Saturday, 20 September 2008

The Bird Sanctuary - Meet Bert

Early on a frosty October morning, Laura September - owner of September’s and Nessa’s boss - lifts the latch on the door to the terrace garden and steps outside. The air is icy cold and smells of wood fires from the chic wood-burning stoves of the surrounding houses. This is her favourite time of day: long before any of the staff or customers arrive; before their activity and commotion brings September’s alive. It reminds her that this is still her business. It’s moments like this she cherishes: alone with her thoughts in her very own café. Looking up at the milky sunrise she jumps as the baby inside her kicks sharply under her ribs. Well, maybe not completely alone anymore…

From the earliest days of trading, Laura witnessed Northbridge residents beginning to identify her coffee shop as a ‘safe place’ – somewhere to escape from the hustle and bustle of the day, if only for the time it takes to drink a coffee.

One of the first customers to venture through the doors, almost eight years ago – and remain a perennial character ever since – was Bert Mottram. Known universally as ‘Old Bert’, he is regularly the first to arrive on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings – often waiting by the front door when Laura or Nessa arrive to open up. A man languishing somewhere in his mid-60’s, Bert always arrives wearing pretty much the same outfit: long baggy faded blue thick-knit jumper, which swamps even his considerable frame; battered outback hat, perched atop his long, white wavy hair; scuffed brown hiking boots and old blue jeans. Over his shoulder is slung a fraying canvas satchel, containing an ancient pair of binoculars in a cracked leather case, a much-used notebook and a stub of pencil attached to the bent ring-binding with a small length of jute string, and a red-and-white striped Thermos flask, which has seen considerably better days.

September’s is a stop for Bert on his way back from Nether-Easter Nature Reserve, an RSPB-maintained sanctuary for myriad bird species. Every morning – except Sundays when he attends church (keeping a promise to his beloved late mother) – Bert makes the pilgrimage from his small council semi along the River Severn and through the small gate leading to the reserve. Since his mother’s death several years before, Nether-Easter has become a sanctuary for Bert; a place where he can indulge in his life-long passion of bird-watching, unhindered by other people.

Bert is well aware that he doesn’t fit in – he has only to see the intrusive stares of his Northbridge neighbours to confirm this. Other people judge him too quickly – and stick their noses into your business, uninvited and unannounced. His birds never judge him. They are largely unaware of his presence, as he sits ensconced in one of Nether-Easter’s wooden hides, but that suits him down to the ground. From the hide he can watch them, making notes in his notebook, enjoying a cup of musty-tasting tea from his aged Thermos – and they never mind.

In September’s Bert has always found a refuge from the prying eyes of Northbridge people. The girls are generally friendly and sometimes will even ask him which birds he’s spotted that morning. Unbeknownst to him, this is largely because of Laura’s insistence that Nessa and Purdy make time for the old man, following their complaints about being caught in lengthy conversations with him.
‘This place is a safe place for Bert: make him feel at home, girls.’

So Bert’s life revolves around dawn patrols at Nether-Easter, bacon sandwiches with pots of tea at September’s and Sunday church visits. These are the points in his week that make the other, drearily lonely hours worthwhile. Which is why he doesn’t want to leave his small council house near the river.

But now all this is under threat: all because some nosey busybody phoned the Council. Mrs Ecclestone from Number 42 had been watching Bert for some time, concerned about his increasingly unkempt appearance. She must have peered through his living room window while he was out one day and, appalled at the state of the room, hurried home to call Social Services. Within a week, Bert had been informed that he was being offered a place in a sheltered housing development, five miles up the road in Woocombe Edge.

