Here is a short story told from different points of view, but could be the same person. It doesn’t have to be, I’ll leave it all up to you, dear reader! Please excuse the formatting of paragraph breaks – I am struggling to get WordPress to agree how many lines in Word constitutes a line break in WordPress.
I sit at my usual table at ‘Elevensies’. The new waitress is making one of those ‘Mallow Moments’, steaming the milk for the hot chocolate with that noisy machine. Whilst she is waiting for the milk to froth, she plucks a marshmallow from the serving bowl and puts it into her mouth. She is a stout, strapping girl. She sucks the marshmallow, pulling it in and out of her mouth like gum, her saliva melting the soft pink tube, coating her thick fingers in a sticky film. When the milk is ready, she sucks the stretched marshmallow in through her lips, making it vanish like the tendril of a sea anemone. Then she wipes her pink-stained mouth with the back of her hand, giving it a quick wipe on her apron before dropping a deluge of marshmallows into the customer’s cup.
The customer doesn’t notice any of this, happily engaged in talking to her friend. The waitress, in a travesty of polite service, stomps to the table, head high, arm outstretched, carrying the cup to the customer with a swagger, heavy hips rolling under her tight black skirt. The topping of frothed milk and marshmallows slews about like flotsam and jetsam, reminding me of the bits of polystyrene fish boxes that slop about in the harbour.
The girl comes to clear my table, sticking her fingers into the bowl of my empty cup. I shudder at the thought of millions of unseen germs multiplying on everything she touches. I have never seen the girl wash her hands.
But despite the shortcomings of the girl, the tea is good here, and I leave a tip. Waitresses are not well-paid, even nowadays. Ten pence, placed discreetly under the saucer, is better than nothing, and just might encourage her to do better.
I walk home as usual, but it is damp today, and very unpleasant. The town’s quiet – but hardly anyone comes to Dunley for seaside air, even in the season. My shoes, which are too loose, alternately stick to and flop off my feet as I walk home. I have blisters already. A newsstand advertises the local paper, headlining ‘Salmonella Outbreak in Local Hotel’. I know this hotel; I visited there once – a very long time ago.
In a starched and crisply pressed apron, the waitress at ‘The Mermaid Café’ pushes the cake trolley over to the man on table twelve. With immaculate hands, she lifts a perfectly cut slice of Madeira cake and places it before him, her thumb positioned carefully, but not intrusively, over the rim of the plate. The man does not look at her, he is intent on his newspaper, but asks quietly if she would be so good as to pour him some more tea. Indeed, sir, she replies in her most soothing tones, just soothing enough to make him glance upwards momentarily, and for her to see that he has bright blue eyes, and for him to notice, maybe, that hers are brown. She gives the slightest of smiles – not quite enough to light up her face – but enough to hold it up to the light for a second or two. Then, with all her attention upon the teapot, the waitress pours the tea, without getting the slightest splash onto the white damask tablecloth, and she does not notice whether or not the gentleman looks at her further. She wheels the trolley back gracefully to its home by the polished sideboard.
The waitress is sucking noisily on a courtesy peppermint from the bowl by the till, and her apron is smeared in pastel marshmallow fingerprints. The girl is the same one as last week, the large, sticky one, and today her hair is greasy to boot. I wish she would tie it back, and get rid of those false nails. She scratches her leg whilst taking my order. The noise of plastic nails on nylon tights reminds me of a mouse chewing. She scrawls ‘tea’ onto her pad in big letters, without saying thank you to me. The soles of her shoes resemble tractor tyres and pound the floor as she walks to the counter, where the owner, a fat man called Tony Pritchard, leans his copious stomach. He also leers copiously, and gropes, as the other girls have found out, and he watches the doughy, sticky bun of waitress as if she is something to eat.
The last girl walked out in tears after a week, but the new girl meets Pritchard eye to eye, and it is he who looks away. When she comes back, she says nothing as she sets down my cup with her finger-over-the-rim carelessness, but I choose to ignore it.
The waitress notices that the blue-eyed gentleman sits at table twelve again this week. This time he does not have a newspaper and asks her for rock buns with his tea. There are no rock buns on the trolley. I’m sorry, sir, we have no rock buns left today, she says, but there are scones and currant slices, all freshly baked. The man tsks and looks at her with narrowed eyes. Pity, he says, rock buns are my favourite. There were some this morning, sir, but they have run out, and since baking is done first thing, there will be no more rock buns until Monday morning, but maybe sir would like to try them with morning coffee on a future occasion.
