KAREN CHASE

 

     “What the hell do you call that?”

     I looked at him for a second. Trick question? What did he expect me to say?

     “I call it what you ordered,” I answered. “Full English breakfast: bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, mushrooms, hash browns and baked beans.”

     “Doesn’t look like the picture in the menu.”

     He opened the menu up, laid it out flat on the table in front of him and jabbed his finger angrily at the photograph at the bottom of the breakfast section.

     “I know, but that’s only a representation,” I tried to explain.

     “But nothing,” he interrupted. “I appreciate that there will inevitably be differences between a photograph and the actual meal, but what you’ve brought to me here bears very little resemblance to the food I ordered. The bacon’s undercooked, the sausage overcooked. The mushrooms are cold, the scrambled egg is lumpy. Do I need to go on?”

     “So do you want me to...” I began.

     “That was what I ordered,” he sighed, tapping the photograph with his finger again, “and that is what I expect to be served. Now you be a good girl and run along back to your kitchen and try again.”

     A genuine complaint I can deal with, but I have a real problem when people try and patronise me. I was so angry that I couldn’t move. It was one of those second-long moments which seemed to drag on forever. Did I try and argue with this pathetic little man, did I tell him what he could do with his bloody breakfast, or did I just swallow my pride, pick up the plate again and take it back to the kitchen? Much as I wanted to go for either one of the first two options, common-sense and nerves got the better of me. I picked up the plate and stormed back to the kitchen.

     “Bloody man,” I snapped as I pushed through the swinging door and dropped the plate down on the work surface. In the kitchen Jamie and Keith, the ‘chefs’, stopped playing football with the remains of a lettuce and stood and looked at me.

     “Who’s rattled your cage?” Jamie asked.

     “Fucking idiot outside. Wants his breakfast to look exactly the same as the picture in the menu.”

     “Tell him to fuck off and get a life,” Keith sighed as he kicked the lettuce out through the back door. I stood and stared at the pair of them, waiting for either one of them to move.

     “What do you expect me to do about it?” mumbled Jamie.

     “Make another bloody breakfast,” I answered, “you’re the cook, aren’t you?”

     Jamie just looked at me with his mouth hanging open as if I’d just asked him to prepare forty meals in four minutes. All I was asking him to do was his job. It was what he was being paid for, for God’s sake. If he’d done it right first time he wouldn’t have to do it again now.

     “For fuck’s sake,” he complained. He studied the faded photograph on a copy of the menu stuck to the wall and took a clean plate from the cupboard. Then he took the food from the original plate, rearranged it on the clean one, added another sausage and some bacon, warmed it up in the microwave, and slid it across the work surface towards me.

     “You expect me to take this out to him?”

     “Yes,” he grunted. “Looks more like it does on the menu now, doesn’t it?”

     Keith started to snigger from behind a newspaper.

     Knowing there was no point in arguing with either of the chimps I was working with, I picked up the plate and turned back around. I stood behind the doors for a couple of seconds to compose myself and looked out through the small porthole windows into the restaurant. I could see my nightmare customer sitting at his table, looking at his watch and tapping his fingers on the table impatiently, and I knew that whatever I did he was going to give me a hard time when I went back out to him. If I went back too quickly he’d accuse me of not having had time to prepare his food properly. If I kept him waiting too long he’d be just as incensed... I waited a few seconds longer.

     They might have paid my wages, but customers were the bane of my life. We got all sorts of passing trade at the restaurant, and I tended to get a couple of customers like this one each week. They were usually travelling sales reps who were stopping in the motel just up the bypass. As a rule they were all badly dressed, loud, rude and ignorant. Maybe that was why they did the job they did and spent their time travelling around the country? Perhaps their wives (if anyone was stupid enough to marry them) had kicked them out? Maybe their relationships only survived because they spent so much time apart?

     I pushed myself back out through the door and stood cringing next to the customer’s table.

     “That’s better,” he said to my surprise as I put the plate of food down in front of him. I quickly began to walk away.

     “You’re welcome, you wanker,” I muttered under my breath.

     “Just a minute, girl,” the customer shouted before I’d even reached the kitchen door. The three other customers in the restaurant looked up and watched me walk back to the table.

     “Yes, Sir?” I answered through gritted teeth, doing my damnedest to remain calm and polite and not empty his coffee into his lap.

     “This is barely cooked,” he complained, skewering a sausage on his fork. He sniffed it, then dropped it back onto his plate in disgust, sending little balls of dried-up scrambled egg shooting across the table.

     “Is it really?” I asked with obvious sarcasm and mock concern in my voice.

     “Yes, it is,” he snapped. “Now you listen to me, missy, you scuttle back over to your little kitchen right now and fetch me a fresh and properly cooked breakfast. And while you’re there, send the manager out to see me. This really isn’t good enough.”

