RYAN’s – “The Best Coffee Shop in Town”
Rose O’Neill stepped off the number nine bus at the stop near the station to buy a bunch of roses. She was on her way to the cemetery to visit her mother’s grave. The combined florist and funeral parlour was in a small row of shops between the railway station and the cemetery. The others were an Indian all-night chemist and grocers, a café, laundry and dry cleaners, hairdresser and a charity shop.
Rose stopped when she saw the sign “Help Wanted” in the café window. Commuters making for the railway station squeezed past her on the pavement, holding green cardboard mugs with plastic lids. Above the door she read “RYAN’S Eco Coffee” highlighted in gold letters. Of course, this was Ryan’s place. Rose knew Ryan’s mum from their schooldays, and thought this could be something for her daughter Betty. She slipped inside, looked around waving to Ryan busy behind the coffee machine, smiled and left. She slid the sign from the window discretely into her shopping bag on the way out.
“You can get this” Rose said, waving the sign as she stormed after work. Betty was in the kitchen, leaning against the counter eating passion fruit yoghurt from the tub.
“It’s Ryan’s place, cousin Pat’s lad you know. I went to school with his mother. We´re almost family.”
“I’m not having you hanging around here all day. First thing tomorrow take a shower, get dressed and off you go before someone else takes the job.”
“Are you really serious? The coffee shop by the station! What if my friends come in there, see me working.“
“New experience for your friends to see someone working. No more sitting here all day long. Anyway, I told Ryan you would be coming.”
Betty scraped her chair back and walked out of the kitchen as slowly as possible.
“And don’t wear those jeans with holes in the knees. Put on your black skirt and a tight sweater. Show your figure. Brush your hair and don’t forget some makeup.”
Betty did as she was told, reluctantly, else there would be no end to it. She tried to sneak out of the back door but Mum caught her for a quick once over.
“You’ll do. Here’s money for the fare. Try to be a bit positive for a change!”
Running for the bus Betty buttoned up the cardigan she had smuggled with her and tied up her long black hair. She had skipped the makeup too. No way she was going to put herself out for a job in a café.
Her bus stopped outside the café. Betty looked around to see if there was anyone she recognised and sneaked inside. Ryan was leaning on the counter.
“Hiya! I’m Betty O’Neill. I‘ve come about the job,” she said in her friendliest voice, “Is it still going?”
“Come inside, I’m Ryan!” he announced proudly, holding out his hand. Betty gave it a quick touch as he pointed her to a corner table near the window. Betty looked around at the empty café, piles of dirty dishes on the tables and tired pot plants in the dusty windows. Ryan asked politely about her family and then explained how he ran the café, with a green eco profile. Betty tried to appear interested, looking Ryan straight in the face. As he talked, Ryan´s eyes gradually drifted down from her face to her breasts. Instinctively Betty pushed her shoulders forward, breathed shallowly, and tugged down the hem of her skirt.
“Who does the dishes?” she asked, looking around to divert his attention.
“You’ll learn, or leave. You want the job or not?”
“When do I start?”
Ryan pointed to a door in the corner behind the counter. “Out back, Paddy’ll show you the ropes.”
Betty’s first ever job interview was over in less than five minutes. She managed a brief, shy smile but Ryan had already turned away and was on his way to open the door, flipping the “Sorry we’re closed” sign to “Open at last!”
The first customers of the day were charging in as Betty pushed on the heavy swing door. It had double hinges and an opaque square of reeded glass. She had to push hard with her shoulder before the door swung open. A gruff male voice greeted the squeaky hinges:
“You the new girl? Apron’s hangin’ by the door. Out you go and load up yon trolley. Take a cloth, wipe the tables.”
Betty hesitated, stunned, receiving orders at a time when she was usually still in bed.
“Get a move on. Yalla Yalla! We’re open.”
She took down the long coffee-brown apron with RYAN’S emblazed in emerald green across the chest, as if to denote ownership. Betty turned the apron back-to-front in protest and tied it quickly before pushing the trolley through the door into the café.
The early customers were people with a job to go to, often regulars who grabbed a latte and sandwich on the go, running for their morning train or bus. “Hot, wet and quick with a whiff of coffee” was Ryan’s motto, and what the commuters in a hurry wanted. That was what brought the money in. Betty eventually got to like the morning commuters, mainly because they left no dishes behind.
