She has been sitting in that dark bookshop café for longer than she cares to confess. Her daughter, who has slotted her dotty mum in between lectures and ice-hockey, is fumbling off her raincoat, drip-dropping apologies.
‘I will get us something hot to drink,’ she says.
Glass cases full of cakes, a warm waft of coffee, the nice man asking if he can help her. ‘Yes-yes, this please, and…’
And there it is, my father’s low voice looming over my shoulders, as I order a hot chocolate in a blue café. ‘Look,’ he says, as I set down the heavy cup, as I lift it again and taste, delicately, the childish cream. ‘Look, you have drunk £3.15. You fool, that’s £3.15 you’ve eaten.’ Clink, the cup on the saucer, the coins sliding down my throat.
It costs so much to keep my head these days.
‘Don’t.’ Her daughter is frowning, the hand holding a spoonful of walnut cake frozen in the air. ‘You’ve taken a bite out of £2.50,’ she says again, unable to resist. But her daughter eats on.
‘How calm you are,’ the mother marvels, and the girl laughs, sprinkling crumbs. They are so busy, dashing to societies, dashing off notes, in this clockwork city of tick-boxed dreams: there isn’t any time.
But she has a mindfulness app, a Fitbit, a boyfriend with good taste in gifts (‘I looked it up after – it was a forty quid bottle!’). And then there’s work. ‘The company is so stinking rich; it makes me sick. They’ll even send me to New York, think of that!’
‘My golden child,’ smiles the woman fondly (New York! Think of that!). She can see her little girl in fairy wings, twirling at the party in the sky while the gods shower her with gifts, and she stirs the chocolate smoothness in her glazed blue mug.
‘Papa’s sent me a postcard from Japan. Of Sakura. Cherry blossom. What have you been up to?’
Startled, she drops her knife with a clatter, wincing at the daughter’s pointed look to her missing ring. She remembers it was eighteen carat gold, but the diamond was false. There had been, perhaps, a magnificent wedding, all her friends were delighted, she was resplendent in silk and white lace. It is not her fault she has lost, is losing – losing this and that, little things, her glasses, the odd word or two. Nondescript and fumbling… a silly old woman. ‘Another script.’
‘Oh good. What about?’
‘There is a blue café,’ she says hesitantly. ‘And it rains all the time in the blue café, yet no one quite realises, and the cakes are going soft and the cups overspilling. Buried in the cakes are coins and so they keep ordering – fat little muffins, iced buns, lovely pastries – to stuff themselves – ’
‘Stuff themselves? Is it a critique of capitalism or something? How does it end?’
‘She will,’ cries the mother, rallying. ‘A man with his pocket knife. Slices them open.’
‘Look,’ says this gilded girl impatiently, a fierce intensity entering her voice. ‘Stop worrying like that. You know perfectly well that everything you touch turns into gold. I know it’s hard, but if you let go of the script the editors will take care of the rest.’
‘And turn it into gold,’ she whispers.
Her hands are shaking quietly. ‘What if,’ she says, half-pleading, half-playful. ‘I’ve had enough?’
The girl stares.
‘Now you will look after me,’ her mother says dreamily. ‘Living on cake. In a blue teapot.’ She sees her daughter’s face, and suddenly pushes back her chair.
‘I am so glad you are happy.’
Something is wrong. The angle of the café, the lines cutting across the books. She should not be seeing the door close behind her mother’s back, with this quickening sense of dread. She will open that tiny green-painted door. She will hold her hand out to her mother.
Green unfolds onto blue: that white speck in the night is her mother. She steps out and then
In the split second that widens before her eyes she can see
With a gasp her breath is caught on a cliff-hanger of sidewalk. She stumbles, hears the thud of a body on tarmac. The air is so very cold.
From the fumes of the car rises the close stench of escape.