Breakfast in Bruges
“Goeiemorgen! Good Morning, sir! How many for breakfast?”
I loved the Belgian and English greetings, as seemed the norm around here, and was tempted to answer in French and confuse my restaurant host. Instead, a simple finger raised to indicate I was dining alone.
“The far corner, to the right, if you please,” I requested.
“Yes, sir, that would be fine.”
My host had a very upright walk, as if he was grasping his lapels even with his hands by his side.
Two days in Bruges and I continued to have writer’s block. Over the past ten days of travel through Germany and France, I had been struggling to write anything of length or substance. Last evening while sitting in the bar of the Hotel Duke’s Palace enjoying a cognac, I made a plan to plant myself in the lobby restaurant for a two-hour breakfast. Surely a story would emerge from such a setting.
Walking to my table, I passed the chocolate, dark and white, waiting to be shaved, and the bread, then the hams and cheeses on my way to a very white table. Whites and soft yellows everywhere made for a bright yet cozy room. I settled into my seat and answered my host’s question with a request for black tea.
“Very good, sir.” And he was off.
My seat offered an excellent vantage point for the entire dining room. To my right, a young couple, most recently wed I would guess, staring into each other’s eyes and holding hands. Or holding fingers was more like it. She with two and he with three fingers, perhaps some secret handshake or sign of a more intimate connection. Each was dressed fashionably in clothes that looked fairly new. They talked quietly, eating little, never ceasing the gaze. She seemed a bit flushed in the face, perhaps they had kindled and rekindled their love before coming downstairs for nourriture. Their story seemed rather straightforward.
To their left another table and another couple, a bit older and clearly French, in appearance and because they spoke quite loudly. She….
“Your tea, sir.”
A young girl of no more than eighteen placed my teacup and pot of English breakfast tea in front of me and glanced ever-so-slightly at me while I thanked her. Her nametag read “Joy” to which I smiled and thanked her, or her backside or shadow was more like it, as she was ten meters past by the time I offered my gratitude. My eyes followed to her cleaning a table and resetting, then going to another to take an order, then off to the kitchen.
The French couple was quite the opposite from the young lovers. Still young, maybe in their twenties, but not smitten with each other. The woman seemed to glance around, surveying the room or perhaps searching for someone. She had spent little time getting ready this morning, wearing black jeans, a white t-shirt with no bra, and modeling the slippers that accompany the bathrobes in the hotel closet. I imagined she had no time for underwear, not because she was French but she just appeared to be a bit of a minimalist. Unlike the young lovers, she ate voraciously and seemed to have chocolate of some kind in every other bite. Her mate seemed less interested in the meal, tapping his left hand on the table as if he was ready to leave as soon as they sat down. A bondless match, or so it seemed. She left the table once again, for more pancakes, covered with chocolate, encore. I sensed no story worth telling.
An English couple joined to my left, he a jolly fellow of five-foot five with bright red hair and she a less-than natural blond carrying a bag the size of a modest valise. Perhaps she planned to nick some silverware. They ordered their tea before being seated and appeared to know the place well as they bounced immediately from their seats and off to the races for food. He returned rather quickly with a yogurt, banana, and small roll. She was lost in the corner and quite absorbed, most likely filling the first of several plates. By habit, he did not wait for his partner and finished his meal within minutes.
Another English couple arrived at the doorway, with two young daughters, although the elder of the two was nearly two inches taller than her rather tall mother. The child was no more than twelve and undoubtedly was teased by her peers. She had an awkward gait, a combination of shyness and newness to her growing body. They picked a table to my right, by the window overlooking the entrance to the hotel, a good choice for some morning sun. As they were being seated, a male waiter was assisting them with drink requests. Like a flash, a petite blur, ponytail waving, slashed by and placed a knife of one setting that was deficient, then placing a small dish of butter in the middle next to the creamer.
A brief moment of Joy.
Or at least from that table. Joy twisted by two tables and without missing her step picked clean the dirty dishes from a table of two that had left no more than twenty seconds earlier. She placed the dishes on her tray while she folded up the table cover and placed a fresh linen on half the table. With mechanical precision she moved and reset the flowers, the sugar and creamer, the salt and pepper, and butter while adding a fresh set of utensils, plates, and napkins. The entire process could have not taken more than fifteen seconds. From there, Joy was off once again to the kitchen, stopping at not one but two tables to take orders.
