The Lost Train
It was 5:30 A.M. in the morning. I was at the train station with my eyes half closed, just waiting. With every brush of the stifling cold morning breeze, I shivered. Goose bumps appeared on the surface of my skin every time a train swooshed on by. The train, however, seemed to not care about any obstacles ahead, going at such speed. Sitting there on the blue bench, I saw at least ninety other people who had their heads nodding on their shoulders and, just like me, they had this obligation to wake up early to avoid the peak hour. It made me reflect upon my situation for a brief moment. “How did I trap myself in this miserable schedule?” You will soon understand my situation as I unfold my story.
Nevertheless, I had to keep my game face on. There was to be a banquet on the hotel that day which meant that the chefs were going to be busy cooking and that only led to one thing. I would be the scapegoat who had to prepare all the ingredients for the next day. It was going to be a full day of “preparation” for me. Lots of chopping and cutting! I arrived at the hotel a little past 7:00 A.M. Dragging my feet one ahead of the other until I reach the locker room, I smiled “Good Mornings” to my colleagues, like it was the best day of my life. However, the pastry chef never replied to my smile, rather he stared at me sternly before walking away grimly. You would think that someone who dealt with pastries would at least be a pleasant being who could spare a simple smile, but not him.
He was like the Grim Reaper of Candy Land. He was a 58 year-old man, with a long, chiseled chin, which was shaped somewhat like the tip of a teaspoon. He had rough features, gelled jet-black hair, and was short and stout with tough, broad shoulders. Just by looking at him, you would feel the pressure to turn away as quickly as you could with your head down low. He had that aura that would turn any misbehaving child into an angel, that air of authority. I usually had to make sure my self-esteem was intact before I could continue with my daily chores.
However, I headed to the locker room and got myself changed. My stainless white chef’s jacket was the perfect camouflage. I was hiding my exhausted, fragile self in there, acting all tough for the male testosterone boiling in the kitchens. “The kitchen is no place for a little girl to play!” my banqueting chef had once said to me and I agreed ardently, for I was not a little girl. After checking in my attendance card, I went to the banqueting kitchen where I was to help for that day. I was looking at the work board where my predictions were spot on. My companions for the day were bags of onions, carrots, eggplants, and potatoes weighing 18 pounds each, to be peeled and diced. What followed was long hours of standing and extreme-speed chopping and dicing to make it in time for my next kitchen chore. Eight hours later, I saw red patches on my palms. My hands were sore at the creases where the knife had positioned itself. I had to massage them while having my lunch, though it was already a norm for me. A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do, right? That was what I fed my mentality while I struggled in the kitchen. The only thing I could see from day to day was work, work, work, and work to be done.
I had often felt pity for my colleagues who routinely complained that their life was miserable in the kitchen but they were too afraid to take a step towards their dream. Pride in my work ethic was what I had then. Even though I didn’t get paid a single cent for my kitchen work, I worked longer hours than any staff there, at an average of 14 hours a day. I was good and I knew it. That was until that very day when I had been siting down at the café table, having my dinner alone. An awkward air was always present in the café, resulting from the eerie silence of the television playing with no one watching. I was having curry chicken and steamed rice that day, “This is spicier than usual,” I thought to myself. Then I heard the café door open, but there were no steps to be heard. The air was still again. Curiously, I turned to see the incoming person and our eyes locked. His eyes were cold with no prior stain of any sort of feelings -as expected from a Grim Reaper-. Swiftly I turned my head back to my plate and in a hurry ate a big spoonful of my curry, forgetting that it was curry not soup.
As silent as a lamb, I tried to conceal my choking by locking my lips tightly, but it was too late. He was already siting in front of me, with his apron folded neatly in front of my tray. “Why the hurry?” he asked.
“Because its so good,” I lied pathetically. Then there was the stillness again while I reached for my water in agony.
“Why are you here?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, baffled. “I am eating.”
“Why did you come to the hotel?”
Defensively, I said, “I’m here to work, of course, and to learn.”
“You don’t even get paid. What are you working so hard for?”
My tongue couldn’t form the words to protect myself. I felt like I was struck by a lightning bolt charged with 1000 volts from Zeus; because the truth was that I had lost track of my ambition then. All I could think of was how fast I could get the next work done. It became a chore rather than living my passion for food. I was silent, but in my mind, I was running in circles like a mad woman whose existence was questioned. Calmly, I turned the gun around and asked, “How about you? Why are you working so much more than the other head chefs?”
“It was never as easy for me like it was for them suck ups. I know the value of hard work and I know a struggling soul when I see one.” I did not know what to say, as I knew very well whom he meant. I was embarrassed to admit my unhappiness and my ego was holding me back from further talk. He said, however, “I see you work more than any other full-time workers here, putting up that face to just brighten up the staff, acting like you know what you’re doing but deep inside you are just as lost.” I was stunned. “How dare he!” I thought to myself, “Shredding me apart like this.” This man, of all the people whom I had contact with, knew what I was going through deep inside. It humbled me entirely, smacking reality hard onto my face. I was too stubborn to realize that I was damaging myself and ruining the relationships around me. I sometimes went for weeks without seeing my family members or friends because of my insane schedule in the kitchen.
“You are just like a young me, so eager to go out into the world. So excited to jump on the next train to success. But do you know what’s sadder than not succeeding? To be successful and find that there is not a single soul you can share it with.”
It seemed that his wife left him when he was in his 30s, because of his long hours away from home. His children, on the other hand, had progressed to live their own lives, visiting him every year or two. For me, that sounded more like a sad plot from a movie, not something that truly happens in real life. But hearing it first-hand from someone who didn’t even open his palms to greet others, it really hit me. Hard. Life can be so trivial. One moment all you’ve got to do is to work hard to succeed; the next, you need to keep your head in the right place, in between family and work to truly enjoy the bliss of your triumph.
On the way home that night, I sat there at the train station, looking at all the trains passing by. The trains had such impressive speed, with thundering tones reflected from the tunnel walls. Nonetheless, even with the powerful machines they have, there must be a time when they would slow down and stop to be run for maintenance. If the mechanics are gone, who else will they rely on? Who would I rely on? I realized that I have to take a few steps back to reprioritize the things and people in my life. I honored my contract with the hotel for the remaining months and finally bid them adieu in December. Just like a train, I was refreshed and maintained, heading for Singapore with new wheels and a new attitude.