vapid escalation

Located in my usual cafe, I’m sat at a table to the rear of the dining area, feeling hungover, waiting for my English fried breakfast to be served. In this fogged state of mind, I am unable to maintain the necessary chemical synaptic connection between thought and action. With the signals blinking on and off, my eyelids drawn half-down works best for now.

I spend much time in this communal space. This is where I meet people, usually interesting people lacking in pretension – much like the cafe. The layout has remained the same for as long as I can remember. Near the entrance, an L-shaped counter top is where food is ordered, self-collect cutlery, condiments and serviettes are positioned nearby. Broadly aligned in rows, wooden tables and chairs stretch out across the dining area.

It is already late-morning, I am sat stirring a pitch-black expresso, wincing each time the spoon scrapes against the china cup. Peripheral vision speaks to me of an elderly, tweed-suited gentleman sat three tables across from mine. Focal analysis reveals a pressed white shirt, striped tie and scuffed handmade leather shoes, topped by two-toned hooped socks. He swaps between scrutinising the wallpaper ahead of him, looking down into the depths of his tea-cup and casual glances pitched in my direction. Each time he catches my eye, a broad smile forms across his face. Incapable of returning the courtesy, I draw my eyelids up and then let them slide back down in repose. This cycle replays uninterrupted for five minutes or so, until a mistimed declaration is delivered in my direction.

“You know coffee dulls the senses?” I swivel my head around and arch an eyebrow at the man. At the same moment, the young waitress wannabe-occupational health therapist, arrives to the table blocking my view of the man. Ever thoughtful and with a steady hand, Mia lowers the plate down before me. Straining to peer around the waitress, the obscured man leans forward in his chair, removing horn rimmed glasses from a red-veined bulbous nose. Mia’s innate magnetism draws my attention away – upwards directly, whereupon I offer my thanks and ask how she’s keeping, how her studies are progressing.

“I am good thank you Brinkinfield,” she says sounding upbeat, while arranging the condiments neatly in a row, “all good. The sun is out, people are happy. Today is a good day, enjoy your breakfast.”

I’d hoped for more conversation, yet find myself incapable of creative exchange to hold her attention. Mia is busy; she turns around, pausing to clear two tables on her way back to the cafe counter. I am left with the play-through of a frequent mirage in which we embrace each other unclothed, underneath a spectacular alpine waterfall. Fortunately for Mia, I am depicted in the looped scenario shed of several years, my beer belly transformed into a flatteringly contoured and symmetrically ripped abdomen.

“Clarke’s the name and myth-busting’s my game!” says tweed-man, turning my unholy vision to slime. Despite my severely dehydrated and low blood-sugar state, I recognise such an announcement as an invite for enquiry and a desire for conversation.

“Clark you say?” I say, collecting my fork and stabbing at a fried button-mushroom on the plate.

“No… Clarke, with an ‘e’.” His expression suggests the imminent rolling-out of a well-worn explanation.

“Oh, I thought I said that.” I reply, savouring the revitalising taste of protein and fat I’ve forked into my mouth.

“No no, you said ‘Clark’ without the ‘e’. It is not a silent vowel,” he tells me, from within an enveloping cloud of self-satisfaction, “you’ll find it is there for a purpose!” Observing the man take in a deep breath, I brace myself, adding salt and then pepper to my food.

“What, like Clarké?” I ask, turning the head of the pepper grinder back and forth, gently.

“Yes… well, not quite so much emphasis, but that’s near enough.” Clarke says.

I emit a vaguely affirmative, guttural sound in my throat and wave my fork in the air signalling additional positive reinforcement. Bringing the implement down, four shiny prongs puncture sausage skin, sliding through into the seasoned pork, releasing a savoury scent expertly designed to create salivation. Cutting a section free with the cutlery knife, I create a platform to stack some fried egg and beans.

Clarke sits slurping at his tea, watching me eat. When setting the cup back into the saucer, he offers little resistance to the force of gravity. The resulting china-on-china clank and spoon rattle, invokes a frown I am unable to suppress.

He appears disappointed with the dead-endness of our conversation, drumming both sets of fingers in an irregular rhythm onto the table-top. I avoid eye-contact and concentrate hard, willing him to stop. My psychokinesis energy fails, as ever. As I watch him struggle with this state of boredom, a twinge of sympathy surfaces for the old man. Swallowing a mouthful of food, I decide upon the next handful of actions. Taking a sip of water, dabbing nonchalantly at my lips with a paper napkin, I ready myself, straightening out my T-shirt.

