The Visit To The Café
written by: Rodney Ison
Lucy parked the car in the front yard of the engineering works and the whole family went in to meet Nigel who was in his office, but not engaged in doing anything specific purposely to be free to greet the family when they arrived. He beamed a great smile when they entered being genuinely glad to see them.
“Lucy! My lovely sister-in-law,” he exclaimed. She was looking flushed with the occasion, her colour heightened giving that fresh, pure, little girl look even though she was well along way from little girl, but which is doubly appealing in a young woman of her years. He genuinely admired Lucy and his affection for her was without self-interest. After his greeting, he embraced her kissing her on the cheek, then held her at arm’s-length, his hands upon her upper arms, as if to scrutinise her more closely. He smiled appreciatively into her lovely face, more beautiful than he remembered it to be.
“And, the pretty Agnes,” bending slightly to come to her level, and taking her in his arms in a warm embrace: “My how you’re growing,” he observed, “you’ll soon be as big as your mother, and just as beautiful too, if that’s at all possible.”
“And how are you, Roderick?” this time crouching down and taking the little boy in his arms to give him a big squeeze: “Aren’t you exited to be coming into this big place,” and, not waiting for a response, “and what about going to Miss Burns’ cafe. Are you going to eat lots?” again assuming the answer was ‘yes,’ and not waiting to hear Roderick’s response, which he received only by the nodding of his head, the child’s usual manner of communicating ‘yes,’ he stood up and addressed himself to his brother.
Here, his genial countenance changed to one of affection which goes beyond that of a brother, to that of both brother and trusted, loyal friend. The two men had little in common, apart from being brothers, saw one another infrequently, and communicated by telephone only when necessary, and usually about family business. Never the less, their friendship was as friends who are renewing their togetherness as though it were yesterday.
Drawing out the first syllable of the name to emphasise his feelings, he exclaimed: “Je…remy, how good to see you again, how are, you?” and approaching his brother, threw his arms around him in a strong embrace, as if to satisfy a deeply held longing for his affection too. “And how are mother and father?” he asked after withdrawing from the embrace, and as a kind of afterthought.
“No different,” said Jeremy, responding to the latter question: “Father’s still as difficult as ever, but we’ll discuss that later when we’re alone, and Lucy too, because it concerns her. So, how are you? You’re looking as sprightly as ever. You know, it really is good to see you again.”
“Yes,” added Lucy, “and we’d like to see more of you, and the children would too. You know how much they adore you, you’re their favourite uncle. I know you’re their only uncle, but you’re still the favourite. Oh! You know what I mean,” said playfully by way of a final statement seeing the bemused look that had come over Nigel’s face.
“That’s just about enough admiration for one day,” Nigel continued with a broad smile: “Let’s get going, shall we?” here addressing the children, who expressed their delight with hand claps, and in Roderick’s case small jumps up and down in appreciation of the sensible suggestion.
As the party trooped out of the office, Nigel gave a final direction to his secretary: “You know where I am if you should need me, Norma, but only if necessary. You know what to do.”
“Yes, Nigel,” she replied, the two were on informal terms: “Don’t you worry about a thing. Leave everything to us and go and enjoy yourself. You’ve earned the rest.” Norma was only too aware of how hard Nigel worked, although he seemed to do very little. He was simply, quietly well organised, and, in consequence, highly efficient.
They all climbed into the Wolsely, Jeremy driving with Nigel next to him in the front passenger seat, and Lucy with the children together in the back, one on either side of her. Off they went into the heart of Leicester.
Jeremy parked the near to the cafe, just around the corner to it, after which the family spilled out and the children bubbled down the street like a stream gurgling swiftly to its destination. They finally entered the establishment in a whirlwind of bustle, making everyone in the cafe look up. Most tables were already occupied, but they found one near to the kitchen which had four chairs. Nigel, taking charge, asked at a neighbouring table if he could take a spare chair, which was readily, and politely agreed. The children took their places with that heightened expectation and excitement that goes with what was unfamiliar to them, going to a café.
It was situated in a narrow street in the heart of the city, near to the medieval Guildhall. This street is so narrow it was a one-way street even in those days of minimal motor traffic, nineteen thirty, five. The buildings were all shops built in Georgian times, which, no doubt, replaced the medieval buildings that went before them, hence the narrowness of the roadway.
