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Heartville's Diner



- by Wolf Scherman



Synopsis



Café, Eatery or Bistro... On the whole, their brightly-lit, colourfully flashing 'welcome-signs' serve as modern samples of sometimes age-old delectable processes kept secret, to keep hungry choosy patrons returning for more, and as often as possible. No two are alike in character, and each one boasts the domination of generous portions of their delightful secretly guarded home-made gravies, choice selection of appetisers, and unforgettable tempting desserts. Whatever it is that magnetises us towards them, they just prepare it better... And of course, then there are the heart-warming hosts... the 'other' ingredient to a mouthwatering experience, that keeps us going back...

Prologue



While the blinding yellow-and-red pulsing neon signs were fast pulling peckish families away from the main road through Heartville, with their 'Two for the price of one' - 'Saturday Dinner Specials!' and 'Upsize Now - And Win! - A handful of starving locals and one or two peckish out-of-towners, who were 'just passing through', who were not the 'cheap franchised food in a box' - 'get a toy with your burger' - or 'just fried chips' - supporters. These connoisseurs, seldom bothered even a stare in the direction of these so-called modern dinnertime marvels. Actually, come to think of it, it was normally, much like tonight...



The day Before...

"Well they could do better. The place is worth nothing as it is".



Earlier...

"What the hell was that!?" Victoria was rudely awakened from her slumber as result of the soft rain that peppered the slow-driving vehicle's roof and the hypnotic repetitive sweeping sound of the windscreen wipers.



"Sorry for that. It's was stones that were flung up from the shoulder of the road. Sorry angel".



"What?"



"Bloody biker! I had the hazard lights on for two kilometers to show him to slow down, then eventually pulled into the emergency lane to allow him to pass. Reckless devil!"

"Road Sign: Heartville's Diner 200 meters ahead".



"Mom... Dad... you're not serious...!? The ravenous and most annoyed 13-year old Bertrand twins exclaimed from the dim comfort of back seat - blanketed in a blueish haze - as their mobile phones advertised their shocked expressions. Their luxurious rental SUV had just paused their holiday trip, by clicking it's indicator as it slowed down. It unexpectedly pulled off from the saturated main road and onto the loose crackling gravel, which was indiscriminately spaded out to cover some deeper potholes, which decorated the small unmarked dirt parking area. Ahead of them through the pouring rain, the vehicle lights touched down on what appeared a dire looking establishment. Even in the rain it was obvious that it could do with a bit more than mere TLC. A single faint globe hung precariously from a knotted extension cord - leading into a window left ajar - and had been trying unsuccessfully, in desperate flickers - aided by a loose connection, attempting to light-up an unevenly screwed-down chalked sign, on a worn wooden post near the front door- "Heartville's Diner".



"Well we're basically already out-of-town guys... and if you two had torn yourselves from your cell phones earlier, you would have noticed the insane queues at all the drive-troughs and road-houses, plus, it's a holiday... Let's try something different. Something that's not hurriedly wrapped in paper and squeezed into a box, shall we?" John eyed them lazying on the wide back-seat, then turned forward and spied out past the anxiously sweeping windscreen wipers. The depressing diner seemed quiet for an early evening, and he wondered if noticing the signboard 200 meters before on the road-side, wasn't maybe a mistake. He knew his boys too well, and that they were probably already staring back at their phones - oblivious to his defending his choice.



"Babe, it's 7pm, and we're the only ones in the parking area... well us, and that chromed motorcycle parked over by the door..." Victoria deliberately motioned with her eyes, attempting to change his mind...



"Come guys, off the phones... lets go..." John said under his breath and was out in the rain, jogging round the back to open the passenger door for his wife.



"Well, well... I'm impressed... you don't see that any more..." Somewhere from the poorly lit overhang by the front door of what now seemed more like a run-down residence than a restaurant, an older woman's voice greeted the holiday makers. Half-out from under rusty roof, hiding under a tattered umbrella, she showed them to the front door when John looked up. Another vehicle, which probably decided to rather turn around in the parking area behind them - before it was too late - and head back to town, beamed its headlights momentarily over the older woman at the door. John guessed from her wrinkled brow and matching smile that she was probably already half-way through her sixties, after what must have been a dirt-road-all-the-way kind of life. He noticed she was a tall gaunt and high cheek-boned old dear with exceptionally straight long grey hair - that reached her waist - and dressed in a far younger-era's tight-fitting denim.



