As soon as I see Tuya sit down at Dougie’s table, I know that this is my last shift. She and I are trainee waiting staff and only one of us will be staying on. My English is better, but being popular with the customers, especially Dougie after the incident, when admittedly she was heroic, is what counts.
Dougie is large and loud. He’s an old guy who has travelled all over the world and often shouts things like I love this God damn crazy country. I’m not sure of his business; drilling or mining or something. He entertains many lady friends here – they are attracted to his compliments, his friendliness, his money. Although he flirts with the staff, the women he entertains for dinners and lunches are a cut above, likely in business circles themselves, but the waiting staff are good for some of his fun, myself included. He often puts his arm around me and introduces me as his buddy to his friends, even patted me on the backside once and called me gorgeous boy. He is from the Wild West. I laughed along with him. This is what the women staff have to deal with all the time. Sometimes it’s to their advantage, certainly Tuya’s, as he has been buying her gifts for two weeks, and now here she is sitting across from him, another beautifully wrapped gift box in front of her.
One of the presents last week, a silk scarf, pricey to be sure, was left behind, that’s how carelessly rich he is. I’d picked it up after closing and handed it to the Manager who’d put it in the office. I’d tried to return it to Dougie more than once but he’d insisted it was Tuya’s. It stayed on the shelf for a week and each day I’d looked, working out how much it was worth, and then finally the Manager moved it.
Dougie gestures for me to come and pour Tuya a glass of wine, which I do, even though it’s not one of my tables tonight. I am grinning like a monkey as he stretches his huge self and rubs a hand up and down my back as I pour. Tuya’s on duty and should be attending to her other tables but the Manager gave her the nod and allowed her to sit; Dougie is good for business. I take in his massive frame. His thighs, spread across the seat, are the width of my waist. He nods at his own glass. I’d love to pour the wine over his head.
Today feels different even though I am in the usual restaurant and yet again watching the old guy goofing around as is his wont. I see him often here, the big shot exuding Americanisma. He is a gross cartoon of a Westerner. He would probably be quite simple for one of my students to draw in fact; a wide-mouthed grin and a shock of certainly dyed black hair, deep set eyes, heavy brow, and overdeveloped shoulders, rather like a gorilla.
We are both expats. He is my age and perhaps we have a similar early background but from what I conjecture of my seeing him in the restaurant – and he is very public, one cannot help but feel one knows him just by being in the same room as him – we live our lives quite differently. He is all noise and business deals and entertainment and society. My life is quiet. I do my work, my students are delightful, I read, I shop, I quite often come to this restaurant, sometimes with a friend, more often alone. I watch the other customers and their accessories; expensive handbags, watches, phones.
They fuss about him like moths. More so since the ridiculous scene a couple of weeks ago. At first I’d thought he was horsing around, snorting and squawking because he was amused at himself – he likes to laugh at his own jokes, he turns everything into a performance – but actually it turned out to be a real drama. Perhaps I am being unfair, the girl was a true savior. I would have let him die.
And now he’s attempting to woo the poor thing. There’s a small gift box on the table now. I heard his almost pretty little speech about him being a scoundrel and about his presents having been superficial but that this was different. This one represented his true love. Ostentatiously wrapped with a gold bow, it is obviously an engagement ring. I admit I am intrigued to see how she is going to play this.
Here comes the young man with my cocktail and he smiles that I have not ordered my usual jasmine tea. Bayan; he is my favourite of all the staff. There is a kind of conspiratorial friendliness between us as we have both sometimes raised our eyebrows to each other at the raucousness coming from the next table, he apologetic that another customer is likely disturbing my meal and I ashamed because a fellow American is making a show of himself.
It is when I see the ridiculous cocktail with its leaves and tropical attitude that I suddenly find that I cannot bear it anymore. It is time to move on. I want to resign from my post and break contract, get a flight at the weekend, somewhere hot, beautiful, a beach, flowers, birds. I have not seen a butterfly for two years. I cannot stand the cold any longer, this filthy city and the awful food. It’s all right in this place – the owner is Canadian – but the music is dreadful, and I cannot stand that American.
