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

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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