The following was written by 17-year-old Jasmin Pradhan, who is autistic and accesses Therapy Focus’ services.
I have always been interested in writing, but I only just started writing novels and short stories within the last three years. Mostly I am motivated by the people around me, like my family, who are always happy to read my stories and give feedback. I have entered several writing competitions and last year I placed in two competitions; The Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Competition and the Autism CRC Digital Art Celebration. I love writing because I get to share my perspectives on events and places, which helps people better understand me.
The world is a scary place. It doesn’t make sense. It never really does. People are the most confusing. But it isn’t always so strange. There are some people that I can connect with and like trying to talk to. There are a few places that are like safe havens in my crazy world. This story is about some of those people and one of those places …
My heart is racing.
I glance at my reflection in the glass window in front of me. I certainly look different. I’m wearing long pants and a long sleeved white jacket with two rows of round black buttons. My waist long hair has been wrestled into a bun and shoved underneath a hair net. I wipe my sweating hands on my striped apron. I’m trying to hide it, but I’m nervous. ‘I haven’t ever done hours in a kitchen like this before. I can’t even do one hour in a shopping centre.’ I remind myself that I won’t be spending my whole shift in The Kitchen. ‘I’m serving food in the school’s hall at 5:30pm too. That will get me out of The Kitchen, but there will still be so many people and lights. I also hope I’ll be able to do all the work okay too without dropping or spilling anything. That would be so embarrassing. Oh well, all I can do is try.’ Taking a deep breath, I turn and heave open The Kitchen doors, my feet feeling heavy and clumsy in my big, steel capped boots.
The commercial kitchen is swarming with sounds, and despite having been there before, tonight the atmosphere feels different. It still looks the same though. All along the sides of The Kitchen are workstations of spotless silver benches which reflect the artificial lights above me. There is a big dishwasher at one end and in front of that is a large rack of neatly organised cutlery and bowls and pots and pans and just about anything we could need to bake or cook with. The dishwasher is humming and a big pot is simmering and sizzling on the stove and taps are rushing water as other students wash their hands. I notice a detailed outline of the evening is scrawled on the small whiteboard in inky blue marker. It quells some of the chaos in the room that I’m starting to feel. ‘A plan. A plan is good. Things can’t go wrong when there’s a plan … Usually.’
I go to an empty sink and wash my hands. The water is hot, but not burning, although it does make my hands turn red. Then I join all the other students in a half circle around the whiteboard where the teacher, Miss Summers is standing. She has dark hair pinned back into a neat bun. Her hair is long like mine and sometimes in school I’ve seen her easily pull it into a bun like it’s nothing. I have no idea how she does that, but I wish my hair was as easy to pin back as that. Miss Summers wears a black apron tied around her regular clothes and she stands with a confident manner about her.
When everyone has arrived, Miss Summers takes charge. Standing by the whiteboard, she explains the evening step by step. ‘This is a very well thought out plan,’ I think as I listen. “We have a lot to do, so we’re splitting into groups.” She points to the board where lists of names have been written. “We have two hours now to get all the food ready. After that, you’ll all be going out in your groups to serve the food.” Miss Summers starts giving out the jobs. I am grouped with Penny, Ella and Cassie who are also my classmates. Our task is to get the platters of savoury foods ready.
Once were dismissed to start, I feel a rush of excitement. ‘The evening is starting. Here we go.’ Cassie takes the lead in our group and everyone lets her, for she is a fair leader. “Okay, we need to figure out how many quiches fit on a tray. Then we’ll know how many platters we’ll need.” Ella fetches the quiches from the massive fridge which is also called the Cool Room
since it really is like a big room that you walk into. I peel the glad wrap off the top and Cassie is silent for a moment, counting. “We’ll need three trays,” she decides and Ella goes to find some.
There is no point in plating any of the food yet because it still needs to be re-heated in the ovens and we can’t do that until it is closer to the serving time. I squint across the room at the whiteboard. ‘Five ‘o’ clock is the reheating time.’ We prepare everything else we’ll need, down it the tiniest detail. Each bench is allocated a different type of food. Ella and I find and lay out the parsley garnishes for the meatballs. Cassie locates and prepares the samosas which she takes to another part of the kitchen to get heated later. “How’s it going over here?” Miss Summers comes over to us. “Everything’s ready Miss, we just need to re-heat it and plate it up.” Cassie reports. “Excellent.” Miss Summers smiles and I feel myself relax. ‘Everything’s going okay, we’re even ahead of schedule.’