Ryan was the boss, standing strategically behind the counter, next to the till and coffee machine. He took orders and passed them on to Frances, a slim bottle-blonde type a couple of years older than Betty. She fitted in with the healthy green life style image that Ryan was trying to cultivate. Frances kept the counter display stocked with the help of Paddy in the kitchen.
Ryan’s pseudo americanese banter with customers was part of the image, together with the loud country music which drowned most attempts at conversation. One of his tricks was to learn the first names of regulars, particularly office girls in a hurry. Ryan didn’t normally deal with orders himself except during the morning rush, when he manned the bloated green and chrome coffee machine. He made a point of handing over latte-to-go to younger female customers with a steady gaze and a trite “Be careful out there, Janet” or “Have a good day, Suzie”. Some giggled and ran on their way, others just groaned and grabbed their coffee.
Betty thought Ryan was a creep, but he was the boss so she just got on with loading dirty dishes on her trolley, giving the brown-stained tables a quick swipe with a damp cloth and then pushing it off into the kitchen. Paddy showed her how to load the dishwasher and switch it on.
Betty spent her time in the kitchen listening to Paddy when she was not collecting and sorting dishes. To Betty he was old, probably well over sixty, but a long life on board cargo ships had taken its toll. Paddy was tall but crooked from bending over a stove all day, swarthy with a grey beard and yellowed nicotine fingers. A black chef’s hat was perched on his carpet of wiry grey hair. On his own, working, he hummed old sea shanties. He was a bit gruff but Betty found him quite friendly, and he enjoyed a bit of company too – someone to listen to his old tales from the seven seas.
Paddy smoked sweet-smelling “eco fags” outside the back door, pretending to wait for deliveries. Never showed himself in the actual café. Probably under orders. He looked quite unsavoury – florid face, unshaven, bloodshot eyes, hands not very steady until after lunch. Not a good advert for healthy living, or hygien, thought Betty. But he was kind and knew the ropes, and Betty felt safe with him. “Boss won’t try anything on while I’m here, luv, but don’t be alone out back with ‘im.”
The first week Betty suffered from swollen feet, not used to standing all day. There was nowhere to sit down except the squalid staff toilet – not a place to linger. Paddy eventually got tired of her sitting on the end of his work bench, and conjured up an old chair from a container so she could put her feet up.
Mostly Paddy kept himself to himself, boss of the kitchen regions. He was in charge of fixing the fast food orders and other dishes which he left in the serving hatch for Frances to collect. She was responsible for the chilled counter: sandwiches, sallads, pies, cakes, buns, Danish and ready-made lunch boxes to pop into the microwave at the office. Frances always kept her distance. It was beneath her to talk to a skivvy like Betty.
Ryan was not interested in customers like the old dodgers who could sit all day over a cuppa, mostly nameless regulars. They trundled in mid-morning and sat with tea and a biscuit for an hour or two, had perfected the art of stretching a glass of water all the way to lunch. Some read the local free rag, others just sat by themselves, or chatted quietly to pass the time away. Normally the café was quiet as the grave after the morning rush. They oldies usually left before the noisy lunch customers crowded in through the door for a quick lunch with workmates.
Afternoons the café was the refuge of housewives, who came in two’s and three’s to gossip over a latte or expresso and share a forbidden piece of chocolate cake with “ecocream” with someone who wouldn’t tell. Ryan was very friendly with the girls, as he called them, flirting openly with mothers waiting to pick up their offspring from the nearby school. They all collectively rushed off at 15.45, not wanting to be late for the school pickup.
At first Betty thought it was fun with all the customers who passed through the café, but quickly tired of the sameness and drudgery of the place. Then one day Frances was off ill and Ryan asked her to stand in behind the counter, fetching foodstuffs from Paddy and serving dishes to sit-down customers. At first Betty was nervous and struggled to cope, sometimes even got orders mixed up when she had several to serve at the same time. A smile and apology, “Sorry, I’m new here”, usually helped.
“Sharpen up, Betty”, said Ryan, “never be able to trust you with the coffee machine, ha ha!”
