Cafe

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Caf'e or just cafe , a part of life lived on the slow lane of old London . Back street urchins , back street life - low and dusty .

Submitted: October 03, 2008

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Submitted: October 03, 2008

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Caf

“ What you avin …“ squawked a shrill dry voice, that pierced through the cacophony of sounds that welcomed him as he took his very first step through the now open door way into the caf Seemingly within just seconds , like a needle stuck in the groove of a record the squawk retorted – “ What you avin “ it bleated , followed by a mumble that was seemingly made by a repenting sinner at the alter ..

Letting go the door with his right hand he pushed his way in past another body going out and again the voice cut directly through the mumble , chitter chatter and hub bub of the caflike a hot knife through butter “ What you avin “ it sqwealed – like a parrot ….and although he heard it quite clear and this time he sort of knew it was directed at him , he did not reply. For in truth his fullest attention was being given to the rather erroiniouse and seemingly near implausible if not impossible task of picking his way between the mass of bodies perched on chairs seated around the tables. Without that is bumping into a body or two or falling over a bag or foot spread wide. It was a like an assault course , which was escalated in difficulty , part due to the poor visibility as a conglomeration of the continouse waft of cigarette smoke and dust that filtered through the air creating a deep and quite dense haze like smog and of course the fact that there was no seeming specific pattern at all to where the tables were placed. This left absolutely no direct path to walk to the counter at the back of the caffrom where the voice originated and as many of the current occupants of the seats would have seemed to have slumped their body at awkward angles to enable them some sort of leg room around the rather akwardly placed table legs beneath the round tables in the very centre of the floorspace , as opposed that is to the seemingly more sensible oblong ones, which had been placed near up against the walls of the cafas was possible , leaving just enough space for the wooden benches filling the small space between the table and the walls themselves . The layout, or lack of it also meant that some ways round towards the direction of the counter were completely blocked by bodies sitting back to back and all in all it made it rather a difficult task to manage , even without a drink or two inside you . He picked and weaved his way round the chatting, smoking, noshing and supping bodies and worked his way towards her, stabbing his toe against a wayward table leg and semi tripping over the fag ends and debris on the well-worn bare boards of the unpolished and dirt stained wooden floor. He stole a quick glance at her and in this one quick fervorant glance, he quickly noted her and her manor. She was a sour looking woman, nonchalantly slumped rather than stood there behind what was a quite immense barrier of a counter, right at the back of the cafe. The counter was for some reason positioned in such a way that you actually had to pick your way past nearly every single set of tables and chairs and of course their occupants to get to the place to order anything. The quick scouring glance she sort of half cast back at him, rather than gave in his direction, told it’s own story, with the sentiment equally echoed by the shrill whine edge of sarcasm in her voice and the unsubtle sort of dip of a nod of her head that she gave, almost like the nodding dog on the back shelf of a motor car as she half acknowledged his attention to her question.

In this place, her place, customers…… or rather, their money would of course always be welcome, but she just did not seem to have the bother, to make it obvious to the owners of the pockets or purses that the coins originated from… that this was the case. In just the one quick glance up at her, he took in the view before him and the measure of her. Easily fifty plus, grey haired, unshaped straggle of a mop obviously uncared for, with a character face and a down turned lip smirk rather than an upturned smile, where you could catch a glimpse of the brown stained teeth through the gap as she seemed to mouth words without emiting any sounds. She was dressed in a faded piny and shabby, well worn looking clothes that certainly would not have looked out of place on the table in any jumble sale in the area. This single glimpse of her did nothing for his senses, for she was no different, no nothing more or less than he would expect to find in a place like this, for her dress matched the dor and of course the surroundings .For life here was exactly this and no more, even the customers who occupied the seats matched the dor with their own versions of old, worn, faded and poor in quality dress which equally was matched by they’re worn and faded faces. And she was as much part of the furniture of the cafas the shabby looking gathering

