Updated: Mar 12, 2022
Kate traced her front teeth with her tongue, accidentally opening her lips from time to time. She had read an article the previous night about a barman being bet up outside of his own pub. He ended up losing all his teeth. She wishes that were her. Not because her teeth were yellow or crooked, but because her teeth always seemed to be lathered in a grimy substance that would never disappear. It could be a new start. Three thousand euro spent on braces or ten minutes spent brushing her teeth every day could not help this. She blamed the grime that coated her mouth for the wads of spit surrounding the corner of her mouth and her distinct Wexford town accent, but particularly for the way she talked. She talked like an old sailor – really – and despite embracing it for long enough, it affected her. She daydreamed about a day when she would present herself eloquently. She would use big words and not stumble or spray food while standing up for herself. She dreamed – more than anything – to speak how she wrote, how she thought, how she painted, how she listened.
“What are you doing?” a voice trailed from behind the counter, “did you clean those tables?”
“Of course,” she lied. She had only wiped off the crumbs, not following the disinfecting etiquette. She felt hatred towards cleaning since she had to refuse a family of five a table. The table wasn’t dry when they arrived, forcing them to sit beside the window. Ten minutes later, a couple came in and sat on that table, the largest table in there. She felt like telling them to cop on, but they were regulars.
That couple was in again this morning. Sometimes they would make passing comments while Kate was there. Whenever they sat outside, Kate could hear they were raising their voice that little bit if she ever came close to them. She wondered if this was for her benefit. Were they speaking louder solely for her to hear? Not only that, but they would also discuss topics that interested her. Topics that Kate didn’t even remember telling them that she had an interest in. She had had very few full conversations with these two people, and Kate found them insufferable. She asked them how they met, a fairly nonchalant approach to a chat. They had met online, and it was killing them to have to admit that.
“From the minute we started talking it felt like I couldn’t stop,” the woman gassed gripping her partner’s hand tightly, “we would text for hours, replying instantly. Good morning texts, goodnight texts, good afternoon texts!”
“I once dated a guy who sent me good morning texts,” Kate admitted.
They weren’t just any texts. They were paragraphs. Two hundred words if not more to motivate her every morning. He told her how beautiful she was, how capable she was. She had the world under her belt, how could she not see that? She dumped him brutally, in the worst way she knew how. She told him she saw him as more of a friend. He hasn’t really been the same since. He started dating the one other girl in their class that liked art. He didn’t even fancy that girl, he told Kate that, he was just trying to summon her characteristics in someone else.
“Shame a girl like you is single,” they would shake their heads, then laugh. Laugh until there is nothing left to laugh about. Laugh as though they wanted Kate to join in. Kate told them she didn’t want a relationship. In fact, she promised herself she wasn’t going to settle down for the next ten years. This was a lie she made up on the spot. They were dumbfounded.
“You daydream, girl,” her boss smirked. She had a soft spot for him. They exchanged glances at weird customers and even christened each other with nicknames.
Kate was K-Dog, and Terence was T-Dog. The customers liked this, a visible connection. Nonetheless, Terence was awkward to work for. She didn’t have a salary, rather she worked whatever shift she could so that she could ‘dance to the rhythm of her own beat’. Terence and Kate had made an agreement; for her job not to be too serious. However, Terence also had three others working for him and one of them even had a full-time position. Kate didn’t want that, but she was annoyed she hadn’t at least been asked.
“I’ve time for you,” Terence giggled to himself, “you work next weekend?”
He knew grammar, but just like Kate, he didn’t talk properly. It gave him a slight edge. He couldn’t really do other accents well. When he mimicked people, he sounded like a child pretending to be from Australia. No one could copy him. The Wexford accent is difficult enough to master.
“I’ll ask my Dad,” Kate sighed while looking out the window, “maybe.”
“I need to know,” Terence whined, “we be busy, I think.”
