Occasionals – Breakfast in Cambridge

A piece from a long forgotten ‘work in progress’


Cambridge, England

I have a particular weakness for a greasy spoon breakfast. Fried egg on toast, bacon, tomato and preferably mushrooms. It is a pity about the coffee they serve, but I go for the food. I headed off to The Grafton Centre on my first morning after settling into the York Street room. My map had indicated that this was the closest retail settlement. It’s usual of course to search out a quaint spot to eat but not so for a greasy spoon. Ideally one is looking for a transport café, but I doubted there’d be one this close to the city centre.

I found what I was looking for on Burleigh Street. There are at least three cafes on the stretch between ring road East Road and Fitzroy Street. I passed up the Coeur de France café on the grounds that I wasn’t looking for a croissant and the Fish and Chip shop and settled on the no-name cafe. Despite not having any name sign, it looked very promising. There was condensation on the windows, the furniture was rubbish – formica-topped fixed benches and fixed chairs, the sort designed so that customers can’t mess things about. I was reassured by the very fat woman at the back of the shop smoking a cigarette. This would certainly be greasy, I thought.

I took a seat near the front; the fat woman wasn’t that appealing. I read my paper and waited to order. And waited some more. Finally, after perhaps five minutes – it might not sound long but it is an eternity when you are salivating – I got up and went to the back and the open kitchen area. The fat woman got up, I think coincidentally, and walked through to a room at the back; the way she bustled showed she was clearly a big person in this modest establishment. A harassed young woman fiddling with some paper next to the till finally looked up at me after I’d been standing a minute or two and looking, I hoped, suitably lost, and said “I don’t know what you had”.

“I’m waiting to order, actually’, I said politely.

“Oh. Whadjawant?”

I told her and returned to my seat. A little later I heard the fat woman shout at who I knew not “I’ll dock it off your wages if you’re not careful.”

My meal was delivered in reasonable time by a chastened and very pleasant girl of about 17, who suitably fussed over me about my salt, pepper and sugar needs. The meal wasn’t entirely to my liking. It was a bit sloppy. Sometimes these cafés pour all the water in the tin of tomatoes onto the plate as well the listless whole tomato and the water ruins the toast. The coffee was in the gruesome tradition of transport cafes too; diluted instant with too much milk in a too-large mug. I suppose it keeps truck drivers awake, though I have my doubts.

Waitresses were noticeable by their absence so when it came time to go – these cafes are not a place to linger unless you are enjoying a cigarette with your second mug of coffee – I returned to the back to pay. There were three women and a bloke in the kitchen working away at various tasks and the fat woman with a fag hanging from her lips in a seat next to the kitchen. None of these people acknowledged my existence with eye contact, let alone an “I’ll be with you in a minute, luv”. I might as well not have been there. This continued for several minutes – really – until I cracked. In an instant I realized that the successful modus operandi was to shout like the fat woman.

“Can I please pay the bill?” I bellowed. Note that I hadn’t gone completely over to the other side because I had said please.

To be honest, I can’t remember the detail of what was said to me, but the fat woman erupted, not literally like the fat bloke in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, but she stood up quickly and waddled towards the back room, all the while loudly abusing me, my parentage and my origins. Then, cleverly picking up that I didn’t have an English accent, she ranted on about all the unwanted immigrants in the country. Meanwhile, one of the sheepish girls took my money.

The next morning I resigned myself to a croissant at the Coeur de France. To my surprise there was egg, bacon and fresh tomato on the menu. And the coffee was very good. Funnily enough, it is run by a Chinese woman. I noticed that she tends to smile at customers and wish them well.

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