Betty was trying hard to live up to her new responsibility, and felt rather angry when Ryan made fun of her in front of the customers. She didn’t let it get her down, and proved him wrong too, serving an expresso one afternoon while he was out back having a fag with Paddy. She had studied both Frances and Ryan closely when they pulled an expresso shot., but didn’t let on. It gave her a feeling of “I’ll show him”.
The kitchen was her oasis, where she could sit down and rest her feet during the slack periods. Ryan and Paddy used to smoke outside the back door, where all the deliveries arrived. Friday afternoon, Ryan came in as usual. Betty stood up, but he waved her back into the chair. Paddy was already outside having a smoke.
“How are you doing, Betty? Getting used to the routines now?”
“Okay I guess, feet a bit swollen. Not used to all the standing.”
“You’re doin’ well, but there’s not enough work for a full time only doing dishes.”
Betty feared the worse, expecting a cut in hours or the sack. Her mouth went all dry.
“Frances’s still off sick, not coming back for a while. Need someone to cover for her regular like,” said Ryan. “You’ve been doing fine behind the counter. What d’you say?”
At first Betty couldn’t speak, just nodded and then licked her lips until a squeaky “Yes, okay” came out instead of her normally quite strong voice.
“Great, knew I could rely on you Betty,” said Ryan.
“Mind you, being out front every day you’ll have get rid of the Goth outfit and take after Frances. Fit in with our image y’know, wholesome healthy natural look.”
“Closing down now, off you go. See you again on Monday. Say hello to your Mum.”
Betty hung up her apron, collected her bag and coat and hurried out the back door, almost bumping into Paddy.
“On your way up already, Betty! You watch out when you’re alone behind yon counter with Ryan. Wandering hands. That’s why Frances finished.”
“Get on with you, trying to frighten me off then!”
“Just a gentle word of warning, lass. See you Monday.”
“Seeyah” cried Betty and hurried away to catch her bus.
Betty saw being out front regularly as promotion, a step up, so she complied with Ryan’s demands on appearance. Monday morning she was up early washing her hair, putting it up in a tight pony tail, scrubbing her nails, rubbing her cheeks until they glowed red, left her black eye shadow and lipstick at home, her earrings in the bedside drawer. The night before she cleaned her white sneakers and pressed her best black jeans, put out a fresh white t-shirt. Before leaving home she brushed her teeth with Extra White toothpaste and practised a friendly smile in the hall mirror.
Behind the counter, Betty’s job was to see that customers got their orders. Correct and quickly, as Ryan stressed. Pies and lasagne were shoved in a microwave for a minute or two, slipped onto a plate already decorated with a handful of eco-salad and then delivered to the customer with cutlery rolled in a napkin. Ready cut slices of cake were adorned with a squiggle of “ecological cream” from the cooler.
Ryan was in charge of the important jobs: the till and the coffee machine. Nobody was allowed to touch the till – he was the only one who knew the code. Natural, thought Betty, he was the boss. Ryan also managed the centre piece of the coffee shop – an oversized green and chrome coffee machine which huffed and puffed, letting off steam and spreading coffee aroma throughout the café. Ryan enjoyed showing off to the customers, banging out the old coffee, running the grinder, turning knobs, moving levers, letting out steam to whisk the milk. All at high speed and seldom spilling anything. Reluctantly Betty was a little impressed, watching Ryan at work.
Working behind the counter every day, Betty noticed that Ryan discretely slipped “extras” from his pocket to certain customers, together with their mugs of coffee. Extra customers paid in cash, which didn’t make it into the till. This troubled her but she had no one to talk to about it. Not even Paddy, as she thought he may have been in on the game. And Mum would explode if she mentioned Ryan’s little sideline, the one which probably kept the café afloat.
Betty felt more respected by Ryan now and he was more relaxed, cutting out the american jargon. She kept busy even when custom was slow, keeping the counter display tidy and wiping off work surfaces. She took her job seriously. Better than collecting dishes, she thought. Betty had expected Ryan to take in a new girl for the dishes, but no way. Business was not going well. Now that Frances had left Betty had to double up: chief bottle washer and serving behind the counter, for the same wages.
Out of the blue one quiet Monday afternoon Ryan asked:
“Want to learn the coffee machine, girl?”
“Yes, of course,” said Betty, trying to conceal her dislike of his way of addressing her. He didn’t know that she had been studying him closely and could already work the machine.
