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COFFEE AND CARROT CAKE
Mrs Atwell carried her coffee and carrot cake from the counter to a corner furnished with deep armchairs and settled herself comfortably in a position from which she could see what was going on.
There were a lot of these coffee places in the High Street now. There had been quite a few letters to the local paper complaining that what was once an area with a wide variety of shops and services was rapidly becoming a mini-town of coffee bars and estate agents. There were no longer any clothes shops, apart from things called boutiques, which, it seemed to Mrs Atwell, sold indifferently designed clothes for young people at inflated prices. There were no places where you could buy bed or table linen and only one shoe shop - and that was displaying a Closing Down notice in the window. It was sad in a way, but Mrs Atwell did not want to turn into one of those people who are forever complaining that they don’t know what the world is coming to, that things were much better in the old days. She knew that, sooner or later in such diatribes, the words Young people today! I tell you, they don’t know how lucky they are! would crop up. She didn’t really mind getting elderly, which she supposed she was getting, but she really could do without the pessimism and nostalgia of old age.
That was why she had decided to try out one of the new things. This one was clean, the temperature was right and the service polite and quick. She couldn’t quite identify the country or origin of the girl who had served her. Poland, Macedonia, Slovakia perhaps. It was often impossible to tell. But that was not really important. She undid her coat and sank back into the armchair, cradling her mug in her hands. A cup and saucer would have been more her style, but, again, no matter. The steady beat of the background pop-music was, perhaps, a shade too obtrusive, but people seemed to like it that way these days.
She sipped and surveyed. Office girls dashed in and took away drinks in polystyrene beakers with lids. Young men plugged lap-tops into wall sockets. A small group discussed marketing strategy in preparation for a meeting later in the morning. Two young women pushed in children in buggies and made straight for a big box of toys in another corner of the shop. A sign opposite her indicated the location of the toilets, including one for the disabled. She could see the door from where she was sitting. At that very moment the door opened and a young man walked out. She smiled to herself. Nothing disabled about him, she thought. As he made his way out, she heard the sound of the toilet door being opened a second time. A young woman came out and left the shop by a different exit from that used by the man.
Mrs Atwell considered what she had just seen. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of a middle-aged man making an enquiry at the counter. Little was said, but the helpful girl behind the counter pointed towards the disabled toilet and the man moved swiftly in that direction, only to find that a notice had been hung on the door: Temporarily closed for cleaning. He frowned and looked at his watch. After less than a minute the door opened and another member of staff stepped out and, with an apology, stood aside to let the man in. As he was closing the door a woman hurried through the tables and pushed her way in ahead of him. The door closed on both of them.
Mrs Atwell addressed the young man who was clearing tables in her corner.
He turned to her attentively with a smile.
“There’s something funny going on in your disabled toilet.”
She described the recent comings and goings.
“That’s all right, madam.”
“What do you mean that’s all right?”
“The couple you saw leaving were Alan and Lisa. The couple you saw arriving were George and Eileen.”
“And what were they doing in there?”
The young man looked puzzled.
“I imagine they were having sex, madam.”
“In a disabled toilet?”
The man looked hurt.
“Ours is a very superior toilet, madam. It is furnished with the requirements of our customers in mind. It is kept scrupulously clean and tidy throughout the day. Would you like to see it for yourself, madam? I’m afraid you may have to wait a minute or two ... ”
Mrs Atwell could scarcely believe her ears.
“You allow people to have sex in your disabled toilet?”
“Scarcely allow, madam. There is a fee. We keep it as low as we can, you understand, but we are not a charitable organisation.”
“Are you telling me that this place is a brothel?”
The young man looked shocked.
“Certainly not. It is a place where people can meet their friends and relax over a cup of coffee ... ”
“And then have sex in the toilet?”
“Not necessarily, madam. Some people have coffee before sex. Some people have coffee after sex. Some people just have coffee. Others just have sex. It is not for us to dictate to them. Would you like another coffee, madam, or another slice of carrot cake?”
Mrs Atwell, struck dumb, silently waved him away. She really would have welcomed both, but she thought the circumstances inappropriate.
By now the room was becoming rather crowded and newcomers were glancing in her direction, so she gathered up her things and left. She stood uncertainly on the pavement for a minute and then made her way to the bus stop. She got off the bus at the civic centre and strode to the central information point.
“How can I help, madam?”
“I’d like to see a Trading Standards Officer please.”
A few minutes later she was being asked the same question by a tired fat man in a rumpled suit who dragged a large notepad towards him as he sat down. She spoke quietly.
“It’s about a coffee shop in the High Street.”
