Runner Up: Alyson Hilbourne
Alyson Hilbourne has been writing short stories in her spare time for many years. She has been published in The People’s Friend, Prima, Woman’s Weekly, online and in several anthologies. In 2014 she won the Sophie King Prize for a romantic short story and this year she won a trip to the 2017 Iceland Writing Retreat with a short story in Writing Magazine. Although flash fiction is her favourite writing form she still dreams of being a ‘real’ author and finishing a novel. Alyson tweets on writing and the Lake District where she lives @ABBK1. She is a member of the online writing group Writers Abroad.
A Bit of a Gamble
Well, to be honest it wasn’t what most people were planning after college. The majority of them were heading for London to try and get work in some posh restaurant like Gordon Ramsey’s or the River Café.
“I’ll work my way up,” Jacques said. “I’ll become the best sous chef in the country and they’ll have to hire me.”
“And I’ll be the best pastry chef ever,” Amy declared. “My éclairs will be to die for. People will be wilting all over England, gasping for my macaroons and mille feuilles. Come on, Daphne. Why don’t you come with us?”
I shook my head. I was tempted. I had a good qualification and could expect to get any job I wanted, but I had a mission. Something I’d promised myself.
Getting the loan took a while. The manager wasn’t convinced. Phrases like “no track record”, “bit of a gamble” and “unknown quantity” were bandied about. I had to do pages of costings and forecasts to satisfy him. In the end he said they were happy to lend to a small business. He hoped it would put the town on the map.
It helped he knew my parents and they agreed to put up collateral. Not that it was that much that I needed to borrow. The place was cheap. Very cheap.
“Corrugated iron,” Dad said, looking at the roof.
“Needs new windows,” Mum said poking the glass, which promptly fell out.
I sneezed as dust rained down. Cobwebs laced the ceiling and leaves had collected in the corners of the rooms.
“Are you sure about this?” Dad asked.
I nodded. It was my dream.
The place entailed three months of work before it was ready. I begged and borrowed labour and expertise from friends. It required oceans of bleach and hours of mopping too.
“Doesn’t matter if you’ve never put in windows,” I said. “Can you clean tiles? Electrics? Plumbing?”
I got the kitchen equipment from local auctions. Much as I’d have loved a swathe of new stainless steel surfaces and cupboards, I took what was cheap and then I scrubbed it. At least if it was clean health and safety couldn’t complain. Freezers came second hand from friends and were scoured out meticulously. I used packets of baking soda getting rid of the smell of stale milk from fridges.
At last the exciting day came when Dad took me in the truck to the cash and carry to buy supplies.
“At last it feels real, now we’re getting food,” I said, trying to control the stupid grin on my face.
“Going for a soft start, love?” Dad asked. “Just tea and breakfast to begin?”
“Nope,” I told him. “I did this at college remember. I can handle several choices a day.”
He inclined his head. He was used to living with Mum and me. He didn’t argue but I could see he was worried. I bit my lip. I didn’t want to let him down.
The first day was nerve wracking. I was there at 5am although opening wasn’t until seven. I wanted everything ready. There was a fluttery feeling in my stomach and I couldn’t eat. I wiped my sweaty palms down my jeans as I glanced up at the clock.
I didn’t need to have worried. Dad rounded up all his mates and at 7am precisely at least a dozen articulated lorries drove in to the parking space in front.
“Welcome to Daph’s Diner,” Dad said, holding the door with a theatrical sweep of his hand.
The drivers looked around. They nodded appreciatively at the Formica tables and football posters on the walls. It must have looked comfortably familiar. I’d tried to make it just as I remembered from my visits with Dad when I was a child.
“Worst day of my life when this place closed,” one man said.
“So glad you’ve opened up again,” someone else said.
“Come on, let’s get an order in,” another pressed close to the counter.
“Tea?” I said. “Latte or cappuccino?”
“Oooh, that’s new!”
“What’s for breakfast, then?” The drivers rubbed their hands together.
“Always used this place for breakfast, until it shut.”
I showed them the chalkboard.
“The menu has changed,” I said. “But I think you’ll find it filling and wholesome.”
“Moroccan baked eggs, Breakfast burritos, Sprout and potato hash, Croque madame, Coconut and cardamon crepes, Strawberry and ginger waffles…” Someone read the board out to those at the back.
“Ooh, posh… different… what’s that then?”
There were lots of comments including the words “fry up” and “sausages” and I saw more than one or two looks pass between the men. I swallowed. Maybe I was trying to change things too fast. I tidied up the already tidy counter as I waited for them to make their decisions. But at least for this day they were captive customers so I served up my best. Tomorrow they could vote with their feet.
I didn’t need to worry. Conversations went quiet as they tucked into their meals. All I could hear was the scraping of knives and forks and the slurps of tea. Not a scrap was left. Plates were cleaned with the chunks of garlic and herb focaccia that I’d made early in the morning and put on each table. There were appreciative sighs as they finished and men leaned back in their chairs, scratching armpits and picking at their teeth.