The café was of its era, basic and without ostentation. The floor was made of red, clay, quarry tiles, which were generously worn, and the upper walls and ceiling were painted a neutral cream, whilst the tongue and grove cladding which covered the lower half of the walls, was painted green. The clients were accommodated at various antique tables, while Windsor back café chairs providing the seating.
The café itself was an institution which had taken a rightful place in the city, and particularly among the professional people who had offices, shops and workshops nearby. This was not because it had been planned but because it just happened over time. The mix was exactly right. The atmosphere within was steamy with emissions from the kitchen, but one of ambience, and confidence that everything would be all right, and it always was. The food, though plain and simple, of the ‘meat and three veg.’ type, followed by substantial steamed, suet pudding, baked Leicester pudding* and other tempting delights, was all
prepared on the premises, but at that time there was no other way to do it. The operation was presided over by Miss Burns, from whence the cafe got its name.
She was a small, slim woman in her early forties, professional in her application of business, and accomplished in her chosen vocation, that of catering; she had chosen this line of work, it had not been imposed upon her, neither by others nor by circumstance. It was what she wanted to do in life and what she enjoyed doing, which gave some indication of her quiet determination and strength of character, obvious in her general demeanour.
This, as is natural, gave rise to much speculation regarding her station in life and place in society. From where did she come ? Who were her family? In what kind of house did she live and with whom? Did she have a social life outside her business, and, if so, who were her friends and associates? It was odd, that whenever she was asked about her circumstances and family, she was always open and forthright in her communication and not at all afraid of telling her story as it was. In truth, she had nothing to hide, and was neither proud nor loath to speak of her young life and present circumstances frankly. It was just that she was hardly ever asked; perhaps it was her confident bearing that forestalled the asking.
She spoke rapidly as if there were never any time to lose, yet with intelligence and purpose, and her accent and diction were perfect, giving evidence of her upbringing and education. She always wore the same work-wear, pinafore dress of a sage green colour, clean on every day. She arrived early at the shop at the same time every working day and busied herself with whatever needed doing until her staff began to arrive, when she supervised them in their assigned tasks, herself filling in wherever she was needed, and because she was not above doing the most menial of tasks, she thereby set a good example to her staff. She achieved without ever trying, that pleasant atmosphere of friendly, willing co-operation in which it is a pleasure to have a part. Miss Burns knew how to keep her staff, most of whom had been with her for years. She simply kept them happy.
One of those employed, and as waitress at table, was a lady of advanced years, perhaps her late fifties or early sixties. It would have been impossible to decide exactly from appearances, because the lady bore a closer resemblance to a Norwegian Troll than to a human being, and Norwegian Troll’s always look older than they really are (and it is to be hoped that you will excuse the lapse in good manners through reference to this lady as resembling a Norwegian Troll, but she did, or would have done if Norwegian Trolls existed). She was small in stature, and of ample figure though not over large. Her hair, now greying into that salt and pepper look, generally black with almost white mixed in, was coarse in the extreme and cascaded from her head down to her shoulders in a pyramid of unruliness; it was impossible to manage and added to her Troll like appearance. Her facial features were large and coarse, but entirely in keeping with her general aspect. She was also possessed of large, spread feet, and, since she had trouble finding suitable shoes in which to conveniently exercise her professional duties, which entailed much toing and froing, she wore large, comfortable, soft mule slippers which, because they were loose on her feet, made a slip-slop sound as she walked.
Again, as in the case of Miss Burns, speculation took hold and ran riot. From where did she come, and what were her circumstances in life? Why had the impeccable Miss Burns chosen someone who resembled a Norwegian Troll to front her business, to be the public image of the cafe? Was she Miss Burns mother? Was Miss Burns protecting her by employing her whilst being secretly ashamed that such a fright could be her mother? The answer was simple. No, she was not Miss Burns mother, and Miss Burns was not ashamed of her, nor had she chosen her for her specific role. The choice was originally by dint of necessity.
At the start, the lady in question, Alice, had applied for the job of dishwasher to the café. In truth, Miss Burns took pity on her, or, rather, was sympathetic toward her, because it was evident from her appearance, her demeanour and obvious lack of education, that her prospect of employment was limited, and being out of sight and confined to the kitchen performing a task well within her capabilities, would be suitable employment for her. It was also convenient for Miss Burns to have someone carrying out the menial duty of dishwasher who would be unlikely to demand more of her employment, or to leave to go to a better job. It was always difficult to find someone who would consistently wash dishes day after day without feelings of dis-satisfaction.