of bodies at the tables and chairs he had passed as he picked his way across the dirt trodden plain unpainted, wooden floor, unswept and cluttered with litter, on his way to the counter at the very back of the place. You could not help but notice that all around, the whole of the cafwas now well past it’s prime, with cigarette burns, chipped paint and the yellowing of age quite prevalent. The whole collective fade made the place fit very nicely and snugly into it’s down market, back street profile, and it would most certainly never have equalled or even have matched that of the sparkle of the high street. Where the key selling point for the new coffee bars springing up all around the city was their sheik clinical newness and trendy virginal clean dor. He was quite used to this environment, in fact he was at home in it, as she was. Perhaps, just like the counter top, that had once – in it’s hey day, been a pure pristine crisp white surface that you probably could have eaten off – but now readily presented itself as an off-white marbled brown effect, with considerable dark brown splodges of stains, she had also seen better days and in truth - he certainly felt like he had. So an affinity was there for them both without thought or word, the wear and tear of the years passed, having all left their mark and coloured them both accordingly. In her first quick glance at him, as she heard the bell as he had entered, for she always looked at the door as the bell rang, going in or out, she took in the picture before her and made her assessment – shabby, un-kept, rough shaved, hat down, collar up, aged, well past the prime of life, just another like the many who called here to this place …… certainly not worth a second glance, and having called out – just to let him know she knew he was there , in her caf, she turned her attention away to focus on her own interests. And then as she heard his footsteps near the counter, for she could with her years of experience differentiate the thud, thud, thud on the bare wooden boards as a customer neared and reached a point of no return, adjacent to the counter over and above every other sound or noise within the caf Without even looking up she almost threw her question at him, like an assassin would throw a dagger at his intended victim, rather than placing it to him with care as anyone offering a service would do . She seemed to have an inane ability to cast a question at people in such a way, that it was as though she was almost not actually seeking a completed answer to it. More in part some kind of acknowledgement, or perhaps agreement, either in verbal format or indeed simple bodily movement, that the action she was already taking with her hands was the correct one. For even as she spoke she had already placed the spout of the large brown, grey teapot that she rested her hands on, up against the nearest of the collection of brown mugs, that stood regimented in rows and had already started to tip the balance of the pot, well before any acknowledgement was received. The mugs all stood there, like little soldiers in ranks, dressed in the same bland garb, patiently waiting for their turn to come, to be filled with a slug of the hot brown liqueur and then to be shoved or pushed forwards towards the lucky or rather unlucky punter – rather than passed, as one would of course - on to an expectant and sometimes eager purchaser. Just like the cafand all of it’s contents, nearly every mug had seen better times, most now had some kind of impediment, as chipped brims or cracks and one even had a handle that had been broken and stuck with both glue and an over wrapping of brown paper. For as everything in this world, they had their tour of duty to perform and even the wounded had to play their part – to the end. Now it was the turn of the very nearest to do it’s duty, face the onslaught - and be used. Of course, if there was something more than a mug full of the brown brew that the customer, or seeming enemy at the counter required, then now was the very time to say so. To plead for leniency or even ask for forgiveness, as many of the regulars would do – with an apology of kind. “Sorry “, they would say, “ Can we have a weak one ” or milk or squash – if of course they were that adventurous. But it was certainly a now or never situation , for her attention would be easily lost and the next move would be to have to pay the going rate for the cup of hot steaming beverage into the outstretched mitt of a hand, that almost seemed to arrive by express delivery just inches from the face of the poor unknowing body on the customer side of the counter. And even more disconcertingly, it seemingly arrived even before the very last drip of steaming brew hit the pool of dark beverage in the mug and the mug was shoved forward.

