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The Waiter's Tale: a story (Part 1)

He was very good at waiting. It was something that he’d been doing all his life, in one way or another. His mother once told him that he’d kept her waiting for more than three weeks before he’d made up his mind to be born, so perhaps that had helped to set his life in its apparently inevitable course. Like Micawber, he had a definite idea that one day something worth having would turn up, and in the meantime he was prepared to wait. There seemed little point in taking hasty action to move things along.

His career choice, if it could be called that, was wholly appropriate. Here he was, in white shirt, black waistcoat and bow tie, waiting at table in a small, unfashionable restaurant that was just about staying in business. Tonight he was the only waiter on duty, which did not matter all that much, given that there were hardly any diners.  

It suited him, this un-busy lifestyle, as it gave him plenty of time to indulge his only hobby, which was the reading of great literature. He was not a particularly fast reader, but that did not bother him. He was prepared to wait for a plot to unfold or a character to develop. Not for him the rush to the last page and the final denouement. A great book was like a fine wine or a gourmet meal, to be savoured and lingered over rather than swallowed at a gulp.

Over in the far corner, a middle-aged lady had had enough time to study the menu and was looking around for someone to take her order. He made sure that he could not be spotted easily and let her wait a little longer before he drifted over to her table.

He wrote her order down, slowly. He saw no reason for haste – he had all night, even if she didn’t.  Fortunately, she seemed to be of a similar mind. She had caught the mood of this place and soon came to realise that she was probably in for a long night. This restaurant was relaxed with a capital R. There was no point in rushing things.

“What’s the book?” she asked.  He had stuffed it inside his waistcoat when he had decided to stop reading and take her order, and the book was difficult to miss as he stood at her table.  

“Chaucer”, he said, “The Canterbury Tales. In the original Middle English”.

“I’m impressed”, she said. “It’s not what I would have expected a waiter to be reading”.

“I’d better get your order in”, he said.

 “But come back when you’ve done so”, she called after him. “I’d like to talk”.

The lady must have been well into her 50s. He’d waited a long time to get chatted up while at work, and he could have hoped for somebody a little younger, but it was a quiet night and a little conversation would not be unwelcome. So he did what she asked.

“So what do you make of Chaucer?” she asked. “A bit heavy-going, surely?  And please sit down – you’re giving me a crick in the neck”.

So they sat and talked about Chaucer, as he went back and forth between her table and the kitchen to fetch her meal. She asked him what he thought made Chaucer a great writer and what he liked and disliked about him. She asked him about his favourite tale, and about how he reckoned Chaucer might have got on had he been living today.

“And you?” she said, “What’s your tale?”

“I haven’t got one”, he said.

“Come on – everyone’s got a tale to tell. So why are you a waiter in this place when you’ve got enough brains to be reading Chaucer and to know what you’re reading?  What are you – 30 or so? Why haven’t you made a better go of your life than you have?”

“I’m waiting”.

“I know. I can see that.”

“No. I mean that I’m waiting for my brother to give me what I’m owed”.

“I’m intrigued”, she said. “Tell me more”.

“My parents died in a plane crash about five years ago. They hadn’t made a new will since just after my elder brother was born, more than 35 years ago. My father often said that he would sort things out so that I would benefit as well as my brother, but he never got round to it. And I wasn’t all that bothered, because my brother said once that he’d see that I was OK in any case, so that’s how things stayed. Legally, I’m not entitled to anything, but my parents wanted me to have a share, and my brother knows that, so it’ll turn out fine in the end.”

“So how much money are we talking about?” she asked. “Ten thousand? Twenty?”

“Oh, more than that”, he said, “I reckon my father was worth about five million when he died”.

She dropped her wineglass on the table, where it deposited an appreciable quantity of house white.  

“Five million?” she almost shouted. “Think what you could do with only a fraction of that! It could change your life, set you free from this place and everything! And you’ve just been waiting five years for your brother to do the decent thing?”

“These things take time”, he said. “You have to be patient with a will of that sort of size. And there would have been death duties to pay, and things like that. So I’m grateful to him for taking all that off my hands. He’s not a bad man, and he’s going to pay me something when he’s good and ready, I’m sure”.

“Are you? I take it that he hasn’t spent any of his share of the money yet?”

“Well”, he said, “he did move into Miller’s Hall last year – you know, that big place down by the river. And he bought a Bentley about the same time. So presumably his money has come through, and mine won’t be far behind”.

“You know who you are, don’t you?” she said. “You’re Patient Griselda, from the Clerk’s Tale, always taking everything that’s thrown at you and never standing up for yourself. You know who you want to be? One of those guys from the Pardoner’s Tale, who saw the prize and went for it”.

“And ended up dead!” he replied. “They found a heap of gold and killed each other in trying to grab it all for themselves”.  

 “They were fools!” she said. “Their friend had died and they went off seeking Death so that they could kill him.  They sought Death and they found their own. But you are searching for Life. That money can buy you a real life, not this half-existence that you have now, getting all your living second-hand from the books you read! Get out there, go to your brother, and demand what’s rightfully yours!”

“But it’s not mine to demand”, he said. “I’m sure that if I wait a bit longer…”

“You’re not going a wait a minute more than you have to”, she said.  “When do you finish here?”

“As soon as you’ve finished your meal and I’ve cleared everything up”, he said.

 “Right! I’ve finished, so get clearing! You are going to go to your brother tonight and sort this out once and for all, and I’m coming with you to make sure that you do!”

(To be continued)

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