‘It will be lovely, Mr Mottram,’ said the lady from the Council.
‘Is it near Nether-Easter?’
‘Oh no, quite a long way away from there.’
‘But I go birdwatching there.’
‘Ah, I see. Well, the gardens at Hillbank are lovely. There’s lots of birds on the bird table.’
‘But I want to go out to the hides.’
‘Out? Oh no, Mr Mottram, you can’t go out without one of our staff. We have trips out, though. We go to Sainsbury’s on a Wednesday to take you shopping.’
‘I don’t want to go shopping. I want to watch my birds.’
‘Now, now, Mr Mottram, I know change is a scary thing. I’m sure you’ll find other things to do at Hillbank. Our residents are very active, you know.’
‘I don’t want to go.’
‘I – I’m sorry, Mr Mottram. You have to go…’

Without his birds – without his freedom – Bert’s life is meaningless. Facing the fear of losing everything he has and moving away from the only things that give him joy is simply too much to bear.

He has tried reasoning with the Council. He even cleaned his kitchen last week – but to no avail. The date is set and he must pack what little he has. But what the Council don’t know – or his birds, or the girls at September’s – is that Bert has a plan. There is an old rusty shotgun hidden well in his garden shed. When they come to collect him in two weeks’ time, he won’t be there…

© Miranda Dickinson 2008

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Other People's Lives - Meet Maisie O'Keefe

Wednesday afternoons in Northbridge usher a strangely eclectic mix of customers into September’s. This is due to a proportion of shops in the town maintaining their observation of Half-Day Closing – a practice now considered archaic as round-the-clock shopping fast becomes the norm. Never one to follow the crowd, however, Northbridge’s Chamber of Commerce remains fiercely proud of its 'Wednesday Afternoons Off' and, whilst no business is persecuted for not closing early on this hallowed day, traders are most definitely encouraged to join those who do. Consequently between 1pm and 3pm, September’s is the preferred sanctuary of a motley crew of shop workers from the town’s assorted businesses, exhausted from a hectic morning and in dire need of conversation, caffeine and calories.

One member of this chattering throng is Maisie O’Keefe, Assistant Manager of Bloomin’ Lovely, the largest of Northbridge’s three florist shops.

Maisie loves nothing better, after a frantic Wednesday morning shift at the shop, than entering the comforting warmth of September’s, the scent of freshly brewed coffee and warm pastries enveloping her in a cosy embrace as she walks through the door. For the past three years, she has made her faithful pilgrimage to this sanctuary of Wednesday afternoon calm with almost religious zeal. Whilst she doesn’t consider herself a fully paid-up member of the ‘I-think-you’ll-find-that’s-my-table’ team (unlike many of the other customers), Maisie likes it best when she can find a table facing into the café – allowing her to indulge in her secret passion: people-watching.

As long as she can remember, Maisie O’Keefe has been an unashamedly avid people-watcher – from trips as a little girl with Grandma Josie to Branages – the opulently refined tea rooms in her home town of Utterton – to Birmingham’s coffee bars during her college years and a selection of staff canteens in several hospitals where she worked during her twenty year career as a nurse. Maisie finds an inexplicable joy in musing about other people’s lives: where they come from, what their stories might be. It’s a game that has captivated the best part of her forty-four years, providing a rich vein of treasure from which her mind can excavate elaborately crafted gems.

Today, for example, an old man seated by the window has caught Maisie’s attention. Immaculately attired in a tweed jacket, green-checked shirt and khaki needle-corduroy slacks, he appears to know everybody else in the café. As each new customer enters, they approach and greet him like an old friend, taking time to share pleasantries before finding their seats. Maisie puts his age at around seventy, although his pale blue eyes have the vivacity of a man half that age. A broadsheet newspaper is spread out on the table before him, summoning his attention between each new conversation. When he speaks, his accent is pure Shetland – a lilting half-Scottish, half-Scandinavian confection, warmed by a perennial chuckle that resonates through his voice. Everyone calls him ‘Mac’ – although Maisie suspects this is a nickname, an affectionate reference to his Caledonian heritage. As she covertly surveys her quarry over the rim of her coffee mug, Maisie wonders what his story might be. Maybe he moved to England to seek work; maybe he followed the love of his life here; or maybe he chose Northbridge’s picturesque river valley for his retirement after a long and prosperous work life in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Perhaps his children moved south and he followed them…

The possible lives of those she watches fill Maisie’s mind with countless storylines. One day, she often muses to friends, she will write a book about these people, frequently lamenting the lack of time available to pursue this literary ambition, due to the chaotic nature of her life.
‘Isn’t it true that everybody has a book in them? There's no doubt I have one in me. It’s just finding the time to dig it out that I have problems with!’

