1. Flamenco Hour
When life throws up in your lap, my father is fond of saying, find yourself a distraction from the smell. For him, this means watching Horse Feathers on a loop in a darkened room in his pyjamas. It’s how he spent a whole month after my mother, June, ran out on us the January before last.
Not that the Marx Brothers ultimately did him much good. Dad’s still a ball of quivering mush. That mother of mine really stomped on his heart. I’m hoping the overseas trip I’ve made him take – his first in the twenty years he’s spent running our family cafe – will knock the misery out of him once and for all.
As for me? In the past month, I’ve been slammed against lockers, I’ve had insults about me scrawled on school desks and I’ve been called too many names to remember. But with the Flywheel to run, a recuperative holiday’s out of the question, and some thirties slapstick flick isn’t going to cut it.
Lucky, then, that I’ve found my own diversion from the reek of proverbial vomit.
I call it Flamenco Hour.
Six nights a week my running sheet is more or less like this:
7:51pm: My heart begins racing in anticipation.
7:52pm: My legs do this thing where they go numb along the insides.
7:53pm: Out of the corner of my eye, I see the stack of washing up on the Flywheel counter. I ignore it.
7:54pm: I toss my tea towel on the kitchen floor and sneak upstairs to our f lat.
7:55pm: I wade through the junk in Dad’s bedroom to the window that looks out over the street.
7:56pm: I peer into Charada, the tapas restaurant across the road.
7:57pm: I look at my watch. Not long now.
7:58pm: I keep my sights on the figures making their way through Charada: two girls in flamenco skirts and a boy in high-waisted pants.
7:59pm: The three of them take their places on the scuffed boards between the dinner tables. A loud crackle erupts from a speaker and a man’s warbling voice starts singing in Spanish.
8:00pm: They begin to dance.
The tall girl with the red skirt is Angeline. Ramon, all in black, is her brother. The other girl, her dark hair parted down the middle and fixed with a tortoiseshell comb, is their cousin. Her name is Rosa Barea, and she is the reason I stand here watching: watching and imagining, as she dances, her arms around my waist, and my hands on her hips.
The music stops and for a moment I am still there with her, still charged with the rhythm of the dance and the warmth of her body. For a moment it doesn’t matter that I’m the butt of a hundred playground jokes while she is an elegant goddess with the greenest eyes in the Southern Hemisphere. For a moment Rosa Barea loves me despite all of it, with all her heart.
While the fantasy lasts, I forget about the misery of the last four weeks. I’m in the arms of a beautiful woman, and we’re dancing.
Then I catch my reflection in the window. An ordinary girl in a dirty cafe apron looks back. It brings me down to earth.
Who are you kidding, Delilah? I sigh, my breath hot against the glass.
2. The Sudden Goodbye
In the real world, I spend too many hours stuck indoors at the Flywheel with Hamish Creel, Laziest Person on the Planet.
It’s four o’clock on Saturday and one of his neglected customers is tugging at my apron. ‘I ordered a coffee half an hour ago. From that man.’ I follow the inevitable direction of his finger past the uni students on the couches playing poker. Past the cake counter. All the way to the coffee machine, where Hamish is chatting away to one of his mates.
‘Sorry,’ I apologise. ‘Leave it with me.’
I march across the cafe floor to the kitchen and put the plates I’ve been carrying into a sink of dirty dishwater Hamish should have emptied an hour ago. I walk back past the uni students. One is doing a victory lap around the tables. The others have thrown their cards down in disgust.
When I reach him, Hamish is still talking to his friend.
‘This place is okay, but it could be great,’ he’s saying. ‘If you knocked down that wall and got rid of the storeroom you’d have nearly twice as much space.’ He f licks one of his massive dreadlocks nonchalantly over his shoulder.
My best friend Charlie and I have our theories about what Hamish keeps in his nest of unwashed hair. Spare change, perhaps? A family of mice?
I clear my throat loudly. Hamish and his friend turn and stare at me, as if I have interrupted a very important conversation, not just Hamish’s latest scheming about what he’d do with the Flywheel if he was in charge.
‘Can I have a word?’
‘What is it, sweetheart?’ Hamish asks in the patronising tone he always uses with me.
‘You forgot the order for table nine.’
‘Oh,’ he replies, and turns around again to talk to his friend.
‘It’s the third time today,’ I say, raising my voice.
‘Take a chill pill. I’m on it.’ He f licks a switch on the coffee machine with a casual finger.
When I finally convinced Dad to take a break from the Flywheel, it was not my idea to run the place while he was gone, believe me. There was year eleven to consider, and anyway Dominic, our full-time manager, was happy to take care of things during the week as long as I could help him out on weekends.
With the assistance of a couple of casual kitchen hands, I figured we could handle it. Dad’s broken heart was proving bad for business. The regulars had started calling him Groucho, and not just because he loves the Marx Brothers. Take six weeks, I told him. Take eight. We’ll be fine! And I truly believed that – until a month ago, when Dominic ran a red light on Parramatta Road in the Flywheel delivery truck.
