English notes by a Ukrainian woman. Part 7: “Workday.”

At the outbreak of war, Irina Potanina, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian writer from Kharkov, moved from Ukraine to the UK to save her two sons. Now she works in a small cafe, believes in the imminent victory of her country and keeps a personal diary. By tradition, "Winter" shares excerpts from it with readers. This one - the seventh - is about her regular work life.

Irina Potanina
Irina Potanina

One, two, three. , fourth. , fifth , sixth parts.

If you were opening the cafe with me this morning, you’d think you were in some other establishment right now. It’s different here at lunchtime: no intimate conversations, no observing passers-by, no time to complex over imperfect English – unfailingly and, strangely enough, unexpectedly, around noon, if it’s not raining, busy time always descends upon us.

Now, for example, we don’t have a single free table left, and in order to give the order, we have to look for customers on the surrounding benches. At the cash register, the aristocratic beauty Ella is trying to somehow ruin the moment:

– That’s so much, thank you for paying, take a number so we know who to give the order to. Kindly don’t hide too far away… And close too, if it’s not too much trouble. In fact, my advice to you is to stay visible by getting our number up as high as possible….

With a warm smile, she discusses organizational issues with clients and carefully asks about the requirements for a future lunch. It seems leisurely, without taking his eyes off the interlocutor, but the fingers typing details for the kitchen hit the keys frantically and quickly. Who would have thought that a simple toast with coffee or there pasta carbonara could have so many variations!

– In fact, you know, sit wherever you want, they’ll find you anyway,” Ella finishes her tirade, noticing that a petite Romanian woman, Lala, is taking over.

Lala sneaks around with the grace of a panther, either carrying food or hunting for loose dishes. At the same time, she washes, wipes, and sprays everything around her with antiseptic without stopping. She is 31 years old, has a 17-year-old daughter back home and a complete lack of job openings. Lala’s on the payroll here, so she’s doing everything with maximum focus and 100% results. I need to find a client with a number like that, he’ll get it from under the ground. Alive or dead…

Although here is cheerful Mary works not for money at all, but for love and more even entertainment for the sake, but does everything no less qualitatively. It’s probably been about fifteen years now. She could stay home and take care of the kids (her partner’s earnings allow), but she sincerely can’t imagine her life without the cafeteria hustle and comedy of the always-on-agenda. She is our chief positivizer. Every food she puts on display is necessarily decorated with something (if not a sprig of lettuce, then at least a smiley face cut out of a lemon), the price tags she writes out have hearts drawn on them, and even in a wild rush, carrying another baked good from the downstairs kitchen, she doesn’t forget to grab cookies for her colleagues.
And yes, she is the one who, while sprinkling chocolate chips on her cappuccino, draws patterns on it with a sticker.

Today, though, you can’t get near the coffee machine – it’s a different atmosphere. Pedro, a 22-year-old Brazilian – imposingly handsome and richly built – is brewing up another macchiato, while filling up the holder with a caffeine-free blend and unpacking the soy milk. The girls-waitresses with trays are waiting for his decisive done, so they can go with drinks to the customers. Pedro is married, which he always tells everyone at the first acquaintance, a hundred times even then sternly clarifying, say, no, I do not have a girlfriend, but a wife – and this makes him in the eyes of all young girls even more attractive.

– Ah, where are my twenties,” Stacy’s many-armed face whispers in my ear as she nods toward the coffee machine.
In normal circumstances she has two hands, of course, but when we have so many orders, she grows a third, a fourth, and a twenty-fifth…. Stacey manages not only to fulfill the current food-task, but also to stuff a baguette for a regular customer who is sure to show up in five minutes. And also to whisper with me, to advise the hesitant customers which of the sandwich toppings is tastier, to sing along to all the songs from the radio and with a loud bass – which you would not expect from this fragile blonde at all – to demand a new lasagna to be delivered as soon as possible.

I’m helping Stacy and trying to emulate it. Bacon in the microwave, ciabatta in the toaster, mustard in one focaccia, nothing in the other. Children – ice cream, women – flowers, the main thing is not to mix it up. Most of all it reminds of a computer arcade game: you have to run and monitor a hundred processes at the same time, and new tasks keep arriving, and it seems that you will never be able to clear the board with tickets….

Looking at the line outside the door of our cafe, I have a small-minded regret that I found myself at the hottest hour “on food”. We don’t have a clear division of duties, and you could take a seat at the cash register or take responsibility for the state of the tables… In reality, though, wherever you find yourself, we have a hard time at lunchtime.

But now the tide is receding. We’ve managed the local apocalypse: the line has dissipated, satisfied customers are having their lunchtime conversations at their tables, we exhale and exchange impressions.
– I was close to taking a kettle of boiling water to a customer, forgetting to throw in the brew! Pretty expensive water would have turned out! – Mary chuckles.
– I placed the same order twice because I forgot to remove the ticket from the board! – I’ll admit it.
– I didn’t say hello to my wife when she passed by,” Pedro complained.

That’s how we live. And, besides earning money and the opportunity to bring people a tangible benefit, all this hustle and bustle also gives me a chance to disconnect. Forget about the war, and about separation from loved ones… I don’t know whether I scold myself for this distraction or forgive myself for it. Really needing it or making excuses because I’m too lazy to look for another job…..

However, you can only forget yourself for a very short period of time. After all, like any person with psychological deformation, everything around me reminds me of the main thing: here is a client who has the same perfume as my husband had this winter in Egypt, here is a cool teenage street band playing something similar to what my older son played with his band in Kharkov, here is a dishwasher malfunctioning – I used to have the same thing at home, although I bought it only a month before the war… Sometimes reminders happen in a very unforeseen and avant-garde form:

– Admit it, you must be Ellina? – A handsome, gray-haired client asks with a sly squint.

– Uh, I’m Irina. And Ella’s on a break. Shall I call her?
– No, no, I’m here for you. I am a friend of your friends and I came here on purpose to say “Welcome to Britain and Blessings to Ukraine!”. I learned these words in Ukrainian, but I’ve already forgotten them. I always forget things. Names, as you’ve noticed, especially. It’s always been like this. I forgot her name when I proposed to my future wife. And he accidentally named her the same name as his ex-girlfriend. Can you believe it?

– Glory to Ukraine! – Suddenly another customer speaks up. With an accent, but quite Ukrainian. And he continues, addressing my previous interlocutor in their native English: – That’s what you wanted to say, right? Yes! I learn Polish a little bit, so it was pretty easy for me to memorize these words. It’s a lot easier than realizing the nightmare of war, shelling. in our time, not far from here… And I also feel terribly guilty. I love Shostakovich, you know. Even though I know he’s Russian, I love him. You, Irina, as I understand it, are from Ukraine. Can you tell me what to do? Yes, with Shostakovich. I’m really embarrassed!

With surprise, I silently clap my eyes shut.
Luckily, a new wave hits us: a group of countless children rush in for ice cream. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the confused gentleman move to a table with a stately brunette, and the Shostakovich aficionado walk off into the distance, taking his take-away order. And I’m certainly embarrassed that I didn’t respond. But how should one respond here?
And it is very interesting what Shostakovich himself would have answered in this case.

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