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The Largest McDonald's in Europe

Gabrielle de la Puente

To stop me asking for McDonald’s on the way home from primary school, Mum used to tell me the nets on the tops of their buildings caught pigeons and seagulls and finches. She said they used various birds for the pulp inside their chicken nuggets, and besides, we had food at home, and did I know how much the seagull nuggets cost? We’d drive past other kids eating Happy Meals with Happy Parents and I would bang on the car windows with my tiny child fists trying to warn them of this horrific myth. But no one was ever looking my way, and at school the next day, I was too scared to tell them what they’d done.

I wasn’t planning on coming here today but it’s not to eat. I’m here to be hunched over the small clogged sink in the dark bathroom on the ground floor, cleaning myself in a space so dirty I fear I am only making the situation worse. The bathroom was better lit back when it had those blue lights installed. Do you remember? I was too young to know they had a purpose at the time; I came to Maccies at every parentless opportunity, usually on Saturday afternoons, once I was old enough to know that legally the contents of the meat mustn’t be a complete lie. Plus, Arriva had started printing £1.99 vouchers on the backs of their bus tickets. We’d enter as a pack and stay. We had nowhere left to go after we’d spent the change from the bus on McChicken Sandwiches. We’d talk to strangers, spit wet paper balls in each other’s trusting faces; take pictures in the blue-lit bathrooms that made every photo look like an album cover on the inch-wide screens of our very first camera phones.

The blue lights made it easier for us to like ourselves. They also made it harder for people to find their veins. When those same people began injecting outside the bathrooms, or missing their targets and making themselves ill or dead, McDonald’s popped the energy-saving sepia lightbulbs back in, and we took our photos in the Primark changing rooms instead. Arriva doesn’t print the vouchers anymore and nowhere in the world is safe. I think I used to conceptualise McDonald’s as public space. No concierge to seat people, no time limits, no eyes to check you’ve even purchased something if you just want to sit around or warm up or cool down. But that was naive, and nowadays I feel older than I’m supposed to be. Like if those nets caught me, I wouldn’t have the strength, or the will, to climb back out. I barely have the strength to say these things, and I know I’m not being clear, but I sort of have my hands full with this whole sink situation.

You know, someone once told me this was the largest McDonald’s in Europe, which it fucking isn’t by the way. The women’s has two toilet cubicles that are so narrow you touch both sides if you’ve got a big coat on. I don’t really see how doing photoshoots in the sour air of this bathroom used to be the highlight of my weekend. The largest McDonald’s in Europe is actually the largest McDonald’s in the world, in Frankfurt, not here. Other customers keep walking in to check if the sink is free, and the soap dispenser is empty, and I just need an inch more light or to be in Frankfurt or anywhere but here, because I cannot tell what is white bird shit and what is premature grey spoiling the brunette certainty of my head.

Before I leave the bathroom, an old woman comes in to clean the shit out of her purple rinse. She is livid and I think, I am too tired to be angry about these things. Imagine myself lying in the chicken nugget nets, vast hammocks holding me tight. Her big coat is touching my big coat and I don’t want to touch anything! I don’t want anything to touch me! I start pulling the last tissue out of my pocket to give to her. Some of the seagulls make really weak attempts to ruin someone’s day, like it’s just a bit of spit, or incontinence. But some are openly smug, and her purple rinse is marked with bright chartreuse. I realise she is crying. It’s really hard seeing an old woman crying but I say nothing and just pat the metal flap on the hand dryer, and then a second time, and then a third, and when no hot air comes I start crying too.

If the city has a centre — and I’m not sure Liverpool does anymore — it’s this Bosch scene before me. I walk slowly to the lift and get out on the first floor, climbing onto a stool next to other sodden adults, all of us drying off together in front of the filthy panoramic window that looks out over the grey and beige, damp, half-wild square where Lord Street, Church Street, Whitechapel and Paradise meet. Where the HSBC on one corner eyes NatWest on the other, and Next turns its nose up at McDonald’s. This junction, where nobody is thinking about bank accounts or new blouses; this junction, where a canopy of overgrown seagulls stretches right across the sky, raining a shower of shit over anybody stupid or desperate enough to cross the dead wet heart of the city. Locals, tourists, Nans, Deliveroo drivers on thick-wheeled electric bikes, kids, middle-aged people wearing lanyards, men in hi-vis vests, my best friends, my Mum, myself. Every last one of us bleached with the acidic wash of shit.

It’s been ten years since The Fall of Liverpool. The council, which everybody knew was corrupt, finally ran out of luck and filed for bankruptcy. It was the same year Everton got relegated from the premiere league, and more memorably, when high winds and lightning knocked one of the Liver Bird statues off their perch and it fell off the building and killed someone. The same year, in fact, when Liverpool lost its UNESCO World Heritage status, which the news called a great indignity — and which I thought was almost funny. The status wasn’t lost for falling birds but for redevelopments that spoiled the rustic look of the waterfront, a site that very much needed said development after the government’s managed decline of the entire borough. It was like being told to dress smarter for work, you little meff, and then having a second meeting with your manager who is now telling you off for wearing a tuxedo around the office. I don’t even like the look of the place. The buildings look as smug as the birds do nowadays. It’s just mixed signals, isn’t it.

