"... to eat here, please."
"Would you like fries with that order?"
"Would you like fries with that order, sir?"
"Fries," I say, quite expressionless.
"Yes sir." He points. "Would you like some fries with your burger?"
"Fries? Fries? Those are not fries!"
"Uhh, then it's just the ..."
"Those small slivers of potato with an excess of saturated fat and an overdose of sodium, young man, are not fries!"
"Unnnh ... I'll just get you the burger and ..."
"You see where I'm pointing, young man? Those yellow-white objects with the 83 percent retail markup?"
"What are those things?"
"Are you sure?"
He remains remarkably polite, all things considered.
"Yes sir, those are our french fries, fresh up just this minute."
"Here, let me show you one." I pluck a stray sliver of fried carbohydrate out of the tray of the woman standing in line next to me, hold it up to the light.
"Let's try it again, shall we? What is this?"
"A french fry."
I break it open. Very, very slowly and clearly, I say "A ... french ... fry?"
He nods, bewildered. "Yes."
"This is not a bloody french fry!" I scream at him.
The whole place has stopped to watch this conversation, all except for one of the anonymous clones of the female gender working behind the counter with him, perhaps a little older than the others, who is a quick thinker. She deftly plucks two garish, red-painted cartons from the stainless steel dispenser — the largest of the three sizes — pops them open one-handed, fills them with hot, fresh-cooked slivers of potato, and slips one onto my tray, another onto the tray of the woman beside me, who is glancing left and then right, at me and at the counter hand, at me again.
"These are on us," the girl says, smiling bravely, "enjoy your meals."
He is a little slow on the uptake.
"Was there something wrong with the fries, sir?"
"Those are not bloody french fries!"
He just stands there.
"Look out the bloody window, you fool. What suburb can you see?"
"Yes. Nunawading. Part of the City of Melbourne, yes?"
"I think so, sir."
"And the City of Melbourne is part of which country? Is it Australia?"
"Hmm... What's your name, son?"
"Is it indeed! Well good for you!" I exclaim, very pleased. "You know, it's a real pleasure to meet a fair-dinkum Bruce in amongst the faceless hordes of Justins and Jasons and Damiens and bloody Nathans everywhere. I'm Tony, Bruce. Pleased to meet you."
We shake hands.
"So where were you born, Bruce?"
"Wollongong. It's in New South Wales."
"You got it, Bruce, Wollongong is in New South Wales. And the last time I checked, New South Wales was part of Australia. Is that right Bruce?"
"Yes sir, part of Australia."
He thinks he has worked out how to deal with me now. He gives me the same sort of tentative smile he might produce for a large dog who seems, at least for this moment, to be peaceably inclined.
"And the potatoes, where were they grown? Did they teach you that?"
"Tasmania, yes. Well done, Bruce. Or possibly Ballarat — they grow them in both places, I think. And the cooking oil, do you know where that comes from?"
"Truck comes every Tuesday, sir."
"But you don't know where it's grown? Where the seed comes from? Well, no matter, neither do I. But let's just take a guess and say it's Western Australia, shall we? Lot of oil-seed country out there."
"And the salt? I believe that comes from Altona or Geelong. And the gas that powers the cooking vat is from the Bass Strait oil fields, yes?"
"I guess so."
"All part of Australia, yes?" Once more I hold up a little sliver of oil and potato. "And what is this, then?"
There is a long, long pause. No-one moves. No-one speaks. There is only the hissing of the gas flame and the distant roar of the exhaust fans.
Still he does not answer.
Almost whispering, I encourage him. "You can do it, Bruce, come on, you are nearly there. Just one more question and you've got the gold!"
He's trying. I can see it in his eyes. He really wants to get this one right.
"I'll give you a hint, Bruce. Tell me the country we are in; the place where the potatoes and the oil and the salt and the gas come from, and indeed your good self too."
"Yes! So far, so good. You are doing fine."
For the first time, he ventures an original thought.
"And the company ... the company is from America, isn't it?"
