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Canteen Girl October 21, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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The prompt for this week is: “When I opened my mouth to sing …”


Nerida snuck in through the back door of the Autech staff canteen, hoping the women cackling over the huge pots of lunchtime slop wouldn’t notice her. She stowed her handbag and cardigan in her locker, tied her apron in place, straightened her hair and make-up, and took a deep breath.

She still felt wildly embarrassed. If she could have skipped this job and gone straight to the lab for her real job, she would have done, but her car needed a new engine, and she needed the extra money.

“Ah! Here she is!” called Doris, who must have spied her as she tried to scuttle through to the front of house to turn on the bain marie. She’d then get the pies into the warmer, and make sure that everything was spick and span before ten floors worth of research scientists, their assistants and all the administrative staff of Autech began filing through for lunch. Nerida didn’t respond to the chorus of greeting that erupted behind her as she scuttled.

Just get on with the job, she told herself sternly. It doesn’t matter. You’re here to do a job. Just suck it up and do what you’re paid to do.

Shirley brought through the first of the trays while Nerida was out in the café area, wiping down tables. Nerida kept her back turned to the kitchen and worked hard to remove a smudge of dried chicken curry that had been crusting up over the entire weekend. When she finally returned to the serving area, the bain marie was laden, and it was only moments before the doors would swing open and the hordes would descend.

For two hours, Nerida worked non-stop. Doris and Carol worked beside her, giving cheek to the customers and answering questions about the food, one or the other of them periodically doing the rounds of the tables and between them keeping the industrial dishwasher in the kitchen humming. Shirley and Nerida took turns on the coffee machine, and Val worked the till.

“There we go, that’s the lot of them,” Doris exclaimed with satisfaction, as the last of the stragglers left their tables and headed back out through the swinging doors to their offices.

“No it’s not,” Shirley said with certainty. She lowered her voice so that only Doris and Val could hear. “He hasn’t been in yet.”

Doris chortled, and Val hurried out the back to make sure that Carol knew. They’d all gathered that Nerida hadn’t spoken to him since Friday night – that much was obvious. Nerida tried to hide at the kitchen sink.

At ten past two, the cafeteria doors swung open again, and a cheery male voice called out, “Am I too late? Will the kindly ladies of the canteen take pity on a starving scientist and feed him, even though he’s running horribly late?”

“No worries, love!” Shirley told him. “I’ve just gotta get this meat out the back and cut up. I’ll just give our Nerida a hoi. She’ll be out to serve you in a tick.”

The handsome face of Anson Blakely beamed at her. They both knew that he wasn’t really there for the food.

“I’m not serving him,” Nerida hissed, scrubbing hard at the baking tray that the roast beef had been baked in.

Shirley tried to insist, but in the end, she had to return to the counter herself. “So, what can I get you, love? Nerida’s up to her elbows in muck out there.”

Anson’s blue eyes twinkled at her. He raised an eyebrow. God, he’s a handsome devil! Shirley thought. Makes me go weak at the knees!

Nerida was scouring away viciously at one particularly stubborn corner of the baking tray when Anson walked through into the kitchen, followed by the wide-eyed and broadly grinning Shirley.

“Y’know,” Anson said, leaning his jeans-clad backside against the stainless steel of the sink and folding his arms across his broad, tee-shirt clad chest before looking sideways at Nerida, “the most embarrassing thing happened to me on Friday night.”

Nerida, startled, leapt back from the sink and tossed water over herself, the wall and the floor, although fortunately it missed Anson completely. She felt the blush that flooded her cheeks with redness even more hotly than the temperature of the water. “It did?” she squeaked, reaching for a teatowel with one hand and a mop with the other. Even the tops of her ears were glowing scarlet – she could feel it.

“Uh-huh,” Anson confirmed, his eyes still twinkling.

Nerida dried herself and started mopping the floor.

Finally, Doris said on Nerida’s behalf, “What happened to you on Friday night, love?”

Anson flashed her an appreciative smile. Gawd, he’s a honey! Doris thought. No wonder the poor girl’s all a-flutter!

“Well, I went to the pub on Friday night,” Anson told the gathered womenfolk, “with a few mates after work. After all, my girlfriend had a full social calendar for the whole weekend, so what’s a bloke to do, right?”

The gathered womenfolk all nodded. Nerida was lovely and lively, and she always had a full calendar. Usually she and Anson did numerous things together, but this had been just one weekend when they had separate things all weekend. The canteen ladies had already discussed how healthy they thought that was.

Assured that everyone understood, Anson continued: “We had a few beers, the steak was good, and then we went through to the karaoke. Some of it was good, some of it was bad – you know how it goes. But when my mates finally convinced me to get up and sing … well, I tried … but I couldn’t do it.”

