by Angharad Sillitoe
She paid in five pence pieces, two pence pieces. The largest coin was a twenty pence piece. The money that had been liberated from under the settee cushions, and the change from a pint of milk.
No one comes into a coffee shop and orders tea. Not unless you couldn’t afford anything else from the menu. Or you were older than ninety and the person who pushed your wheelchair needed a caffeine boost.
I wasn’t going to count out all one hundred and ten pence – I’d take it on faith. ‘I’ll bring it over.’ She looked at me – I don’t think that she actually understood what I said – but she went over and sat on one of the tiny round tables by the windows. Her backpack was brand new – and looked like it came from a pound store. Her too big and already well-worn uniform was for the infamous high school ten minutes away – the one renowned for a drug problem and being in special measures with Ofsted.
My manager was on the phone to the one-woman business who provided us with handmade all-butter flapjacks of nineteen varieties. I got the milk out of the fridge, and started up the steamer. After dealing with another customer, I looked down at her tea. Okay – so maybe I had gone a bit overboard with the squirty cream. I thought that the chocolate flakes added a nice touch though. I’d made the executive decision based on her headscarf that mini pink marshmallows might not go down so well in her tea.
I really should get my manager to stock the vegetarian ones.
‘That not mine,’ she said as I brought over her drink. ‘Tea.’
‘No,’ I said placing it down in front of her, on top of a small purple paper napkin, ‘we ran out of tea, I had to give you hot chocolate instead.’ She hadn’t understood me. ‘It’s yours,’ I nodded, and left her to it. I assumed she’d get the message eventually.
She watched me as I cleaned the counters and make a couple of skimmed, no sugar, decaf vanilla lattes. I was right – she started to drink it eventually. I wondered if she’d have actually drunk the tea – probably, she’d payed for it, but from the look of it what she’d actually purchased was a place to do her homework.
I put the red-top milk back in the fridge. The light reflected off the cling-film in the fridge. One of the (many) perks of working here (beside the seven-pound-twenty hourly wage) was a manager who openly encouraged us to keep the last piece of cake for ourselves. Unless we wanted the orange cake – in which case we could get lost. Perks of being the manager. I took it out of the fridge to come to room temperature again.
It was quiet – just a couple of business people who probably had unhappy marriages and were delaying the inevitable return home – and a couple of SAHMs who looked as if they had started their Christmas shopping way too early. No one was paying attention to me. Most of the weekday evening patrons wouldn’t return until the university term started again.
I sat down in the chair opposite to her. ‘It’ll get thrown out otherwise,’ I said placing the cake in front of her.
‘I’ve no more money.’
I smiled at her. ‘I need help – it needs to be eaten and I had one at lunch.’ She’d never know I was lying.
‘You don’t want it?’ I shook my head.
‘I’ve not seen you in here before.’ She put down her pen, picked up her fork.
‘My mum and me and my brothers and my sister got given a house here last month. My work is hard, and my brothers and sister are noisy, and the library is closed on Tuesdays.’ I looked at what she was doing. She had an A4 exercise book open, the handwriting neat and joined up but ruined by many crossings out. She had a tattered Somali-English dictionary open at ‘IN’. I picked up a worksheet she had discarded.
‘The school try and help me with my English – but the help is too easy and the lessons are too fast and complicated.’
I may not be a certified English as a Second Language teacher, but by exchanging a few sentences with her I knew this worksheet was pointless –match the word to the farmyard animal – unless they’d put George Orwell on the GCSE syllabus. I looked at the exercise book – write a letter of complaint. No Orwell in sight.
‘It’s not busy, how about I help you with the letter and you teach me some Somali?’
She smiled. ‘I’ll teach you Arabic instead, it’s more useful.’