During her former nursing career, Maisie often found herself party to snapshots of people’s lives – although increasingly over the years these became unhappy, as she progressed from general nursing to working on Oncology wards. Mixed in with stories of heartache and suffering were ones of extreme bravery and hope beyond circumstances – a heady concoction that wrestled daily with her emotions. For many years she claimed that this regular rollercoaster of sorrow and joy didn’t affect her. Yet when her father died suddenly from lung cancer, the pressure of long-suppressed feelings, together with an intense self-inflicted blame for not recognising the signs in her own flesh and blood, exploded her world apart.

The day after her father’s funeral, Maisie abandoned nursing. For several months she drifted between guilt, mourning and recrimination, refusing to eat or sleep. Even thinking hurt: the all-encompassing shroud of her loss obliterating her capacity for anything but the most basic of tasks. Finally, in a desperate attempt to simply get her out of the house – which had become a prison – her best friend Cath persuaded Maisie to join her on the Floristry course with her at the local adult education centre. Over time, the soothing release of working with living things gently coaxed Maisie back to life and she began to sense a new hope birthing within her.

Encouraged by her tutor to progress further in her studies, Maisie completed her Floristry training, graduating three years ago and subsequently being offered a job at Bloomin’ Lovely. Now she finds herself privy to precious details of her customers’ lives – the celebrations, memorials, apologies and declarations – all of which increase her curiosity about their possible stories.

Watching Mac greet another customer, Maisie smiles. Then, a thought occurs: what would an onlooker make of her?

© Miranda Dickinson 2008

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Open Roads - Meet Hal Corbett

Some customers at September’s are instantly recognisable, either because of their larger-than-life personalities or because they stand out from the crowd visually. Hal Corbett is neither of these, but Nessa always notices him nevertheless. Each Wednesday afternoon, at around 2.30pm, Hal enters the café, seeking a seat on the roof terrace if the weather is fine or, if it’s raining or too cold, somewhere near a window. On sunny days, he can often be found enduring barely-whispered criticisms from Annie and Edie, resident elderly spinsters at September’s, as they vehemently object to the laid-back manner in which he rests his feet on the lower rung of the cast iron tables or tucks a leg up under his chin as he enjoys his coffee.

But the reason Hal catches Nessa's attention isn't for the irritation he causes to certain fellow customers. From the first time she encountered him – during one of her first shifts at the café – Nessa has found herself fascinated by the air of complete peace that seems to surround the quiet, unassuming man. Whilst they only ever exchange polite words briefly as he orders his coffee, Hal’s steady countenance speaks volumes to Nessa as she studies him covertly from the serving counter.

Hal is a man of uncertain years; Purdy and Nessa have guessed anywhere between mid forties to early fifties. His greying hair has receded completely from the top of his head, settling happily in a half-ring from ear to ear, yet his face is surprisingly young. He always enters September’s with glossy, string-handled bags from one of Northbridge’s designer boutiques, resting them on a vacant chair by his chosen table (much to the further annoyance of Annie and Edie) But far from bearing the visible signs of a man caught in the iron grip of a mid-life crisis, Hal exudes classic, relaxed style – clearly taking pride in his appearance. Purdy suspects he may be gay, a verdict she proclaimed too loudly last week: ‘No straight man ever looks that good’ – much to Nessa’s alarm.

In truth, Hal is a man reborn.

For twenty-three years, Hal Corbett worked for the same company – L&H Pharmaceuticals – in the nearby town of Netherborough. Joining straight from college, he gradually progressed from trainee lab assistant to Department Head, always diligent in his work, never happy to accept praise for his successes without including his colleagues in the equation. Yet despite his generosity and great humility, Hal never fully received the recognition he deserved in his position – either verbally or financially. Instead the plaudits fell to his immediate manager, Derek Lorrimer – a small, spiteful man of limited intelligence, short temper and over-inflated ego, who greedily snatched sole credit for Hal’s work time after time.