If this could be construed as somewhat selfish on the part of Miss Burns, it was more than compensated for by her feelings of sympathy for Alice and a genuine desire to help her. And Alice, therefore, joined the team under the protection of her employer, and, strangely, fitted in perfectly, willingness being her strong point and gratitude for the opportunity she had been given.
Never the less, and against Miss Burns expectations, Alice expressed a passionate desire to serve in the cafe and asked her repeatedly to be given the opportunity should the occasion ever arise. Miss Burns thanked her for her offer, said she would bear her request in mind, and kept her hopes alive by not discounting the possibility while never imagining she would ever be obliged to ask Alice to wait on. One day, short-staffed due to illness, she found herself compelled to do so, to ask Alice to help serving at the tables. All available would be needed to help with the dish-washing between their other duties. This was like stardom to Alice, who added in diligence what she lacked in finesse; she brought her inimitable character to her new post.
After the number of staff had returned to normal Miss Burns did not have the heart to return Alice to her original job as dish washer, because she had made it clear she understood the promotion was permanent and that she would continue in her star role. Furthermore, the clientele was not at all badly affected as Miss Burns had supposed they would be; to the contrary, they seemed to appreciate the ministrations of this strange lady, and her down to earth and somewhat crude manner, possibly because it made them more aware of their own refinement. Arrangements were made, therefore, for everyone to take turns with the washing of pots, crockery and cutlery, including Alice from time to time, and all were satisfied how the new arrangements worked to the apparent benefit of the business.
Now, shortly after the family had taken their places, Alice entered from the kitchen. A well-dressed gentleman of fine breeding had entered before them and sat at a nearby table. Alice approached him slowly as if keeping a cautious eye on someone who could be dangerous, and then, looking intently at him, demanded in a peremptory tone, “wha’d’yerone,” said as if one word, and which translates as ‘what do you want?’ It cannot be said that finesse was her strong point, or, indeed, any point at all.
“Oh!” came the response in a cultured voice: “I’ll have Welsh Rarebit please.”
“Wonewewshrabbit,” came the perfunctory order shouted through to the kitchen in a gruff voice that would have done a Norwegian Troll proud.
“Oh! Yes. Thank you,” said with gracious appreciation, while the man fidgeted from embarrassment.
Can you see how it worked, and why it worked? In her way, Alice was a star performer, a sort of attraction because she was so totally different and unexpected, that is unless you were a regular and her shortcomings, or propensities if that is what they were, had become an attraction entirely anticipated. There was a fascination with her unrefined manners in such a place of refinement. Somehow, those of cultivated manners who frequented the cafe, felt totally at ease with her blunt approach, which is manifestation itself of cultivated manners.
In the meantime, the family had quickly decided what each one was having, after all, you could not keep Alice waiting. She approached them slowly in her mule slippers with a deliberate step accompanied by ‘slip slop.’
“Wha’d’yerone,” she asked in her stock introduction, order pad and pencil poised in anticipation of the substantial five-fold order to come. One order you could shout through to the kitchen, but five, no, that was too much to expect. She laboriously wrote the order on the pad which she kept tied to her apron ties by a piece of string, which made it always easily available. The pencil, which spent its time when not in use conveniently lodged behind her right ear, had a sharpened point which she sucked as a preliminary to writing, as if that somehow improved its writing qualities. After noting everything down, she trooped off to the kitchen to give in the order. That done, she folded her arms in front of her, leaned on a cupboard top of convenient height, and exclaimed in the vernacular of the region in what was supposed to be an undertone, but which could clearly be heard throughout the cafe: “Ooh, mi bleedin’ feet ‘re killin’ mi.”
The kitchen staff, including Miss Burns, kept their equilibrium and did not give any sign of unease or disquiet; they continued with their current tasks, but with the look on their faces which suggests: ‘If I pretend I did not hear that will it go away?’ (Of course, it won’t). From the reaction of the customers in the dining area it seemed as if no one had heard; everyone, without exception, continued what they were doing, or, as in Jeremy’s case, began a new dialogue with Nigel as if nothing had happened.
Just then, and before Nigel could answer, Alice re-appeared with the Welsh Rarebit, slip slop, slip slop, up to the gentleman, put the plate in front of him and carefully laid a knife and fork in place, after which she stood back a little to briefly observe him with what seemed to be a quizzical eye, however, in truth, she was not thinking anything at all, quizzical or otherwise.
