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Karen Chase

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.

‘Where’s Trevor?’

‘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.’

‘No.’

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

‘No.’

‘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.

THE AUTUMN SERIES