Kate went back to cleaning tables. Even tables that hadn’t been used yet. Sometimes she felt the need for looking busy, just in case a particular person walked in. There were a group of friends she went to college with that came around this time every Thursday. She loved that feeling of anticipation. Twelve o’clock for the elders, one o’clock for the couples, two o’clock is for her least favourite regulars then three o’clock for her college friends. After that, she would make herself a coffee and take a not-so-needed break; checking her watch every few minutes and waiting wholeheartedly for five o’clock. That’s when the real magic happened. She often asked Terence for a later shift. Two to seven was okay, she didn’t mind staying after the café had closed, so long as she was here for five o’clock. She hoped no other waitress was on at that time, just her and Terence, or else she felt a fit of immense jealousy.
“Did you check upstairs?” Terence asked from behind the counter. He was hiding behind the coffee machine. Kate couldn’t see him.
“Upstairs?” She cursed at him in her head for distracting her.
“Upstairs,” he confirmed with a nod, and pointed towards the ceiling in case there was any confusion, “did you check if the tables were clean upstairs?”
“Not quite,” she admitted. Then she grabbed her mop and bucket, dashing to the second floor and finding any old excuse to not clean. Looks perfectly clean to me, she thought. People are still eating, she lied to herself. The café had been silent for hours now, as was always the case at five o’clock.
Then it struck her. The largest eyesore she had ever witnessed lay on the brown table; a coffee spillage so disastrous no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t brush it off with the excuse that she didn’t see it. She grabbed her mop and bucket and tried as hard as she could to remove the mark, but the stench of dried milk lingered in the air and she prayed that the smell wouldn’t reach the counter. After all, it was enough to turn any customer away with one sniff.
Eventually, Kate did all that was in her capability to ensure that the smell and the mark weren’t as obvious, considering it was impossible to make it disappear completely. She brushed her forehead. For the first time in months, she felt actual sweat roll off her face. What was happening to her? She was breaking her back for less than minimum wage, getting worked up over a job she did the odd weekend. She never felt connected to the café. Not as connected as she felt to the art gallery she worked in during her year abroad in Berlin. Certainly not as connected as the college she attended. This café just seemed like another destination she hit in her day-to-day life. Another place to go. Another thing to do. She wondered if she was a customer would she feel more or less connected to the menu or the drinks selection, but she doubted it. She was never really a places person, she always preferred people, or associated places with people, and it was only at five o’clock when this café truly became hers.
“I’m done,” she announced while making her way down the stairs, mop and bucket tracing behind her. She was still cleaning sweat from her face. She stood at the doorway and rubbed her eyes. She was never a good worker. Ten minutes of cleaning would take a concerning amount of energy out of her. Once she had finished rubbing her eyes, she looked up and realised that she had missed his entrance. She missed watching him walk in the front door of the café, pat the rain on his jeans and run his fingers through his hair. All for spilt milk.
“He’s here,” Terence stated, as if it wasn’t obvious, “you’re free to go.”
She thanked him and whipped off her apron in an instant to make up for the five minutes she wasn’t already in his presence. She sat across from him.
“Kate,” he beamed. He always beamed when he saw her. As if he was never expecting to see her. Fair enough, she only worked here occasionally, but even on the days when she had told him she would be there he still was surprised.
“Brendan,” she smiled, “how goes it?” She felt her cheeks burn, not just blush but burn as all the blood in her head ran directly to that one specialised area.
He told her about his new project; a photography magazine dedicated to booksellers in Wexford. Why booksellers? She asked but he couldn’t give her an answer. He just shrugged his shoulders and blurted out that no one else was interested. He laughed then, a low chuckle. The type of laugh a young child has when they hear a new joke but even cheekier. He’d glance up and down as though he was embarrassed that he was laughing at all, let alone at his own wry wit.
“I’ve been tricking around with this new story,” she stated before she even realised she was telling him. He nodded. He loved hearing about her stories, but unlike him, she was no writer.
She took a breath in and asked herself if she should even tell him. The majority of the time she couldn’t string a sentence together in his presence. She felt as though her brain had been smothered in a fishing net taking out all the best parts; leaving her with smudges of half-had thoughts and irrelevant slang to throw into any old sentence.
