The Waitress(8)

By: Melissa Nathan

If The Café staff resented making coffee for tired, ungrateful and often surly commuters, the commuters resented buying it, with knobs on. For a start, they would rather be in bed. Then there was the flickering fluorescent light that always pissed them off. And what did they have to look forward to? A crowded, over-or under-heated train where they probably wouldn’t get a seat, followed by a job that didn’t even pay them enough to be able to live near the borders of a place splattered with blue plaques – and that was if they were lucky and didn’t catch the Brighton train.

‘Double espresso, two sugars.’

Sukie took the change from one customer, nodded to let the next one know she’d heard him and whizzed back to the coffee machine. Katie joined her and spoke to commuter number three in the queue.

‘Good morning! How can I help you this fine day.’

‘Black coffee.’

‘Black coffee coming up. It’ll be my absolute pleas—’

‘Excuse me,’ cut in commuter number five, a man whose face seemed to have been pummelled in the night. Number four in the queue had overtaken him on the stairs up to the café and he wanted to knife him. ‘Some of us have got trains to catch.’

‘Right,’ said Katie and she turned to the coffee machine.

‘Will you spit in his coffee or shall I?’ muttered Sukie without breaking from her task.

‘Someone’s already trodden on his face,’ muttered Katie back. ‘Give the guy a break.’

They both whizzed back round, coffees in hands, smiles on lips and continued with the queue until it had finished and the last train from Porter’s Green to the city had left (the 8.54: only two minutes late, right platform, but minus two carriages), its commuters stuffed into each others’ armpits, dreaming of Friday.

The sudden dip in custom on a Monday morning was usually Katie’s lowest point of the week. This was when she had time to face the reality of her working day. Alec would approach them and, summoning up a spirit of excitement and eagerness for the week ahead, would command the same thing every single Monday morning.

‘Right. First day of the week girls, first day of the week. Here we go. Salads out front, chip oil frying in back, make your boss a nice cup of coffee.’

And Sukie and Katie would reply the same thing every single Monday morning.

‘Make it yourself, you lazy bastard,’ from Sukie.

‘You’ve got hands, haven’t you?’ from Katie.

And Alec would make himself a cup of coffee, while expressing his doubts over their parentage with imagination and spirit.

Today, though, Katie did not feel swamped by the usual onslaught of misery and failure. Today, the rudeness of the commuters, the miserable fug of the café and the dismal attempts at leadership from Alec had the opposite effect – all because of what had happened to her late on Friday afternoon.

For she had had an epiphany. She was going to become an educational psychologist.

It all happened during a double-shift that had gone so painfully slowly that she thought she must have actually died and gone to hell. She’d started chatting to a customer. It wasn’t the done thing – it was hard to chat freely with Alec around – but he’d been oppressing someone in the kitchen at the time and the customer had been at table 18, right by the door, so it had felt a fairly safe risk.

The woman had had a quiet Friday at work and had popped in for a quick coffee before getting home to a house full of overtired children and an underpaid nanny. She’d started chatting to Katie about the weather and somehow Katie had found herself telling her that she was considering becoming a teacher. This thought had occurred to her only the week before, after she’d seen a reality TV show about an inner city school where a teacher had got locked in the girls’ toilets and had escaped through a window. It seemed like an adventurous job. It just so happened that the woman had been a teacher once, a while ago, before she’d started training to be an educational psychologist. Once you’d been a teacher for two years, all you needed was a masters degree and voilà! An educational psychologist. Much better for pulling at parties, the woman told Katie, and better still, you didn’t have to wait for a bell to go to the toilet.

Katie was reborn. Not only did she already have the requisite psychology degree (from Oxford no less) but she’d always liked children. They liked her too – she had an affinity with them. By the time she had deposited the warmed croissant on a plate and taken it to the woman, Katie’s new future was set; restaurant franchises were a dim and distant memory. This woman was meant to come into the café that day, and she, Katie Simmonds, had been meant to see that TV programme the week before. It was destiny.