Short story (948 words)
There was more about clubbing on Friday night although he hardly seemed old enough. June hugged her anorak round her shoulders; winced as he slammed down the handset.
Dave the ex was prompt. “Bad news for you. Sheila and I got that flat in Sparkbrook.”
“Sparkbrook! Three bus rides for me.”
“Alex will have his own room. His own telly.”
“How will I ever see him?”
Back in her room over the bookie’s she opened her mini-fridge and touched the repaired plastic shelf. It held. She slid in a tin of Value baked beans. Still it held. Slid in another and heard a shocking crack. Super glue, she thought; but it costs. I need the fridge space; with no shelf there's only half the capacity. Piled food gets messed. Especially steak pies, cut into quarters and spun out over four days.
The television had been mute for months. She listened to a Radio Four adaptation of Joanna Trollope’s novel about village lesbians. Dreaming up faces for the voices but resenting the posh tones. Twin-set women. The story held her interest but cold tightened round her hips. Wrapping herself in the duvet she knew it was too late; there wasn’t enough heat in her body to retain. Bed was the only option. Breaking the late night rule she tried transferring heat by washing her hands and face. Then to bed.
Dark and freezing when she woke. At five-thirty, wearing four layers of clothes, including pyjamas, she entered the newsagent’s by the back door, sorted papers and walked silent streets pushing copies of the Daily Mail against hard-sprung letterbox flaps. Janusz was waiting by the bus-stop, the SUV breathing white vapour from its exhaust, the trailer crusted with frost.
Driving to the layby Janusz, who rarely spoke, glanced and said. “You ill, Missie.”
“No, no. Brown, under eyes. Pale. You not eat.”
Her fingers had been too clumsy for the toaster. She said, “Two slices of bread and I-Can’t-Believe. Too early to eat.”
“You lose your looks.”
“Looks! You’re shitting me.”
“You OK lady. If you wash your hair.”
“The court gave custody of the kid to my ex. Said I was irresponsible. Why not act the part?”
Lorry drivers waited in the layby, stamping, impatient. Janusz fried eggs and piles of streaky bacon on the trailer’s hob; heated tinned tomatoes in the microwave. June took orders, handed out change; soon Janusz’s English would be good enough and, she supposed, he’d drop her. Warmth from the gas hob reached between her shoulder-blades.
Two-ish, ten minutes after the last Mondeo, Janusz turned off the gas and started cleaning the hob. June walked the layby picking up paper napkins and polystyrene trays smeared with ketchup. Just after three Janusz pulled up in the centre of town by an easel sign: The Great English, Six AM to Ten PM.
“Eat, Missie, eat,” he said.
“If there’s time.”
Mrs Pickerill, at the till, spoke quietly to avoid being overheard. “I’ve got to be fair. This time you sweep up, Sharon serves.” June nodded. No doubt Sharon had complained about being given the broom too often. Sharon liked to engage diners but not everyone enjoyed her chat.
Mid-afternoon, the trickle of customers was shepherded to one end of the dining room while the other was swept. The ends were then reversed. Not ideal, especially since Sharon worked noisily, but the health inspector had spoken.
Sharon sauntered over. “He’s not here today, you know.”
He was Brett from Australia with the surfer’s hair and the logistics skills of a worker bee. Once he’d created seventeen full English breakfasts, with fried bread, all on the tables within ninety seconds serving time.
June nodded. “His first day off for two weeks.”
Sharon hadn’t known that; flounced away.
Later, with Sharon in the store room, Mrs Pickerill said, “She didn’t tell you. Sharon I mean.”
June said, “Tell me?”
“Brett said call him. About now.”
“Here’s his mobile number. Use the office phone.” Mrs Pickerill frowned. “That Sharon!”
In the corridor outside the office June stopped. Looked at the slip of paper, pondered, rolled it into a ball and put it into her pocket. Walked back to the dining room.
By five-thirty the fried leftovers for the staff break were black and unidentifiable. June ate three unsullied tomatoes, drank half a mug of tepid coffee and went into the alleyway for a cigarette. Wearied, leaning against the wall, she was joined by Brett, tall, gilded and perplexed.
“You didn’t call.”
“Did I have to?”
He laughed. “Serves me right. Uppity Oz.”
She liked that. “This morning another foreign male told me I looked ill, didn’t wash.”
“Heck, most Poms look ill to me. Pom hygiene? I’ve learned to live with it. Perhaps I’m just not picky.”
Liked that too.
He added, “You want to eat tonight?”
“Why the delay? Why didn’t you call? I could have booked the Chink place. Stays open late.”
She sighed. “You may not understand.”
“Try me.” His voice softened. “I like you. Mucky hair and all.”
Perhaps he would understand. “I guessed it was a meal. But calling you meant I had to make the decision. I’m starving. But I didn’t want that to be the reason.”
“Me asking you? That made it OK?”
“Oh yeah, very stupid. Any other tests I need to take? I don’t mind. Straight.”