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No such thing
by Ben A Westwood

The café's exterior looked harmless enough,
small windows with net curtains hid what lay within, the white walls were long overdue a paint job and the red window sills and door complemented this with cracks and missing pieces. The joinery had obviously previously been sky blue this caused me to momentarily ponder the merits of each colour before clasping the door handle. I bowed my head to enter through the low doorway and was instantly engulfed by the greasy food aroma. This was enimating from the kitchen, which was partially visible through a doorway next to the register. The main area was small but not cramped and two of the six main tables were free. There were two single seater mini tables just inside and adjacent to the doorway. These were free but I always find that the limited space for eating cause me stress, which ruined the whole eating experience. Sitting at the nearest large free table to the door I took stock of my surroundings, making mental notes and giving the different categories points out of ten. Every time I eat in a café I always mark the different attributes accordingly.
          1 Lay out or spatial awareness. A cramped small space can become extremely infuriating, peoples' chairs bumping you as they move, leave or sit down, elbows jostling for eating positions, rancid tobacco smoke infecting the nostrils as you swallow a succulent piece of bacon, dirty messy eaters dribbling near you or enveloping you with their foul body odour as you dip you toast in your egg. All these things can be avoided or at least minimised by correct table spacing. Feeling generous I think a seven is warranted here. I'd instantly got a table of a quality I required. However I feel that the three points were rightly deducted because the back of my chair was far too close to the rear of the pensioner's chair behind me.
          2 Menu or price and variety of choices. Which of course speaks for its self. You naturally want a wide selection of food stuffs to choose from, even if you're only there for the breakfast. I find myself, that I don't feel satisfied choosing a breakfast from a menu that doesn't have a tasty spread of meals to pick from. Although I know that I'm only there for one thing I want to be at least tempted by other succulent options. Price is always a variable category, it all depends on the generosity of the proprietor. For instance you could get a standard breakfast for £2.50, which would consist of 1 egg, 1 bacon, 1 sausage, beans or tomatoes, toast and tea or coffee. Or you could get a standard for £3.45 that contained 2 egg, 2 bacon, 1 sausage, beans or tomatoes, toast or fried bread and tea or coffee. Is the extra 95 pence worth an extra egg, bacon and the choice between fried bread or toast? Here however it was £3.25 2 egg, 1 bacon, 1 sausage, beans, tomatoes, 2 toast and tea or coffee. I sat waiting for the waitress while trying to do the math. I always judged the prices by the spar near my bed-sit, trying to establish the difference between uncooked spar prices and the cooked plus served equivalent. My maths always let me down, I would end up gesstimating and giving a biased conclusion based on the other attributes of the establishment. After glancing around the room I decided a five was adequate, because after all you can't expect it to be free can you?