This would have been okay in any ordinary circumstance: for example, if Dominic had a driver’s licence and an Australian working visa. Trust my father to hire a guy without checking his credentials.
So Dominic got sent home to Dublin and I hired Hamish to replace him.
Clearly my recruitment skills need some honing. The good thing about Hamish is that he makes a damn fine coffee. It’s a pity he’s lazy, can’t cook and has his attitude dial set permanently to Sneering Contempt. Ever since he asked if he could DJ for the Sunday lunch crowd and I knocked him back, he has transformed into one long Frontier of Sneer. I’m pretty sure Hamish’s unpleasantness is beginning to affect our daily take as well. I’m counting the days until Dad is home.
Just fourteen to go now. I sometimes wish it wasn’t school holidays so I’d only have to work with Hamish at weekends, and that’s really saying something after the hideous time I had at school last term.
In the kitchen, I cut two slices of sourdough and hurriedly prepare the Fly wheel’s famous HAT sandwich (haloumi, artichoke and sundried tomato). My favourite band, Rushmore, is playing on the cafe’s speakers as usual, so I turn it up and begin to dance while I wait for the sandwich to grill. I love nothing more than dancing to Rushmore. Unfortunately my limbs don’t really coordinate and my hair, which is messy at the best of times, f lies in every possible direction. But none of this matters in the privacy of your own cafe kitchen. The grill light turns green. I extract the sandwich and deliver it with a strained smile to our patiently waiting regular, Mandy, who runs the physiotherapy practice down the road.
‘Hang in there, Del,’ she says, raising her fist in solidarity and giving me a cheerful grin.
I mime strangling Hamish with my tea towel and she laughs. I make my way back to the coffee machine.
‘Here you go. One cappuccino,’ Hamish says ungraciously. I grab the coffee from him and wind my way past a group of backpackers whose collective body odour wafts unpleasantly into my path (the plumbing at the youth hostel must be on the blink again). Finally I place the cappuccino onto table nine, carefully wiping away the small drips that have landed in the saucer.
Mr Table Nine looks down at the cup and frowns.
‘I ordered a flat white,’ he says darkly.
I should have guessed. Hamish has made the wrong coffee on purpose, as revenge for me telling him off. To calm myself, I spend a few seconds picturing him lying dead under the front wheels of a semitrailer.
‘This isn’t good enough.’ Mr Table Nine’s frown deepens. ‘I’d like to speak to the manager.’
Oh, no. Here we go.
‘You’re speaking to her,’ I tell him, straightening my apron.
‘What?’ he says, just as I knew he would. ‘How old are you? Fifteen?’
‘Seventeen,’ I say, unable to keep the defensiveness out of my voice. ‘I’m short for my age.’
Mr Table Nine laughs, but it’s the kind of laugh that has no humour in it, only disbelief at the sorry state of the world. I can see him wondering if there’s some government agency he can phone to report this latest instance of child exploitation. I can already see the headline: Child Slavery r aCk et at inner WeSt Ca fe.
Or maybe it’ll be a shock jock he’ll call – one who loves nothing more than to hear from people who order flat whites but get cappuccinos instead.
‘You know what?’ He glances down at the unwanted cappuccino and back again. ‘I’ve changed my mind. I don’t feel like coffee today, after all.’
Mr Table Nine gets to his feet. The Tibetan cowbell Dad sent me clunks dully above the door as he strides out into the cold street air.
That’s it. Hamish is done for.
I march back to the coffee machine. Not there.
I untie my apron straps and burst into the kitchen. Not there, either.
It’s only as I’m heading back through the kitchen doorway that I spy him. He’s standing at the other end of the cafe near the open cash register, presumably getting change for a customer.
I look around. There are no customers nearby.
I watch his shadow move beside the stencil on the wall behind him: Chico, Groucho and Harpo Marx in a silhouette of slapstick. The outline of his protruding dreads makes his shadow-hair look as clown-like as theirs. When Hamish moves to the left, and then to the right, the outline of his hair swoops across the wall. It is so distracting that I almost miss him slipping the fifty into his back pocket.
He shoves it down, but when he moves his hand away it slips back up, one pineapple-coloured corner protruding like a f lag.
I take a moment to allow the sight to sink in. I remember how poor our daily take has been since he started.
I consider my options.
Grievous bodily harm – that’s one.
Fortunately for Hamish there are too many witnesses. I walk cautiously forwards along the stencilled wall until I’m standing behind him. ‘Why are you taking money from the till?’ I ask stonily.
Hamish jumps. He turns around, smiles a placating smile. ‘Come on, babe,’ he says in a reasonable tone, barely skipping a beat. ‘You can’t expect me to run the kitchen and make the coffee for what you’re paying me.’
‘Why not, she asks.’ Hamish laughs, turning his head to an imaginar y audience, dreads slapping against his shoulders.
‘I’m paying you more than most cafe workers get in this part of town,’ I continue, remembering Dad’s usual spiel to rubbish workers. ‘And you know why? Because investing in good people is the key to success in the hospitality industry. Good people who understand the importance of trust.’
