She looked at him, and shook her head no.
He moved away with a shrug, turning to serve a different customer. It was late in the evening and most people had gone home, or else gone out somewhere more upmarket; battered little cafes such as this one rarely saw much action beyond the lunch breaks of local workers and those dropping in for a bite to eat after work, too tired and hungry to face the long commute home first. The waiter did not need to insist that she order anything, because there were only three occupied tables in the whole joint — out of a total of twenty, she counted, though some of those were little more than a chair next to a side table. The kitchen had an open front, with wooden shutters to close off different parts of it according to how much they wanted the public to see; when it was busy and the head chef started to swear, they closed them out of necessity. Someone had probably forgotten to open them all the way again this afternoon — only one section of the shutter was open, affording a view of the lone chef plating up each order and leaving it for the waiter to pick up. It was only a skeleton crew at this time of night.
Once, it had been much more popular. A television star of the nineties had reportedly eaten there regularly before getting famous, and for a while there had been a sign outside promoting it as their favourite place to eat lunch in the city. That had pulled the crowds in, and even paid for some renovation work to the building, extending the kitchen area out into the space behind and putting in cushioned leather walls. It had been almost chic back then, but now the wood was chipped and the stuffing was coming out of the walls. Now they barely made enough money in a day to pay wages and cover expenses. The owners were considering selling, though she did not know this. It was for the best. The last thing she needed was the kind of information that might send her into a slough of despondency.
She took out a notebook, the edges of the paper creased and broken, and laid it down on the table in front of her; a few moments of scrabbling around in her bag later, she also retrieved a pen, placing it neatly in line with the margin on the page, pointing downwards, the nib towards her. Putting one hand on either side of this display, she proceeded to stare into the distance, unable to force herself to begin writing anything on the page even though she knew that she really ought to.
A small amount of time passed; the two truckers at the table behind her received their orders, and she reluctantly picked up the pen and began to write. Barely two sentences passed before, distracted again by her own thoughts, she began to doodle abstract shapes in the margin, filling up the space so that her hands could do something rather than for any artistic purpose.
She thought about playing some music through her headphones, but in the end the idea did not appeal to her. There was gentle background music running through the cafe anyway, some sort of inoffensive pre-rock and roll mix, halfway to boring but easy enough to listen to. That would do, and besides she did not need to empty her entire bag on the table. Soon enough the cafe would be closing, and then she would have to gather everything up and leave. So much the better if there was less to gather when she did so.
It was almost Christmas. Someone fiddled with the CD player, the music cutting off partway through a song, and restarted with the croon of Dean Martin. It was a Christmas compilation, it seemed; the chef was in a festive mood. She glanced out of the window, onto the darkened streets filled with booted feet of last-minute shoppers, wool coats flashing by in a haze of colour. She had not done any Christmas shopping this year.
The waiter slid down into the chair opposite her, without any warning. ‘I’ve seen you here before,’ he commented, as if he ought to be awarded a prize for saying so.
‘Yes?’ she replied, wishing he would reach some sort of point rather than making small talk statements. She detested those kinds of conversations, particularly with strangers.
‘So what are you working on?’ he asked, jerking his chin in the direction of her notebook. Instantly, instinctively, she covered it up with one hand.
‘You seem awful defensive for it to be nothing,’ he noted, clearly unconvinced.
‘I don’t like nosy people,’ she told him, feeling a heat welling up inside. You’ve done it now, part of her thought. You’ll really annoy him with that one. Such a rude thing to say to his face! Ah well, that’s what you wanted: to be left alone. Was it not?
‘Neither do I,’ he countered, unexpectedly, meeting her gaze with an even look. He was seemingly unfazed by the way she stared back.
‘I’ll have a cheese and onion toasted sandwich,’ she said suddenly, as if he had only just asked her for her order. For a moment he did not move, almost as if he had forgotten his purpose there.
‘Right away,’ he said finally, getting up and disappearing through the kitchen door.
He reappeared soon after: in the view afforded by the open wooden shutters, she watched him take her order to the chef and then lean back against an unused counter top, chatting quietly. Probably inanely. He slouched as if tired — she realised that he had most likely worked all day, just like her, and was feeling dead on his feet. A second later he hoisted himself up to sit on the counter top like a stool, and she could almost feel the pain in his knees and the soles of his feet that told him to do so. She had been sitting down for a long while, but she could still feel that burn in her own feet, the slow heat of pain that would take a night’s good rest to heal. With those requirements, she could be waiting forever for them to stop hurting.
He rolled up his black shirt sleeves momentarily, pushing the fabric as high up his arm as it would go, allowing the bottom part of what looked like a tribal dragon tattoo to poke out under it. She would never have pegged him as the type of guy to have a tribal dragon tattoo. What a strange world they lived in. She watched the chef put the sandwich together whilst talking with his friend the waiter. Perhaps they were not friends at all; if they had not come to work in the same place together in such an isolated way, would they ever have spoken at all? Things like this she wondered often. You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your relatives.
