Letters and Lattes
by Patti Jurinski
Ellen loved raw, wet London mornings. Nothing drove demand for warm beverages better than a dousing of freezing rain, and today’s storm forecasted big business. Despite the early hour and gloom, she prepped for opening with a smile. Decade-old light fixtures, now deemed retro, softened the café’s rough edges and warmed her heart.
Today would be a good day.
With a final wipe of the counter, Ellen looked around. Yesterday’s post, mainly over-due bills and solicitations, sat next to the faulty espresso machine. A thick ivory envelope, with a designed-to-impress return address, lay on top. Even unopened, she knew the contents; it was the third one to arrive that month. Turning her back on it, she crossed the room and flipped the closed sign. A gust of wind blew the unlocked door open, admitting a swath of rain, wet leaves, and traces of his cologne.
But the time was all wrong.
Every weekday without fail at six-thirty-five on the dot, the bell over the door would tinkle in the near-empty café. Without a word, Ellen would start his order. Earl Gray tea, cream on the side, and a warm butter croissant, simplicity in a world of multi-syllabic, foamy, sugary breakfast concoctions. While the tea steeped exactly three minutes, he would take his seat by the corner window, lay his bowler hat on the table, and unfold his newspaper. When she delivered his breakfast, she’d steal a breath of tea and cologne, pausing to admire his pressed shirts and braces that peaked out from under his tweed jacket like a secret.
At six forty-seven, he would stack his plate, saucer, and cup, count out the exact change plus tip, and place it on top of the refolded newspaper. With a nod and hint of a smile, he would leave, door tinkling in his wake.
Ellen would imagine him walking to his job as a district judge or university lecturer, some position that matched his jaunty hat. Thought he would be best suited in a brick house with neatly trimmed window boxes and a lacquered red door. She only knew his name from his elegant signature left on a credit slip, the one time he didn’t pay cash. She remembered the way the tails of his y’s lined up to perfection.
Gregory Thayer was her most regular, regular. The lifeblood of any business, particularly precious for her anemic café.
But today, he stood in front of her, dripping wet at six a.m. with a loud woman in tow.
“—is all I’m saying. We’ll have to do it eventually, why not now?” Gregory’s companion asked, her voice loud from talking over the howling wind. She stomped her feet, shaking the rain off her umbrella like a water-soaked dog. “Jesus Christ, it’s freezin’ out there! Why the hell did we have to trek all the way over here when there’s a Starbucks a block from the flat?” She stopped talking and scanned the café, eyes lingering on the chipped tile and rickety tables. “It’s a bit shabby-chic, I guess. You’ve always had a soft spot for anything vintage.” She nudged Gregory in the side.
Vintage. Ellen should have been insulted, but her indignation died when she looked around.
Forty-two years ago, the black and white tile was new. The hand painted stencil on the wall unfaded. Back then, Ellen’s parents served coffee in glass pots to clientele who considered anything other than ‘black, one sugar’ an exotic drink. Customers sat down to tea and toast, her mother knew everyone by name, and many ate and drank on credit. Now it was Ellen’s credit that had replaced the boiler and added a new cooktop which stood unused in the corner. Health-conscious and time-pressed customers no longer wanted fry-ups, preferring egg whites and avocado.
Ellen sighed, pad in hand, as she followed the pair to the corner table – Gregory’s table.
“Let me guess; you have the same thing every day, don’t you?” The woman asked Gregory when he didn’t order.
Ellen tapped her pencil as she walked away. A cinnamony, non-fat, no-foam latte concoction for the woman. The usual for her usual. At least, the world hadn’t gone completely mad.
As the weather predicted, more customers staggered in, limiting Ellen to only snippets of the conversation in the corner.
“Dana, I don’t want to do this.”
Gregory’s voice matched his cologne, rich and smooth, and Ellen realized she hadn’t heard it in months. Not since those first few weeks when he placed his order.
“C’mon, Greg,” Dana pleaded. Across the café, Ellen cringed at the nickname, amazed at how three letters could define a personality so completely that their loss felt criminal. “This entire area’s hot right now; developers are dying to get their hands on these properties. If we wait too long, we’ll miss our window. I’m telling you, it’s a seller’s market.”
A seller’s market? Ellen hurried to pass a bag of muffins to a customer and drifted from behind the counter, rag in hand, anxious to hear more. The sound of Gregory’s cup hitting the saucer echoed across the now empty café.
“I don’t care about windows, or developers, or gentrification,” Gregory said. “I don’t want to sell my home.”
“Actually, it’s not your home; it’s half mine. Mum and Dad left it to both of us.” The sister reached across the table to grasp Gregory’s hand, and Ellen felt his flinch.
“Greg, I need the money, and Erik knows a guy at Westcombe Development who’s really interested.”
Ellen abruptly stopped wiping, wanting—no, needing—the rest of the story. When it didn’t come, she risked a peek, and locked eyes with the younger woman’s glare. Ellen resumed scrubbing at a watermark made years ago.
Dana lowered her voice. “Please, we need to sell. There are a lot of really nice places near us in Peckham. I know it’s no Belgravia, but…”
Ellen continued wiping circles on a clean table as the woman nattered on. Only Gregory’s deep inhale, followed by Dana’s small “thank you” broke the spell. She retreated to the safety of the baked goods cabinet, watching Gregory’s tea cup tremble as he took a final sip and stacked his plates.
There was no nod or half-smile as he passed by, just the sad tinkle of the bell in his wake.
The silence of the café rained down. In three steps Ellen reached the stack of letters and the top envelope. Decision made, she dialed the number at the bottom of the letter. Bits of sun filtered through the smudged windows, as the line rang twice and an operator picked up.
“Good morning, Westcombe Development.”
“Hello? I’m calling about an offer I received for my business,” Ellen said.
She had heard Peckham was quite nice.
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Patti Jurinski, a native of Massachusetts, lives in Florida with her husband and two children. She is working on a historical fiction novel, but short stories and flash fiction bubble out at the oddest times. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Sick Lit Magazine, and 101 Words.