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Andrzej Štefan had been sitting waiting at one of the high tables by the window. He was waiting for the moment when he was satisfied that the café was finally “moderately busy.”

While he was waiting he reflected yet again that it was as though the café might have been a human body that he was monitoring. Once it had begun to exercise and its pulse was lolloping along it would be in a suitable condition for him to test its strength and reflexes.

When the café was finally “moderately busy” he presented himself at the counter.

The seconds counted in his mind. Three sec-onds, four sec-onds, five sec-onds… On the stroke of six, the server had decoupled from the previous customer and swung out in front of him.

This server was a superbly dignified old man and Andrzej could immediately recognise some of the signature aloofness of the Parisian waiter. Admittedly, this man was stooping when your gaze reached the very top of him. A man so majestic that it was by now his habit to stoop a little in any interior. He was still handsome and he had been clearly once very handsome. Picture a dashing leather boot – perhaps one that had originally belonged to a Prussian officer – and that had since walked around many mountain ranges. The server had a mottled bald head, with a couple of spikes of grey hair combed over it, and he had huge paws with which he was currently caressing his waiter’s ballpoint and notepad. Next he had smiled blandly to signal that Andrzej should hurry up with his order.

At the same time, Andrzej saw that this room was sunlit from only one angle and that another window had been left open where you could stare straight through into the blackness of the night. There was something alien and thrilling just below the surface of this man’s presentability. The server was clicking the end of his pen violently, again and again and again. And when Andrzej looked into his eyes, there was a gaping absence where there should have been instead friendliness and an interest in his order.

 Cocaine. The word rang tartly in Andrzej’s mind.

“I would like the soup,” Andrzej said. “And the sandwich option. There is a discount, is there not, if they are ordered together?”

“Indeed there is, sir” the server drawled. His pen had stopped clicking while he spoke but it started again, skipping even more feverishly, after his words had ended. “They are six fifty both together.” The server stooped a little further and he shuffled his frame up into a bleak, uneasy smile. To Andrzej it looked strangely as though the server was smiling back at his own face in a mirror.

“What is the soup?”

“In its caterpillar days it had been some carrots and a lovely bunch of coriander. But now, it is a butterfly, sir.” This would have sounded fine if it had been innocently playful, as intended, but with the cocaine there was an uncomfortable, rather claustrophobic buzz to it.

“I will have that. And for the sandwich, I will have the bao bun with crayfish.” None of the items on the sandwich menu were sandwiches, Andrzej had noted. There was a largely ornamental hot dog, a rabble of bao buns, and some contraption that had been crafted, wicker-like, from sushi and sticky rice.

The server bent over into his notepad. He scribbled Andrzej’s order and then ripped off the chit in a peculiar fluctuation of impatience. 

“And does the bao bun contain eggs?” Andrzej piped up. “I cannot eat eggs.”

The server paused gravely and he then swung his head towards a doorway over his shoulder that evidently led into the kitchen. He had looked even more majestic and aloof with that bison’s swing of the head. “Does the bao bun contain eggs?” he bellowed, with a kind of tired, theatrical force.

There was another pause and then a faraway shriek from within the kitchen. Understanding registered in the server’s drugged eyes and his head swung back to Andrzej. “No sir, the bao bun is free of eggs.”

“Are you sure?” Andrzej probed.

The server nodded. “This is what the packaging says.” He smiled again and that sickly shiver seemed to run briefly all over his vast frame, like an electrical current. “It is probably incompetence, sir. They probably just forgot to add them.”

With this suave, aloof joke bestowed on him, Andrzej was sent back to his window seat.

He took out his notebook and began to write.

The café is clean and creates a good professional impression. It was moderately busy when I arrived. I was served quickly. The server (Michel) was wearing a name badge. Michel was interested in my order and he answered my questions efficiently. He was polite and it felt like he was making an effort to welcome me.

Andrzej stopped. He was highly offended by the cocaine but he could not think of any way of mentioning it within his report. He could not accuse the server of taking cocaine because eventually the police would have to be involved, whereupon there would be obviously no recoverable evidence. If only the news of such a dereliction of responsibility could be displaced into some more acceptable complaint. If there had been some napkins lying on the floor, then Andrzej could have radiated displeasure at such a trip hazard. But there had been no napkins lying on the floor, nor grease spots across the menus, nor unpleasant smells wafting from the toilets, nor even more than a six-second wait to be served.

The food arrived. Andrzej ate the food.

The soup was warm and flavoursome. It was served without any spillage and with all of the cutlery and condiments that I wanted. The waitress was not wearing a name badge but she greeted me with the words “I am Tracey [or else Tracy], your waitress for today.” The bao buns were also high quality. The food arrived in less than ten minutes, which is under the time that I had expected.

And the server was a junkie, he added mentally. But how to smuggle this into what was increasingly becoming a glowing review?

Perhaps something would come up during the second stage of his visit.

He stood, threw his glass of water on the floor and let out a thin bleating screech. When he saw that he had got the whole café’s attention, he began to hector them menacingly.

