First Contact

by Ieuan Dolby

I had always dreamed running my own cafe. Way back, as far back as I can remember, the desire to run my own place swirled inside me like a hurricane. It was a dream that had grown from no remembered occurrence or place, but one that was built on a solid foundation of pure obsession.

As a child without real bricks and mortar to direct I had pretend cafes of all shapes and sizes. I would frequently abuse friends and family, seating them unwillingly in the garden and pouring muddy water from an assortment of broken jugs or flower-pots. From chipped cups to cut-in-half plastic bottles I spent my childhood years in the clouds, making believe that I was a successful cafe owner with hordes of faithful customers queuing up at my door.

I left school early despite my parents' forceful pointers that I 'gain a good education' and I found a job in a coffee shop downtown. At the tender age of sixteen I was serving coffee to faceless customers and at the end of every day I was returning home to the quirky disappointment of my parents. They never tired of pointing out that I was ruining my life, never mind the shame that I had brought upon them. I suffered through their abuse silently and every payday I would faithfully place a few dollars into the broken coffeepot that I had hidden under my bed - to my mother I gave the rest. I always knew that it would take many years to save enough, to start out on my own, but the winds blew inside me without abatement.

For ten years I worked in that coffee shop, a place that I despised but tolerated from the very first day that I crossed its threshold. It was designed without care or spirit, a run-of-the-mill sloppy place of necessity rather than one of love. It was totally abstract to the dream that one day would be mine. Characterless plastic chairs, tables and cups! Instant coffee and rude staff with the smell of detergent overriding aromas. The customers came and went without show of feeling or recognition from those they brushed shoulders with. I suffered and I worked late persistently determined to add to the little that lay at the bottom of my broken coffeepot, the one that was hidden under my bed.

And slowly the pot grew heavier and heavier and the space at the top grew less as the filling at the bottom rose up to the broken lid that contained my dreams.

One day my old, faded and cracked coffee pot became so full that I could no longer place the little amount inside and something felt very wrong indeed. I felt then as if my dream was shattering right in front of my eyes.

I sat down and wept. I spilt tears for my dreams and for my lost education, I wept for my parents and their now silent disapproval and I cried because everybody I knew had given up hope for me. I was the child, the ex-friend, who worked in that cheap cafe downtown and who would never go further in life. I was the misfit with the unrealistic dreams, a failed one-track mind that had become tangential to the real world.

However hard I pushed those coins and notes into the top of the cracked pot continual feelings of failure washed over me like waves rolling up a beach.

I sat and cried with my broken dreams lying in invisible shards around me. I sat with my broken coffeepot between my legs, the lid lying despondently amongst the loose change. My body was wracked with sobs as I wept for my lost dreams.

"How much is there?" my little brother asked in whispered awe.

I looked up startled, shocked out of my self-induced sadness by the little voice from the door.

"How much?" I sobbed, "I really don't know."

For ten long years that little coffee pot had taken my offerings but never once had it given me something back. I sat still as my sobs receded and I wiped the tears from my eyes. My head swirled - I had never once thought to count the contents. I had imagined that when there was enough I would somehow know, that a red flashing light would trip inside my head and sirens would herald the news.

As I sat on the floor the last ten years of one-track mindedness squashed itself into a dough-like mess inside my brain until suddenly I knew. The clouds lifted and I knew that I had to empty that little broken and cracked piece of pottery of its inner self. With renewed energy I pulled and tugged every last scrap of paper and metal object from the inside of that pot until it was bare, and around me lay a mountain range of notes and coins, the foundations of a dream that had not moments ago lain shattered between my legs.

That day I counted. I counted well into the evening and I counted until I could count no more. I counted every single penny, once, twice and again, until my fingers ached. I counted until there was no more left to count.

I woke up the next morning feeling wide-eyed and different. I felt the change without first remembering what it was. Then I saw at all in startling clarity, the piles of notes and coins looking up at me expectantly, the cracked coffee pot hiding disdainfully under bed where it had been pushed. I knew then that it was time.

I never went back to that coffee shop again. Even later on I could never walk past the place and I never told the owner why I had left. He called the house a couple of times. My mother answered those calls and commiserated with the owner. Had I not been listening Im sure she would have said "Yes, my child is sick," but somehow she refrained from doing so. And never once did my parents ask me about the sudden change or what my future plan was. I guess that they had long since given up hope.

The friendly bank manager looked at me and nodded his head.

"Sign here and here," he said in bored monotone.

Before I knew it, I was back out on the street with a bank account and a small loan.

I spent the first few weeks of my new life doing nothing. I walked around the streets in aimless frustration, my parents silent 'disapproval' dripping from the ceilings every time I returned home. It took me a long while but eventually I grasped life by the horns and rented a tiny little place beside the river, a minute segment of the world which was hopefully to become the little caf of my dreams.

And then I worked. I worked every day and long into the night. I cleaned and I repaired, I changed and I adapted and every step of the way I cried as I struggled to turn the mess that I had taken-on into some form of functional reality.

Situated beside the picturesque river, perfect in all forms until a deep breath is drawn. Then the nauseating smells of discarded rubbish and polluted water hit like a punch to the stomach. It was a nice place from far away but right-up next to the banks, upon seeing the discarded prams, the thrown plastic bags and the empty bottles all congealing together across the waters surface, the truth shone out - it was all that I could afford.

