It is a quiet Tuesday afternoon and Patricia has popped out for lunch. No, it is not lunch of the food kind, but of a hairdresser appointment kind. Jordan, the hairdresser in the precinct, has booked her in for a quick blow dry, and style. It is on this particularly relaxing hour sans Patricia’s hawk eyes, I am behind the till counter, serving a customer when I catch sight of a stranger bedecked in grey waistcoat and tie, looking at me. He is tapping his fingers impatiently on the counter. I ignore him at first, but his constant finger tapping is irritating me.

After a while, I cannot take it anymore.

“Yes, can I help?” I ask, rather curtly.

“You have our tray” He responds in a low but sharp voice. I don’t know whether it’s for the benefit of the customer in presence or it’s how he speaks. His crystal clear green eyes glare directly into the centre of my eyeballs that it hurts. I immediately look away.

“I am sorry? Your what?” I multi-task between punching numbers on the till and asking this question in a flurry of confusion.

I look at my customer who is politely oblivious to the exchange and is fiddling with his mobile phone.

“Our tray, you took our tray from the café.” His face is flushed pink. I wonder if it is from the outside heat or from the self-inflicted pent up anger. He continues to tap on the counter and when I glare at his fingers, he notices this.

Stop that! I shoot him a telepathic warning. He responds, with a defiant eyebrow raise.

Without wanting to start a fight in front of a customer, I have to get rid of him in the politest way as possible.

“I will bring it over” I assure him in my sweet professional voice.
“No, I will wait.” He snaps.

My customer looks up from his mobile phone and glance over to my warring partner before returning back to his phone. He has been hearing our conversation. Now I am embarrassed.

I try not to look to my left because I can feel the fireballs that he is spitting in my direction, burning a hole in my left cheek. When the customer walks away, merely mumbling thanks and bye, I swivel around quickly to face the mad guy.

“I don’t believe we have your tray” I say, in a matter of fact tone. I would have noticed that darned tray of his, this morning.

“No, you have it. You took it from us.” He stresses every word with a patronising tone. He has an accent similar to Dom. I wonder if he is German. Stop thinking Lana! I quietly admonish myself.

I get the feeling he is not going to budge. He is like a dog with a bone.

“Fine, I’ll go find your tray. I am telling you we don’t have it. I use the kitchen here, so I would’ve notice”

I walk to the back office. I tut to myself. This is all Patricia’s fault. Everywhere she goes in the precinct, she creates drama. Last week I got told off by Dom for putting the sandwich board outside the shop. I didn’t suggest this stupid idea, but no, who gets told off? Me.

I leave the back office door half open, putting a wooden wedge underneath the door. I can see him looking at my every move through the half opened door. He looks at me with suspicion, ready to accuse me for thievery. I turn away and look around the mini kitchen area. I don’t see it on top of the microwave. It is not even on top of our mini fridge. I am ready to fire ‘I told you so’ at him when I spot a round faded black tray sitting against the wall behind the sink tap. My heart plummets like lead into the pits of my stomach, and then I am hit with disappointment. I am so bloody disappointed with Patricia. I feel pathetic now. Begrudgingly, I grab the tray and walk back out.

“Well, what do you know? Miracles happen. Here you go” I flash him a quick apologetic smile.
“Humph” He snatches it and storms off.

How rude.

Later, Patricia returns to the shop, with her blonde hair all coiffed up in a sophisticated up-do. She has her Jackie O shades on and faux fur bolero covering her shoulders, looking every inch a glamorous Italian actress of the yester-year. Sophia Loren has nothing on her. Chanel number 5 wafts deliciously behind her. I give her an admiring smile.

“Bongiorno!” She greets me as she struts across the shop floor, her skirt sashaying flirtatiously above her knees. On her feet, she has some famous Italian designer heels that make delightful clackety noise across the marble floor. Those five inches’ tall heels make me wince. As much as I love to, I can never wear heels to work, without doubling up in pain. My cousin Serena thinks I am making this up because I prefer my converse over heels, which is not entirely false. Serena, like Patricia, can wear heels all day long, run in them, do pole vault in them and still be fine. My feet, on the other hand, have developed a psychological trauma towards heels. One look at them and they swell up.

“My husband bought these for me when we were in Milan. You like?” Patricia announces, after noticing me stare at her beautiful heels. She takes off her shades and looks admiringly at her feet.

“Yeah they are gorgeous!” I look down at my Clarks shoes with pity.
“You should wear heels. You would look slimmer if you wore heels. Flats only draws unwanted attention” She nods her head towards my midriff area. I flush with embarrassment. Patricia has no tact at times.

“So” She changes the subject and examines the empty shop.” Have you been busy?” A frown is spreading across her face.
“Well, not really but I did a sale of £85. A man came in bought two colognes for himself”

“That’s good. Walk me through your sales” She places her clutch on the counter next to the sink area and folds her arms as she prepares to scrutinise blow by blow account of my sales journey. I wish she wouldn’t do this. We are not in kindergarten school.

