As soon as she caught my eye, I knew it was going to be one of those situations. You know the ones, where suddenly, you’ve been put into a position of responsibility you neither asked for nor wanted, but you’re in it anyway.
Let me tell you how it all happened. I was labouring away in the office where I work on an almost voluntary basis. At lunchtime, I decided to accompany my colleague, Mrs Nicola Napier-Brown Ellis-Jones, latterly of Leckhampton, over to the trendy Italian coffee shop/panini bar across the way. She was unable to walk any further than this, due to the alarmingly high heels she was wearing. Since this eatery is directly opposite the entrance to our office, it meant that Nicola didn’t need to turn any corners but merely needed the faintest of pushes to set her tottering off across the road and through the door.
Now, this particular cafe is one of those chains with a faux Italian name, something like ‘Cafe Bella Celli Cappuccino .’ We have to be careful when we go there, because next door is ‘Correlli Correttos’, an Italian style coffee house/eatery owned by Giovanni, a genial Italian who befriended us a couple of years ago. However, his mood would darken and he would always spit viciously and drag a finger across his throat if anyone ever mentioned going near ‘Cafe Bella Celli Cappuccino ,’ let alone in it. Therefore, the final part of our journey involves cupping your hands over your head like blinkers and walking in a fashion similar to Golem from Lord of the Rings so as not to be recognised by Giovanni, who may or may not be smoking outside his cafe. I mean, this would never make you look conspicuous, would it?
Nicola’s stuttering gait was halted by the glass cabinets containing all the yummy sandwiches and we joined the queue. We ordered our lunch from the East European Italian waitress and waited to pay the large Italian man operating the till. He looked very like one of those menacing characters that appear in TV shows like The Sopranos. You know, the one they send out to ‘deal with da problem’ and who returns to say, ‘He won’t be boddering yous any more, boss.’
As Nicola and I chatted and waited for our bread based products to be warmed, I became aware that somebody was looking at me. I glanced down to my left, where an old lady sat looking back at me with doleful eyes. She needed help and had spotted somebody who looked a likely candidate to give her this. Me. Yes, I’m one of those people who always end up volunteering my services in times of need, however much I don’t want to. My community spirited, helpful side possessed me and I smiled.
“Is everything alright?” I asked her cheerfully.
She continued to stare at me for a couple of seconds before pouting. Oh no. Please. She hasn’t shit herself, has she? I thought. I couldn’t deal with a scene like that again.
She held a tiny espresso cup in both hands up in front of her like an offering.
“I didn’t want this cup of coffee,” she said pitifully, in her best old lady/little girl voice. “I wanted one like that.”
She pointed across the table to her friend opposite, who was also looking at me accusingly. In front of her was a very large cup of frothy cappuccino.
I continued with the idiotically cheerful grin.
“No problem,” I chirped, “I’ll sort it for you.”
I took the cup from her and turned back to the counter. Nicola had collected her lunch and had clattered off into a dark corner, sensing danger. The large Italian manager looked me straight in the eye. I swallowed hard and continued to smile, although I have the feeling that my mouth was more like one of those wiggly lines you see on cartoon faces.
I proffered the unwanted beverage.
“Erm, I think there’s been a mistake, this lady wanted a cappuccino, not an espresso.”
The hit man turned to the Polish Italian waitress, who leaned in and whispered in his ear in a strange exotic language. Perhaps she was suggesting taking me for a ride out to the lakes where I could swim with the fishes. The exchange plainly intimated that the old lady had definitely ordered an espresso. His eyes narrowed for a brief moment.
He nodded and took the cup from me. I briefly wondered whether this meant he’d done me a favour and that, in return, I had to go round to ‘Correlli Correttos’ and pop a cap in Giovanni’s ass.
I returned to the old lady.
“They’re getting your coffee now,” I explained. She nodded.
“Do they want more money?” she asked.
I returned to Vinnie. “70 pence,” he said.
“70 pence, he said,” I said.
The old lady puffed out her cheeks and looked at me angrily.
“I’m awfully sorry, but –, “I started.
“I haven’t any sugar,” interrupted her friend.
She looked at me expectantly.
Back to the counter again.
“Do you have any sugar?” I asked.
The ice man surveyed me for a moment, as if calculating how many bricks he would have to put in the sack before dumping my bullet ridden body in the canal. His hand moved suddenly and I flinched, before realising he was pointing across the aisle to a box filled with sugar sachets.
I collected some and served my customer, I mean, their customer.
“I’ve brought you three different types of sugar, I didn’t know what sort you would like,” I explained. She raised her eyes to the ceiling, shook her head and emptied a couple of the packets into her drink.
Back at the counter, James Gandolfini gave me my pannini and took my money. I started to leave. I felt the old lady staring at me once more. Don’t look! Get out while you can! But no. Too late. I looked.
The waitress from Latvia had served her the cappuccino and decided it was too much hassle to wrestle the extra 70p from her spidery but suddenly strong old lady hands.
“I haven’t got any sugar, either!” she squeaked.
Sighing, I rectified the situation and headed for the exit. Nicola teetered out from her dark corner and positioned herself in the doorway, ready to be launched back across the road.
As we left, I could hear the old lady calling out to me.
“Excuse me, young man, where’s my free biscuit?”