My entry for this week’s Creative Writing Ink Image Prompt Competition:
The rolls were drying out. They’d been on table six in their little white saucers for nearly nine minutes now and soon their beautiful golden crusts would start to decay – unseen to the human eye of course – but decay nonetheless. And where there was decay there followed decomposition and, naturally, bacteria. He thought he could actually see the miniscule fingers of frantic, furred microorganisms swarming like soldiers across the summits of the crusty white (compliments of the Management) rolls. And although the sight, the idea, was terrifying and repellent, he couldn’t tear his eyes away – the proverbial rabbit in headlights.
He tugged at the starched collar of his clean white shirt (four sweeps of steam-iron across the back, three along each sleeve, minimising creases and tramlines) and blew warm air up towards his forehead. Tim and Natalie were in his eye-line and he watched as they bobbed and swooped over their own tables, smiling and nodding, pointing to various things on the menus before tucking their pencils back into their pockets as they went cheerfully about their business. Well they would; their tables were behaving properly. His wasn’t.
He checked the clock on the wall. Ten minutes now. What had happened to them? When they’d arrived he’d asked if they’d like water (again, complimentary) and they’d said they would. But then, after one or the other’s phone had gone off, they’d both left the table – hadn’t even unrolled their napkins – and gone back through Reception, outside and in to the chill of the evening, huddling their heads together as they received whatever message was being relayed from the other end. He hadn’t liked to follow; there was only so much hovering a waiter could do before it bordered on invasive.
The water would be warming up too. At what temperature did bacteria begin to develop in warm water? Tap water as well, so there’d be all kinds of chlorine, urine, fluoride and thousands of other elements unseen and unknown inside that bottle. All the millions and trillions of little lifeforms would be swimming and teeming and swirling their way around the insides of it clamouring for a foothold onto which they could reproduce in more millions and trillions. He could almost see them clinging to the glass, their filthy miniscule faces pressed up against the inside of the bottle, gurning victoriously at him through the glass. Had the bottle been steam-cleaned? He doubted it. Marvin probably swilled them with hot water which he was sure couldn’t possibly destroy the kinds of water-dwelling microbes that fought to stay alive in these perfectly unsterile, moist conditions.
He could feel a familiar damp stickiness pervading his scalp. No amount of blowing upwards would help, in fact it made it worse. He could sense a slick of sweat forming across his eyebrows. His underarms were spiking, and nausea and anxiety threatened to overwhelm him. If they didn’t come back in the next three point five minutes then that was it; he was going across the floor to reception to demand of Rose what was going on. The frustration of not knowing; the stress of this plague of parasites reproducing on his table made his head swim. When had he last eaten? Would he throw anything up if he got to the stage of vomiting? and could he make it in time to the toilets if this was to happen?
He needed to start his breathing exercises. In through pursed lips for a count of four. Hold for three. Out through the nostrils for a count of four and … shrug the shoulders; let the tension ease from the upper arms through the elbows and out of the fingers. He flicked his hands as if he were warming up for a gymnastic event, in a bid to rid his body of the tremors and then changed position so that he was angled towards the main doors and not in the sight-line of his gainfully employed fellow waiters. He shook his legs slightly as he moved and imagined (as his therapist had suggested) that every little shimmy was shaking off another fear; he was getting rid of them, flinging them from his body and alleviating the swarm of their invasion from his mind. He could do this. He was a grown, intelligent man in total control of his own body and mind.
A warm bead of sweat crept languidly down from the peak of his hair and tickled a dividing line the length of his nose. Sniffing the saltiness of it away and up one nostril, it caught at the back of his throat, preventing his next breath from forming properly and swiftly morphed into a coughing fit. His thighs shook, his knees melted, his eyes rolled and his torso concertinaed as he buckled and keeled over onto the never-been-steam-cleaned carpet of the restaurant floor just as the couple returned to their table.