“Myth-buster you say?” I ask, causing two grateful sparks of light to ignite and sparkle in Clarke’s eyes.

“Modern-day myth-buster!” he says, interlocking thick fingers together atop his midriff.

“A modern-day myth-buster?” I repeat, my chair creaks in ill-tempered protest as I lean back on two legs.

“Indeed!” Clarke confirms.

The cafe is becoming busy, people spreading themselves onto the lonesome tables first, followed by an apprehensive filling-in of gaps as options fade. I wonder if this might curtail the stranger’s talk.

Not so…

“Here’s one I will share with you, to demonstrate.” Clarke says, bringing a hand to his face as if to whisper me a secret. “Your nose and ears continue to grow in size, as you age.” Clarke’s eyes widen like a child’s, imploring desperate belief.

“Wait a minute, I’ve heard of this one before,” I say hesitantly, “so that’s true is it?” I continue with my breakfast, grateful to experience the gradual re-awakening of self, seeping through mind and body.

“My dear boy, your great-aunt Elspeth’s nose would be as long as an elephant’s trunk were this true!” Clarke draws away a cupped hand from his nose to form an elongated ‘S’ shape in the air.

“But in the Far East, people with over-sized ears are venerated and considered wise, how do you explain that?” I ask, lofting the question up high into the air.

“No no-no, the head shrinks with age, shrivels-up like a raisin, facial muscular atrophy and so on.” Clarke says, stopping my question with skilled abruptness. “The ‘shrunken head effect’ simply alters the apparent scale of protuberances – that’s all! While this remains a scientific fact,” Clarke says, bringing his fist down with emphatic force onto the table, “it is also plain for all to observe.”

Mia glides around the cafe with grace, dinner plates balanced in both hands. I try banishing Clarke’s unpleasant and implanted vision with several shakes of my head. The waitress happens to look my way, eyebrows raised, lips scrunched together in momentary uncertainty. Mia, you’ll never resemble an elephant nor shrunken head type thing to me, I want to cry out.

“Hell’s bells!” I say, voice volume louder than intended, “You’re not serious are you?” Amongst the diners, several necks twist around ninety degrees in my direction. Head down, I look busy and get on with finishing my plate.

“I am serious, serial debunking is what I do.” Clarke says, oblivious to the discomfort of the unwanted attention I am flustering with. After drawing a slow sip of tea from the cup held in his hand, pinkie extended, he looks around the interior of the cafe until his attention rests. He admires Mia leaning over a vacant table, spraying whitened liquid from a bottle in one hand and applying a vigorous wipe-over with the other. Both corners of his mouth twitch in appreciation of her fluidic body movement. I am gripped by the sudden urge to hover in the air above Clarke and grind salt into his offensive eyes.

“Are you absolutely certain of your facts?” I say, hoping to jolt his lecherous gaze away from the waitress.

“Unequivocally, I look you straight in the eye and tell you yes sir.”

“I don’t, believe you.” I tell Clarke, keeping the tension tight, playing him with skill, hopeful he doesn’t steer his line of vision back towards Mia.

With a sense of trepidation, I note the diligent waitress kneeling low to the floor, handling a table leg with a soft chamois. With her slow sweeps up and down the smooth wood, the shiny cleaning liquid becomes absorbed, releasing both colour and grain.

“Are you questioning my integrity?” Clarke says. We have eye contact, albeit via the slope of his condescending nose.

“Look,” I say, nervous impulsivity taking full control, “contrary to popular belief, the engagement of swords or muskets remains a legal method to defend one’s honour. On this basis Clarke, I challenge you, to a duel!”

“That’s not true!” Clarke shouts.

Without a glove to remove, I throw a handful of snow-white paper serviettes towards Clarke’s face. With three table’s distance to cover each one fails to hit the target, separating in mid-air and floating harmlessly to the floor.

His expression is frozen somewhere between disbelief and disdain. He is staring at me, a thin strand of tea-stained saliva drools out from one side of his mouth.