Eventually the first rush left.
“I’ll be back tomorrow.” Someone said
“Fantastic food.” I heard.
Dad gave me a thumbs-up on his way out the door. Then I heard the revving of engines and I was on my own for half an hour before the next customers came in.
Word spread. Daph’s Diner was busy. It was hectic and many days I was there late into the night sorting out for the next day and cleaning up. The lorry driver network was legendary. They made detours to stop for breakfast and lunch. There was a queue of lorries down the road.
The local paper came to visit to see what the fuss was about. They did a write up, full page with a colour photo of the outside and inside of my diner. Then the local radio picked up the story and they sent a journalist down to talk to me and try out the menu.
All the attention brought people from town out to eat. People who’d been keen for the place to close before as it ruined the tenor of the area, were suddenly queuing at the door of my diner to have their lunch. Soon I had to take bookings, although I always kept a few tables on the side for the lorry drivers like my Dad.
“You could really do something with this place,” one man told me, looking around. “You know, table cloths and more choice.” I gritted my teeth. I am doing something with it, I thought to myself.
I worked hard. Really hard. I lost weight. I was hardly ever at home. As soon as I closed at night I had to set up the bread machine for the next day, defrost the meats ready to cook, do the ordering, as well as cleaning and polishing everywhere as I never knew when I would be checked up on.
I was wearing myself down to the bone, literally. My cheekbones stuck out like shelves and my jeans slipped down my hips. I never seemed to have time to get my hair cut or file my nails. I was successful but I was too busy.
The worst day came when I ran out of food. There had been a sudden rush at lunchtime and I thought I had more meals ready but when a couple of the regular lorry drivers came in there was nothing for them.
I took their order and went to the kitchen to warm it up but there was just nothing in the fridge. I leaned over the work surface and wept. I don’t know how long I was there, but eventually one of the drivers came in and found me. He rang my Dad while the other one turned the closed sign on the door.
I spent two nights in hospital suffering from exhaustion. I was put on a drip for dehydration and told to take some time off. All the while I lay in my crisp white hospital sheets I fretted about the diner and the fact if no money came in I couldn’t repay the loan. I was a failure.
“But you must have been making a profit all the while?” Dad said, when he visited me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t had time to do the books properly in weeks. I’ve just been too busy.”
He pressed his lips together. My eyes watered and my stomach churned. I’d let him down. It was difficult to think clearly. I kept going over what had gone wrong. I’d so wanted the diner to be a success. I’d put his savings at risk. I couldn’t see a way out of the problem. There was no future in it. I couldn’t do it. I clenched my fists, angry with myself, a lump the size of a dough ball wedged in my throat.
I was sent home. Mum fussed around, but I was listless and uninterested in things. I couldn’t sleep.
“Do you want me to come back to the diner and help you get straight?” Mum offered. I shook my head. I’d lost interest.
But Dad wasn’t going to give up on me.
“What you need is some help,” he said mildly. “Ted has a lad looking for some work. I’ll ask.”
So after a few enforced days of rest I went back to work. I had to start with cleaning the kitchen all over again as things had just been left when I disappeared so fast. The smell of bleach made me retch. The site of pots and pans left me weak. But when I got the first batch of bread out of the oven and breathed in the fresh yeasty scent I knew I was back.
Ted’s boy had never washed up in his life but he learned very fast. He then asked if I could give his girlfriend a job so she came as a waitress and general kitchen help.
Between us we got the place up and running again. I was able to leave them to tidy up in the evenings and place orders and make up the books. I could see we were making a profit and the loan was being repaid regularly. The lorry drivers quickly forgave me for the minor hiccup and came back. The townspeople who had been let down by the closure were slower to return but convenience and price won them over. After three months business was back up to where it had been when I’d collapsed. It was easier but we all worked hard.
I added new dishes to the menu. The local paper ran our story again. They called us “shabby chic” and said we were the in place to be at lunchtimes. They wanted us to open in the evenings.
Evenings! When did I have time for that, I thought. An evening for me would be good. When did I last go out?
The renewed interest from the local paper alerted the mainstream papers to us and they sent their food critics. Business was booming again.
I rang Jacques.
“I need a sous chef, Jacques. The best in the country.”
“I heard you were doing well,” he said.
“It’s not Gordon Ramsey, but we’re doing more covers than I can cope with on my own and there’s potential to expand to the evening trade if you want,” I offered.
“I’ll be on the next train,” he said.
I rang Amy.
“How’s it going?” I asked. “Only I’m in need of the best pastry chef in England right now.”
“Let me work my month’s notice and I’ll be there,” she said.
It took me three years to repay the loan, in full. People wanted to invest in my diner.
“Proper little gold mine, you’ve got there,” the manager said, when I cleared my debts. “Who’d have thought it?”
Not you, I thought to myself. “Bit of a gamble” wasn’t I? I pressed my lips together and smiled at him.
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