Kate stumbles into the cafe, welcomed by the smoky smell of coffee and a thick blanket of heat, her glasses fogging up. Thank goodness, it was freezing outside. She unwinds her scarf and stamps her boots on the worn mat. The afternoon is bleak, on the cusp of evening, cold and damp with the lingering promise of rain. Hopefully she won’t catch it on the way out. She scans the room but he isn’t here yet. That’s fine, she is early. Eager. And he is always late.
“Can I take your order?” A smile is drawn to kind lips, the barista’s pen poised, watching Kate who watches everyone else.
“Oh… um…” The door opens. Kate’s gaze snaps to it but it’s a man in a crisp suit, eyes glued to his phone. Where is John? The businessman shuffles in line and Kate turns back to the barista, skimming the board pegged behind the counter.
She twirls a brown curl in her fingertips. How long will he be? Should she order him a drink? She can’t even order her own coffee without John. She’s hopeless. A mechanical hum fills the space, a noise that wasn’t there before. “I’ll have–”
“Excuse me,” someone shuffles in front, a haggard face and wispy eyebrows, a hunched back and a cup clattering on a saucer. The queue jumper holds the half-drunk coffee up like a gift. “Is this one shot or two?”
The barista chews her pink glossed lip. “Two, like you asked for?”
“I can’t drink that! I’ll be up all night.”
“Shall I remake it for you?”
“Can you make it again?”
The barista’s smile is patient as she takes the cup and puts it to one side. “I’ll bring it over.”
“Can you bring it to my table?” A wrinkled finger points to the plush chairs at the front.
“Of course.” The hum gets louder.
The old lady shuffles away and Kate steps up to the counter again. The businessman drops his phone and starts tapping his foot. She will order one drink and John can get his own, if he ever shows up. “A latte, please.”
The woman behind the counter enters the order into the till. Kate slaps her card to the reader and the coffee machine whirls to life. He won’t change Jessica insisted when she got the text. Kate’s eyes linger on the door, the steamed-up glass, the cobbled street beyond. It opens and her heart jolts. He came. She knew he would. He can change.
The new patron has a flustered face and frantic eyes.
No, he hasn’t. Kate deflates. What her flatmate doesn’t understand is how much Kate needs John. She can’t live without him, she’s withering. She’s lost.
He scurries to a table in the middle of the room where a woman is twirling a stirrer in a half-drunk coffee, plucked brows lifted. “You’re late. For the interview.”
“Here you go.” Kate’s drink is slid across the counter with a kind smile, swirling milk cradling a foam flower.
“Thanks.” The warm mug stings her palms. She chooses a table near the door, where she can both see and be seen. John can change, and they will get through this. She only needs to talk to him.
The lights flicker.
A sudden on and off. Did Kate blink? It happens again. The room softens into silence, attention captured by a shared oddity. The chime of voices starts again, a rattle then a flourish.
Kate sips her drink, the sharp kick of caffeine and the creamy blend of milk. She could text John. He could have missed her last message. Maybe he can’t find the cafe, tucked in a side alley, on wonky cobbles with a fading sign. She digs out her phone and finds his number.
Stop making excuses for him. Jessica’s words, the night she and John first broke up, Kate dabbing at smudged mascara, explaining that if she’d been more present this wouldn’t have happened. Jessica’s right, if he can’t find a dumb cafe that’s his problem. Kate sips her drink and watches the room.
The businessman is tugging at the door, the stubborn entrance refusing to comply. The barista weaves between her patrons, placing a new drink in front of the woman at the front.
“One shot or two?” The lady asks.
“I wanted two!”
“You asked for one.”
“Look here,” the businessman interrupts. “Your door won’t open.”
Kate’s heart picks up. If the door is locked, how will John get in? He could be outside right now.
“I’ll take a look–” The lights snap off, painting the steamy room in near darkness. Is this… meant to be happening?
“Why’s it dark?” The shrill cry of the old lady, followed by the indignant voice of the businessman.
“The lights have turned off. Your lights have turned off.”
“I can see that.” The barista voice stains the blackness with annoyance. Kate should never have suggested they meet here. She can’t even choose a cafe without something going wrong.
