This is a story told in wisps of scented steam, in the sprinkling of spices and the tinkling of cups…
It grew late at the Old Chapel. The Pilgrim Woman looked out from the windows of the garret. Sand and salt spray hit the panes. Below shark grey clouds, the sun amongst slashed ribbons of red cloud.
One figure trudged through the dunes to the rattling oak door – and it wasn’t the landlord.
‘Welcome,’ said the Pilgrim Woman and let the damp-coated servant in. She made tea and offered the maid a place on a settle by the stove.
‘Has he sent you to check on me?’
The maid tilted her head towards the shuttered windows before answering. The wind made the tamarisk branches whistle and thrash outside.
‘My master had no mind to come in out in that. He asked for volunteers – and so here I am. I like your stories mostly.’
The Pilgrim Woman’s cheeks dimpled with a wide smile at that.
‘Very well – I will tell a tale solely to please you – I hope.’
Leah went up to the counter and lifted her heels off the floor to see better. Smells of chocolate, coffee beans and steaming milk poured over the curve of the counter-top in a warm wave.
There was still time to choose. Others stood in the queue in front of her confidently. They gave their orders without hesitation to the baristas – she believed that what you called them.
On the end of the counter, under a glass dome stood one last piece of cake. It bulged with filling in two stripes. The softly crumbled sponge had small bubbles in it – as it should have, and the butter-cream strata were thick as her smallest fingernail. No marge in that, she felt certain.
Such a beauty. A pleasure to look at with its glossy icing and walnut halves. Not skimpy broken bits, not the cheap sort with lumps of shell and membrane, but complete good-sized halves. At least one per slice – with recognisable pieces dotted in the mixture. Gorgeous.
There’d be crunch and softness the sweetness of demerara sugar and the bitterness of real coffee in the icing to balance it. Definitely home made, with its dribbles of icing like candle-wax abseiling down the stacks of cake and butter-cream.
The queue moved. She put her bag down on the rails meant for trays. Then she pulled out her purse and poked at the change. Americano – that’s what her grandsons said. She checked on the board above the barista’s head. Yes, Americano was there – and it was the cheapest.
She pulled out the coins and lodged them in her hand. Blessed useless fingers. The purse balanced on top of her bag. Its open compartment gaped. A few coins still glinted deep inside like metallic tonsils.
‘What would you like, Madam?’ the barista lassie asked.
‘Americano – small one please.’
She couldn’t stop her eyes. They darted wilfully between the cake, the price label and her purse. The lassie took the label away and lifted the dome. The scent sashayed across, voluptuous and confident.
‘Last slice,’ the lassie said. ‘We’re closing up shortly. Shame to throw it out.’
Leah hesitated. The lassie leant over a little.
‘Tell you what , Madam – half-price senior citizen deal, eh?’
The landlord’s servant clapped one hands on her thigh, then took a sip of her tea.
‘What would you have done if no-one came?’ she asked.
‘That’s a story for another day,’ the Pilgrim Woman said. She opened up a tin and slid it toward the landlord’s proxy.
‘Just as well you did – or I would have no-one to share my cake with.’