I paused for a moment to survey the room and count the staff. Six wait staff supporting the host, two girls and four young men. All very busy but none seemed to be on the same speed dial as this young lady named Joy in a blue suit with a striped cravate.
I finished my first cup of tea and took some notes, then pushed back my light-gray chair (seemed out of place) to venture through the food stations. I began with several slices of Belgian ham, similar to Barcelona ham in appearance and I hoped taste, then grabbed a few slices from a baguette. With room available on my plate, I ambled to the pancakes, more like crepes, that were piled neatly in a large ceramic oval flower and reached for the tongs.
“Are you a writer?” inquired the French woman in the t-shirt.
“Ah, oui,” I flirt back. “How did you guess?”
“I saw you scribbling notes at your table.” Interesting that she went to writer and not some tourist simply planning his day or checking travel arrangements.
“What do you write about?” She inquired.
“Well, nothing lately”, I laughed to myself as I shared my candid reply. “But I do write fiction about people and places. Tell stories, really.”
“Love stories?” Again, a very interesting step from a simple start.
Shaking my head to the negative, I reached for the tongs and went to grab a few pancakes. She reached for the tongs after me and then followed my hand, placing her light fingers on mine.
Tant pis. “Love stories are far more interesting, n’est-ce pas?”
“Yes, they can be,” a little warmth filling my face.
I handed the tongs to her saying, “Au revoir,” as if I were now a native.
“Perhaps,” she whispered as she nodded her head, “in the sauna this afternoon?”
I had no response, and walked to my table, my mouth most likely open as wide as those pancakes.
Just before I reached my table, a waitress zipped in front of me, two coffees on her tray.
Flustered as I sat, I found comfort with my head down and pen in my hand. I peered at my paper and tried to think through the past several minutes. Perhaps there was a story developing here. Not sure if a writer should have an affair or at least a tryst to create a story, but I would not be the first. At least now, my imagination was streaming. My new friend was with a gentleman, yes, but I was no longer certain they were mates. No rings on either’s hands and the body language I observed now convinced me more that the relationship was casual. Or was I hoping? How did they arrive here and from where? Was he from Bruges and she a visitor? Ah! My block returned as my mind raced with ideas but no themes developing.
The English family seemed to be having an enjoyable conversation, or at least three of them. The younger daughter had finished her croissant and sat slouched in her chair as if awaiting some terrible news. Or perhaps she was already tired of sightseeing. The mother had out some maps and was discussing the day’s plans with indications this was not their first day in Bruges.
Another young couple entered and seemed to be speaking Flemish with the host as they were seated to the right of the older English duo. Clearly in love and definitely on honeymoon as they practically sat in the same chair. Their feet comingled as they grasped both hands and looked lovingly into each other’s faces. The host had asked if they would like coffee to which the bride replied “Yes!” with such glee in her voice, as if she had just been offered a new puppy. And they were puppies. I was getting older by the minute but it was hard to imagine these two lovers were old enough to tie the knot.
Fittingly, Joy came to their table and brought them coffee and offered a few pleasantries. Amazingly, she slowed down long enough for me to see a young lady with beautiful brown hair, no make-up or work on her hands, and sparkling brown eyes.
And then she was off to clean a table.
I had a moment to glance at my watch to time the resetting of the table. Again, the repositioning of flowers and creamer and adding of plates and fresh linens. Eleven seconds! Ah, mon Dieu! It is a wonder the host has any other employees, as this young lass could provide service for one hundred with her energy.
The young couple to my right suddenly got up to leave. With half-finished drinks and pancakes still on his plate, I revised my story to perhaps they were not married, at least not yet, and were going back to their room for dessert. A lack of rings was duly noted. And no, she was not wearing the bathrobe slippers.
Like a piranha, Joy was back to their table and had it cleaned and ready for a new seating in a flash. I took advantage of her proximity to ask her for another pot of tea, speaking as slowly as possible to allow me a few moments to process this young face. She seemed restless to get my order and move about her business.
Perhaps she was working hard to save money for school. She did not appear old enough for university. Or maybe her family needed her to work, a father who had lost his job or fallen on tough times as an electrician. No, I did not sense sadness or some sort of obligation. There was something else to her manner laying behind this curtain of extreme effort and precision.
