Jay Merill

Sibilant Sunday


When Mr Andrews showed me how to prepare a sandwich. Like this, he said. And then I tried, myself. Got some butter on the end of the knife, not too much. So it could be managed easily. Smoothed it evenly over part of a slice of bread. Got some more. Mr Andrews took the knife back again and winked at me. No, like this, he said. You didn’t watch what I did, did you. Then he spread the butter in a half inch band round the edges of two bread slices and left the centres butterless. This is the way we do it. So the customers can see the butter when they look. They are happy and so are we. He winked again. I wondered who the we was as I was sure Mrs Andrews would never have taken any interest in such a thing.


This was the perpetual expression on Mrs Peterson’s face. She sat at the cafe table with her elbows perched suavely on the edge of the table-cloth, each of her arms leaning outwards to just the same degree, the tips of her fingers meeting. Meeting and touching. Very lightly touching. She inclined her head as though too polite to push herself forward. And she looked pleased, very pleased. With everyone present; with herself. There was something quivery about her lips as though they were delicately sampling the taste of her smile. And finding it acceptably sweet and ladylike.


Due to the fact that my hand dipped sideways and created a sloping surface on the tea tray, the teapot slid unstoppably down and ended up in the lap of Mrs Peterson. Mrs Peterson was wearing her best dress at the time as it was a Sunday. I saw the brown tea ooze into its cowslippy yellow folds. She was not ladylike then because she screeched and jumped up from the table. I stood where I was in horror and I saw she was not sampling the shape her lips made at this moment. They stretched rubbery and wide and scary all on their very own.


After Mrs Andrews had drawn a wispy scarf criss cross over her throat and stood very straight with her head held high she let out this trilling noise. Mrs Andrews. Who had got stuck in the past; most likely up a mountain somewhere. The Alps. Yes, Alpes-Maritimes. That would be her ideal location. Fancy place names were right up her street. The other waitresses called Mrs Andrews, Julie. I couldn’t work out why they did that when her name was Cheryl. We all went to the same school and I knew them to be the sort who’d gang up on someone for the sake of it. I asked Sunny, a girl with a semi frozen look, and she gave a half-hearted shrug. I asked Monica Brisbane, a witty-chatty girl. My question made her go all serious. She just stared back at me. I asked Pauline with the pointy eyebrows and she grinned. Her grin and her teeth were pointy too. When I saw the three waitresses standing together by the coffee maker I thought of the word gang. They nudged one another because Mrs Andrews was in full flow with her song by now. Then they all looked away from me and laughed out loud.


Always the sound of the coffee maker. Steam rising quickly in a cloud. You pressed a coffee pod with a metal piercer and the machine did the rest. I think the coffee maker was the reason Sundays made me think of esses. When I was thirteen I had found this job as a Sunday waitress in Beto’s Cafe in the High Street. I was living with my auntie at the time. She was usually a bit strapped for cash and this helped her out. At Beto’s Cafe the coffee maker was the throbbing heart of things. The Essence. You could not unthink this machine once it had been activated. Which was pretty much all of the time. Working in the cafe was a hissy-steamy experience. It made me think about the ess-ences of many other things too.


When Mrs Andrews did a turn about the room. Mrs Andrews did not care about clever butter spreading. She cared about dancing when it was unexpected. Suddenly she’d be up on her feet and on that cafe floor. Doing this twisty twirly movement. As though she had on a long flowing dress. Made of some silky material and with an arty pattern. Though she did not. Her dress was short and fairly plain. Twirl became swirl that time she collided with the coffee counter. A jug of ready-to-pour milk went flying. Sunny softened, Cheryl turned all helpless with laughter and clasped her hands together as though the collision had delighted her. Pointy Pauline ran off for the mop.


In the style Mrs Peterson drank her tea. She did it with a precious look. Not as though she thought the tea was precious, or that she was precious herself. But the very act of sipping. That was the precious thing. She drew her two lips together in a gracious manner as though she was just about to smile only decided at the last second to sip instead. Then the quiver died down as a more purposeful mood took over. And there was a very light lisping sound as she drew the tea in. The reason I know this is because I was at her table as she had her first cup. I was delivering a plate of scones at the time. Mr Peterson lifted up the teapot and tapped it with the handle of his teaspoon. We need a top-up, was what he was telling me. His lips smilingly mouthed the words. Mr and Mrs Green were also sat at the table. Mr Peterson and Mr Green laughed heartily and jerked their heads towards Mrs Peterson as though to say she was the one to blame for the empty pot. I laughed too, a little bit, to blend in with the general mood. Only Mrs Green did not laugh. There was always an angry something lurking in the eyes of Mrs Green, and at this moment she seemed quite put out. She snatched at a scone and cut it through sharply on her plate, not caring about the rasp and clatter. Then she slapped on a dollop of strawberry jam and a blob of cream and swallowed down the first half of the scone in one go. After which, Mrs Green looked at her cup which was nearly empty then looked at me. So I went off quickly to see to the refill.


As a response to Monica Brisbane saying, Mrs I-Could-Have-Danced-All-Night has gone into one. I was the only person close enough to hear. Pauline was just coming from the store room with the mop and bucket and Sunny was at the front of the cafe by the ice cream fridge. Her favourite place. Mrs Andrews had gone to change her milk-splattered dress. We caught the sound of her giggling as she went through the door at the rear of the kitchen. The Petersons and the Greens were at their usual table, right over by the window. The rest of the tables were empty. Mr Andrews was out the back constructing a decorative menu board. Monica and I sniggered together because we both thought her words were funny. At this second I felt that I was one of them – one of the gang. I poured boiling water into the teapot and lifted down a clean tea tray from the rack.


When the teapot slid down the tea-tray looking every bit as if it had a mind of its own. It slid evenly and smoothly. As though this sliding was the most natural thing in all the world; as though it was completely right and proper for this to be happening. I wanted to say something, wanted to tell the teapot to stop doing that. Wanted to tell the tea tray to re-angle itself without delay. Wanted to shout out something at least. But I could not. I stood there and watched as the teapot came to the edge of the tray. Watched as it tipped over into the cottony cowslips on the lap of Mrs Peterson, turning yellow into rusty murk. Mrs Peterson leapt up and the teapot crashed to the floor under the table. Rivulets of tea water streamed out. Mr Peterson and The Greens looked shocked. Pauline sauntered over with the mop, Sunny by the ice cream counter at the front went more frozen looking than usual, Monica Brisbane turned red as if she was trying overly hard to stop herself from saying something rude. Mr Andrews popped his head round the door. When I first saw him I thought he was winking. Then I noticed both his eyes were doing it at once. And there was a fast succession of winks so that I don’t think he was actually winking at all because I was used to seeing what his winking looked like and there was a twinkly something and only one wink ever came out at a time.


Because I couldn’t take my eyes away from the sight of the tea flooding out the sugar bowl on the table and the way the sugar cubes changed at once from white to brown. And because when Monica Brisbane spoke at last, this is what she came out with.


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