Year after frustratingly fruitless year, Hal endured Lorrimer’s endless personal insults, blatant disregard and professional jealousies – all without a word. Promotions eluded him, vital funds for his work were denied and blame for Lorrimer’s own mistakes was planted firmly on Hal’s head. Despite the crushingly personal blows rained mercilessly on him by a man whose only virtue was an ‘old boy’s network’ frequently called upon to save his sorry hide, Hal never spoke to anyone – neither colleague nor friend – about his predicament.

Until six months ago.

On a completely unremarkable Tuesday, he opened his email to learn of Lorrimer’s plan to take a personal patent out on Hal’s recently formulated anti-bacterial hand-wash, which had been proved to eradicate hospital-acquired infections. Quite by accident – but devastatingly indicative of his woeful lack of skill – Lorrimer had copied Hal in on a private memo to another colleague in the company. Without warning, something inside him snapped. Moved by an ice-cold compulsion, Hal calmly typed his resignation, emailing it – together with a copy of Lorrimer’s email – to the CEO of the company. Then, his feet propelled by an almost unearthly force, he marched into Lorrimer’s office slapped a copy of the evidence on his desk.
‘I’m leaving.’
‘Right now.’

And with that, Hal Corbett magnificently abandoned the only job he had ever known, walking out into the bright sunshine. Three weeks later, he patented his hand-wash and, a month after that, sold the formula to a global pharmaceutical conglomerate for a figure with more noughts than he ever bothered to count.

Sitting in his favourite spot on the roof terrace, gazing beyond the froth of his cappuccino to the meandering silver river curling through the valley below, Hal has no plans beyond this moment. He may travel the world. He might write a book. He may even buy his own personal Caribbean island. But for now, Hal is enjoying the priceless luxury of simply waking up every morning without dreading what lies ahead…

© Miranda Dickinson 2008

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Policeman's Secret - Meet PC Minshull

Whilst many of the customers at September’s have their favourite tables around the café, there are a few who prefer to sit or stand at the small bar by the back door, looking out at the roof garden terrace. One of these is PC Rob Minshull. A young beat officer, PC Minshull likes to include a quick visit to the coffee shop on his route most days, popping in around 11am for a swift coffee and a chat with Nessa and Purdy. Coincidentally, 11am is also the time when the day’s batch of freshly-baked muffins usually emerge from the oven…

Nessa is convinced that PC Minshull’s frequent visits have more to do with his attraction to her best friend and work colleague Purdy than his penchant for baked goods – despite Purdy’s vehement protestations to the contrary.

‘You are so way off the mark on this one, Nessa.’
‘I just think it’s odd that he always manages to visit on the days you work,’ Nessa smiles, much to the annoyance of her friend. ‘I don’t think it’s just your baking that he's fond of!’

Whatever her crazy best friend says however, Purdy finds more interest in the details of PC Minshull’s job than in deciphering his feelings for her. Growing up, Purdy always longed to do something exciting, exhilarating - dangerous even - with her life. For a long time during her childhood, she wanted to be a fighter pilot – until an unkind careers advisor at her secondary school crushed her hopes with one cruel condemnation: ‘You can’t do a job like that with those thick glasses, girl!’

Denied her dream profession, Purdy made the decision to keep her thrill-seeking tendencies for free time instead – leading to her participation in a dizzying array of white-knuckle experiences, from sky-diving to bungee-jumping, wing-walking to abseiling. Meanwhile, the discovery of contact lenses banished her much-hated glasses to the back of a drawer forever. Content, for the time being at least, to be working with Nessa, Purdy still loves to hear about people doing the kind of job she secretly craves.

