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Sunrise Café

By Sandra Jensen

"Have you any experience?"  Akbar asked us. He wore a fire-red suit, a white shirt unbuttoned at the top and a heavy gold choker around his neck with a bullet hanging from it. Becky and I were both nervous as hell.  All morning I'd worried that they'd want her and not me. She was so beautiful and tall and dark haired I felt like something I wanted to rub out. She said she felt lumpen and gross next to me so I guess we were even. Becky had never had a job. At least I had: washing old ladies' hair at Minnie's Salon in Glastonbury. I was 13 and was fired on my third day after I squirted perming lotion down Mrs. Holloway's cleavage.

"Oh yes, lots of experience. We both worked for the catering department of Hampstead Community Centre." It wasn't a total lie. My mum needed a hand on pensioner's day because her volunteer had run off with the janitor. Bex and I came to the rescue and made sardine sandwiches. We got five quid each, which is a lot when you're on the dole.

Akbar looked us over. Actually he looked Becky over. A lot.  She was a foot taller than him and had these fantastic legs.  He handed us our uniforms. They looked innocent enough until we put them on. At least mine reached below my panties.

The uniform was a one-size fits-all beige T-shirt dress that fit tight and short-sleeved over our bodies and then opened out into a sort of tennis skirt thing for about five inches. There was a small heart-shaped pocket over one breast and the dress was trimmed in maroon, which was the color scheme of the restaurant: maroon and beige. We wore maroon tights and maroon shoes with paper-thin soles, really great for rushing around in for twelve hours. Akbar looked very pleased with himself when he saw Bex.

That's right, I said 12 hours. I did double shifts because I wanted to get to India quick.

Sunrise was the only restaurant in Covent Garden that was open all night. This was pretty strange given how many nightclubs there were in the area. Stringfellows was just across the way and we did a roaring trade when it closed up around four.  We served breakfast from 3 a.m. until 11 a.m. Customers came in starving and high from a night of sweaty dancing and drinking and then ate great heaping mounds of scrambled eggs, sausages, baked beans, chips, and deep fried, battered, garlic-butter-stuffed mushrooms. Usually one in three customers threw their breakfast up in the toilets. The rest of the customers threw up somewhere along the way.

The restaurant was on two levels. The toilets were downstairs. Going up and down those stairs was a nightmare because the kitchen was on the upper level and most of the customers wanted to be downstairs in the dark so they could continue doing whatever it was they were doing when the clubs closed.  Peter Stringfellow took a different girl down there each night. He always sat in number 18 in the corner where it was really dark. They'd hump away and then he would say to whoever was on shift down there, "Hello luv, bring me a pot of tea would you?"  Peter was very polite.   He was famous really, he'd been a working-class boy with nothing and now he was a millionaire who wore flash suits, had stringy yellow hair just like Rod Stewart and owned London's most famous nightclub.

We weren't allowed to serve alcohol after midnight but Akbar wasn't going let that get in his way. We were instructed to fill up our nice white and blue china teapots with whatever was the customer's fancy—which in Peter's case was Southern Comfort with a milk jug of seven-up on the side. Peter was very generous and always left a brand new hundred pound note under the jug, which we'd split between everyone. We still ended up with 20 pounds each, more than we'd make most nights because the English are such stingy tippers. I loved it when actors came in from the American musicals on tour. They'd give us at least 20 percent and the guys were really cute.

My other favorite customers were the prostitutes. There were two particular women who came in about three times a week, always in the early morning, around 2 a.m., in the lull before the nightclubs emptied out.  They were both rake thin and didn't look so good even with all the makeup they wore. Sometimes they'd leave with one of the male customers who came in later, but usually they just came in and left together. I liked the way they were with each other. They'd talk for ages and laugh a lot and cry too, one handing the other a hanky.

I saw the dark-haired one scan the menu very carefully. She took ages, and then she looked at her purse and looked back at the menu again. There weren't any other customers, and I was the only one on the floor just then apart from Nigel our manager who was sniffing coke in the office. The chef had stormed out of the restaurant two hours ago, something he did at regular intervals swearing loudly in French and saying he'd never come to this "Peees ol" again.  He'd always return at some point in the night, looking self-important as if we had all learned our lesson because everything had gone to a grinding halt in his absence, which it hadn't.

When the prostitutes asked for toast and a pot of tea—real tea—I went into the kitchen and made them a slap up breakfast of fried eggs and bacon with a piece of fillet steak and mushroom sauce. I figured they needed the protein. Henri the chef would notice the missing steak and I'd get hell as he knew I was the only one who went in there when he fucked off but I didn't care. If it wasn't for me he'd have been fired ages ago and he knew this, so he might give me shit but he wouldn't tell Nigel or Akbar.