“Why not, love?” Carol prompted, realising that Nerida’s blush hadn’t subsided and that it was entirely unlikely that the girl would speak at all.

“Well, there was really only one song I wanted to sing … but when I opened my mouth to sing … no words came out. Nothing.”

“Really love?” Doris prompted. She looked around at Shirl and Val and Carol. They all knew that, because they’d been there. “Why was that, d’you think?”

“Well, see …” Anson was now trying to catch Nerida’s eye, but she’d wrung out the mop and was working away at the baking tray in the sink again. She wouldn’t look at him, so he shrugged and answered openly. “I don’t really know why I wanted to sing this particular song, but when I got up, the girl I wanted to sing it to wasn’t there any more. There wasn’t really any point singing it to anybody else.”

“What was the song, love?” Val was the one who couldn’t stand the suspense this time.

“For some reason,” Anson replied, now looking intently at Nerida’s profile, “it was Billy Idol’s White Wedding. I just wanted to tell Nerida that today’s a nice day for a white wedding.”

For some very long seconds, the only sound in the entire kitchen was a single drip from the tap into the murky waters of Nerida’s industry.

“You mean that Friday was,” Nerida said. “This is three days later.” She sounded cross and she sounded like the only reason that she was still there was that her shift wasn’t over yet.

Suddenly Anson seemed to be quite over the game of this little scene in the kitchen. “Come on Nerida,” he said firmly. “Dry your hands and talk to me properly, will you?”

“I don’t want to.”

“But for goodness sake, why?” Anson demanded, sounding more oblivious than annoyed.

Nerida kept working on that baking dish, until she realised that it was as clean as it was going to get, and that Anson wasn’t going away any time soon.

“You weren’t supposed to hear what I sang,” she said, taking a deep breath, drying her hands, and turning to face him squarely.

Anson thought back to Friday night. He and his mates had walked through into the karaoke room when a girl was singing a woeful version of Abba’s Dancing Queen. As they got settled at their corner table, a sweet, pure voice had begun a haunting version of I Honestly Love You. Along with the rest of the room, he’d stood to applaud, only realising then that it was Nerida doing the singing. He hadn’t realised before that the pub where he and his mates had chosen to go was the same one where the Canteen Social Club was having their quarterly get-together.

A broad grin spread across his face. “Hell, Nerida,” he laughed. “We’ve been dating for six months already. We’ve known each other for nearly a decade! Isn’t it about time we got that honest with each other?”

Nerida was blushing again, but at least she was meeting his eyes. “I didn’t want to be the first one to say it though. I wouldn’t have sung that song in a million years if I’d thought you were even in the same suburb!”

Anson was chuckling though, and drawing her into his arms. “And it was the thing that made me realise I want to marry you. I’ve even had time to think about it all weekend, and I still want to.”

So, while the rest of the canteen ladies clapped and cheered, he dropped to his knee and did his very best Impromptu Romantic Proposal.

Six months later, the same canteen ladies lined up down one side of the pathway outside the church, holding pots and pans aloft, forming a guard of honour opposite Anson’s workmates with microscopes and bunsen burners. At the reception, they danced to White Wedding and later, they even sang I Honestly Love You to each other. And this time, they both sang just fine.


Marco's April 4, 2009

Posted by Anna in Cafe Exercises.
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The writing book that I’m reading suggests that every time you go to a cafe to write, you should try to describe that place – sights, smells, sounds, scenarios, etc. As I spend a reasonable amount of time in coffee shops, waiting while an external class is attended by my daughter, that sounds like a fairly interesting exercise to me. I’m sure the Cafe Exercises category of this blog will swell rapidly, hopefully with quite a variety of pieces. This is my first attempt.


Marco’s is a busy place. Long white counters protect the kitchen staff from the ravenous hordes and the barista from the coffee-deprived masses, large windows open out into the square in summer, and the cheerful, efficient staff ensure a happy throng of regular customers.

I’ve been here of a morning sometimes, and two baristas work frantically, clanking the grinder’s distributor mechanism, banging and tamping the grinds, espressing the inky black elixir of life and zhoozhing the milk. For half an hour or more, the bank of bleary-eyed customers at the coffee counter rarely numbers less than a dozen.

Where I sit today, inside the café, there is a constant hum. The timber-look flooring is probably lino, because my heels don’t echo on it as they do on the laminate at our place, or on the real timber floor’s in my friend’s home. Movement across the floor is like a hum. Banter between the staff is a hum; customer conversations are mostly a quiet hum; the fridges hum, and the lights hum along with the fans.

