After my promotion, the pay cheque didn’t look quite right sat in my account. The rent wasn’t going to make a dent in it, and the same figure would be arriving next month. And the month after. My head felt numb as I tried to plan what to do with all that money.
Perhaps that’s why, instead of rushing into the office to log in before nine, I stopped to watch Noodle Lady at work. She made stir frying look like art, that lady, working the ladle like a paintbrush. Spreading just the right amount of sauce around to give her wok a delicate coating.
“Chicken is five pounds,” she said, noticing that I was watching. “Duck, six.”
“I’ve had breakfast. I’m just watching,” I said. “Later. Lunch time.”
She nodded, unoffended, then beckoned someone else forward from the waiting crowd. They impatiently waved their five-pound notes at her, but Noodle Lady worked without haste. Her cooking was a choreographed routine. From tipping the noodles into the pan and adding the meat, to gently stirring the whole mixture as one and portioning it into an open box, Noodle lady didn’t miss a beat. She took the crumpled notes off the customer. She cooked. Then she handed the noodles over with a bow. Money. Wok. Bow. Her routine had the steady rhythm of a bass drum, and I was drawn to it after the bouncing pinball pace of the month I’d just had.
My phone buzzed in my pocket, demanding my attention. Michelle’s name was on the screen just under the time display, which told me I was shockingly late.
“Where the hell are you?” hissed Michelle down the line. “You’re leaving me with the inductions!”
“I’m outside,” I said, still watching Noodle Lady.
“Is that the impression that you want to give the new starters? That we’re a disorganised mess?”
I paid dearly for those minutes watching Noodle Lady. In the office, every face that looked at mine was wearing a scowl. My brief absence had sent ripples of disorder that broke into crashing waves throughout the day. Morning meetings were rescheduled. Quick jobs that I normally finished before my shift piled in my work tray. Michelle bothered me at every chance she got, demanding an explanation. I didn’t have one to give.
Only at lunch time was I able to breathe again, when I was back with Noodle Lady. I bought chicken. The noodles were soft as marshmallows, but satisfyingly saline like fried fish. The bean sprouts popped between my teeth and I salivated over the soy.
As I ate, I wondered if Noodle Lady got bored of beating out the same rhythm all day. My life was a whirlwind of jobs. Hers was a stoic routine. Money. Wok. Bow. But she always wore a smile. My dad had been like that. He was a milk-man, doing nothing but dropping off bottles all day. I never once saw him looking for a different job.
In a world of Noodle Ladies and Postmen and Milkmen, I wondered what kind of man I was. A Boss Man? A Power-Point Presentation Man? A man with a knack for planning carefully structured six-week training programmes?
There weren’t many customers that lunch time, so I paid for a second portion of noodles. I told Noodle Lady I was planning to eat them for dinner. Really, I just wanted to watch her work again.
“Hey, man,” she said, when she handed over the box. “Can you help?”
“Help with what?”
“Someone brought this to me.” She handed over a letter with a council logo on it. “I don’t read English.”
I nodded and smiled at her, but my smile straightened as I read. The letter wasn’t a happy one. It looked like Noodle Lady had already guessed that. She watched me reading with fear in her eyes.
“They say you have to go,” I said. “You don’t have a license to sell food here.”
“Yes,” she said. “No money. No license.”
“You have customers all the time.”
She shrugged. “Some customers. Lots of rent. Lots of kids.”
She packed away her noodle stand as methodically as she cooked noodles. Her ladle, her wok, her sauce bottles and her noodle boxes; they all had their own grip-lock container. She phoned someone and the conversation turned into an argument. I didn’t understand a word, but I stood and watched. By the time she was done she was red in the face and running her fingers through her hair.
“Hey, man,” she said to me. “No noodles anymore.”
“You have an email address?”
She frowned. “Why?”
“I can send you the money.”
I used the office wi-fi, and with an e-transfer it took a few minutes to get the money out of my account and into hers.
Every time I looked up from my phone, Noodle Lady’s face changed. First it was disbelieving, but with each glance I gave it, it swelled a little more with a smile. When I was finished, she couldn’t stop laughing.
“You’re crazy, man,” she said. “Completely crazy.”
“Get that license.”
“And more. You can have noodles, every time you walk past. You hear me? Don’t be shy, come and ask.”
I told her that was over-generous, and that made her laugh more. She didn’t stop calling me crazy. She kept on shouting it even as I walked away, grinning.
Sam Evans is a fresh writer of short fiction from the Wye Valley in Wales, where he lives with his partner.