I wrote this short story in response to this prompt: Draft a story in which a single impossible event happens in the everyday world.
I love magical realism – stories where fantasy and real life collide. The interplay between the fantastic and the everyday is what inspires me as a writer. I hope you enjoy this wintery tale!
I’m not a coffee drinker. Can’t stand the stuff. Makes me jittery, sweaty, like I’m about to combust. On my walk to work each morning I pass three coffee shops. Couldn’t tell you if they actually sold coffee or whether it was all an elaborate façade. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been inside.
Well, except that one time.
It was the snow that made me do it. It was a Thursday morning in February and bitter cold outside. That wasn’t going to deter me from getting my steps in. I am committed to that little watch that tells me, audaciously, it’s time to walk around. Besides, I can’t drive. And I hate buses. Hate any public transport to be honest. It’s all the people.
So I am walking along my usual route through what has, frankly, become a blizzard. Not a soul in sight. Just me and my headstrong ideas about step counts. Regretting it. And then that little watch vibrates and at first I think, for God’s sake I am walking can’t you tell, but when I look at it, I realise it’s my boss calling.
I fish my phone out of my pocket, remove my glove with my teeth, and numbly answer the call.
‘Anne, hi,’ I say.
‘Bad news,’ Anne says. ‘I can’t get to the office. Neither can Paul. Trains are cancelled every which way and I’ll be damned if I’m going on a dual carriageway in this arctic weather. So, fuck it. Take the day off. The pitch can wait til this snow melts.’
I am incredulous. A day off? 96 hours before the biggest pitch in Spencer Yarbury Consulting Inc.’s history? Is she raving barking screaming mad?
‘Right, I’d better go,’ Anne continues. ‘The damn cat is scratching my Ghanaian happiness mask again and I left the water gun upstairs. See you tomorrow, hopefully.’
Anne rings off. I stand for a moment with the phone to my ear, my exposed hand practically frost bitten. I am shaken. I haven’t had a day off in seven months, three weeks, two days precisely. I hated it. 25 days of annual leave is the bane of my life. What am I supposed to do with all that time? I don’t have hobbies or friends or even a cat. I am a machine. I work. But now Anne has taken work away from me, forcibly, yanking it from under my thrice-socked and booted feet.
So I have a day off. On a Thursday. 96 hours before the biggest pitch of my life. And I am slowly freezing to death.
I put my phone away and stuff my hand back into my glove. I evaluate my options. I could go home. But the public footpath behind me stretches into white oblivion, the overhanging trees frosted, the tarmac iced. Also, I can’t feel my feet anymore. I wonder if this is because of all the socks.
Ahead, the footpath curves around a quaint row of cottages to join the high street. I don’t fancy becoming an ice sculpture so I press on, squinting through the giant blobs that settle unkindly on my nose and cheeks. If I am lucky, the library will be open. I can get online and research the client, maybe even cross-reference some data. The thought cheers me.
But the library is shut up. Its bleak, brutalist façade judges me, stranded out here in my bobble hat and snood and mock-down coat. Everything else seems shut up too. Clearly the shop owners, like Anne, have decided it’s simply not worth opening on a day like this. Weaklings, the lot of them. No commitment to their work. My teeth chatter as I peer into the white mist. The high street is silent, ghostly, but right at the end, a shop front glows. I shuffle toward it, watching every step for fear I might slide to my death. That would be a story. Talk of the town. I’d rather preserve my pristine anonymity.
At last I reach the shop. It’s a whimsical affair – an old building, quietly sinking into the ground, its snow-capped roof sagging in the middle. The walls are pastel pink, the curtains in the bay window baby blue. A cheery sign over the yellow door reads, Buns & Brews. There’s even a charming illustration of a teacake and a steaming cup. It’s saccharine. It’s the last place in the world you’d ever find me. But warm light streams out of the window and the smell of baking pastries seeps from under the door and I think actually, I could really do with a hot chocolate. So I turn the handle – a bell tings – and I step inside.
I am assaulted with heat. The café is a sweetly-scented oven. Immediately I remove my hat and loosen my snood. Wooden chairs and tables, too many for the space, are crammed in at jarring angles. Every single one of them is empty. The walls are covered in ditsy floral paper that is, thankfully, obscured by shelves teeming with cups, teapots, jars and framed sketches of cups, teapots and jars. I feel as though I’ve stepped into a shrine to British tea culture.
