Eileen was the woman who often assigned me potato peeling duties. We worked together at a hotel and although she wasn’t in charge I have always been good at taking instruction from women. The building was a low-slung Jacobean monstrosity with tumorous additions and in one of these was Eileen’s kitchen. It wasn’t hers in any real sense but she was very much the boss, whatever our real boss, Mr Cattermole, might have thought.
Life had brought Eileen no end of ordeals. Money worries, children worries, family back in Kerry worries, weather worries. The list was endless but she never seemed beaten by it all. “We’re not here to enjoy ourselves,” she explained, her Catholicism making sense of everything.
Her greatest burden were her legs. Her legs weren’t what they were. “They’re not what they were,” she would say as she groaned her way onto the stool kept specially at the table in the hotel’s kitchen for her benefit. “My legs aren’t what they were.” This was the explanation she gave for why so much of her time at the hotel was spent sitting down.
“I bet your legs never were much,” Huan said, unfunnily, hooting loudly at her own wit. Huan was the Chinese woman who also worked in the hotel kitchen alongside us and the two women loathed each other.
Eileen was the less vocal in her dislike of her work colleague, and at first I assumed, incorrectly, her to be solely the wounded party but when Huan was out of earshot Eileen let her feelings be known. Huan, said Eileen, was lazy, dirty and incompetent. I suspected these were simply code words for Chinese.
Huan, on the other hand, had two great terrors in life. Roman Catholicism was one and something called the Yellow Peril. Her objections to “smells and bells” and “those priests with their dirty hands” seemed mainly to be directed at Eileen but I couldn’t work out what aspect of the dowdy Irish woman was being critiqued for being a peril in yellow. Yellow was a colour I never saw her wear, more accustomed as she was to shades that seemed an absence of anything rather than a positive. Added to which, perilous didn’t strike me as a word that could be applied to Eileen, it had too energetic and sprightly a note to it. And her skin, if that’s what the yellow referred to, was entirely misplaced. Eileen’s skin was grey with blooms of broken red capillaries. Tiny B roads on the ordnance survey of her face.
Finally, one evening over our third bottle of Bulgarian red, it was my friend Emma who explained Yellow Peril.
“But, she is Chinese, herself.” I screwed my face up in confusion.
“Cultural self-loathing,” said Emma. (One of her sociology textbooks brought to life.) “Does she self-harm?”
I was lost again. At seventeen I’d heard of neither self-harm nor yellow peril. My thickness was being laid in front of me like an assortment box of embarrassments.
“Cut herself,” Emma went on wearily. “Razors, that kind of thing. You remember Letitia at school?”
I nodded, unsure.
Emma sloshed more wine into her glass and I could tell she was really getting into this. “She used to do it on the District Line. It only came to a head when a woman saw her slicing at her legs at Gunnersbury Park, had a meltdown, and called an ambulance.”
So, when I next heard Huan bemoan the Yellow Peril, I made even less of the insult. “You watch my words, it is rising in the east,” she exclaimed, bending her knees on the word east and following it with her two hands rising as far as possible, some curious yoga-cum-religion move.
As Eileen and Huan bickered and bitched about each other I fantasised about bringing them together, using their physical frailties as the glue to bond one to the other. I imagined they would see each other afresh and forever after be grateful to me. As I washed up, mopped floors or peeled vegetables I often found myself gripped by this fantasy, almost as frequently as I imagined being snogged by unobtainable straight boys I saw around the place. The gratitude they would show me for bringing them together was the prize I sought, but when I emerged from these reveries I could never explain to myself why bringing these two women together would be quite so satisfying.
Why did they loathe each other so much? I even asked the hotel manager Mr Cattermole one day. But his answer was vague enough to make me think he didn’t know either. “Some women just don’t hit it off, Christopher.” He said this as if describing something universally obvious that didn’t need any further explanation like why dogs and cats struggle to happily share a home.
With Huan the problem was her eyes. The thick lenses in Huan’s glasses magnified her eyes and gave her a permanently alarmed look. The myopic glare of a cartoon character, a hapless mole forever glancing against walls and knocking things over.
“Blind chink,” Eileen would mutter when she saw Huan fail once again to notice something or to miss the hook on which she wanted to place her coat.
When our shifts first coincided it was Eileen’s ankles I couldn’t take my eyes off. Her legs, thick trunks all the way down to her shoes, made no concession to the shape that would pop into most people’s minds when they think of ankles. Ankles were not a part of the body I had ever imagined capable of becoming fat but Eileen’s were and they looked painful with it, the skin almost bruised, its thinness in direct contrast to all that it was holding in. One morning, as if aware of my staring, Eileen explained their shape by the single word “childbirth.” Her legs really weren’t what they were.
What did they used to be? I had visions of them enjoying a carefree existence, maybe a life entirely independent of Eileen. A Time Before Eileen. Travelling around Europe perhaps. I saw an open top sports car, racing over hills in the south of France or through the Low countries, a long scarf billowing in the wind, Eileen’s legs at the centre of the action. Laughter, there was always laughter. Then Eileen’s legs were partying, delivering acid bon mots and smoking multi-coloured cigarettes with gold tips through a long ivory cigarette holder and kicking high into the wee, small hours in some impossibly romantic nightspot or Riviera palace. Basically Eileen’s legs had enjoyed life a very great deal up until the point some older, wiser pair of legs said “it’s time to settle down now, dear, you’re not getting any younger.” So, Eileen’s jaunty, devil may care legs were introduced to the far less sprightly rest of her and that was that. They were fastened on to her hips, and those once globetrotting pins, so full of life and possibility, suddenly lost all their spark. The invitations stopped coming in, the road trips weren’t taken any more but instead they remained trammelled to this woman. Their vitality was crushed. And Eileen, sensing it was the only the history of her legs that stood between a dull workaday life in suburbia and a former, better existence so full of potential kept her mantra up purely to remind her legs and anyone within earshot that she had never forgotten what had been denied them.
Sometimes there would be a wistful sigh at the end of her statement of woe.
“Oh for crying out loud shut bloody up,” shouted Huan.
“Piss off,” replied Eileen.
My role as peace envoy stalled for yet another day.