"Hi there, good evening... I'm Hilda" Her strong German accent was instantly followed by her outstretched right hand, after wiping it on her surprisingly neat apron. John surmised from the crossing straight ironing lines, that she had literally just pulled it from a drawer and tied it to her skinny waist, for her unexpected guests.



"Wonder if 'we' are the answered prayers for business for 'this' place for this evening. I doubt that there is much cooking inside taking up her time. Suppose it would be awful if the place puts us off, and we'd decide to leave before we're served..." Victoria whispered to John.



"How 'do' they manage to stay in business, competing with the owners of all the modern takeaway outlets?" But Victoria's muffled whisper went unanswered and she dropped her hand from her lips to greet.



"So, do you have Wi-Fi...? Before even being properly introduced, a young voice announced from behind John and Victoria...



It was the talkative one of the twins, in his normal demanding tone, while Hilda made a point of greeting the parents first, before responding to the boy's plaguing electronic issue. She waited with a welcoming smile and her firm handshake for the boys.



"Oh child, we have lots of things..." Hilda winked at him, and with her hand showed them inside.



"But Wi-Fi... do you have that...!?" The boy insisted as he let his family enter, while he paused at the door where she stood.



"The fastest in town my boy, and the password..." Hilda bent down and held her one hand by his ear and whispered. Then looked around as if she was about to share a state secret.



"It is groovy gravy... two words, all lower case..."



"You're having me on right...?" Staring at her, he hoped that she had actually been serious.



"You go see for yourself... see you at your table..." A courteously smile pointed him to his family who already decided on a large candle-lit table close to the wooden bar area.



While the twins were figuring out whether old Hilda was having them on, John and Victoria looked around inspecting the interior, agreeing in hushed voices that it was probably too late, and quite rude to leave anyway. By the time Hilda arrived with four red, worn-leather covered menus, the twins' faces were wrapped in the biggest smiles all day.



"Thank you... and sorry for doubting you..." The earlier demanding voice offered an apology.



"Not at all... Not a problem at all, and thank you for your good manners... just like Dad..." And she handed each a menu.



"Opening the door for your wife, in the rain outside... old school... well done..." Hilda cleared up the confused look that Victoria's wore.



"Glad you came early, it should pick up in a while... shall I get you all something to drink while you decide..?" John and Victoria looked at each other wondering whether she was being serious or just wishful. His look over at the bar, confirmed his suspicion that a little something to drink helped pass time in this neck of the woods, and he faced his menu, away from a half-full tall glass of dark yellow fluid. He quietly wondered how may times Hilda have replenished it.



"To drink..?" Victoria squeezed his hand slightly.



"I'm sorry; yes two filter coffees, one black one white and... boys...?" John waited for the twins, who apparently found the out-of-place technology in the oddest of settings quite to their satisfaction.



"Hilda, the boys were thinking of donating their phones... interested..."



"Sorry Dad, hot chocolate please Hilda..." both replied to a nodding and smiling Hilda, who left the table after imparting a wink in the boys' direction.



"Did you see the menu Dad...?"



"Dad...?" But John, was looking to find an answer to a riddle. He looked around the bar, then scanned back over his shoulder as he absorbed the solitude in the thirty-something tabled diner and faced back towards the 'Gents' sign over the door past a lonely pool table.



"Sorry... yes? I mean no... why... what are you in the mood for...?" A distracted John replied as he opened his menu.



"Unusual..." John answered the earlier question and read it out...



"Starters:

Beef soup ... price YD. Garlick-peppered liver, farm bread, groovy gravy... price YD

Main Course...

