Cathy’s breath caused a fog on the window, she was standing that close. It was something she did as a child, intentionally back then. Breathe, write, rub, breathe, write, rub, much to her mother’s annoyance. Is it you, Cathy who cleans those windows? No it is not. Stop, please. Causing the fog wasn’t helping her see into the place, that was for sure. Cathy took a step back, then able to make out some shapes inside the erstwhile cafe – chairs, tables, maybe the counter there at the back no longer covered in a white cloth? Hope rose for a moment. But she couldn’t be certain, not without going inside, and the front door was firmly shut.
It was extremely frustrating.
There’s been movement at the place for a week or so now, some comings and goings, but nothing anyone was capable of putting a finger on. No-one admitted to doing work or sending in supplies. It was most strange. But something was changing, there was no doubt about that.
Even Murphy from Murphy’s pub opposite, a man capable of all the knowledge in the world before 6pm, was in the dark.
‘Who knows?’ he’d shrugged a reply to Cathy as she ordered half a stout in order to glean any scrap of information from him that she could.
Was that a figure flitting around at the back? Aoife? Cathy’s heart twinged. It couldn’t be Aoife, could it? Of course not.
And then the figure was gone.
Aoife’s Cafe had been closed a good while now. Since before Aoife had, as Cathy’s mother would have said when an elderly relative passed away, gone to live with the angels.
Things hadn’t felt right, since then, Cathy thought, in Ballykillow, despite the fact Aoife was originally an incomer herself. It was hard to pinpoint exactly how they didn’t feel right, and the teacher in Cathy was frustrated that she couldn’t nail the sense of unease, disappointment and disorientation. Those sensations tended to float in the air of the place, causing disquiet. The town was disconnected. As were the people.
She wasn’t the only one who thought so.
‘D’you feel it?’ Laura Brannigan whispered over the counter in the post office. Cathy didn’t reply. She did feel it, of course, but she didn’t want to stir up those feelings anymore than was necessary.
People shuffled in the queue behind her, not talking, impatient to get to the front, like they would be in a city, she imagined.
Aoife had brought a certain something to Ballykillow at a time when many were in the doldrums, when the town had felt lost. Jobs had disappeared, people were aimless. It was hard to pinpoint what she brought, but it was more, much more than the cafe.
She’d swept in around twenty years ago, stumbling from the bus that came through town once a day. Her clothes were brightly coloured, her hair dark as a raven’s in the Spanish/Irish way, the Armada art of her history. Goodness only knew where she came from – she was always mysterious about her origins – but as soon as she landed she set about opening her cafe. The town had a myraid range of public houses, but not a single cafe. She hadn’t done it quietly. Aoife never did anything quietly. She employed a local carpenter, Brian Masters, who was known more for the time he spent in Murphy’s than he was for his output, and she brought out the best in him. He got his sister Orla in to paint the walls sunshine yellow. The place looked immaculate once it was done. A handsome wooden counter from where she served tea and cake sat proudly at the back, a long oak table with stools and chairs for those that required more support. All beautifully polished.
Over time the gloss disappeared from the table, rings from mugs of tea marked it; feet scuffed the walls. The chairs scraped grooves into the wooden floor. It developed a lived in look, did Aoife’s Cafe, became battered around the edges.
‘And quite rightly, too,’ she’d say. ‘It’s what I wanted.’ She was perfectly at home in the place, as were her customers who’d argue, laugh and tease one another over the oak table, putting their small world to rights over potato pancakes and Matt Molloy’s fresh cured bacon and morning laid eggs.
Cathy, a curious woman herself, often wondered where Aiofe had come from. What had brought her here, to Ballykillow. But she’d bat away any attempt to delve into her life before now.
‘You don’t want to know about boring old me,’ she’d say. ‘It’s a fabulous place, this is, Cathy. A fabulous place, full of wonderful people.’
Cathy, a much younger woman then, would look out of the cafe window. One, maybe two, stragglers would wander by. Tom Rattigan lying flat on his back on his trap full of stout and dreams of the bogland, his pony weaving their way home.
There was mostly silence. Peace.
Depending on your viewpoint, she guessed, peace could be fabulous.
Sometimes Cathy, craved more than peace, but not so much so she ever went out and sought it beyond the mean streets of Ballykillow. Or felt brave enough to, she’d have to admit.
She often wondered had Aoife run away from somewhere. Or someone. That she craved peace so much.
When Aoife’s cafe first closed no-one had the heart to take over the place. That was the received wisdom, anyway.
Cathy suspected there was more to it than that. Not just the heart but the energy, the time and the money too.
The small town had taken a knock in recent years and although the mood of the place was mostly buoyant at first, economically it was slow to recover. Aoife’s had been a place where those still recovering could find solace, and half price (at least) tea, toast and more. Aoife had been a big hearted woman whose big heart had been the death of her.
