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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

Breakfast in the Market

When Tom comes to visit we try to have breakfast in town at least one morning during his stay, and today the sun was shining so we settled on the chuck wagon in the market place. They have a dozen tables out there and most of them were vacant when we arrived. There was an old guy just ahead of us who’d settled his two daughters and their five children at two tables in the sun and he was busy ordering hamburgers and chicken burgers and hot dogs with onions and chips and cokes for the kids and tea with sugar for him, strong, and without sugar for the two daughters, but also strong. ‘Strong as you like.’ Looked like the best day of his life the way he was smiling and organising the feast and being appreciated by all the young people, though if you looked closer he wasn’t entirely without pressure. Sounded like they were from Manchester, somewhere round there, day-trippers. Must’ve made an early start.

While he was negotiating with the cook, we got this beautiful Polish girl who had started work at the wagon this morning, all white teeth and blonde hair and not a whole lot of English. ‘We’d like two breakfasts,’ I told her and she flashed a smile and asked, ‘You want sauerkraut with that.’

Took me a minute, it wasn’t a question I’d been asked before. ‘No sauerkraut,’ I said. Then I said, a little louder and that way you talk to foreigners when you forget everything you ever learned about them, ‘Two breakfasts. English.’ I gave her the whole five syllables and I could see in her face that she didn’t like me, but also, in the same face was total recognition of what we were there for, and it obviously didn’t involve, even in a remote way, sauerkraut.

She was conflicted about Tom because he has the body of a young god and he hadn’t said anything to upset her but was obviously with me.

‘They want two breakfasts,’ she said to the cook, a crooked little man with the ability to smile on just one side of his face.

‘About ten minutes,’ he said. ‘I’m up to my ears here.’

‘The Pole turned back to us. ‘Ten minutes?’

‘That’s fine,’ I said, beginning the process of worming my way back into her affections.

‘You want coffee?’

‘Two, please.’

‘Sugar?’

‘No thank you, and no milk. Black coffee.’

She hesitated and I realized I’d got close to giving her more information overload, but while I was still wondering she’d already got over it, put it down to cultural differences, and was slapping the coffee machine around.

Tom claimed a table behind the kids of the old guy’s two daughters and I brought our coffee over to him. ‘Two hamburgers, one hotdog,’ the cook shouted and the old guy got to his feet and collected the food and sorted out which of the kids it belonged to. He had his camera in one hand the whole time, not ready to shoot or anything, but well protected in a fancy case. I thought he probably had a bad experience with a previous camera, put it down one time, maybe even on a trip to York, and someone had it away. With this one he wasn’t taking any chances.

‘I didn’t want onions,’ the eldest kid said.

‘Why didn’t you say?’

‘I said a hotdog. I didn’t say onions.’

‘Hotdogs come with onions. If you don’t want onions, you have to say you don’t want onions.’
‘I can’t eat it with onions.’

‘Jesus.’ The old guy took the hotdog and brought it to the bin behind our table and emptied the onions out of it. Then he took it back to the kid. The kid opened it up again and inspected it for onion remains, found some and scattered them on the pavement under the table. At the same time the second youngest kid was emptying the ketchup bottle onto his hamburger. ‘Stop that,’ the old guy said, snatching the ketchup bottle away and putting it on the other table where the two daughters were stolidly ignoring anything that went on with their offspring. The little girl who must’ve been the youngest of them all was crying because she was the only one who didn’t have any ketchup and that was the main reason she’d wanted a hamburger in the first place, that and some chips, but they didn’t have any chips.

‘The chips’ll come in a minute,’ her grandfather said. ‘They’re not ready yet.’

‘I don’t want ’em now,’ she told him. ‘You’ve took the ketchup.’

Another customer arrived wearing badly designed camouflage clothes, a vest and long shorts in some kind of synthetic material. In the field it would have made him look more visible rather than less. His enemy would have been able to pick him out at almost any range. In addition to the camouflage gear he wore a moustache and white ankle socks with open-toed sandals. ‘I’ve got a girlfriend now,’ he told the cook, over the counter. ‘Living with me in the same house and everything.’

‘Jeez,’ Tom told me. ‘I’m beginning to remember why I moved away from this town.’

‘Two chicken burgers,’ the cook shouted, and the old guy started up out of his chair again, his camera swinging on its strap. ‘Chicken burgers,’ he said, ‘Who ordered chicken burgers?’

‘They’re ours, dad,’ one of the daughters said. ‘Ask him for mustard.’

While he went to the counter two women shoppers parked themselves at the table on the other side of the kids.

The old guy came back with the chicken burgers and mustard and one lot of chips. He gave the burgers and the mustard to the women and the chips to the small girl. But the other kids at the table all dived for the chips. ‘Stop that,’ he shouted. ‘These chips are for Melany. Yours’ll be ready in a minute.

The eldest lad took another chip and the old guy took it off him and put it back in Melany’s polystyrene bowl. The lad didn’t think about it. He reached forward and got the same chip again, long one. ‘Put it back,’ the old guy said menacingly.

The boy threw it in the air and it sailed up and away and came down in the bag of one of the lady shoppers at the next table. She retrieved it and dropped it back in Melany’s bowl. ‘Can you please control your children,’ she said to everyone at large, the old guy, the two daughters, Tom and I and the cook and the Polish girl and even the man in the camouflage gear who had moved over to an adjacent stall and was explaining his love life to the traders there.

‘More chips,’ the cook shouted philosophically, as the two women shoppers marched off to find an easier source of coffee.

The old man was flexing his fists by this time, and there was a little vein in his forehead which had gone into constant twitch mode. He said to the children, his voice controlled, even hushed. ‘This is my holiday as well, you know. Not just yours.’

He went for the rest of the chips and shared them out between the children. ‘Try and eat in a civilized manner,’ he said.

He sat with his daughters and composed himself. When one of the lads dropped his chips and hamburger on the floor under the table he didn’t even move. Eventually, when the two eldest lads began to fight and one of the metal chairs got overturned he collected all the remaining pieces of food and marched with them to the bin. ‘I’m terribly sorry about this,’ he explained to me and Tom. ‘They’re savages.’

‘Come on, we’re leaving.’ The whole extended family were on their feet and we watched them drift away into the crowds of shoppers in the market.

‘Two breakfasts,’ the cook said, and Tom got to his feet and brought our food to the table. As he sat down the old man returned, his face red. He pulled the chairs away from the tables they’d occupied. ‘Has anyone seen a camera?’ he asked, hysterically. ‘I must’ve put it down.’

We shook our heads.

He went to the counter and asked the cook and the Polish girl, and they shook their heads.

‘Day trippers,’ the cook said when the old guy went looking for his family.

‘He wasn’t having a good day,’ Tom said. ‘You could see it was gonna end bad.’

One Response to “Breakfast in the Market”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    That I hated this story so much is a credit to you as a writer. I was there with them all screaming on the inside. Very effective and some nice touches like the non-standard spelling of ‘Melany’. And I loved “he wore a moustache and white ankle socks with open-toed sandals.” I don’t know how deliberate this was but Tom felt to me like something of a MacGuffin. I found myself more focused on his silent character than I expected. In fact right at the end I thought he might deliver the punch line and yet what he said was almost inconsequential.

    jb says: He’s young, Jim. I keep telling him to age, but he stays young. If you asked him about this incident he’d insist he was misquoted.