300g Medium-done fillet, mashed potato, groovy gravy... price YD

Desert:

Groovy gravy flavoured shaved ice... price YD

Beverages:

Filter Coffee... price YD

All Teas... price YD

Chocolate Hot or Cold... priced YD

Beefy drink... price YD



"Is this for real...? I bet the kettle is boiling already for a few packets of shop-bought instant..." John laughingly let out and looked up from the 'foreign' menu at a blushing Victoria.



"Oh very real, and it took Ed and I many years to perfect... it's simply life-changing... but don't take my word for it... what will it be then..? And no, the gravy takes hours... A good gravy is the product of painstaking whisking at just the right temperature". Hilda responded with her polite smile that the out-of-towners had almost grown used to now, and she served their beverages from a polished silver tray.



"My apologies Hilda... but I've never seen... please forgive... such a..." John managed to get out after a fierce battle swallowing his laugh.



"Limited selection..? Oh that's quite fine my dear. Over the years our regulars..." And she waived her arm over large selection of unoccupied selection of mismatched chairs which circled the thickly varnished round tables.



"Our regulars, have consistently ordered so much of these over the years that Ed and I decided to prepare little else. These seem to get people back every time. Would you believe that we even have repeat customers now-and-then who relocated from the farms and Heartville Town many years ago..." Smilingly; having taken out her pencil and notebook from her perfectly pressed white cotton apron pocket, apparently Hilda wasn't leaving their table without their meal order.



"So... what will it be..?" John, trying on behalf of his family to play for time, asked.



"So tell me Hilda, the groovy gravy... what is it..?" John wanted to know.



"Groovy of course..." And she laughed at the seeming silliness that he even asked.



"Last one... the price... well prices... they're all the same..?" John was fast running out of questions as a desperate delay tactic.



"Oh Indeed... my Ed decided years ago that our customers should pay what they feel is just. You know... compared to what other places would charge... 'YD' stands for 'You Decide'. Is that it?" Hilda had answered as much as what there had been to ask and John picked up that she knew he was stretching out the time to actually order.



"How about 'you' decide for us Hilda... you probably know people and their cravings best..?" John had run out of ideas finally...



"Splendid... it will be my pleasure... and a treat, I promise..." And off she was, taking her signature smile into the kitchen, with the double doors swinging closed behind her after two or three back-and-forth whining hinging sounds.



"What the hell..." The twins replied in unison and alternated their surprised stares between John and Victoria.



"I have no idea..." John replied and stirred two heaped spoons of sugar into his waiting coffee, then for good measure, a third. Again he scanned the diner, trying to figure out what's been nagging him. A cough at the door startled him and an older couple took their time walking in and looked in their direction, then waved a friendly wave in the family's direction.



"Odd..." John said to Victoria. While John and Victoria were discussing the remainder of the trip and Googling holiday sightings for the following few days; they weren't aware that two other older couples had arrived in the interim, and joined what seemed like old friends who had just walked in, all heading for the bar.



"Evening...!" Hilda was back from the kitchen's swinging doors with a large steamy jug and briefly joined her regulars at a lounge-setting, where low comfy chairs were arranged around a large table near the bar.



"Just in time..." The one old man smilingly greeted her and battled first, but managed, assisted by his wooden cane, to rise from his deep comfortable leather wing back chair, and she rewarded his politeness with a warm hug while holding his mug that she had just filled from the jug.



"You're spoiling me Hilda..." The gaunt old man took the steamy mug while holding himself up with the other hand, pressing down on his cane. Hilda continued pouring from the jug until all her guests were served and headed back to the kitchen.



"Strange that no one placed orders but gladly accepted her offering from the steamy jug?" Victoria nudged him under the table...



"Here we go..." Hilda took a step closer and in true practised waiter-style, managed two delicious aromatically filled plates on each arm. The ones balancing on her forearms, keeping the ones held up by her wrists in perfect balance.



"For mom and dad, medium fillet, mashed potato, groovy gravy, and pumpkin fritters... and for these growing young men... kidney pie, jacketed potatoes and groovy gravy..." She allowed John help offload the warm plates and allowed a few seconds to see if they needed anything else.



"No shame in asking for second's..." She placed her personal stamp-of-approval on the meal.



