Wednesday’s are usually fairly quiet. Not much going on in the local clubs midweek. Thursday night is another story – Thursday is the new Friday. And the weekends are hideous; the fryer working overtime, Marcel stressing out. I dread the weekends.
But Wednesdays are fine. I keep a book under the counter. Sometimes get through a whole chapter uninterrupted.
The first wave comes after pub-closing time; the second after club-closing. There’s a lull between. My shift finishes before the breakfast rush.
We were in the lull. It was raining persistently, but there was no one much around outside to be driven in to shelter. Just two tables were occupied, both by lone customers, clearly killing time.
One – a youngish woman, sitting by the window – had asked for Betty, and looked disappointed when I explained that she only works late on Mondays and Tuesdays. She ordered tea and toast. She wanted it dry – no butter, no spread, just toast.
Marcel was in a foul mood.
“No fucking butter? What’s wrong with the world? Is she obese?”
“Oh, a skinny little one, like you. Starving herself to bones.”
“She’s normal sized. She just wants some plain toast.”
I moved away from the hatch, pretending to be busy re-organising the condiments. No point engaging in other people’s shit. Who wants to be an emotional punching bag?
I could feel the other customer watching me. I ducked out of sight below the counter for some respite, making rummaging noises with cleaning products. There was something unsettling about him – not only his apparently insatiable hunger and the fact that he hadn’t removed his long trench-coat. He’d already eaten a full English, a portion of chips and a slice of cheesecake. He was now on his third coffee. The mystery was where we was putting it all. He was thin as a rake, with gaunt features, deep eye hollows.
“What’s a nice girl like you doing working in a grubby hole like this?” had been his opening gambit. Urgh.
Ping. Tea and toast appeared in the hatch.
The woman was trying hard not to cry, but failing, wiping her face with the back of her hand. I quietly grabbed wodge of paper napkins for her. She smiled painfully at the gesture, thanking me and apologising at the same time.
“You’re welcome. Anything I can do?”
Such as bring you food and/or drink.
“I’ve fucked everything up,” she said, and began to cry properly, with little juddering yelps.
I hesitated for a moment before sitting down next to her, putting my arm around her. She leaned in to me. I could feel her shuddering.
After a minute or so she made a big effort to compose herself, using several napkins to wipe away the tears. She kept saying sorry, sorry, sorry.
“It’s ok. Really. It’s fine. Take it easy.”
I coaxed the tea down her.
She nodded. I escaped with the empty cup. I’ve never had much going for me in the way of shoulders.
By the time I returned with a fresh brew, she’d taken control of herself. She seemed to want to explain, so I sat down opposite her and assumed what I hoped was a sympathetic expression.
“I came to London to find my little sister. She ran away. I was looking for her, tracking her down. Then I got distracted, involved in my own stupid drama… she might really need my help, and I stopped making the effort… I don’t know whether she’s dead or alive. I’ve been so selfish.”
“Betty offered to help look for her?”
She frowned, looking uncertain and slightly embarrassed.
“Something happened in here the other night… I can’t really explain it, but it made me think Betty might be able to help contact her somehow…”
A sudden tinkling sound made us both start.
“Excuse me, miss?” It was the trench-coat man, wanting more coffee and cake, attracting my attention by rattling his spoon on the cup. I was torn between irritation at his manner and relief at leaving the uncomfortable conversation.
While I was sorting him out, two men came in and sat by the window at the table next to the woman. It seemed that they had dramas of their own – one of them red-eyed and sad, the other stoical and calm. They took an age to decide what they wanted to order.
The woman came up to the counter to pay as I waited for Marcel to do his business with the fryer, bringing over her empty cup and plate. She’d barely nibbled the dry toast.
“Thank you. For listening. And, sorry…”
“No need,” I said quickly. “Anytime. I hope you find your sister. I hope she’s ok.”
“Thanks.” She’d finished with crying and now looked determined, purposeful. “It’s the not knowing which gets to you. I need to find out one way or another. For Jess, and for me.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just smiled and nodded uselessly.
You really shouldn’t get involved in other people’s shit. It never ends well.
The trench-coat was still there when Tracey arrived to take over. I accidentally caught his eye as I was leaving. He winked.
On the bus journey home, I kept thinking about the woman and her missing sister, Jess. I thought about what she’d said about not knowing. I thought about her crying, pitifully, in a shitty night café.
In the end I took out my phone and wrote a short text message.
My finger trembled as I hesitated over the send button.