“Well, a gentleman came in looking to buy a cologne for himself. I showed him all our collections from men’s ranges. Out of the ranges, he was more into the Spanish collection. He picked Malva Noche cologne and then I encouraged him to get Blanco Dia cologne for day-time wear” Which is a lie. He knew what he wanted and came into the store knowing what to buy for him and his male partner. I wouldn’t dare tell Patricia this, I have got to give her an impression that I shed blood and sweat for my sales.

“If he liked the Spanish collection so much, why didn’t you introduce him to the box set?” Her steely pale blue eyes are looking down at me. She looks neither pleased nor dissatisfied.

“I did. He wasn’t interested.” Which is true. “He just wanted the colognes”
“Did you show him our offers at the till point?”

I pause for a bit; which is a big mistake, because Patricia pounces on this opportune pause in our conversation.

“Lana, those offers at the till point helps us with additional sales. We must be offering it to every customer. It’s a great price. They’d be mad not to take one!” She throws her arms up in the air in a dramatic display of vexation. “Absolutely crazy not to!”

“I hardly think Rosemary and Thyme travel size body care set is something my customer would want” I reason with her.

“Not for himself, maybe a gift for someone else. Lana, you could have had an extra £10 to your sales. You need to be on the ball.” She clicks her fingers for added emphasis. She picks up the clutch and head to the back.

“Anyway, anything else?” She sighs disappointingly and push the back office door open. I head to the back to resume with the interrogation.

“Umm, no” I struggle to think what else I did. I did serve two absolutely useless browsers who have been waiting for their train, but I am not going to tell her about that. She will only interrogate and chide me for not converting them into sales – or for not being ‘on the ball’. Then I remember that mad guy.

“Oh, the guy from that café came when you were at Jordan’s. He was demanding his tray back”

Her eyes scrunch up in confusion.

“What tray? What guy?”
“You know, where you get your coffees from?” I helpfully remind her, without trying to sound sarcastic.
“Oh!” She tuts, and rolls her eyes dismissively. “Gosh it is only a tray”
“Well he wasn’t happy. I found it and gave it back to him.”
“Did you give him the cups too?”
“What cups?” I stop in my tracks.
“Their cups”

After putting away her bolero, she saunters back out on the shop floor while I quickly open up the cupboard above the sink and gasps in horror. There are four cups and matching saucers, teaspoons, and a pot of sugar that have Confectionary Hillary written across them.

Feeling mortified that he might return and accuse us for stealing, I get them all out of the cupboard.
“I will return these when I leave”

Patricia looks at me as if I am speaking another language.
“Lana, they are just cups!”
“Their cups!” I make a point.
“So what? You need to calm down” She moves to the wall mirror near the glass cabinet and checks out her reflection. Feeling satisfied, she smiles at herself.

Roman happens to walk past the store and I wave to him. He waves back. Patricia turns around to see who I am waving at, Roman nods at her. She turns back to look at me.
“Is he your beau?” Her eyes twinkle with amusement.
“Patricia!” Feeling affronted by her question. “No, he isn’t”
“Then why are you blushing? Anyway he’s too young.” She waves her hand dismissively.
“I am not interested in him like that” I feel my face turning bright shade of red.
“Hmm” She gives me a knowing smile before returning to the back office to catch up on her paperwork.

Twenty minutes later, she comes out of the back office.

“I need coffee. Get me coffee from next door”
“You mean the art gallery?” I look at her, bewildered. Has she forgotten that Sean no longer works there. This means no free coffees from his incredible coffee machine, reserved for his clients only. Unless the frosty new manager has allowed Patricia to have that privilege back.

“No, Confectionary Hillary”

She has got to be kidding me, after what happened today!

“Here you go.” She waves a five pound note at me. “Get yourself a coffee too. Make sure only Paolo or Gabriella make the coffee. They know how to make my coffee.”

“Patricia, can’t I go to Hero or Treat instead? Hero have excellent baristas”
“No, I don’t like their coffees. I can make a better coffee than them”

Well why don’t you? I respond tartly to that comment in my head. Reluctantly, I go to the back to take off my apron and collect those offending items to return.
“Why are you taking the cups?” She looks at me questioningly.
“It’s their cups, not ours!” I hiss.
“Oh Lana, you worry too much!” She laughs. “Don’t forget, to bring coffees in cups!”

The café is two doors down from us. I have walked past it a number of times without a glance. I assume it is because I have always brought my coffees from Hero and Treat and have unwittingly ignored this charming looking café. I am standing outside it and peer through the window. There I see mouth-watering pastries lined against the window. Just by looking at them, I could feel the calories adding to my waistline. I could also feel Patricia’s eyes boring down at my waistline and shaking her head while telling me to wear heels. I look away to the other side of the window and see round tables with red and white chequered table cloth and wooden chairs. In the corners, I see leather armchairs with coffee tables. It isn’t busy; just quiet and sleepy. He is there and he sees me. I feel so sheepish as he comes over to open the door. He shakes his head and tut at me. He is no longer angry, and there is a hint of humour behind his tight smile. I walk past him and head over to the counter.