"Sorry love, I think you've got the wrong table," the sweet looking redheaded one said.

"Well someone ordered this and then changed their minds. It hasn't been touched. It'll only get thrown out. Seemed such a waste." I put the plates down quickly and left so they wouldn't have to thank me.

They ate every morsel, practically would have licked the plates clean if they hadn't been so beautifully mannered, and left me a two pound tip which made me feel bad as I knew it was all they had.

This was the same crazy night Bex went home early because she'd fallen down the stairs with the relish tray. I think it must have been a full moon or something because just about everything seemed to go wrong.  It was four a.m. and the restaurant got really busy—we had 17 tables between us because Lucy never arrived for her shift. She was always doing this and then coming in the next night as if nothing had happened, asking for her share of the tips. Lucy was having an affair with Nigel so we couldn't say no without getting our week’s wages docked. He only came out of his office for a re-fill of his lager and blackcurrant or to sit at table six by the window when Akbar arrived for his weekly check up on the place. Nigel would chain smoke so fast we'd have to empty his ashtray three times in an hour. Becky and I had an unspoken agreement that it was my job wait on their table. Her uniform had shrunk in the wash like everyone else's, but on her it was a serious problem. Akbar couldn't keep his greasy hands off her bum.  Becky had a thing for rough stocky men and was pretty torn up about how much she hated Akbar and liked him touching her at the same time.

Well, this night we both had our periods and were and not in the mood to serve Surf'n Turf to 43 drunken customers all at once. I remember the number because we had only been there three months and it was the busiest ever.  Little did we know what we had in store for us when Christmas came around. We were a fave spot for office parties and they were truly the worst but that's another story.

Peter was in the corner screwing someone who looked young enough to be his daughter; Akbar had arrived unexpectedly and Nigel was even more agitated than usual. He looked like a little weasel with his Che Guevara moustache and his shimmering hit-man suit. He kept bothering Bex and me. We couldn't do anything right. The glasses were not polished enough, the food was left waiting under the heat lamps too long, we weren't paying enough attention to Peter, the music was too soft.  Finally he left us alone and joined Akbar with two teapots of vodka.

I always got on edge when Akbar was around. I was doing my own little number on the side and I was sure he'd figure it out sooner or later.  I'd been pulling in tables without ringing them up on the till. Some nights I took home 200 pounds. I'd always put a portion of my filching in the tip drawer but no one knew what I was doing, not even Becky.  Well, I said I wanted to get to India fast.  It was easy enough. We'd stopped having a cashier ever since Mandy the transsexual left. Akbar had figured her out and told her to get back to the dung heap where she came from.  That night I spat in his soup.  Anyway, some nights I'd be taking orders, shaking cocktails, frying steak au poivre, getting the bill and washing the dishes all at once. I'd put the Thompson Twins on full blast and move so fast and neat between tables I was a kind of mad creature who stuck invisible wires into all my customers so I'd know what they wanted before they did. I figured I deserved a little extra those nights so I just took all the money from a couple of busy tables and got rid of the evidence, which was basically two pieces of paper: kitchen order and my order.

I was sure Akbar was discussing dwindling funds with Nigel. He kept shooting his eyes at me and I got really nervous. Bex was doing the tables downstairs and suddenly a party of 11 walked in.  They were all women, having a night on the town I guess. They were already pretty wasted and wanted a table downstairs. Becky couldn't think as quick as I could so I helped her out with the order.

"Whadya got there girlie?"  one of the women said, pointing to Becky's dress. "Looks like something I'd use to wash the bog with. Ha, ha, ha."  It was true, we all looked like we were wrapped in a sort of pilled cotton dishcloth. Becky was really sensitive. Usually she managed to keep it inside until the end of the shift when she'd go and sit in Highgate Park and yell for about ten minutes to get it all out of her system.

"Well, actually it is what we use to clean the toilets. Customers can be so filthy in there we run out of rags," I said. The rest of the table snickered. "The Oxtail soups really good tonight" I continued all in the same deadpan tone.  The woman mumbled “cunt” under her breath and I thought, shit, I've gone and made it worse for Bex. I shot her a look and she nodded and went upstairs.  I took the rest of the orders. They wanted a pitcher of kiwi daiquiri and hamburgers all round.

