This is a short story for a publication called Notes from the Underground. It’s given out free at tube stations in London, hence the clever title. The idea is that you take a photo and create a story around the photo in no more than 700 words. This was a waitress myself and Steve met in the town of Sulpice, just over the German border in Poland. We went to the bar at 6pm, and all the Polish truckers told us to come back at 8pm when there would be ‘big tits’ on show – how charming.
It took Aksel nearly three months and cost him well over two hundred dollars in beers, juices and salted snacks before he got up the balls to ask Mandy out. She worked the evening shift in a truckers bar, eight till close. She smoked thin cigarettes that propelled smoke around her head like a long, threadbare scarf, and she spoke English with a clunky Polish accent that sounded to all the world like two radio stations fighting for the same frequency.
She worked for tips. At nine she undid the first two buttons of her blouse and then it was almost impossible to talk to her for all the truckers trying to get her attention. They’d order off the top shelf or beneath the counter: pipe cleaners, five-year-old malts, cordial, anything that forced Mandy to reach or bend and flash a little bit of tit or point her ass skyward. So Aksel would arrive early, take his seat and with all the patience of a hunter, he’d shoot questions over the counter until the crowd gathered and she was lost to him.
They talked about the weather and the traffic. It was beautiful but man was it ever limiting. Aksel prayed for storms and pile-ups, as there was nothing more damaging to their relationship than a period of peach-perfect weather and free-flowing traffic.
One week in June, when the kids were on holidays and the roads were clear and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, Aksel broke from his usual tack and made a comment about Mandy’s shoes. They were a rough pair of strap-up things balanced on skinny wooden sticks.
“How do you get around so fast on heels so thin?” he asked, genuinely interested. She shrugged her shoulders and shot him an annoyed look that said, ‘Why’d you have to go and do that for when we were getting on so well with our tailback and temperature talk?’
Aksel learned his lesson.
From that point on he stuck to weather and traffic and when things got slow in their part of the world, he’d introduce her to another.
“Can you believe it’s snowing in New York?” he’d say, or “Did you hear about that bus load of tourists that died in Peru?” He read all the papers and when he came to her bar, he’d arrive armed to the teeth with conversation with knowledge.
And then one day Aksel asked Mandy out. He’d prepared for it like a siege on a fortress. He’d had the date circled on his calendar for the best part of a month. He snuck up to his stool, took aim and fired the question over her counter at point blank range. Without so much as a quiver, Mandy said yes.
Aksel took Mandy out to a restaurant. A steakhouse not far from her bar, and for one hundred and four minutes exactly, over starters, mains, deserts and coffees, they talked about traffic congestion in London and weather cycles in Central Europe.
Aksel was distraught. He felt disembowelled. He’d done the hard part by asking her out but couldn’t follow through and take their conversation to the next level. He figured maybe he just wasn’t the man for Mandy and while he could, over time, learn to live with that, it’d be asking too much to have it shoved in his face everyday.
Mandy slept well after the steakhouse date. She’d found the night interesting if not magical – she wasn’t expecting fireworks from a lonely trucker who drank more than he ought, stuffed himself on fried snacks and limited his conversation to news clippings. But she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why he never came back in to the bar again. Without the one hour of nonsensical banter she shared with Aksel, before the ogres descended every evening, the work became more pole-dancing than bartending.