We have had a long morning, we are hungry and think that we will treat ourselves to a proper meal, in a posh hotel.

We arrive, all looks well.

My irritation starts to rise as the customer in front of me at the bar dithers and fusses about what to chose from the menu, when we already know.

‘Sit down and work it out and then come up’, I think.  I agitate.  The woman feels it.  She goes over to her friend to ‘check’ what to have.  I hate that, the lack of certainty.

‘Can’t you serve me while she is gone?’ I ask, in what I hope is an assertive tone.

‘I can’t, I’m logged in to her bill’ says the young girl with the pony tail, making coffee from a machine, which I also judge.

Finally, she orders, we order. I am smug and self-righteous that we got straight to the point and were done.

Then we sit.

And sit.

And sit.

We are all so hungry and moods are fraying.  The snooker on the television does nothing to take the edge off hunger or impatience.

A small sweaty man almost runs out with orders.  Pony tail is serving drinks, taking orders, putting the food out.

I enquire as to our foods whereabouts.

‘Coming soon’ is the reply.  I stalk off and slump.

It arrives and is mediocre and has cost a lot of money.  We should have gone to MacDonald’s.  We all just want to get going.

An older woman in a dog-tooth suit walks by, her lanyard swinging.

‘Are you the manager? I ask.  My son rolls his eyes, he knows what is coming. My other companion scrolls fiercely.

I expect she will listen to me by the table,

but in fact

she not only walks me to the other side of the restaurant, but to a meeting room,

just the two of us,

women, sitting together.

She looks tired.

‘I’m disappointed’ I say, ‘It cost a lot and took so long’.

‘I understand your disappointment’ she says and then continues to tell me how five staff have phoned in with Covid this morning, how hard it has been to cover them, how short staffed they are.

She tells me how lots of people left the hospitality industry after the first lockdown having had time to think during the furlough about the long and anti-social hours and poor pay.

‘I used to come here a lot’ I say, ‘with work’.

She remembers the people I worked with them, she was here then too, she has been in for the long haul, worked every day.

She looks tired.

She tells me how recently she met her son, a medic, for the first time in 18 months in a restaurant, how the service was slow, how hungry they were, how she had wanted the day to be perfect having not seen him for so long.  She tells me she couldn’t bring herself to say anything, she knows too well how it is.

I listen.

She talks.

We hear each other,

We see each other.

We empathise.

I understand what I hadn’t taken the time to see, so wrapped up in own needs.  I hadn’t seen how hard the pony-tailed girl was working, how patiently.  I hadn’t seen the intention of the small, running man, doing his best to serve us.

I had seen what was missing, and not what was here.

My son is given a dessert by way of acknowledgment, he likes it, I don’t need it.

I thank the pony-tailed girl on the way out, I go over especially to name her patience, her showing up, how hard she was working.

I take my leave of the manager.

‘What did she say’ they ask as we get into the car again,

and I explain,

I tell them I am humbled and ashamed.

I am grateful I was calm and listened more than I spoke for I came away, not only having eaten, but having been gifted a moment of intimacy, of honesty, of connection, by someone who I didn’t know, but who dared be vulnerable with me.

She let me into her world, a world I don’t know, and I learned.