“W-ell,” he says, after a few minutes have ticked themselves off into oblivion, “that escalated rapidly!”

the waitress part 1

Looking at how I set out my table when in a cafe, I will concede to the casual observer something evident to uggest behaviour akin to OCD. I rationalise this, by telling myself the layout is practical, logical, of good composition – easy on the eye and serving a good purpose in terms of energy efficiency. 
By design, I also see it as cooperative. The waitress can glide my plate down in a gentle descent, sliding it gracefully into the landing area between the neatly laid out cutlery. She has no obstructions to manoeuvre around or over. Bottles of sauce, salt and pepper, a glass of water, a coffee cup and saucer are distributed evenly in order of height, on both forward flanks of the table. At this stage, anticipating her approach, the paper serviette is already opened up and resting across my lap, ensuring the minimisation of unhelpful distractions within the busy environment of a dining area.
It seems to work, with no incidents recorded. I have yet to experience an upturned plate of food on my knees and so far, no coffee has been spilt. In point of fact, the waitress executes delivery to practised perfection. I frequent an Italian-run, traditional cafe where the many variations of a fry-up breakfast dominate the brightly coloured laminated menu. Mercifully for me, with reference to my chronic shyness, food orders are taken at the counter rather than at the table. Naturally, I still have to speak, but at least not under the imagined spotlight of table-service. I wait at the counter for my coffee and I collect my own cutlery and condiments, before finding a table as far away as is possible from anyone present.
Mia, the waitress at Angelo’s Cafe, likes the colour black. Her hair, tied up in an immaculate bun on her head is a natural, dark shade of black. She usually wears a long-sleeved, black cotton top with matching colour leggings and high top trainers with a white trim. She is slight of frame and possessing a refreshingly cheerful demeanour. I noticed her eighteen weeks ago, just as summer had started and the days were beginning to feel warmer.
As chance would have it, Mia often brought my food order over to me. It didn’t take her long to notice my table top layout, given away by just a hint of a smile as she approached. Over all this time, she’d never actually made mention of it and yet, I detected a light-humoured element of theatrical plate placement creep in, as she became familiar with my arrangement.
Today, Mia went further.
I have a tendency to watch her thumb as my food approaches, I can’t help myself. Subconsciously, I’m making sure the thumb doesn’t stray into the scrambled egg or baked beans – which if it were to, would make consumption impossible. I tend to become somewhat transfixed, with only sparing glances darting here and there around the table, checking everything is prepared and in its place. On this day, the plate swooped in and settled slightly off dead-centre between the cutlery.
As my eyes rested upon a decently produced breakfast, my peripheral vision gave information suggesting Mia had sat herself down in front of me. This was a first. I looked up, she had leant forward slightly in her chair, an elbow resting on the table and her perfectly understated chin resting in the delicate palm of her hand. Mia had cocked her head slightly to the left, her large brown eyes staring into my own. With eyebrows raised slightly, a red lipstick smile widened pleasingly, showing-off a suggestion of perfectly shaped white teeth.
My attempt to reciprocate resulted in a smile twitching unconvincingly at both ends. In a self-conscious manner, I flattened out the paper serviette across my knees. Quickly, I abandoned the action, fearing this could be construed as fiddling with my trousers. Meanwhile, Mia rested her head to the other side, bringing her other hand up and out across the table. I have no idea where she thought she was going with it, but before I could unravel the mystery, she’d knocked over the small, plastic topped, glass salt pot. As a result, I’d estimate several thousand grains of salt spilled out across the table.
“Oops!” She said, grimacing, “I’m so sorry, I’ll clear it up.” Drawing the side of her hand across surface, she began ushering the spillage towards the table edge. Although startled and confused by the antics, I knew in my heart she’d be unable to clear away the mess entirely.
“It’s okay,” I blurted out, “please don’t worry, it’s only some salt.” Mia ignored my intervention and continued with what she’d started, her other hand cupped ready to catch the wasted salt. What had started off as a miniature, snake shaped sand dune, soon became dispersed over a much wider area. “Honestly, please, it’s alright.” In a nervous reaction, I lifted up the paper serviette to my chin, only to realise I’d scrunched it into a tight ball while the drama had been unfolding.
“It was an accident, I’m sorry – I understand how particular and tidy you are. I’d noticed your fork needed straightening, I’d knocked it slightly when I brought down the plate, I hope I haven’t spoilt your meal.”
