I was very busy in the morning today. You see, I am going away in just nine days. Two long, hot, and tropical weeks await my arrival and I can honestly say that I have earned them! However, before I can finally put on my out-of-fashion sandals and that horrendous Hawaiian shirt for which I can only escape punishment during hot summers like this one, I have to get everything ready for my well-earned holiday.
Yes, those few days before departure can be quite exhausting as there are so many things to sort out first. Well, today was one of those days. Understandably, therefore, it would be best if I had the old, London-style lunch break at the local cafeteria. I was just walking down the street, where on the other side of the road I saw one of the cafeterias, squeezed in between two large shops like a jigsaw piece that wouldn’t fit, but you managed to hammer in anyway.
Oh yes; its nutmeg interior with classy, modern pictures on the walls, dimmed lighting and furniture that looked like it was made for royalty was the perfect environment for a nice cup of coffee and a snack that would please even a Polish man’s stomach. There couldn’t be a more welcoming place if you looked for it.
Being a typical Londoner, I knew I would be a fool not to succumb to the temptation of the chocolate-sprinkled cappuccino and a little something to satisfy my sweet tooth; so, naturally, I soon found myself scanning all the different kinds of guilty pleasures which made you appear to be in a second childhood. The ‘bon-appétit’ croissants; the muffins, squeezed deceptively into paper corsets; cakes and tarts obese with syrup and caramel; chocolate-chip biscuits that seemed to melt before you even had them in your mouth... and so on. Basically, a Sodom and Gomorrah of desserts!
Just as I was about to be wooed by one of the flirtatious tarts, I noticed another little dessert that sat humbly in the corner and did not draw attention to itself. A cherry pie. After a brief moment of examination it became clear why it was in a place where you couldn’t notice it straight away. The pie was the colour of too many egg yolks and not enough flour. The cherries looked like their fruitiness was murderously choked out of them and the top of the pie was graciously pampered with powder sugar, like a girl in her early teens who just won the right for putting on makeup and then ended up looking like Marilyn Manson.
I guess my facial expression told the story as I suddenly heard a woman’s voice saying, “I don’t think you’ll be having that one, will you?”
I looked up. It was one of the cafeteria workers; a girl in her late teens, around the same age as me. I figured she was looking for a laugh by asking that question, so I responded with the first thing that came to my mind, “Looking at this particular dessert, I think it would be very selfish of me to eat it.”
“How so?” she asked.
“Well, for one, it would give me instant food poisoning and secondly, I’m guessing whoever made it would have to be looking for another job.” I replied, confident that my little joke would impress the cafeteria girl. I should mention that I sometimes tend to get a little cocky.
The girl frowned and smiled gently. She took a slice of the pie, put it on the plate and said, “Well, I guess you’re going to have to help me look for one.”
You can imagine how I felt as I was standing there and taking the plate from her hands. My ears were literally steaming as I was desperately looking for something to say to get myself out of that situation. She didn’t help either. She was completely silent. Her gaze felt like having a gun aimed at you from point-blank range.
Desperate, I only managed to get a few words out of me, “Wh... wha... what qualifications do you have?”
I thought at this moment that she was going to pull the trigger, but to my surprise and relief she burst out laughing. Everyone in the cafeteria looked over, but her laugh was infectious, so I started laughing as well. That was actually a wonderful moment. We just kept laughing uncontrollably, trying our best not to look like two mentally challenged friends. I felt like a complete idiot, but it felt good. I guess by saying such a retarded thing, I somehow actually came out looking normal.
Once we managed to settle down, she asked me whether I’d like anything to drink with that slice of cherry pie. I said I’d like a medium cappuccino.
“Chocolate on top?” she asked.
“Ok, go and sit down and I’ll bring you the coffee.”
“Right. Thanks,” I said and headed for one of the tables from where I could see her.
I put the plate on the table and sat down. The table was for two people, so I pushed the other chair slightly away when the girl wasn’t looking, hoping she would sit down once she’d brought me the coffee.
I watched her as she was preparing the cappuccino for me. A gentle smile still accented her lips. Her hair was tied back in a messy ponytail, and there was definitely something wrong with her apron. Even her shirt looked like a scrunched up piece of paper. With all the customers, she was a mess, but she was beautiful. Not like one of those glamour models, without sounding too shallow. No, she was beautiful because she was real. I saw her. I talked to her. I looked like an idiot in front of her. I even laughed with her. That was the most real experience I’ve had in a long time.
I watched her getting distracted by a woman who'd just come in to the cafeteria with her children. She indicated to me that she’d only take a minute. I raised my hand to let her know it was OK. I really didn’t mind waiting.
She took her order and made a series of complex equations on the cash machine. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, being a young person myself, but I had never seen a girl her age so dedicated to a job. She pointed the woman to a table where the lady and her children could sit down. Just before they went, she gave the children the warmest smile and left them some colouring books and crayons. The lady thanked her and quickly went to the table. I watched the girl finish making my cappuccino and just as she picked it up to bring it over I quickly opened my newspaper and pretended to read it.
“Here you go,” she said as she put the cup on the table. She gave my newspaper a strange look. It was upside-down.
“Oh thank you,” I quickly put the newspaper down as if there was nothing to it.
I noticed her glance at the chair that was discretely beckoning for occupancy. I didn't dare look at it.
“Enjoy your pie.” she said.
“I’m sure I will; thanks.”
To my disappointment, she didn’t sit down, but went back to work. Of course... she was very busy during lunch hours and there wasn’t another worker to take over for a while. I smiled and decided not to be disappointed too much. Instead, I was determined to enjoy that slice of cherry pie, which now looked strangely attractive.
Just as I was leaving, after I finished my lunch, I walked over to say, “Thank you for that delicious piece of cherry pie.”
“Liar!” she said and giggled.
I smiled, and after a moment’s pause I said, “Listen... I know you’re probably very busy during the week, but would you like to go somewhere on Saturday?”
“Sure, but Sunday would be better for me,” she replied.
As she wrote her number on a napkin, she asked, “Where should we go?”
I thought for a moment and said, “Probably a bakery class.”
She laughed and hit me gently with her tea-towel. I looked at the napkin she gave me.
“Louise? Nice name,” I said and put the napkin in my pocket.
“Thank you and may I ask who will be taking me to the bakery class?”
We smiled at each other and I left. I’ve never enjoyed a lunch break as much as I enjoyed it today. In fact, I would have eaten the whole of Louise’s cherry pie just to stay there a little longer, but then I really would have to help her find a new job...
Nathan Bednarek 2009.