I asked Bex to bring them the relish tray. I was just coming to the top of the stairs when I saw her long legs flying up under a rainbow of green relish and ketchup. Mustard slooshed out in a graceful arc across the maroon wall, pimento stuffed olives bounced down the stairs and sticky corn rained down on her lovely auburn hair. She landed in a heap at the bottom, her dress halfway up her stomach, right in front of the table of 11 women. I put down the pitcher on table number two and went down trying to avoid stepping in anything. Becky got up and went straight to the bathroom. I followed her and waited outside the toilet door for a moment. I tried the handle but it was locked. I could hear her whimpering inside.  Food was getting cold under the lights and already three other tables had filled up. The table of 11 was complaining loudly about the poor service and all the mess and out of the corner of my eye I could see Nigel coming towards me like a wound up toy soldier.

 "Don't you fucking say anything!"  I hissed. "I'll handle it." I leapt upstairs taking the steps four at a time—God it was a mess—and got Becky's coat. I went down to the toilet again and hung it over the electric hand-dryer and then went back up to the kitchen for the bucket and mop. I did the best I could, it stank of vinegar, but it would have to do.

Table number two had already finished half of table 11's kiwi daiquiri so I had to get another and I could see Nigel watching me with his beady black eyes. I made extra and poured a glass full for myself, adding another full shot of rum. I stared Nigel in the eye and glugged it down as fast as I could. Then I grabbed two plates of curling dried out burgers in one hand and the pitcher in the other. Along the way I took one of the new table's order and cashed out Peter Stringfellow. He put the 100 pound note in my dress's heart-shaped pocket, careful not to be too forward which was quite a feat since it was directly over my right nipple. 

"I'm sorry you had to wait."

"No worries love. Looks like you've got your hands full," he replied, adding a twenty to the hundred.

I took the food and daiquiri down and ran back up for the rest.  Henri was swearing and I was terrified he'd leave again so I kept telling him the customers loved his food, which they didn't. He was a terrible chef.  I poured myself a tequila and attended to the other waiting tables. People didn't stop coming in. My dress was completely soaked with sweat but I just kept moving. There wasn't any choice. Nigel had disappeared which he did when things got really chaotic so it was just me and Henri. I had served sixty-seven people in two hours and drank nine tequilas.  I was so drunk I was sober. It quieted down and then things began to reel and sway. I still figured I was all right but then this tall exotic looking man walked in and ordered an oyster salad and a coffee. He had blond hair in a ponytail and wore Doc Martins and a long black coat with the collar folded up. He looked like someone who just walked off the set of Blade Runner. He didn't say much but I fell into his teal-blue eyes and brought him an espresso cup so I'd have to keep coming back to re-fill it. He took out A Hundred Years of Solitude and read while smoking long thin cigars and picking the oysters out of his salad. I'd already gone over to his table four times when our hands touched. All the hairs on my arm stood up and he looked straight into my face and said, "I'd like the bill please".
 
On the way back from the cash register I downed someone's whiskey sour and added two of our Sunrise Café peppermints to the bill plate. Blade Runner put a tenner on the plate and then stood up swinging his coat over his shoulder.  The room was a stew of maroon and beige and corn relish and half-chewed burgers and Becky's ketchup splattered legs and Akbar's oily fish-face sneering at me so I threw my arms around his neck and sobbed "I love you" into his Adam's apple.

I must have lurched at him pretty hard because he fell back on his chair with me on top of him and then we were on the floor underneath his table. I was kissing his lips by now and I think he was kissing back but by this time Henri had come out of the kitchen looking for me. He had a spatula in his hand and started to bang on the table. My newfound lover scrambled to his feet and I just lay there weeping and feeling as if I was going to throw up any minute. Henri threw the spatula on the floor by my head and told me to get my  "sheet" together there was an order waiting.  Blade Runner helped me up, wiped my face with his used napkin, told me I was the sexiest woman he'd ever met and then left.

I felt better after that and went to pick up the eggs Bennie for table seven.

 

Sandra Jensen was born in South Africa but left as a child and has lived in England, Canada, Greece, and Ireland, and travelled to many other countries. She is presently based in Berlin, Germany. Her creative expression has ranged from weaving to martial arts, but mostly has been focused on writing. She has written for the theater; short non-fiction works have appeared in Utne Reader and Whole Earth Magazine and she has been short-listed for the Canadian literary journal Event's creative non-fiction contest. Sandra is cultivator of the on-line writer's group at Zaadz.com called Diving Deeper: A Writing Workshop. She leads Diving Deeper writing retreats in Europe and North America.  Sandra is currently working on a short story collection and a novel set in Sri Lanka during the "Black July" of 1983.

Photo "Party Ball" courtesy of Marja Flick-Buijs, Aalsmeer, Netherlands.


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