He looks surprised. He didn’t expect a schoolkid in her dad’s cafe to lecture him like this. He probably thought he’d get an easy ride, being hired by someone as young as me.
‘You can’t be serious,’ he says, laughing still, but I can tell he’s beginning to feel uneasy. ‘You don’t even know how to manage a business. This place is going down the gurgler. If you knew a thing or two you’d be jumping at my DJ idea. With a couple of music sets a week the Flywheel would rake it in.’
‘So you’d have more cash to pinch?’
I consider my options. Two weeks isn’t such a long time to run the Flywheel by myself. Not during school holidays.
Hamish narrows his eyes at me disdainfully. From the mild f licker of panic behind them I can tell he’s trying to come up with a way out. Either that, or a clever retort.
‘You’re crazy,’ he says pathetically at last. I smile sweetly. ‘You’re fired.’
3. The Lure of Mongolia
I have a confession to make. I’ve been lying to my father for weeks. He phones from overseas pretty much daily and ever since Dominic got deported I’ve been telling him the following:
Dom’s still running the Flywheel (Lie #1); We’re packing in the customers (Lie #2); and We’re killing the opposition (Lie #3).
What choice do I have? If I gave him even a hint that something was wrong he’d be on the next plane home.
There’s one other fib I’m spinning:
School’s going well, no problems there, Dad, honestly everything is absolutely fine (Lie #4).
Giving him some time off from it all – fathering as well as the cafe – is the least I can do after everything he’s done for me. For seventeen years Dad’s been my rock: the steady, reliable parent who packed my lunch every day, made me brush my teeth and helped me with my homework. Sure, June can be a lot of fun. She’s the queen of dress-ups and midnight feasts. She’s called him a stick-in-the-mud for years and I’ve always agreed with her. Though when it adds up, I’d rather a stick-in-the-mud who sticks around than a volatile whirlwind who, after twenty years of marriage, abandons her husband and only child to run off with some new guy to Melbourne.
But it was time to give Dad a chance to step out of the mud, rinse off his feet and take a little wander.
So when he called from Hanoi a fortnight ago, I lied. And then I lied last week when he emailed from Colombo, and yesterday when he skyped from Ulan Bator. The customers are banging down the doors, I said. Things could not be more awesome.
The problem is, he’s home in two weeks. I’ve been getting Charlie to do Dom-like background noises when Dad calls (‘That screeching? Oh, that’s just Dom making coffee/blending a smoothie/strangling a customer’ etc.) but I don’t think the sound effects will be quite as convincing when Dad is actually standing in the room. So now that Hamish is out of the picture, I think it’s time to finally tell my father about the whole Dom deportation situation.
I open my laptop. The screen lights up, a bright square in the darkness. I log on and, as I wait for the page to load, crawl onto my bed. It’s almost midnight. I can hear the hum and whirr of the Flywheel’s industrial dishwasher downstairs and the murmur of cars on Parramatta Road.
I check for new messages. The first one is from Charlie wanting to make plans for the weekend. I write back to tell him I’ve fired Hamish – he will definitely high-five me for that. There’s also a message from Lauren, with study notes attached. It’s typical for Lauren to be studying in the holidays. If the entire Eastern Seaboard blew up, you’d find her f loating among the debris, thumbing through a critical essay on the gothic elements of Frankenstein.
I look for a message from Dad and sure enough, there’s his name, ‘Eugene Green’, sitting between a Viagra ad and a Nigerian scam.
Dearest child o’ mine,
How were tricks at the Flywheel today? Was the lunchtime crowd as big as yesterday’s? Things really seem to be going from strength to strength. I almost wonder if it would be better for the Flywheel if I stayed away longer!
I know you’ll say I’m wrong about that, but you have got me thinking. You and Dom are handling things so beautifully, and a great opportunity has just landed in my lap. I’ve met some people who have offered to take me through the desert in Mongolia.
You keep saying I should make the most of this trip and well, maybe you’re right. The guys I’d be going with are very experienced – they know the area and the people well.
If I do accept their offer, though, I won’t be back in a fortnight like I intended. In fact, it could be as late as mid-September. That’s why I’m emailing you. Darl, if you have any doubts at all, I’ll get on that plane and head in your direction at once. You are what I care about most. You have a big year at school and if Dom can’t cut you some slack on the weekends to study then it’s a no-go.
Think about it. As I’ve said, one word from you and I’m home. Love, Dad. xx
September! Sure, if Dom really was here that might be fine. But he’s not. And running the Flywheel by myself for two weeks during school holidays is one thing, but for more than two months during term?
Then again, I have told Dad he should make the most of this trip. He’ll never go on another one like it. It’s obvious he really wants to do this desert trek and who am I to stop him?
Maybe I can use the extra time to get the Flywheel back on track. I owe him this one chance.
First things first. I need to find a new manager, and fast.
Kill Your Darlings First Book Club: The Flywheel
Thursday March 26
6.30 for 7pm
Readings Books Carlton
309 Lygon Street