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SATURDAY SHORT STORY; Smiley Faces by Helen Holmes.

HEF Geoff flips a rasher of milky bacon.

C"Eyes to the right! Jack Sprat and his missus approaching at one-o''clock." Mo turns her back and starts to swab the counter with unusual vim and vigour.

Jack Sprat and his wife materialise every Monday morning. Lucy glances at the clock. Nine thirty-five. You could set your watch by these people. Same time, same order. Groundhog Day. Mo is now buffing enthusiastically. Geoff stares balefully at Lucy, his eyebrows raised. She sighs. She slides two menus out of the wooden slot and trots like an obedient pony over to the couple, affixing her best attempt at a welcoming smile.

In Lucy''s first week, Geoff, who has eyes in the back of his head and a tongue like a Stanley knife, caught her smirking and rolling her eyes while she was taking an order. "I''ll say this just the once," he growled. "You wanna work here, you show the punters respect." He waggled his eggy spatula within licking distance.

Lucy took a step back.

"Think you''re a cut above, do yer?" Geoff asked.

A warm tide of embarrassment flooded Lucy''s face. "No, Chef."

"I''ll tell you summat, shall I?" Geoff''s spatula slashed the air. "About the folk out there?" Lucy was 13 years old again, in the head of year''s office after school, having forgotten her homework once too often.

She nodded, staring at her feet.

"Thing is, your ladyship..." (Geoff sounded as though his teeth were gritted). "Thing is, when your ladyship sashays off to university, the folk out there''ll still be paying me and Mo''s blinkin'' wages, pardon my French."

Lucy noticed that the bow on one of her ballet pumps had come undone.

"Yes, Chef."

On the toe of the other pump was a smear of something that Lucy hoped was Daddies Sauce.

"What subject you gonna do at uni?" "Histor y."

"Is that a fact?" "Yes, Chef." "Well, it may have your notice, but this job's more about the here and now, know what I mean?" "Yes, Chef." "More about sending the punters away with their bellies full." "Yes, Chef." "And smiles on their faces." "Yes, Chef. Sorry, Chef." "Your choice, kiddo. No skin off my nose. Plenty more where you came from. Shape up or ship out." Lucy flushes again at the memory. It was a fair cop. She's shaped up. For the most part. "Two black coffees," Jack Sprat says, not looking up. "Pleease," thinks Lucy. She's taken an instinctive dislike to Jack. She's not the only one. "Take my advice, pet." (Mo's never less than generous with her accumulated wisdom.)

"Never trust a skinny man." She shakes her head. Her frosted fuchsia lips are freighted with disapproval. "Mean as muck, you mark my words." Jack's small and gristly. Mo likes her men big, bold and beefy. Allegedly. No man of any description has materialised yet, but Lucy doesn't point this out. Jack has a weaselly face and sandy hair the texture of a Border terrier's coat. His teeth, which he displays from time to time in a lop-sided leer, are pointed and the colour of ivory. His fingers fidget, twitching papers, shuffling through his briefcase, fiddling with his laptop. His longish nails scrabble over the keys. His eyes, on the rare occasion they meet Lucy's, are pale and cold, appraising. Jack's wife is tall and majestic. She favours flamboyant floral prints, which convert her ample bosom into a bolster, her backside into a well-upholstered cushion. Shiny tights encase shapely legs with slender ankles. Her feet look too small to support her bulk. She reminds Lucy of an old-fashioned doll, the sort that closes her eyes and mewls "Ma-ma".

Her blonde hair ripples. Her face is pink and dimpled, her mouth the rosebud of a cherub. Her forget-me-not eyes skitter away in alarm if they collide with Lucy's. Some days she wears dark glasses, even when drizzle's dampening the car-park tarmac. While Jack fusses and frets, his wife sits still and silent. When she reaches for her cup, her hand sidles unobtrusively towards it. Her wedding ring cowers in the flesh of her finger. At ten-thirteen, Jack packs his briefcase and struts out of the caf. His metal heel-protectors ring on the tiled floor. His wife glances over her shoulder, then raises her right index finger to summon Lucy. ***

Chef Geoff's Cheeky Chappy is a work of art. It's also a two-finger salute to drizzled jus and julienned vegetables. His rib-sticking all-day breakfast is a smiley face. Eggs (fried or poached) are the eyes, a fried-bread triangle (white or wholemeal) the nose, half-tomatoes (vine-ripened) the cheeks, sausages (locally-sourced) the lips, button mushrooms (organic) the ears, bacon rashers (from pampered porkers) the hair. The pustular baked-bean beard and moustache (no added sugar or salt) fail to match the coiffure, but, as Geoff points out, plenty of brown-haired geezers sprout ginger whiskers. The pice de rsistance is the slice of award-winning black pudding carved into quizzical eyebrows. At precisely ten-fifteen every Monday morning, Jack's wife solemnly orders a full English breakfast. She seems reluctant to use the vernacular. Lucy sympathises. Out on the town with her mates, she steers clear of cocktails with un- From 35 dignified or embarrassing names, like Runny Conk or Slippery Nipple. Even if they sound delicious, she's afraid of blushing and having the Mickey taken. Most customers are up for it, though. "Can I get a Cheeky Chappy, please?"

