Astrobleme (Part 1)
I click the back of my pen, poised and ready.
'Um, let's see.' The man scratches his chin. 'I'll have the crab soup for starter, and um, what was it,' he squints, 'yes, the partridge for main.'
I echo his order back to him as I scribble it down.
'And for this chap,' the man nods at the teenager sitting opposite him, 'it was um ... Well, would you like me to say it, or can you say it for yourself?'
The boy – fourteen, fifteen, definitely one of those awkward ages – looks at his father like he wants to kill him.
Say it for himself?
With his own mouth?
The boy mumbles something at me.
'Sorry,' the man says. 'We've a bit of a caveman here. Speak up, Charlie.'
The man thinks I'm on his side.
The boy doesn't quite manage to meet my eye and his voice is a little strangled. 'I'll have the soup for starter. Chicken for main. Thanks.'
'Rightio,' I say, collecting the menus, and bouncing off with the artificial enthusiasm that I have perfected over the last couple of months.
As I breeze towards the kitchen - I can breeze just as skillfully as I can bounce - I see the woman at table 7 gesturing.
Even out of the corner of my eye, I know what she is about: She has the posture of one ready - gagging, even - to complain.
She's Melissa’s - I think - but Melissa is nowhere to be seen. I look for others. Someone who might be better suited. I see Jerry. But he’s busy flirting with two old men at the booths. Down to me, then.
The short walk to her table is enough for me to decide I don't like her.
She has tartan trousers on and a haircut so stubbornly old-fashioned that I am convinced she hates everyone under the age of 35. Sitting with her are two boys, both under ten. They look like she has kidnapped them.
An unwanted outing with Grandma perhaps?
'Hi there,' she says.
I don't like her 'Hi there'. But I smile my perfect artificial smile.
'Bit of an awkward one,' she leans in conspiratorially, 'but would it be possible,' she faux-grimaces, 'to do something about the ...' She waves her hand in front of her nose.
That grimace again. 'Hmm. How can one put this? There's a little bit of a ... a pong.'
I raise an eyebrow. 'A pong?'
'I did say it was an awkward one. But, uh, surely we can't be the only ones who've noticed.'
I look at her grandchildren. They look like they’re trying to be invisible.
Without thinking, I sniff.
There's the mingled smell of several mains. The disinfectant from a cleaning trolley. Nothing out of the ordinary.
'May I ask the nature of the smell, madam?'
'You want me to spell it out?'
Her grimace annoys me more each time. 'Well, it would appear,' I watch her eyes, 'that the lady over there,' she lowers her voice to a whisper, 'has taken a rather laissez-faire approach to her hygiene. Not to be blunt,' this bit she says louder, because, I guess, she does want the woman to hear after all, 'but I've paid to come to a restaurant, not an underground sewer.'
You never want to look flummoxed when a customer presents you with a bit of a conundrum. You want to look as though you're in control, as though you know exactly what the correct course of action is, that you can almost pick it straight out from a selection of stock options, and pull it off without even thinking.
But I am aware that right now I look, very visibly, like I am thinking. Like I am thinking very hard indeed.
I hear myself say 'Erm.'
'It's just it is rather unpleasant, wouldn't you say? One would hardly expect a restaurant to let in, I don't know, a customer's dog, as no doubt its smell, its noise, its temperament and all the rest of it would coincide rather unfortunately with the restaurant's ... milieu.' She looks rather pleased with milieu. 'I mean, people are eating. So if you wouldn't let in a dog, why let in ... that?'
As subtly as I can, I turn to look at the lady with the alleged pong.
She's barely ten feet from us, but she has this sort of dreamy, oblivious look on her face, like there's no way she's heard a word of our conversation.
She is eating alone.
She is coat-hanger thin and practically buried in an enormous brown raincoat.
She is pale, ill-looking.
I can't age her: on the one hand she looks lost and child-like, like she has wondered in here by accident without her parent; on the other, she looks strangely old and withered.
A chocolate cake sits untouched in front of her.
And, to go with this peculiar, incongruous image, there it is, at last: the smell.
I turn back to the lady. 'Ah. Well.'
It is hard to describe. There is something of the flesh about it, like an open wound, caking with pus. A smell I imagine vets encounter on a daily basis.
But there is also something artificial about it. Like paint full of chemicals.
'Perhaps we could move you, madam.'
'Yes. Perhaps. But,' she doesn't want to play ball, 'hardly solves the problem does it.'
She looks at me.
