Tuesday, 7 September 2010


If you work in a café and you fear change, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong line of work. Change, especially when it comes to staff, should be expected without warning at all times. On several occasions I’ve turned up after having painstakingly rehearsed on my morning commute the stories I would tell to a colleague, only to find that they no longer worked there. Sure, I’d still tell the stories to the others, even to some customers, but without nearly as much enthusiasm, as if I were talking on the phone on a peak-hour train. That’s why when I finish a shift, I think it’s important to share an intense hug with those I consider worthy, the ones I’d truly miss if I were never to see them again. If a hug is inappropriate, say if they’re in a position of authority and of the same gender, a lengthy handshake suffices.

Brenda, if you’re reading this, we both know that there are questions in need of answers. You have my email address, you even have my home address but I have nothing on you. You’re like The Scarlett Pimpernel, the one that got away, more elusive than an albino. Please…just please.

With Brenda gone we had to find a replacement. When Althea said just that, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “Have you got a problem, Mr Barista?!” she barked.
“It’s impossible. Everyone knows that Brenda was pretty much the definition of perfection,” I responded slowly, glaring around at the others in a bid for support, not that there was much point. We couldn’t just wish her back as though we’d stumbled across a genie’s lamp. She was gone, probably forever.

The next day we had a young man come in for a trial at our busiest time, our morning rush. “Good idea,” I said to Althea when she informed me of this. “Throw him in the deep end and see if he can swim. I don’t have time for sinkers. None of us do.” That’s always been a habit of mine, speaking for others without consent. Some call it arrogance, I call it leadership.

His name was Adam and I was suspicious of him before he’d even arrived. Before Brenda’s departure and with the recent addition of Damille, the pleasant Czech counterhand, we’d achieved the ideal ratio of males to females, the females outnumbering us by one. Looking back, those were the magic weeks. Everything was absolutely perfect and good times seemed to be had by all, which makes Brenda’s rash disappearance so hard to comprehend, let alone accept. If Adam were to make the grade, if he were to keep his head above water despite the waves of orders barreling down on us while we worked as a team behind the machine, it would have tipped the scales back in favour of the men and I simply couldn’t see that as a good thing.

A key skill in making a café successful is the ability to connect with both colleagues and customers, even when the heat is on. Without that extra touch, the café loses its appeal and customers become unfaithful, seeking their coffee and small talk elsewhere without guilt.

I put Adam on milk as I pulled the shots and while doing so, asked him a series of questions, starting with simple ones like whether or not he minded if I called him “Rookie” and his date of birth and where he grew up before moving on to the abstract. As I asked him these questions I observed his technique like a hawk. He was good, as were his answers. When I asked him what playing card he thought that I most identified with he confidently responded, “Easy, you’re the Jack of Hearts. Anyone could have told you that.” I followed that with a corresponding question as to what chess piece I was, including the colour. He replied with a smirk as he poured a perfect flat white, “Come on, man, challenge me here. You’re a Rook, a black one at that, a dark outsider with the potential to move rapidly. I don’t know what side of the board, though. Not yet, anyway.”
“Why would you say that? And with such bravado?” I asked, scarcely believing what I was hearing, trying to work out if it was all a weird dream. Was I so easy to read, so transparent, or was this man a genius? He didn’t get a chance to answer because he became entangled in a conversation with Andrew, a talkative customer, who was asking Adam for his name and purpose and an outline of his history in the coffee trade. By the time he’d finished it was too late to reignite our prior conversation. Needless to say, he got the job. He proved that he could swim in the deep end with the big boys, fluent in all strokes, even butterfly.

He’s still not you, though, Brenda.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Eavesdropping Pt 2

I liked the feeling of wearing a smile when entering situations. It gave me a sense of mystery. “And stubborn dads,” I whispered, my breath accelerating. It reminded me of my own dad when the doctor demanded that he quit smoking. He had us all convinced for months that he’d kicked the habit and everyone was so proud of him. Then I found him smoking one Sunday morning, despite his cancers, in the guest bathroom. I was 10 years old and deeply confused. I didn’t understand why he went against the doctor’s order but I did understand that he had his reasons, as dark and selfish as they were. He didn’t know at the time that I’d seen him and I was a mess. The secret was too much for my young mind to confine and soon enough I told my older brother, who then told my mother. She confronted Dad with aggression and in an act of desperation, booked him a session with a very expensive hypnotist. He attended but was afterwoods adamant that he’d absorbed nothing, that he had proved he was immune to hypnotism. He died one year later and we all wept in anger.

The suspected hypnotist was reading, or was he? As I wiped down the tables next to him, I worked the angles so that I could observe him to the maximum. I noticed that his eyes lacked the animation necessary to read. Maybe he was onto me, observing me through his peripheral vision as if he’d been expecting my presence. He must have understood that his suspicious actions with Brenda wouldn’t go without investigation. He held his book so that I couldn’t see the title. “On purpose,” I muttered. His ears pricked up. “I know what you’re doing,” I continued, not sure if he could actually hear me. It really was more of a whisper than a mutter. Surely the natural noises of the café had drowned out my soft words as I could barely hear them myself. Either way, he left abruptly, without even finishing his ginger beer. I watched him as he exited to see if he turned back. I just knew that if we made eye-contact, Brenda’s suspicion would be confirmed. He looked back and our eyes met. He had the eyes of a shark, small and predatory. That was all I needed. I gathered his scraps like an enthusiastic scavenger and those of the surrounding tables then made my way back to Brenda, to congratulate her on her sharp sense of judgement. She’d make an excellent criminologist if she ever tired of hospitality.

As I approached the trio again, I was entranced by the perfect shape of the boy’s skull. I’d noticed it earlier when I was behind the counter, thinking it was masculine and symmetrical, bordered by a neat hairdo connected to a beard of similar length and texture, but when I saw his profile I was so overcome by genetic envy that I tripped heavily on the tiny step I had passed over thousands of times before. The bottle from my right hand and the cups and saucers from my left sailed though the air with the confidence of weathered seamen until they collided with the floor, shattering, the dregs of liquid splattering the trio, ruining their afternoon. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” I repeated from the floor as apologetic tears welled in my eyes.