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
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Welcome To SEPTEMBER'S...

...it'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