I decided to make Joy my subject and began taking notes quickly. I noticed more of the room, the twenty-foot ceilings and the sculptures in the garden, including a bizarre red poodle stuck besides beautiful bronze sculptures of an owl, a runner, and a horse. The warmth of the room was in color and in tone. High ceilings with wonderful carvings invited conversations to stay with them and long drapes hung modestly alongside windows to greenery on each side of the room. Time was not present despite the activity as there were no clocks or sense you ever had to leave (good for me this morning). I grabbed my pad to start a few sketches.
Joy was the only child of a Belgian farmer and his wife. They were intensely religious. The wife attended church services daily at 7:30, right after her husband left to work in the fields. They had tried to have a baby for 15 years and were about to give up when their little girl was born. Their prayers answered, they named her Joy for that was the only word the farmer and his wife could think of to describe their feelings.
Joy grew up happy on the farm, helping with chores by the age of four, fetching eggs in the morning and setting the table at meals. Surely her mother was fastidious and taught her the proper settings and way to prepare for a meal. Joy had a few friends but not many children her age. She was shy as a result of such limited interactions. She had little confidence in herself as a “self” but plenty of confidence in completing a task. She attended the local school, which was small, with five boys and one girl, Hermine, close to her in age. They became good friends and would make up games while hiding in the barn and dreaming of travel to faraway places.
The year Joy turned sixteen was a difficult year for her family. Her mother became ill and her father worried constantly. He was less productive on the farm and the overall take was barely enough for the three of them. Joy suggested she could go into Bruges and work, as it was only a three-kilometer walk. Her father agreed and suggested she try the hotels, as she could clean rooms well enough. She went to three places that first day – the Casselbergh, Bourgondisch Cruyce and Dukes’ Palace. Only the Hotel Dukes’ Palace was hiring at this time and they were eager so her decision was easy. Joy could not have imagined a grander setting than this magnificent five-star hotel. This castle was the home of royalty dating back to 1429 with fine details throughout. Each room and suite were unique, with guests enjoying expansive spaces, fine furniture and artwork, baths of marble with luxurious soaps and the finest of linens. She remembered the first bathtub she saw while working, a brown and black marble tub bigger than anything she had seen on the farm, even for the animals!
I was well on my way and felt the flood of ideas flowing into a story. It was getting late for the restaurant, though, with just one other occupied table. I decided to ask for a third pot of tea to buy some time. As luck would have it, Joy walked by, and with no more tables to clean and no more guests, I assumed she would have some time for me, a few words perhaps, to bring the story some life and real quality.
“May I have another pot of tea and may I also ask you a few questions?”
“Yes,” she replied quite nervously.
“Are you from this area?”
“Did you grow up on a farm?”
“No, why, sir?”
“No reason, really. I was just curious.”
“Do you like Bruges?”
“Yes, very much.”
“And, well, your name. How did you parents decide to name you Joy?” I figured there must be some dear storyline her that I could embellish.
“Well, it is just a name, sir.” And for the first time, I saw a different expression. Almost like fear.
I am not sure what I said that caused such a reaction, so I thought I would ask a straightforward question, one of simple demographics.
“Do your parents live in Bruges?”
“My mother, she is here in Bruges,” softly pointing to the ground. Then, with her hands opened, “Not my father, though. He, uh, he left us many years ago,” and her glance drifted with her voice.
“I will get your tea.” Joy walked briskly but without the same sharpness I had witnessed over the previous two hours.
I grabbed my pen and made several notations while thinking of my next five questions for my new subject. Getting her to speak was a breakthrough that excited me and filled my mind with energy. I placed the pen down as Joy approached from my left with the pot of tea, a third pot that I did not really need but turns out to have been the charm. In the corner of my right eye, by the host stand, I saw a tall gentleman in a dark jacket enter the room hurriedly and walk towards me.
Joy was a step from my table when the man called out, “Evy, is that you? Evy?”
The young waitress turned and trembled, dropping the tea pot loudly on my table and to the floor, staining the linens like blood spatter.
There is no more Joy.
About the Author: Bill McMahon lives in New England where he enjoys writing short stories and poetry as well as photography and hiking. Many of his short stories were written during his travels over the past three decades.