Mo's developed a standard routine. She tee-hees. "Chance 'd be a fine thing, pet. Let me know if you find one. And don't forget to ask if he's got any brothers." Lucy's too self-conscious to take part in the pantomime. Jack's wife slices and dices and chews and swallows with total concentration. She pops daintily into her rosebud mouth her Cheeky Chappy'seyes, nose, cheeks, lips, ears and hair, facial and otherwise. It takes her 10 minutes to hoover up Geoff's platter, every last baked bean. When the plate is empty, she pushes it fastidiously away, as though she's just sat down at an uncleared table. She glances at her watch, then towards Lucy. This is the signal to clear. There's always a two-pound coin concealed under the rim of the plate. Generous. Jack's wife wipes her mouth with meticulous attention, rummages in her bag for compact and lipstick. She slicks her lips with a glossy bronze glaze and powders her nose. She slips a sweet into her mouth. Lucy removes the napkin and wrapper (from a glacier mint) and wipes the table. Jack's wife slumps into impassivity. At ten-forty-seven, Jack clicks back into the caf and the couple leaves. "Woman's a flippin' camel," Mo remarks, not without admiration.

"Never goes near the loo." Lucy thinks there may be sound reasons for that. It's just as well the ladies' loos don't have one of those customer satisfaction recording devices, where you press the button under the face with the relevant expression as you leave. They wouldn't get many. "Must have pelvic-floor muscles to die for," Mo moans. *** Mo and Lucy never tire of speculating about Jack's activities between ten-thirteen and ten-forty-seven. Chef Geoff joins in when he's in the mood. "I keep telling you," Mo says, "it's drugs." "Cobblers," Geoff says. "You've been watching too much telly, gel. He's an accountant or summat. Meeting a client." "What, every week?" Lucy asks. "Different clients, then." "Hmmm." "Why does wifie tag along?" Mo wonders. "I dunno," Geoff says. "P'raps he takes her out to lunch." "What, after that massive breakfast?" Lucy says. "He doesn't know about that, though, does he?" "He's a wrong 'un." Mo nods her head for emphasis. "You mark my words. Did you see that bruise when she took her cardie off?" "Oh, give over, Mo," Geoff says, turning to give the beans a stir.

"She prob'ly walked into a door." Mo and Lucy exchange the-man's-an-idiot glances. *** A fortnight later, Jack's wife is less than halfway through her breakfast when Lucy picks up a familiar sound. Clack, clack, clack, clack. Jack's heels are approaching. It's a quiet morning and the noise echoes in the deserted corridor, syncopating the muzak. Lucy looks at the clock. Only ten twenty-five. Jack's wife freezes, her fork suspended in its inexorable trajectory between plate and mouth. She looks at Lucy, her blue eyes wide and pleading. Her cutlery clatters to the plate. Lucy rushes over, sweeps up the incriminating evidence and scuttles away seconds before Jack appears in the doorway. Geoff looks startled as Lucy dumps the half-finished meal on the counter. "Quick! Get rid of it," she hisses. Geoff spots Jack, swoops on the plate. "Nice one, kiddo," he says.

"That's what I call customer care." *** It's Lucy's final Monday. She's just delivered the coffee to Mr and Mrs Sprat when the wife stands up. "Excuse me a minute," she says, and totters towards the exit on her too-tiny feet. Jack looks as astonished as Lucy feels. Recovering, he glances up at her, raises an eyebrow and twists his mouth into the signature leer. Lucy retreats. She passes Mo, who's gazing towards the door, pen hovering over pad, pink lips forming a perfect O, eyebrows hoisted. By the griddle, Chef Geoff's staring out into the caf, knife suspended like the sword of Damocles over a sizzling slice of black pudding. Lucy swivels to see what's hijacked their attention. Two hulking policemen, dazzling in DayGlo yellow jackets, belts bulging with gear, are striding towards Jack's table. He has his back to them, only registering their presence as they loom over him. He springs to his feet, swiping his cup with his right hand. Coffee pools on his pile of papers. One of the policemen snatches them up and flicks the liquid onto the floor. The other is speaking, but Lucy's too far away to decipher the words. One policeman takes charge of Jack's briefcase, the other of his laptop.

As he is escorted from the room, Jack looks like a naughty little boy being frog-marched between two prefects. Lucy fetches a cloth and mops up the spilt coffee, removes Jack's cup and saucer. She balances his wife's saucer on her cup to keep her coffee warm. Strong, sweet tea might be more in order, she thinks. A few minutes later, Jack's wife teeters back to the table and eases herself into her seat. She shoves her untouched coffee away and lifts her right index finger to summon Lucy. Her face looks strange. Lucy realises that this is the first time she's seen the woman smile. It's as though the sun has come out behind her eyes. Lucy blinks. Was that a wink? "I'll have a Cheeky Chappy, please, dear," says Jack Sprat's wife, "and a large cappuccino. Don't hold back on the chocolate." Helen Holmes started writing for pleasure after a career in education. Last year an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University revved up her idling brain. She has won a New Writing North short story competition and was recently shortlisted for a Mslexia competition. She lives with her husband in north Northumberland.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 5, 2011
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