FICTION: Coffee and You

We’ve been having trouble for a while but more keeps coming.

The Area Manager staples his new plan for reform on the wall and then leaves with his briefcase and vanilla flat white. He’s been here for a week reviewing the place, and now he’s gone the office and the trouble are back to being ours. This is how we like it. We stop taking our lunch breaks in the basement and have them in the office again, scattering crisp packets and plates sticky with melted cheese from our packet Paninis over the desk.

“Guys,” Lois says. We are all lined up along the counter looking out over the café and onto the street at a homeless man who may or may not fall over. It’s four in the afternoon, usually our busiest time, but it is raining outside and so all the shoppers have piled into the Intu Centre and gone for coffee there. There are a few tables of customers, one tapping keys on his laptop, one wiping pureed food off her crying baby’s mouth and another watching the same homeless man we’re all watching.

“Jesus, he’s off his tits,” Lois says, and we all agree. “Guys, I was in the basement having my lunch and the light kept turning off by itself.”

Lois has always taken her lunch in the basement and has carried on even though the Area Manager has left. Today, she explains to us, she went down there with the veggie rice she cooked the night before, and her sketchbook and pencils, and sat in the den she’d made out of old take out cup boxes and broken patio furniture. The basement belongs to us (the city’s shittiest Coffee and You cafe), HSBC and what used to be a British Home Stores but now is being boarded up and having a mural painted on it which says “Nothing ever happens in Derby.”

We aren’t supposed to store stuff in the basement but we do, extra cups and lids, Christmas decorations and that bike that someone wheeled into the café and never came back for. There is a room down there with just a set of our old lockers in it. If you pass through that you get to the room with Lois’s den and if you pass through that there are two large empty rooms. The light’s gone in one of them.

When Lois was eating her lunch, she explains, another light went out.

“Hello?” she’d said and paused for a second. Then she got up and put her head round the doorframe into the dark room. She flicked the switch and the light came back on. “Fucking weird.”

It happened again a moment later when she went back to her rice. She flicked it on one more time and then when it turned off again she shoved the rest of her lunch into her mouth, swigged from her lukewarm hazelnut latte and went back upstairs.

Kath, who is the Assistant Manager, was in the office on the phone with the actual Manager, writing down the revised staff schedule.

“You alright, Lo?” she mouthed when she when she saw Lois pausing at the top of the basement stairs.

Lois nodded to Kath and then she headed out to the café to tell us.

“Ooooh no,” Charlie says, “Don’t say that.”

Charlie is the only one who had never taken her lunch in the basement. While the Area Manager was here she sat on the stairs and muttered, going off on one about the tall guy who told her the latte she made was too foamy, or the woman with no teeth who said the cappuccino she made wasn’t foamy enough. She hates the basement. Once she was sent down for cups and she swears to God she heard Momo calling her name somewhere off in another room down there. He wasn’t there, and she found him at the espresso machine making a Cortado and talking to Jean from HSBC about her new baby.

“Calm down,” Momo says about the light, “It’s probably just faulty.”

“But I kept turning it back on and it was fine.”

“It’s the ghost, I’m telling you now,” Charlie says.

“Don’t be an idiot, Charlie,” Eliza says. “It’s just this pissing store. They won’t give us a refurb, so things break. What a shock.”

“Let me go down and see,” Momo says and the rest of us start to follow.

“I’m not going,” Charlie says.

“Good, you can man the bar.”

“Rather do that than get killed by a ghost. And when you all die I’ll get all your hours.”

We are about to go downstairs, without Charlie, when Kath comes out from the office.

“I’m so sorry, guys, but I have to send some of you home. Eliza, Momo and Charlie. You started first. It has to be two of you. It’s not me, it’s her. I told her it was quiet and she asked me why we still had so many staff on shift.”

This week more than one person has been sent home every day. There just aren’t enough customers anymore. Momo has told the rest of us of the glory days many times, the days before the Intu shopping mall was built and they opened three new Coffee and You stores inside with shiny red coffee machines and freshly painted walls. Before the amount of homeless people hanging out on the benches doubled, then tripled. Before that, everyone wanted to work here, there was a queue to the door every single day but instead of struggling there was enough staff on to whack out coffees bam, bam, bam and still take the bins out to the back alley.

There was a joke that the Backwards Man, a homeless guy who walked around town backwards looking for the right combinations of numbers in newspapers, parking meters and our receipts, had cursed the store because someone on the old team hadn’t let him come inside on a rainy day. Apparently, that was the reason everything was getting worse and worse and nothing seemed to make it better.

Momo looks around at the rest of us now. He had to take Charlie to Hair and Beauty College a few days ago because he knew she didn’t have money for the bus and her grandparents don’t drive.

“The lights gone in the basement,” he says to Kath, “I’ll change the bulb, then I can go.”

“Me too,” Eliza says, “I have Uni work I should be doing anyway.”

“Thank you guys, I’m sorry.” Kath deflates, her large boobs sagging and her work shirt creasing under them. She follows them out into the office where they get their coats on.

Momo gets his cigarettes out of his pocket, “Don’t you worry about it, Kath. As long as I got money for these little bastards.”

“Not your fault,” Eliza murmurs, head down on her phone, texting her boyfriend to come and pick her up.

“I’m taking some chocolate muffins home for my Mum though,” Momo says.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Kath says, “God, I’m not going to tell her. Just make sure the CCTV doesn’t catch you.”

