‘Excuse me. You have a phone call.’
Liv spins round. The waitress has pale skin and long dark hair, which opens around her face like a pair of half-drawn curtains. She is beckoning with her notepad. Liv is conscious of a flicker of familiarity.
‘Urgent phone call. I think it’s family.’
Liv hesitates. Family? But it’s a sliver of light in a tunnel. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Oh, right.’
‘Would you like me to show you the phone?’
‘Urgent phone call,’ she mouths at Kristen, and points at the waitress, who points towards the kitchens.
Kristen’s face arranges itself into an expression of exaggerated concern. She stoops to say something to Roger, who glances behind him and reaches out a hand as if to stop her. And then Liv is gone, following the short dark girl through the half-empty restaurant, past the bar and down the wood-panelled corridor.
After the gloom of the seating area the glare of the kitchen is blinding, the dulled sheen of steel surfaces bouncing light across the room. Two men in white ignore her, passing pans towards a washing-up station. Something is frying, hissing and spitting in a corner; someone speaks rapid-fire Spanish. The girl gestures through a set of swing doors, and suddenly she is in another back lobby, a cloakroom.
‘Where’s the phone?’ Liv says, when they come to a halt.
The girl pulls a packet of cigarettes from her apron and lights one. ‘What phone?’ she says blankly.
‘You said I had a call?’
‘Oh. That. There isn’t a phone. You just looked like you needed rescuing.’ She inhales, lets out a long sliver of smoke and waits for a moment. ‘You don’t recognize me, do you? Mo. Mo Stewart.’ She sighs, when Liv frowns. ‘I was in your course at uni. Renaissance and Italian Painting. And Life Drawing.’
Liv thinks back to her degree. And suddenly she can see her: the little Goth girl in the corner, near silent in every class, her expression a careful blank, her nails painted a violent, glittering purple. ‘Wow. You haven’t changed a bit.’ This is not a lie. As she says it, she is not entirely sure it’s a compliment.
‘You have,’ says Mo, examining her. ‘You look … I don’t know. Geeky …’
‘Maybe not geeky. Different. Tired. Mind you, I don’t suppose being sat next to Tim Nice But Dim there is a barrel of laughs. What is it? Some kind of singles night?’
‘Just for me, apparently.’
‘Christ. Here.’ She hands Liv a cigarette. ‘Spark that up, and I’ll go out and tell them you’ve had to leave. Great-aunt with a violent palsy. Or something darker? Aids? Ebola? Any preferences as to the degree of suffering?’ She hands Liv the lighter.
‘I don’t smoke.’
‘It’s not for you. This way I can get two in before Dino notices. Will she want your share of the bill?’
‘Oh. Good point.’ Liv scrabbles in her bag for her purse. She feels suddenly light-headed at the prospect of freedom.
Mo takes the notes, counts them carefully. ‘My tip?’ she says, straight-faced. She does not appear to be joking.
Liv blinks, then peels off an extra five-pound note and hands it to her. ‘Ta,’ says Mo, tucking it into the pocket of her apron. ‘Do I look tragic?’ She pulls a face of mild disinterest and then, as if accepting that she doesn’t have the appropriate facial muscles for concern, disappears back down the corridor.
Liv is unsure whether to leave or whether she should wait for the girl to return. She gazes around her at the back lobby, at the cheap coats on the rack, the grubby bucket and mop underneath them, and finally sits down on a wooden stool, the cigarette useless in her hand. When she hears footsteps, she stands, but it’s a Mediterranean-skinned man, his skull shining in the dim light. The owner? He is holding a glass of amber liquid. ‘Here,’ he says, offering it to her. And when she protests, he adds, ‘For the shock.’ He winks and is gone.
Liv sits and sips the drink. In the distance, through the clatter of the kitchen, she can hear Roger’s voice lifting in protest, the scraping of chairs. She checks her watch. It is a quarter past eleven. The chefs emerge from the kitchen, pull their coats from the rack and disappear, giving her a faint nod as they pass, as if it’s not unusual for a customer to spend twenty minutes nursing a brandy in the staff corridor.
When Mo reappears she is no longer wearing an apron. She is holding a set of keys, walks past Liv and locks the fire door. ‘They’ve gone,’ she says, pulling her black hair back into a knot. ‘Your Hot Date said something about wanting to console you. I’d turn your mobile off for a bit.’
‘Thank you,’ said Liv. ‘That was really very kind.’
‘Not at all. Coffee?’
The restaurant is empty. Liv stares at the table where she had sat, as the waiter sweeps efficiently around the chairs, then distributes cutlery with the unthinking, metronomic efficiency of someone who has done this a thousand times. Mo primes the coffee machine, and gestures to her to sit. Liv would really rather go home, but understands there is a price to be paid for her freedom, and a brief, slightly stilted conversation about the Good Old Days is probably it.
‘I can’t believe they all left so suddenly,’ she says, as Mo lights another cigarette.
‘Oh. Someone saw a message on a BlackBerry that she shouldn’t have. It all kicked off a bit,’ Mo says. ‘I don’t think business lunches usually involve nipple clamps.’
‘You heard that?’
‘You hear everything in here. Most customers don’t stop talking when waiters are around.’ She switches on the milk-frother, adding, ‘An apron gives you superpowers. It actually makes you pretty much invisible.’
Liv had not registered Mo’s appearance at her table, she thinks uncomfortably. Mo is looking at her with a small smile, as if she can hear her thoughts. ‘It’s okay. I’m used to being the Great Unnoticed.’
‘So,’ says Liv, accepting a coffee. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘In the last nearly ten years? Um, this and that. Waitressing suits me. I don’t have the ambition for bar work.’ She says this deadpan. ‘You?’
‘Oh, just some freelance stuff. I work for myself. I don’t have the personality for office work.’ Liv smiles.
Mo takes a long drag of her cigarette. ‘I’m surprised,’ she says. ‘You were always one of the Golden Girls.’
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