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