The waitress is about my age, but she looks older. She’s wearing orthopaedic shoes and a black frilled pinny. Her skin has the orangey hue of cheap tanning lotion, not improved by the muddy efforts at contouring and the doe-like fringes of fake eyelash. She looks tired, as though the effort of blinking those lashes is almost too much.
I scan the laminated menu. This is a cheap café – more of a greasy spoon, really – but my high-heeled boots are pinching my toes and I couldn’t face walking further in search of a more stylish venue. I’m on that intermittent fasting diet, so I’m not allowed any calories until 2 pm. It’s 11.45. I stay focussed on ‘hot beverages’ and ignore the list of teacakes, the descriptions of all-day-breakfasts and the lunch specials. The aroma of bacon frying somewhere in the back brings a flood of saliva to my mouth.
‘What can I get you, love?’ She leans her hip against the edge of my table, nudging the plastic tablecloth into a small pucker.
‘A cup of tea, please.’
‘Milk and sugar?’
‘Black, with a slice of lemon – if you have it.’
She blinks slowly, writing on her pad. ‘Anything else?’
I shake my head and my new curls bounce around my ears. I always get my hair coloured and styled in early December so I can look my best for Christmas.
She casts a languid eye over my shopping bags. Stacked on the vinyl banquette beside me is the vivid orange of Hermès, the brown and gold packaging of Louis Vuitton, and the tell-tale turquoise of Tiffany’s. I find myself blushing. What am I doing in this tatty little workmen’s caff? I should be sipping Earl Grey in the restaurant of one of the big department stores. I curse the Christmas crowds, the crush of which had sent me teetering down an empty side street and into this cramped little place with condensation running down the windowpanes.
‘Done all your Christmas shopping?’ She arches a heavily pencilled eyebrow at the evidence on the banqette. ‘Nice gifts. Very nice.’
I titter, waving a casual hand at the bags. ‘God, I hate Christmas shopping. I try to get it over with in a day.’
Her eyes rest on the Louis Vuitton shopping bag. It’s the biggest of the three, containing a heavy, beribboned carboard box in which a creamy felt pouch is nestled and inside that, wrapped in tissue paper, the metallic silver wallet they’ve brought out for this season. It’s a big parcel for such a small item.
‘My daughter loves Louis Vuitton.’ She pronounces it futon. ‘She’s got a handbag – it’s only fake of course, but she uses it all the time. I walk past the shop early in the mornings on my way to work and there’s always a long line of people waiting to get in. It’s miles long at Christmas, so you’ve done well.’
‘Thanks,’ I say, uncertainly. I hadn’t waited in the queue which snaked down the street and around the corner. I ordered the wallet weeks ago online, so I’d shown the doorman my email confirming that it was ready for collection, and gone in. And the wallet isn’t even a gift, it’s for me. I’ve bought a silk tie from Hermès for my husband – he loves their witty little animal designs – and, from Tiffany’s, the iconic heart necklace for my daughter. Easy decisions, speedy purchases.
‘How old is your daughter?’ I ask, because I sense she’d like me to.
She smiles. ‘Twenty-three.’
‘So’s mine – well, she’s nearly twenty-four. Her birthday’s in January.’
She’s still looking at my shopping bags and I realise that my hand is resting proprietorially on the Louis Vuitton parcel. I move it to the tablecloth which has the tacky feel of certain shiny plastics.
‘Lovely colour.’ She indicates my manicure. ‘Very Christmassy. Is it gel?’ Without waiting for a reply, she displays her own nails, drumming them against the laminated menu. They are long and pointy and the colour of prune juice. ‘You have to have gels in this job. Nail varnish chips off in five minutes.’
A weekly manicure ensures my nails are never chipped. I don’t have gel; it ruins them. Usually, I go for a French, but she’s guessed correctly – in honour of Christmas, I’ve chosen Santa Claus red.
‘I’ll get your tea,’ she says at last, turning away. From behind, her dark roots are visible underneath the blonde ponytail.
A small man in a long brown apron emerges from the kitchen. He plonks a metal tray on the counter and wipes his arm across his forehead. On the tray is a stainless steel teapot and a white cup made of that thick institutional porcelain you get in hospitals.
‘She wants lemon,’ I hear the waitress murmur. ‘We got any lemon?’
‘Yeah,’ he says irritably, ‘for the scampi and chips.’
She waits at the counter while he fetches the lemon, returning with a single slice on a saucer. He stomps back into the kitchen, and I hear the sizzle of hot fat. I wonder who he’s making the bacon for. The sides of my jaw prickle as my salivary glands activate.
‘There you go, love.’ She sets the tray down in front of me and I see, with a pang, that there’s a tiny mince pie, no more than a mouthful, on the saucer at the base of the teacup.
‘It’s Christmas,’ she says. ‘The rest of the year we give our customers a little biscuit. If you don’t like fruit mince – some people hate it – I can get you the biscuit instead.’
But I’ve popped it into my mouth and am already chewing. It’s factory-made, bulk bought, yet I’m so hungry that I appreciate every crumb. And now I’ve broken my fast, I might as well have milk with my tea, but I feel too guilty to ask for it since she did in fact remember the lemon. I squeeze the desiccated little slice into the hot liquid and take an acrid sip. My teeth feel chalky from the tannins.
‘It must be expensive,’ I blurt, ‘handing out free mince pies with every cup of tea.’
‘And every cup of coffee.’ She nods and her ponytail brushes the nape of her neck. ‘But we’re giving our customers that little bit extra. It’s been hard, what with Covid. It’ll be a lean Christmas for a lot of people this year.’ Her eyes glide towards my shopping bags, and I feel my cheeks grow hot. I take a sip of tea which catches in my throat, making me cough.
‘Have you finished your Christmas shopping?’ I ask, because I can’t think of anything else to say. ‘It must be very convenient, being so close to all the shops.’
She doesn’t look at me as though I must be mad to suggest that she can afford to shop at the luxury retail brands in the streets around here, she jerks her head in the direction of the kitchen. ‘Him and me and our daughter, we’re not doing the normal Christmas this year. These are not normal times, so this Christmas day we’re serving meals in a homeless shelter.’ She laughs at my expression. ‘I know – like we don’t spend enough time on our feet serving people here. But it seems like the right thing to do, to give something back.’ She grimaces. ‘I don’t like turkey anyway and my daughter’s a vegetarian, so…’ She doesn’t finish the sentence but raises her shoulders in a half-shrug.
I am mesmerised by her improbably long lashes. One has become detached and is clinging, like a tiny black tear, to her cheek.
I pick up the menu and run my glossy red nail down it. ‘Actually, I think I will have something else. What do you recommend?’
‘The lasagne and chips is popular,’ she says, ‘although it’s not really lunchtime…’
‘I’ll have The Full English breakfast. The smell of that bacon is irresistible.’
‘He does do a good Full English.’ She seems relieved that I don’t ask any more about the cuisine and clicks out the nib out of her ballpoint pen. ‘Fried, poached or scrambled?’
‘White, brown or wholewheat toast.’
‘Oh, go on then – white.’
She grins. ‘Mushrooms or beans?’
‘Both,’ I say. ‘I’ll pay the supplement. And I’ll have another tea – with milk.’
Philippa Hall is co-editor of Funny Pearls.