The ceiling fans gyrate laconically as they spin, adding just a hint of chill to the otherwise mild autumn atmosphere. They are no doubt partly to blame for the lack of intense food smells in the air of the café, although the massive extractor fans in the kitchen would have something to do with it too, of course. Apart from an occasional waft of something delicious, I feel deprived. I’m not eating, but aromas are good.

Behind me, a table of schoolgirls sip their milkshakes and chomp on tomato sauce drenched beer battered chunky chips, while they giggle over puerile gossip and teacher gripes.

Along the opposite wall, a mother and grandmother, clearly related, try to hush a boisterous girl-child of about four. The three of them all have the same bobbed blonde hair: the child’s is pale and gossamer-like; the mother’s tousled and frazzled; the grandma’s a little wild and tinged with an awkward unnatural red.

“Be quiet, honey,” Grandma suggests in a whiney tone, “and I’ll buy you an ice cream.”

“I don’t want a ice cream!” the child retorts in equally whiney tones. “I wanna baby ’cino!”

“All right,” agrees the mother, her tone every bit as whiney as genetics apparently dictate. “But only if you’re quiet.”

Behind me, pots, pans and dishes clank and bang in the back kitchen. While all the food is put together in full view of customers behind the sleek while counter at the front, used dishes disappear mysteriously to that out-the-back place. At other times, a trolley of clean crockery emerges from there, destined for the front kitchen. Only occasionally have I seen bowls of pre-chopped fruit, vegetables and herbs emanate from out-the-back, but it has led to my assumption that Out There houses another kitchen of sorts.

The woman at the table in front of me refolds her newspaper – a big one, like the Australian or the Sydney Morning Herald. After a while, she gets up and goes to the counter. Apparently the dull-looking waitress with the lank dark hair who didn’t bring me a spoon with my tea, and spurned my request for one, has also neglected to take this lady’s order. I stir my sugar into my tea and watch her as I move the capped end of my pen around in my teacup until no more sugar scrapes around the bottom. She places her order, to apologies from the manager, and returns to her seat. I lick my pen-cap as unobtrusively as I can, before turning it so I can write again.

The girl child swings by, on her way to the loo, loudly informing her pursuant mother that she will be having a bickie with her ’cino. She has forsaken whiney for tyrannical, and although her mother applies conditions valiantly, her voice is still whiney, and I just know that her defeat is inevitable.

I straighten, and stretch my hands out on the sticky, heavily-lacquered timber tabletop, just as a rumple-haired young man in jeans enters the café. He claims the table recently vacated by an argumentative, white-haired, bird-like old lady and her equally argumentative, obese, haggard-looking middle-aged son. The young man sits, facing the same direction as me, and I can’t help thinking that his shoulders, even from behind, look sad. The dull-looking waitress arrives instantly, and despite her suddenly engaging tones, he even sounds cheerless as he asks wearily for a macchiato.

Miss Four strides past again, advising sharply that choc chips will be included in the bickie that she will be having with her baby ’cino. Mother no longer contradicts her, or even applies conditions to the child’s orders. Miss Four will be obeyed.

The gaggle of schoolgirls chatter their way outside.

As the child of angelic appearance scrapes her sticky wooden chair out and clambers up to their table, a couple several tables down are served their food. They look like business colleagues – both very smartly dressed; both on their best behaviour.

The tall, sleek couple nearby are clearly lovers. They shared their food, conversation was low, and their fingers often entwined. They rise to leave, smiling at each other as they fall into elegant step on their way to pay the bill.

Grandma snags the attention of a passing kitchen hand and demands that their order be taken. He apologises genuinely and glares in the direction of the dull waitress, who is delivering coffee to the sad young man two tables ahead of me. Miss Four commands her own requirements with authority from her ‘house’ beneath the table, and the seconded waiter bends low and smiles for her indulgently.

The café manager refills the water fridge with tall bottles of complementary water and clean glasses, to chill. She is quick and efficient. She’s been there a long time, and she knows how the place should run. She has heard the order being given to the kitchen hand, and I can’t help wondering how long the new waitress will last.

A bohemian looking couple peruses the menu, and the dull waitress passes them repeatedly, without stopping to check if they’re ready to order. Their conversation is animated though, so they may not notice for a while.

I finish my tea and gather my things. The sad young man has finished and gone already. For him, service was swift. I hope his coffee was good.

As I pass her table, the lady with the newspaper receives her coffee, and the manager is delivering the requirements of Miss Four and her minions. She scrambles back up onto her chair eagerly.

The door is open and I am about to leave the café, having paid, when I hear a wail. “There’s not enough choklit on my ’cino! An’ I want red dots in my bickie!”