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The Man at Table Nine

Nikola winced at the heat of the plates as she loaded them onto her arms, gripping one with the crook of her elbow and balancing the other two on her palms. She backed away from the counter to avoid Carla, though Carla said, “Careful,” anyway before calling for her order. Nikola glanced at her meals—beef, chicken, risotto—and was relieved to see she hadn’t taken Carla’s accidentally. Two weeks in and she was still making mistakes, only a few of them language related.

Edwin raised his eyebrows at Nikola as she left the kitchen. “Table four are—”

“It is here,” she said. “I have it.” She knew her grammar sounded clumsy but at least she was reducing her accent.

Edwin nodded and stepped aside in an overly theatrical way for her to pass. He was all right. Not as bad as some of them. Nikola weaved her way to table four, pausing for an elderly woman and sidestepping a child, spilling gravy onto her fingers both times.

“Chicken?”

“That’s me,” said one of the men. Nikola set the plate down.

“Did you have to catch it yourself?” the other man asked. The woman with him said nothing but at least she looked embarrassed.

Nikola ignored the comment, telling chicken to be careful of his plate because it was hot. “Beef?”

“Bring it all the way from Russia, did you?”

She put it down but spared him the same warning about the plate. If he burnt himself it would serve him right. The risotto she placed in front of the woman, admiring her dress briefly and then complimenting her on it. Maybe it would improve her chance of a tip.

“Lucky I like it rare,” said beef, poking at his meat as if afraid it might move. It looked fine to Nikola but the man said, “A good vet could bring this back.”

Two weeks and already she felt like she’d heard it all before. She smiled politely, leaving him to decide if she was appreciating the joke or apologising, and asked if there would be anything else, suggesting the usual condiments. She took an order for more drinks, wished them a pleasant meal, and headed back to the kitchen.

“Bar first,” Edwin said as she approached.

Idiota. How many times had she done that this week? “Sorry.”

She took the drinks order to Mark. He was her favourite of the barmen because he was the only one who didn’t try to flirt with her or sneak a look at her cleavage (though perhaps he was simply more discrete about it). Her uniform was the standard white and black combination, but the blouse was tight and the skirt was short. As far as she could tell the waiters didn’t have the same problem with their shirts and trousers. The other girls joked that their clothes led to better tips but these were tips they had to share, which didn’t seem fair to Nikola.

“Scale of one to ten?” Mark asked, tilting a glass beneath one of the beer taps. “Need me to spit in any of these?”

Nikola smiled. “I am okay.”

“You are okay. So what’s that, about a seven?”

Nikola tilted her hand back and forth, then held both up to show, “Six.” Mark laughed. “I am okay,” Nikola said again.

But she wasn’t okay. She was tired, and her feet hurt, and fitting these shifts around her other job and classes was exhausting. She didn’t tell Mark this, though. She didn’t want to complain. She would work harder.

She took the drinks to four, removed the empties she should have taken earlier, and headed back to the kitchen. Edwin gave her a friendly nod as she passed then busied himself with two new customers as Nikola pushed her way through the swing doors and—

—into Carla.

The woman tried to back up from the doors but she wasn’t quick enough. One of the dishes she carried tipped back against her chest, depositing mashed potato and a slop of gravy down her blouse. The other dishes crashed to the floor.

A cheer rose from outside in the restaurant. Someone delivered the ever-popular line about firing the juggler.

Gówno! I’m so sorry!”

Carla wiped curls of fried onion from her clothes before looking up to direct the full intensity of her stare at Nikola.

Graham, one of the chefs, came over with a cloth. “Whoops,” he said.

“Yeah,” Carla said. “Whoops.”

“I am sorry.”

Edwin was suddenly in the kitchen. “What’s going on?” He assessed the mess quickly and said, “Graham.”

“On it.”

“Table twelve?” Edwin asked.

“Yeah,” Carla said, “and I still need to prep nine.”

“Nikki can do it.”

“Yes, I can do it, of course. Carla, I am—”

“Sorry, yeah, you said.”

Edwin told the chefs, “Two new sausage and mash, Caesar, and medium grill.” He looked at Carla and she confirmed with a nod.

