The waitress hadn’t noticed him before, sat in the corner at the back of the dining area. Knowing she had an interest in literature, Frankie mentioned him as he took the food order for a cooked breakfast, about how the man is a writer. She’d not heard of him before, the name didn’t ring a bell.
Mia felt he had a certain look about him, one which drew pity, sat alone by himself. “He rarely enters with a dining partner.” The cook said, “I’m certain he’s in here listening to the conversations of others, as material for his writing.”
Watching him, while waiting for the order to be prepared, she noticed his apparent discomfort. How he played around with the cutlery, constantly re-positioning the knife and fork, making minute adjustments to their placement on the table. By the time he had finished setting out the salt pot, pepper mill, coffee cup and a glass of water, the table resembled a chess board. How he thinks I am going to serve his plate to him without a mishap, I don’t know! Mia thought, I wish he would stop messing around. She found all his fussiness irritating.
Shortly, Frankie returned, whistling as he arrived from the kitchen carrying a plate of food. Handing it over, he nodded in the direction of the writer. “Look Mia,” he said, “it’s not so busy now, sit down and chat with him, he’s a regular, we want to keep our customers happy.” An encouraging smile spread across his handsome face. “Go show him he’s loved.”
“Okay Frankie, whatever you say.”
“And keep your thumb off the side of the plate and out of the beans,” Frankie whispered, “you see he’s particular about presentation.” Mia sank her chin into her neck and arched her eyebrows, balancing the plate elegantly atop her finger tips.
Sat at the table, the writer strokes his beard. He appears restless and proceeds to remove the round-framed spectacles from the bridge of his nose, folding and placing them onto the table. Immediately, he picks them back up and slides them into his shirt pocket. He senses the imminent arrival of breakfast. As is the tradition in the cafe, Mia calls out the order number and right on cue, the writer meekly raises his hand, as if excusing himself from a school classroom. She shows him a brief, half-smile in acknowledgement and walks over, deftly weaving around the chairs and tables. Why did he have to sit right at the back when there are several empty tables, located near the service counter? She wondered.
Mia had got used to men staring and mentally undressing her, while at work. She wouldn’t act upon it, but occasionally, she enjoyed the experience – if she fancied the guy. This man looked old enough to be her father and observed in a lustful way by him, made her feel uncomfortable. The young waitress felt a mild sense of disgust when she noticed his tongue slip out and run across the front of his lips, as she approached. She’d have preferred to wipe down tables, only Frankie had said for her to sit down and make conversation.
“Good morning!” she said, gingerly lowering the plate into place and sitting down in front of the writer. Surprised, the man spluttered something unintelligible and in the confusion knocked over the salt-cellar, spilling most of its contents across the table and onto Mia’s lap. “Oops! It’s alright sir, I’ll clear it up!” Again, she felt his intense stare as she cleaned up the spilt salt and wiped the grains from her hands down the front of her apron.
“I am dreadfully sorry Miss.” His cheeks flushed red. “I am so clumsy, please accept my apologies.” To Mia’s embarrassment, her tummy gave out loud a gurgle. Earlier this morning at home, she’d managed a coffee and a giant-sized maple syrup pancake. Having already completed the breakfast rush and countless circuits inside the cafe, pangs of hunger had started making their presence known.
While the writer’s normal colour had returned, Mia’s cheeks reddened as she took her turn to apologise. “Oh dear! I’m sorry about that.”
“Are you hungry?” He asked.
Yes I am, she thought. “Well, a little, I skipped breakfast today,” she lied, “never a good idea.”
“Look, please, have some of my food, here.” He pushed the plate a few millimetres across the table towards her.
“No, I couldn’t, that’s kind sir, but it’s your breakfast.”
“I insist, try some of my succulent sausage – and the hash browns. They are cooked to perfection and bound to satisfy a rumbling stomach.”
Tempted, Mia stared down the length of a Lincolnshire sausage, which the writer held aloft on a fork. Then, before she could take a bite, the sausage disappeared from view as he dipped it into a neat whirl of sauce, positioned on the side of the plate.
With sauce dripping from one end, the sausage returned level to her mouth. “Go on, eat it, you know you want to.” The writer’s smile twitched nervously, as if his facial expressions were not under his full control. Smiling, Mia decided to take up the offer and took a bite, followed by several more mouthfuls, until she’d eaten all of it.
Feeling guilt about having taken his whole sausage, she felt obliged to continue with some polite conversation. Wiping sauce from around her lips with a thumb, she said “Frankie mentioned you are a writer and a celebrity in this town. Is that right?”
