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  • Alan Ward

Café Forever

The tang of cigarette smoke follows Ted in as the door closes and a bell dings. In the old days the smokers were in here, slouching at the tables, talking in clouds: not outside, shivering. The café’s sterile now, and the customers don't seem to register the sting of bleach on the air.

Coming here is stepping into memory. It’s pulling back the wallpaper more than sixty years to a time of milkmen, coalmen, rag-and-bone-men. People think it was sepia, but Ted’s memories are in colour. He takes off his scarf and unwraps the heavy overcoat from his shoulders, sits down in the present with his head in the past.

It's the same table in the window – only it's a different table, a new window – where he first saw her. And then, years later, they would come here together, mull over the papers with thick-cut sandwiches, toast to the future with black coffee.

Now he is alone. And he can sense her, opposite him. When he orders a black coffee the waiter nods, “Americano, yes?” The other customers are subdued, caught up with wireless connections to people half a planet away. In the old days it was noisy. A brawl was not out of the question. Friendships started here, with “how do you do?” and handshakes.

The passage of years has far from battered this place. The floor is smooth, but not worn. It gleams now, cleaner than ever. Chrome has taken place of wood, plastic the place of brass. The sandwiches come in boxes, and feedback cards are scattered on the table.

Kingsley, he remembers, was the owner’s name. He can’t remember her Christian name, but it was Mrs Kingsley, definitely. She wore her hair in a bun and would lean on her broom outside. She chatted with Soho until half its population were regulars. Where did she end up? Do her family come here now, sip coffee from cardboard cups without realising a line is drawn from this place to them? Someone must keep track of these connections, Ted thinks.

His coffee comes. He takes a sip and thinks how little time has passed. And how much more there is to come. Ted notices how, for long seconds after he removes the stirrer from the cup, the liquid spins.

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