"Bon Appetite" Hilda winked at the twins and with a friendly smile she let them be - and returned to her guests seated at the lounge area, again refilling their mugs from the large jug, with what seemed a thick warm gravy-like liquid.



Twenty minutes later the diner was packed with patrons, and filled with loud laughter and chatter echoed off the old wood and copper themed walls of the diner. With only three tables vacant, Hilda was running a tight ship and one of the old men lend her a hand, taking orders. He sporadically handed Hilda the notes that he scribbled the orders on. It appeared, from him waiting 'outside' the kitchen door, that the diner had a strict "off limits" rule for the kitchen. John and Victoria were amazed at Hilda's efficient attendance and felt ashamed to bother her - although earnestly debating - whether to copy the twins' example and order a repeat of both their drinks and their meals... not knowing what came over them... they did just that. It was as though every following morsel was progressively more mouthwatering than the last.



"Keeps me fit... and besides, its an old... old secret recipe... this groovy gravy... wouldn't want too many prying eyes, would we now..?" Was Hilda's joking reply to Victoria's enquiry into her not employing more staff to assist her on busy evenings. Before Hilda excused herself later when the diner quieted down at 10pm, her eyes lit up as she was telling them about her motorcycling days and pointed to an old black and white framed photo that hung over the bar. Her nostalgia was abruptly interrupted as an old tattooed man wearing a bandanna, peered out the kitchen door with a large jug, waving her back to the kitchen again.



"My Ed is looking for me..." With that, she disappeared into the small crowd that formed where an old lady was holding up an empty jug. The Bertrand's couldn't believe that their visit spanned three hours, nor that the twins almost forgot about their phones. Promising Hilda they'd be back at some stage and thanking her for a feast of a meal, John paid her generously, as the family said their goodbyes.



Surprisingly late, and being the last patrons to leave the diner, the chilly air outside rushed the family to where they had parked, and all but John got into the SUV.



"Do you have to...? You're not getting inside with that..." Victoria opened and closed the window as John lit a cigarette and exhaled a satisfactory blueish-grey cloud, then recalled what was nagging him earlier...



"Also not kicked the habit I see..." John, visibly startled, turned and discovered that Hilda was just outside the diner door, casting her tall shadow from with the single faint light outside, and permitted him noticing that she had just removed a cigarette from a packet of Soft-pack Camel 20's. Before he could complete the retrieval of his lighter and offer her a light, she'd already struck a match and was blissfully dragging on the cigarette.



"You're kind... thank you, but they taste much better with wood..." The blue smoke umbrella'd overhead as Hilda took a second deep drag.



"Let's hope this weather clears before the morning. I do miss the freedom that wide open highway offers..." It had been too long since she experienced the exhilaration of the open road and the contentment she was rewarded with, as the wind used to come her long hair...



Behind John, the deep base idling of a large vehicle drew closer and split the loose gravel even more.



"Evening Hilda, how's Ed?" A large policeman asked from the highway patrol car, without bothering to get out.



"Ah Jim, you know Ed, always too busy to complain." She took another long drag of the cigarette; while eyeing John putting his' out on the damp ground, and faced the policeman again.



"Was going to ask what I always do, are you folk ever going to sell this old place Hilda?" The policeman apparently also thought it a good time to light a cigarette and before he finished scratching around for his missing lighter in the car, Hilda had already stepped closer and struck a match which she held up for him.



"Yes, like you always say, they do taste better when they burn with wood." The highway patrol man shared a caring smile.



"Tell me Hilda, haven't you or your guests perhaps seen a biker from up-town, a Michael Reeve? The man was reported missing. Not sure if you know, but he owns the Harley-Takeout on the other side of town, and have become a bit of a nuisance, a road hog if you want. He's been buying up the other older eateries and demolishing our old buildings... You know the one... But anyway, I'm regressing, You wouldn't by any chance have seen...?"



"I'm sorry, no. I've heard of him but no...". Hilda didn't let him finish his question.



"You know our visitors are all regulars, normally the older bunch from the old age home. And now and then a new face, but no, wish I could help. Want to come in for coffee? I'm sure Ed would just love your company".



The End


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