Unbeknown to others the counter itself was for her a barrier of defence. For here, part hidden behind this immense solid object, she felt secure and could throw caution to the wind, casting any comment she felt the need to, at any one who stood in line of her –“ on the customer side “ of the counter as she often referred to it. And sometimes she did just that, cast a comment like a fisherman casts his bait – waiting to feel the tug on the line as a bite developed or materialised. This gave her immense satisfaction and made her feel in control. But in truth her vocabulary was quite limited and her use of a blade verbal sharp could itself invariably be blunted or dulled by an equally sharp retort. And then with the wind taken out of her sails, becalmed so to speak, she, just like a record with the gramophone needle stuck in a groove, would very simply repeated the one single line in a verse that she had just uttered, until that is someone sort of nudged the arm on the record player, by adding their own further comment, sort of freeing the stuck needle allowing it to make tracks towards the end of the record. In these circumstances she would simply repeat her line, seemingly oblivious or ignoring any retort and then as the fade came in her mumblings died. For here behind her great wall, she was in her element and although she was not actually a rude person or individual, she was one who used an element of sarcastic tone in her voice as part of her everyday vocabulary, perhaps a little to often. In fact, many who did not know her, found her to be abrasive, off hand, seemingly lacking in interest and mocking. But this was really just a fade for her to hide behind, fending of her real shyness with this brash statement of her aloofness and uncaring attitude. Indeed even as the words formed inside her brain and then in mere milliseconds passed to her vocal cords to erupt like bird song from her mouth and she then orated her one single question - which by now she must have repeated hundreds of thousands, if not perhaps millions of times in her life behind the counter. Almost usually of course, she spoke her words perhaps just the once or twice, to the everyday customer that stood the other side – “ on the customer side “ of her counter, her wall of defence. Inevitably , if she was forced to reiterate her chant more than this she would feel the shyness of her youth glance from behind its veil and the surge of embarrassment, caused her cheeks to colour slightly. Every time, this event , simply caused her to harden her facial expression, and as if a dark rain cloud had descended on her, her whole look would suddenly move from her usual droll fade of grey to be shrouded in a cloud of dark black thunder and gloom. There was of course the odd occasion when she would have to go further than repeat herself , re-chant her phrase - without having been challenged. Perhaps when the customer was slightly deaf, or indeed otherwise engaged in conversation with someone else. But these were rare, very rare occasions and if she did have to use the second version of her question, then as her unease took control of her, it was by no means anywhere near as welcoming as the first – in fact it was no more than just a simple “ What you want” … slung or more like hurled in the general direction of the poor sole in line, sort of dumped like the heavy carcass of a dead animal would perhaps drop to the ground as it’s final breath expelled or it’s senses or lack of them left it unable to control it’s own carcase rather than being held in high esteem like smoked salmon served on a silver platter. There was though, one single memory she carried of her younger days, when she felt more confident about herself. And her husband had been there to make her feel alive and good about life itself. She would sometimes dream about those days , where she could have sworn that she had used her smile to welcome people and even tried different vocabulary, and laughed to cover her blushes, but outside of the occasional visitation to this place in the land of nod , this was a far distant memory and it lurked so far back in her grey matter that it very, very rarely ever got to the front of her thoughts and found it’s way into her mind eye of today. No today – what you saw was what you got, and this was not indeed a place that anyone would venture into seeking hote de cuisine or sparkling service, but just as any back street greasy Joe’s, it served it’s purpose of fry up’s and doorstep sarnies. She had held the handle on this pot for near thirty years now and knew every trick in the book, and as there was actually only the one hot beverage on offer – the nicety of asking her question, was just that – a nicety. She could recall though, that they had at one stage in the life of the cafactually offered two alternative choices of hot beverage - coffee, well almost coffee – instant anyway, but it was in fact a coffee, chicory mix, that came out a rather sad grey colour and smelt more lino than real coffee and of course a grand British tradition - cocoa. But there was so little demand for either that after a couple of months of offering them as alternatives to cha, they simply wiped e’m both off the menu and no one even seemed to notice they had ever been there ….let alone ask for either of then again. This whole event was though in the long gone days of what now seemed to her like another’s existence , it was just not possible that it could ever have been her living a sort of happy , fulfilled and contented life – that she had lived , so long ago . In those days, the heady days of her young marriage she had really wanted to please others and together , having talked it through , they had decided to introduce, the opportunity of cool refreshing glass of cold lemon squash or the alternative glass of fresh milk, both still chalked onto the menu board over the counter. But it was usually only the occasional child accompanying adults that demanded such an exotic drink and to be honest if either was ever requested, she took such an age to serve it and made the poor customer waiting feel so uncomfortable with the delay and whole kafuffle that she evoked around such a simply thing, that they never ever went in that direction again .