“I’m not sure about the celebrity bit.” He replied, dabbing at a bead of sweat running down his forehead with a paper serviette. “But yes, I am a writer.”
“What sort of stories do you write?” She asked.
“My latest stories form part of a series, based upon obsessive compulsive behaviour.”
“That’s a coincidence,” she tells him, “I have my own story about an OCD episode in my life. Perhaps you’d like to hear it?” His eyes widened as he nodded his head enthusiastically.
“Yes, yes, please tell me.”
“Don’t let the rest of your breakfast go cold.” Mia says, pointing at his plate. “You eat, and I’ll speak.”
As the writer takes a noisy slurp of coffee, Mia begins. “It happened two years ago, not along after I’d arrived here from Sicily. The employment situation back home isn’t good, so having studied English the previous year, along with financial support from my family, I moved here. I found a modest one-bedroom flat to rent and set about looking for suitable employment. I soon discovered it’s not so great for work here either, is it?” Chewing on fried tomato and mushrooms, he held a hand up before his mouth and gave a muffled reply. With an uncertain smile, Mia continued. “Despite the generosity of my family, funds were running out and life had become stressful. My self-confidence drained away and I harboured doubts concerning my original decision to come here.” Swallowing, the writer made sympathetic gestures with his hands and nodded his head to express understanding.
Mia observed how difficult he found maintaining eye-contact. His eyes wandered and she noticed his focus return several times to the area between her neck and the edge of the table separating them. “Finally, I got a job waitressing at a cafe on the north side of the city, run by a Danish man. He was a hard taskmaster, paying little above the minimum wage. All I achieved was to add more stress and exhaustion into my life. At this point, something changed.” Hearing her remark, the writer’s line of sight moved swiftly upwards to her eyes, giving her his full attention.
“One morning, walking to the bus stop, I couldn’t remember turning the bathroom tap off. I recall the sensation, best described as a wave of fear passing through me.” A shiver went through Mia as she hooked a loose strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. “Naturally, fearing the consequences of a tap left running, I felt compelled to return to the flat. Upon reaching the bathroom, I found both taps closed with nothing more than a drip hanging off one of the spouts.” Her hands opened up and she shrugged her shoulders. “Now this will sound stupid to you, but when I reached the end of the street a second time, I wondered if maybe it was the bath tap left running and not the sink. I returned to the flat, to find the bath taps and also the kitchen taps, all safely turned off. With a sense of relief, I set out for work once again.
“Throughout the day, I felt uncomfortable. I wished I had gone back through the each of the rooms, checking all the taps one by one before leaving. By the time my shift ended anxiety had taken hold, as I willed the bus to hurry along on the homeward journey. I actually ran down the street in a panic, back to my flat. Inside, I only calmed down once I’d tried all the taps and made sure they were closed off properly, by tightening each one.”
“And this happened again, the following day?” The writer asked.
“And the day after that and throughout the whole week. It simply continued and got worse.” Mia stared across the table at the half empty salt-cellar, with a look of dejection across her face. “The number of times I had to return and check increased. Frequently, I’d just stepped outside the front door and then had to rush back inside. On other occasions I returned all the way back from work, making up an excuse to the boss.”
“It sounds like your day-to-day life had become very difficult.”
“Oh this was just the beginning. By the end of the same month, I believed I’d left the oven on, the gas rings, lights, heating, windows open, refrigerator door open and the frontdoor unlocked! I had to get up earlier and earlier in the mornings, to account for the time it would take to complete the multiple numbers of checks and return trips.”
“I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you.” The writer said, pausing briefly before placing a forkful of hash browns and baked beans into his mouth.
“It became exhausting and ultimately, I avoided going out unless absolutely necessary.” Mia watched him as he chewed on his food, she had begun to warm to him a little. He’d sat there listening attentively and without judgement. She sensed a caring disposition in the him, which she hadn’t read earlier. First impressions, she thought, be wary, of first impressions. The man sat opposite her, who up to this point had systematically worked around his plate, looked directly into Mia’s eyes.
“You’re okay now?”
“Yes, I am.”
“How did you pull out of the nosedive?”
“Well, I’d become friends with another waitress at the cafe and she’d noticed how things were getting difficult for me. The truth is, the obsessive behaviour had crept into my work.” The cafe door opening for the fifth time in three minutes, momentarily distracting Mia’s attention. A number of customers had arrived, looking to get in and settled before the lunchtime rush. While mostly made up of individual stragglers, a group of several old men gathered around two tables lined up with each other. They chatted about local news, with one man critical of the new shopping centre project, now nearing completion.
“It’s been badly planned, badly designed and Oxford, doesn’t, need it!” He declared.