‘Having a good old look are you know Cathy O’Brien? What can you see?’
Sean McManus, once the bane of Cathy’s life in the playground, now a man she tended to avoid, if she could, despite them sharing space in the small town in which they had both lived all their lives, was at her shoulder.
The last time they’d conversed was when Aoife’s was still open and they’d debated Grace O’Malley’s role in Irish history.
They’d not spoken since.
She could ignore him, as she usually would, just walk away. Or she could respond.
This time she would respond.
‘You’re not curious? I don’t believe it. The place has been shut for years, the paintwork peeling, the sign barely readable, then, overnight that new, yellow sign with the fancy lettering goes up and not one of us in town has a clue what’s going on.’
Although someone must know, Cathy thought. Someone always knew. The lettering didn’t spell out anything obvious. Not like most businesses in town that were Murphy’s, or Bourke’s or Molloy’s. Cathy thought the letters read TMBTP, but she couldn’t be certain.
‘You have a point there, sure you do,’ Sean conceded. ‘Someone went all Banksy on us, didn’t they?’
Cathy couldn’t resist a smile at the reference to the graffiti artist renowned for his guerilla art tactics. Like they’d get a Banksy in sleepy old Ballykillow.
Cathy recalled the many times she’d sipped on a mug of Barry’s tea, waiting for a ham sandwich in the cafe. She’d always sat in the window seat, if there was the space, watched the familiar world go by.
She remembered Aoife, the banter, giggling through the steam and the heat of the place about the men who passed by.
‘Now there goes a fine fella, maybe our one and only fine fella,’ Aoife would say as Pat Higgins hesitated at the door, then changed his mind about coming in. He was known to be a shy man, would colour scarlet if you so much as glanced his way. ‘The Quiet Man’ he was known as, by one and all. But a quietly handsome man, Cathy always thought. Impenetrable though. She remembered him too from the school yard, always stood in a corner, alone, but not unhappy she ever thought. He became an accountant, successful he was too. Did the books for many local businesses, including Aoife’s.
He preferred the cafe empty, Aoife said.
‘He’s a first thing in the morning kind of a man,’ she’d winked at Cathy.
Shame, Cathy thought. She was most definitely not a first thing in the morning kind of woman.
‘It’s certainly a mystery, that’s for sure,’ Sean interrupted her thoughts.
Cathy suppressed the sarcastic you still there? response that was ready for Sean McManus without any thought going in to it.
‘It is that.’
In their small town incomers were always noted. Mostly accepted, but always noted. There’d been a fair few Polish people arrive in recent years. Many worked on the farms, seasonal workers, but one or two opened shops, changing the shape, sound and scent of the place, but the people of Ballykillow were, on the whole, a welcoming lot. There was the Polish deli one end of Main street that sold all the requisite provisions in addition to Polish soups, breads and other mysterious items that Cathy was yet to try.
Nikola with a K and her sister Lena ran the ‘Polski Sklep’.
Locals loved their shop, and the owners brought with them a breath of fresh air, but they couldn’t replace Aoife. That was impossible.
They were as mystified by the new sign above the cafe as anyone else.
‘We don’t know,’ they shrugged when Cathy asked that morning if they were aware of anyone who had decided to open a cafe.
‘We are as mysterious as you,’ Lena smiled, handing Cathy a rye loaf.
The school mistress in Cathy chose not to correct Lena, and she left the shop, questions unanswered, not yet ready to go home.
It was nearly time, Mags thought, as she straightened the sign on the counter that listed the types of coffee she intended to serve. She was as ready as she’d ever be. Nerves were getting to her now. She’d seen people peering in the window, no doubt wondering what on earth was going on. She understood that.
It had taken Mags a good time to get here. Far longer than Aoife had intended, she was sure.
There’d been a few letters sent and received over the years, although Mags could never have known how many her parents had intercepted. The last one she found when she was first down in the morning had arrived three years ago. Aoife was unwell, she told her sister. She wanted Mags to take over her cafe. She knew it would do her the world of good. She raved on about the wonders of the place, the people in the town, the peace and quiet. You’d never find that in Dublin she wrote. Mags knew she didn’t just mean the hustle and bustle of the city.
She meant the people within it. The people close to the pair of them. Their mother and father, most especially.
Mags was fifteen years younger than Aoife. The youngest in the family of eight children to Aoife’s eldest. Life had been toxic for both of them, and the others who came between, all boys, although they’d accepted the toxicity as their own, not knowing any other way to be. They’d soon scattered.
There had been expectations placed on the girls, expectations insisted upon with a heavy hand, and not only from their father.
