Problem was, Lily was a distraction for all of us.
The day she joined our team it was just me, Carl and Tom. We were at Goodwood Festival of Speed, shifting three thousand pizzas a day in our five by five, eating through enough gas to burn our own hole in the ozone layer. Our oven cleared three cylinders a day.
We always had to scrub the walls on the outside of the marquee, so the place looked good for the customers. But inside, everything was dirty. The floor was dusted with grains of polenta, and streaks of tomato sauce had hardened along the walls and fridges. They looked like bright red scars. The centre pole was blackened from the heat of the oven, and the roof canopy smoke-stained brown. Halfway through the Friday, Lily walked in. She must have been called up from an agency, or the big boss hired her, because none of us had heard anything about a newbie.
Lily strolled into our marquee in a tank top and some little denim shorts that had rips running across the top of her legs, into her groin. Her nails were little red shells, and her lips were painted to match. She didn't need all that make-up.
Carl took his head away from the oven to look. He was too old to be in a job like ours – he should have been in an office, with a wife and a three piece suite. He lost all his money in some aerial photography business he started up. He still had all his cameras, and often bought them to work. He couldn't bring himself to sell them off.
“Wow,” he said, clapping the metal spade on the oven. Carl's face and forearms were black from ash and smoke. “Can I help you?”
“I'm Lily,” she said. “The new girl.”
Carl scooped a cooked pizza from the front of the oven onto his shovel and tossed it down into one of the boxes. Tomato sauce splattered up the white wall. I was the bitch-boy, slicing the pizzas and shouting out the order numbers. I'm always the bitch boy, cutting and calling.
“First I've heard of it,” Carl said. “Not that I'm complaining.”
“Dirty job this,” he continued. “Maybe you'll like it.” He shuffled the pizzas around in the oven a bit more. “You can start making up the pizzas, so I can teach you the basics.”
I picked a t-shirt, trousers and apron from the clean laundry and handed it to her.
“There's toilets for you to change out back,” I said. “Look out for the grasshoppers.”
She thanked me, smiled again, and went to change. There were grasshoppers everywhere at that gig. They hissed in the ragweed like rattlesnakes.
“You don't wanna get in with the bitch-boy,” Carl shouted as she went, shuffling half-cooked pizzas around the clay oven.
Tom winked at me from the front counter. “She's the one.” He slammed the cash drawer shut. Tom only got away with taking the piss because he was the son of the big boss. Even Carl went light on him. I ignored him, and handed out order 45 and 47; 46 had wandered off for a piss and probably forgotten about ordering pizza.
“What the fuck you do that for?” Carl said to me once Lily was out of sight. “First girl we get working here and you wanna dress her up in our pyjamas?” Carl tugged at his loose-fitting chef trousers.
Lily came back wearing our uniform. She looked like a child in her parents clothes. I preferred her like that. There wasn't so much skin on show. The oversized navy t-shirt concealed her slim figure, blue-and-white stripy trousers swamped her legs. She knotted the matching apron in a close sash around her waist, and wrapped her hair into a plait.
That weekend, Carl started using his camera more often. He said he needed to take photos for the website. I didn't believe him. I don't think we even had a website. But I didn't say anything – it wasn't worth the hassle. Carl pulled out his SLR during a quiet phase and started taking photos of the food, then the marquee, and then Lily.
“Get those big blue eyes of yours against the flames of the oven,” he said to her. The camera dangled from the strap around his neck. The lens was like a telescope.
“I don't like having my picture taken,” she said. “I'm not comfortable.”
“It won't take a second,” Carl said. “And I'll delete it if you don't like it. Would look good to have you there in front of the oven, holding the spade or something.”
“I don't know,” she said. Her blue t-shirt was yellowed with grains of polenta.
Carl placed his hands on her shoulders and guided her in front of the oven. She didn't resist. Carl handed her the spade and she held it in two hands. When she was ready, he moved in close to her, held the camera up to his eye and twisted the lens as he clicked the shutter.
He stepped back, examining the result on the screen of the camera. Lily moved close to him to see. There was a small black streak of ash on her cheek, just below her eye.
“It's perfect,” Carl said.
“I'm covered in dirt.”
“We should do a proper shoot sometime,” he said. “Could build you up a portfolio.”
“I don't think I'm the type for modelling,” she said. “I'm not pretty enough.”
Any idiot would say she's the prettiest girl they'd ever seen.
We were all guilty of checking her out. I caught Tom doing it and got angry at him in my head for thinking he could look at her like that, when I was just as bad. Carl was different. Carl wouldn't hold back making comments about her body, making excuses to touch her, and photographing her at every opportunity.