"Yes. Not just the company, Bruce, but the operations manual that sets out the exact procedures that you follow every day, and the building design, and the ceaseless, mindless bloody advertising — do you know we are not even allowed to make our own bloody ads any more? — they all come from America. And all the machinery, the shake machine and the coffee maker and the electric grill and the fish fryer — all American. And, of course, the menu ... right down to this ... little ... item .... here. What is it, Bruce?"
"It's ... not French?"
Slowly, I shake my head, smiling. "No. Not French. Maybe it's Australian, maybe it's American — that depends on how you see it — but it's definitely NOT French. Now for gold, Bruce, one last question. You ready?"
"Yes". He nods confidently. He is bright-eyed, almost eager.
"What am I holding?"
"It is NOT a bloody fry! This is not TV! This is not New York or Boston or Chicago! My God, you are not even called Damien or Justin — you're a Bruce, a fair-dinkum bloody Bruce from Wollongong, you work in bloody Nunawading and all your bloody customers come here from Dandenong and Frankston and Geelong and Bendigo and Essendon and Port Adelaide and bloody Noosa if they can be bothered driving far enough!"
Deep breath. Softly now, I go on.
"See that thing up there on top of the pole out there? It's a flag, Bruce. It might have a tiddly little Union Jack up in the corner, but it's an Australian flag. Why don't you just go take a piss on it? You are an Australian, Bruce, I'm an Australian, we are all bloody Australians here."
I spin around, raise my voice again, sing out "Is there anybody here who is not Australian?"
Sheepishly, a middle-aged couple in the back of the restaurant raise their hands, and admit to being English, and over in the corner there is a young couple; backpackers by the look of them.
"I am from Sweden" the girl says, hesitantly (as if her accent hasn't told us that already), "and my friend, he is from Austria."
"So", I cry, "can you tell me what this thing is I am holding? These ... Australians .. seem to be unable to speak ordinary English."
I'm not sure that she followed that, especially not the way my voice dripped such scorn when I got to the word "Australians", but she reaches to her tray, holds up a twin to it.
"It is like this?" she asks, pointing.
"Exactly like that", I confirm.
She frowns down at it for a moment, looks up at me again and shrugs.
"It is a chip?" she asks doubtfully.
"YES!", I scream, ponding on the stainless counter in my excitement, "it is a chip, a bloody CHIP for chrisake, C. H. I. P. — IT IS NOT A BLOODY FRENCH FRY!"
Chip chip chip chip!, I yelled, chip chip chip chip!
Two of the kids over against the far wall — they looked like twins, maybe eight years old and there with their family — started beating their hands in time and chanting with me. I don't think they had the faintest idea what it was all about, but any excuse to yell is a good one when you are eight. Their mother laughed and started chanting too. Soon everyone was doing it.
Chip chip chip chip!, we screamed, chip chip chip chip!
One of the kids was standing on his table now, conducting, holding a rather squashed bit of spud in each hand like a pair of batons; the grillman was pounding his spatulas on the stainless like a drummer.
Eventually, someone handed me a cup of something brown and fizzy. I drained most of it in one gulp, went to sit down, get my breath back.
By the time the police arrived, order had been more or less restored. I had finished my double serve of chips and was chatting to the backpackers when the silence fell.
They had that special walk that only policemen can do right. It took them to the counter just like any other walk though.
"Someone call reporting a disturbance?" the Senior Constable asked.
I stood up, started to walk forward. It had been fun while it lasted.
Bruce looked blank, shook his head.
The older girl, who seemed to be in charge of the place, sang out "Not here. Perhaps it was the Noble Park store."
Bruce caught my eye, and with the tiniest nod of his head motioned me back to my seat. None of the others moved.
"No, it was definately Nunawading", said the older copper. "Well, if it's a false alarm, we might as well have ... ahh . .. two cheeseburgers and a some french fries."
I had my back to them at the time.
In the end, I never did find out who threw the quarter pounder.