“I believe these are yours?” I put the items on the counter.
“You are very naughty, I should smack your bottom!” he replies, dryly.
“Do that and I will break your fingers” I offer him a brief Pan Am smile.

He shakes his head as he goes around the counter. Then there is an awkward silence where he looks at me, momentarily confused.

“What?” He asks, rather rudely.
“Is Paolo or Gabriella working today?”
“Why?” He folds his arms, giving me a cold vibe, not felt since the Cold War.
“My manager wants coffee and she wants either Paolo or Gabriella to make them.”

He begins shaking his head.
“No, no, no”
“No, no, no. No coffees for you” Still shaking his head.
“Are you refusing to serve me?” I feel taken aback by his unfriendliness.
“You can get your coffees from somewhere else” He nods to the door with his head.

“Believe me, I wish I could!” I snap back icily. “But I can’t. So now you are going to suck it up and make me coffees!” I cross my arms and stare at him defiantly. For a moment, it feels like we are having a stare off.

He snorts and loosen his arms. He places both palms on the counter and looks directly into my eyes with such force that my eyes begin to water.
“What do you want?”

For you to stop making my eyes water. For Patricia to stop sending me here. For me to get over my procrastination and finish my novel. And the list goes on. I give him my mental answers.

He cocks his head to one side, waiting for me to say something.
“Is Paolo or Gabriella working -?”
“Yes” He cuts me off with such impertinence. “What do you want?”
“Gosh, aren’t you a bit rude” I remark. He gives me a smug smile. “An Americano and Cappuccino please”

He nods and calls out my order to the barista behind the coffee machine. I lean over the counter and see a tall man with a pony tail. He sees me and gives me a wink. Eh! This must be Paolo.

“Oh and in proper cups please” I add quickly.

He looks at me, briefly stunned, and then shakes his head.

“No, no, no”
“Why not?”
“No, no, no”
“I will bring them back. I bought these back didn’t I?” Pointing to the cups on the counter in front of us.
“No, I don’t trust you”
“Oh my goodness, they are JUST cups”

His eyes widen, as if I have offended him and I quickly retract my comment. “I mean they are your cups. I will bring them back after work today, I promise.”

He thinks for a while, then with reluctance, nods his head. “Hey Paolo, in cups” He shouts to the barista, before rolling his eyes.

“Why doesn’t she want paper cups?” He asks, and for the first time, without scorn.
“I don’t know. She thinks she is the Queen” I shrug my shoulders. Patricia has always gotten things done the way she wants them done. “You guys have spoiled her”
“We have, believe me” He exhales out loud.

I follow him to the centre of the counter to settle the bill. I give him the note, which he playfully examines for authenticity. I pull a face at him and he grins. I notice something – when he is not looking like a pufferfish, he actually has a good looking face. When his face relaxes, there is softness in his expression. His smile reveals a dimple on his right cheek. I watch him run his hand through his slightly dishevelled dark blonde hair, as he picks coins from the till with the other hand. There is a certain boyish charm to him.

He gives my change back.

“Are they real?” I pretend to examine the coins. “I don’t want monopoly money”

I see a smile spread across his face, which disappears as soon as I return the smile. And the pufferfish returns.
I look down at his name tag. He follows my eyes and mischievously puts his finger over his name tag.

“Max” I read the tag. “Is that short for Max Von Trapp?”
He scowls at me before stomping off to get the drinks.

“Jeez, humour police” I mumble to myself.

He comes back with two cups with saucers.
“Here you go” Propping the cups on the counter.
“Where’s the tray?” I ask.
“No, no, no” He shakes his head. “You keep our tray”
I let out a little laughter. “You are kidding, right?”
“Do I look like I am kidding?” He looks at me, stony faced.
“I did bring back the tray didn’t I?”

The entrance door pings and we both turn around. An elderly couple enter the vicinity.
“Go away, I have customers!” He hisses. “Good afternoon” He greets the couple with that ever so deceivingly angelic face.
“No, not until you give me a tray!” I hiss back
“Why are you refusing to give me a tray?” I speak a little loudly. His face turns a shade of red.

Reluctantly, he reaches for the tray from underneath the counter.
“You bring it back!” He hisses, shooting me a warning look.

I stick my tongue out to him playfully as he walks over to the customers. I put my drinks on the tray, and throw a handful of sugar sachets, which I picked from the counter. As I head to the door, he excuses himself and walks over to open the door for me.

“What a gentleman!” I hear the lady comment.

Max gives me a smug grin and I roll my eyes in disbelief as I walk out.

I decide not to tell Patricia about what happened. For once, she wouldn’t care. As long as she has her coffee made by Paolo or Gabriella, she doesn’t care for the rest.

After my shift I swing by to Confectionary Hillary to return the cups and the stupid tray. I see him clearing a table and when he sees me, he walks over to open the door for me. He says nothing and moves aside to let me through. His face is devoid of expression.

“God, a little smile wouldn’t crack your face.”

As I walk away, I hear him laughing.


© This work belongs to Kakul Ehsan Butt (2015)