She complained of feeling faint at one of the festivals we worked, and Carl made her go and sit in the shade with a bottle of water. Later on we saw her with a folding fan decorated with purple butterflies. She looked pale. Sitting up on a stack of boxes in the corner of the marquee, she was fanning herself in the heat. After an hour or so she had stopped fanning herself, but still hadn't come back to work. She was sitting in the corner with Carl's camera, cleaning the lens with a cloth. Orders started coming in and we ended up with a queue of at least twenty.
Tom shouted at Lily, saying she could play with her fan all she wanted when we'd made our money, and to put it down and jump in and help us out. Carl interrupted him saying he gave her the fan and told her to rest and only come back to work when she was ready.
Tom shut up after that.
A couple weeks after that we were at another quiet festival in the midlands – some game fair – and Carl called Lily to the oven.
“Think it'd be good for you to learn how to use the spade,” he said. He never let me or Tom touch the spade. He said we'd fuck it up and it was his job.
Lily walked over to him, taking the long wooden spade in two hands. She set the bottom of the handle on the floor, with the metal sheet resting near to her face. The spade was nearly as tall as her.
“What do I do?” she said.
Carl smiled. Moving in behind Lily, he gripped her hands to guide the spade. He lay the metal sheet flat on one of the making boards, before thrusting the paddle beneath an uncooked pizza, deliberately grinding his crotch into her arse. Once the pizza was on the spade, he swivelled her around, taking his time. Hands still wrapped around Lily's, Carl shoved the spade into the oven, tilted the paddle, and let the pizza rest on the hot stone.
He let go of the spade, and flicked the gas onto its highest setting. The oven flashed as the flames doubled, roaring like thunder.
“Keep it spinning once the base is settled. It should be ready in a couple minutes.” Carl walked out the back of the marquee, rolled up two cigarettes for himself and crouched down, smoking out his boner.
Carl chased after Lily all summer.
“Which of these boys do you prefer then, Lils?” Carl asked, pumping the spade from hip to shoulder like a lacrosse stick.
Me and Tom carried on with our jobs, pretending we weren't listening. Tom was rolling out dough, spreading sauce, adding cheese and toppings. I was cutting and calling.
Lily said nothing. She was folding up pizza boxes and clapping them shut.
“No need to be shy about it.” Carl walked over to her and stroked her blonde hair with his blackened fingers. I wanted to grip him up by the throat and cook his head in the oven.
Lily swatted his hand away, flicking her hair clean of his touch.
“Come on, who'd it be?” he said. “Who would you take home to meet mummy and daddy?” Carl was coming closer to her. I needed to say something, tell him to back off or do something stupid so he'd pick on me instead. But I wanted to know, too.
“Who's it gonna be?” Carl was at least a foot taller than Lily, and he loomed over her like a parent scolding a child. She looked up at him with her black-rimmed bug eyes, pulling the collar of her t-shirt over her nose and mouth, hiding.
“Leave me alone,” she said
“I will when I get my answer.”
One of the plastic trays on top of the oven was blocking the chute, and the bottom part had melted away. The pizza boxes that the tray rested on were about to catch alight; flames tickled around the cardboard lip of the boxes. I waited a moment, watching them turn to fire in the breeze.
“Carl,” I yelled, when I couldn't wait any longer. “Boxes are on fire.” I pointed up to the top of the oven.
“Damn it,” he said, crushing the flames with his spade.
On most jobs Carl only spoke to Lily. Sometimes he'd shout at me if there was a backlog and there wasn't any boxes for him to put the pizzas into. But often it was Lily that did the shovelling. Carl made Lily work the oven much more. Sometimes just ten minutes while he went to smoke, sometimes longer. Often he would take the opportunity to grab his camera and take photos of her working. He must have had hundreds of pictures of Lily.
Every time he made Lily work the oven she would run out after a short while, saying the smoke was getting in her eyes and she couldn't do it anymore. She would run off to the tents behind the marquee and come back ten, fifteen minutes later. I wondered what took her so long.
One day, Carl didn't let her.
“I'm sick of you running off all the fucking time,” he said. “It's just smoke.”
“It's hurting me,” she said, covering her face with her t-shirt, the way she did. “I can't see anything.”
Carl grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her back in front of the oven.
“I'm having a cigarette. You stay on that oven 'til I tell you you're done.”
She didn't fight it. Carl wasn't the boss; the big boss never worked. Carl was just the oldest, biggest guy, and assumed the role for himself. Lily stayed there, and tied her hair into a pony tail. As she pulled her hair up and away from her face I noticed how pale her neck was compared to her jaw and cheeks. She carried on shovelling pizzas around the oven. Her hands were clumsy with the spade.
She dropped pizzas onto the floor, and most came out burnt on one side where they hadn't been spun.
When Lily walked over to put the pizzas down in the boxes, her mascara was smudged. Carl was gone ten minutes, then twenty, and Lily was still cooking. Order tickets stacked up on the ticket rail. The pizzas were coming out raw on the bottom and burnt on top. It was like slicing bubblegum.