At that moment, I see something falling out of the corner of my eye and immediately tense. A second later, there’s a massive crash from a pot that someone knocked off its shelf. It sounds like an explosion. Despite having seen it, I jump and to my surprise, so does Miss Summers. I blink. ‘She jumped at a loud sound. I thought I was the only one who did that.’ It’s not nice to see anyone getting startled, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who finds loud noises surprising.
“Easy there, take your time,” Miss Summers says to the student who dropped the pot. Suddenly, her watch face lights up. She looks at it, taps it, then scrolls through some writing that appears. Everyone stares, including me.
“Whoa, what’s what?” Ella asks in amazement. Miss Summers looks surprised.
“It’s a smart watch. I was just checking my emails.”
“That’s so cool!” Penny exclaimed, “I wish I could do that.” My peers all start pretending that their watches are smart watches too. I grin. It’s nice to see everyone having fun. Perhaps The Kitchen isn’t always about work after all.
At quarter past four, everyone is allowed to take a break. I step outside with my classmates and sit on one of the long silver benches with a sigh of relief. It’s nice to be away from the lights and sounds of The Kitchen for a few minutes. My peers and the other students all cluster around benches in their groups. I sit on my own, like I generally do during school time which sometimes feels lonely, but today that’s how I want it. ‘No more talking or using social energy. Just for a little while.’ I watch them though and observe. I learn a lot by simply observing. It means that when I have to do group work I know something of what I’m supposed to do and how it all works because I’ve seen the other kids doing it. Sometimes at school I like practicing having conversations with some of the students or teachers who are around during break times. I know I’m going to need to be able to communicate well when I leave school.
As I sit on the bench, listening to the chatter of my peers, it feels relatively peaceful. The cool wind blows at my skin and pulls wisps of my hair out from under its hair net. The sky is a pale blue with a sprinkling of clouds. ‘It’s going to be a pretty sunset tonight, if I were outside to see it.’ I know I’ll be inside the hall serving food at sunset though. I sit back and close my eyes for a brief moment, enjoying the silence.
Twenty minutes later, all the students are back in The Kitchen and there is still time before we’re scheduled to heat the food. Everyone drifts around, trying to find something to do. I wipe down some benches, some girls start the dishes and others cluster in groups to just chat. I join Ella, Penny and Cassie when I’ve put the cloth away. I don’t really know how to join in, but that’s okay this time. I’m happy to just listen.
The girls start talking about the hospitality uniform.
“These boots are so heavy,” Cassie groans, lifting her foot up. “My dad insisted on getting the steel cap all the way up the boot.”
“That’s in case you drop something really heavy or sharp,” comes Miss Summers’ voice and she too joins our circle. “It protects your feet better.”
“But still,” Cassie protested, “they’re so heavy!” I grin. I remember my parents taking me to buy my boots and words swim around in my head, but I can’t get my words organised and out of my mouth before someone else speaks. It all goes so fast. I stay quiet.
As Miss Summers bends down to tie up her dark navy sandals that wind up her ankles, everyone notices the same thing.
“Miss, you’re not wearing your steel boots,” Ella points out.
“I know,” Miss Summers smiles and explains that she hadn’t known she was going to be helping out tonight. “At least you girls have yours.”
“Nothing’s going to get through my boots.” Cassie decides. “Hey Miss, stand on on my feet.” Miss Summers presses one foot onto one of Cassie’s boots.
“Oh wow, that’s good protection.” Miss Summers agrees, impressed. Penny starts jumping up and down on Ella’s boots and we all laugh. I feel a zing of pleasure rush up my spine. ‘I’m really starting to enjoy being here. It’s not half as exhausting as I thought it would be. I was so nervous about knowing what to say or do and trying something new, but it’s actually going okay. I’m actually having fun.’
“Alright girls,” Miss Summers instructs with a smile once we’ve calmed down. “We probably shouldn’t just be standing here. It’s nearly five, I reckon it’s time to start getting ready. Let’s get some work done.” Everyone nods and scatters to work. My heart starts to race. ‘Here we go. The second part of the evening. This is going to be interesting.
I grab an oven mitt and open the oven closest to me. Miss Summers hovers around to supervise. I peer inside the oven. Inside are all the quiches. I start to reach in to the trays which are pushed nearer the back. Then I stop. ‘If I reach all the way in now I’ll burn my arm.’ With logical thinking, I simply grab the oven rack and slide it out further so the quiches come toward me. Now I can get to them more easily.