Jeremy shot a glance over his shoulder in Alice’s direction, then another in quick succession, as if in anticipation of something. The customer uttered his thanks profusely for his Welsh Rarebit, and with a little affectation: “Oh, we do thank you so much.”
Roderick, meanwhile, was studying Alice’s feet with concern, which probably accounted for his father’s subconscious trepidation. Then, in a voice intended as a whisper, but which was loud enough for all present to hear, he asked: “Are her feet really bleeding, da-da?”
Both Lucy and Jeremy wished the earth would open and swallow them down. It did not. A sudden, hushed silence fell on the room, except for a young man seated in an opposite corner next to the café window. He was fashionably dressed in grey flannel trousers, a navy blue, double-breasted blazer, a white shirt with a red silk cravat at his throat, and was sharing a meal with an elegantly, and expensively dressed lady of middle years who he addressed as Aunt Brigid. The young man, despite his evident good breeding and self-awareness, had a sudden, embarrassing and uncontrolled fit of coughing, or, rather, laughter which ended up as coughing.
“Oh dear, Royston,” Aunt Brigid said: “Has something gone down the wrong way? Take a drink of water?” pouring a glass and offering it to him.
Everyone in the café knew nothing had gone down the wrong way; the water was a convenient excuse to avoid embarrassment. Aunt Brigid need not have bothered as it all went over Alice’s head. She was completely unaware, or, certainly, seemed to be, of what Roderick had said and Royston’s mirth at Roderick’s question, although it nearly killed him. Turning her back on the clients, she returned to the kitchen.
Nigel felt the laughter well up inside him, as much at the young man’s loss of control as Roderick’s indiscretion, but he fought desperately to retain his composure, although his shoulders began to heave slightly. He could not stop himself completely, and the more he tried the worse it became for him, and the greater effort was required to prevent a loud guffaw from breaking forth. He was a giggler; once he started he could not stop, and, although he managed to restrain himself successfully from time to time during the meal, his shoulders would, again and again, begin their twitching as the memory flooded back into his mind.
Alice’s next task was to bring the order that had been placed to the party’s table. This she did in stages not being able to carry everything at once. First came the children’s plates, in small portions, of sausage and mash for Roderick and toad in the hole with mash for Agnes.
Here Alice displayed an unexpected turn in her nature which had, at first sight, seemed to be crude and unobservant: “Would the children like sauce with their meal, or gravy? It looks a bit dry,” she asked, in a voice which, while gruff and entirely in keeping with the Norwegian Troll, was full of concern for the children’s enjoyment of their food. Perhaps the history of Billy Goat Gruff has given an undeserved reputation to trolls of all kinds.
“Yes please,” replied Agnes: “May I have gravy?”
“And me too, please,” piped up Roderick.
“I’ll bring a gravy boat and then the children can ‘elp them-selves,” said Alice, accompanied with what was intended to be a smile but more resembled a grimace. She could easily have come first in a gurning contest without trying.
If Alice had heard Roderick’s remark she did not react by taking offence. Her simple, but important concern for the children displayed evidence of thoughtfulness which was not at first sight evident in her demeanour, but which softened the harshness of her appearance and way of speaking. Perhaps it was these departures in her general manner, from time to time, that so endeared her to the clientele. One thing is certain, whatever the individual members of the party thought of her approach at first, it was distinctly mellowed by her kindness toward the young ones.
In came the gravy with Alice attached to the other end, and a simple ham salad with the usual buttered bread. It was the custom hereabouts to serve a customer bread and butter with everything, and a custom to be borne, not challenged. Finally, for the men, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and buttered cabbage, accompanied with a generous amount of beef gravy, and when this had been enjoyed and was cleared away, copious amounts of Leicester* pudding with extra jam or custard sauce as was requested.
After their enjoyable meal, and despite Roderick’s faux pas and Nigel’s periodic discomfort at needing to restrain his hilarity, the family departed the café in high spirits marked by the bubbling excitement of the children, and made their way back to the car to return to the big house.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
*A kind of sponge mixture baked in a basin in which golden syrup, jam or lemon curd has first been placed on grease-proof paper, and which, when the pudding is turned out, runs down the outside. The pudding can, also, be steamed.
(The story is a chapter from the book Miss Tarbell, which I am about to publish.)
- An Ice Cream - December 29, 2018
- The Visit To The Café - July 31, 2018