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Last year, a new shopping centre opened on the outskirts of London. There’s something for everyone: expensive shit, cheap shit, mid-priced shit, all laid out in a sort of class system—the shitty shops and shitty restaurants in the east wing, the classy ones in the west, and the OK ones in between. You’ll find The Hollywood, a 1950s-style American diner, right in the middle.
“Thousands of new jobs!” cried the centre’s press release. I took one of them at The Hollywood. They have branches all over the city, and they all look the same: red leather booths, hamburgers and chilli dogs served in plastic baskets, cherry pie and pancakes for dessert, waitresses with movie-star hair, pink starchy uniforms. It’s supposed to be a time warp, but they’ve scrimped on things. The music often strays into the late 1960s and beyond, and it’s pumped into the jukebox from a laptop behind the bar. It serves German craft beers, a full English breakfast, and malt vinegar for your chips—sorry, your fries. Our put-on American accents were pretty bad, even for the actors amongst us. (I was art-schooled, unfortunately.) Then there’s Lana Del Rey, that gloomy torch singer with the big lips, whom our manager Anna wants us all to emulate. She definitely wasn’t around in the 1950s.
Anna had brought in a sepia-toned picture of the singer last week and pinned it onto the dressing room wall.
“This is what you should all look like,” she said, smacking Lana in the cheek with a manicured hand. “Shiny big hair, smoky eyes, and pale lips. Sultry. Take a good look at this picture.”
We took a good look at it, and after Anna had left the room, we talked.
“She looks like she’s had a stroke.” That’s Susie, an aspiring writer.
“Does this mean we’ll get free lip jobs?” Nicola—illustrator, class of 2008.
“I hope so.” Emma, an actress who once appeared behind Jude Law’s right shoulder in a film.
“You wanna look like that?” I said.
“Yeah, why not? I might get more tips.” Emma puckered her lips into a trout pout. “How do I look?”
Later that night, Anna told me that my hair was all wrong. Not enough like Lana Del Rey, more like “someone from Friends”. No one in Friends ever had a Brigitte Bardot bouffant, but I listened to her advice and came in early the next day before the breakfast shift to study Lana’s picture. I caught the train east as the sun was coming up, and as it pulled into its final stop, I took my earphones out and looked up at the shopping centre, looming like a big white cruise ship.
At The Hollywood, Susie was already in the dressing room, curling tongs in hand, sitting in front of a mirror with a smaller picture of Lana Del Rey slotted into its corner. The room smelt of burnt hair and make-up. Half of her hair was in curlers, the other half a frizzy mess. She was on the verge of tears.
“Hey.” I sat in the chair beside her. “Are you all right?”
“Oh Beth, I just can’t get my hair right.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
“It’s just a waitressing job,” she said, tears creeping into her voice, making it gurgle. “Why do we have to make such a fucking effort?”
“We’re selling dreams, not burgers.” I mimicked the low-pitched voice Anna uses when she gives us pep talks.
“I swear, no one in the other branches has to put up with this.”
“You go to the other branches?”
“A friend had her birthday at one of them. It’s the thing. Get dressed in 1950s clothes, go eat at The Hollywood.” Susie paused, wiped a tear from her cheek, and looked in the mirror at her powdery white face. “All the waitresses were dressed like Shoreditch twats.”
I pulled off my jumper and looked in the mirror. My face was blotchy and grey. Too many hot dogs and long shifts, but nothing that some make-up couldn’t fix. The table in front of us was scattered with foundation, concealer, powder, highlighting cream, eyeshadow, eyeliner, fake eyelashes, mascara, blusher, lipliner, and lipstick, all in different colours. I picked up some foundation, squirted it onto the back of my left hand, and starting dotting it onto my face. I rubbed it in, making the grey spots disappear.
Susie was dabbing pink cream blusher onto her cheeks. “All this makeup is making my skin a mess.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, moving onto the highlighting cream. “At least we can just cover it up.”
“And I’m so much fatter than when we started.”
“How long have we been here now?”
We’d started in the same week. I remember being happy to have found a waitressing job that paid slightly better, because then I wouldn’t have to harass my parents for rent money. “We didn’t send you to university to be a waitress, blah blah blah,” they said. They still say it now, four years after graduation, but they say it less.
“A year,” I said. “God, Susie, I was in an all-right mood before you asked.”
“Sorry,” she said, tears filling her eyes again.
“Don’t cry, you’ll ruin your makeup.”
She took a deep breath and held her tears. “It’s just that, I don’t think I’ve even made any attempt to get a real job in months,” she said. “I feel so resigned to this.”
“Have you been writing?”
She shook her head.
“What are we going to do?”