“My stomach is burning!” His face was shaking and it had instantly empurpled to the extent that it could have been some crazy, scandalised sea jelly, flushed out into the open air. “These ignoramuses have POISONED ME with EGGS! I TOLD THEM it was impossible for me to EAT EGGS. But they are so NAKEDLY incompetent!”

He noticed that his glass had bounced on the floor without breaking. The water now lay prettily on the linoleum.

The first server had ducked down and stampeded noiselessly out from behind the counter. He laid a powerful paw on Andrzej’s shoulder and Andrzej found that he was being steered towards the door, as weightlessly as if he was somehow installed on wheels. Tables with diners sitting frozen and open-mouthed raced past him. “It is time to go sir,” the server called genially. “You have your bag? Then you can continue this outside sir, in your own time.”

“You have POISONED ME, you IGNORAMOUS!,” Andrzej squeaked, squaring up to the server. But very shortly he was standing outside the café and entirely alone.

He withdrew to a nearby bus stop to finish writing his report. The nuisance was deal with calmly and efficiently. There was no bad language, no personal remarks and no excessive force used. My removal from the premises took under thirty seconds. The server ensured that I had all my possessions prior to my removal.

It was exasperating. On paper this café’s behaviour was flawless, but as Andrzej had been marched outside he had nonetheless observed the wild, telltale flourishes of the server’s arms and the drugged buzz that he had still emitted.

Painfully, Andrzej needed to use the bathroom. He had drunk a couple of gin and tonics before this assignment and it felt as though he was currently wearing a huge wobbling water balloon tucked behind his belt. If he was in luck, he might be able to sneak back into the café without any of the staff spotting him.

He approached the window and tried to glance inside sideways. What he saw, however, snatched away his breath at once, and then the next one, and then a good half of the next.

The café was being dismantled.

The customers were rolling away the tables and stacking the chairs on trolleys. The coffee machine – clearly a dud – was being knocked apart into a few plastic panels. Andrzej stared in amazement as the clock was plucked down from the wall and the latte syrups and coffeemaking paraphernalia were bundled into a rucksack. Now somebody had a scraper in their hand and they were rapidly frittering away the café’s cheerful yellow wallpaper.

Andrzej opened the door and entered. He felt like an actor who is stepping into a meaningless performance with no prior knowledge of what his lines are meant to be.

A single table remained. A random group of the café’s staff and customers were all seated around it, absorbed in apparently protracted deliberations.

The waitress who had been called Tracey or Tracy looked up with annoyance when Andrzej stepped out before them. Gazing around the table abjectly, he could only stammer “I… I… I thought this was a café?”

The waitress shrugged. “You are the mystery customer – well, we are the mystery café.”

By now Andrzej really needed something firmer to cling onto. “You are not a real café?”

The waitress looked bored at having to explain everything. She could have been a teacher and Andrzej a pupil who had arrived at the class an hour behind. “We are a community theatre group. Mystery Shopper Inc. has commissioned feedback on how some of its agents are currently performing.”

“But… but… “ Andrzej broke into a ghastly grin, “you cooked me a bao bun?”

The waitress frowned and looked away. “We just ordered it from the café around the corner,” somebody else filled him in quietly.

The waitress sat forward and her face seemed to drain of emotion, as though she was consciously tipping all of her usual humanity out of it. “I’m sorry to say this to you Dr. Štefan but I think it’s better if you hear it straight. We will be reporting clear indications of drunkenness at work. Your speech was slurred when you interacted with the mystery server….”

“No, no you can’t say this!” Andrzej implored. “This is defamation, I’ll have you…”

“The camera over the fake till was one of the few things in our mystery café that was real. We have footage of you walking unevenly over to…”

“Well, you were on cocaine!”

The waitress blinked. She was about to look at him properly for the first time but then she had changed her mind and spun back to her colleagues for verification of what she had just heard. A baffled smile had crept over her face.

Andrzej picked out the guilty face from around the table. “This man here has taken cocaine – you can’t deny it – you can’t even try to! This is the most gross unprofessionalism!”

The man bared his teeth. He was no longer the noble, majestic, and suave Parisian waiter. He was, however, still shivering with his familiar mania. “You fucking apologise right now!” he roared, throwing back his chair and lumbering to his feet. “You little prick! I’ll wash that drunken mouth of yours out in the fucking kitchen sink!”

“Andy!” the waitress sounded alarmed. “Don’t let him nettle you! Sit back down, please.”

“Andy!” voices were now warning in jumps.

Andy was stalking forwards, trying to corner Andrzej, whilst Andrzej was backtreading warily.

There was a sharp, very powerful crash. Everyone at the table leapt to their feet.

Andy had lunged at the wrong moment and his fist had dazzlingly punctured the glass of the window just behind Andrzej’s head. Meanwhile, Andrzej had tangled his own feet up, dived forward and his forehead had banged hard on the back of one of the chairs.

“Boys!” the waitress beseeched. “Boys, stop that! Please, let’s sit down again! Please! Please –  things are getting out of hand! Please!”

“I’m calling the police” somebody announced in a voice that sounded somehow both too confident and too wooden.  

“Sit down!” more people were crying. “Please! We seriously need to sort this out!”

[Previously on Tychy: “Fifteen Minutes.”] 

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