Forty-five minutes had passed when I noticed Lily's face beginning to melt. Foundation was running down her cheeks like wax on a candle, all mixed up with smoke and sweat and tears. Her lipstick had dried and cracked along her lips, darker in patches and flaking off at the corners of her mouth. The skin on her forehead looked cracked, like the dough after it defrosts and refreezes. She wiped her face and rolled her shirtsleeves up into her armpits, keeping her head down while she worked.
The oven was on its highest setting. Inside the chamber, the flames licked at the high metal archway. It's five hundred degrees on the clay bottom. That's hot enough to see a daddy long-legs turn to dust. I know this, because they fly into the oven and land on our pizzas all the time. When I cut these pizzas, I can just about make out the tiny blot of their body and the faint shape of their legs in ash.
That doesn't stop me calling out the correlating order number, and handing the customer their pizza.
Five hundred degrees is hot enough to melt your face. Lily's face was halfway there when Carl came back. When she saw him, she tried to hand him the spade and run out, dipping her face into her t-shirt. Carl grabbed her by the arm and told her she couldn't go running off again, not when we're slammed.
“Take your face out of your shirt and get on with your job,” he said.
She didn't. She stared at him. Two blue eyes staring out from the dark material. They were standing below the metal frame of the marquee which was threaded with fairy lights.
“I said take your face out your shirt.” Carl's top lip curled into his gums.
“It's smoky,” she said. “I can't breathe.”
“Bullshit,” Carl shouted.
“I have to go to the toilet,” she cried, folding her free arm across her chest.
Customers soon caught on to the argument. A group of men waiting for their order shouted things about how Carl couldn't let a little pizza bitch undermine him. Carl laughed. I handed them their pizzas and hoped they would go away, but they stayed, watching Carl block Lily's way out of the marquee. She still had the spade. I wanted her to jab the hot metal sheet into his throat.
“Let me go, Carl,” Lily said.
He didn't move for her. He grinned as he yanked the t-shirt down from her face. The make-up had melted, leaving behind a pale ghost of what I knew as Lily. She had scars in her cheeks, all over. The skin was pocked with these deep, hollow pits. It bubbled like her face was cooked. Carl rubbed her cheek with his thumb, running his fingertips over the gristly patches.
“Go sort yourself out,” he said, moving for her to leave.
She ran out, pulling her hair out of her ponytail. She ruffled it around her cheeks, hiding her face.
Lily reappeared an hour later. She had showered, and changed into a flowery playsuit. Her usual face of make-up had been reapplied. Carl didn't say anything. She walked past him, carrying her blue uniform folded up in a neat pile. She squatted down and placed it in the bag of dirty laundry.
Carl reduced the gas on the oven, shrinking the flame to half its size. Lily said something to him and he walked over to the till, popped the drawer open and counted out from a stack of 20's. He handed Lily her wages. She folded her wad of cash and tucked it into her bra.
Lily said goodbye to Tom and he hugged her and said it would be good to see her again sometime. He bit his bottom lip as she embraced him, staring at me from behind her back. Then she came over to me. It was the first time I ever touched her. I closed my eyes as she wrapped her arms around my neck and I pulled her in close, my hands settling in the curve above her hips. I held onto her. It was a shame she was leaving. I'd only just met her.
She let go of me and walked out, ignoring Carl. We all watched as she left, but nobody said anything. After a couple of minutes, Carl left too. Tom followed him, trying to tell him he couldn't leave the two of us in the marquee. Carl didn't care. I guess he was following Lily, because he was running to catch up. I knew she wasn't coming back.
I closed the front of the marquee, attaching the white plastic panels and pulling them together with the rope. The oven was still on, and felt even hotter when the front was closed. There was nowhere for the heat to escape. I made myself a pizza, dusting polenta over the making boards, rolling out a doughball and loading it with sauce, cheese and pepperoni. Then I grabbed the shovel, slid it beneath the pizza, and put it into the oven.
There was still no sign of Carl or Tom. They'd probably had a fight over Lily and got themselves kicked out. Twenty minutes had passed when I walked over to Carl's bag in the corner. I unzipped the pocket and picked the camera out of his rucksack.
I turned it on and looked through the photos of Lily. Most of them were of her working on the oven, squinting as the smoke blew out into her face. I found the photo the Carl first took of her, standing by the oven, holding the spade. The black streak of ash below her eye wasn't noticeable in the photo. It had been so clear at the time.
I picked up the spade, placed the camera on the metal sheet, and slid it into the back of the oven. The picture of Lily holding the spade was still glowing out from the screen as the casing melted onto the hot stone, and the lens exploded.
About the author:
Philip Bowne is a student of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire. In the UK, his short fiction has been published by The Lampeter Review, Carnival, Compass, Sein und Werden, and Birkbeck University's Writers' Hub. He has short fiction forthcoming in WORK, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, BlazeVOX and The Atticus Review.