When I said it, she didn’t even look up. I could see how this was going and I loved it, it cheered me right up. In anticipation of my coming performance, I reached down, picked up a glass and started slowly but deliberately, to polish it.
“What’s the access code?”
She hadn’t heard me talk as far as I was aware. Her eyes were firmly on her phone, looking for the remote ordering service attached to the bar. Was I going to mess with her? She had short, clipped red hair, black lipstick, and wore an MA-1 replica that had been tailored for her. She was pretty. I love messing with the pretty ones. I leant onto the back bar, raising the glass to the light to check it was clean.
“Access code? Is that a pickup line, are you asking for my number?”
The reaction was perfect. That broke the spell, she suddenly realised there was a real human being in front of her, and much to her annoyance she had unintentionally fallen into an interaction with it. The look of disgust on her face as she raised it slowly from the screen fanned the flames of my broadest and most naive and welcoming smile. This was my favourite part.
“No idiot. Your crappy ordering system is broken, I can’t access it. Do you have the code so I can log on, get a table and drink.”
My laugh was genuine, but I tainted it with the kind of friendly edge that communicated I was laughing with her not at her. Always open to her joining in with the show, it didn’t help.
“We’re not automated here. You just have to ask me for a drink.”
“Can I have a drink?” she spat.
“Sure. What would you like?”
She was stumped by that one. That one always stumped people. She started, stopped, took another run at it, stopped, then gave up. “Look! This is stupid, I can’t see the menu because your system doesn’t work, can’t you just tell me how to see the menu or something.”
“It’s all up here behind me darling, apart from what’s in the fridges here below, and the beers on the bar here. There’s no need to panic. Anything you want you can’t see, you just let me know, and I’ll sort you something out. There’s no need to be rude, just ask.”
It all sort of started to make some kind of sense to her. She realised she was being an idiot. She didn’t know how to process it though, and backed right off carrying the grumpy tone of a spoilt child who had been told she could have an ice cream if she asked nicely.
“I want a rum and ginger. Can you get manage a rum and ginger?”
I laughed again. Just a little one this time, the reassuring kind. I put the glass down on the bar in front of her, and chucked the drink together dropping in the lime and the straw with choreography that was far too flamboyant for such a mundane task. I think she appreciated the sarcasm. I was breaking through. I waited for a moment. I used the silence to put in the kind of smile that let her know I was joking, and she could get in on it if she wanted.
“My name’s Rusty. Sit wherever you like, you’re very welcome.”
“Thanks…” she paused still not exactly sure what to say. “Have you got a scanner?”
“You just relax, you can pay when you’ve finished.”
“How will you know what I’ve had?”
I tapped my temple. “It’s all in the ordering system.”
“How does that work? Don’t people just keep leaving without paying?”
“Are you going to come up and pay at the end?”
“Then it should be fine.” I smiled.
She ambled over and took a table in the corner with a bemused look on her face. It soon focussed again when she got back to concentrating on her phone.
I’d been running the End of the Road for ten years this coming February. When I’d started it had been a retro-thing. A throwback to the days before automated booking and ordering had made human beings obsolete in the industry. I’d thought it was a good way to make money, an entrepreneurial idea a gimmick. It did for the first few months as well, we were busy the whole first year in fact. But paying staff costs more in the long run compared to automated services and I had to drop them one by one until ‘we’ had become ‘I’. I’d fallen in love though. The human interaction was a drug most people didn’t get much of about in their world of automated social interaction and computerised hospitality that can predict your every whim. The gimmick had become a lifestyle. When I was older people would probably call me eccentric. Currently, most just thought me a bit of a hippy. I lived for the stories from the old drunks, for breaking the ice with the stony faces of the public, for polishing those glasses and most of all for the sarcasm. So I was clinging on to the business. I had given up on being a rich man, the life I led here was what I wanted, and it was sustainable.
It was 7pm and the normal workday was starting to close down. The street outside was starting to get busy, but I spotted Chris and Mary coming down the street and started to pour their drinks. Chris was a late middle aged man with a paunch and although he can’t have been too much more that 50, his hair had thinned and faded to a snowy wisp that he combed over. He was everything that was trendy in this part of town and the hipsters wanted to be him. He had no idea.
Mary was his wife, she was a round woman with rich ginger hair all the way down her back. When she walked she jingled like a bell tree, her jewellery hanging off her wrists, neck, ears, nose and hair. Hers was a more old school bohemia than her husband’s, always wearing earthy tones of green and brown, but they fitted together perfectly with their beaming smiles and red faces.
As they came in jovially as they always did, I had finished pouring their drinks, laid them on the bar in front of their usual stools and had reclined back into my usual position and resumed polishing my favourite glass.
“Fancy seeing you guys in here. What a pleasant surprise.” The act was long rehearsed, we had played this stage together many times, but it wasn’t old yet.
“Well you know, we were passing, and we thought, ‘I wonder if there’s any refreshment available in that there old run-down shop of horrors’, so here we are. How you doing Rusty?”
“Not so bad Chris, you’re looking well.”
The girl in the corner, in a wholly unexpected move pulled her eyes off her phone suddenly, got up running towards them with the only smile I’d seen from her yet plastered all over her face.
“Mum! Dad!” A procession of hugs and kisses and over-zealous greetings ensued. I felt a bit left out and barged my way back into the conversation.
“You two never told me you had a daughter!” I was a little bit embarrassed at having made the phone number comment now this discovery had been thrust upon me. Not that embarrassed though.
“Three actually. Did I not mention that?” Chris’s interaction with me over the years had consisted almost entirely his reeling off his memoirs adding a little more spice from his over-active imagination. He had not mentioned his daughters. This comment was an admission of guilt.
“Rusty, this is Lia. Lia, Rusty.” Mary made the introduction. “Our daughter here is back from working in the Eastern States with an NCO.”
“Saving the world.” I was impressed.
“We’ve met.” She muttered to her mother. “You guys hang out in the weirdest places you know.”
All three of us burst out laughing.
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about darling. Let’s sit, are you hungry?” Chris ushered them over to the table while Mary thanked me and I wandered over to help the rush of after-work business starting to pour through the door. Three whole customers. Busy night.
A few hours later Chris and Mary came up to say thank you and goodbye. We all got our lines bang on.
“We’ll have to pop back one of these days you know, don’t you think my darling?” Beautifully rehearsed.
“Sure, it’s a charming little place I think. Are you busy tomorrow?”
“I don’t know if they’ll be open.” Turning to me, impeccable timing and delivery. “Will you be open tomorrow evening sir?”
“I could get the doors open for a little while if you’re about sure.”
“We’ll see you then.”
Lia smiled weakly. I was a little disappointed, I decided I quite fancied her now I wasn’t being a twat anymore. I pulled one of those useless smiles that I thought carried a whole heap ‘call me’ based information, but in fact made me look a bit retarded. It was always good to get some practice in with that one, I was going to get the hang of it one of these days. Not today though unfortunately.
They got outside and I watched them through the translucent glass. She stopped her father and had some kind of interaction before crashing back through the doors carrying Chris’s pencil and paper. He loved the retro touches. She scribbled something, tore out a page, folded it and pushed it at me across the bar.
“What’s that?” I took it.
“It’s…” she paused and did that slightly bemused look again. “..the access code.” She moved out of the bemused look and absolutely nailed the ‘call me’ smile. How do other people do that? It left me speechless as she crashed back out the doors and I stood scratching my head as the family walked off down the street.