A short story

Non Comprendo by C. N

He lumbered out from the kitchen like a bear with a hangover. His creased and baggy brown trousers had the odd stain below the small apron. Soup, perhaps, or the Thievish Stew we had ordered, which he was bearing towards us in enormous shallow pink plates. There was perspiration on his forehead and he was puffing slightly, like a steam train coming to a halt after a long run.

“Soupa des gambas langosta” he muttered as he banged the two bowls down, sending a wave onto the edge only just missing my lap.

He stood uncertainly, as he waited for the inevitable complaint. His shoulders were huge, hunched forward, ready for a fight. His hands had dark hairs on every finger.

“Gracias” I said, just catching the gruff “de nada” as he shuffled off, perhaps relieved to have got away with his clumsiness one more time.

“What’s the matter with him?” Jim asked, picking up his roll and breaking a piece off, “he was puffing and blowing as if he’d run a marathon.”

“He looked angry and upset to me” I said, sipping the hot stew gingerly.

“This is great though, maybe the cook shouted at him or something?“

He seemed to be the only waiter in this small quayside bistro, where the food had been recommended by the receptionist at the hotel. The fish stew certainly tasted fantastic and so far the holiday was working out well.

Jim was relaxing and the troubles which had been mounting back home were slipping into the distance, and seemed less dangerous with the backdrop of the Mediterranean and nothing more to do than sunbathe, swim and sightsee. The hotel was pleasant enough and now a lovely meal with the relaxing clink of yacht halliards bobbing about in the harbour and a slight breeze from the sea.

He re-appeared just as I had taken a sip of the delicious white Rioja that complimented the fish so well.    His face was now crimson and he juddered as he staggered past me with four plates for the next table.  He banged them down so hard that the Brit sitting there said “Steady on Mate! You’re not shot putting!”

There was a laugh and I watched anxiously as a torrent of furious incomprehensible Spanish poured out from between his angry yellow teeth. The four Brits looked shaken, but one woman managed to say “We have come in here for a pleasant evening, not to be shouted at! Who is running this restaurant?”

All eyes were now focused on their table. I speared a piece of unidentified white fish and sat open mouthed to see what would happen next. He turned on his huge flat feet and lumbered back towards the kitchen, hands clenched by his sides as if he were struggling not to punch someone.

“That was outrageous!” the woman said, “I’m not staying here to be insulted by the waiter. Are you going to complain to the management, Charley, or shall we just leave?”

Charley looked down at his dinner and back at his partner.

“What management? There’s no-one else here as far as I can see. Any road, the food looks great, I’m starving – I don’t know about the rest of you…”

The other two looked embarrassed and began picking at their food but the woman stood up.

“Well, I’m not eating their rotten meal after being shouted at like that. I don’t even know what he said. It’s disgraceful.”

“If you don’t know what he said, how do you know it was disgraceful? Stop making a scene, Kirstie.”

But Kirstie wasn’t buying that, she stood up and flounced out of the room.

Minutes passed. No-one appeared. New diners walked into the restaurant and sat down at the only empty table, and after ten minutes we felt as if the cafe had changed into a theatre. Loud voices could
be heard from the kitchen, punctuated by the odd bang. It was riveting stuff. The man at the next table was laughing more with each glass of wine that he downed, and we heard him say that Kirstie thrived on a dramatic exit.  

Eventually, like curtain-up on the second act, the bear lumbered back onstage and took the order from the unsuspecting newcomers. His face was now purple and he was obviously simmering with rage. The whole room was watching him with the expectant hush of a first night. He returned to the kitchen and a moment later there was a tremendous crash, followed by breaking crockery and shouts of fury. No-one was eating; we were all mesmerised and watching the kitchen door. Just as I was giving up on the idea of a dessert, he burst out through the swing doors in a torrent of Spanish and stood panting in the middle of the room.

“Non comprendo” he shouted, and even I understood that. He then threw his grubby apron onto the floor and stamped on it. If a bull had then appeared from the kitchen, I could not have been more surprised than the sight of a diminutive figure in a chef’s outfit rushing into the room and screaming at the bear and throwing a large copper skillet at him, narrowly missing his head and catching his enormous shoulder.

He turned, for all the world like the old dancing bear in chains, and shuffled hopelessly out of the restaurant and into the gently darkening night. The chef watched him go and then walked out onto the  floor and picked up the skillet.

“Cinco minutos.  No me siento bien”. And turned back towards the kitchen.

“HEY!” Our now well-wined neighbour stood up, “don’t disappear, mate! We want more wine and some cheese over here.”

The chef turned briefly as if he had understood, but then decided he didn’t want to, and walked through the kitchen door to oblivion. There was a pause, and then a buzz of excited chatter as the restaurant resumed eating.

“I think we may as well just leave the money on the table and go” said Jim, “show’s over.”

We looked at the menu to work out how much our meal should be, left sixty euros and walked out to the twinkling harbour. People were ambling along peacefully enjoying the warm summer night. Small children were skipping ahead of their parents, young lovers with their arms laced around one another, elegant middle aged Spaniards in beautifully cut clothes promenaded, taking in the cooler air of the night.

I saw him almost at once. He was standing leaning on the harbour wall looking out to sea. Calmer now, less hunched. His shoulders had sagged; he looked old and very tired.

“I wish I could say something to him, Jim” I said. “It’s awful not knowing the language. He looks so sad. What do you think happened?”

“How should I know? He lost his job for sure.”

“Do you think he and the chef were lovers and had a row?”

“Good grief! You and your imagination! He probably just dropped food on the customers once too often.  I reckon the cook owns the cafe and he sacked him.”

“I wish I could just say it won’t look so bad in a few days’ time. Or that you’ll get a better job, anything to cheer the poor devil up a bit.”

“Well you can’t, sweetheart. But you’re right – everything can look a lot different in a week or two, can’t it?  Remember how near to splitting up we were at Christmas? And now look at us – we’re all right,
aren’t we?”

I squeezed his arm and leant my head on his shoulder.

“Yes” I whispered, “we’re all right now.”

The bear was moving away from the harbour wall and walked right past us. I put my arm out and touched his shoulder on an impulse. “Thank you for a lovely meal” I said, hoping he understood.

“Gracias” he mumbled, “Buenos noches, Signora” and lumbered off,  disappearing into the darkness.

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