As for Rob Minshull, the almost daily grilling he receives about his career from the confident red-haired girl with sparkly green eyes is easy to endure if it means he can spend a few minutes basking in the warmth of her full attention. In many ways, he would prefer not to have to think about his day job – the intricacies of which hold nothing more than a lifeless occupational obligation for him. He frequently tells himself that he should be used to the lack of passion in his heart for his chosen profession by now – after all, he has lived with its depressing reality for the past two years since he became a fully-fledged police officer.

With his father, two uncles and younger brother all choosing careers in the Police Force, it was perhaps inevitable that Rob Minshull would follow in their footsteps. His mother – herself the daughter of a Chief Constable - often referred to the Force as ‘the family business’ when he was growing up, yet Rob resisted the lure of the profession for several years. But as time went on, other available options gradually dwindled. A stint in computer sales proved unsuccessful; his office job with an insurance broker ended abruptly when the owner was prosecuted for fraud, and his brief foray into the murky world of telesales left him with nothing but a few new swear words and an unmitigated hatred for cold-callers. Finally, at the age of twenty-three, Rob gave up fighting and surrendered to the welcoming arms of the Force.

So he continues his beat, the daily drudgery of his job livened only by his brief visits to September’s and many discussions about arrests, self-defence techniques and thrilling pursuits with the gorgeous Purdy.

But what nobody in the coffee shop knows, what no-one in his family could ever conceive of, is that PC Rob Minshull has a secret life. A life so impossibly wonderful that he longs to share it with someone - to be able to fully revel in the surge of delicious excitement that washes over him whenever he thinks about it - instead of consigning it to a few stolen moments in the dullness of his day. Maybe one day, when Purdy’s enthusiasm for his job wanes sufficiently, he can reveal the truth to her. Maybe one day soon…

For Rob Minshull is so much more than just a young police constable pounding the beat of Northbridge’s streets. Away from his day job, Rob Minshull is Alice George – bestselling romantic novelist, whose debut novel sold out its first print within five weeks, garnering the plaudits of critics and readers alike. His visits to September’s provide him with more than just conversation and homemade muffins; when PC Rob Minshull is apparently making operational notes he is, in fact, sketching customers, scribbling imaginary life-stories for those that catch his eye, recording them in his Moleskine notebook which, like its owner, is pretending to be engaged in police duties.

But Rob now faces a new dilemma. An unexpected twist of fate led to his agent deciding to break with her usual email communication and call ‘Alice’ instead – unwittingly stumbling across his true identity. Far from being angry, she sniffed the publicity potential in his remarkable story and now wants to reveal his secret to the world.

‘It’s like George Eliot in reverse!’ she gushed, in a hastily arranged meeting with him last week. ‘You posed as a female in order to be taken seriously as a romantic writer. The world should hear your story!’

If only he could muster the courage to tell Purdy the truth…

© Miranda Dickinson 2008

Monday, 4 August 2008

Debussy and the Art of Conversation - Meet Daniel

At around 2.30pm most Tuesdays, a stocky bearded man arrives at September’s, carrying an over-stuffed, battered leather satchel, with a navy blue padded violin case casually hung over his shoulder. His physique, rather like the bag he carries, has seen better days, but his ruddy-cheeked smile and razor-sharp wit endears him to everyone he meets. This is Daniel Gold, violin teacher to the talented (and not-so-blessed) music students in the four Northbridge schools.

Unlike many of the customers, Daniel does not have a preference for where he sits, just as long as he can find somewhere to drop his bags and read his newspaper in peace. His visits to September’s are a rare moment of cosy self-indulgence in the maelstrom of his week: a blessed forty minutes of cake, coffee and The Times in the middle of countless music lessons, orchestra rehearsals and recitals.

Despite his most strenuous declarations of adhering to a strict healthy-eating regime, Daniel finds that somehow, when he sets foot in the café, his willpower dissolves faster than the two sugars he spoons into his cappuccino each week.
‘I don’t know what happens,’ he moans to Nessa, as she brings over his slice of homemade white chocolate truffle cake with ice cream, ‘It’s like September’s zaps my good intentions the moment I walk through the door. Ah well, seeing as I’m powerless to resist, I’d better surrender to the inevitable delights of your cooking.’ Winking at Nessa, he adds with a grin, ‘And, while we’re on the subject of submitting to calories, I don’t suppose you have any clotted cream hanging around, do you?’