The mixed grill would slow them down. Nikola almost apologised again but Edwin turned her around by the shoulders and directed her back out onto the floor. “Prep nine,” he said. “Wipe it down, make sure it’s not still wet when you’re done.”

“Of course.”

“No cutlery.”

“No—”

“Go, go, go.”

Nikola could feel she was still red-faced when she emerged into the restaurant but nobody was paying any attention. They were busy with their meals, their drinks, their partners and friends. She grabbed the squirt bottle and cloth from behind the wait here to be seated greeting stand and made her way quickly to table nine.

Nine was one of the more private tables. A small two-seater just off from the windows, it was tucked away at the end of the booths. Nikola sprayed it with cleaner and wiped, although apart from a spill of salt and a smudge of ketchup it was quite clean. She straightened the menus in their narrow wooden holder.

When she glanced up from her work she saw a man outside, staring in at her. He was in his fifties perhaps, well dressed but lacking any kind of coat despite the cold, and he wore a satchel over one shoulder. He nodded. She thought of the view he must have had as she leaned to rub the table clean and put a hand to her chest, palm at the area her blouse didn’t cover. She was about to wave him away, maybe even make a ruder gesture, when she noticed Edwin standing with him.

“Nikola? Is the table ready?”

It was Edwin’s voice but it came from behind her because—of course, idiota—what she was looking at was a reflection in the glass. There she was as well, a ghost she hadn’t noticed.

“It is ready,” she said, turning, “I just need to set the cutlery.”

The man shook his head and Edwin said, “No need, Nikola, thank you.” He pulled the chair out for the man to sit. “There you are, sir,” and said again, “Thank you, Nikola.”

Nikola realised she was being dismissed, that Edwin was preparing to serve the man himself, but before she could go the customer said, “No, Edwin, let the girl serve me this evening.”

Edwin looked at her.

“I can do nine,” she said.

“Splendid,” said the customer. He smiled at her and set his satchel on the floor. “A glass of your finest red wine, please.”

She noted the order and was surprised to see that not only had Edwin lingered but he even bowed slightly before departing with her.

“Be polite but not chatty or he’ll keep you from your other tables,” he said as they headed back. “Don’t ask him anything except to take his order. And try not to stare.”

“Is he someone important? Is he famous?”

“He owns the restaurant—owns a few restaurants, actually—and he pays our wages. We want that to continue, don’t we?”

“Of course.”

“Good. Now take him these, then fetch his wine.”

He gave her a pair of scissors. She looked at him with a question but he didn’t give her the chance to ask it. “Just take them,” he said. “And be careful, they’re very sharp.”

The man at table nine was looking at the menu when she returned. He had the satchel on his lap.

“Sir? These are for you.”

“Thank you.” He took the scissors from her and set them on the table. “You’re a delightful young thing, are you new?”

His glance at her seemed cursory but she thought of the view he’d already had of her cleaning the table; he may not have been outside looking in, but the view would have been just as provocative from behind. Still, she tried to smile. “Yes, I am new.”

“Where are you from?”

“I am from Gdańsk. It is—”

“Ah, Poland. Coming over here to steal all our waitressing jobs, eh?” He smiled. Perhaps it was a joke.

“Are you ready to order, sir?”

“My drink?”

“Sorry, yes. One moment.”

He smiled at her and returned his attention to the menu.

At the bar, Mark told her, “Cabernet sauvignon,” as he handed her the wine. “If he asks, which he probably won’t. He never drinks it anyway.”

“He does not drink it?”

Mark shrugged. “So long as he’s happy. He tips well, so do what you gotta do.” He winked, but Nikola didn’t think he was entirely joking.

She took the wine to the man at table nine. He was opening his satchel. Nikola recognised what he retrieved from it by the design; it was the same type of camera her father had owned. Not a sleek digital model, nor something expensive and professional with a removable lens, but rather a squat and clunky square shape with a rainbow stripe on the front. A Polaroid. An old one.

“Ah, here she is.”

“Your wine.”

“Set it just there, please. Thank you.”

As Nikola watched, he brought the camera to his face and directed his view at the glass of wine she set before him. He photographed it, and the click, clunk, whir of the process was loud enough to attract the brief attention of the neighbouring tables. Nikola expected to see him shake the picture—that was what her father had always done—but he clamped it under his armpit instead.