“I’m not surprised,” he said, passing a hand wearily over his face. “Apart from the question of food hygiene, there’s the question of tables set out on the pavement, rubbish disposal, recruitment of staff with very little English. We get them all here. And, I have to tell you, they are not always for us to deal with. People seem to think that the poor old TSO is going to get them their money back for a piece of cake they haven’t enjoyed, get rude waiters sacked ... ”
“It’s none of these. It’s the disabled toilet.”
He looked at her in some surprise.
“Are you disabled then?”
He waited. She seemed uncertain. He coughed before he spoke.
“We are very keen to help the disabled and it has been my personal experience, I have to tell you, that facilities for the disabled in this borough are amongst the best in the country. They are, I would say, more than adequate for the purpose for which they were intended ... ”
“So it seems,” Mrs Atwell interrupted. “That is part of the problem. Let me tell you what happened this morning.”
When she had finished, she noticed that he had written nothing on his notepad. He looked at her. She looked back at him and then spoke again.
“You know all this, don’t you? I think I am beginning to know why coffee shops are springing up all over the place, why they have become very popular all of a sudden.”
“Mrs ...?” he began.
“Atwell. Doreen Atwell.”
“Mrs Atwell. This, from a legal point of view, is a very grey area. These shops are not brothels.”
“They sell sex.”
“They don’t. That’s part of the problem, if problem it is. They” - he coughed again - “offer facilities and, some would argue, meet a need which cannot easily otherwise be met. The police are never called to a disturbance at a coffee shop. The shops do not sell alcohol. Local residents are never inconvenienced. Children are not involved. The question of substance abuse does not arise. I understand that no money changes hands on what one might call a contractual basis.”
“So you’re not going to do anything about it?”
“Mrs Atwell, what do you suggest we do?”
Mrs Atwell thought for a moment.
“Can I think about that?” She paused for a moment. “Don’t you think you ought to do something about men cheating on their wives and vice versa? And the example these shops give to young people?”
The tired man had an answer.
“Can you think of what that has to do with trading standards? No-one is being conned, Mrs Atwell. I would have thought that the only people with cause for grievance would be disabled people. And I haven‘t had a single complaint from that section of the community.”
Mrs Atwell rose.
“I seem to have wasted your time. I‘m sorry.”
“No need to apologise, Mrs Atwell. Not every complaint results in a prosecution. Just, well, think about what I‘ve said.”
The next morning Mrs Atwell presented herself at the coffee shop at opening time and confronted the young man who had been so informative on her last visit.
“I would like to see your disabled toilet.”
“Of course,” he said courteously. “I think you know where it is.”
His face was grave, neutral.
Mrs Atwell had never been in a disabled toilet before, but it seemed to her in most respects to be exactly what it purported to be. However, a door led from it into the recesses of the building. She opened it into a comfortably furnished room containing a double bed and two armchairs. The only light came from a low-wattage bulb in a lamp on a bedside table. Despite the absence of windows, the air smelt fresh and pleasantly fragrant, jasmine, perhaps. A notice by the side of the bed read We would ask you not to smoke and to leave the room as you expect to find it. Please report any inadequacies and suggestions to James at the counter when you leave.
She quietly returned to the shop.
“Coffee and carrot cake?” asked the young man politely. “If you’d like to take a seat, I’ll bring it across.”
Mrs Atwell sat down and started a crossword. She was not really concentrating. A man sat down in the armchair opposite. She looked up. He was smartly dressed, about her age, possibly slightly younger. He grimaced and looked across at her.
“The trouble with deep armchairs,” he said, “is that you need a crane to get you out of them after about half an hour.”
”I know the feeling,” she said. He was turning to the crossword page of his own newspaper.
“You’re an addict, too?” she asked. He nodded.
They looked at each other and then silently applied themselves. After twenty minutes they exchanged newspapers and had a discussion.
“I have to go now,” he said. He hesitated. “It sounds trite, I know, but do you come here often?”
Mrs Atwell looked at him carefully.
“I shall be here tomorrow, if that’s what you mean.” She added “Coffee shops nowadays are not always what they seem.”
He returned her steady gaze.
“No.” he said. “Excuse me a moment.”
He went to the counter and spoke to the young man, who unobtrusively consulted a clipboard from a drawer and, with a reassuring nod, made an entry on it.
The man returned to Mrs Atwell.
“I shall be here at nine tomorrow, if that’s not too early for you.”
“That’ll be fine.”
He smiled awkwardly and then coughed.
“I’m John, by the way.”
“Of course you are,” said Mrs Atwell. “I’m Mary.”
They both smiled.
The End. That's all, folks! If you wanted or expected more I'm sure you'll tell me.