Daniel Gold’s mother has long given up hope of him ever meeting a ‘nice Jewish girl’, finally admitting defeat three years ago on his fortieth birthday.

‘Danny, you are lovely but you are hopeless,’ she declared, throwing up her hands in the wildly overdramatic manner that her son loves. ‘You have driven your poor mother to the edge of her sanity. So I am giving up on you, my darling. I’m sorry but you have exhausted my matchmaking skills.’ Smiling fondly at her beloved eldest son, Abigail Gold softened what she imagined was a huge blow to his ego with an extra-large slice of Wonder Cake – a recipe passed down from her mother’s mother.

Contrary to her fears, the cessation of his mother’s over-zealous matchmaking efforts came as a welcome relief to Daniel. He was tired of enduring long, drawn-out dinners with a succession of drearily boring (and unremittingly unattractive) spinsters, avoiding his mother’s hopeful smiles over their shoulders and trying to ignore her overenthusiastic protestations of his suitability. ‘I know he looks like a challenge, but Danny’s quite low-maintenance, really…', '...I’m sure the beard isn’t a permanent feature…', '...Who needs a muscle-man when you can have a cuddly maestro, hmm?’

Whilst the mirror (and his mother) tell a different story, in his imagination Daniel is still the stallion he never was. His optimism – which many would argue is one of his most attractive features – has allowed him to find the positive in changes others would lament. So his growing waistline is ‘endearing’, his bushy beard gives him ‘scholarly authority’ and his greying temples lend him a ‘distinguished air.’ More importantly, Daniel knows that when he picks up a violin, the world stops to listen. And, as he confidently tells his endearing, scholarly and distinguished reflection each morning, the heart of every beautiful woman can melt with the music of a violin player.

But secretly, there is only one woman whose heart he longs to touch. Her name is Marta Klein and she is the most stunning creature on God’s earth.

He met her quite by accident – what his mother would call ‘a serendipity’ – one rainy Thursday three weeks ago. Attempting to shelter from an icy rainstorm after the strong wind had wrecked his umbrella, Daniel ducked into Noble Books, Northbridge’s antiquarian and second-hand bookshop – and his world changed forever. Sat behind the counter, startled at his sudden entrance yet suppressing a smile at the dishevelled figure before her, a diminutive lady with pale skin like a porcelain doll offered a timid welcome. Her beautiful large cornflower-blue eyes set like sapphires into her pale face, which was framed by a riot of tumbling dark curls, made Daniel catch his breath. After a few moments of awkward conversation, Marta noticed his violin case slung over his shoulder – and the magic began.

From that moment on, their conversation flowed freely. Marta’s late father, a German professor, who moved his entire family from Dresden to Northbridge when he was appointed to Birmingham University to teach European History, had loved classical music, passing the passion on to his daughter. Not a musician herself, Marta was fascinated by anyone who could play an instrument – and Daniel, in turn, was fascinated by Marta’s near encyclopaedic knowledge of composers and music.

Electrified by their initial conversation and desperate to maintain the connection, Daniel was suddenly struck with a brilliant idea during one of his visits to September’s. Remembering that Noble Books offered a Rare Book Finding Service, Daniel decided to set Marta a task to find old music scores and composer biographies. Spending hours researching online, he came across details of an out-of-print volume exploring Debussy’s Violin Sonata – the composer’s last work before his death – and, information memorised, he hurried back to Marta’s bookshop to place his order.