“Are you ready to order?”

The man put his camera aside and raised the menu. “Yes. Garlic mushrooms to start,” he said, pointing to the text in case she didn’t understand, “and then the spaghetti bolognaise.”

Nikola wrote it down. “We have excellent garlic bread,” she said, “or maybe—

“Just the mushrooms and spaghetti for now.” He smiled at her briefly, surprising her with, “Dzięki.”

Thanks.

He withdrew the photograph from under his arm and leant it beside the glass of wine. Nikola saw its reflection appearing in the clouded square. She’d seen plenty of people take pictures of their food before, of course, using their phones to capture the image of a loaded plate or fancy meal—she’d even done it herself a few times when she’d first arrived in England—and while some did occasionally photograph their drinks, usually it was because they’d ordered an impressive-looking cocktail or a long line of shots. She wondered what he intended to do with the photo. It wasn’t like he could put it on the internet or anything.

She found out when she returned with his starter.

By the time Nikola returned to the man at table nine he had cut the photograph so that all remained was the wineglass. No table background, no nearby napkin or menu: just the glass of wine. It rested against the actual glass of wine as a smaller twin. The rest of the photograph had been discarded, white edges crushed into a loose ball beside the scissors.

“Your starter,” Nikola announced, delivering a bowl of pungent mushrooms oozing with a thick creamy sauce. She had to wait to put the food down because the man chose that moment to reach for the scissors and his photograph. He leaned away with an apology and she placed the steaming dish before him.

Dzięki,” he said again.

Proszę bardzo. You’re welcome. Be careful of the dish, it is very hot.”

He didn’t appear to be listening. He was cutting a section from his photograph, trimming a thin strip of red wine from the top of the glass. It curled alongside the blades of the scissors.

“Would you like anything else?”

He shook his head, said, “No thank you,” and popped the sliver of photograph into his mouth.

Nikola began to say something but abandoned the words before they could come out as the man took another mouthful of photograph. He made no effort to disguise the action. In fact, he seemed to savour it.

He looked at her. He waited. “Yes?”

“Nothing,” Nikola managed after a moment. “Enjoy your meal, sir.”

He smiled and dismissed her with a nod but she lingered long enough to see him raise the camera to photograph the mushrooms. He leaned in close, surely too close to capture all of it, and took the shot as she walked away.

Click, clunk, whirr . . .

When she glanced back he was repositioning the bowl for another photo and when she glanced back again before losing the table entirely from view he was cutting another piece of wine from his picture-glass, a selection of Polaroids poking out from the clench of his armpit.

Between waiting on other tables, Nikola saw the man at table nine cut up and devour all of his wine photograph (except for the glass) as well as all of the pictures he’d taken of the mushrooms. The actual wine, the real wine, remained untouched, and his dish of mushrooms went cold without him so much as putting his fork to them.

“Spaghetti,” Graham announced when Nikola returned to the kitchen.

“He has not eaten the mushrooms.”

“Who?”

“Table nine.”

Graham smiled. “Yeah, he never eats anything. Well, nothing we send out anyway. Just bring it back and take the spaghetti.”

“What is he doing?” Nikola asked.

“Well, my guess is he’s taking photos of his food.”

She nodded. “He cuts them up and he eats, all the pieces.”

Carla scraped plates into the bin. She had a clean blouse on. “Table nine?”

Nikola said, “Yes. He eats the photograph.”

Carla laughed. “Yeah.”

“It is a joke?”

Graham said, “Whatever, his spag bog’s ready. Bring me those mushrooms, yeah?”

“And don’t forget to scrape those plates,” Carla said, nodding at the stack Nikola had only just put down. She was going to scrape them.

“Don’t mind her,” Graham said when Carla was gone. “She’s not a fan of foreigners, that’s all. We get through a lot of them.”

“Oh,” Nikola said, pushing wasted food into the bin. “Yes. Welcome to England.”

She went to fetch the mushrooms.

The man at table nine was cutting a final strip from what was left of his photographed wine. He put it into his mouth as Nikola asked, “Was everything okay with your meal?”

“Delicious, thank you.”