“It’s about this couple,” she went on, “they break up, but the only people they have to talk about the breakup is each other.”
“Okay,” he sits forward, “why do they only have each other?”
“Well, because they’re the only people they trust,” she stammers.
“But if they trust each other why would they break up?” he raises an eyebrow.
“They broke up because,” she stopped and stared at the top corner of the café in order to have a clear thought, “they broke up because of a separate reason. Maybe one of them is married.”
“If they were married they could trust their spouse, no?”
“Yeah,” she retracted, “well whatever the reason, I’ll think of one. The point of the matter is that they’re both trying to get over a breakup, but recovering together.”
“I like it,” he smiles. Even though he had spent the last minute tearing down its foundations.
“It’s early yet,” she swatted a hand in the air. She felt the need to be humble despite not having the faintest idea what to write about.
“You know, in French class, we learnt about the difference between love and passion,” he explained while stirring his cappuccino, “passion comes from the Latin word Passiō which actually means pain and anguish.”
Kate understood the difference without having to mellow over the definition that deeply. Even upon hearing the word ‘passion’, illustrations of blood and tears swamped her mind.
“Have you ever been in love?” she asked him, and she felt her hands shake. She immediately wanted to reverse time and ask him another question such as ‘how is your coffee?’.
“I don’t know,” he chattered his teeth, “at the moment I always think I’m madly in love, but as soon as that relationship ends I come to realise it was never really loving.”
“Just pain and anguish?”
He laughs, a big cheeky smile that belongs to a child being told a naughty joke. He looks down at the table and pretends to read the café’s menu.
“I think I was in love once,” he admits, his head still lowered gazing through the dessert options.
Kate never understood why he does this. He has only ever ordered a cappuccino,except for one evening when he also bought a doughnut because he was hungry waiting for Kate and she was starting her shift late. She knows so little about him. She doesn’t even know where he lives. He’s travelled to several countries on business trips with made-up companies, but Kate doesn’t even know what he does for a living. The closest they ever got was when he came to her art exhibition and bought her canvas painting of the beach she grew up in. That night she told him she would bring him there one day when she works enough shifts to buy her first car. To which he replied he didn’t have to go there, because he could already feel it. She knew he meant well but she suddenly felt demotivated towards driving, and she only said it because she knew he could drive.
Kate was unsure whether to ask who this person he had been in love with was. Not only in case she didn’t know them, but also because she would instantly become jealous without reason. If he said this woman had brown eyes, she wouldn’t sleep tonight due to thoughts of gouging her own blue eyes out and replacing them with darker alternatives. She didn’t want to know. Maybe that’s why he appealed to her so much; she knew absolutely nothing about him.
“We weren’t even going out,” he laughed.
“What?” Once again she had been disturbed from a moment of daydreaming.
“The girl,” he uttered, “we weren’t, like, in a relationship or anything.”
“How did you know you weren’t?” she shrugged, “some relationships have no definite start or endpoints, they just happen.”
“We didn’t exactly go on dates,” he blurted.
Before he could even justify his position more, Kate interrupted him. Despite initially not wanting to know out of sheer envy, she suddenly needed to be aware of every romantic encounter he had ever had in his entire life. She longed to bombard him with questions about every relationship he’s had since he was twelve and how he believed they made him the man he is today.
“What makes a date a date?” she demanded, with a rising inclination in her voice.
“I’m not sure,” he eventually revealed after a moment of silence, “is this one?”
She was under the impression that she thought about him every five minutes. That was 288 times a day. How often did he think of her? Probably once a day. Probably only when he is joined by her.
“If it is,” she giggled, “I haven’t been loyal.”
She considered about all the other customers she sat with, day in and day out, only to wait for five o’clock to come and for her to see her favourite customer. If this was a date, that meant all of their meetings were too. Once more she licked her teeth and opened her mouth.
“How is your coffee?” she asked.