The following is an installment from a novel-in-progress. You can read the most up-to-date version here.
The dining room is packed with men. At first, I think they’re speaking a dozen languages, like the people on the railway platform. Gradually, though, as Mrs. Nowak sends me through the door with platter after platter of potatoes, stewed meat in cabbage leaves, hunks of dark bread, and slabs of butter, I realize they’re speaking English.
It’s their accents that make them all sound different. At the end of the table sit two clerkish-looking men, thinner and paler than the rest, who lean together and whisper only to each other. In the middle are some boisterous younger types, shovelling in their food like starved beasts and spewing some of it back on the table as they call across to one another with full mouths. At the other side, farthest from the kitchen, are several larger men, slightly older but almost as loud.
When they finish the meal, which takes less time than any sane person might expect, I clear away the plates. So far, my presence in the room has been largely ignored. But now, as I lean across the table to retrive an empty serving paltter, a hand grasps my bottom. Firmly. This is no accident.
“Is there any coffee comin’ through, darling?”
I suppose I should have ignored that hand. It’s not much worse than the way Mr. Frank McLeod and his friends used to torment Edwina. The real Edwina.
Maybe it’s the thought of her that makes me react the way I do. I slap the hand away with all the force I can muster.
“Not for the likes of you,” I answer.
The table erupts in laughter.
“You tell him straight up, sweetheart,” grins the man to my right.
“She shown you,” roars another.
Then the hand is back on my bottom, more firmly now, fingers where fingers shouldn’t go.
“I said, is there coffee comin’?”
I don’t know what I would have done if Mrs. Nowak hadn’t shoved open the door with an ample hip, right at that very moment.
“Treat my staff like that, and you’ll likely get your coffee in your lap, Mr. Johnston,” she says. She must have heard it all from the other side of the door. I feel my face turn a shade brighter, which I wouldn’t have thought possible.
The table erupts again, and I flee the room, cheeks burning and tears stinging the corners of my eyes. When Mrs. Nowak returns to the kitchen, I’m dripping snot and tears into the dishwater.
“Don’t you let those men see tears,” she says. “Don’t you give them the satisfaction.”