“This won’t do. I’ll need to WhatsApp Martin and tell him I’m going to be late.” The businessman waggles his phone in front of the barista’s face. “I should have never come here, the service has been terrible.”
“Hey, it’s not her fault. She’s not the national grid.” It’s the interviewee, voice flecked with nerves.
“I’m sure it’s just a power cut, no need to worry.” The barista pulls her phone from her apron, flicking on the torch and blinding the interview candidate. “Sorry.”
“Do you know if this power cut is planned?” The businessman is tugging at the door again.
“The manager didn’t mention anything.” In the gloom, a flicker of irritation crosses the barista’s face.
The hum gets louder, finding its way into the darkened crevices.
“What’s that noise?” Kate’s eyes drift from coffee maker to counter.
“I don’t hear anything,” the old woman’s lip trembles, brows drawn together, her eyes wide.
“Of course you don’t.” The businessman stares at his phone, his voice a hurtful snarl.
“Is this some sort of test? A group exercise?” The interviewee glares at the woman opposite.
“Of course not.” The interviewer rises from her chair, tone clipped and sure. “Could the humming be the coffee maker?”
“I… I don’t think so.” The barista scurries to the machine, fingers drifting over metal.
“Look here, this isn’t funny anymore, I’ve got a meeting to be at, what is this noise?”
The hum seems to intensify, growing louder, vibrating the room with its soft melody. Kate stands up, her chair legs dragging on the floor. She checks her phone but she has no signal and no way out. Where is John? She needs him. She can’t handle this on her own.
“What noise? There is no noise!”
“This is not a fair way to judge whether I am good under pressure!”
“Everyone remain calm,” the interviewer rounds her table, heels clicking on the tiled floor. “My candidate did a mechanical art exhibition in Birmingham last week and is working towards an engineering degree in his free time.”
All eyes shift to the interviewee. Even the hum itself is poised for his answer, as if challenging him to a dual. His eyes dart between expectant faces before landing on the woman again, his forehead dotted with perspiration.
She raises a single eyebrow, painted lips turned down. “Can you diagnose the hum?”
“I… well… I…” He rings his hands. “You see… when I said I did the exhibition I was more of a… um… catering assistant and the degree was more of an aspirational thing…”
“What did he say? Why does he want a caterer?”
“My message wasn’t sent to Martin! What will he think now?”
Kate turns to the barista and tries to challenge her inner I-am-good-in-a-crisis self. “Is there another way out?”
“I don’t think so.” The barista’s gaze darts around the room. “That’s the store cupboard and those are the toilets.”
Fear snakes through Kate. What should she do? If only John were here, he would know. He takes charge of the situation. She shouldn’t have broken up with him, she was here to try to patch things up. Forgive him. Again. Where is he?
“I shouldn’t have come here, didn’t even want this job!” The interviewee scrambles to his feet, scrabbling to the door before skidding, his legs sliding out from under him, white knuckles gripping the chair in the nick of time.
The linoleum floor beneath Kate’s trainers is slippery, thin streaks of water lapping at her rubber soles.
“It’s…. wet,” she breathes, raising one soggy shoe.
“The floor is wet! There’s not even a wet floor sign! My shoes are expensive, you know.”
“It’s the sink, it’s leaking,” the barista is inspecting the damage, legs bent, head in a cupboard behind the counter. “One of the pipes has burst, urgh, of all the moments.”
“Can you fix it?” The businessman rounds the counter although Kate is ninety percent sure it was only to stand there and glare.
The interviewer’s gaze darts to her candidate. “And your water pipes art installation for Thame Water?”
“Fictional.” His knees are shaking, his hands still gripping the chair.
“The floor is wet! Has anyone noticed!” The old lady calls out to nobody.
“Pass me towels, something to plug it with.” The barista looks at the businessman, who turns to his phone, as if the device will offer up directions to a secret airing cupboard. The interviewee snatches flimsy square napkins from the dispenser and tosses them over the counter.
“Those won’t fix it.” The old lady scowls.
“What do you know?” The interviewee continues emptying the dispenser. “You can’t even remember your order.”
