For as long as Sheila could remember, there has always been just a coffee shop in her little town.
It was lone, isolated like it was in a world of its own. Other shops had developed over the years, most had modern interiors, decorations and Wi-Fi but the only thing that ever changed at the shop from her memory was when Mrs Huffleberry changed the windows after some boys broke it by accident. Mrs Huffleberry owned the shop. She once told Sheila it was an heirloom passed down in the Huffleberry generations.
As small as it was in the middle of the town, the coffee shop had an immense significance them. Everyone has once drank a cup or two of coffee there; that also included the delicious buns that came with it. To everyone, Mrs Huffleberry made the damnest sweet buns ever, for an old woman her age.
Sheila first visited the shop when she was six. It was on a Saturday and like always, the day when the women of the town met at the shop and had a gossip session. There were rounds of coffee, buns, cakes and even sausage rolls. She was surprised when she saw that virtually every mother and wife was present. The butcher's wife, the doctor's wife, the baker's wife, the grocery's women and even the pastor's wife who lived on the other side of the town. As a child, she hadn't seen that many women in a place at the same time, not even in church.
"Mama, has the men gone to heaven?" She turned to her mother and asked.
"No, Sheila. It is a party for women only."
Just as the women had theirs on Saturdays, the men had Sunday mornings to themselves. They took delight in reading news about the world miles from their town while sipping hot chocolate coffee and buns. They also chatted about latest news and happenings too and unlike the women, children were never allowed in. However, Sheila was fond of sneaking into the book section where they kept many children books because she has always loved to read. Which was how she learnt of the latest gossips in town.
From Saturdays, she found out the baker's wife was fighting with the baker. The butcher's wife was no longer sleeping in the same room as the butcher. Even the grocery's women were thinking of splitting.
Sheila hated the latter. No one ever left the town. And if the women were to split, then how would she get her favorite chocolate?
From Sundays with the men, she heard about xenophobia, racial segregation and riots. Lots and lots of riots. They were big words she didn't even know their meaning. She just loved being in the shop.
Like the other inhabitants of the town.
They were happy because it gave them a purpose. Moreover, Mrs Huffleberry was the nicest person ever. Everyone loved her.
Mrs Huffleberry lived only few houses away from Sheila's home. She was an old woman who didn't look her age and had a beautiful face that forever held a smile for everyone she ran into. Sheila's mom had told her once that Mrs Huffleberry had lived in the town all her life. She grew up in the cottage she lived in but took over the coffee business when her mother died.
"Well dear, a fresh cup of coffee is what truly you need." She would always say.
The coffee shop opened at six in the morning, way before other shops did and closed by eight; Sheila knew this because she worked there. Her job was to clean the floors, set up the furniture, dust the books and newspapers in the racks and restock them with new ones when they came. But since Mrs Huffleberry usually started her day by five so she did most of the tasks herself. In the mornings, she usually walked the small metres from her cottage to the shop and on her way, said a nice hello to the morning joggers, mail man and milk boys.
“Good morning, Henry." She would say when she ran into the butcher going for his morning beef.
“Pray say Linda, what a nice weather we have today. Why don't you come in for a nice cup of coffee?" She would call out to Ms. Linda, the new music teacher in the town's elementary school, on her way to school.
“Morning, Mrs Huffleberry. Thank you for the offer. Maybe later." She would always reply but she never came in.
Ms. Linda was new in town but Sheila's mother who knew everything had told her that she was also from their town. She had three kids with her and worked part time at the grocery shop after school. Sheila had heard from the women that her husband had divorced her for cheating but from the men, she had heard the opposite. No one knew exactly why the single mother of three had returned to her childhood home from the city; there were just made up stories. Only Mrs Huffleberry was nice to her but that didn't count because she was nice to everyone. Even a criminal would seem a saint to her.
Making coffee is easy. However, making an amazing cup of fresh hot coffee is a gift only bestowed upon rare angels like Mrs Huffleberry and her ancestors. To her, making just a cup of coffee whether it was Latte, café lemoni or a simple espresso was like lovemaking. One had to treat the beans with delicateness and finesse.
Sheila however didn't understand a thing about that so she never let her.
In the past, Mrs Huffleberry used to make her coffee with her hands but by pure luck, Sheila was able to convince her to buy a coffee grinder for pulverizing the beans and a maker for making espresso. It took more nerves and energy to finally convince her to buy a steaming machine for the milk.
She said every step of the process meant something to her.
When making coffee, Mrs Huffleberry ensured the dosing of the powder was accurate and the packing into the porter filter was precise. For the leveling, she used her finger to smoothen the powder with such finesse it sometimes looked like she was either parting the red sea or soothing a baby to sleep. Tamping needed body weight and strength but she made it look so easy and flawless to Sheila.
After inserting the porter filter into the brew head, she would wait and watch the brownish liquid flow through the tap like a mother watching her child dance ballet. Finally, she would add in the steamed milk and sometimes drew heart shapes.
A latte with her sweet buns and cakes were enough to melt even the coldest heart.
As all good heroes do, Mrs Huffleberry made her coffee especially for each customer. His taste or her mood determined what type of coffee she offered them. If she saw the Baker in a foul mood, she would offer him a Rosy Latte. If the town's only lawyer barged in late, looking sad and melancholic because he had an hectic day, she would serve him a cup of creamy latte and buns. She always knew what each person really desired and needed.
