
The cook and I generally found time to eat our dinner between ten and eleven o’clock. At midnight the cook would steal a packet of food for her husband, stow it under her clothes, and make off, whimpering that these hours would kill her and she would give notice in the morning. Jules also left at midnight, usually after a dispute with Boris, who had to look after the bar till two. Between twelve and half past I did what I could to finish the washing up. There was no time to attempt doing the work properly, and I used simply to rub the grease off the plates with table-napkins. As for the dirt on the floor, I let it lie, or swept the worst of it out of sight under the stoves.
At half past twelve I would put on my coat and hurry out. The PATRON, bland as ever, would stop me as I went down the alley-way past the bar. ‘MAIS, MON CHEr MONSIEUR, how tired you look! Please do me the favour of accepting this glass of brandy.’ He would hand me the glass of brandy as courteously as though I had been a Russian duke instead of a PLONGEUR.
He treated all of us like this. It was our compensation for working seventeen hours a day.
As a rule the last Metro was almost empty—a great advantage, for one could sit down and sleep for a quarter of an hour. Generally I was in bed by half past one. Sometimes I missed the train and had to sleep on the floor of the restaurant, but it hardly mattered, for I could have slept on cobblestones at that time.
This life went on for about a fortnight, with a slight increase of work as more customers came to the restaurant. I could have saved an hour a day by taking a room near the restaurant, but it seemed impossible to find time to change lodgings—or, for that matter, to get my hair cut, look at a newspaper, or even undress completely. After ten days I managed to find a free quarter of an hour, and wrote to my friend B. in London asking him if he could get me a job of some sort—anything, so long as it allowed more than five hours sleep. I was simply not equal to going on with a seventeen-hour day, though there are plenty of people who think nothing of it. When one is overworked, it is a good cure for self-pity to think of the thousands of people in Paris restaurants who work such hours, and will go on doing it, not for a few weeks, but for years. There was a girl in a BISTRO near my hotel who worked from seven in the morning till midnight for a whole year, only sitting down to her meals. I remember once asking her to come to a dance, and she laughed and said that she had not been farther than the street comer for several months. She was consumptive, and died about the time I left Paris.
After only a week we were all neurasthenic with fatigue, except Jules, who skulked persistently. The quarrels, intermittent at first, had now become continuous. For hours’ one would keep up a drizzle of useless nagging, rising into storms of abuse every few minutes. ‘Get me down that saucepan, idiot!’ the cook would cry (she was not tall enough to reach the shelves where the saucepans were kept).
‘Get it down yourself, you old whore,’ I would answer. Such remarks seemed to be generated spontaneously from the air of the kitchen.
We quarrelled over things of inconceivable pettiness.
The dustbin, for instance, was an unending source of quarrels—whether it should be put where I wanted it, which was in the cook’s way, or where she wanted it, which was between me and the sink. Once she nagged and nagged until at last, in pure spite, I lifted the dustbin up and put it out in the middle of the floor, where she was bound to trip over it.
‘Now, you cow,’ I said, ‘move it yourself.’ Poor old woman, it was too heavy for her to lift, and she sat down, put her head on the table and burst out crying.
And I jeered at her. This is the kind of effect that fatigue has upon one’s manners.
After a few days the cook had ceased talking about Tolstoy and her artistic nature, and she and I were not on speaking terms, except for the purposes of work, and Boris and Jules were not on speaking terms, and neither of them was on speaking terms with the cook. Even Boris and I were barely on speaking terms. We had agreed beforehand that the ENGUEULADES of working hours did not count between times; but we had called each other things too bad to be forgotten—and besides, there were no between times. Jules grew lazier and lazier, and he stole food constantly—from a sense of duty, he said. He called the rest of us JAUNE—blackleg—when we would not join with him in stealing. He had a curious, malignant spirit. He told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup before taking it in, just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie.
The kitchen grew dirtier and the rats bolder, though we trapped a few of them. Looking round that filthy room, with raw meat lying among refuse on the floor, and cold, clotted saucepans sprawling everywhere, and the sink blocked and coated with grease, I used to wonder whether there could be a restaurant in the world as bad as ours. But the other three all said that they had been in dirtier places. Jules took a positive pleasure in seeings things dirty. In the afternoon, when he had not much to do, he used to stand in the kitchen doorway jeering at us for working too hard:
‘Fool! Why do you wash that plate? Wipe it on your trousers. Who cares about the customers? THEY don’t know what’s going on. What is restaurant work? You are carving a chicken and it falls on the floor. You apologize, you bow, you go out; and in five minutes you come back by another door— with the same chicken. That is restaurant work,’ etc.And, strange to say, in spite of all this filth and incompetence, the Auberge de Jehan Cottard was actually a success.
For the first few days all our customers were Russians, friends of the PATRON, and these were followed by Americans and other foreigners—no Frenchmen. Then one night there was tremendous excitement, because our first Frenchman had arrived. For a moment our quarrels were forgotten and we all united in the effort to serve a good dinner. Boris tiptoed into the kitchen, jerked his thumb over his shoulder and whispered conspiratorially:
‘SH! ATTENTION, UN FRANCAIS!’ A moment later the PATRON’s wife came and whispered:
‘ATTENTION, UN FRANCAIS! See that he gets a double portion of all vegetables.’ While the Frenchman ate, the PATRON’S wife stood behind the grille of the kitchen door and watched the expression of his face. Next night the Frenchman came back with two other Frenchmen. This meant that we were earning a good name; the surest sign of a bad restaurant is to be frequented only by foreigners. Probably part of the reason for our success was that the PATRON, with the sole gleam of sense he had shown in fitting out the restaurant, had bought very sharp table-knives. Sharp knives, of course, are THe secret of a successful restaurant. I am glad that this happened, for it destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea