The girl sits at the counter, a full Martini glass in front of her. She came here because it has a reputation as a place to see and be seen. She clearly dressed up specially for the occasion.
She's wearing a three-piece trouser suit in plain French blue, a white, collared blouse with a man's tie, black ankle boots with a 2-inch heel, and a cream colour beret on the back of her head. Her hair is honey-blonde, a choppy, layered pixie cut. She’s young, handsome rather than pretty.
She takes a sip of her Martini, waits for something to happen, but nothing does. She looks around at the decor. It’s smooth and rich, polished wooden floor, pale cream tables, red leather seating. Some kind of dark, textured wallpaper which is difficult to make out in the subdued lighting of the small chandeliers and wall-lights dotted around. The place is deserted except for the two bar staff, who are trying not to look as bored as the girl feels. She beckons the nearest one over.
"Why is this place so quiet?" she asks in a cut-glass English accent.
"Ma'am, I don't rightly know," the barman replies in that American twang which still amuses her. "Would you like a bowl of chips, on the house?" He feels she’s owed some compensation for the dullness of the empty venue.
“You mean potato chips, the crunchy things?” she asks, to make sure he doesn’t mean French Fries, which are the closest foodstuff America has to what the British call chips. Two nations divided by a common language.
“Yes, Ma’am, that’s what I mean.”
“No, thank you. I once had a bad experience with a bowl of chips in a bar. If you could go as far as some nuts it would be appreciated, though.”
“Coming right up, Ma’am.”
The girl takes a deep sip of her Martini while the barman fills a small glass bowl with mixed nuts. He puts it in front of her on a miniature square paper napkin, a rich red matching the banquettes.
“Thank you.” She pops a cashew into her mouth and bites down. “Tell me, do barmen in America accept drinks from customers? That’s what happens in pubs in the UK.”
“No, Ma’am, however it’s usual to tip the bar staff.” He gives a quiet, false cough into the top of his clenched right fist, to indicate his embarrassment at saying this directly to a customer.
“Ah, I see. I’m glad you told me that.” She opens her handbag and takes out her purse. “How is it done politely? Is there a tip jar or something?”
“Well, Ma’am, in an upscale place like this the customer will run a tab, as you are. When you want to leave, you call for your check, which I’ll give you on a small tray. You give something over and above the full amount. 15 to 20% is usual. You can do it by waiting for the change and leaving some of it. In casual places you’ll generally pay and tip as you order drinks. If they’re ordinary drinks, like beers, a dollar each is pretty usual, or a couple of dollars for a round.”
“Thank you for explaining it.” She drains the rest of her Martini, which has lost its arctic freshness, and eats the olive.
The bar is still as empty as Pia’s heart. She came here hoping to meet people, meet someone, perhaps. She doesn’t know what she should do.
Have another drink, then pay and leave before I get maudlin.
“Please would you do me a Negroni, but shake it well and pour it still fizzing?”
The bitter cocktail is swiftly delivered, a deep and cloudy pink, seething with tiny bubbles and shards of ice. The girl takes a sip and smiles appreciatively.
“Thank you. That’s exactly how I like them.” She eats a few nuts, sips again. Gradually the Negroni disappears. She would be looking a bit flushed by now if it weren’t for her make-up.
I had better slow down or I’ll get drunk. I should have some water and a coffee. Go and find something to eat.
She finishes the Negroni and orders mineral water and a double espresso. While they are being set up, she visits the ladies’ room and checks her make-up. Returning to the bar, which is still empty, and now seems a gloomy place, she drinks the espresso with artificial sweetener, and tosses the water down to wash the taste from her mouth.
“Please may I have my bill, I mean check?” The barman has already prepared it. He knows from experience the signs of a patron getting ready to leave.
“Thank you.” She gives an excellent tip.
“Thanks, Ma’am, that’s very generous.”
“Do you share them? It’s not your colleague’s fault that I’m the only person in here. I feel bad for her.”
“Yes, Ma’am, it’s fairer that way.”
The girl nods, picks up her handbag, turns on one foot and strides towards the exit. Her elegant, measured steps click and reverberate in the large, empty space, like a sonar signal that finds no targets. Behind her the two bar staff exchange a look, a strange expression, a combination of sad loneliness and boredom. There’s no escape for them.
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