“Great! Tomorrow after closing”
Late Tuesday afternoon Ryan came up to Betty, smiling:
“Now Betty, I’m going to reveal the secrets of the coffee machine for you. May feel a bit complicated at first, but if you do as I say then you’ll be all right. Just watch closely!”
Ryan enjoyed the role of teacher, demonstrating all the functions of the machine accompanied by a stream of coffee machine jargon. He repeatedly asked Betty is she could follow what he was doing. Betty nodded seriously, asking him to repeat some of the instructions, which he did in a patient voice.
“Now Betty, it’s your turn. Think you could do all this? We can take it slowly at first. You’ll get up speed eventually, and then you can serve in the morning rush.”
“I’d like to try” said Betty, quietly.
“Stand here then in front of me, and I’ll guide your hands” said Ryan.
Betty stood facing the machine, with Ryan close behind, almost touching.
“Let’s start with a simple expresso” said Ryan
Betty followed his instructions, trying to slow down and appear a little nervous. Ryan held his arms close and pressed her up against the coffee machine. Betty pretended it wasn’t happening, tried to concentrate on getting the right measure of coffee and water for a single expresso shot. She flinched and turned suddenly as she felt him press his body against her from behind, accidentally spilling the cup of hot expresso. Ryan shouted out loud “What the hell…!” as the hot coffee ran down his trousers, but regained his composure as Betty blushed, and apologised. He turned away, looking guilty. “Happens to all of us at first, bit nervous eh’ Betty first time. No problem. Soon get the hang of it”.
After this “accident” Ryan gave up trying to instruct Betty, and kept his wandering hands to himself.
One slow afternoon later that week, Ryan was out back having a smoke with Paddy, leaving Betty to watch the shop. A tall, weasel-faced man with too long hair for his age sauntered in and approached the counter with a slow, deliberate stride.
“Hello! What can I get you?” asked Betty with a friendly smile.
“Ryan in?” he squeezed between thin lips, hardly looking at her.
“Just a minute, I´ll fetch him”, she said, sensing that he was not your usual customer.
Betty pushed open the door to the kitchen and announced; “Got a visitor Ryan, asking for ye.”
Ryan and Paddy were standing close together by the back door, not smoking, involved in some kind of argument, which stopped abruptly when they heard Betty’s voice. She repeated:
“Visitor, asking for you Ryan.”
He looked troubled as he pushed the kitchen door open a little too violently. Betty was about to follow when Paddy grunted: “Don’t! Best if you stay here ‘till they’re done.”
No more was said. Paddy returned to this work bench. Betty thought it best to keep busy so she checked out the dishwasher, A heavy silence descended over the kitchen. They could hear a murmur of voices from the café but the heavy swing door was too well insulated to hear what was said.
Suddenly the door swung open violently and Ryan marched in, a scared look in his eyes.
“No dawdling here now, afternoon crowds on their way in. Get to it!”
Betty looked at Paddy. He nodded towards the café. She hurried out, leaving Ryan and Paddy in the kitchen.
Ryan was irritable the rest of the day, shouting orders at Betty and short with the afternoon school mums. Betty was happy when they closed for the day.
At home it showed that Betty was worried about something to do with the café.
“What’s up luv?” asked Mum when Betty came in.
“Nothing, just tired Mum. What’s for dinner?”
Betty noticed Mum kept turning from the stove to look at her, as though she was going to ask more but thought the better of it.
They ate dinner in silence. Then Mum couldn’t contain herself any more.
“That Ryan been at you, has he, trying something on? Just wait till I get hold of him!”
“No Mum, nothing like that. It’s just….I don’t know whether there’s any future for me at the café.”
“Well, better find something else before you give in your cards, luv.”
“Don’t worry Mum, I’m doing fine.” said Betty, trying to calm things down. “I´m going up for a shower.”
In bed that night, Betty chewed over what had happened at the café. Mum was right of course, Ryan had tried it on. But Betty was not surprised, forewarned by Paddy about Ryan’s “wandering hands” and Frances’ sudden departure. She was more worried about that afternoon’s visitor.
The next morning Betty arrived at the usual time, feeling nervous and apprehensive, to be faced with a sign on the door “Closed until further notice”. In a way Betty felt relieved when she made her way back to the bus stop.