Open Short Story Competition - Runner up

Jon Markes

Runner up
Title
The Waitress
Competition
Open Short Story Competition

Biography

This is the second time Jon have been placed second in a Writing Magazine competition in the past twelve months. He's a shopkeeper, working and living in York and currently completing his first novel, which has been eighteen years in the writing!

The Waitress By Jon Markes

She is exactly how Woody described her; tall, jet-black hair, long, but tied up into a bun. Just the right amount of lipstick. Very pretty.
He’s good with details is Woody, good at noticing things. In another life, he might have made a good detective. Imagine that! Granted, he’s not always used his skills of observation towards what most people would think of as a positive outcome, but he was always the most reliable, the most astute and that’s why we used him so often.
‘She’s very pretty,’ he said, and he wasn’t wrong. And, it’s not just her appearance that he got right. Woody also described perfectly the way she walks (‘like she’s gliding across the floor’). Watching her move effortlessly between the tables, I can see exactly what he meant.
Woody told me she gets here at a quarter to nine and leaves at five. On working days, she catches the number fifty-three bus into town at eight-thirteen and the five-twenty home. She has an hour’s break at two o’clock, once the lunchtime rush is over and, sometimes, she goes into town.
Most Thursday lunchtimes, she goes to the library. Woody says she’s a bit of a reader, judging by the number of books she takes each week. He says she doesn’t meet anyone on the way to, or from work. That’s good. The fewer people around her, the fewer the complications. Of course, she would have seen Woody when he sat in here drinking tea, but she won’t have remembered him. He operates in the shadows, does Woody. Makes himself invisible, even when he’s there.
Her boss must love her, the way she moves, cat-like among the tables, a smile and a friendly word to every customer that comes through the door. I’ll wait until she smiles and comes over to me, then I’ll make my move.
Would that be too soon?
Maybe I should come here a few times, become a regular. I could get to know her better and I might win her trust. She might even get to like me, want to get to know me better, too and that would make what I have to do so much easier.
Sometimes, I imagine myself strolling out with her on my arm. Well, a version of her that I imagined, when I had plenty of time to imagine. ‘Dump the old guy,’ they’d say and she would laugh.
I wouldn’t care. She’d be mine.
I could take her out for a nice meal, buy a bottle of expensive Italian wine. She looks like she would appreciate a nice red. We’d go to her flat. I bet it’s lovely. Woody’s been there already, well, outside of it and he says it’s really modern, in a nice area. But that’s a long way off and I should not be thinking these thoughts. Not, yet. I wonder what she reads. I asked Woody once, but he couldn’t say. Of course, I shouldn’t have asked him. I’m tactless, sometimes.
I’ve always found talking to women difficult. I was never one for chatting up girls in clubs, like some men do. I’ve seen them. They turn on the charm and the next thing, they’re out the back with them. That was never for me. Believe it or not, I do have standards.
Or, I just didn’t have the nerve.
Men are easier. You know where you are with men because they speak the same language. The men I know do, at least. They tell it to you straight. Then again, they let you down, don’t they? In the end, you can’t trust them. I trusted a few and look where it got me. There’s only Woody that has never let me down. Woody, the chameleon. Everyone knows Woody, at least in certain circles, but nobody really knows him at all. Even me. I don’t even know his real name.
This time, he’s really stepped up to the plate. ‘She’s the girl of your dreams,’ he said. And he was right! Of course, I paid him well. Nobody does anything for nothing, do they? And, it keeps everything straight between us.
She’s coming over. I can feel butterflies flapping away in my gut. Haven’t had those for years, not since...well, a long time ago. Remember to smile. First impressions and all that. Don’t want to put her off before I’ve started!
‘Hi! How are you, today?’ she asks. She has a beautiful smile; shiny white, perfectly straight teeth. Not too much make-up, just the lipstick. I like that. I’ve never been one for women wearing too much make-up.
‘I’m very well thank you. How about you?’
I smile back at her and clench my hands together under the table. ‘I’m really good, thanks. What can I get you?’
She’s gorgeous.
‘Just a pot of tea. Thank you.’ I smile again.
‘Ok, it’ll just be a couple of minutes,’ she says and goes to the next table. Now I’ve had a closer look, I would say she was handsome, rather than pretty. Too tall to be pretty.
She’s having a laugh with the couple at the next table. She rests her hand on the gentleman’s back as she speaks. I don’t like that, but I let it go. A friendly gesture, that’s all it is. She clears their table, quickly, effortlessly.
Courage.
I put my hand into the air, almost involuntarily. She comes straight over and beams that beautiful smile.
‘Can I trouble you for a slice of toast?’ I ask.
I’m very polite. Too polite and it sounds wrong, but she still smiles. ‘Of course,’ she says.
Polite never seems genuine coming from the likes of me. It’s certainly not a characteristic that anyone who knows me would recognise! Straight talking? Certainly. Loyal? Yes, regrettably. A bit of a hard man, some would say. Polite? Hardly. But neither am I the man who stared out from the front pages of the tabloids, either. I never was the monster they made me out to be. I admit I wasn’t right in those days, but I was not a monster. Ask those who really knew me. Ask Woody.
I’m sorted now, they say. Passed the courses, done the work, ticked the boxes. Older and wiser. Much older. I’m actually glad that they always show that picture. It’s so far from how I look now that it would be difficult for people to recognise me. And, I’m using a different name. New life, new name.
New girl in my life.
My eyes follow her to the counter. On a sunny day, we could go to the park. Or, to the cinema. I wonder what kind of films she enjoys. Twenty-nine, she is. I can never forget her age, can I? What do twenty-nine-year olds watch these days? RomComs? No, she looks too smart to watch RomComs. She’s a reader, after all. Maybe an arty film. Or one of those dark Scandinavian ones that everyone seems to watch. I laugh so much at the cops in those.
Twenty-nine. There must be someone in her life, though Woody is sure that she lives on her own. A good-looking girl like that is never on their own for long. Maybe there was someone, once. Woody did wonder how she managed to afford that flat on a waitress’s wage. He said he would do a bit more digging if I wanted him to, but I made it crystal clear that I didn’t want him to pry too much, other than to know where she worked and where she lived. That was the limit of his involvement and he knows better than to cross lines.
There’s no ring, though.
She’s laughing about something, with the boy behind the counter. She throws her head back. Her neck is slender. The boy looks over to me and sees me looking back at him. We both look away. Are they laughing at me? I feel my face flush red. A dead giveaway, always. I recognise the signs and I have to be careful. Jealousy, is it? Maybe, just a tinge. Anger, is it? I hope not, for his sake. And mine.
Here she comes with the tea and toast.
‘Thank you,’ I say and smile up at her. She smiles, but it’s a different smile this time. ‘Sounded like a good joke,’ I say.
‘I’m sorry?’ she says, frowning and taking a step back.
‘Over there. You were laughing. With the young man.’ ‘It was just a stupid joke,’ she says.
She looks at me for quite a while. I open a square of hard butter and attempt to scrape it across my toast. God, I wish I had waited now. This was not the place. She moves away.
I imagine what Woody would say: ‘Too hasty, Charlie, much too hasty.’
I glance up at the counter. They’re both looking at me now and she’s saying something. He puts his hand on her shoulder. She brushes it off, shakes her head and turns away. It’s a small gesture, but it makes my stomach churn. Not butterflies this time, not anger. Something else.
Her smile has gone.
The moment I have waited so long for has gone.
I know exactly what I have to do.
I finish my tea, fold the butter wrappers into neat little squares and put my empty mug on top of the plate. One thing I’ve always been is tidy.
I really don’t want to leave a mess.
I go to the counter to pay.
‘Thank you, that was lovely,’ I say.
She gives me a quick glance and taps the amount into the till. No smile this time. ‘Keep the change,’ I say. At least I have been able to give her something.
‘But you gave me a fifty-pound note’, she says.
‘I know,’ I say and smile at her.
As I open the door I turn around. She’s looking straight at me.
‘Goodbye, Joanna’, I say and walk out onto the street.
It’s the right thing to do. Her mother probably told her that I died years ago. Maybe, it’s better left that way.