The truckers had finished their food a long time ago, and now, seemingly, they deemed it high time to leave. She wondered if they had finished trucking for the weekend or were only on the way to the next job. They had talked gruffly, in low voices, discussing people called Pete and Dave and cataloguing road numbers. Though their words were a drone behind her that she could hardly ignore, she had taken in little of their actual meaning. It had been a rare opportunity to listen to the social habits of the normally solitary truckers, and now she almost regretted that she had too much of her own empty thoughts to focus on. She had missed that chance already.
They left with a shuffle through the glass-fronted doors, letting in a blast of cold air from outside. Sounds of society drifted in, mixing with the holiday music playing over the speakers. You will get a sentimental feeling, when you hear voices singing ‘let’s be jolly’…
The door closed again behind them, leaving only a remembrance in their wake, the warmth soon returning to the air that they had disturbed. Her cheese and onion toasted sandwich arrived from the kitchen, served with flair by the bored waiter. There was no one else in the cafe any more, but she was a paying customer now. They could not throw her out.
She picked up one triangular half of the sandwich dubiously; she had not really intended to eat it, only to use it as an excuse against conversation, but now that she saw it she had to admit that it looked appealing. There was a slight crust of cheese along the edge where it had been cut, clearly pressed into shape by the toaster machine, the cheese that had made contact with the hot plate burnt into crispy brownness. She could smell the aroma of warm cheddar, and against all odds it suddenly made her feel desperately hungry.
Holding the very edges of the sandwich to avoid the hotter centre, she took one bite and recoiled immediately from the heat of the melted cheese. Placing it down rapidly on the plate, she chewed the part she had bitten off gingerly, trying to keep the bread in between the cheese and the roof of her mouth. She managed to avoid too much of a terrible burn, but still the inside of her mouth throbbed, complaining against the sudden assault.
‘Careful. It’ll be hot,’ the waiter helpfully told her, chuckling when she shot a glare of fire in his direction.
He sat down opposite her again, though she had given no indication that she wanted or even encouraged this interaction. He seemed determined to either enjoy the end of his shift by talking to someone new, or to annoy her so much that the end of his shift moved substantially closer. To spite him she could have stayed for hours, but she knew that eventually they would turn her out unceremoniously onto the streets.
‘So what are you doing for Christmas this year? Going home to visit family?’ he asked, rocking back until the chair balanced on its two back legs, precarious yet somehow giving off an air of balance.
She shook her head no.
‘Going on holiday then? Or is it a bit of special time with the boyfriend?’
She shook her head no, and turned back to the discarded sandwich. Poking at it with a cautious finger, she eventually decided that it was now cool enough to eat, and began to chew her way through it, bite by bite. It was good.
‘So what are you doing then? Just staying in by yourself?’ he asked, a note of disbelief in his voice.
She shrugged. The music had taken a more melancholy turn. She tried not to listen to the old familiar song. It’ll be lonely this Christmas…
‘We can’t have that,’ he scoffed. ‘You must have someone you can go to. I’ve seen you here in the afternoons, do you work nearby? Surely you’ve a co-worker at the very least you can rely on?’
She shook her head no. Lonely and cold…
‘No you don’t have a co-worker, or no you don’t work nearby?’
A wave: all of the above.
‘Don’t you work at all, then?’
She shook her head no. It’ll be cold, so cold…
Crunch time. ‘You need an address. To get a job.’
A pause. ‘Where are you sleeping then?’
‘Youth hostel.’ Without you to hold…
He took a breath, glanced around a moment, and examined his own hands closely. ‘You want to be in a youth hostel on Christmas day?’ he asked eventually.
‘Of course not.’
‘I don’t have family here, so I’m spending it with a few friends. Why don’t you come join us?’
She shrugged, closed off. No more worded answers. She picked at the second triangle of cheese and onion stubbornly, allowing no time in between bites for him to question her. He slid an address written on a serviette across the table to her, along with his name at the bottom. She eyed it cautiously, refusing to pick it up, until he pushed it under one of the pages of her notebook.
She finished the sandwich, moved the plate away and started to pack her bag back up, ignoring his attempts at eye contact and niceties.
‘See you,’ hurled over her shoulder as she left, stepping out into the icy air and bracing herself against the long walk back. As the door swung slowly shut under its own weight behind her, she pushed aside that laughable attempt he had made. Did he not realise that when you were broken, you were broken for good? The last strains of music died out behind her, and she set off walking.
A house that’s not a home…
You can support Rhiannon D’Averc writing short stories like this one over on Patreon.