“Be waitresses forever,” she said.
“If we’re going to be waitresses forever, we might as well find jobs somewhere else. Let’s go out during our break and see if there are any vacancies.”
“Tried that last week,” she said. “But they only hire Japanese people at the Japanese restaurants, Indians at the Indian ones, Italians at the Italian ones…”
“And bimbos at the American one?”
We did the rest of our make up and hair in silence, put on our pink uniforms, and clipped our name tags onto our chests: Shelley and Bobby. Anna strolled into the dressing room just in time for the breakfast shift, looking perfect. Her black hair curled softly around her shoulders, her fringe ruler-straight, her skin as smooth and tanned as a doll’s. She even walked with an awkward retro wiggle that she probably imagined was Monroe-esque. As the door closed behind her, the smell of bacon and eggs wafted in, making my stomach rumble.
“Morning, girls,” she said. “Good hair today, Beth—I like it. Now, remember to smile!”
I forced a smile and nodded. Her skin really was preposterously smooth. Susie and I had looked her up online a few weeks ago and found out that she was 33 years old—a bit old for a waitress, even if she is the head girl—but there’s not a single crease on her face. Maybe she’s taking this Hollywood thing seriously. She’s another actress, after all. Or was.
Susie and I slipped our feet into low black heels and strutted out into the restaurant. Everything looked just so: the booths, the black and white tiled floors, the vintage jukebox, humming the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You”. The only obvious sign of the 21st century was the first customer: a slim young man sitting alone in one of the booths, wearing a blue striped shirt, black trousers, and cheap-looking shoes.
“Bet he works in a phone shop,” Susie whispered in my ear.
I strode over, a smile pasted on my face. I said to him, in my best crap American accent, “Good morning, sir. Can I get ya some coffee?”
“Hey,” he said, looking up. “Wow, you guys really do talk in American accents.”
“Well of course,” I said. “You’re in Hollywood now!” I sounded so jaunty, I wanted to punch myself.
“Crazy,” he said. “Yeah, I’d like a flat white, and bacon with waffles and scrambled eggs, please.”
Like they served flat whites in 1950s America.
“No problem,” I said.
The restaurant was filling up with other customers, mostly workers from the shopping centre; you could tell by how depressed they looked, and the cheapness of their clothes. Anna and Susie were running around, smiling manically. When the phone shop guy’s food was ready, I brought it to his booth.
“Here you go, sir,” I said, setting down the plate.
“Have you ever been to America?” he said.
“Is that a trick question?”
“Come on, I can see through that accent a mile away. It’s awful.”
I gritted my teeth, still smiling.
“I’m from The Hollywood,” I said, “born and bred.”
“Enjoy your meal.”
I went behind the bar, poured myself a lemonade and checked my emails on my phone–hidden behind the counter, so that Anna wouldn’t spot me. There was nothing interesting in my inbox: just massage deals from discount companies, an email from my friend Hannah about her birthday party, and a newsletter from a gallery that had once represented me. They were exhibiting some other ingénue’s work. I deleted it after reading the first line: “Gallery Wow is delighted to present the work of newly graduated artist…”
Anna’s voice. I looked up, and there she was–still smiling, always smiling–but with a look of alarm in her blue, smoky eyes.
“No cell phones in the restaurant!” she said.
“It’s a mobile, not a cell. And don’t call me Bobby when there aren’t customers around us. It’s ridiculous.”
“There are customers everywhere,” she whispered. “And they come here to escape from this shit–don’t ruin it for them. Put it away immediately, or you won’t get any shifts next week.”
“Ruining it? Look at them. They’re all on their bloody phones!”
Anna looked back at the restaurant. Fifteen or so customers were sitting at their booths, heads down, fingering their phones. One guy was even watching a film on a tablet computer while eating a doughnut.
“Well they’re the customers,” she said. “They can do what they want. Look, just help me out here. It’s my job to make sure this Hollywood is like all the other Hollywoods.”
“Well I’ve heard it’s not.”
“Well I’ve heard the people who manage the others are all going to get fired, so just appreciate that this is what I have to do. It comes all the way from the top.”
“I have ambitions beyond this,” I said, regretting it instantly.
“Don’t we all,” she said, under her breath. “But that’s life, isn’t it.”
I put my phone back into my pocket. There were some new customers to attend to: three blokes in shiny grey suits. They were looking around at the decor and cackling like teenagers on a bus. I walked over to their booth.
“Good morning, gentlemen. What can I get you?”
“Morning love,” said a burly, bald guy. “How about you on a plate?”
I laughed girlishly. “Oh, ha ha! Now, now. Some coffee, pancakes?”