Maybe I’ll take my father back to the country for a while. He’d like to get out of the city, out of the ger district. He doesn’t understand the youth, me, who like to be in the chaos and noise of it. Being in the city makes me feel that I’m in the middle of something; something developing and happening, one of the busy people, though my father says I’m just serving those kinds of people, and most of them are foreigners. Maybe he’s right. And anyway, I won’t be here after tonight. But it’s a smart place. I like it. I am young and a city settler, unlike my father who is nomad and says he is losing himself. He wants to get back on a horse and breathe in cold, unpolluted air from a wide blue sky. It might get him back on top of things. I just need to get some money together. I need to get hold of something I can sell.
I tell her, I’ll always be thankful to that God damn chicken. Not a flicker of a smile. Tuya faces me and is scowling. She is a whole new ball game. She’s not a pushover and she certainly isn’t interested in being wined and dined and won’t be won over by cheap trinkets and baubles. I respect that, actually. I noticed her early on. She isn’t gushing. It may be her lack of English but she amused me straight up when I asked her how was the coq au vin, and she shrugged and said she thought eating chicken was like eating an insect. These Mongolians like their meat from the big beasts. There’s no nonsense about her. I have fallen in love and I have to convince her. Hell, I fall in love all the time but this is different. She saved my life. She’s an iddy biddy little thing and the whole choking fiasco and her whacking me on the back like that, and I’m a big guy, I find kinda erotic. She’s just a waitress, I could have any woman, I may be making a fool of myself, but I take people as I find them.
I tell her that my life is hers now. I belong to her. She’s irritated and this irritates me. I’m not irritating to anyone, I’m a fun guy, but then again I like her being irritated and I’m mixed up about finding that fascinating. She’s a woman who would keep me straight. Keep my ego in check. I do have a kinda big ego, but, well I’ve done a whole lot of things and success happens if you work at it, and I have. I need to work on her.
She doesn’t smile. She has old eyes. She edges away from me when I try to take her hand. I’m a touchy feely kinda guy. Everyone knows that about me. I like to hug and kiss my friends but Tuya just isn’t having it. I made a few enquiries with the Manager. She doesn’t have a boyfriend. Lives with the parents. I’m gonna set her up for herself. Give her independence. Education if she likes. Save her. Take her out of this crazy place, if that’s what she wants, the US. And then I want marriage. I do. There’ve been women, lots. But this girl, I want her as a wife. It sounds corny but she reminds me of my mother. She was hard on me too.
But I have to play it gentle and careful. For now, I’ll settle for tenderness or even amusement. Getting her to crack a smile would be something. This is genuine. No gimmick. I gotta convince her of that. It represents the most important event of our lives, I tell her. But I can wait. I push the box towards her, knowing my mom would approve, and tell her she is an angel, come to save me. When she opens the box, it will change her mind. She’ll see this is real. Nothing bought from a shop.
Bayan has his tray tucked under his arm and is smilingly listening to the old lady chatter on at him. He’s a nice kid but I’ve had my suspicions. A purse has been stolen and a phone. But he did not take the silk scarf. I purposely left it in front of his nose. I have decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and will offer him another three months, but I am keeping my eye on him.
Tuya is the most sour-faced creature I have ever come across but the owner has said she can have a job here for as long as she likes on account of her saving one of our customers’ lives, which I admit is a moot point.
I never know what that girl is thinking. She is closed up. She does her work but she is unfriendly towards the customers and the staff. She does not have the soft skills which the customers expect. The fawning. Bayan, actually, is very good at sucking up to the foreigners. The old lady with the books, and surprisingly the cocktail today, is soft on him.
It is amusing to watch Dougie’s clumsy attempts. No. Not amusing, disgusting. He is old enough to be her grandfather. He has drunk too much tonight and he is perspiring and blotchy. There’s yet another gift for her which she is refusing to open. He is blabbering and she barely replies.
