Monday, August 14, 2006

Archie Asserts...

Arch had an assertive episode last week.

Archie and Leap have a penchant for ‘greasy spoon’ cafes and the greasiest of them all is on the quayside in Newcastle. I don’t know the name of the café – when I worked at a nearby theatre we just referred to it as ‘the dirty café’. The proprietor has always shown a distinct lack of interest in the needs of his clientele: hygiene, comfort, polite service. He has always viewed customers as an inconvenience. On the first of the few occasions he has ever bothered to serve me I made the mistake of asking him to make a fresh sandwich. He wiped his hands on his grimy apron and turned to face his workspace. I was treated to a view of his sweaty cleft as he assembled a sandwich with a scanty filling in tough bread. From that day on, I only bought the wrapped sandwiches that he bought in.

I was too polite to complain on that occasion. Archie has been going into the same café for nearly ten years – he has been regularly ignored in the queue, short-changed and even once spent an afternoon confined to the superloo on the quayside after an upset tummy he accredited to a dirty café all-day breakfast. His toilet travails even outlasted the money he had paid to use the convenience. He felt a draught as he strained to evacuate and looked up to realise that the door had been time-released and he was being observed by a group of Norwegian tourists.

Archie and Leap went to the dirty café one morning last week and Arch had a small epiphany. He was once again ignored for some time in the queue – burly workmen and pushy pensioners were all served ahead of him. Arch tends to reach up to shop counters with a banknote in his hand. As he has quite small hands, he can use the note in the manner of a small flag. (He did have a similar visibility problem when trying to stop the bus to get home from the factory, until Leap fashioned a small white hand-flag for him with the word ‘STOP!’ in a vertical setting). The banknote eventually worked – after all other customers on the premises had been served – and a surly teenaged girl took Archie’s order for a platter of chips and beans with two forks.

Archie and Leap settled into their usual spot by the window. Leap rubbed Arch’s beard to soothe his queue stress and began to roll cigarettes with imported liquorice papers. Ten minutes passed and the couple became concerned about the progress of their order. Arch turned in his seat and he and Leap made a concerted effort to attract the attention of the girl who had taken their order (she was now talking on her mobile phone). She eventually succumbed to the pressure of their joint stare and furrowed her brow. She turned to attract the attention of the proprietor who turned away from displaying his cleft to his customers and snapped ‘What?’

‘Them.’ The girl pointed at Arch and Leap, ‘I’ve just remembered they wanted a plate of chips and beans for two, a couple of forks and two teas.’

The proprietor turned to prepare the food and his cleft returned to its default of ‘on show’.

The girl returned to her mobile phone call without so much as an apology. Archie seethed.

‘Don’t make a scene,’ implored Leap. ‘She’s not worth it.’

The proprietor shuffled out into the café and carelessly distributed tea – wordlessly sliding two mugs onto Arch & Leap’s table. Leap mopped up the tea spilled around the cups and smiled at Archie.

‘It’s not good enough!’ exclaimed Archie in a raised voice (which was still unheard beyond their table). ‘I’ve just spent nearly two pounds, you know. That’s a the price of a pint.’

Archie’s attention was suddenly attracted by the sight of the surly girl drifting around the café with a plate of chips and beans. She was still talking into her mobile phone as a couple of chips slid from the plate onto the dirty floor. She passed the couple’s table and nonchalantly set the plate down on the open newspaper of an elderly man at a neighbouring table.

‘Hello,’ he said, ‘I didn’t order that.’

By this time the ‘waitress’ was back behind the counter and had begun to compose a text message. She stopped what she was doing, momentarily, to speak:

‘Pass it over, will you.’

She looked back at the screen of her phone. Archie could hold himself back no longer and got to his feet. Nobody noticed, but he was heard when he shouted ‘Why don’t you do it!?’

All eyes in the café suddenly turned on Arch. He was not just asking a simple question about a misplaced plate of chips and beans – he was trying to challenge and undermine the whole culture of the ‘dirty café’. The surly girl looked at the proprietor – who then left the confines of his counter for an unprecedented second time that morning. He approached the table on which the plate had been left. He picked up the plate of now lukewarm beans and chips and hovered in front of Arch and Leap. With his customary lack of facial animation, the proprietor uttered the longest sentence the couple had ever known of him.

‘You’re both barred. You’ve been nothing but trouble for years.’

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