I'm not sure if I'm expected to answer the question
'Shouldn't really be in here at all, should she, is what I'm saying.' Her youngest grandson yawns like a lion cub. 'Perhaps we don't really want to be here if she's here, and perhaps your other customers are thinking the same, it's just they're not so brave to say it ... is what I'm saying.'
Even if the lady in the raincoat seems oblivious, the smell itself seems to be listening, because there and then it wafts provocatively towards us.
The lady wrinkles her nose.
'Look,' her voice is honeyed with condescension now, 'would it really be that much trouble to just do something about this? The manager can come out if he needs to.'
I look at the woman in the raincoat and back.
I'm hesitating again.
The manager isn’t here. Jerry’s leader in his absence. But Jerry’s Jerry.
I almost say 'Erm' again. Erm, well, uh, I don’t really, uh -
I smile my perfect smile. 'I'll see what I can do.'
Off I bounce.
The first thing I do is walk past the raincoat lady's table, just to see if the smell really is her.
And I'm confident it's not coming from the contents of some bag she has on her – there isn’t one – or from one of her coat pockets. It is coming directly from her: she's sweating it.
I'm sort of wondering how she got in here in the first place.
I sneak a look and see that she's wearing cracked, leathery high-top boots but, as far as I can surmise, nothing much else under the raincoat. Her legs are totally bare. One is bruised.
Conscious that the tartan woman is watching me but even more conscious that I can't act until I have a clue what I'm going to say, I dump the menus and make for the kitchen.
A wave of moist heat hits me as I drop off the orders. Jerry is regaling one of the chefs with some outrageous sexual innuendo that one of the old men at the booths said to him, something about him being anal about piercings ... but not in that way. The chef doesn’t seem to find it that funny.
I collar Jerry just as he is unfolding a document and writing on it.
'Sweetie?' he says, writing something down.
'Who's waiting on that woman in the raincoat?'
He doesn't reply.
'What is it.'
'Who's waiting on that woman in the raincoat?'
'Oh. The fucking weird-looking one?'
'That would be moi.'
'Right, well -'
'She's so foreign,' Jerry's eyes gleam evilly at the paper, 'that I don't think even she knows what fucking country she's from.'
'Right, well. There's been a complaint made about her.'
'I'd complain if I had to look at that raincoat. Burn the thing I say.'
'There's a lady who wants her kicked out because she, er, is letting off an interesting odour. You notice that when you served her? Cos I've noticed it. It's pretty fierce.'
Jerry looks at me. 'What?'
'She smells bad. Someone's complained. I don't really know what to do.'
Jerry folds up the paper, puts it in his pocket. He looks almost impressed. He hasn't heard this one before. 'What does she smell of? She didn't smell before.'
'Pff. Try it for yourself. To be honest, I'm not sure how she was let in in the first place.'
'Well it doesn't say anywhere in our policy to turn away people's custom just because they're a bit odd. In fact, I say let in the oddballs. Pull down the drawbridge. Let the freaks in. Makes our day more fun that way.'
I laugh, but really I'm trying to think when Jerry might have read our ‘policy’. 'Do you want to deal with it then?'
‘Can’t, sweetie. Wish I could, but moi has got to go and collect an order. Now-ish.’ He looks at his watch. ‘Nope. Now exactly.’
I stand there, not really knowing what to do.
Jerry slips on his coat, kisses me on the cheek. ‘She’s on her dessert anyway. Just ask her if she’d like the bill. Get her out of here as quick as poss. ‘Kay?’ And off he goes.
When I go back out into the restaurant, I can tell the tartan woman is watching me. In avoiding her stare, I begin to notice little ripples amongst the other customers in the immediate vicinity of the raincoat lady.
They must have noticed the smell too.
In fact, I’m convinced they are all subtly watching me now as I approach the lady and her smell.
When I arrive at her table, she is staring at her chocolate cake like it is a puzzle. I beam at her. ‘Hello.’
The raincoat rustles as she tilts her head up at me.
And that is when I almost gasp.
But I check myself, just.
I swallow. I try not to look at it.
‘Allo,’ she says.
‘Would you like the bill?’
She looks at me, as puzzled by me as she was by the chocolate cake. And this time I can’t help it; my eyes slip down momentarily.
There it is.
Running crooked up her neck, all along her windpipe, almost like a zip, is a thick scar. It looks new. It looks like it is just starting to heal.
‘Erm,’ I say. ‘The bill.’
The smell is coming from it, I realise. It’s coming from the half-formed scar. It is pungent: a slaughterhouse smell. Blood and flesh and chemicals.