He seemed very comfortable with the lie; the starter clearly hadn’t been touched since she’d brought it out. The sauce had begun to congeal.

“What’s your name?” the man asked. “Nikola?”

“Yes.”

“Nikola . . . ?”

“Gomolka.”

A scattering of Polaroids littered the table, each with a shape cut from it so that all that remained was a bit of dish or table background, nothing of his food. Nikola moved to take the mushrooms away but paused to ask, “Would you like to take another picture first?”

“Excuse me?”

“The mushrooms?”

Oh. No, dear, thank you, they’re cold.”

Nikola put her hand to her chest. “I am so sorry. I shall bring you some more. I don’t know how—”

“No, they were hot enough when you brought them out, don’t worry. But they’re cold now. You can take them.”

She took the food as he swept the photo scraps aside and with a final smile she returned to the kitchen.

“Everything all right?” Edwin asked as she passed. He was on the phone but he’d covered the mouthpiece to ask her anyway.

Nikola shrugged. “He didn’t eat anything.”

“But was everything all right?”

Nikola shrugged again but said, “Delicious,” and Edwin smiled. He looked relieved. He gave her a thumbs up, then waved her back into the kitchen as he returned his attention to the phone.

Nikola swapped mushrooms for spaghetti. Graham took the mushrooms to the microwave. “What’s it like out there,” he asked, “quietening down yet?”

“A little.” She looked at the kitchen clock—watches weren’t allowed on the restaurant floor—and saw she still had over half an hour left of her shift.

She took the spaghetti.

“Oh my,” the man at table nine said. “Very saucy.” Nikola couldn’t be sure, but she thought maybe he had glanced down her blouse as she lowered the food. He smiled at her and she tried to smile back but by then he was turning the dish this way and that, admiring the long loops of pasta and the thick meaty topping. “Fork?”

“Sorry?”

“May I have a fork, please? I don’t usually ask, only—”

“Of course. Yes.” She handed him one from a nearby table, expecting to see him eat this time, but he only used it to tease out the spaghetti from beneath the bolognaise, making a pattern of it on his plate.

“Perhaps you would be liking another glass of wine?”

The man at table nine nodded, aiming his camera at the food.

“Would you like something different this time?” Nikola pointed to the full glass he hadn’t yet tried.

He shook his head. “No, the same will be fine, thank you. Take this one back with my thanks.”

She felt like she’d made another mistake in asking and said, “It was a cabernet sauvignon,” by way of compensation or distraction, adding her best smile as she took the glass.

He looked at her exactly as her uniform encouraged and returned her smile with an enthusiasm he’d so far only shown his food. “Full bodied,” he said. “My favourite.” Yet he hadn’t taken so much as a sip, as far as Nikola could tell.

She took it back to the bar.

“What a waste,” Mark said, tipping it away.

“Maybe we could send the same one back next time?”

“No, you don’t want to do that. One of the others tried that once but the guy must’ve been watching or something because he complained.” Mark poured a fresh glass. “I think Edwin fired her, actually. Be careful. The foreign help don’t tend to last long around here.”

“He is a crazy person?”

“Edwin?”

Nikola smiled. “No. The man at table nine.”

“The man at table nine is rich,” Mark said, “that makes him eccentric.” He handed her the fresh wine with a broad smile. Nikola didn’t know the word eccentric but she knew it was a joke so she laughed. She would look up the word later.

By the time Nikola returned to nine the man had cut up four pictures of spaghetti. He had a little pile of pieces before him and was picking at them as she approached. Nikola thought about the chemicals—didn’t those kinds of pictures use chemicals?—but she didn’t say anything. She’d been told not to ask questions.

He popped another piece into his mouth.

Eccentric, she remembered.

She left him photographing his fresh wine.

In the kitchen, Carla was arguing with Graham.

“But they’re swimming in garlic sauce,” Graham was saying.

“Hey, I’m just telling you what they said.”

“What is wrong?” Nikola asked.

“Twelve sent their food back.”

“Oh.”

Not her table, not her problem.

“Try it yourself,” Carla said to Graham. It was an unnecessary response as he was already spearing mushrooms with a fork. He took a large mouthful as Nikola picked up an order and moved to the door but as she turned to bump it open with her behind she saw Graham spit the mushrooms back out into the bowl.

