For some reason, this has always been my favourite of all the short stories that I've written. It was first published in 2009 in MsLexia Magazine and has been published several times since.
The Portuguese Cafe
Cat balances a tray on her arm as she unloads a pot of tea and a plate containing an omelette onto a nearby table. Her blonde hair, frosted at the ends with faded blue, is worn in a loose bun and her pale eyes are framed by fashionable glasses, thick and ironic in a geeky way; in fact, she is the least geeky person that Mark knows.
He likes the way she plays absentmindedly with the piercing in her lip when she idles at the cash register. He likes her dress sense, her Japanese denim trousers with the unusual cut, the black shirts with military-looking flaps and pockets, the chunky shoes with coloured laces. He likes the fact that she gets flustered when there are too many customers, that she can be snappy at times, though never with him. He likes her accent, which he thought at first was American but later discovered was Swedish.
What he likes most, however, is how she makes him feel not just normal, but maybe the most normal person in the world.
He looks out of the window. At the end of the street, the great organ of Waterloo Station pumps commuters onto the grey walkways and pavements around it. The damp air has become rain, soft but unmistakable. When Mark left his flat an hour ago, it was still dark, and mist hung about the streetlights like orange powder, transfixing him for a moment before he clicked the front door shut behind him.
He’s aware that a couple of years ago he’d have looked on this scene differently. The pressing gloom of watery streets. The threat of injury from haphazard umbrellas. The dawdlers oblivious to how much they interfere with the natural tide of impatient workers. On the way here, he sees every day something in the faces of the passers-by; resignation, numbness, restlessness. There’s a wild-eyed anger about them that Mark understands well, but one that he no longer shares. Because for him, the grey streets are lit by a secret magic, and that light spills from the very café where he now sits. As long as it throws open its distinctive green doors at seven-thirty each morning, he knows that all will be well.
He licks cappuccino foam from the end of a wooden stirrer and studies the menu. Janet, his care worker, used to keep on at him about the importance of eating correctly: Food groups, complex carbohydrates and the benefits of leafy green vegetables. Janet was herself always on a diet, her lectures as much for her benefit as his. Still, the advice must have seeped in, as he often asks himself these days if he’s hungry. Do I want it or do I need it? Today, he both needs and wants it.
He decides on a bacon sandwich and looks up to see if Cat is around to take his order. A member of the family who run the place clears empty mugs from one of the tables. Mark returns his gaze to the menu, the universal café signal for I’m not ready to order yet.
There’s a necessary routine to his mornings. Necessary, because in truth, he has no need to get up early, to walk as he always does for an hour, buying a paper en route, stopping to take pictures on his phone of any sights that please him (dawn breaking behind Tower Bridge, the giant, toothless smile of a homeless man outside Borough Market). He has no job, though he hopes one day to finish the degree that his hospital stay forced him to interrupt. He has few friends. The taint of craziness has driven away most of his old ones.
The roads he takes each day are in a constant state of regeneration. In the ten months and seven days since he has been coming to the café, it seems as though each building on the way has taken turns to wear scaffolding. Large, investigative holes in the pavements yawn open on a weekly basis. And he’s glad of this, glad that the world is being renewed, in the same way that he is glad when he buys new shoes and throws his old ones away; it means the past is being erased.
When Cat finally comes back upstairs, she carries a large plastic container full of thin gold and silver sugar sachets. He glances at the sugar bowl on his table, which is still a long way from being empty. He gets her attention, signals readiness, pulls a bottle of tablets from his coat pocket and sets them on the table. Cat finishes her task, pauses to re-tie her hair, and approaches him as he herds loose crumbs with one cupped hand from the table onto the floor.
“Mark!” she smiles as she says his name, pulls lightly at the shoulder of his T-shirt. “You must be freezing! It’s so cold outside.”
He can never quite look at her in these moments.
“It’s not so bad,” he tells her, “If you wrap up warm.” In truth, he’s not that sensitive to changing temperatures. The medication sees to that.
She extracts her order pad from one of her many pockets, clicks her pen ready. “The cold suits some people anyway,” she tells him. “It suits people where I come from. It suits you too.”
“What do you mean?” He manages to look up at her, to smile quickly at what he hopes is a compliment.
“Just that some people are hot weather people. You can’t imagine them anywhere but on a beach. Always the same. And some people- they’re like winter. They change each day, but they’re more interesting to know.”
She stops talking and clears her throat. “Anyway, what can I get you?”
“I’d like a bacon sandwich please,” he tells her. Then, thinking of Janet, “on brown bread. And-”
“Some water.” She nods at the tablets.
