Voices: I was a 22-year-old dinner lady – I still have nightmares about it

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I had the dream again last night.

It’s the same every time, even if the details are a little different. I wake up to a phone call. They need me. I tell them that it doesn’t make sense. I’m a big important editor for a major newspaper now. Surely they can find somebody else? They tell me no, it has to be me.

Before I know it I’m back in uniform, waiting for the first bell to sound. I keep telling them there must have been some mistake, but they just keep yelling at me: why didn’t you clear the fryer? Why are these trays from yesterday still dirty? Why are you crying?

At some point I wake up in a cold sweat, breathing heavily, and I have to say it out loud to convince myself: “It’s not real. Those days are behind me now. I’m not a dinner lady anymore.”

I got the job right out of university, during that happy period where I naively believed that there would be high demand in the job market for somebody with a first-class degree in comparative literature. I figured I’d work there for a few weeks, then move on to… I don’t know. Banking? Real estate? Maybe I’d open my own law practice. As a university graduate, I could basically do whatever I wanted.

I worked there for the next two years.

My hours were split between days in the kitchen, and evening/weekend shifts where I had to run a cafe for the people who attended night school. The latter wouldn’t have been too bad, if it wasn’t for the fact that on those days the kitchen staff would leave me all the washing up.

This meant that stains which otherwise would have only needed a quick rinse had congealed into a thick sludge in the intervening hours, and I had to divide my time between scouring it off with steel wool and serving people tea. You have not known humility until you’ve had to chisel day-old chip grease from a fryer while simultaneously microwaving 15 sausage rolls for an intermediate Spanish group.

Because my pay was pro rata, I earned exactly £595 a month. The trade off was that I got the school holidays off, which would have been great if I could afford to do anything other than scream into a pillow. I want to be clear by the way: this isn’t one of those stories that takes place in the seventies, where the pay sounds low, but inflation means it actually translates to a living wage. This was in 2012. The iPhone 5 was out.

I have never experienced as much drama in my professional life – or, if I’m being honest, in my personal life – as I did when I worked in that kitchen. Nobody warned me before I started just how much backstabbing and betrayal goes on behind that dirty silver counter. It was like Game of Thrones, but with more swearing.

There was one lady there who would start a fight with somebody literally every single day, but somehow never got fired. I found out years later that it was because her husband was actually rich, and the school was afraid that she’d sue.

Why did she turn up every day for a minimum wage job, despite having enough money that she never needed to work a day in her life? Because making me miserable was the only way she could feel alive. You almost have to respect that sort of commitment to being a hater. A true player of the game.

There was one pretty big upside to the gig. During those evening shifts I’d usually find myself with about an hour of downtime, which I’d spend very obviously and theatrically reading the biggest book I could find at the counter, on the off chance I attracted the attention of a cool teacher.

I made a few friends that way, and we bonded over the shared traumas of our chosen professions (serving government-mandated slop to children for not enough pay).

That’s also how I met the head of the history department. She was a cute Irish girl who was about my age, and against all the odds I managed to trick her into a couple of dates. We’re still together 10 years later, which is a minor miracle when you realise that for the first three months of our relationship she exclusively saw me in crocs.

I worked that job until I managed to secure funding for my Masters degree (because sure, the BA didn’t make me remotely employable, but surely a postgraduate qualification would do the trick?), which I thought would finally free me from the silver dungeon.

Unfortunately, I was only able to get a fees scholarship, which meant that after spending an afternoon talking about Ezra Pound or Marianne Moore or whoever with all my middle-class student friends, I’d put on my stained chef whites and head right back into the world of weird little square pizzas and turkey twizzlers.

I finally left in 2014, when I was accepted on a PGCE programme; but by that time the damage had already been done. The bad dreams started during my teaching degree, and carried on through my PhD and career in journalism.

When I close my eyes, I can still faintly hear the ringing of the dinner bell. I can still smell that awful greenish curry that has raisins in it for some reason. I can still taste the pastries that I’d steal from the cafe, because the geniuses in management decided to put their lowest-paid employee in charge of stock take.

It’s a hard job, and I have nothing but respect for the people who do it (apart from that one woman, who I still hate and hope got fired). But I can never go back there. The nightmares are enough.

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