Then one day, it happened.
The pandemic shook the world and made life boring. The town became dull like its soul had been stolen. No one met on the streets again. Just simple hellos and waves. Everyone had to stay indoors and obeyed the social distance. They heard the death tolls increase on the news and knew people were dying off in matters of hours.
Mrs Huffleberry had three children: Jane, Cherry and Sam. Jane, the oldest daughter lived in Washington with her family, Cherry lived in Oregon while Sam the youngest lived in Florida. They rarely came home. One day, she received a call that Jane had died due to health complications. Poor Mrs Huffleberry suffered a heart attack and never recovered.
The day she was buried, the clouds poured for hours, it was as if the heavens were bitter at her death and weeping too. The town grieved over her for it was a tragedy no one could have foreseen.
Sam came home for the funeral but Cherry didn't; she couldn't make it due to the restrictions. He took care of the cottage for a while but he was no Mrs Huffleberry. No one could ever be. The town lost its colours and without the coffee shop, they had no reason to jog past it at seven, stop in for a coffee break or meet up for weekly gossips. It was like a part of them had died with her. The shop that had once being filled with laughter, happiness, colour and immense joy became cloudy, lifeless and inanimate. And as if that wasn't enough, Sam decided to sell the shop to the new developers from the city. He wanted to return to the city because he felt unwelcome and lost in the town.
"Good morning, Sheila." A lively voice called out and she stopped. She was passing by the coffee shop on her way home from the clinic where she now worked when she heard the voice. The voice sounded a lot like Mrs Huffleberry's, whenever she was in a good mood.
Was it Mrs Huffleberry? She asked herself. Then chided herself the next minute. It definitely couldn't be her; she had been dead for weeks now.
"Sheila! What're you thinking about?" It asked, in a scolding tone.
I'm either just imaging this or I must have really suffered a great shock like Dr. Mark said, she mumbled.
Without thinking, she moved closer to the shop when she saw movement and her eyes nearly popped out in shock. She couldn't believe what she was staring at was real. It was impossible. What magic had happened to the shop overnight, she managed to ask her in head and the 'magic' turned the door knob; opening the door and offering her a chance to come in.
"Sam...I thought you were leaving?" She asked, after getting off the nostalgic feeling of being back in her favourite place.
"Yeah. But...I changed my mind," he replied.
“Does that mean you're keeping the shop then?"
The glint in his eyes and sparkle convinced Sheila a miracle must have happened. He looked different and happy unlike when he had arrived weeks ago. For some reason she didn't know, Sheila felt elated at the news.
Both news actually.
The fact he was reopening the coffee shop and he wasn't leaving. She couldn't decide of the two, which one gladdened her more.
“But why? You told me you were leaving on Sunday. You said you couldn't live in a small town like this. What changed?"
"Mom. I saw her in my dreams last night, Sheila. I was lost in a cold mountain and was blue to death. Then she appeared with her smile and warmth. She told me a cup of coffee was what I needed then made me a cup. It felt so good, it reminded me of my childhood. Of the days, I spent playing in the shop and watching her. She told me she wanted me to return the same warmth to the town."
“Oh, Mrs Huffleberry must be an angel! She care so much about us all," Sheila exclaimed at first. "But, can you run the shop on your own?"
"I would need your help. She said that... not me." He teased lightly.
“I will most certainly be glad to. Anything for Mrs Huffleberry."
She sounded excited and full of life. She hated her job at the hospital anyways. As much as she wanted to do it for Mrs Huffleberry, Sheila also wanted to do it for herself. Her life had no meaning without the shop in it.
“What coffee do you think will be just right for a reopening free sample, cappuccino and say, sweet cakes and buns?"
“Definitely not. It's autumn and it's kind of cold. Let's make sometime to warm their hearts with. A reminder of the feeling of love, coziness and magic." She laughed for a while then replied.
“Great! I have an idea. Thank you Sheila, you're an angel."
At that moment, they shared a silent look that held ten thousand silent words that were never said out but they understood regardless.
While Sam made the coffee and snacks in the kitchen just as his mother used to do, she returned to her usual job of cleaning. When he was through, he called her over. The buns looked so good she couldn't resist them. She took a bite and her eyes watered with tears. She was instantly flooded with memories of her childhood. She took a sip of the strange coffee next, rolled it in her mouth and felt the smoothness and taste of it. The aftertaste made her felt warm and loved.
“What type of coffee is this? I haven't tasted anything like it before." She quickly asked.
“Autume fire. It's a secret recipe. Just for the Huffleberrys alone." He said and winked at her.
She could almost imagine her friends, family and everyone back in the warm walls of the shop. She could picture the women back in their chairs around the table, smiling, laughing and gossiping while eating cakes. The men reading the papers while debating on the latest trade news with cups of coffees in front of them. The children at the books section listening to her read them stories of the world far and beyond. She had been apprehensive about the change in season and faded colours of fallen leaves but now she was positive, that autumn would bring in warmth and happiness.
Sheila and Sam shared a smile at the doors. Together, they opened the doors to the shop then flipped the closed sign.
The coffee shop was finally open for business.
The news would go around the town and everyone would know about the new coffee called Autumn fire.
They would flood the shop in crowds because their favorite coffee shop had returned to them.