Citizens of Liverpool took central government’s lack of support as an opportunity to break away from the United Kingdom altogether. The Republic of Liverpool was established, and to great fanfare. Fireworks in the middle of the day, stray gunshots into the big free sky, week off school, free ferry rides — god, we really thought it was going to work. We were sick with excitement. We had our own port, we had enough skills, three universities, enough humour and hospitals and anger. We just needed the rich scousers to redistribute their wealth so that we had money to care for people who weren’t able to generate their own capital and — while we were fighting over money, we forgot to imagine a life beyond capitalism, and we also forgot (no, we pretended to forget) who amongst us would be in charge of cleaning public spaces. By the time we remembered, the local European herring gulls had realised they didn’t need to get themselves all wet and cold hunting for embarrassing fish in the River Mersey, or going to great efforts to drop shelled prey from height to get to the meat of the thing. The Republic was covered in litter, most of it located outside of a building with a bright yellow symbol that matched the shapes of their own wings.

From my front row seat in the shittest McDonald’s in Europe, I watch a man in a khaki parka get ready to take on the obstacle course. He zips his coat until the metal nicks his chin and draws his hood tight around his face. I watch him zig-zag from foot to foot but he doesn’t make it halfway before the birds take aim. After The Fall changed the local ecosystem, the seagulls tripled in size. Their throats got wider and their tongues got thicker and they learnt how to laugh. I can hear them laughing at the man over McDonald’s internal radio station, which is currently playing Ellie Goulding’s we gonna let it burn, burn, burn, we gonna let it burn, burn, burn, burn. Khaki man turns towards me and disappears into the glowing entrance below, where he will queue for the bathroom and dry off upstairs with the rest of us. Or just burn his coat in the deep fat fryer and concede to live in McDonald’s forever.

I carry on watching the show we perform every day. I watch the seagulls shit on bank tellers who have nipped outside to vape on their lunch break. I watch them get the evangelists next, who burst ear drums and thank almighty God by whose power the world was made, and by whose shit we are redeemed. I feel sorry for the Elvis impersonator who stands in the square in his skin-tight costume, cheap white pleather so that he can wipe himself clean and carry on. I feel worse for the poor balloon artist who waits around for passing kids, the kind whose parents probably buy them Happy Meals. He twists plastic into the grand shapes of seagulls because he really thinks they will spare him. They never do.

Purple rinse joins me upstairs, muttering something about pest control. We should have known what would happen. The arguing, the hoarding — it’s the same lilt of human nature that got the council bankrupt in the first place, and they were made of us! My hair is dry already, which makes me think it must be thinning, because I’m ageing, and I roll off the stool to leave. I feel cheated by my body, my city and the sky. And I’m not saying we need any semblance of council or governance, because it wasn’t much better before. There was always this feeling that the birds were approaching; that if you lost your job for whatever reason, or your house exploded, or your legs stopped working, or the ground opened up beneath you, that there was never a safety net big enough to save every last one of us, so just make sure nothing goes wrong in your life or else. I used to bundle up like khaki man to save my clothes, and because I wanted to stick to a once-a-week hair wash routine. I thought that meant nothing could go wrong. But what’s the point? Routine means nothing anymore.

On my way downstairs, my stomach creaks. I don’t know how I have an appetite after what I’ve just seen, but there it is, my humanity. The largest McDonald’s in Europe has three floors but since The Fall, the top one has been Staff Only. Just as Liverpool was cut from the UK like a hangnail, the restaurant was annexed from the international franchise. From Frankfurt, goodbye. Most shops in Liverpool city centre closed down altogether, and no Angus beef was getting delivered here anymore. But the manager of McDonald’s, who had been on staff since it opened in 1985, would not move. He was so scared of the ground opening up beneath him, or his house exploding, or his legs stopping, that he simply never left work. He was here when the lights were blue. He was here when I spat rolled up paper through plastic straws at my friends. He stayed exactly where he was. He never even sat down.

The manager told his remaining staff that the seagulls would not top the pecking order in this city, and he took a gun out of his back pocket, because everyone in Liverpool carries a gun. He marched to the empty top floor where he used a chair to smash open one of the old stained glass windows that used to adorn the entire restaurant back in the 80s. It was thin and beautiful and now it is gone, and he didn’t think twice about it.

If you had been one of the seagulls, one of the opportunists, who had sat in the canopy of matted birds nests that covered the city centre’s square, you might have seen silver glint in the south-west corner of the sky. You might have known to fly away from the bullets. But you might have been a nestling who didn’t yet know how to. You might have been shot, you might have been caught in the manager’s net. You might have been pulled into his kitchen and filleted and breaded and served to customer’s running into the restaurant to clean themselves from the endless seagull reign. McSeagull Sandwich. Side Seagull Salad. Cheesy Seagull Bites. Try the new Seagull Stack, he says, or the classic 6 Seagull Nugget Meal. Fine, I tell him, because I am my own mother now, I’ll get it to go.

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