“I can too. I just… like it when people talk to me.” Her cheeks light crimson, her gaze tipped away.
Kate swallows, nerves tripping over her tongue, “We should turn off the water.”
“This woman has the right idea,” the interviewer speaks like Kate is her candidate. “How do we turn the water off?”
“The supply cupboard, there should be a valve.” The barista and the interviewee are still doing something, somewhat pointless and quite ineffective with paper napkins.
Kate finds the cupboard tucked in the far side of the room. The room is like a maze, floor slick and crowded with furniture. The interviewer shines her phone light on a collection of gleaming, metallic valves. Which one? Which one is water? This is where she needs John, where he would know what to do.
She shakes her head, tipping curls from her eyes. She can do this, she did things before she met John. She starts yanking valves, tugging the biggest one first, then the next, then the next.
“It’s off!” The barista calls, standing in a graveyard of mushy napkins. “You fixed it!”
“Now there’s a resourceful girl.” The old lady calls. It’s been a long time since anyone has called Kate anything close to resourceful. A wink of pride lights her cheeks.
The lights flick back on, shaky and blinking like they are waking up. The room sighs with relief. The humming continues, set to the tune of the businessman yanking at the door. He steps back. “Oh, sod it, I never wanted to be in finance anyway. I have an art degree.”
“So do I.” The interviewer beams at him.
“I don’t,” the interview candidate says, dropping a pile of mushy napkins. The interviewer narrows her eyes at him.
There’s a clunk. A thump. A hiss. From the coffee machine.
The barista tugs on a leaver, taps a button. “Ah, great, the coffee machine has given up.”
“Did anyone else hear a thump?” The old lady calls.
And then the last thing Kate expected to happen, happens.
The door springs open. A hefty shove, a large heave, and a man steps in, blonde hair clipped short, startled as the entire room gapes at him.
“Your door’s a bit stiff,” John says bemused.
“Don’t you dare shut that door, boy,” the old lady snaps. The barista scurries over and jams a bag of coffee beans beneath the warped wood.
“Well,” the interviewee slides into his chair, offering the interviewer a warm smile. “Shall we continue?”
“I think I’ve heard enough.” She plucks the papers from the desk, organises them into a neat pile. “I don’t think we’ll be continuing with your application for the gallery.”
“Gallery? A job in the arts?” The businessman perks up. “Can I interview?”
The interviewer’s brows draw together, perched on the edge of leaving. She sits back and gestures for him to sit opposite. “It’s unorthodox but I suppose so.”
“What will I do!” The interviewee wails.
“I’d give you a fiver to clean up these napkins.” The woman behind the counter drawls, then she turns to John. “Sorry, no hot drinks,” she jams her thumb in the direction of the coffee machine, “steamer’s broken.”
“I see.” John slowly makes his way towards Kate and slides into the seat opposite. “I knew you’d call. Look, forget this whole Megan business. You need me.”
“No, she doesn’t,” the old woman interrupts. Kate’s mouth dangles open, on the cusp of a reply. “She’s resourceful.” The woman sounds proud, as if Kate is her favourite grandchild.
Kate’s mouth dangles open, looking between her ex and this woman she doesn’t know. Resourceful. She’s resourceful. She’s ok. Alone. Her jaw clicks shut. “Actually, I came to ask if you can clear your stuff out of my flat? I could use the space.”
She gives him a bright smile, the old lady beaming at them both, and plucks her cold coffee from the table. Kate settles into the plush seat opposite the old woman before John can even say a word, placing her cup before her. “Thought you could use the company.”
“And you could use someone listing all the reasons you should never go back to that terrible man.” The woman leans back, laces her fingers, and inspects Kate. “Now, tell me everything.”
In the background, John shuffles out the room, looking embarrassed for the first time since she’s known him. The coffee shop settles into a strange new rhythm, the interviewee and the barista flirting over the broken machine, the interviewer practically inviting the businessman to sign a contract there and then.
It’s strange to think, Kate muses as her companion orders them both iced tea in another painful conversation with the barista, how some things work out for the best.
Hannah is an avid reader, keen writer and enthusiast computer programmer. Her short stories have been published in The Margate Book Zine and an anthology called Fae Dreams.