[Image Credit: “On the Edges of the World” by Sophie Lécuyer]
I slide my tongue along the edge of my teeth. An image of dense brick walls shoots through me. All is even then there is a gap. This is startling. It makes me quiver and my nice steady rhythm is broken up. Marianne’s café affects me in just the same way.
The building stands in a recess right next to the railway junction. There’s a forecourt with scraps of paper and other junk lying around because the wind always seems to blow right in. A barren something about the feel. Like a gum when a tooth’s gone missing. Auntie Lena, my mother’s elder sister likes to take me out. My life goes on hold whenever we come here. Which is quite a lot. Auntie Lena can’t seem to get enough of the place. I find this mystifying. My mother knows we visit the cafe but I don’t think she’s ever been to it herself. And I never ever give her any details. Something in me knows they’re to be kept a secret.
We walk across the empty area, avoiding the drift of trash. The sight of the café behind the windows is always a bit of a shock. It never seems quite real. Although this is late April the Christmas streamers are still up. When we pass through the actual doorway Auntie Lena seems to change. She becomes ghostlike. Her face has an out of this world look about it, like someone who’s forgotten the details of the everyday. I hold onto the side of the door as I go in—my aunt is about to close it too, as though she’s by herself. I know she has forgotten me. This is frightening, yet it frees me to think about what I like.
The building rumbles each time a train goes by. Which is about every five minutes I’d say.
Windows rattle, tables jolt. Plates slide sideways. Your drink shudders in its glass then
miraculously, all turns still. You can’t relax though. You can never relax in Marianne’s café. When you are being jolted your words go bitty in your throat, so that you’re longing for the silence to come back. But when it’s quiet you’re listening out for the rumbling to start up again. Waiting for it to happen; willing it not to. You are satisfied and angry at the self-same moment when the change comes. When I’m in here it’s as though the normal world has lost its grip. This is exciting and frightening all in one go. Then there’s Marianne herself.
I close the café door behind me and follow my aunt into the room. The walls are wooden paneled. There’s an unswept look. At present the place is empty. We sit ourselves down at one of the tables. It’s totally quiet. Marianne is standing stock still in the centre of the floor as though she can’t make up her mind whether to go out into the kitchen or come across and greet us. She seems like someone who is playing a part in a show. This as the interlude. The floor is her stage. Marianne lingers in the middle of it as though she’s unable to remember her steps, and isn’t too sure how she got to be just where she is. But when the rumbling starts up again Marianne whirrs into life as though she’s seen clearly where she’s headed for, at any rate. She seems to mirror the coming and going of the trains. Waving at us majestically she turns, goes off to the kitchen to prepare our order. We have the same each time so she knows what it will be. She’s back in a couple of ticks.
By now everything has begun to rattle. There’s a tall glass on a silver-coloured tray. It is my blackcurrant tea. The glass has gone all wobbly and I have a hope it might tip over—then I won’t have to drink the stuff. But Marianne secures the tray with both hands to prevent this happening. She shunts over to us.
There is a cloudy look to the drink which Marianne is bringing. Dark blobs cluster at the lower level. When you stir it they float upwards. Yuk. My auntie says this tea is good for you but none of the other kids who come in here are offered it because it costs a lot. I try to enjoy feeling special but wish inside me I was one of them. The tea disgusts me. I blow on the surface, watch the spread of ripples, then wait. There’s a heavy sweetish smell, a purplish density. And I keep having to remind myself that blackcurrant tea is only fruit and water. At last I make up my mind and sip. I swallow, pretending it’s a jelly which hasn’t set yet. Doing this helps to make the flavour bearable. The little round tadpole shapes are sinking down as I draw in liquid. I try not to brush against them with my tongue.
Marianne hovers by our table with a lit up gleam to her, staring at me but not really seeing me. She always does this. Her eyes are glowing and yet seem blank. Then she spins sideways and scoops up a dead fly from one of the window ledges with a plastic spoon as though she’s come to terms with the ordinary world at last. I know what’s coming next as she goes to a dark dusty crack in the wooden wall panel; taps three times.
Almost at once a spider appears. This is its home I suppose. I imagine a comfy little sitting room behind the wood. A miniature version of Marianne’s own sitting room which I spy into through the keyhole of the kitchen door. There are flowery cushions and little woven mats. Spiders are good at weaving, aren’t they. Marianne places her offering in the meshy web, and the spider edges forward as though in thanks, prior to making off with the prey. Flora is the spider’s name and it looks as if it knows this when Marianne waves her hand in that flowing distracted way of hers and calls out, ‘That’s it for now, Flora dear.’ Sometimes my aunt waves in just the same way herself.
It’s all gone silent. No movement anywhere. Auntie Lena is sitting next to me at the table drinking her coffee. She always has it black but there’s a little jug of cream which she swirls round daintily, making a shape on the surface which looks like a heart. I think she is only ever truly happy when she comes to Marianne’s café. She’s told me more than once that is the world she feels she belongs to whereas the one she inhabits on a day to day basis is not. The clockwork tedium of her everyday existence makes her yawn, she says. But her eyes are all of a sparkle when we’re here. She is perched bolt upright on the front of her seat with a tense, excited look about her. As though she’s waiting for the lights to go down; the curtains to go up.