Had she done this on purpose I wondered to myself, was she getting a kick out of this? I scanned her expression trying to decipher a clue to indicate self-satisfaction, but found none. Mia ceased with the clear up and rubbed her palms together to remove the salt, casting the grains into a free-fall descent towards the checkered, vinyl tiled floor. With an apologetic look upon her face, she finished off by slowly rubbing her hands backwards and forwards across the tops of her thighs.
I twitched a smile and blinked a few times, forcibly trying to remove a muscular tic I could feel in spasm underneath my left eye.
“Would you mind?” Mia said, picking up the fork and twiddling it between her fingers before resting on a gentle grip midway along the stem of the implement. “I missed breakfast,” she whispered, “and I’m starving.” Without waiting for an acknowledgement she plunged the shiny fork into the succulent, perfectly formed Cumberland sausage, which had been neatly nestled between two hash browns on the plate. Establishing a firm hold, Mia rotated the sausage around slowly by use of her nimble fingers, before deftly dipping one end into a small pool of tomato juice, which had drained away from the main cluster of baked beans.
Elevating her quarry up to mouth-level, she proceeded to blow short, cooling breaths through her pursed, red lips onto the very tip of the sausage. Although cross-eyed at this particular moment, I couldn’t help but notice how sweet and angelic she appeared. Taking a delicate bite, Mia closed her eyes, let her head fall back ever-so slightly and chewed, while making sounds to indicate a mild sense of gratification.
Soon, she was ready for another mouthful, followed by another and another, until her lips pressed against the steel prongs of the vertically held fork.
“Do you want some?” A pointing hand gesture gave emphasis to her query. I dabbed at a bead of sweat tracing a line down my forehead using what had once been a paper serviette. Now melded with the sweat from my palm, it felt as hard as a golf ball.
The initial word of my reply emitted as a squeak, but after a short struggle, I succeeded in wrestling the intonation downwards in pitch for part of the second word.
“Yes… pl-ease.”. Without further ado, Mia proceeded to pick up the cutlery knife and cut a section of sausage off. This was then repositioned onto the fork, before squashing some hash brown and baked beans on for good measure. Her elbow and forearm swivelled into position and the prize presentation hovered temptingly before my mouth.
“Eat it!” she said, raising her eyebrows at me. Leaning towards her, I opened my mouth. Teasingly, she pulled away twice. On the third approach, I felt a warmth spread across my tongue and a taste I had been yearning for. She smiled and after a few seconds of delay, withdrew the fork from my mouth, returning it to the plate.
“You’ve shared your food with me, now I want to share a story with you.” Mia said, folding her arms.
“Really?” I said, politely holding my hand up in front of my mouth as I chewed on the food, savouring the flavour of the herbs in the sausage meat. My eyes moved between the plate of food and Mia’s face. Honestly, I really wanted to eat rather than listen to a story. As I looked once again at my partially consumed breakfast, a brief telepathic connection occurred.
“It’s okay Mr. Brinkinfield,” Mia said, “you can keep on eating, just listen with your ears.” With a sense of relief sweeping down from my head to my toes I eagerly collected the cutlery into each hand and began cutting the food into neat, modest-sized chunks suitable for ingestion.
“I believe you are a Writer, I have heard your name mentioned around this town a few times and have come to recognise you.” Mia continued. “And, I know you write short stories.”
“And flash fiction – and poetry, or free-verse.” I interrupted, just before depositing another mishmash of sausage, mushrooms and baked beans into my mouth.
“Yes, that too.” She said, with just a hint of a dismissive tone in her voice. “But I read some of your ‘OCD Stories’ recently. These interest me in particular, because you come across as rather OCD yourself, if you don’t mind me saying.” Still with a mouthful of food, I shrugged my shoulders a little, to indicate I didn’t mind her saying this and nodded my head to suggest agreement with her diagnosis.
“Well, me too. I am affected by Obsessive, Compulsive Disorder. Although I reject the term disorder, as I don’t recognise anything disorderly about the condition – it’s quite the reverse, don’t you think?” I could see her point.
“I see your point.” I told her, before bringing the gradually cooling cup of cappuccino to my lips to take a sip. My mind wandered for a few moments as I contemplated how well coffee mixes with both sweet and savoury flavours.
“So, Miss.” I said hesitantly, bringing the cup down harder onto the saucer than I had intended.
“Mia.”
“Miss Mia.”
No, I mean you can call me Mia.”
“Right,” I said, reading mild exasperation in her tone, “Mia, how does compulsive obsessive behaviour affect you?”
to be continued…