Monday 19 November 2012

Tastie Toast Café

Honee worked at Tastie Toast Café. He attended two-hour morning classes at the slumside tent, then scampered off to the bus station for his 9.20 a.m. ride to the city centre.
The café was famous for its black tea and black coffee, but most of all for its Tastie Toast. All six working days of the week, the owner kneaded the dough with his own hands and prepared the stuffing five times a day to get that perfect taste into his unique patty.
The whole staff – that is, Honee, Bindi and Mandra – had become good friends. Their work bound them closer than any Fevicol could, Honee mused. After all, they worked sort of butt-to-butt in the tiny kitchen at the back of the café.
It hadn’t always been such a tight squeeze, but the cafe’s growing popularity had forced the boss to make more space for his customers and push the kitchen wall closer to the back. As a result, they had to lightly shove each other by their backsides to move in or out of the kitchen. It was dicey, manoeuvring with trays and steaming mugs balanced on each palm. Like today.
“Coming, saarrr!” Honee replied in a singsong tone when the perpetually drunk Bear called out a third time for his Tastie Toast.
“Bear” was their nickname for the grumpy, bearded man who lurched in every morning, his cap dangling down one ear and spiky hair shining in the sun. He slumped into the corner by the big glass window, ate Tastie Toasts and drank till he was sozzled.
 Another regular was the “Dream”. Some years back she used to wear skimpy blouses and flared pants tied high on her waist. Now she had put on weight and wore tight, ill-fitting tops with skirts or pants that did not match. She loved Tastie Toast Café even more than her cigarettes. Once she was inside the café, she wolfed down Tastie Toasts and had black coffee laced with a drink she poured from the tiny flask ever-present in her huge purse. She did not smoke except on her way out. Boss served her himself, preparing Tastie Toasts in quick succession so that her plate was never empty.
Tastie Toast on a tray.
The black coffee was a hot favourite.
Digital sketches: Harjeet
Honee’s personal favourite was the “Cane”, a quiet old man with thick eyebrows. Short and stout, he walked with a cane, his head erect, and always landed up at 11 sharp for a cup of tea with milk, a Tastie Toast and a cookie. Then he would strut to his office hard by. It seemed he had no cook at home because after work hours, he dropped in for two Tastie Toasts and one mug of black coffee. After that, he walked out in the opposite direction, to the bus station.
Cane’s friend was of middling height, sporting a moustache. He usually darted in 15-20 minutes after Cane, whispered some secrets perhaps, and scuttled off before Cane had finished his cookie. It was done in clockwork precision. But Honee had not been able to establish if Cane and “Moustache” worked in the same office.
Bear interrupted Honee’s reverie: “Boy, what are you dreaming about? Where’s my toast today?”
Honee looked around. He had unwittingly put down the Tastie Toast at Cane’s table. Swiftly retrieving the plate, he muttered a soft “Sorry, saar” and shot back into the kitchen.
Cane was fidgety today, and to top it Honee had delayed his order. Mandra was poised at the door, and passed on a tray.
“Quick,” he hissed to Honee, who darted back to where Cane was sitting.
“Here, saar!” he panted as he put down the tray. “The other saar is not coming today? All well, saar?” he asked.
“No, he hasn’t come in, and I’m worried,” Cane replied. “I hope he is well.”
“He will be fine, saar,” Honee said reassuringly.
This was Honee’s longest conversation with any customer. His boss did not encourage small talk. He philosophized that rich people were best left alone. Serve them well, and earn your living. Stay out of their hair, and they won’t bother you. “It’s that or your job. I don’t want trouble in any form,” the boss would often say.
But today Honee felt impelled to ask more. So, undaunted, he prodded Hero for more information.
“My friend lives all alone, just like me,” Cane said.
“So I was right about him,” Honee thought. Aloud, he asked if he could be of any help.
“I’ll let you know,” a distracted Cane replied.
Honee fretted all day, waiting for Cane to come in before they shut shop. The boss had to pull him up twice for not paying attention to his work.
Cane did not turn up that evening. Honee felt concerned. Mandra had left early, so Honee told Bindi about it when they were scrubbing the floor.
Downing the shutter, they noticed a lone light in the building next door where Cane worked. Climbing two steps at a time, they gained the glass door in a trice. Cane was sitting alone, staring at his typewriter. They roused him, and guided him down the stairs. Bindi stood guard by him while Honee clambered back to lock up the office. They offered to escort him home, but Cane shook his head determinedly.
They decided to trail him. He wound up three or four lanes later at what was probably his friend’s place.
They waited in the shadows. Cane was back in five minutes, his shoulders shaking. Honee made bold to step forward. “All well, saar?” he asked for the second time that day.
“I could never have guessed!” Cane had been laughing silently, and did not bother to ask the young men what they were doing there.
“That woman who comes in to drink liquor with her coffee proposed to him yesterday. He’s so scared he’s holed up since, ha-ha!” Cane said gleefully.
He was referring to the Dream. That much Honee could figure, but he had not seen her and the middle-aged Moustache exchanging a word.
Cane said the two worked in the same office, and she had been chasing Moustache for some time. He would leave for the café the moment she entered office, pour out his agony to Cane. Somehow, that fortified him for the rest of the day. Today, however, she had waylaid him, and proposed. He ran off and had since been hiding in his one-room tenement.
“He doesn’t like her?” Honee asked curiously.
“He does, but he’s scared of her ex, the one who sits in that corner in your café,” Cane told them.
“Her ex?” they exclaimed.
“Well, they went around a bit. Though she broke off the affair, he does not let anyone near her,” Cane explained. “He is a violent drunkard, and my friend won’t risk offending him.”
“They can complain to the police, or get married and go to a new place. Why are they spoiling their lives for a drunken man?” Honee said with naïve wisdom.
“It’s not easy to change jobs, and anyway he has never discussed it with her. He’s too scared of him,” Cane told them as they walked to the bus station.
“He won’t be around too long,” Honee assured Cane lightly, leaving him wondering.
Honee went straight to his teacher’s house in the slum, and told him about Moustache and the Dream. He asked if there was a way to get rid of Bear. The teacher said the café owner could complain about his drinking. But Bear had been doing that for so long without creating a scene! “So you create one,” the teacher suggested.
Three days later, Cane was beaming at the corner where Bear usually sat, for Moustache and the Dream sat holding hands there.
And Bear? He had been taken away by the police for drinking in public and threatening to kill some youth harmlessly indulging in Tastie Toast at the café. Bear had actually brandished an evil-looking knife drawn from his pouch! It had been touch and go.
The plan was carried out so smoothly that no one suspected the young men came from a slum, dressed in their Sunday best for the occasion, and there at Honee’s behest.
Honee could not stop grinning all day. The Dream had for the first time taken her coffee neat, without drawing out that flask from her bag.