For although it simply meant her having to take her hand from the pot, bend down to find the dusty glass kept under the counter for such occasion, fill it from the dust ridden dark stained bottle of squash and cold water, or just simple cold milk from the jug, her huffing and puffing, stern glances and scouring stares would create such a bad atmosphere that in truth people would only ever make the mistake of going into the caf but once with a child, or even ask for a cold drink for themselves. Simply because the pain that ensued, was just not worth it and once bitten, twice shy, so better to find an alternative…and make life easier, for all concerned - in such circumstance. Of course she knew all of the regulars and never missed a face the second time it came into the caf She had seen this one before, she knew that – but not for a long time. “ Cup of rosy and a bacon doorstep – on brown……….if you can “ he muttered “ How d’you likes yur tea, “ she growled, seemingly now having got the needle onto the second groove in the record. Having already of course taken the action, before she spoke, to pour a measure of the thick brown concentrated brew into the waiting mug, and then, before he could even have responded, she had turned slightly to push the brown mug under the spout of the adjacent water boiler and pull the handle to fill it just quarter of an inch from the top. “ Oh – as it comes, but with milk “ he replied. The words having just left his lips he looked down to find the filled mug shoved towards him across the brown stained counter. Then without even acknowledging him, it was as if she herself had nudged the arm of the record player, forcing the needle to jump and find a new groove and some totally new words – sang out across the hubbub of the place “ Bacon on brown “ she called out, seemingly to inform the whole cafwhat this customer wanted to eat, also announcing the fact that they still had bacon to offer – which in itself, indeed sounded like a triumph. So having called out the order to the cook, who worked behind the brown wooden divider, directly behind her, having sung it almost like a canary, she then proceeded to push the mug further in his direction, and without a word being spoken he looked down at the mug and the counter it stood on - And is if time stood still, he stood there transfixed by the brownness of the stains - waiting. Yes, she could have confirmed, had he of course asked her , that once - in it’s heyday, the whole counter had indeed been a one hundred percent pure clinical white melamine counter top, she could, if pushed hard, still remember the very day that she had first stood behind it and taken control of her customers. But that was all in the far distant

past now, just as was her wedded bliss. Since her husband had passed on, life now was simply about making it through each day and just like the counter top which was now all scuffed, scratched, yellowed, brown stained and well past it’s prime … she felt that her life was the same. There – was one quite unmistakable spot, on the counter…there, just where she rested her gargantuan brown and grey teapot , for it

was now a rather deep, scaly sort of textured brown stain, the accumulation of years of tea spillage and dribbles. Those thousands, millions or billions of drops and splashes of tea, that had found their way onto this spot over time, as she poured the golden nectar from her vessel into the ready and waiting ranks of brown mugs had taken their toll. The daily, hourly constant drip and spill of tea , where it slopped out of the mugs as she poured it from her pot combined with the constant dribbles down the outside of the spout , married with the action of picking up and placing back of the pot had worn the surface from it’s smooth virgin white gloss, to the version of today. Indeed, if anyone had actually bothered to look at the results achieved by this simple process and the beverage concerned they might well perhaps have wondered what the result to themselves would be of consuming the brew over even a short timescale, yet alone over years. Then as if the moment of frozen time had ended and as if to break the spell - grasping the milk jug by the well-worn handle, she tipped a dollop into the brown steaming brew, creating a grey swirl as the fat in the milk bloomed and streaked across the surface of tea. Then as if she had seemingly broken free of the need for a record and needle - “ Two minutes for the sandwich” she said. Holding out her hand “ And that’ll be one and six “. Then having taken his money, placing it in the till, without any further comment, she turned her attention, to the next pilgrim in the queue – having already placed the lip of the teapot against the next mug. He sat himself into the bench seat, sliding his butt along until he was nestled tight in the corner right up against the window. He was in luck, there was this one seat in the corner if he shared the table with a couple of workmen, but he did not mind, for from here he could view all of the goings on both inside of the cafand outside in the street and yet he was quite oblivious to anyone other than someone who looked directly at him. As he sat, he placed his tobacco pouch on the table, just behind his mug of tea, then using just one hand he opening it, extracted a rizzla, filled it with a string of tobacco, rolled it into a meat white tube, held it up towards his lips, slid his tongue along the sticky joining licked strip and finally rolled it round, popping it into his mouth, and all in one continuous movement, never having once looked at what he was doing or having taken his eyes from the road outside. He gazed so intently, nearly squinting to see through the swirls of smoke, as they spiralled up through the shafts of sunlight that split the gloom and the yellow brown stained and dust of the plate glass window, watching the comings and goings of people outside in the street. He watched so intently that he failed to see the movement of the two workmen as they departed nor the arrival of the new , next to him and it was the bump he felt as a body shuffle up next to him that wakened him to a happening on the table he sat at. Turning his head towards his new partner at the table, refocusing his eyes to the gloom of the interior of the caf he was more than attracted to what he saw. Fiery red hair, wide brimming smile, pouting red lips, pure complexion and a small bun shaped hat to top it off. Not what you would expect to see in a place like this and as he cast his glaze across to the other side of the table, he was even more astounded. For directly opposite sat a brunette, wide eyed, white skinned with dark pools of eyes and next to her another of equal beauty. “ Hope you don’t mind “ said the red head, in a sweet, skimpy kind of apologetic whine “ This was the only table “ Then before he could even comment “ We won’t get in the way” said the other of the two brunettes, peeking right into his eyes, speaking in rich silky tones directly at him and then her partner added in a rather weak tone but with a broad Lancastrian accent - “ Only havin a quick cuppa” she said.taking a quick draw on a cigarette then pulling it from between her painted lips, she then sort of twirled around her fore finger. ”No …..no …not a problem at all “ he finally managed to splutter, eye’s now wide and brimming, as the beauty of youth cascaded in