Now, all he has to do is wait for her call…

© Miranda Dickinson 2008

Monday, 28 July 2008

A Brave New World - Meet Blanche

Blanche visits September's every Monday morning, around 10.30am, for a bit of a treat before her lunchtime art class at Northbridge Community Centre. If possible, she loves to sit in her favourite place – the faded red velvet armchair by the window. Snuggled safe within its ample dimensions, Blanche enjoys her latte from a tall, elegant glass mug, which she always requests. It is small decadences like these that she secretly revels in: unremarkable to anyone other than herself, but important nevertheless. This morning, however, her thoughts are elsewhere as she gazes out of the window…

Nobody ever expected Blanche Maurice to amount to much, least of all her stern Jamaican mother, Sophia. But it didn’t matter. The second eldest of five children, Blanche was always a dreamer – happy in her own company and seemingly unaffected by the cacophonous chaos of her childhood home. With her mother, two sisters, two brothers, her octogenarian maternal grandparents, two elderly maiden great-aunts and the charismatic Uncle Eddie (whose precise relationship to the family was delightfully tenuous) all living together in a cramped three-bedroom Edwardian terrace house, life in the Maurice home was never uneventful or quiet. But Blanche was always contented, lost in her very own Hollywood dream.

From the moment Auntie Ezola took her to the Majestic Cinema in Etherton to watch The Great Race on her seventh birthday, Blanche dreamed of being a beautiful film star like Natalie Wood. All day long, as she did her chores around the house, she would imagine arriving at Hollywood film premieres dressed from top to toe in expensive clothes and dripping with diamonds. As she polished Uncle Eddie’s shoes, or ran errands for Grandma Tya, Blanche pretended she was acting in a movie, practising her expressions and crying technique - which, coincidentally, also came in useful when David or Lionel, her troublesome twin brothers, accused her of stealing their toys, as they did with monotonous regularity.

Hollywood was going to be Blanche’s Great Escape from the world around her; from the cruel taunts of the white kids in the school playground, making fun of her wildly untamed afro hair and milk chocolate-hued skin; and more importantly, from the unstintingly disapproving eyes of her mother.

But it was not to be.

Her siblings married and started families of their own; her beloved grandparents died; Auntie Ezola and Aunt Isobel moved to a retirement home, passing away within two weeks of each other in Blanche’s thirtieth year; and Uncle Eddie ran away with his twenty-five-year-old probation officer, never to return. When Sophia was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, there was nobody left to care for her but Blanche.

With each passing year, the daily battle over every single task with a mother increasingly slipping into depression and sleepless paranoia, ground Blanche’s starry dreams further into the ground.

‘What you tellin’ me dis for, useless girl?’ her mother would bark as Blanche tried to show her how to wash herself or use her knife and fork, ‘You are nuttin’ to me, hear me? Nuttin’ but a bag o’ disappointment. You are jus’ like your Fadder was – useless, good-for-nuttin’ waste o’ my time.’

And so it continued. Until, quite unexpectedly, Sophia passed away. Dr Smith said it was probably pneumonia, or maybe her heart had just had enough. Whatever the cause, Blanche found herself suddenly, at the age of 49, with a life of her very own.

On a whim, she joined the art class at the Community Centre – having always harboured a desire to paint – and discovered a new group of like-minded friends. She became particularly close to Cynthia Watson, a recently widowed lady whose bank manager husband had done everything for her - so much so that she didn’t even know how to change a light bulb – and the two ladies jokingly christened themselves The Hopeless Cases, making a pact to learn as many new skills and experience as many new things as possible.

So followed a dizzying array of new ventures: Wednesday evening salsa classes with Mick, a seventy-year-old former ballroom champion, and Vernon, the only male class member, who took a worryingly ardent pleasure in throwing each unfortunate new partner violently around the room; days out with the Northbridge ‘Crafty Ladies’ craft group, most of which involved a lot of tearooms interspersed with toilet stops and the odd bit of sightseeing here and there; and Sunday afternoons spent in Cynthia’s palatial summerhouse in the garden of her riverside home, watching DVDs of old Hollywood movies and reminiscing about times gone by.