The gentleman looks at her through an even narrower aperture than before, but his eyes are still noticeably blue. A currant slice then, he says. The currant slices are on the bottom tier of the trolley and the waitress has to crouch in the small space between the table and the trolley to get one. She manages this elegantly, even in her close-fitting black skirt, but is not prepared for the unexpected intrusion of a man’s foot behind her own, and almost falls backwards as she gets up. The gentleman reaches out with alacrity to steady the young woman, who creditably maintains the currant slice at a correct sort of angle. She is not quite sure whether to offer thanks for the hand or expect apologies for the intrusive foot. The gentleman merely smiles and says he is sorry to put her to so much trouble. The waitress merely asks the gentleman if he wants some more tea and, after pouring it, returns the trolley to its place.
The Spring has been unusually hot, continuing into June. I walk into town, the backs of my summer shoes flopping and sticking. I walk like a penguin past the salmonella hotel, and see a ‘closed’ sign across the front door.
The plump girl has lasted a whole month under the fat leer of Prichard, but now the leer is replaced by a sullen look and a bruised lip. The girl’s all in black today, without even that grubby apron, and doesn’t bother with her pad, just bounces off into the kitchen like a petulant sea-lion. Pritchard watches the girl, backing away as she wades behind the counter. Today she wears platform boots that clomp. As the girl walks by him, the rhythm of her clomp is broken by one beat. He winces, but utters not a squeak.
The gentleman of the previous two weeks appears at eleven o’clock this Saturday and asks for rock buns, but insists on having tea with them, although many prefer coffee at this hour. Tea is the proper drink for rock buns, he says. Coffee would not do at all. I quite agree, sir, says the waitress, who has already placed the rock buns on the top of the trolley this morning. She notices that the gentleman not only looked her full in the face when he spoke to her, but that he looks at her when she they are not engaged in conversation, and even when she is not in the immediate vicinity of his table.
It is July and the weather is unbearably hot. My feet have swollen so badly I have resorted to open-toed sandals I bought at Help the Aged. The straps cut into my toes, but at least the sandals stay on. The large waitress is till here, and today wears some ludicrous wedge-heeled espadrilles that make her seem as if she is toppling forwards like a rubbery avalanche.
Pritchard has clearly lost weight and doesn’t leer after her anymore, instead he has become solicitous of the girl – asking if she’s managing all right and telling her not to lift too many plates. The girl is as strong as a small ox and can lift as many plates as she can scoop into her sticky embrace, but she seldom has a chance to stretch her capacity; there are few customers in late summer here in Dunley.
The girl didn’t even ask me what I wanted before bringing me the pot of tea. She has taken to eating chocolate fudge brownie and the evidence can be seen about her mouth and on the white butcher’s apron she now wears instead of a pinny. I expect that the pinny has become too small – she has progressed well beyond ‘plump’ to ‘decidedly stout’. My teacup has chocolate fingerprints on it and I have to complain.
On my way home, I notice that the hotel has a ‘For Sale’ sign. I wonder how much money one needs to buy a small, run-down, hotel.
The gentleman is regular enough at eleven o’clock now for the waitress to call him ‘the man for table twelve’ as he always sits there if the table is free, and somehow, it always is. Also, somehow, the supply of rock buns does not run out before he arrives.
This week, the man gives her his business card. It says ‘Ernest Clarke, Investment Advisor’ in gold lettering. One should always invest wisely he says. I quite agree, she replies, and pours his tea without being asked.
Ernest Clarke asks the waitress if he may call her by her Christian name, which is May. He also asks her if she’d like to watch a film with him this evening. She says that she’ll refill his pot, and disappears into the kitchen.
The heatwave has broken with the start of August. I’m back to my regular shoes now and they pinch my toes. Either my feet have broadened or the shoes have shrunk. The salmonella hotel is boarded up and fly posters have appeared advertising car boot sales and concerts. One advertises a band of South American musicians who will be appearing in the town centre. Their bright clothes look out of place here in Dunley.
