She’d never been great with people, she knew that. Even at school, it had been hard – she’d tried, but it was like being in a game where you don’t know the rules and it was safer and easier not to play. They would ask her questions and suddenly her throat would choke – she wanted to speak, but the vowels were bricked up, strangled in her tongue. Or sometimes the urge to connect would gush over her and words would spill out – jumbled, urgent, making no sense. Teachers, frustrated but resigned, would call to her, and she’d smile, guiltily, chin still tilted towards the window, fingers tracing letters in the grooves of the desk. A, J, P –An-na, Jen-nif-fer, Pym-ble.
She loved the sound of the words, their see-saw, echoing cadence. Her mum used to scold her – ‘What are you saying girl, for goodness’ sake speak properly’ – but she’d keep going, repeating the sounds, tasting the letters. She loved to read – especially poetry – but in a sense, the meaning didn’t matter, it was the look of them, their shapes and spirals. Sometimes she’d find it hard to breathe, they were so beautiful.
That was what had drawn her to apply. It was completely out of character, but she couldn’t let it go. The letters were a sign, a neon note scrawled across the skyline, just for her. Tom’s Din-er. And in the window, carefully typed, ‘Help wanted. Ask within’. She tried to put it out of her head, but night after night she would return, breath frosting up the window, watching the warmth, the steaming coffee, the clatter of plates, of conversation and laughter. Twice, she curled her fingers across the door handles, but as the noise and colour spilled out, it was too much and she shrank back into the darkness.
The third night, she turned, as usual, to go home, but a group of students, chattering excitedly, cascaded across her path and confused, she fell through the doorway. Blinded by the light and noise, she stumbled towards the counter, attracted despite herself by the smell of fried bread and chocolate.
‘What’ll it be, sweetheart?’
A plumpish woman, with crinkly eyes and a kind mouth, gestured towards her.
‘I – er – I – …’ She had to speak, had to ask.
‘Help. The window – it says you want – help.’
‘Oh yes?’ Wiping her apron. ‘Any experience?’
This was a mistake, of course it was. She didn’t belong, here in the warmth. Foolish, even to try.
‘No – nothing.’
She turned, ready to go. But the woman held out a laminated card.
‘Here’s the menu. What do you think?’
She scanned the letters.
‘Pump-kin pie’. ‘Hot choc-o-late’.
She kept reading.
‘Ba-na-na bread’. A deep breath – ‘It sounds.. lovely. Just perfect.’
Heart pounding, ready for the blow.
The woman set down her coffee jug. Smiled, and leaned over. Then, gently;
‘You are too. When can you start?’