I had seen her coming, watched her through the plexiglass wall of the café as she fought her way to the shopping centre’s third floor. She leapt up a moving escalator two steps at a time and clattered through the front door. She cried out: ‘Hello, me again, that’s right, Mrs Keepbusy!’
‘Hello, Mrs Keepbusy,’ I said.
Hers was a face that warned you in advance, the human equivalent of a letter that begins: ‘You don’t know me, but…’ Beneath a severe centre parting, her eyes flitted tirelessly, consuming everything in sight as if to compensate for six months in an empty room. A taut, circus-like smile hung around for too long, waiting to be reciprocated, causing a little crack to form on her lower lip. Her face struggled to support it. Cosmetic toxin injections had left her resembling a mean impersonation of herself.
‘How can I help you today?’
‘Let me see,’ said Mrs Keepbusy.
I imagined an alternate reality where she was famous enough to be parodied on low-budget sketch shows, where her collagen grin lent itself to novelty keyrings, moulded coffee mugs, and eyeless Getty Images of her head replicated on paper masks in a newsagent’s window.
She leant in close towards me as if this was a bar in a 1940s screwball comedy and not the disinfected work surface of a franchised coffee outlet. Outside, our shop-front fascia barely concealed a fossilised Wimpy sign.
‘I just love how BOHEMIAN this place is, like Channel Four in the ‘80s!’ she exclaimed to me, spinning and spreading her arms wide.
The chain tried to cultivate an ‘alternative’ atmosphere with a Frida Kahlo-themed sandwich display and a wall print of a blurred elephant, but the layout was identical in each of our 542 branches nationwide. I said nothing as usual, nodding continuously like a car dashboard ornament.
A queue grew behind her. The tired Optical Express employee from next door tutted at the damp patch of hot milk on his sleeve. A six-year-old sat alone in the far corner, downing a large black coffee.
‘Anyway, you probably know why I am here. This morning, I saw an advert at the bus stop announcing your new Solstice Range. The cinnamon bromide chai instantly transfixed me. A probiotic foam with a light powdering of nutritional yeast, ovary-shaped almond biscotti on the side, available with a choice of compassionate milks, fortified brines and nostalgic syrups. I looked at it and thought: me.’
‘Cool, Mrs Keepbusy.’
She gripped my hand as she spoke. Hers was warm and coated in a layer of rose scented moisturiser. My hand felt like a dead amphibian inside her grasp.
‘Well. I kissed everyone in that bus shelter full on the mouth and then I made my way to you. Can I please enquire about the standard price? Though, frankly, I’d pay anything, DO anything, to try it right this minute.’
I gestured to our price list, each £5+ coffee accompanied by a clip art of an Inspiring Woman From History.
‘£6.85…that is reasonable. VERY reasonable. You are a dear, I’ll have eleven with bee’s milk.’
Her relentless chatter advertised her loneliness, and I could never shirk a ‘Hello’ to her in the street.
When she died, seven people attended her funeral, all of them regular members of staff from nearby shops and cafés. The man from Optical Express waved to me from the next pew, a stain still faintly visible on the cuff of his shirt. I waved back with a new kind of smile I’d learned in customer service training. A smile that waited there too long, my face struggling to support it, as her coffin stayed muddied in my peripheral vision.
Lisa Jones is a writer and performer from Glasgow. Her amplified muttering has been just-about-heard at the Scottish Writers’ Centre, PRRPL Kitty: Queer Spoken Word & Music Night, Project Café, The Hug and Pint, and the CCA.
She has contributed writing to Forest Publications, Product Magazine, The Queer Dot, The Hunterian, GAADA, The Newbridge Project, Neon Horror: Queer Horror Anthology, Flying Moon Festival, and From Glasgow to Saturn.
She has self-published two issues of a zine on domestic tedium titled Happy Birthday, Glen and Phyllis. She also writes, sings and performs with the band Dragged Up.
Website: lisajones.mystrikingly.com Insta: @concernedsmile