She sits with her elbows at the edge of the table her fingers displaying all her rings. Her hands swoop low from time to time like gaudy birds. First one and then the other. As she reaches for an olive, a sliver of sundried tomato, a morsel of cheese. She lifts up her coffee cup then sets it down. I can’t help wondering if my auntie would like to roll away on one of the passing trains because each time one goes by she stares hard out of the window as though she is afraid she’ll lose sight of it too soon. But no, I think she’s satisfied where she is. The trains are just part of the fun of being here. When they’re out of sight she looks around her with dreamy eyes. As though she’s picturing a world that nobody else believes in. It’s a flying swirling world if it exists at all. And most likely it does not. When I look at her I can hardly imagine that anything is solid.
Lena and Marianne were showgirls in a different life. In a life they had before I was even born. They appeared together in live hit musicals. Lena waves her hand casually when she talks about the past in just the same dismissive kind of way Marianne does when she says goodbye to the spider in the cranny of the wood. They can put things away whenever they want to but it doesn’t mean they’re gone forever. There’s a look about the two of them which somehow says nothing will ever really die.
Next minute the rumbling rises up once more. Windows start rattling, the tables wobble on their thin uneven legs. A floppy gold-coloured lantern falls down from the ceiling rose where it had been pinned. Paper streamers sway. Marianne and Lena who had both been gazing with an idle look about them zip into action at once. Marianne switches her radio on and goes to a music channel. This is a cue for the dancing to begin. They link arms and prance extravagantly round the room, legs kicking high. Toes point outwards and are then drawn in. Although no one else is present they behave as if the café seats are full. As they swing round the centre of the room they stare into the air, vague and distant. There are fixed smiles on both their faces which cannot be pinned down. Smiles which say there may be lots of people watching but they are just the audience. Their smiles seem to be for themselves alone. I’ve heard the phrase in a world of their own. And it seems to me this is the right description for the two of them at times like these. At the finish they turn sideways, hands doing a flouncy wave. They are perfectly in tune with one another. A chorus line in miniature. When it’s all gone completely still Marianne switches off the radio and picks up the fallen Christmas lantern and Aunt Lena sits back down at our table.
But they, like the spider, have a private world that nobody else can even see. This is the room at the back of the kitchen. Sometimes, when we’re at the café Marianne and Lena go off together on their own. Marianne turns the door sign over to ‘Closed’.
‘Because we don’t want to be disturbed,’ she’ll go.
‘So we can do the books,’ Aunt Lena tells me.
I saw them inside there the first time through a crevice in the kitchen door. They were sitting on a sofa and kissing. The kiss went on and on. Their hands were stroking one another’s hair. I watched for ages afraid to move, thinking they’d hear me if the floorboards creaked and be very cross. But I’ve come to believe they hear nothing outside their private world. Since then I have grown taller and can easily reach the keyhole. Every time they go to do the books I watch. I wonder what it feels like to be them.
I’ve drunk as much of the blackcurrant tea as I’m going to and pushed the glass to the far side of the table, out of reach.
‘We’ve got a bit of catching up to do,’ my auntie says suddenly glancing out at a passing train. Marianne switches round the open sign to closed and brings me a chunk of cake to keep me busy. It’s understood I must never interrupt them when they’re doing the books. I start eating the cake at once to reassure them but after a while get up to go and peek through the keyhole.
Lena and Marianne are lying together on the flowered couch. I cannot see their bodies, only the occasional flailing arm. One is flinging upwards now, I can’t quite make out whose. They are groaning softly, choir-like. Marianne has turned her head directly to the door, her lips are held wide apart. I see the dark round hollow of her open mouth, hear a gurgling that seems to be coming from her throat. Right then the rumbling of a train starts up. The gurgling and the rumbling seem to belong together. Marianne’s tongue, hot and heaving, is pressed down towards her jaw. This is sex. I’ve seen enough. Seeing is not the same thing as understanding. I don’t know why they’re doing it. I go back into the café, finish off my half-eaten slice of lemon drizzle cake.
All of this was before Marianne’s café was demolished. I’m walking with my mother along the street where it used to be. Now there’s just an empty space that extends back towards the railway lines. My mother says it is a building lot. Two trains pass in opposite directions as we look. There’s a sharp wind. Debris goes flying everywhere. Lena and Marianne have left town with some money Marianne got from the sale of the place. I wonder what happened to Flora; hope she found another secret home. I run my tongue along the ridges of my teeth. The gap isn’t there any more. Another tooth has grown and filled it up.
– End –
Jay Merill lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing and is hosting an event for the Bloomsbury Festival. Jay is runner up in the 2018 International Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt short story Prize. She is the author of two collections (both Salt): God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies and has work published or forthcoming in 3 AM Magazine, A-Minor, Brilliant Flash Fiction, CHEAP POP, The Citron Review, Crack the Spine, Ellipsis Zine, Entropy, Epiphany, Eunoia Review, Foliate Oak, Ginosko, Gravel, Heavy Feather Review, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket, Map Literary, matchbook, Matter Magazine, Occulum, Per Contra, Pithead Chapel, Prairie Schooner, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, Thrice Fiction, Toasted Cheese, upstreet Literary Journal, Wigleaf and other greats.