FICTION: Barley’s Kitchen

The coffee shop sits beneath a tall building filled with offices, filled with desks at which sit men and women in suits, speaking a corporate tongue and working each day until their eyes sting from the computers and blue shadows appear beneath their eyes. The cafe is never busy, a steady stream of regulars keep the place going but there is an element of secrecy. Don’t let the others know. Don’t let them realise this lunch time haven is here. A mother and baby group gathers there, relinquishing the safety of the suburbs to catch up in the buzz of the city, some excited to be back, ready to join the others in the floors above, while others shake their heads, wondering how they’ll cope going back to their desk after tasting freedom for all these months.

Sam is one of the few office workers who insists on taking her lunch break. Her mother has told her that eating over a computer is bad for her and somehow, of all the advice, this was the one bit that stuck. When she was a student her mother would refuse to take her lunch and dinner to her, she would get a crick in her neck and she’d damage her eyes if she never took a break. Sam took a packed lunch to work most days. Sandwiches and crisps for Mondays and Fridays, salads chopped carefully the night before, for the days in between.

But once a month, Sam would break from her routine. Rather than head for the staff kitchen to sit listening to the radio and the hum of the fridge, she would pick up her handbag, put on her coat in winter, or her jacket in summer and head down in the lift to the bottom most floor. She would step neatly and unselfconsciously through the great double doors that hinted at the offices 1920s origins and then turn right and right again, gripping the metal railing and clip clopping down the uneven steps and into the warmth and colour of Barley’s Kitchen.

The huge open plan cafe had mismatched walls in shades of yellow and blue. A sloppy bookcase with slanted shelves sat in one corner, offering visitors a chance to read and swap books. A weekly evening quiz allowed patrons to bring their own booze and test their general knowledge. Mothers happily fed their babies, fathers played peekaboo, vegans ate hummus wraps, bookworms read undisturbed and Samantha Miller sat down, ordered her usual toasty and coffee and waited.

His name was Mr Lightly and he had known her ever since she was just a little girl. He had been best friends with her father and had watched her grow up. As Sam had grown into a professional something or other, Mr Lightly had grown out his beard, let the white hairs proudly glisten and taken to dressing in at least five different colours per day. When Mr Lightly entered a room, people looked round. He had the air of a modern day St Nicholas, or a muggle born Albus Dumbledore.

‘Sam!’ He bellowed from the doorway, making a young man nearby jump. Unaware of the effect he had on a room, Mr Lightly strode toward Sam and fell into a seat beside her. ‘How are you my dear?’

‘Well, thank-you. I enjoyed the book you gave me. How are you?’

Mark nodded, eyes dancing over her. ‘I’m good too. A full set, we’re doing well. How’s work?’

As they talked about their month, Sams toasty arrived and along with it Mr Lightlys usual scone and tea. He bellowed his thanks to the waitress and then continued with his book recommendations of the month. They talked about films, the weather, politics, the state of Hollywood, the state of London, they dreamt of the places they would like to travel to, adviced each other and then, an hour after she had arrived, Sam took out her purse.

‘My turn.’

Mr Lightly sighed disapprovingly, rolling his eyes, ‘modern women.’ He tutted.

Sam stuck her tongue out at him, paid the bill and stood up.

‘Can I at least walk you out?’

Sam nodded with a smile and they headed into the cool air. Outside they hovered as they always did.

‘Next month?’

‘Next month.’ Nodded Mr Lightly, pecking her on the cheek.

Sam watched him walk away, his broad shoulders easy to spot in a crowd.

‘Who was that?’ Asked Robyn, who was heading out for a tab break.

‘A friend of mine.’

‘He looks old, thought he was your grandad.’

‘Friend of my dad, actually.’

‘What did he want?’ Frowned Robyn, struggling to light up in the wind.

‘Nothing,’ smiled Sam, ‘we have lunch once a month.’

‘Weird.’ Laughed Robyn.

Sams head snapped round to look at Robyn, hurt glinting in her eyes.

‘How’s it weird?’

‘Cause he’s old as…and you’re young!’

‘So?’

‘So…it’s weird.’

There was a long pause as Robyn filled her lungs with nicotine. Sam looked down at her feet, in the corner of her eye she could see the warm light from Barley’s Kitchen, she wished she was back in the warmth of the coffee shop.

‘God, I was only messing.’ Tutted Robyn.

Sam didn’t reply, she was distracted by the memory of lunch with her parents and Mr and Mrs Lightly, she was the only offspring between them. Those had been some of the happiest afternoons of her childhood, pretending to be an adult, laughing at jokes she didn’t understand and Mr Lightly always asking her for her opinion.

The two of them were now the only ones left.

‘Right, I’m freezing,  you coming?’

Sam watched Robyn stamp out the cigarette and then march back up through the double doors. Sam watched the doors stutter closed, before taking a deep breath and following her colleague inside.

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