The plump waitress is now well and truly fat –presumably having sampled everything the café has to offer. She is instructing Pritchard as if she is the boss. She makes him carry all the crockery into the kitchen himself. She has taken to wearing skin-tight leggings under a baggy black jumper. Her huge apron is a kaleidoscope of chocolate icing, lemon frosting and rainbow vermicelli. She shows me to my regular table and tells Prichard to bring the tea.
Sir, Mr Clarke, Ernest, has asked her out for three weeks now, and declares that he’ll have to find somewhere else to take his morning refreshment if the waitress, May, does not come out with him. I do not think that you will find a better rock bun in Dunley, Mr Clarke, she says. He replies that he is going to see ‘The Ten Commandments’ at the Albion tonight – he was going alone, but should the two of them meet up it would be natural enough if she was to join him. And naturally, she refills his pot without being asked.
September is quite pleasant. Today, on my way to the café, instead of going past the salmonella hotel, I walk the slightly longer route that had once gone past The Albion Cinema, which is now a night club called ‘Floozies’. My shoes still pinch, and I can feel my corns, but at least it’s dry.
Pritchard is now quite thin and hangdog, and the girl is gigantic in a billowing black dress. She is stomping about, shouting orders to him in a booming voice, but she smiles at me when she sets down my cup and asks if I’d like anything with it. ‘If you have a rock bun, I should like that,’ I say, but they have only scones and flapjack.
Ernest is charming and, one night, brings her flowers when he takes her out, not the tiny carnations that are put in little vases on tables at The Mermaid Cafe, but red roses. She is speechless, and allows him to put his arm around her shoulder during the film. Afterwards they walk along the quayside and he tells her of his dreams. I want to be rich, he says. I would be happy with my own little café, May replies. I’d give you anything, May, but what would you give me? He kisses her. I have never been kissed before, she says. There is a first time, May. There is a first time for everything. She allows him to kiss her again.
The girl is not here this week and I am served by Pritchard, who is incompetent, dropping my cup, and spilling the tea before it has been poured. He seems very agitated.
May tells him she’s expecting and he looks at her with his dazzling blue eyes. Marry me then he says, and she said yes, and they are, on Saturday, married. And it is the first Saturday she has had off for years. Sometime during the following fortnight Ernest takes off on a business trip, only hours before the police come into the café to question her, Mrs Ernest Clarke.
‘Detective Inspector This’ and ‘Detective Sergeant That’ show her shiny badges and over tea and scones she tells them that she and Mr Clarke have been married only ten days, they couldn’t afford a honeymoon, and they spent their wedding night in a small hotel in Dunley. Detective Sergeant That writes her words into a notebook in tidy handwriting. Detective Inspector This says that Ernest Clarke seems to have had much more money than can be evinced from his bookkeeping and his choice of honeymoon hotel. Detective Sergeant That says that he has quite possibly gone to South America. They seem sorry for her, a bride of only ten days. She is sorry too, but she cannot help them with their inquiries. She shows them her crisp new Marriage Certificate and her very worn and unpromising bank book. They tut sympathetically and leave her a tip for the tea. She has not offered refills.
It is mild for October, and as I walk past a travel agent’s shop advertising ‘The Andes Experience’. I wonder how clement October in South America would be. South America is a big place, big enough to disappear into without telegram or trace. They grow coffee in South America, tobacco, maize and bananas, but not tea.
In the paper I saw, recently, in the wedding section, a photograph of the sticky waitress, in a white tent of a gown, grasping the arm of her new husband, Tony Prichard. They will begin their married life by re-developing a run-down hotel in Dunley. ‘It’s a prime development opportunity,’ said Mrs Pritchard, who expects her first child in the Spring.
Mrs Clarke, manageress of ‘The Mermaid Café’, takes orders for customers who sit at table twelve. Few of them ask for rock buns with their tea, or indeed with their coffee. Her shiny new gold wedding band has become scratched, but Mrs Clarke always wears it. Little Ernest grows up without a father, and leaves home to go to sea when he is sixteen. Mrs Clarke seldom sees him. She last heard he was going to South America, and that is a long way away.
When I next go to the café, there is a sign that says ‘Under new Management’. They have changed the name to ‘Tea and Tide’, and the tables now have cheap plastic tablecloths over them. I am served by an obsequious, spotty young man with a pristine white apron. I am sure that the tea won’t be half as good, and decide to have a cappuccino and a large slice of chocolate brownie. I don’t bother that I get some of it on the tablecloth – plastic tablecloths are easy to wipe clean.