The pungent aroma of coffee filled my nostrils. I ranked it in the top three of my favourite smells. It beat fried onions but was on a par with the perfume of an old-fashioned rose, delicate and sweet.
Just the smell of the coffee seemed to bring me to life – like an addiction. It must travel straight up to the brain, and tell it ‘wakey, wakey’!
I enjoyed the café more when it was almost empty. Truth be known, I loved walking into this café at any time really, but the freshness and newness of both the day and this place, gave me a feeling of peace. In fact, today it was completely empty, apart from Joe, of course, who stood tall and straight next to the coffee machine. His white apron was spotless, and that would be because Josephine his wife, had washed it, making sure every last spot of coffee, food and marks from endless wiping of his hands had gone. Every morning that I came here, it looked like Joe had a new apron on, crisp, white and ironed to perfection.
“Good morning, Sir” he said aloud, as he always did and bowed.
“Morning Joe, and how are you today?” I asked this smiling Italian migrant, the owner of this café for over thirty years.
“I am well and happy. My Josephine and myself have been married for thirty-five years today” he said in still clipped English.
“Well done, Joe. That is a mean feat by todays standards. Look at me, I only lasted eight!”
Joe continued to follow me and talk as I sat down at the small round table in the corner of the room, a blue gingham tablecloth was draped over the surface with an empty jam jar holding a lone blue flower (don’t ask me the name of it) and some soft looking greenery...
“I just happened to find the right girl all those years ago” he told me “Such a lucky man!”
“You are indeed Joe and a charming couple you two make. Speaking of your good wife, where is she this morning?”
“Her sister is doing her hair. We’re going out tonight to celebrate and I said to her that if she wanted her hair done, it had to be at 6.30am – we’re too busy!” and he walked away laughing.
‘Happy Anniversary’ I smiled to myself.
I had been coming to this café for so long that I didn’t even order. Joe just made my large, extra hot flat white and brought it over.
“There you are my good friend” he said to me, putting down the large white mug of my ‘heart starter’, creamy thick milk sitting slightly above the rim of it.
I could almost taste the slightly bitter brew even before getting it to my lips. The pungent coffee aroma awakened my senses. Of all the things I don’t think I could go without; top of the list would have to be my morning coffee!
As Joe let the saucer touch the table, I noticed that his hand was shaking ever so slightly – I’d never seen that before.
I had grabbed the morning paper from the front of the café as I walked in and now had it open in front of me, on the sport pages of course.
My coffee mug was already half empty, the now, just warm liquid was dark brown, no crème left on the top, but just as tasty. ‘I should have got a biscuit’ I thought hearing my stomach rumble and recalling that I had no time for breakfast this morning.
More people were coming in to the café now, the gentle chatter that was in the air had become noisier and was more like chirping birds in a tree, some squawking.
The hissing sound from the milk frother was now non-stop, spoons clattered as they were put on the side of saucers and every now and then, the blender roared into life, sounding like a mini lawnmower running over small rocks.
Joe’s two nephews were now at work too, greeting people with their cheery ‘good morning’ and smiling at the customers as if life was good.
A young mother had wheeled a pram into the café, carefully, whilst trying not to bump into a table or worse still an ankle - a sleeping baby lying hidden under pink covers. She placed her order and backed out of the room with the pram, knowing that one of the staff would bring it out to her.
I had just about finished my coffee. It was almost cold now as I lifted the empty vessel to my lips and savoured the last drop. I would of course have one or two more today but that first one of the day…ahhh.
Pushing my chair back on the stone floor I stood up. The folded paper was under my arm ready to put back at the front for someone else to read. I noticed that I had dripped some coffee onto the fresh table cloth, dark brown on predominantly white does stand out! ‘That’s a nuisance’ went through my mind.
It wasn’t as easy to wend my way out of the café as it was to get to my corner hideaway. I said a couple of “oops sorry” before I reached the counter and saw Joe. He had his back to me and was nodding his head gently as if he could hear a tune somewhere and was keeping the beat to it. His dark hair was mainly white now, salt and pepper, although there wasn’t too much ‘pepper’!
When I first met him, Joe had jet black hair, quite long and thick, matching his Italian eyebrows. Time does that to most heads! Even I had thick wavy blond hair in those days, but now it’s not blond or thick, it’s almost non-existent!
The first week that the café had opened, it had been packed each day. It was something very different in this area. Consisting of just one small room with a few tables and chairs, packed close together, and a small counter, word soon got around and before long there was always a queue if you didn’t get here before 7am!
Eventually Joe and his wife expanded the café adding a large extension and seating outside too. Much more comfortable. Numbers of dedicated coffee drinkers and sweet treat eaters didn’t dwindle – in fact it just kept getting busier and busier.
“Thank you, Joe,” I called out to him and he turned around, still holding the silver jug under the steaming spout, the ‘ssshhh’ of the steam becoming more intense.
“See you tomorrow” he called and I replied “Enjoy dinner tonight”.
I looked back as I pushed the door open and saw that the table, the one I had, was already taken by an older couple probably here for breakfast. I had seen them a few times in the café and thought that they might have been coming here for as long as I had.
Outside the woman with the pram was still sitting at a table, the baby still sleeping. A half-eaten croissant sat on a plate, pale flakes of pastry on the table and the front of her jumper.
