Car Park and Cafe, Bethnal Green
E1 something or other
by Joyce Carol Oats
You walk past Car Park and Cafe every morning: it’s the halfway point on your way to the Tube, after the council estate and the railroad bridge, before the drunks sitting on the park benches. Sometimes you walk past it when it is raining; sometimes you walk past it in the sunshine; sometimes you walk past it when you are looking forward to getting to your office and sometimes you walk past it when you are feeling very grumpy and not looking forward to work at all. You are, in general, a moody girl, but Car Park and Cafe has never evoked any emotion from you. You decide to investigate.
You take your flatmate Ben. You and Ben crunch over the gravel in Car Park and you see Cafe: it’s in a corrugated industrial caravan. As you walk towards the entrance, a giant black Doberman leaps at you in a hungry way. It’s fenced in a pen, with a dog house and a lot of large tins of Chum. You feel worried about the dog.
Inside Cafe, a pallid man stands behind a counter. The wall is festooned with pieces of fluorescent card with menu items. The room is full of acrid smoke from the grill. You think about asking for something vegetarian. You think better of it. You and Ben sit at a table as far away from the smoke as possible, which happens to be next to a one-armed bandit, which happens to not be very far from the grill, not really, because it is, after all, an industrial caravan. Ben hands you a tabloid newspaper. You find out what a topless model thinks about the MP expenses scandal (she disapproves).
You drink instant coffee. The food arrives. Fried eggs, fried bacon, fried tomatoes. Fried baked beans. Fried bread which is something you have not eaten since you were a much younger moody girl, on holiday with your parents at a B&B in the North of England: by the fourth day of fried bread, you cried and refused to eat any more. But here, at Car Park and Cafe, it is devilishly good. You are not sure if it is actually good, though, or just better than the sausages, which are two perfectly smooth extruded tubes of phallic meat product.
The man who is charge of the frying is now playing with the one armed bandit. He pumps coins into it from the cash register; he loses; he goes back to the cash register; he pumps in more coins. He loses some more. The one-armed bandit makes cha-ching noises. You finish your fried bread. You look at Ben. He looks at you. The acrid smoke in the room is thicker. Your eyes are watering, or maybe you are just crying. You and Ben agree to leave. He pays because you cannot see in to your wallet. You walk past the hungry dog. It barks. Your stomach churns. You see your reflection in a window: your tears have carved a thick black line down your cheek. You cannot, you realise, endorse Car Park and Cafe under any circumstance, not even an ironic one. You also realise that you are wearing too much makeup.