'Jesus!' spluttered Lisa involuntarily, as she spat a half-chewed mouthful of salad out onto the plate in front of her.
She had unconsciously hunched forward into a throwing up position, but after the little adrenalin rush had passed, she relaxed and sat back in her chair. It was OK. Nothing bad was happening.
She was cool.
She took a gulp of soda water from her glass and swilled it around her mouth before swallowing it. She looked at the salad malevolently, and picked up the menu card to see if there was some clue.
The menu was in English on one side of the card, which was one reason she had decided to try the cafe for lunch, but even so it had all kinds of bullsh*t on it she didn't really understand.
At the Cafe Imperial, they had tried to give most of the dishes some kind of cute names which meant you couldn't tell what they were, and for some reason a lot of the dishes seemed to be Chinese, even though as far as she could see there was nothing remotely oriental either about the cafe or about the food that was served there.
Well, there it was. 'Vegetable sal. with chicken meat'.That was what she had ordered, and she had to admit that that was what it looked like too. Just bits of lettuce and onions and stuff and shreds of chicken. She picked up a piece of the lettuce, though, and examined it closely.
Hmm. She picked something off it and put it on her tongue. And she was right. It was sugar. No doubt about it.
She looked around the big room and wondered what to do. It was a nice enough place in its way, she thought, with its coloured tiles and its big windows looking out on both sides of a corner, so you could watch the trams and stuff going past outside.
They were playing this jazz she didn't care about one way or the other, but there was nothing offensive about it, and there was quite a cheerful, relaxed atmosphere really. There were some other customers scattered around, and none of them seemed to be having any problems with the food. But still. She was going to have to say something.
'Excuse me!' she said, trying to look stern, as the waiter who had served her went by. He was delivering something to another table, so he just smiled to show he had heard her and went off. Lisa let her gaze drift out of the window into the street as she waited for him to come back. Her eyes widened with horror as she saw that coming down the street towards her was that weird guy she had met on the tram the night before. Honza! That was it. Had he seen her? It didn't look like it...
'Please?' said the waiter, interrupting the thought, and she turned back away from the window. The waiter was just this young guy, smiling helpfully. Lisa didn't think he really spoke English, though.
'It's this salad,' she said, pointing at it. 'I can't eat it.'
'Can't?' said the waiter, dubiously.
'It's got sugar on it,' said Lisa, thinking that would clinch it. But the waiter just looked puzzled. 'Sugar,' she repeated, carefully. 'Look.' And she picked up a piece of lettuce and showed him the grains of sugar slowly dissolving in the dressing. A look of understanding came over the waiter's face.
'You are diabetic?' he said sympathetically.
'No, no,' said Lisa, and now there was a note of irritation in her voice. 'I'm not diabetic. It's a mistake.'
'Oh sh*t. Look. It's a mistake, OK? It should be salt or something. You can't eat chicken salad with sugar on it. It's impossible.'
'Impossible?' echoed the waiter, and now he had his puzzled look again.
'Impossible,' said Lisa conclusively. To show how impossible it was, she pushed her tongue out and gestured towards the back of her throat with two fingers. The waiter got the message, and glanced round to see if any of the other customers were watching.
'I fetch manager, OK?' said the waiter.
'No. Just take it back to the kitchen and tell them they made a mistake.' Lisa spoke very clearly. What was this guy's problem? The waiter decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and picked up the plate to take it away. He clearly had misgivings, though.
When he had gone, Lisa sat back in her chair and glanced idly round. And there on the other side of the plate glass was the kleptomaniac or whatever he was from the tram.
Grinning happily in at her and gesturing towards the door. She turned away with a frozen expression, but she knew it wouldn't do any good. And in a minute there he was at her table.
'Some problem?' he said.
'No.' Lisa didn't want to get involved in this.
'Something with food?'
'Listen, it's OK. Really.' But now the manager was coming up: a slim, attractive woman in black holding the same plate of salad, and looking concerned. Honza, without asking, sat down opposite Lisa to watch the show. The woman with the salad, who seemed a bit embarrassed, didn't know what to say, so Lisa helped her out.
'Look, this salad has sugar on it, that's all.'
'Yes,' said the woman. But she had that same puzzled look.
'Well, why don't you take it back to the kitchen, then?'
'I have controlled in kitchen.' She slid the plate back in front of Lisa.
'Well what did they say?' said Lisa insistently, while Honza gave her a merry smile.
'It is special sweet and sour dressing,' she said. Honza burst out laughing, and the woman looked at him sceptically.
'You mean it's meant to be like this?' said Lisa, incredulously.
'I have eaten one this morning already.' She smiled. She was friendly. She didn't understand. She just wanted the problem to go away.
'Very good,' she said.
Lisa could tell she meant it. The woman and Honza watched encouragingly as Lisa picked up another forkful of the salad and lifted it to her mouth. Maybe they were right. Maybe it was just her.
But once again her throat rebelled: she just couldn't swallow it. Honza took advantage of the fact that she was temporarily unable to speak to explain some facts of life.
'You shouldn't be so negative. Bad karma.'
After a few seconds Lisa, not knowing what else to do, spat this second mouthful too out on to her plate. The woman looked at her with a pained expression.
'Maybe you would like something else?' she said, cracking under the pressure. 'How about an omelette?'
'Does it have sugar in it?' said Lisa, suspecting a trick.
'No, no. Cheese.'
'Well OK,' said Lisa. The woman, relieved, picked up the plate and headed off back to the kitchen. Honza slapped his hand on the table to show his delight.
'Stolen anything interesting today, Honza?' said Lisa bitterly. He winked cheerfully.
'Only a smile,' he said.
Lisa closed her eyes and wished very hard that he would go away.