“Good girl,” Miss Summers says, having watched, and I smile. I place the trays on the stovetop and then take them to the silver benches. Miss Summers helps me to prise the quiches out of the tray using a knife. Then I use the tongs to arrange the warm quiches along one of the platters, but my coping strength is suddenly starting to waver. It’s a lot louder than it was a few minutes ago. I can hear the ovens clattering open and closed and trays slapping the bench tops and boots clapping on the floor and words zipping around the air. It makes my head spin and my breathing feels like it gets louder and I try to keep my hands steady as I arrange the quiches. ‘Is this right? Am I doing it right? Do I put all of them on? What if they don’t all fit?’
As I start to finish, Miss Summers comes and stands next to me and helps me with the final few. “Well done, these look perfect.” Her words make me breathe an inward sigh of relief. The praise acts as water to my fiery overload. My thoughts slow and the sounds don’t seem as irritating. ‘Oh, so I was doing it right. That’s okay then.’ I smile to myself and then line the tray up with the other ones that are also ready to go. I move to help Cassie who is sticking toothpicks into the meatballs.
Finally, everything is ready and the time comes to serve the food. Everyone gathers all the platters and lays them out along the front bench. There are plates of bruschetta, meatballs, samosas and of course the quiches. All the dessert trays are put into the fridge for when we’ll need them later. “You can all take your hairnets off now,” Miss Summers instructs and she shows us how to wear our aprons differently by folding the top half down and tying it around our waist, rather than putting it over our heads. Everyone looks very professional.
“Remember to be confident when you go out,” Miss Summers advises us, “smile and walk around and even if you have no idea what to do, just pretend that you do.” There’s a ripple of laughter through the students. I take a deep breath and bite my lip. ‘I’m nervous again. I’m not sure if I can do this.’
“Alright, year elevens go first,” Miss Summers nods at us all. “We don’t need everyone going out there at once or we’ll swarm them.”
The year elevens all grab a tray and mine has bruschetta on it. With our trays, we walk out into the night air and toward the hall. The stars are twinkling above me, but I’m not looking up. I’m looking down to make sure I’m not going to trip on anything and drop my platter. I make it to the hall with the platter still whole and then I hesitate. There are so. Many. People. I feel light headed and tiny among so many people I don’t know. I swallow. Cassie, Ella, Penny and the other students go on ahead of me. I follow last. ‘Look confident and smile.’ I think, recalling Miss Miss Summers’ advice. ‘This might be really terrifying because I’ve never done this before, but I can’t let it show. Besides, how hard can it be? I just have to walk around and offer people food. Simple …’
Trying to keep calm, I step into the hall and slowly wander around the outskirts of the exhibition with the platter of bruschetta in front of me. My heart beats hard. A younger boy with a striped shirt comes bouncing up to me. ‘Come on. I can do it. Remember what Miss Summers said to do.’
“Hello,” I smile, lowering the platter to his height. “Would you like one?” “Yes please.” The little boy takes two, one in each hand and then skips off. I grin. ‘I did it! That wasn’t too hard.’ As I walk around, a lot of people come to me and I keep up my act, though I’m still nervous. I smile, say hello and offer them a piece. Some people recognise me from around school and want to chat. I try my best to think of words and try even harder to get them out of my mouth in a coherent sentence. It’s very difficult, but it does work and my sentences all match the conversations which is good because sometimes they don’t.
When the last piece of bruschetta has been taken, I walk back to The Kitchen. Despite all it’s bright lights and constant sounds, it’s a bit like walking out of a hurricane and into a shelter. It takes me a second to realise that I’m relieved to be back. It’s a place where I now know all the people and I’m happy to be around them. I might not always know what to say, but I know that these people don’t mind and that means more than I can say. It also helps that the environment within The Kitchen is predictable, especially on a night like tonight. Miss Summers smiles at me as I come back in and I smile back.
“You did well,” she says, gesturing to the empty tray.
“Yeah,” I agree with a nod. I turn and head to the dishwasher where another girl is washing up. ‘I don’t need words for this,’ I think in relief and silently start to help.
“Thanks,” the girl says and we work side by side in amiable silence. She wipes the dirty dishes and stacks them in the machine. I dry them when they come out and put them on the racks behind me to dry.