It was Cynthia who suggested Blanche should meet her friend, Eric. At first, Blanche dismissed the idea outright; she hadn’t had a date in over thirty years and the prospect filled her with dread. But as time went on and Blanche’s confidence grew, she began to warm to the suggestion.

So, last Sunday afternoon in Cynthia’s summerhouse, in the middle of watching Funny Face, Blanche found herself agreeing to meet Eric for dinner.

Dinner. With Eric. Tonight. Staring out at the passers-by struggling with umbrellas against the torrential rain, Blanche feels her heart flutter with anxiety for the thousandth time this morning. At the age of fifty, she never expected to be planning a first date – or to be beset by chronic apprehension, like a timid teenager. Surely she should have grown out of this type of behaviour years ago? Taking a long sip from her latte glass, Blanche grapples hold of her wayward thoughts. Tonight, I will be Natalie Wood, she tells herself, cool, calm and in control.

After all, how scary can one fifty-something garden centre manager be?

© Miranda Dickinson 2008

Friday, 25 July 2008

Open for business - Meet Nessa

It's early morning. Too early for Nessa. But it's her first official day as Assistant Manager at September's, so she's keen to make a good impression. Despite the fact that she is currently nursing a contender for The World's Worst Hangover™, she is determined to show Laura, her boss, that she is Management Material. Now, if only her head would stop throbbing so much, she might actually be able to find the keyhole on the front door. Hmm, things aren't boding well for a cracking first day...

All her life, Nessa wanted to work in a coffee shop. As a little girl she loved nothing better than to create elaborate tea parties for her assembled dolls, teddies and Action Men (ever the entrepreneur, Nessa had identified the lucrative male client market even at the tender age of five-and-a-half). She would spend hours drawing menus and signs to hang in her 'shop' and, whilst other little girls her age were pretending to be ballet dancers or nurses or fighter pilots (as in the case of her best friend Purdy), Nessa dreamed about making coffee and tea and baking huge, homemade cakes to sell to hungry customers.

As soon as she reached 16, Nessa found a Saturday job at Cleggs, a small bakers and café in her home town of Midswinforth. Cleggs was definitely a no-frills establishment; its custard-yellow melamine tables and plastic bench seats, designed for durability rather than comfort, were always packed with noisy families and groups of rowdy kids. Mr. Jefferies, the owner, had never heard of air-conditioning (or personal hygiene, for that matter) - so the atmosphere in Cleggs was permanently stuffy. The dishwasher never worked properly, meaning that all cutlery and crockery in the café featured the extra delight of small remains of someone else's teacake or jacket potato, along with the distinctive metallic aroma of stale water. The only coffee available was instant with hot milk, none of the metal teapots poured properly and you couldn't get a mug of anything for love nor money. But Nessa loved every minute of her day in the stifling heat of the small café, surrounded by too many pushchairs, screaming children and irascible pensioners.

After several years at college, Nessa finally entered the world of work, securing a job at a local restaurant as a waitress. Whilst the position was relatively well-paid and afforded her valuable customer service experience, Nessa still longed to work in a coffee shop. So when she saw the small ad in the Northbridge Gazette for a Coffee Shop Assistant, she applied immediately.

From the moment she stepped through the door at September's, Nessa knew she was finally in the right place. Its comfy sofas and armchairs, mismatched crockery and relaxing atmosphere were all perfect. It felt like home.

And then, after three blissful years, a heavily pregnant Laura invited Nessa to her flat above September's for lunch and asked her if she would like to become Assistant Manager.
'I need someone to take a bit more responsibility in the coffee shop, especially with this little chap due any moment. What do you think?'
'Yes. Absolutely. Count me in!'

So everything rests on this day going smoothly... If only the room would just stop spinning so much...

© Miranda Dickinson 2008
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Welcome To SEPTEMBER'S...'s a coffee shop with a difference. Meet the people who work here and the customers that visit - all of them have a story to tell. So pull up a comfy chair, enjoy your coffee, maybe even indulge in something sweet - and listen to the stories that surround you...

written by Miranda Dickinson, author of Remember and The Mystical Wombat's Guide to Life