This wasn’t how Daniel had expected his life to work out. School had been easy. He was tall, dark haired and confident- the kind of lad that the girls noticed and the teachers indulged. He had always known what to say and never worried too much about whether it was true or not. People liked him. He had done as little work as possible and smiled his way out of trouble. So how had he ended up here? “Here” being a Cornish pasty shop on a draughty city railway station. Full time. Watching people come and go, watching the pigeons up in the iron railings of the roof, watching the ornate station clock count down the minutes of his shift, listening to the rush of trains speeding away to London or Edinburgh, the snatches of conversation, hellos and goodbyes. He was marooned, alone in the centre of things. Everyone was going somewhere and he was left behind, telling customers what the pasty of the day was, bagging it up and asking them if that was all. Sometimes when people said yes it didn’t sound like they meant they only wanted a pasty. Sometimes he watched them walk out and he knew how they felt. This was not where he should be.
“You going to sort out that trolley or what?”
He froze for a few seconds when he heard her voice, leaving the customer holding out her hand with a five pound note in it. Debbie didn’t like Daniel. She was thick set and middle aged- the kind of woman he had never noticed- and she stared at him when they weren’t busy. She liked telling him what to do and unfortunately he couldn’t stop her as she was in charge. He put down the pasty that he had just bagged on the counter and walked slowly, just slowly enough to make his point but not slowly enough to be rude, out of the serving area and towards the trolley, without asking the customer whether she wanted to order the meal deal. He was obeying orders. Debbie couldn’t complain about that. Let her work the coffee machine. He hated that bloody thing. It snorted and hissed at the back of the shop like some kind of giant alien being, spewing hot water and milk everywhere and demanding a constant round of wiping and polishing. It was dangerous. You had to watch your hands all the time.
The customer ordered her coffee and waited calmly for Debbie to make it for her. She was another older woman- even older than Debbie- and she did the same staring at him as he wheeled the trolley towards her. She was in his way. He stood still, looked her in the eyes and spread his arms out. She moved. The two women raised their eyebrows at each other as money changed hands. They didn’t need to say anything. They just knew.
After the next short rush Debbie turned to him.
“You were rude to that customer.”
He knew what customer of course. They both realised that.
“You’ve no idea about customer service.”
The fact was that life had taught Daniel that he didn’t need to bother about customer service. Everything had come easily to him, people, things, experiences. So easily that he had never noticed his chances slipping by. There was always a distraction, always someone ready to give praise or suggest an easy option to fall for, and it had led him here.
When she first saw Daniel, Debbie had known straight away that giving him a job had been a bad idea. If she had been manager at the time it would never have happened. She had seen it all coming. The looking at his own reflection in the shining stainless steel of the coffee machine, the way that he would stare straight through her when she had to ask him to do something, the teenage girls taking hours to eat their pasties while they giggled in the corner and stared at him, the absences. It used to matter how well you did your job, now it only seemed to matter how good you looked while you were doing it. And he did look good. She even caught herself staring at him sometimes. It was embarrassing. She just couldn’t dislike him- and she had tried. Time passed more quickly when he was in a good mood, he would tease her, flatter her and teach her fast rhythmic song lyrics that made no sense to her at all. When she asked about the tune he would shrug his shoulders and grin. Other times he just didn’t want to be there and he made that very obvious. Well she didn’t want to be there either. It hadn’t been her life’s ambition to stand on her bad ankle in a pasty shop for hours every day being polite to people. She had been young once, had ideas, and it didn’t seem that long ago. She could still remember. Daniel was lucky. He was young now and he still had choices. He didn’t have to be here. When he finally woke up and realised that the world didn’t owe him a living he probably wouldn’t be. The drop dead gorgeous young woman who had just walked in might cheer him up a bit- that was about the only thing that did. This one would get some decent customer service all right.
Louise wondered afterwards why she had decided to have a pasty on her way to the train. It wasn’t like her to eat pastry- she hadn’t stayed this slim by accident. Maybe it was the meal deal advertised on the board outside. Her mind had rushed ahead to later in the day, when she would be on show so it was a shock to see someone she knew looking back at her from the other side of the counter when she looked up, ready to order. Dishy Dan from school. Everybody’s favourite clown. Her first crush.
“Dan! What are you doing here?”
She could see the thoughts racing across his face as he tried to work out who she was. He wasn’t the first to wonder. No glasses, almost two stone lost, a flattering new hair colour and better skin. Well she certainly had his attention now, and it felt good. Money and effort well spent. At least she was dressed for the meeting in her best heels. It was going to be painfully boring but he wasn’t to know that. She smiled at him.
“It’s Louise- we were at school together.”
He still looked confused. She wanted to show off about her new job but she didn’t. It might be tactless. Of course there were all kinds of reasons why you might end up selling pasties on a railway station, but still. Best not.
“How are you doing?”
“Oh you know, getting by.”
So he didn’t want to tell her. and he wasn’t going to ask. She smiled briefly.
“Aren’t we all?”
“You’re looking good.”
They stood there, staring at each other. Finally he spoke.
“You haven’t ordered.”
“What’s the pasty of the day?”
“Chicken and chorizo. It always is.”
“OK then. I’ll have the meal deal.”
He flashed her a dazzling smile and suddenly she was fifteen again. Damn. She watched as the middle aged woman waiting by a tower of disposable coffee cups caught his eye, stood to one side with some ceremony and held out her arm towards the coffee machine. What was that all about? It didn’t take long- he was fast.
“There you go.”
She gave him the cash, making sure not to touch his hand.
“I’m due a break in fifteen minutes if you fancy a chat.”
She picked up her bag.
“Train to catch I’m afraid. Another time.”
That would never happen. She was not likely to eat another pasty in a hurry. As she turned and walked out she could feel him watching her leave.
And so the day wore on, a day like any other. People came and went as the light changed and the trains whipped by, following their predictable paths. Restless corridors of mystery, carrying people on journeys of all kinds- exciting, mundane, unique, routine. The hands on the station clock clicked round and the electronic displays flickered and rolled across radiant screens, full of possibilities. Four hundred and twenty six cups of coffee were sold in the pasty shop. The stuff of life. Our lives.