Sunday 3 September 2023

Sunday Serial: The Story Weaver by Sally Zigmond: HEALTH AND SAFETY, builder's tea




There she goes, lighting up again. She takes a drag, checks the tip to see it’s lit, then goes back to staring into space. It’s not long before smoking will be banned in public places. It’s in all the papers. Cerise says that if everyone gives up the evil weed, Health and Safety will only go and find something else that’s bad for us.

‘Everything that’s fun is,’ she says and laughs. ‘Bubble gum next,’ and she blows a great big pink balloon that explodes with a smack against her cheek. She’s forty-five. Same age as me but everybody assumes she’s younger.

            When I got this job, well before Cerise arrived, there was an urn for boiling water and drums of powdered tea and coffee. It was the Station Buffet then with thick white cups and saucers and plates of sandwiches under a glass dome like the one in ‘Brief Encounter.’ Ham, egg and cress, cheese and pickle, all of them curling at the edges by midday. It’s the Green Oasis now with plastic palms and camels trekking across the walls, although what it’s got to do with railways is beyond me.

‘Camel trains,’ Cerise explains. ‘Bringing a bit of the exotic into our humdrum existence.’ But, like most of what she goes on about, doesn’t make sense.

            We now sell four varieties of tea and twenty coffees but it’s still not what I would call a café. My dream is to have a small place of my own with lace curtains and tablecloths, bone china and tea-cosies. I’d sell scones and home-made jam and there’d be little posies of flowers on every table instead of tin ashtrays like here. Sheba would be curled up in her basket next to the till.

‘Health and Safety wouldn’t allow that,’ Cerise said when I told her about it one quiet day.

Health and Safety? Don’t make me laugh. What do they know? There’s no such thing. Life is neither healthy nor safe for any living thing whatever these busybodies say. When the RSPCA found Sheba locked in a shed, she was in a right state. You could see her ribs and someone had taken a blunt knife to her tail. You wouldn’t think she was the same dog now. She loves her food and I give her all the leftovers from here. She’s got a bit of a tummy on her and the vet told me off but I told her straight. ‘If you’d seen her when I first did you would be delighted.’ Anyway, she’s not fat. She’s cuddly. Sheba that is, not the vet. It’s all a matter of balance. One size doesn’t fit all.

Sheba’s favourite nosh used to be the steak and kidney pies I brought home from The Feathers before I got the sack. Can’t blame Grumpy Jack, really. He said he was running a fucking pub not a fucking drop-in centre for the fucking social services and that allowing ne’er do-wells credit and letting them slob about all day stinking the place out and feeding their mangy dogs was not what I was paid for. But you can do both, can’t you? Serve the paying public for decent service and looking after the desperate? People need to know someone cares about them. Not some Jobsworth spouting rules. Not Health and Safety either.

Any road, I’m here now and Sheba’s got used to the sweet stuff. I don’t think dogs have memories. You’d never think Sheba had ever been abused. She’s so trusting. She runs up to everyone for a kiss and a cuddle and gets one too. But one day she might not. I mean, people can be funny about dogs, can’t they? But I can’t forget the past. Even with sleeping-pills. Some things, once seen, are never forgotten.

That’s why I’m twitching like a nervous frog about her with the cigarettes over by the window. And the fact she’s been nursing that latte decaff for two hours now. It wasn’t even hot when I poured it. I think there’s something wrong with the machine. I called maintenance four times last week but no-one’s turned up yet.  I apologize to customers all the time. Cerise took me to one side the other day and told me not to. ‘Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you,’ she said.

‘That’s the trouble,’ I said. She laughed. But I wasn’t joking.

She wasn’t here when it happened. She has no idea.

The girl with the fags and the cold coffee is a pretty little thing or would be if she smiled. As well as the smoke that’s hanging around her there’s something else too.  I don’t know what you call it. The smell of bad choices and missed opportunities that greets you when you go home to an empty flat. I’d be the same if I didn’t have Sheba.

 She glances at her watch and then the clock behind the counter. ‘It’s always five minutes fast,’ I call over but she doesn’t seem to hear me. Then she looks at the door before taking another long suck on her ciggie as if she’s drawing life itself from it.

There she goes again, screwing the butt down on top of the others and lighting another. She must have money to burn although she doesn’t look rich. She doesn’t look anything, really. She’s young enough to be my daughter. Hark at me. I’ve not got a daughter. At least, not since Patricia walked out and never came back. No wonder I worry. She could be sleeping in a cardboard box somewhere for all I know. God, I hope not. No. Mustn’t think about it. Plenty of other people to worry about. Pat told me before she left I was an interfering old witch.

The station loudspeaker in the corner crackles into life. It does so every five minutes during the day and I don’t even notice it but at this time of night it makes my heart race.

She doesn’t move a muscle. In a world of her own.

 The ten-thirty to Derby’s rolling in now. Platform two instead of four because it’s ten minutes late. The two men in old anoraks who’ve been checking the racing pages at the table nearest to the till dash off like hounds out of the starting gates. ‘Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war,’ I call after them. Cerise laughs at me when I come out with stuff like that. ‘You’re weird, you are,’ she says.  But it’s not me that’s odd. It’s her. Her son’s in prison and her daughter is eighteen and already has two kids and now lives with a drug-dealer. And all she does is shrug her shoulders and say, ‘What can you do?’ And laugh.

A whistle blows on the far side of the station. An engine judders, belches a lungful of diesel smoke and slides out of the station on a slick of black oil. Now there’s only the stopping service to Peterborough to come and the ten fifty to Birmingham New Street and then I can close up.