I manoeuvre my way to the counter. A pastry case sits, proud and well-stocked, beside the old-fashioned till and incongruously modern card machine. There’s no one in sight. I clear my throat.
‘Hello? Are you open?’
A woman pops up from behind the counter and I flinch, dropping my hat in alarm. I swoop to pick it up. It’s expensive wool, not the sort of hat you throw around the place. When I straighten up the woman is staring at me. She has red hair and I can tell it’s fake – too bright and brassy. Still, she makes it look right. Like she’s correcting God’s mistake in not making her a redhead. Her dark eyes are a little too large, a little too protruding. She’s lined them with thick kohl. The effect is an intense stare, like whatever she is doing has captured her attention wholly.
‘What can I get you?’ She smiles and I swear I forget how to talk.
Those wide eyes look at me, expectant. My order falls off my tongue in a clumsy stammer and then I stand looking at her when I should be tapping my phone on the card machine. She asks me if I’d rather pay by cash. I almost drop my phone in my haste to make the payment.
‘Take a seat,’ she says. ‘I’ll bring it over.’
Cheeks burning, I turn away. I walk on fawn-like legs to the weathered leather couch in the window. As I slump into it, I peel my snood over my head, unzip my coat. It really is hot in here. At the counter, the red-haired woman pours milk into a metal jug, humming to herself. I hate humming. Usually. But I find myself listening. She has a nice voice.
My watch vibrates. Instinctively I stand up but it’s only a news alert: freak snow storm terrorises Suffolk! I sit down again, shaking my head at the state of modern journalism.
Then I see that the woman behind the counter is no longer behind the counter but standing right in front of my table. She smiles again and I sink deeper into the sofa, melting under her gaze. In her hand is a huge flowery mug on a small but equally flowery saucer. She sets them in front of me. The smell of chocolate and whipped cream and gently poaching marshmallows wafts my way, intoxicating.
‘Would you like some cake?’ She asks.
It’s almost an indecent question. It’s eight o’clock in the morning. My porridge is barely digested. I haven’t met even a quarter of my step goal since the snow scuppered my commute. Really I shouldn’t. But she is delightful. I want to see her smile again. So I nod.
‘I know just the thing,’ she says and snaps her fingers.
A huge wedge of espresso-coloured cake appears, layered with beige cream and topped with crushed walnuts. I gape at it. How did it…where did it…I struggle for a coherent thought. I want to demand a rational explanation but the woman – the enchanting, beguiling, impossible woman – is gone.
Now I am raving barking screaming mad.
Perhaps this is an extreme reaction to the weather – a hallucination caused by prolonged exposure to freezing conditions. I reach out and poke the paisley plate. It’s cool and ceramic. I lean in and sniff the cake. Nothing occult, just the rich smell of sweet coffee. I pick up the fork and nudge the tines into the soft belly of the sponge. The fork sinks and comes out smeared with cream. Like a snake stalking its prey, I approach the fork, inspecting it for anything unearthly. But it remains a fork. My tongue darts out and licks it. The bittersweet taste of coffee and cream fills my mouth. I cringe and take a cleansing drink of hot chocolate.
So the cake is there. Impossibly.
For a moment I sit and stare at it. It has perplexed me. Incensed me, even. I am a data woman and I despise mysteries. There has to be a reasonable explanation.
Refusing to believe this isn’t entirely normal, I call into the empty café:
‘Excuse me! I don’t like coffee.’
This time, there is no woman. Just a crisp click. The cake on the table disappears and is instantly replaced by another: tawny, streaked with orange, topped with cream cheese, dusted with cinnamon.
I shoot out of my seat. This is too much. This is unnatural. Unreasonable. Uncanny. I shove my hat back on my head and bustle through the too-hot, too-cluttered shop, bursting onto the frozen street. I hasten – no, I run – honestly, me, running! I fly from the cafe like I have no deep-seated fear of falling and being made fun of. I am the wind itself as I soar down the high street and back onto my well-trodden public footpath. I don’t stop running until I collapse against my own front door and my watch vibrates and tells me, well done! You’ve reached your target heart rate.
You can see why I don’t go into coffee shops.