Head Cook and Bottle Washer was the name of the quaint little cafe I’d discovered. It looked empty, but I’d fancied a change from the noisy, greasy clientele, and the even greasier sausage rolls of Kell’s.
“Here you are, sir.” A girl placed a silver tray onto the blue chequered tablecloth in front of me and transferred a white porcelain tea pot and cup onto it, followed by a white plate with a pink rose motif. On it sat a large scone, dotted with dried mixed fruit. Then a small bowl containing butter, and diverse jugs of milk and hot water.
Her large green eyes looked into mine with a sincerity that made me feel slightly embarrassed. “Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”
“No, … no, that’s fine thank you.”
“Thank you, sir.” She smiled and walked away. I noticed she wore a smart brown uniform with a white apron, and matching white headpiece. This cafe might be small but they didn’t do things by halves!
I poured some tea out, noticing it looked good and strong, just how I liked it. I took out my phone. There was a message from Laura. Could I collect Shaun from school? She had a migraine. I looked at my watch, only 2 p.m. No problem. I buttered the scone and took a bite, starting to text a reply. Suddenly I stopped. This scone was gorgeous! Rich, fine-textured, and the dried fruit – sultanas, raisins, cherries, and others, more mysterious yet – were sweet and deliciously spiced. Why waste attention on a stupid text message?!
I looked around. There weren’t many tables, perhaps ten, mainly arranged along a kind of corridor, with three at the front of the cafe and three behind me at the rear. Only two were taken. A mother, father, and two small children, mouths full of cake rendering them temporarily silent, sat at the front, and behind me an old couple, whispering secretively, as if discussing a terrible family secret.
The girl stood at a counter looking attentive. “Was everything all right for you, sir?”
“Actually, it was delicious!”
“We bake our Scottish Lardy Cakes fresh every morning.”
“Well it was lovely!”
She smiled, as if genuinely pleased I’d enjoyed it.
“And the tea was lovely too!”
“Oh, yes, we import it from India, it’s our own blend.” She gestured to some small orange boxes on a shelf, high on the wall behind her – Head Cook & Bottle Washer Golden Tips.
I handed over the surprisingly reasonable price for my tea. “I’ll probably get some next time.”
“Yes, it’s very popular.”
That had been Thursday. So enamoured had I been with the place, and remembering an enticing array of cakes in a lighted compartment under the counter, I returned on Monday afternoon, having finished work early, to find it was closed. I felt a stab of disappointment and looked at the opening hours. Monday to Tuesday 09.00 to 12.00, Wednesday to Thursday Closed, Friday to Saturday 09.00 – 16.00. Sunday Closed. Hmm. They didn’t seem to open much.
I peered through the window. The cakes were gone but the tablecloths were in place, and the little orange tea boxes stood to attention neatly on the shelf. But with the lights off and no sign of life it all looked rather forlorn.
“Look Jilly, you must come to this fabulous little cafe I’ve found!”
“Where is it?”
“It’s behind the market place, down the little alleyway opposite the Cats Protection charity shop. They do this divine Lardy Cake!”
“Oh, I don’t usually go down there.”
“I don’t think many people know about it – yet! They do their own special brand of tea, imported from India, can you believe?!”
“Wow! OK, that’d be lovely. Meet me from work at one on Friday and we’ll go down together.”
Friday came and at 1.10 p.m. precisely, we both stood, staring into the cafe window. A sign said, ‘Sorry, Closed due to illness.’
I felt deflated, embarrassed, although it was hardly my fault. “Look, that’s their special blend of tea.” I pointed to the little orange boxes on the shelf behind the empty counter.
Jilly was fine about it. “It’s OK. Don’t Worry. Look, we’ll come next Friday, give him, or her, a chance to recover!”
“Good idea! I’ll have something else next time too. I saw Traditional Poached Eggs on the menu, with smoked salmon.”
I took a break from work on Tuesday morning. I told my partner I wanted to check I’d locked my car properly. The cafe was sombre, unlit, the staff presumably still unwell. Still, they’d be well again in another three days, surely?!
Friday came and I was ravenous. I’d skipped breakfast, looking forward to a fuller repast there, and Jilly accompanied me, dressed in a fetching grey suit, her blonde hair in a pony tail, and swinging a smart red handbag.
We stood, gazing into an empty window. Tables and chairs were piled up. The tablecloths and till were gone. There were no cakes behind the glass under the counter, now unlit and forbidding, and the shelf on the wall was bereft of the orange tea boxes. The place looked dead, desolate, abandoned.
“Look,” said Jilly, pointing to a small handwritten sign in the door. ‘Closed. Opening soon under new management.’
I stared in utter disbelief. I could taste the Lardy cake, smell the fragrant brown tea pouring from the white porcelain teapot. See the girl’s pleasant smile and her large green eyes looking into mine, seeking approval. I wondered what could have happened? “Oh, that’s a shame. Sorry to have dragged you here again.” Why hadn’t I bought one of their little orange boxes of tea when I had the chance?
Jilly sighed. “Should we go to Kell’s? I’m hungry.”
The thought of their greasy sausage rolls made me feel sick, and they didn’t use butter in their sandwiches either, just a flavourless pale-yellow spread. “Oh, all right.” The coffee wasn’t so bad.
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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