“Seriously,” he said, smiling at his two feebler-looking cronies. “We want you. We’re setting up something similar to this,” he waved his arms around, “in the shopping centre, and we’ll pay you double.”
“What’s the catch?” I said.
“Look at that, boys,” he said. “Still in character, even when we’re talking business. Well, it depends on whether you think it’s a catch or not. It would involve getting your kit off. Not all of it. It’s a classy joint. Burlesque.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Lots of other girls are lining up to work with us. What are you? An artist, writer? Just like my girls. It’s a real art form, stripping.”
“Would you like any food?” I said.
“Your friend’s already ordered for us,” he said. “And we’ve signed her on too.” He winked at me.
In the dressing room, Susie was powdering her face.
“You’re going to become a stripper?” I said.
“I’m thinking about it,” she said, looking at me in the mirror with guilty eyes.
“Are you really that desperate?”
“What do you think? This place isn’t very far off from being a strip joint, is it? Haven’t you noticed, it’s just men who come in to make stupid comments while we smile at them. What’s the difference if I have my tits out?”
“There’s a big difference!”
I picked up a giant can of hairspray, shook it, and sprayed it over my head, smoothing the stray bits with my fingers. My hair felt solid and crispy, like hay.
“At least your hair looks good,” said Susie.
“Yes, at least that.”
Out in the restaurant, Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” was playing. The strip club group were tucking into their all-American breakfasts, and the phone shop guy was calling me over to pay his bill.
“And there’s a bit extra in there for you,” he said, earnestly.
“Thanks,” I said. “Have a nice day!”
“That, you got right. That’s just how they say it out there.”
My face hurt from so much fake smiling.
“I don’t know how you girls do it, talking like that all day,” he said.
“I don’t know how you sell phones for a living,” I snapped, slipping out of character.
“There you go! Proper north London. How did you guess?”
“We all have to get by somehow, don’t we?” he said. “I’m studying to be a psychologist.”
“You win. I’m a failed artiste.”
“Isn’t everyone? Oh, and Hendrix? Not quite right for the era.”
“Tell that to Bettie Page over there.”
“Ha! Well thanks,” he said, looking at my name tag, “Bobby.”
“Jesus, fake names too? I’m Alex, and I should probably go sell some phones.” He got up and put on his jacket. “See you around.”
After he left I wiped the table down, took a few more orders and went back to the dressing room to reapply my lipstick. Above the mirror, Lana Del Rey stared down at me, pouty and winsome. My lips were thinner, my nose bigger, and my eyes smaller, but everything else was just the same. Finally, I’d got it right. I dabbed on some pink lipstick, feeling satisfied, and then I remembered what it was all for: six pounds fifty an hour and free hot dogs. This wasn’t the life I had imagined at art school, when we were setting up exhibitions, going to parties and talking about the things we would do. Four years on, we still went to parties, but we had stopped talking about the future.
I brushed the hairspray out until my hair was straight and dull once more and smudged my make-up off with a baby wipe. I tied my hair into a ponytail, slipped out of my uniform and into my jeans, jumper, and trainers. I took a deep breath before walking out to the restaurant, where the jukebox was playing Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”.
Anna couldn’t stay in character for this one. When she saw me in my normal clothes, her mouth hung open, her eyes were wide, and her skin, under all that foundation and Botox, turned purple. Susie watched from the other side of the bar, trying not to laugh.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” screamed Anna. “Get back into your uniform!”
The customers–all men–looked at us; their arms poised in mid-air, forks in hands, scrambled eggs dangling from the forks.
“I’ve come to my senses, that’s all,” I said, “And so should you. Have a nice day!”
I left the restaurant, my mind buzzing with freedom and fear, and walked straight into a woman pushing a pram.
“Watch where you’re going!” she barked.
As she passed, I noticed that there wasn’t a baby in the pram, just a pile of shopping bags. All around me, people were strolling from shop to shop, chatting on mobile phones, and clutching cups of coffee–their arms weighed down by bags. Who are these people? I thought. Don’t they have jobs? And then I remembered, through the adrenaline haze of my resignation: I didn’t either. This was it. This was the future, and there was no golden, redemptive pay-off in sight. More importantly, rent was due in a week and I needed a new job.
I walked through the mid-priced section of the shopping centre, with its pseudo-boutiques and ethnic restaurant franchises, right through to the east wing, which smelled of chip fat and body spray. At the very end I found the phone shop. Slumped behind the counter, wearing his striped shirt and a name tag, was Alex. When he saw me, he raised his head and smiled.
“Are there any jobs going?” I said.
“Yep. I’ve, uh, always wanted to work in a phone shop.”
I laughed. And so did he.
“Well,” he said, “you’re in luck.”