I often disappeared inside myself during those days. Mostly I cried myself to sleep under the chipped Formica counter that I so despised. But in the morning I would unwind myself from my cramped misery with renewed vigour. I sanded floors and filled holes in the walls. I painted cheerful designs on the tiles in the bathroom and I stripped weeds from a garden that had been disguised as an industrial waste-tip. Slowly but surely and from greyness, my place started to take colour and despite my nightly tears a strong light continued to burn at the end of a very long tunnel.

My parents never knew what I was doing and they never asked. My mother never even enquired about the money that she no longer received and I never told her why. They never said a word and I think that I no longer existed in their minds, the disdain dripping from the walls having been covered by blind incomprehension.

I built that place-up with my own bare hands. I used my savings sparingly and only when I really had to. I bought furniture from second hand shops and I scraped them until at last the wood materialised. I bought novelty cups from flea-markets and at bargain sales, all of interesting shapes and designs and I found discarded lights and fittings from the curious electrician next door.

I learnt how to carve wood, to tile a bathroom, to plaster walls, to rewiring and I learnt how to grow roses.

As time went on and as the place took shape I stopped crying and I worked harder. I worked till my hands were raw and my head ached. I worked until I could no longer stand up. I would often fall asleep where I fell only to start again before the sun rose over the tops of the belching factories beyond. I worked like I had never worked before!

One day, I had the chairs, the tables, the cups and saucers, the decorations and the menus. I even had the coffee, the sugar and the milk. I was all ready to go and I knew that I was at the gate of my dream. I had to open up the front door, to take the padlock off the front gate and to roll out the red carpet.

I could no longer pretend that a wall needed painting, a tile needing changing or a chair required a second coat of varnish. I had in fact over-painted the walls, applied needless extra coats of varnish and I had replanted the flowers in the garden until they were back where they had come from. It was time to let the customers in.

Sitting there, as I waited behind my counter, I could see the river and the industrial monstrosities beyond. I could see the blackened factory buildings in various states of disrepair and the untouched garbage that lay around the oasis that was my Cafe. I sat there in my own paradise surrounded by the failings of industry and its discarded waste and I waited for the first contact with a customer, one whose arrival would truly endorse the fulfilment of a life-long dream.

I frequently took to looking out at the mess that existed and I began to wander if I would ever make contact with reality. I wandered if my dream would ever be realised.

He walked in through the door and he looked surprised. He walked tentatively forwards, becoming momentarily shocked as I rushed to greet him. He looked around with his eyes wide open and then he said, "A coffee please."

He never said anything else. He sat there sipping his coffee slowly, all the time looking out of the door to the river beyond, his face turned away from me as I stood nervously at my counter. I wished then that I could close the curtains and lock the door to shut out the view and the smell, leaving us together inside the warmth of my creation. But I could do nothing. I was too scared to ask him if everything was okay, to walk over and smile at him or to even move when he soon stood up and left.

He left as abruptly as he had come. He stood up without a backward glance and he walked out of the door, leaving behind an empty cup and some loose change. He left and I shook in near breakdown not knowing what to do next.

He came back the next day. He came in and he sat down at the same table and he asked me for a coffee. I wanted to hug him then and say "thank you," but instead I poured him a coffee and I watched his back as he stared out of the door at the polluted river and the junkyard beyond.

He came back the next day and the next. Then one day he came with a lady and some children. One day he came with some friends and then they came without him. Soon they came with their friends, work mates and families and they kept on coming back, day after day after day.

Every day, from that first contact onwards, I would be rushed off my feet. I could no longer sit until the last customer had left and then I would sink to my knees in exhaustion. But I was happy at last.

Every day for many he had quietly asked for a coffee and every day he had left without further exchange. He left a card one-day. He left a card on the table where he had always left the empty cup and the change.

The card read thank you for building a paradise in hell. He left that card and I never saw him again. He left that card and with it he left his friends and his peers and they never stopped coming in and they never stopped thanking me for such wonder.

I paid my Bank Manager back. I gave him all that he had given to me and I started to have extra money to play with. I started to give my mother some money again and for the first time in my life I treated myself to some nice clothes and some decorations for my caf. My mother never asked me what I was doing, nor did she ask me where the money came from and I never told her.

They came in one day. My mother and my father came into my cafe with surprise in their eyes, surprise that a paradise could exist in the middle of hell. And then they saw me serving customers and they could see the smiles that lit up my face. They were puzzled. They could see a new and bright light, one that shone and sparked! They sat down hesitantly with the years of confused hostility and disappointment feeling out-of-place beside them. I brought them coffee without their asking. I placed the cups in front of them and I returned to serving others. They left without a word but they came back after a few days. They came in often after that. They came in and had coffee, and if I was not busy I would talk to them, tentatively at first and if I was too busy they would simply stare out at the mess beyond. They never mentioned or discussed the missed years and we never talked about the success that I had created.

I have my dream, I live it every day and perhaps somewhere deep down my parents wishes for me had also been fulfilled. But I know not.

I now have total reality in the little paradise in hell that I created. The little cracked and broken coffeepot and the card from my very first contact sit on the shelf above my counter, a reminder of the many rungs of the ladder that I had climbed to quell the hurricane that had swirled inside me!

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