It seems there’s more to running a successful café than simply serving up tea and cooked breakfasts…
I’ve lost him,” Holly sniffled.
Inside The Tea Cosy cafe, Jean frowned. Holly’s smile usually shone brighter than the hot summer’s sun when she worked in the café, a distinct advantage in a cool March.
Was this boyfriend trouble? Jean wondered.
Young Holly was seeing a trucker. He roared into town, parked his bright red lorry cab on her drive then, after a few days, he’d roar off again.
“Lost who, love?”
Jean nodded to Brandon-in-the-back as she called him, who pushed a plate overflowing with bacon and eggs, beans and black pudding through the serving hatch from the kitchen beyond.
She was halfway round the counter with the food before Holly managed to get out her answer.
“Who?” Jean almost dropped her tray as her head snapped round. That’s a very odd nickname for a lorry driver.
There was a pause then as she delivered the breakfast that old Mr Saunders had ordered. He called in every morning for the Morning Special.
“Noah’s toy,” Holly finally tagged on.
Back at the counter, she stood pouring tea as dark as mud into a chunky white mug.
The two of them often had delayed conversations like this as one or the other dashed off to deliver drinks or food.
“The toy Noah took to after…”
Holly’s pale eyebrows shot up. The manoeuvre was a lot easier than saying in earshot of the whole cafe, after my ex-husband walked out. Her jutting lip added silently, Though it was for the
best in the end.
“Oh. You’ve never mentioned Mr Steggy-wotsit before.”
“Yes, well.” Holly lowered her voice. “That’s because Noah sort of makes the toy talk instead of saying stuff himself these days.
“I picked Steggy up at a car-boot. He’s sort of a cross between a dinosaur and a beanbag. Anyway, since I lost him yesterday, Noah’s gone all quiet. I’m worried now.”
Jean blinked her way though all of that. She’d never had any children with her late husband.
They’d barely needed to broach the subject when they’d married. They simply weren’t the maternal and paternal types.
“Where did you lose him?”
“I’m not sure. All I know is, because Noah got bored at home the other day we went for a walk to that new kiddies’ play park. He wanted to build a snowman.
“When Noah got tired of carrying him, I put Steggy in my bag but when we got home he was gone. I must have dropped him. Noah was so upset when he found out.”
“Oh well, I’m sure he’ll get over it. They do that, don’t they? They’re very malleable, children.”
Holly’s jaw unhinged.
“Did I say something wrong… again?”
Jean wiped a hand over her brow. She felt sure only the other day that she’d put her foot in it with a young mother who sat at a corner table breastfeeding.
“My Lord,” she’d said. “He’s like a little leech, isn’t he?”
I didn’t mean he was slimy and a bloodsucker, I meant he could create as much suction as an industrial drain cleaner.
She frowned. Only perhaps that isn’t too complimentary either?
Lost in thought, she missed Holly dashing off with another tea order.
“Just get him another toy,” she said when the girl came hurrying back.
This time Holly’s eyes widened to the size of dinner plates.
“Oops.” Jean’s heart sank into her sensible shoes. “Well, what do I know?” she tagged on.
She fled into the kitchen where Brandon-in-the-back cooked while humming a rap tune. She bit her lip as her eyes started to tingle.
You’d have made a horrible mother.
Brandon peered at her as she wiped her eyes.
“Checking up on me, are you?” he asked. He could be a little curt sometimes. Twenty-five with a face full of stubble, he’d worked for her for years.
“What’s up with you this morning?” she asked.
He had a code all his own: a grimace and a little eyelid-flutter meant his young wife was giving him grief about something or other. Today he shrugged, clearly not ready to share.
“Where’s that new park Holly goes to?” Jean asked.
Brandon stared down at the egg frying in his pan for inspiration.
“Round by where she lives, probably. Gorman Street.”
“Right.” Jean pulled off her apron. “You hold the fort. I’m off to track down a dinosaur.”
Well, this is very pointless, she thought as she traipsed the now slushy pavements that chilly winter’s morning. Surely Holly’s already scoured the neighbourhood?
Still, her gaze raked across the wet pavement. She wasn’t one for giving up.
She had in her heart, she always thought, a hard core of grim determination.
I’m a no-nonsense sort who knows what she wants.
That’s how the café had come into being after her husband had died in his thirties. She’d learned a few things back in those days – like how to hold her own against shifty types trying to make her pay over the odds for renovations.
Why am I in such a mood today? she thought.
Only she knew this mood had been brewing for far longer than one day.
Her gaze flickered across a garden full of soggy grass, across their boundary wall, then across the road to the window of the newsagent’s.
Next to a stack of paperbacks, a teddy in a box peered out.