     There may well have been some justification to his complaint, but the tone of his voice and the way he spoke to me was completely out of order. I wasn’t paid enough to be patronised and belittled. It wasn’t my fault that-

     “Are you going to stand there looking stupid all day,” he sneered, “or are you going to go somewhere else and look stupid instead?”

     That was it. The customer is always right, they say, but there are limits. Here at the Monkton View Eater, it seemed, the customer was always an asshole.

     “Look, I’m sorry if the food isn’t up to the standard you were expecting,” I began, somehow managing to still sound calm, even if I didn’t feel it, “I’ll get that sorted out. But there’s no need to be rude. I’ll go and get you the-”

     “Listen,” he said, the slow and tired tone of his voice indicating that it was a real effort for him to have to lower himself to speak to me, “I’m really not interested in anything more you have to say. Be a good girl and fetch me my food. You are a waitress. You are here to serve me. And if I want to be rude to you then I’ll be as rude as I fucking well please. You’re paid to take it.”

     “No, you listen,” I began to pointlessly protest, “I’m not-”

     “Get the manager,” he interrupted with a tone of infuriating superiority and a dismissive wave of his hand. “I don’t need to speak to you any longer.”

     It was another one of those moments which seemed to last forever. I was suddenly so full of anger and contempt that, once again, I was too wound up to move. Compounding my awkwardness was the fact that all of the other customers had also stopped eating and were waiting to see what I’d do next. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw the Neanderthals in the kitchen peering out through the portholes at me, grinning like the idiots I knew they were.

     “Well?” the customer sighed.

     I turned and walked, pushing my way through the swinging doors to the kitchen, sending Jamie flying.

     “Where’s Trevor?”

     “Fag break,” Keith replied.

     I stormed out through the back door to where Trevor, our so-called manager, was standing smoking a cigarette. He was leaning up the rubbish bins, reading Keith’s newspaper.

     “Trevor,” I began.

     “What?” he grunted, annoyed that I’d interrupted him.

     “I’ve got a problem with a customer. He says he wants to speak to the manager.”

     “Tell him you’re the manager.”

     “Why should I?”

     He shrugged his shoulders.

     “Tell him I’ve gone out to a meeting.”

     “No.”

     “Tell him I’ve got Health and Safety coming in to check the place over.”

     “No.”

     “For Christ’s sake,” he groaned, finally lifting his head from the paper, “just deal with it will you. What the hell do I pay you for? Dealing with customers is your responsibility.”

     “And looking after staff is yours.”

     “Oh give it a rest.”

     “He swore at me! I’m not prepared to speak to a customer who’s going to swear at me. Do you know how bloody insulting he was when-”

     “Now you’re swearing at me. You can’t have it both ways, love!”

     That was it. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I ripped off the bloody stupid pinafore they made me wear and threw it at Trevor, along with my order pad.

     “I’ve had enough! Stick your bloody job!”

     I couldn’t afford to do what I was doing, but at the same time I couldn’t put myself through it any longer. It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, and I knew if I stayed in the job it wouldn’t be the last. I grabbed my coat from the kitchen, then marched out through the restaurant.

     “Is the manager on his way?” the odious customer asked at the top of his voice as I stormed past. I stopped and turned around to face him. His food couldn’t have been too bad because he’d managed to eat half of it.

     “No he isn’t,” I answered. “The manager can’t be bothered to come and speak to you, and I can’t be bothered wasting my time dealing with pathetic little fuckers like you either. You can stick your meal and your attitude and your complaint up your arse, and I hope you fucking choke on your food!”

     And he did.

     Still chewing a mouthful of breakfast, the sickening, smug grin of superiority which had been plastered across the idiot customer’s face as he watched me ranting at him suddenly disappeared. He stopped eating. His eyes were wide and the veins in his neck began to bulge. He spat out his food.

     “Water,” he croaked, clawing at his neck, “get me water...”

     A noise from behind made me turn around. The other customers in the far corner of the restaurant were choking too. A middle-aged couple were both in as bad a state as the little shit who’d caused me so much trouble this morning. I turned back to look at him again. He looked like he was suffocating. As much as I’d wished all kinds of suffering on him a couple of minutes earlier, now I just wanted his pain to stop. I ran back to the kitchen.

     “Call an ambulance,” I yelled. “There’s a customer who...”

     I stopped speaking when I saw Jamie on his knees, coughing up blood on the floor in the corner of the kitchen. Keith was  on his back in the storeroom, rolling around in agony like the others. Trevor had lost consciousness, his fat body lying half-in and half-out of the back door.

     By the time I’d picked up the phone to call for an ambulance everyone in the restaurant was dead.