I may not be the owner of this restaurant, but it is my place. These are my customers and my staff. The owner knows nothing, he just drops in of an evening, high fives the waiting staff, walks around the kitchen and socialises with the customers. We attract many expatriates but also many of the smart young things of our new generation, the ones who are developing this country in business and our mines. We have untapped treasure, vast copper and gold reserves, and the Chinese and the Russians and the Americans want a piece of it. That’s not my concern. I aim to create for them pleasant surroundings, an appetizing menu, an ambience, it’s all very Western and modern. I pride myself that they walk in here like they might walk into any capital city restaurant, be it London, New York or Ulaanbaatar.
I give Bayan a nod to attend to another table as Tuya is occupied by Dougie and I bade her sit with him, of which I disapprove and if I was her father I would not have allowed it. I’m not happy with this but I am the Manager and my job is to keep the customers happy. It also gives me the chance to see how Bayan is coping under the pressure of dealing with double his usual tables tonight.
… I see through the giddy, gesticulating American and the window behind, where a young dog sits on a piece of blue sheet plastic, looking in, and the darkness descends, a flushing pink sky enhanced by the smog and the spirals from thermal power plants one to four, my reflection in the glass imposed on the dog and the sky, looking at myself hard, the waitress uniform and tied back hair, and then at the dog and then at the sky above ebbing Soviet buildings, stores, glass towers and neon screens, offices and chimneys, shambling stagnant districts of gers and snakes of traffic…
… and I am moving, rising, surging, leaving, and outside, and the dog lifts its head and winds its neck to watch me as I am circling and climbing the sky, into high air, biting my skin and squeezing my lungs, over the city, winging, across and beyond …
… to the steppe and the desert and the flaming cliffs to a shocking, ringing, blaze of silence and stillness…
She’s getting up to go. She’s removing her apron and throwing it down on the chair and the big ape is saying, just take a look for Chrissakes, but the girl is shaking her head. She knows what’s in the box and she wants none of it. I commend her. As if she’d drop for a grizzled old fool like him, but the ring is likely worth a lot of money. Quite a commotion is going on and I see Bayan and the Manager both looking concerned and taking a few steps to their table but then hesitating, not knowing what to do. The American is heaving himself up and going after her and I quickly get up too, throw some money down, and head for the exit, passing their table. They’ll never see me here again. I’ll be on a plane tomorrow.
Okay, so this is the moment I have to seize and quickly. It’s a matter of seconds. Tuya is out of the door and followed by Dougie and every single customer is looking over. The old lady is also leaving and now I am moving swiftly to Dougie’s table where I shall simply pick up the box, pocket it and then in another hour I am out of here and my father is on horseback tomorrow. It does occur to me that Tuya appears to have left in quite some dramatic fashion and that this surely constitutes extreme rudeness to the customer and the shift is not over. The Manager will not be pleased and this surely affects her position in terms of the job. This causes me to pause and look at the Manager but he is fussing over other customers trying to distract them. I go to the table.
The gift box is gone.
I hail a taxi, gasping with excitement for a new start, and in the car chat with the driver about his taste in disco music and that he is learning French, whilst the ring box pulls like a lead weight in my coat pocket. A nice fellow who has often driven me to and fro. I will not see him again. I am back in my apartment and have already booked the flight. I’ve written my letter of resignation, pleading family troubles and sincerest apologies. And now I pick up the box. Swiping a ring feels altogether more depraved than simply dispossessing someone of their phone or wallet. And I have never opened a box like this, sadly, never received an engagement ring. I am wicked. I giggle. I open the box.
A chicken bone nestles on a tiny blue velvet cushion.
Jane Dotchin is an English and drama teacher, who writes plays and short stories that she inflicts on her captive students. She has taught in the UK, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. Her work has been published in Fictive Dream Magazine.
Image credit: jans canon