For the rest of the evening, that’s pretty much what happens. The year elevens and twelves wander from The Kitchen to the hall and when there are too many people going out, some stay behind and help to wash dishes. I get more confident in speaking to the people in the hall after a few goes and it starts to feel less scary.
Once most of the platters are empty, it’s scheduled for the people at the exhibition to be listening to speeches and getting some awards. This is our time to quickly get ready for serving the desserts. ‘I never knew just how much work went into a night like this,’ I realise as I help to get the desserts from the fridge. The trays are laid out on the benches and unwrapped and the air is filled with the sweet smell of chocolate cakes, tangy lemon slice and creamy profiteroles.
It’s much easier to serve the people this time, now that I know what I’m doing. The desserts are always so popular and tonight is no exception. Everyone is in a good mood and the atmosphere is lively and cheerful as I make my way around. I could barely take two steps before someone else came up to take a piece to eat. ‘This is great. It’s nice to see people enjoying everything that’s been made.’
The desserts go faster than the savoury foods and are very popular in most of the younger kinds. Slowly, as I walk around, I realise there are less people here than before. It’s then that I look at the clock and see that it’s past six o clock. Within the next ten to fifteen minutes the visitors start to leave and soon there’s only a few people left milling around. I smile and head back to The Kitchen. With almost no one left to serve, our main work is done.
Some of the desserts are still left over and Miss Summers allows us to eat some. I try a thin piece of lemon slice. The icing has melted slightly since it came out of the fridge a while ago, but it is still cold and delicious and tangy. Then comes the time that I find the easiest. It’s time to clean up. All the benches have to be wiped down and sanitised, the dishes all have to be cleaned and stacked away neatly and any mess has to be cleared up.
There’s a bustle as everyone gets to work, but there are so many of us that it doesn’t take too long. As I put away some of the dishes, I see Miss Summers looking around at us all.
“Hey guys,” she calls out. “Shall I bring out the Tim Tams?” I don’t answer because I already know what everyone else will say. I laugh quietly at the sudden chorus of delighted agreements and Miss Summers grins. She disappears into the storeroom and returns a moment later with a big packet of Tim Tam biscuits. There is enough for everyone to have one each. I much mine slowly to make it last longer. It tastes rich and smooth and delicious. I can hear happy chatter and see many bright smiles. I look around and realise just how nice it is to be in a group of people all working together and sharing fun moments with each other. ‘I fit here tonight. It feels nice to belong.’ The thought makes me smile.
Then Miss Summers suggests that we go and look at the art exhibition while she finishes up a few things. ‘That’s a good idea. We’ve been so busy serving I don’t think anyone had time to look at the art.’ Everyone wants to, so that’s what we do. We all troop down to the hall in our steel capped boots and aprons and walk around the exhibition. There is no one left now, they have all gone home. I wander around the big hall on my own, taking in all the beautiful masterpieces. My favourite one is done by two students in my year group. The drawing of the stars and sunset is breathtaking. There’s also paintings of flowers, little ceramic fishes and painted bowls that the younger students have done. The woodwork students have some of their work displayed too. I really like the wooden guitar. ‘That must have taken months to make.’ After everyone has seen what they want to, we all head back to The Kitchen together. Chatter and laughter rings out in the evening air and I smile.
Back in the Kitchen, there is nothing left for us to do. It is earlier than we had expected to finish. “You guys can call your parents now,” Miss Summers says, “tell them to come pick you up. There’s nothing more we can do now.” I step outside and send my mum a text and then grab my bag which has my school uniform in it. I’d had to get changed straight after school and while I’ve decided that I have enjoyed tonight’s experience, I am still looking forward to getting home.
As I wait outside with Miss Summers and the other students, I look up and smile at the hundreds of stars that decorate the inky sky. The evening breeze is cool and gentle and I feel a flicker of pride at having completed tonight successfully.
‘I did it. I really did it.’
That night was certainly a memorable one for me. It was a wonderful feeling to have done something that I didn’t think I would be able to do. I’d certainly learned a lot too and not just about how The Kitchen works. I’d learned how to interact with my peers and work with a group. I’d learned how to be confident around new people, a skill I am sure will be useful for university and the ‘real world.’ So to all those people who taught me something that night, thank you, because I still remember all the memories I made that night and I’m sure I’ll remember them for a very long time to come.
Image credit: Food Service Equipment Journal.