Aoife had disappeared overnight more than twenty years ago. She had asked Mags to join her, begged her, but Mags, very young then, had been so fearful of staying, but more fearful still of leaving. The known was better than the unknown, she thought.
A lesser person might resent her sister for going anyway, but not Mags. Now being the only one at home with their parents it took her longer to untangle herself than it had Aoife, even following news of her sister’s illness.
The ties that bind can be very strong, and stifling too. It takes great strength to loosen them. Great bravery and courage.
One final incident, one night, helped decide her. She left the house with a small suitcase, money she had quietly saved, and a split lip.
You can understand why Aoife and Mags decided to run to somewhere from someone, why they brought secrets with them, can’t you? Why they wanted a fresh start?
This must be the place, Mags had thought when the cab dropped her on Main Street in the middle of the night outside a building with a crumbling sign above the door that she could just about read. She felt the quietness, the peace, the sense of community that Aoife spoke about. She heard whispers of the names of the customers – Cathy, Sean, Pat, Laura, their voices carrying on the wind. But she also sensed something else too. She sensed the place needed her as much as she needed it.
She’d let herself in and glanced around. The shrouded wooden counter, stools tipped on their sides, a smudged blackboard.
It was perfect. And silent. Not even the clock above the door made a sound.
She’d soon change that.
As soon as she could she’d welcome folks in. There’d be warmth, and tea, and soup and bread. There’d be chatter and discussion, laughter and tears.
She’d do Aoife proud.
This was the place. The place that had brought her sister peace, and would do so to her too, she was sure.
There was work to be done. She’d begin in the morning.
They’d never know, either, where Mags had come from, nor discover how she was related to Aoife. There were rumours, of course. A long lost niece, an illegitimate daughter. Some even hit on the truth – a sister – but it was never confirmed.
But, then, not all mysteries need solving.
She too wished to leave her past behind her, and to be present in the cafe.
Cathy returned to the pavement outside cafe with her rye bread. Her journey was slow, other townspeople stopping her to discuss the goings on at Aoife’s place.
Even Pat Higgins shared a few words, of his own accord too.
‘Rumour has it the cafe is opening again. It will be fancy, mind, some are saying, not right for the likes of us.’
Cathy smiled. Anything more than bacon, eggs and black pudding would be considered fancy in these parts.
‘I like fancy,’ she replied after a few moments thought. ‘Sometimes. Sometimes I like ordinary too, mind. Both have a time and a place.’
Pat looked startled at her reply.
‘ You’re so right,’ he said. ‘And I do too,’ he leant in and whispered once his voice had returned. ‘Nothing beats a bit of pan fried polenta, or a few arancini. Like they do at the place out on the coast. Maybe one day you and I might, you know...’
‘Maybe, yes,’ Cathy replied.
She glanced up at the cafe. There was the shape of a woman in the window. She was turning the sign. She had a look of Aoife about her, the same raven black hair, but she wasn’t Aoife. She was younger, her clothing more muted. She was taller, more slender, a fringe of dark hair covering one side of her face.
They would soon discover her way was gentle and soft to Aoife’s boldness.
This must be the person, Cathy thought, who’s been sent to restore equilibrium to our town, to us. But not on her own.
She’d be needing customers. Customers like her and Sean and Pat.
Pat was still next to her, Sean stood behind.
“I’ll stand you a coffee, Sean McManus, so long as its nothing fancy,’ Cathy said, heading for the door. She gave Pat a comforting wink, just in case he thought that was where her affections lay.
She felt a burst of energy as she pushed open the door of the cafe that had once belonged to Aoife, and now belonged to this other woman, this new woman.
‘Hello, welcome to Ballykillow,’ she said, kissing the woman on both cheeks. The woman’s cheeks were warm. She didn’t look surprised at the warmth of this welcome.
‘I know. Mags.’
How did she know? It didn’t matter.
And for the first time in three years the place was full with people drinking tea, coffee, kids licking crumbs from plates. Cathy didn’t sit at the window in her old spot, she sat at the long oak table with the others. There was warmth and chatter, the hiss of the coffee machine making a latte for Sean. A mug of Barry’s tea appeared for Cathy, and Sean ordered an Americano. Laura from the post office had shut up shop and joined them. Even Murphy from Murphy’s pub popped over before he’d imbibed too much stout to stagger across the road.
The townspeople soon took the stranger to their hearts, as they were wont to do.
And the stranger, in return, shone a light on the town and the people who lived there. The unease lifted. The mood shifted. There were problems, still, of course. Life never runs down a completely straight track, not an obstacle in the way. But talking about those tricky things, those annoyances, even with the likes of Sean McManus, eased them somewhat, made them easier to bear.
And so life went on in Ballykillow, and it most certainly was the place.