I’m stocking up the fridge with bottles of fizzy water ready for tomorrow when the Peterborough train rolls in. The remaining few coffee-drinkers get up. Now there’s just me and her. I clear their tables and get out the mop and fill a bucket. I count the pastries. Still four Apple Danishes and a Cinnamon Swirl left for Sheba. One young man with rings hanging off one ear nearly chose that but I told him it had been sitting there since yesterday so he bought a Kit-Kat instead.

I’m supposed to fill in a form listing all the perishable stuff that has to be thrown away at the end of the day but I don’t bother.

Mrs Aspinall, who comes in her little black suit from head office to audit the paperwork every six months, is a suspicious so-and-so.

‘Sell every last item, every single day, do we?’ she said once all sarky-like but she leaves me alone now. She must have heard about what happened. Like I had something to do with it and it’s contagious or something.

The old station master had to take early retirement. Nerves shot to pieces, they said. But he didn’t see anything. He was fast asleep in his cubby-hole until all hell broke loose. Then he went out into the car park and threw up over a shiny white Mercedes.

I had to make a statement and go to the Coroner’s Court. I told them how the man sat for hours in here, just like this girl, then walked out as calm as you like. Then stepped off in front of the non-stop to New Street. There was a helluva screech of brakes but it was far too late, of course.

I told them what I’d seen. They never asked me for details else so I didn’t tell them more than the obvious.

He’d been getting on my nerves, see? He sat there for hours with one flipping mean espresso, chain-smoking and flicking ash all over the table I’d just wiped. Well, I’d been sacked once before for being kind so I also said, ‘There’s an ashtray, you know. How about using it?’ He looked through me as if I wasn’t there or wasn’t important enough for him to waste his eyesight on so I went on, ‘Grown roots, have you?’ When he still ignored me I did a Grumpy Jack and reminded him that the café was for paying customers only and that he’d better move to the waiting-room on platform one if he wasn’t going to buy anything. Still ignored me.

The next time I went over with my cloth, he looked at as if he was seeing me for the first time and asked me if I had a moment to sit down. He wanted to ask my opinion about something important.

I told him I was too busy and went back to the counter. I was keeping my eyes on the pastries, see? I remember I counted them and smiled. Like tonight, there were exactly four Apple Danishes and a Cinnamon Swirl. Funny that. Maybe that’s why I’m so on edge tonight.  That man stubbed out his last cigarette and stood up. ‘Thank you so much for your time,’ he said quietly, closed the door carefully behind him, crossed the platform and jumped.

So that’s why, when this girl starts filling up the ashtray quicker than the condensation is dripping puddles on the floor, I’m a bit, well. You know.

I move the chairs so I can mop by her table.  ‘I’m closing up as soon as the ten fifty’s gone,’ I say. It sounds awkward. Bossy even. I’m no longer any good at small-talk now. Besides, it’s wasted on a dog.

‘Thank you,’ she says although I can’t tell if she means it.

‘Catching it, are you?’ I don’t mention she’s already missed three Birmingham trains whilst she’s been sat there smoking for England.

‘Yes,’ she says quickly.

Too quickly. I’m feeling peculiar. Light-headed. I step back. Only go and knock the bucket over, don’t I? And while I’m all of a fluster, the loudspeaker makes me jump, echoing off the walls and making the bottles in the fridges rattle. The Birmingham train. The ten fifty.

Can’t think. Stand there like a flaming lemon. Think of something. Dash behind the counter, grab the four Apple Danishes and the Cinnamon Swirl and push them in a bag so hard it splits. I catch her just as she gets to the door. Stand with my back flat against it. Icy air whistles through the gap. And I’m babbling like Cerise does into that mobile phone of hers. ‘Here. Take them,’ I say, shoving the greasy bag in her face. ‘It’s long way to Birmingham and there’s no trolley-service on that train. They’re really nice. Still fresh. They’ll only go to waste. Health and Safety, you understand. We’re not allowed to sell them the next day.’

She looks at me. Nothing. Blank as an empty ashtray. Then something happens and that grey dead look falls from her face. She smiles. The train clanks in, slows and the doors stutter open.

‘Thank you,’ she says quietly and touches me on the shoulder. Like a butterfly, it’s there and then it’s gone. She hurries across the platform and boards the train. She moves down the carriage and I can’t see her any more.

The wind bowls an empty Coke can along the platform and under a bench where it rocks to and fro, a loveless child. The train waits, its engine thrumming like a giant’s heart. Above it, I can hear the guard yell something to Barry who’s supposed to clean the toilets. Something about whether City stand a chance against Chelsea on Saturday. ‘Not a fucking chance, mate,’ grunts Barry and shuffles off to get his coat.

One shrill blast of the whistle. The doors close and the train moves off and that’s it for another day.

I go back in, right the bucket and mop up the mess. A thin trail of smoke still rises from the ashtray. I leave it there, set the alarm and lock up. I should clear it away – Healthy and Safety – but it’ll burn itself out and I know it will help me sleep to think of it sitting there,  proof she was here in my café and she smiled at me and now she’s safely on her way to Birmingham. I caught a fleeting glimpse inside the carriage. All is lights were on. Had she thought of jumping? I dunno but there’s nothing for Sheba now.  Never mind. I’ll buy her some chips on the way home. She’ll be pleased whatever I give her. That’s the thing about dogs. They take what comes and get on with it.

About the auhtor

Sally Zigmond's dream always was to read and write.When her sons were occupied during the day with full-time dedication, she attended various adult education classes run by the local government.She eventually stumbled on "Creative Writing for Pleasure and Profit" and she was hooked.  Her commercial fiction has been published by The People’s Friend, My Weekly, The Lady and Woman's Weekly. Her more literary fiction and has won prizes and competitions and much has been published in QWF - Quality  Women's Fiction.  
Hope Against Hope a Victorian novel was published in 2011 and Chasing Angels, a novella in 2019



No comments:

Post a Comment