The French Bakery in London

By Wayne Elise

On Mondays after the Conversation Camps are finished I often have a few hours to sit and watch the world. And while watching, sometimes stories present themselves.

I sit and watch them work. Their hands pour lattes, load ovens, make change for customers. Their voices call out in French mostly - in English when necessary.

The Black Girl seems tall for a woman and strong. She is very black. Nigerian I would guess. Men usually make an impulse decision when they look at a woman. But it's more fun when we have to ponder. After a minute of watching her move around colleagues, strong-arm the La Marzocco and smile at customers, I decide I would.

The Small Girl's ruddy cheeks betray her youth. She greets an old woman at the counter with a smile.

The old woman scowls and looks up at the menu board. "Don't you have tea - simple English tea? We're in Briton, if I do recall."

Her Yorkies take the moment to tangle their leashes around her cane and begin yipping at each other. This doesn't phase the old woman. She stares the Small Girl down through horn-rimmed glasses.

"I will see what I can do for you," says the Small Girl. She turns and speaks rapidly to the Tall Man behind her in French.

"Oui," The Tall Man says in response. "Nothing's impossible." I take him for the manager but later watch him scratch his head for a moment in front of an oven and press the wrong button on the cappuccino machine.

It's the Small Girl who's in charge. It becomes apparent when I observe her parcel out rewards. She's the most efficient of managers. She guides her staff with a nod here, a touch on the shoulder there, a flash of smile. I'm jealous of her easy ways, but also somehow proud. I drink my coffee and everything feels right with the Universe.

The morning rush passes. Though they never cease in their labors, the staff have time to joke with each other. They laugh and while their hands wipe down machines, arrange cups, sweep floors, recheck temperatures on ovens. La préparation de la prochaine attaque, I suppose.

I notice things now… the Small Girl's eyeshadow, the Black Girl's coy glances at the Tall Man and the tattoo at the nape of his neck.

A man of middle years walks into the shop. He holds his arms out. "Ah, my favorite boulangerie!"

The Small Girl comes out from behind the counter to greet him. He hugs her. She's careful to keep her flour-covered hands away from his clothing. He puts a hand on her shoulder and tells her how amazing it is that his wife has gotten a job in the theatre in the West End at her age. The Small Girl smiles, looks up at him, says kind words of congratulations to deliver to his wife, but then she makes an excuse to go back to her labors.

A couple of schoolgirls walk in. Their uniforms would be considered scandalous in America. They buy scones and walk out. I watch them through the window feeling like a pervert. In the street a woman wearing a business suit loads a suitcase into the boot of a Volvo. The driver stands on the curb waiting for her to finish.

My flight out of Heathrow departs in three hours. I want to take the tube in order to save the coins and watch a more diversity crowd than the express train. Time to leave. I think about Erika as I pack my things. She's surely sleeping at this hour in LA, probably talking in her sleep again.

I step out the door and onto the street. I pull my sweater tighter about me against the cool breeze.

Minutes later I stand on the platform waiting. I look down the tunnel towards where the train will appear. The Small Girl is standing there. She's wearing a hoodie over her baker's smock. She scratches her nose and checks her phone. The train arrives with a screech. People push past, bumping her. I step into the crowded train and she's gone from my thoughts.