          And with that thought I can picture him standing there towering over me, his hands tucked into his jeans pockets, my Dad.
          'There's no such thing as a free lunch son' he used to say with a concerned look on his face
          'What about breakfast dad?' I would say, eyes wide and full of expectation. His big gap tooth grin would broaden 'Breakfast?' he'd say 'Well breakfast should always be free' then he would laugh that deep bellied laugh that personified him so well. His bright eyes would un-focus slightly while his beer belly sucked in and he would give a puzzled look before swishing the unkempt brown hair out of his face. His hand would come to rest on my head and he would say something like
          'Now you have to be good for your ma' or 'your ma's not very well at the moment' it all meant the same. Dad and I were a special team, like a military unit or a super hero duo assigned to guard our ma. We would take shifts or 'First watch' as he called it. Making sure ma was safe and well. He was the rock, the steady reliable force that governs all. But breakfast wasn't free and it had cost him the highest price of all. Cholesterol Mum had said, cholesterol from all those breakfasts he'd eaten. She had been trying to explain in a simple straightforward way that a nine year old would understand. Breakfast, breakfast, breakfast resounded in my head. Breakfast had taken my Dad.
So rare in a man so young they said. The added cholesterol had weighed down an already weak heart they had said. May be hereditary they had said.
Breakfast should always be free he had said.
          3 Food, taste, quality of product, amount of grease. Sometimes you can eat what appears to be a perfectly appetising breakfast to discover it is tasteless or an attack to the senses. Or worse than that it is so laden with grease that you feel sick to the stomach for hours after. Then you have the quality of items. Bacon for instance can fall into numerous sub categories of its own. Thickness, which is important, amount of gristle, who wants a slice of gristle with a strip of bacon? Not me that's for sure. Cooking technique, I don't want my bacon burnt but saying that I don't want to be chewing on raw meat, there is an optimum point of cooking that should be met but not crossed. Taste, hey it may look like bacon but if it don't taste like it then I'm not interested. Much of these rules apply for most of the content of your average breakfast. This excludes sausages, which to me always taste rank but are needed to supplement the whole experience. Café's just don't spend enough on sausages as far as I'm concerned. Of course I could spend an eternity discussing the variable merits of the egg cooking process but for now I prefer to put them into two different categories, crap or good.
The waitress ambled over to my table and fiddled with her order book for a second before asking
          'What would you like dear?'
          I gave her a slow deliberate look over before returning my gaze to the menu. I do like to spend a minute looking at the alternatives, pretending I haven't really made my mind up yet; sometimes I'll even lean past the person serving to look at the specials board before slowly saying
          'I think.I'lllllllll have..the standard breakfast please'.
          I feel it gives them a sense of apprehension as to what I might order. This time however no apprehension could be gauged from the time weathered face of the middle-aged woman who stood before me. Her whole appearance shouted BROKEN at me. Those sunken dead eyes, the quivering bottom lip, the stagnant lifeless hair. She reminded me of a Skexy from that film Dad had taken us to see. She took my order and almost walked off before saying
          'Was that tea or coffee?'
          'Coffee' I spat with a look of up most contempt upon my face. Everybody knows that's no point in drinking tea in a place like this. There is one place for tea and that's at home where they know how you like it. Coffee is the only consumerable beverage in a place like this.
          4 Extras. In my ideal world a café should have all these extras as standard. Hash Browns, how can you have a decent honest breakfast without them? I find it difficult to hide my disgust for an establishment that doesn't stock this ever so important side dish. It is one extra that I have no problem adding to my standard meal ever, if they're on the menu then they are on my plate. Newspapers, I mean who doesn't enjoy a read of a national rag over a greasy fry up? Only a backwards freak in my book. I always feel a certain affinity with the proprietor of a café that stocks a selection of the daily nationals for their customer's enjoyment. Then finally you have the service and the swiftness of delivery. Something really winds me up about rude or surly waitresses, they breed a contempt from within that only fantasies of violence can quell. We are here paying their wages. With out us they are out on the streets plying the oldest trade in the book or worse, scabbing round the local DHSS office smoking fags and spawning offspring.
          Then you have the places that seem to be killing, curing and cooking your breakfast before serving, anything over half an hour to get your food is just disgusting. It is an insult to your personal intelligence to believe that they are too busy to keep up with your order. Ok in some circumstances it is acceptable due to sheer numbers of customers, but really, how long can it take to fry some ingredients. If and when the majority of these factors haven't been satisfactorily met then I have no problem giving them the big F.O. Occasionally when the overall grade is high, like a seven or eight then I feel a slight pinch as I leave their building. However this feeling is few and far between, they rarely live up to my expectations. I guess there is no pride left in the British workforce.
          A few months ago as I strode purposefully down a high street feeling the warm greasy glow of a hearty breakfast in my stomach I heard an alarmed shout from behind me.
          'Excuse me, excuse me, SIR!' I knew who it was, it was the chef from the café I'd just frequented. He wanted payment no doubt, I had always been expecting something like this, like dark clouds of probability amassing on the horizon. It was as everything is, inevitable. I turned on my heels to face the man. He was a thirty something balding thin man, his greasy pinny hung on his frame giving the effect of something like a broken Christmas tree decoration at an orphanage, it only made his whole appearance seem more pathetic and pointless. Then the strangest thing happened. I stopped seeing the man and instead my Dad suddenly appeared in front of me. He stood hands in pockets resting his weight on one foot (a pose I had carefully mastered over the years)
His beer gut protruded from the waistband of his oil stained jeans, it was a look he had always carried easily. His open happy face beamed at me showing his trademark gap tooth and that lank brown hair just did its own thing as usual. The warmth enimating from him was almost intoxicating, then he spoke.
          'I think you forgot.'
          That instant I threw a powerful right hook to his head. I wanted to destroy that face, smash it into loads of tiny pieces and stamp on what's left, break it, mess it up, tear chunks from it. One punch was all it took. It's funny now that I think of it because I remembered what he had always told me. Imagine you are punching through a curtain so you hit the target several inches past where the curtain is. Always punch through your target. His nose exploded in a shower of blood as his head whipped backwards, then he hit the floor like a sack of crap, sprawling everywhere clutching his broken nose as blood spat over his chin. Strangely he was silent but I didn't hang around to find out what happen next, I sprinted off down the street clasping my right fist in my left hand, it really hurt. I guess he hadn't seen that one coming, maybe he'll think twice before serving eggs that aren't cooked properly next time. After that little incident I decided I was done breakfasting in that town for the time being.
          The waitress returned with my food. Instantly I recognised the signs of excessive greasiness, one of the tomatoes was burnt, the bacon was overcooked and hash browns had not featured in the menu. This was turning into an annoying regularity, first impressions good usually six or seven for special awareness, menus usually averaged a score of four or five. Then you get served this disgusting muck, what do they take me for.
          Still, breakfasts should always be free and I'm certainly not going to be paying for this one. 

(c) 2002 Ben A Westwood      
Ben A Westwood is an Independent photographer/writer who, despite dyslexia, is currently working on two seperate book projects. One is a photography/art book and the other, a full length novel (in the same vein as this short story).