“And some water.”
She takes his order downstairs to the kitchen, where one of the family will prepare it. They each look like variations of the same person; close, suspicious eyes, full mouths, small ears that stick out ever so slightly. Cat is the only person working here who is no relation. Perhaps that’s why he noticed her right away.
Once, he was going to stop taking the tablets. The little pills that would help him to live a normal life- so stated the lingo that came with them. He hated what they did to him; the weight loss, the dull switches of falling hair. His eyes felt like plastic; they wouldn’t let him blink properly and left him with ocular twitches and a permanent frown. He wrote a poem at the time called Frankenstein’s Blank Stare, considered it a masterpiece for a whole day. Then he read it back during a brief moment of clarity and seen that it was, in fact, utter shit. At least he could laugh about it now.
In truth, he had laughed about it then, but it wasn’t the right kind of laughter. It was the kind of laughter that made strangers start, caused his ex-housemates to dangle cigarettes nervously at him. As though he was a wild animal, a dangerous beast that should have been caged, but one that they were permitted to feed. Children at a zoo. There was nothing normal about that.
But there was something normal about Cat that day. On his first visit to the café, deliberate in his anonymity, he pulled out the dainty brown vessel and set it on the table with a deliberate finality. When Cat wandered over in her bright red trainers he had barely given her a second glance; he can’t believe now that this was ever true. She took his mumbled order for black coffee, and, seeing the tablets in front of him, said;
“Do you want some water for those?”
He shook his head no but heard the word “yes” fall slowly from his lips. Perhaps it was because the colourful streaks in her hair reminded him of how much he had once loved to paint. Perhaps it was the way that she had looked at him as she asked the question. She had smiled- not in a mocking way, but with the same kind of smile a kind waitress would use when asking someone if they wanted brown sauce, or how they’d like their eggs cooked. Like medication was as much a part of life as deep breaths and taut muscles and doing the washing up. And in that moment, he knew it to be so.
Cat has been offering him a glass of water every day since; it’s as much a ritual now for Mark as his weekly visits to the chemist, his doctor’s appointments and his attempts at healthy eating, Janet-style. In the months that have followed, he’s learned of her love for The Smiths, and about how she wishes she had been born ten years earlier. He is better acquainted with Sweden’s geography, and the odd ways of the family that run the place. But each time he sees her, he thinks only of that first day, and the unbroken seal that she persuaded him to crack.
She returns shortly with the sandwich, puts it in front of him with a bottle of ketchup. He savours it slowly, even though the bacon here is always too salty and far crispier than he would have made it himself, though he is sure that the ketchup is thinned out with vinegar. As he eats, a huge billboard catches his eye on the street outside; a rugby team, stripped to their underpants and posing for a brand of aftershave. Their giant thighs and bulging groins are just about at the level of Mark’s eyes. He wonders if Cat ever looks at them. When he finishes, he picks up a rough brown paper napkin, wipes carefully round the insides and corners of his lips, where the telltale signs of cotton-mouth often lurk.
Perhaps, one day he’ll speak to Cat about the tablets. He’ll leave out the thick-tongued words like Olanzapine and Tardive Dyskinesia, for she’s not (he imagines) a lover of scientific fact. But he may tell her that they permit the enjoyment of each step he takes along those changing streets every morning, the streets that lead to her. He may even tell her that every time she brings him water and talks to him about anything from the weather to The Ramones, she gives him hope. He wonders how to thank a person for such a gift.
But there is no hurry, of course. He’ll come here as long as she is there to take his order, and he’s a patient man. Time is something that he has in abundance these days.
At the Portuguese café, diners pay at the register. Regulars know that if Jorge the son, with his quiet voice and fat-lensed glasses, takes your money that you can lie about your order, and pay for only half of what you really ate. Jorge the son will never doubt you. Mark has never given him reason to, has no intention of doing so now. Besides, it is Jorge the father on the register today, who adds up without the use of the machine and takes Mark’s money in silence. At least Cat is there to say goodbye. She leans forward to open the door for him.
He says, “I’ve always wanted to ask you what Cat was short for.”
Cat gives a mysterious little laugh. “In fact, my name’s Nina,” she explains. “Cat is my nickname here in England. Because I always want to know everything.”
He hovers in the doorway as he takes this in. One day, she will want to know about him. The fact makes her more delightful in this moment than it ever has before.
“So, we’ll see you tomorrow?” She flinches as the cold air forces its way in through the open door.
“I’m sure you will.”
“They’re saying it might snow.”
He touches the pocket where he keeps his tablets, hears them rattle reassuringly.
“I hope it does,” he replies.