The writer brought Mia’s attention back to their conversation with a question. “How so?”
“Nothing too serious, re-checking customer’s food orders and change from the till, re-washing clean cutlery. In comparison to home-life, light relief I’d say!”
“How did the waitress help you?”
“She recommended a therapist who made home-visits, which suited my situation perfectly. A friend of hers, she’d told me, had seen him for just three months and from what she knew, he sounded pretty good.”
“So you called him up, how did he fix you?”
“Well, he arrived, a polite man in his forties, quietly confident, tall, bearded and stylishly dressed. We talked, he carefully listened. Both calm and relaxed in his presence, I felt an immediate connection. Unusual don’t you think, when meeting someone for the first time?”
Does she feel a connection with me? The writer wondered. He’d begun constructing a carefully worded question to ask her and find out, when Frankie shouted over. “Okay Topolina, cinque minuti!” Standing at the service counter where a small queue had formed, the cook smiled and raised his hand, fingers splayed wide.
ì, certo Frankie!” Mia replied, turning her head and smiling back at him. “For the first session, I did most of the talking, I told him everything I have told you. He listened attentively, rarely interrupting except when needing clarification. At the end of the hour, he said he understood life felt difficult and assured me we would work this through. When I look back, just him saying this made me feel a little better.”
“So he simply talked you out of the obsessiveness?” The writer asked, unable to conceal a sardonic tone, after ruminating over the earlier question of connection. “Did you talk all about your childhood and upbringing?”
“No, not at all. It surprised me, his approach was entirely practical. We could discuss my childhood for six months he’d said, that this may prove helpful and serve a purpose. Alternatively, we could strategise and act to resolve the immediate malady. Out of our discussions during sessions one and two, he devised and we agreed a plan to implement. Using my phone’s camera in the mornings before leaving for work, I photographed each set of taps, the gas rings, oven controls, windows, doors and light fixtures. Anything I’d ever fretted about. The photos showed everything turned off, or properly closed.” As she spoke, Mia had been pretending to take photographs with an imaginary phone in her hand. She finished by taking a close up photo of the writer’s face.
“How did taking photos help?
“Okay, the act of doing this helped put my mind at ease, the same as running around the flat carrying out a visual check. I noticed the difference shortly after I’d set off to catch a bus. On the first morning waiting at the bus stop, I felt a familiar flutter of uncertainty.” Involuntarily, the writer glanced at the waitress’ shapely chest, where her hand now rested. He could feel his cheeks begin to flush, as they were prone to do. Appearing not to notice, Mia continued with her explanation. “I took out my phone and scrolled through the pictures I’d taken and felt reassured. I continued to do this for the first week, looking at the photos a few times over the course of a day, whenever I needed to.”
“That’s still quite some routine isn’t it? Taking photos every morning all around your flat.”
“It is, you are right. But it bought me an extra hour in bed compared to before and over time, I began not needing to look at the photos during the day. Just knowing they were there on my phone, seemed sufficient. Soon, I felt more normal, like my old self. Calmness returned into my life, I slept better and adopted a healthier diet.”
“And were you keeping up with the counselling sessions?”
“Yes, I did. In the sessions we explored all these new experiences and the counsellor gave me encouragement and praised my progress. By our sixth and agreed final session, I had stopped taking photos each morning. I know this sounds silly, but if I ever felt a sense of anxiety rising, I just looked at the pictures I’d taken before.”
“Do you look at them now, nearly two years on?” The writer asked.
“No. I still have them on my phone. I haven’t seen them for over a year now. We agreed to one more appointment the counsellor and I, about three months after the last session. It served as a ‘catch-up’ session, to see how things were going.”
“Yes, it was. He gave me one last strategy, which has proven to be of value. If I go away, visiting friends or back home to Sicily for a break, I defrost the refrigerator and turn off the gas and electricity at the mains supply. I take a photo of the inside of the meter cupboard, showing the switches in the off position. I do this as an insurance.”
“I see.” said the writer, placing his knife and fork together centrally on his plate. “So you wouldn’t say you are cured, so-to-speak? There remains a risk.”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that.” Mia replied, “You know, everyone has issues. I guess I have learnt how to manage my situation, which lets me lead a pretty normal life.”
They both looked around to see a line of customers queuing from the service counter, out through the front door of the cafe. Frankie standing with both arms held aloft in a desperate gesture.
The waitress shifted the chair backwards and rose from her seat. “I hope you liked my story Mr Writer, every word of it is true – don’t go putting it into one of your stories mind!” She said winking and wagging a finger, as she turned to leave.
“Frankie! Aspettami, arrivo!“