Jean crossed over for a closer look. He had a nice face, this bear: big, open and friendly.
Is this a good idea? Apparently, you can’t just swap one toy for another.
Even so, she hurried inside.
She exited with a very big bag and a troubled, puckered brow.
Trotting across the road again, she saw in the distance a sight that made her heart leap and her cheeks turn pink.
She stood on her tiptoes and waved.
Up he strode, tall and lanky, his hair a steely grey.
“You’ve escaped?” He grinned. “How did that happen? Did somebody leave the café door open?”
He motioned to her carrier bag. “That’s not… it… is it?” He placed a hand across his eyes. “Don’t let me see.”
“Silly, why would I be carting my wedding dress about?” She linked arms with him. “Come on, you can walk me back to work.”
Inside the warm café, she towed him to their favourite window-seat and sat him down. She stashed the carrier under the table, still unsure about the bear. Holly hurried up with her notepad, producing a smile.
“Hello, Peter,” she said.
Even Brandon managed a wave through his hatch.
“Just tea, love.” Peter smiled up at Holly. “And one for my future wife.”
He glanced at his watch as if counting off the hours to their wedding in March. “Not long now.”
Holly hurried off and Jean sat down. Peter’s brows knitted as she nudged the box a little further out of sight.
“So, what’s in that carrier?” He felt for it under the table and wriggled it up onto his lap. Then he took a quick peek inside.
Jean told him about all about Noah and his missing mouthpiece.
She found herself imagining the teddy saying something she hadn’t had the nerve to mention yet.
Yes, Noah. I can see now how some things might be easier to let go of if you don’t have to blurt them out yourself but got a toy to do it for you.
She sighed. No, I’d best not start speaking in a gruff bear’s growl – but still, time’s short and something has to be said.
“Peter. Do you ever think it’s odd I didn’t have children when I was married?”
He’d never said a word about it. It just hung like a dark cloud above them – or, at least, she imagined its shadow there.
After all, he’d had kids with his late wife. A son and daughter, both grown up now.
She grimaced. “I know how some people see childlessness: either you’re selfish, emotionally damaged or there’s something wrong with your plumbing.”
“Do you remember the day I first came in here?” he asked.
“I was soaking wet and my brolly was inside out. There wasn’t a soul in here, the weather was so bad. I stood in the doorway and none of you noticed me at first.”
Jean shook her head, having no idea what he was getting at.
“You were sitting over there.” He nodded to another table. “With Brandon. He was huffing and puffing over some letting agent’s forms. He was trying to rent himself a little flat.” He smiled. “He kept saying they’d never let him be a tenant with his credit history, and you said, ‘If you have any problems, I’ll be your guarantor.’
“Young Holly, meanwhile, was using her cloth like sandpaper on the counter. Her ex had messed her son about. He hadn’t turned up at the weekend to see him at all. ‘Noah will end up hating him.’ That’s what she said.
“You replied, ‘Only if you let it get that bad. Calm down now. Wait and see if he has a good excuse before you do anything silly.’”
By his side, Jean shrugged. “So?”
He nodded towards Holly and then Brandon’s hatch.
“You do have kids, Jean. They’re really big ones for certain, but they’re still just kids. And they’re as much yours now as their parents’, aren’t they?”
I definitely didn’t give birth to a single mum, or a man I hired at eighteen, who hadn’t a qualification to his name and couldn’t fry an egg.
She peered at Peter askance.
“I’ve never really thought of them like that.”
“Maybe you should start.” He chuckled. “How many other Brandons and Hollys have there been over the years? A lot, I expect.”
It wasn’t hard at all to settle into his way of thinking.
I should have trusted in him all along, shouldn’t I?
“Yes, you’re right. Some people do have a very narrow view of the world, don’t they?” she said with more confidence than she’d felt for a very long time. “More fool them.”
He grinned away.
She placed the carrier bag on the table as Holly came over with their tea.
“Holly, love, I’ve bought your Noah something.”
Setting her tray down, Holly peered into the bag and pulled out the bear in its box. She chewed her lip.
“Jean, it’s lovely, but…” Then she read the small print. “Oh – it’s a talking bear?”
“Yes. It has a computer chip inside it. You can even programme the silly thing. I thought it might get Noah chatting away again about… well… whatever it is he needs to say.”
Holly’s smile did have the warmth of the sun again at last.
“You’re a genius. This’ll work. I know it will. Thanks, Jean. You’re the best.”
As Holly carted off her prize, Jean blinked a tear from her eye.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “It seems they’re wrong. Sometimes all it takes is a cosy café!”
Our My Weekly Favourites series of feel-good short fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.
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