Carla crossed her arms. “See.”

“What is it?” Nikola asked, pausing in the doorway.

“Nothing,” he said. He licked at some of the juice on his lips and wiped the rest away with his hand. “I mean, they taste of nothing.” He looked at Nikola and she knew without him saying anything else that they were the same mushrooms she’d brought back from table nine.

Carla carried a new order away and said, “Watch out,” to Nikola as she passed.

Nikola followed her into the restaurant, eager for her shift to just finish.

The man at table nine asked her to wait once she’d brought the bill, counting money from his wallet directly into her hands. His table was a litter of Polaroid scraps. Some tiramisu remained in a few of the photos fragments. All of it remained in the dish. The camera itself was away in its satchel.

“Keep the change,” the man said, passing her the final note. It was a good tip, Nikola thought, surprised he paid at all if he owned the restaurant. He took her hand and closed her fingers over the money.

“Thank you, sir,” she said, waiting for him to release her. He did so by waving her comment away as if it was a fly that bothered but evaded him. He seemed a little drunk. Perhaps he always had been. It would explain his strange behaviour.

“Did you enjoy your meal?”

“I did, I did. And the service was wonderful. You work so very hard, don’t you. That’s why I like you lot. Poles, Czechs, Slavs, whatever. So hard-working. And nobody notices.”

He took her hand again before she could leave and pulled her down to him. “You’re a beautiful girl,” he told her, his breath rank with a mixture of wine, garlic, and coffee. “Yet nobody notices any of you.”

Nikola pulled free and backed away abruptly.

The man at table nine held up his hands. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. I’ve embarrassed you.”

Nikola glanced over at the bar. Mark tilted his head in a way that asked if she was all right.

Perhaps the man at table nine saw some of this. He lifted his bag to his lap and asked, “Could you fetch my coat, miss? I’d like to go now.”

Nikola nodded but when she took the bill and payment to Edwin she told him, “He wants his coat,” and pushed her way through the doors into the kitchen. She collected her own coat from the tiny staff room at the back and retrieved her bag, tucking the extra money the man had left as a tip into one of the pockets. She checked her phone. There was still ten minutes left of her shift but she didn’t care.

The staff had their own bathroom but it was a grotty cramped space so Nikola always used the ones provided for customers. A couple of girls were using the bathroom mirror to take photos of themselves, preening and pouting and giggling, phone held high, so she hid herself away in one of the cubicles and waited for her shift to end, trying not to cry. She took a few sheets of paper from the dispenser beside her and dabbed her eyes and nose, hoping the girls outside couldn’t hear her sniffling. By the time she came out from the cubicle they were gone and her shift was officially over. She fixed her makeup in the mirror and she left.

The night was cool but not cold, pleasant after hours of rushing between tables and a hot kitchen. Nikola left her coat undone, glad now to have the open blouse and the short skirt. She was so tired. She was so very, very tired. She felt like one of the plates she took back to the kitchen, the best bits gone and everything else scraped away. It was so hard over here. She thought of quitting, of going home like so many told her to. It was all so exhausting. The work. The comments. The way people like her were treated, and the way people like her tolerated the treatment.

“Miss?”

She barely heard him behind her. Only when she heard her name as well did she turn.

“Nikola?”

It was the man from table nine. He was standing a short distance away, camera already up at his face. “Cheese,” he said, and then—

Flash, click, clunk, whirr . . .

Wypierdalaj!” Nicola gathered her coat shut and scowled. “Hey!”

But the man from table nine only smiled. “Just a little something for later,” he said, tucking the photograph into his trouser pocket.

He licked his lips.

Originally published in A World of Horror, edited by Eric J. Guignard.

About the Author

Ray Cluley is a British Fantasy Award winner with stories published in various magazines and anthologies. Some of these have been republished in ‘best of’ volumes, including Ellen Datlow’s ‘Best Horror of the Year’ series and Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror, as well as Steve Berman’s Wilde Stories: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, and Benoît Domis’s Ténèbres. He has been translated into French, Polish, Hungarian, and Chinese. His short fiction is collected in Probably Monsters and he is currently working on a novel. You can find out more at probablymonsters.wordpress.com