Small Talk
The barista smiled at her with dead eyes.
Ashlea Phillips | 3 April 2017

Small Talk

7:12 am. Thursday the 12th of October.

Pale, pre-rain grey splattered across the skyline like a streaky spray tan in the summery shade of off-white. Ava sat in the car park amidst a motley collection of mopeds and minivans, a good sign of the classy yet eclectic clientele. The bonnet of her car glowed bottle green from the large Starbucks sign overhead. She stared at the door, calculating just how much effort would be required to make the seven and a half metre trip from her car to inside the coffee shop and whether or not that trip might require a scarf.

A woman, in a tight pencil skirt, with coordinated bag and shoe colour, strode past and towards the door. She pulled her blazer tighter to her skin, marching with determination. As she entered, a thin layer of steam rose off her. Definitely cold enough for a scarf.

Yanking her old, blue scarf over her face, she prepared for the cold. She opened the car door and slid out in a smooth, practised movement from years of hurried trips and jogged to the Starbucks. She gasped as a blast of cool air grabbed her by the throat. Immediately, icy wind laced with rain sent its fingers running up and down her spine.

Reaching the door, she pushed her way into the café. Warmth oozed into her pores, as the smell of freshly-made coffee washed over her senses. Ava staggered towards the queue, like the prodigal son returning home. The other guests  - the usual combination of truckers and playwrights - were equally zombified by the early hour.

She glanced around. A young man from the playwright category stared at her from the other side of the room with curiosity. She looked back, immediately struck by a sinking feeling, as though a rock had dropped into her gut. She knew him. Shoot.

Suddenly more aware of her baggy sweatpants and greasy bun, she let her eyes continue scanning around the room, pretending they hadn’t made eye contact. He was looking closer. She turned around sharply, engrossing herself in the choosing of a muffin she didn’t want. She crossed her fingers in front of herself hoping he wasn’t about to try and start a conversation. As much as she loved awkward conversations with old friends, she preferred them after a cup of coffee.

“Would you like anything to drink?” said a chirpy voice.

Ava looked up.

“Oh.” Having not had enough time to mentally prepare herself to answer the question, she was momentarily at a loss for words.

The barista smiled at her with dead eyes. Her badge said Elizabeth.

“Will you have the usual?” she asked.

Gratefully, Ava nodded. She realised that, despite seeing her every day for nearly three months, today was the first day she had actually noticed her name. “Thanks.”

The queue moved forward and she slid the precise change over the counter. Ever since her first coffee here, she’d learnt to give the exact money, to avoid the hassle of returning the change to her purse while the customers behind her sighed and judged her silently. She shuffled along to the edge to wait for the coffee.

“Hello?”

Someone behind her tapped her shoulder. She turned to see her old friend, and more recently playwright. He had since gotten a tan and grown a goatee but otherwise it seemed little about him had changed. She looked him over trying to remember his name. Something with a …T?  She smiled widely, hoping it didn’t look too much like a grimace.

“Hi, how are you?”

“Good thanks, how are you?” he said.

“Fine thanks, how are you?” she replied.

He stared at her, at a loss for a response. Blood rushed to her face as she noticed her mistake. There followed a long pause which she had absolutely no intention of breaking.

“What are you doing here so early?” he asked.

“Oh, just grabbing some coffee,” she said, hoping that the coffee was indeed about to arrive and she could leave the small talk to someone who was better at it. “And yourself?”

“I’m planning a murder.” The blood drained from Ava's face, and her blank face remained motionless whilst she tried to comprehend what he had just said. “You want to help me?”

 

James Routledge 2016