As I went to cross the road on my way to the train station, I saw Josehpine on the same side, she was walking quickly, eager to get started at work. The lunch crowd was always bigger and busier than early morning, so she would have lots of preparation to do when she got to the kitchen.
“Josephine” I called to her
She caught me in the corner of her eye just as she was about to open the café door. “Hello” she called out cheerily.
“I like your hair” I yelled.
She beamed “Thank you”.
Each day when I got off the train around about 6pm and walked down the main street, the café was closed. It was never open past 4pm, although if you place an order before 3.45 Joe will always accommodate you.
I think they stayed there until way past 6.30 cleaning up and preparing for the next morning.
Such hard workers.
I had wondered years back if I would be suited to running a café or the like, but realised I was far too lazy for that! Give me a 9-5 job with all the weekend off and I’m happy!
I began to notice each morning that Joe’s hand was still shaking, and getting worse. He didn’t try to hide it at all and I purposely never looked at it either. I wanted to know what it was causing the tremors but would never ask.
Of course, I did look up ‘shaking of the hands’ on my phone and realised that Joe could have had as many as about fifty-five diseases or syndromes and I wasn’t going to guess which one! Anyway it was none of my business.
One morning as I stepped into my haven of happiness to enjoy my morning fix, for the first time ever Joe seemed rather agitated. It was I who said ‘good morning first’…
“Oh yes, good morning my dear friend” he replied. He had begun to look quite old and it was then that I wondered if he was ill.
“Are you ok Joe?” I asked him.
“Yes, why do you ask me this?”
“I just thought you were looking rather tired” I lamely replied, and then Joe finished with “Yes tired, but that’s all”
The strong solid aroma of coffee never changed though, and today I added a pastry to my order, in lieu of breakfast yet again. Joe brought it to my hideaway in the corner, his hand shaking a little too much, because the next thing was some coffee had slopped on the bright table cloth.
“Oh, I am sorry” he stuttered apologetically, embarrassed.
“Don’t give it a thought Joe – happens to me all the time at home.”
I couldn’t concentrate on reading the newspaper as the thought of Joe being ill worried me. When someone has been in your life, even just for an hour each day, but it’s for many years, it feels like family. I said my goodbye to him, told him the pastry and coffee were delicious as usual and left.
In two weeks’ time I was going on holidays for six weeks. I was already wondering how bad the tremors would be for Joe when I returned. Silly really. He was just a man who made my coffee each morning, greeted me like an old friend and chatted about superficial things with me, but I was concerned.
The morning before I left for my holidays, I went in for my morning coffee as usual. I could smell it as I opened the door. I was a bit later this morning as I had finished work the day before, so there were already a few people inside the café, eating and sipping. I looked to the counter for Joe, but it was only Josephine and the two nephews.
“Good morning” I said to her, where is your hard-working husband today? I don’t think I have ever known him to have a day off!”
“I know, it has been a shock to quite a few customers” she laughed. “He isn’t feeling too good today but will be back tomorrow, I am sure.” I wasn’t sure if she looked at me as if to say “I’m not sure if you believe me or not.”
I don’t know if I did believe her. “Well, I am going away tomorrow for 6 weeks, even earlier than the café opens, so please give Joe my best” I said to her, adding, I’ll look forward to ‘the best coffee on earth’ on my return!”
I really didn’t think too much about the café while I was on holidays. I did compare a few coffees that I had and Joe and Josephine’s won hands down. I just assumed, probably because I wanted it to be true, that he would be well again when I got back home.
The return flight was long and tedious with two stopovers’ just to add to the nightmare. I was exhausted when I finally reached home. I must have slept for about eleven hours and eventually woke up, with that ‘hungover’ feeling either too little or too much sleep gives you.
Opening my curtain and lightening the cave like bedroom, I realised it was already 9am. ‘I really need a coffee before I sort out my case, but I had to rummage through it a little to find the present I had brought back for Joe and Josephine. I couldn’t resist the porcelain plaque I had found in a weekend market one Saturday, it read ‘The best coffee in town, wait…THE WORLD!’
As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to buy it for them. It would look great on one of their walls, and the truth was, after tasting so many, I meant it!
I wondered if I was still asleep and would wake up soon.
Joe and Josephine’s café was closed.
I could see the sign even before I got to the door, so I walked up and peered through the windows. Empty. Completely empty. There was no bright shiny coffee machine or tables with perfectly ironed gingham cloths on them. No little vases with cornflowers in them (I’d looked up the flowers one day).
It seemed ghostlike and unreal. Quiet and somehow sad.
The sign had read ‘Permanently closed due to illness in the family. Sorry to our many loyal customers that stood by us for so many years. We will miss you all.’
I sat down on the step-in front of the empty café. I felt as if a part of my life that I so enjoyed had just disappeared. ‘Joe must have been really ill’ I thought sadly.
I could feel someone standing next to me and I looked up to see a face that I recognised from morning coffee time. “Shame, eh?” he said.
“Yes, it is. I’m shocked. Is Joe really ill?” I asked him, hoping he knew something.
“Oh, he passed away about four weeks ago. A real shock it was.” And he touched me on my shoulder and then walked off.
It was hard for me to comprehend that when I had only been away for two weeks, Joe had died. I hadn’t even bought the plaque from the markets then. I don’t know how long I sat there for, but when I eventually stood up, I felt tired.
I wandered home, knowing that later that day I would have to find somewhere else to get a coffee from.
It would never be the same.