She brushed past the crowds and hum, drum in the street and pushed her way on .She knew where she was and exactly where she was going. Time, what of it, it had no meaning to her, she luxuriated in ownership of her own, but she knew that to another it mattered and she had to be there, so she sped on faster than her little legs would normally carry her. Then as the crowds of bodies thinned she knew that she was nearing her goal and as the shafts of light split the gloom of the small turning before her, she dipped her head a little, pulling her coat collar a little further up round her dark hair topped with a grey and red silk and taffeta box hat. The clip of her heels echoed against the damp brick walls as she weaved her way around the potholes and cobbles in the single line street she trod and the resounding intensified sounds of her feet quickened her anticipation making her pace increase even further .She half ran half jogged down the final yards of the street almost whipping round the corner at the end of the alleyway where she almost stumbled across the old boy trying his hardest to pull himself backwards out of the shop door – pulling his bag of heavy shopping behind him and she had to almost danced sideways to miss falling into or even over him. This swirl of movement forcing her torso out of line with her hips caused her body to react like a racecar threading through a chicane and the criss cross movement that followed left her feet, arms and body seemingly totally uncoordinated. Trying her hardest to complete an emergency stop she felt like she almost imploded but to any of the nearby bystander it was as though she sort of threw herself sideways, almost dived up into the air and they fully expected her to jack knife and swallow dive. But she did not, she did nothing more than stumble, stumble and finally fall, a sprawling, tumbling and almost plank like fall, arms wide, legs staccato nothing defending any of her mortal parts and as her head hit the cobbles with such a sickening thud that you knew full well she would never get up from it. Indeed as the trickle of blood oozed into a pool and then quickly spread into a puddle beside her head, watchers surmised that she had departed the mortal world as they stood and looked on. None of them expected her to get up of her own accord and walk away, a couple thought she might just with a little help regain her feet, but the majority knew, already that this was more than just a stumble. No one rushed forward, in fact no one stopped to help, she was totally out of place here, her clothes did not fit and her total demurer was of another world, not the back streets – but more like the high street, up west. At last an old man seemed to take pity and stood next to her, talking in a low voice, every passer by fully expected him to be a man of the cloth and no one took a second glance let alone questioned his validity. There was just a hope that she heard his words as he gave her the last writes – or anyway his version. He was though not a man of the cloth, he just felt pity for her and seeing an opportunity for personal gain he fully expected the last breath to leave her slight body as he stood there bent near double next to the sprawl of her being on the cobbles of the back street, he called home. Someone had called the peelers and as he heard the distinctive shrill blast of the whistle in the distance, he quickly decided he had done his good turn mumbling his words of wisdom. The second blast of the whistle now somewhat nearer helped remind him of his precarious situation and his need to move on and of course take payment for his kindness for nothing in this world was free .So leaning slightly further forward than he was already, enabled his drooping left hand to grasp the handle of her clutch bag as it lay semi hidden between the folds of his worn and stained overcoat plonked onto the damp and dirty cobbles. Then half straightening his legs he scooped it up without anyone seeing what he was doing and he slid silently onwards on his travel.

Payment had been made.


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