As Sian enters the café, she hears ABBA’s “Take A Chance On Me” playing softly. She pats her plastic purse, a superstitious tic to reassure herself she deserves to be there. It’s only since moving to the Valleys with her Da’s new job that Sian has had her own money to spend. She enjoys planning what she will do with her pocket money as much as she enjoys spending it. Seeing her friends, she ignores the scowl thrown at her by the owner, Mr. Fulgoni, and hurries over to join them.
Bronwyn squeaks along the banquette to make room. She hands Sian the menu, freckled with coffee stains and what she hopes is ketchup. “I went to see Grease last night with my Mam. That John Travolta is lush.” Bronwyn’s voice is slightly breathless as she imparts this information. Gwen is pressing a stubby finger into the glittery sugar granules she has poured onto the table and offers them to Sian. Sian ducks her head and grabs the menu, hoping she wasn’t expected to lick the crystals from Gwen’s finger. She doesn’t want to appear rude or, worse, ‘stuck-up,’ but she still can’t get used to how her new friends are so familiar with each other. They all happily cluster together in one of the toilet stalls at school gossiping while they take turns to wee. Sian has squeezed herself in and traded tidbits about David Soul or Kate Bush, but she hasn’t been able to drop her knickers in front of them.
Just last week, Gwen unhooked her sanitary towel and passed it to Bronwyn while she put in a fresh pad. Sian could feel her cheeks flaming so she turned to leave when Gwen said, “Sian, if you’re going, can you put this in the incinerator for me?”
She was saved from the embarrassment of having to admit she didn’t know how the ugly machine worked by Delyth, who said, “I’ve got to go to Geography so I’ll do it in a minute now.”
Sian hasn’t started her periods yet, and the thought of having to burn a sanitary towel at school keeps her up at night. The towels sit in her bottom drawer, a wall of cotton bricks waiting for the day she is ‘on the blob,’ as her friends would say. She has practiced looping the tabs of these bricks onto the sanitary belt her Mam bought her and fastening it around her waist. It felt awkward and bulky, as if she was announcing to the world, “Hey, look at me, I’m a woman now,” and not in a cool, Helen Reddy sort of way.
Sian is nudged back into the here and now by Delyth asking, “What do you fancy?” Delyth is backcombing her hair with her fingers and speaking out of the side of her mouth as if she is balancing an imaginary cigarette, so it sounds more like “Who do you fancy?”
This causes Sian a momentary panic until she realizes her friends are all studying their menus. Sian knows the offerings by rote, the photographs of the ice-cream sundaes are lined up like a parade of beauty queens: Miss Peach Melba, glossy with tinned peaches; Miss Banana Split in her signature boat dish; the avant-garde Miss Knickerbocker Glory. They all sigh. They already know they’ll order a cup of frothy coffee each, as they can make one cup last hours without being thrown out.
The waitress appears with her pad. “Well, ladies, have you decided?” she asks.
“Bydd gennym bum coffi os gwelwch yn dda,” says Gwen, smiling sweetly.
The waitress buys herself time by throwing her plait over her shoulder and stroking her parting, where a red dot nestles like a shy bird, but no help is forthcoming. “I’m sorry, but I can’t speak Welsh,” she says eventually. Sian opens her mouth, but a sharp kick under the table from Gwen makes her close it again.
Mr. Fulgoni is watching this whole exchange from behind the cover of the formica counter, his meaty forearms crossed over his chest. “Please, do any of you speak English? Was it coffee, I thought I heard coffee?” the waitress asks. She speaks with the same lilting quality as the girls’ Welsh accent, the accent that got Sian mercilessly teased in her old school in England.
Gwen, still smiling, says, “Dylent fod wedi yn India.”
The waitress grasps the one word she recognizes like a life preserver. “Yes, I’m from India, I’ve only been in Ebbw Vale for a couple of months. I’ve just started here and I was told everybody speaks English.”
Sian looks at the cool, smug faces of her friends. They speak English all the time to each other. At home they may only speak Welsh, but even Sian’s Nan can speak English. In fact, her Nan will only swear in English — she says it’s not as bad as cursing in Welsh. She tries to work out why they won’t put the poor waitress out of her misery. Sian’s family have only just moved back to Wales themselves. These girls were so kind on her first day of school. They scooped her up into their confidences, making her feel that moving to this new town was going to be fine after all. She’s not sure why Gwen told the waitress to go back to India, but she knows this whole situation is making her tingle as if a hundred ants were scuttling over her skin. It’s the same feeling she would get when girls in her old school asked if her family kept sheep in the garden.
Mr Fulgoni has started to lift the counter, but before he can stride over, Sian stands up and says, “Of course we all speak English. The order was for five coffees, but you can make that four, I’m not staying.”
As Sian walks out of the cafe alone, she feels the telltale cramps that hint she is leaving her childhood behind her.
Adele Evershed grew up in Wales in the 70s. She has since lived in Singapore and Hong Kong and is now settled in Connecticut with her family. She has recently started to dabble in flash fiction and has been published in Flashflood Journal, Reflex Fiction and Flash Fiction North.
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