Judges Comments

The runner-up in our Open Short Story competiiton is another closely observed first-person narrative – and in the case of The Waitress, it's a story where observation is key. There are layers of looking, and watching, in Jon's story: before the narrator watched the girl in the café, Woody, the unseen third character, was also paid to wait, and watch, and provide the narrator with the information about her that he required.

The act of watching in this story has creepy, even sinister overtones but Jon skilfully undermines this when he reveals the narrator's motive and gives the story's ending its poignant twist. The build-up, though, is all about immersing the reader in a sense of an underworld that operates on its own rules. Without using the words 'crime', 'criminal' or 'prison', Jon has suggested the atmosphere of a dangerous outsider's world with its own rules. The creation of the unseen Woody is Jon's masterstroke: he is the vehicle that allows the narrator to drop in the details that add up to the backstory of The Waitress and the thrust of its surface drama: the man who has come to the café with his own reasons for encountering its waitress. We know, in fact, more about Woody than we do about the narrator or the waitress, and yet Jon amplifies the sense of the lone-wolf narrator's isolation by informing the reader that even he doesn't really know Woody: 'I don't even know his real name.'

In this story permeated by longing and regret, the only note of resolution that the narrator can offer is to leave his daughter alone. Whatever crime he has committed – and by not revealing it, Jon allows the reader to imagine the worst – his existence is bleak and not wanting to blight another life is the redeeming quality that makes this exceptionally well-told tale a sad picture of lost possibilities rather than a sinister surveillance story.