Karen Chase hasn’t had it easy. A few bad choices and unlucky breaks and now she’s hit rock-bottom. She’s single, broke, and is working the early morning shift at a run-down roadside service station just to eat and pay her rent. It wouldn’t take much to push Karen over the edge and, this morning, one awkward sod of a customer seems intent on doing just that. He knows exactly which buttons to press…
‘What the hell do you call that?’
I looked at him for a second. Was that a trick question? ‘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 top of the breakfast section.
‘I know, but that’s only a representation,’ I tried to explain.
‘Not good enough,’ he interrupted. ‘I appreciate there will inevitably be differences between a photograph and the actual meal, but what you’ve served up 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—’
‘That was what I ordered,’ he sighed, cutting across me 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 with being patronised. I was so angry I couldn’t move. It was one of those second-long moments which felt like it dragged 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 and take it back to the kitchen? Much as I wanted to take either 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 shouted as I pushed through the swinging door and threw the plate onto the work surface. Jamie and Keith, the so-called chefs, were playing football with a lettuce. They both just 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 said as he kicked the lettuce out the back door. I stared at the pair of them, waiting for either one of them to move.
‘What do you expect me to do about it?’ said Jamie.
‘Make another bloody breakfast,’ I told him. ‘You’re the cook, aren’t you?’
It was as if I’d asked him to prepare forty meals in four minutes. All I wanted was for him to do his job, what he was being paid for. If he’d done it right first time he wouldn’t have had to do it again.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ he said. He studied the faded photograph on a copy of the menu stuck to the wall, then took the food from the original plate, rearranged it on a clean one, added another sausage and another rasher of bacon, warmed it up in the microwave, then slid it across the work surface towards me.
‘And 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. There was no point arguing with either of the chimps I was working with, so I picked up the plate. I stood behind the doors for a couple of seconds to compose myself and looked into the restaurant through the small porthole window. I could see my nightmare customer looking at his watch and tapping his fingers on the table impatiently, and I knew that whatever I did wasn’t going to be good enough. 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 he’d be even more annoyed . . . I gave it a few seconds longer, took a deep breath, then went back out.
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 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? 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 put down the plate, then waited next to his table, cringing. ‘That’s better,’ he said, taking me by surprise. I quickly walked away.
‘You’re welcome, wanker,’ I said under my breath.
‘Just a minute, girl,’ he shouted at me before I’d even reached the kitchen door. The other customers all looked up and watched me walk back to his table.
‘Yes, Sir?’ I answered through gritted teeth, doing my damnedest to stay calm and not empty his coffee into his lap.
‘This is virtually raw,’ he said, skewering his extra sausage. 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 said, and the sarcasm and mock concern in my voice was obvious.
‘Yes, it is,’ he shouted. ‘Now you listen to me, missy. You scuttle back 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.’
His complaint may well have been justified, but 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.
‘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, his tired tone making it clear it was a real effort 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 and the manager. 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 pointlessly protested. ‘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 so full of anger that, again, I was too wound up to move. Compounding my awkwardness was the fact that all the other customers had also stopped eating and were waiting to see what I’d do next. I looked back over my shoulder and saw the Neanderthals in the kitchen peering out through the portholes, grinning like idiots.
‘Well?’ my shit of a customer sighed. I turned and walked, pushing my way through the swinging doors, knocking Jamie flying.
‘Fag break,’ Keith replied.
I stormed out through the back door to where Trevor, the manager, was smoking a cigarette. He was leaning up the rubbish bins, reading Keith’s newspaper.
‘What?’ he grunted, annoyed that he’d been interrupted.
‘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 to a meeting.’
‘Tell him I’ve got Health and Safety coming in to check the place over.’
‘For Christ’s sake,’ he groaned, finally looking up 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 and pen.
‘I’ve had enough! Stick your bloody job!’
I couldn’t afford to do what I was doing, but I couldn’t take any more abuse. It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, and I knew 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 shouted at the top of his voice as I stormed past. I couldn’t help myself. I turned back and walked towards him. His food couldn’t have been too bad because he’d managed to eat half of it.
‘No he isn’t on his way,’ I told him. ‘The manager can’t be bothered to come and speak to you, and I can’t be bothered to waste 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 smug grin of superiority which had been plastered across his face slowly disappeared. He stopped eating. His eyes became wide and the veins in his neck began to bulge. He spat out his food.
‘Water,’ he croaked, clawing at his neck, ‘get me some water . . .’
A noise from behind made me turn around. Two 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. 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 it to stop. I ran back to the kitchen to get his water.
‘Call an ambulance,’ I yelled to anyone who was listening. ‘There’s a customer who . . .’
I stopped when I saw Jamie on his knees in the corner of the kitchen, coughing up blood. Keith was on his back in the storeroom, rolling around in agony like all the others. Outside, Trevor had already lost consciousness, his fat body wedged 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.