The Area Manager’s reform includes two extra CCTV cameras to be added, codes on the bathroom so no one can deal drugs in there and ultra violet lights above the toilets so no one can see their veins and therefore can’t take heroin. It also involves cleaning the store from top to bottom. Us, cleaning the store from top to bottom.

The Manager decided to add her own plan because apparently every problem the Area Manager found was our fault. We weren’t cleaning the syrup bottles right, and we hadn’t emptied the bins one day because we had a rare busy morning and there was only two of us on shift. She’d been off work the weeks the Area Manager was here because she had a family wedding, then she was ill, then she had annual leave. Apparently we had continued to stress her out from the comfort of her living room. As punishment she stripped away our benefits; no free food at the end of the day, no free coffee unless we were working, no phones in our aprons, no extra pay if we ran over the half an hour we were allotted to finish the close down. This was until we got our act together.

Momo takes three chocolate muffins in a takeaway bag and then gets a lightbulb out the cleaning cupboard. Eliza gets the step ladder and they both go down to the basement. Momo climbs up towards the broken bulb and Eliza holds her phone light as high as she can so he can see what he’s doing.

“I know we pick on Charlie about it,” Momo chuckles, pushing his glasses up his wrinkled nose and twisting the lightbulb into place, “But it is fucking scary down here.”

“Scarier up there.”

When they try the switch it still doesn’t work. They try the other one that doesn’t turn on. They try both again.

“Guess they’re just broke,” Eliza says, “Fuck it. My boyfriend’s here.”

Momo flicks the dark lightbulb with his fingers. “Not my problem,” he says and then they go back upstairs.

*

Nothing really happens in the Basement after that for a week or so except that Lois, the one who saw the lights go off, keeps having nightmares about it. She only tells Charlie, because the rest of us would make fun of her, and only because Charlie notices she’s going out to vape twice as much as she normally does and asks her what’s wrong. We all find out though. Nothing stays secret in this place.

“In the dream the whole store goes dark, and then we try and go outside but the whole city has gone dark, and I look around and everyone has gone dark and blended in, except me. It’s like the apocalypse or something.”

Its midday and we’re at our busiest time of the day which is still not that busy and she talks in a low voice that can only just be made out in the midst of the few customers that have chosen us instead of another Coffee and You.

“You don’t really think it’s something like supernatural though, do you?”

“Nah,” she says, pulling three coffee shots out of the grinder. Charlie and Lois finish two flat whites for two men in suits. We always have a competition of who can draw the best flower in the milk and then ask the customers which one they like. Sometimes they choose, sometimes they just stare at us and say thank you and take their drinks, or they just take their drinks like we aren’t even there. That’s what happens today.

“I’ve always had nightmares.” Lois says, knowing Charlie is still thinking about it too. “From when I was a kid. It’s just a bit fucked up.”

“Hi Girls!” Margie, who comes in everyday and gets a medium cappuccino, says as she pushes her tray down the counter. “What’s fucked up?”

“Lois,” Charlie says and Lois shoves her.

“Oh,” Margie says, tilting her head and smiling at them. “Thought you were talking about the store.”

“Well that too,” Lois says as she pours milk into the metal jug and starts steaming it. It squeals under the heat.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if they close you down.”

“You could always go to the other one in the Intu centre. Or the other one in the Intu Centre. Or the other one in the Intu Centre. Or Starbucks” Charlie says, getting the coffee shots ready for the next guy who has ordered four lattes and four babycinos as the kids he is with spray their brought-from-home biscuits around the carpeted section of the floor.

“I get the picture, Charlie,” Margie says, nodding to Lois for her chocolate sprinkles, “This Coffee and You has character. It has charm.”

“The charm is why they want to close us down,” Lois says, more to Charlie than Margie who ignores it.

“Like Momo, look at this boy.”

Momo has been wiping a table nearby but comes over at the mention of his name. Margie squeezes his cheeks.

“How you doing, Margie?” Momo says.

“Not too bad, my darling. I was just talking to the girls about them trying to close you down.”

“Well, we’re tough here, Margie.”

“I know you are, darling. This city is tough. We’ve always been industrial. We’ve always worked with our hands. My father worked at International Combustion, you know, that’s what Rolls Royce was called before they bought it out.”

Margie talks about this a lot. It’s the beginning of a ten minute inescapable conversation coloured with the characters of her father, his father, his father and their personal role in the industrial revolution.

“How’s Paws doing?” Momo says quickly.

“He’s not good, darling, they said they might have to, you know, soon, you know.”

We are still making coffee and serving and Momo takes Margie away to talk about the cat. It’s drizzling outside and we have the heating on so the windows are steaming up. Two people start fighting in the street and we can see them bobbing up and down in the patchy gaps of condensation. A crowd of Derby pedestrians starts to gather, wondering if they should call the police or not, hiding their children’s eyes and complaining to each other about how it never used to be like this. Some are holding their phones up and filming it.

It’s not our problem until the two men fighting crash into one of our outside tables and an ashtray falls the floor and shatters. The whole store gasps. People stand up to get a better look, others distract their children with marshmallows or cookies, and some look at us. “What are you going to do about this?”

“I’ll go and tell Kath,” Momo says and he leaves us to glance from coffee to fight, from lattes to chaos, and runs to find Kath. She is holding a mop and a broom heading towards the toilets.

“Two men are fighting outside. They knocked down our table and broke something.”

“Here, take this,” she thrusts the broom at him, “I’ll call the police.”

The police already know but aren’t there yet. The fight has moved over to the metal benches opposite the café and has woken up a comatose homeless guy high on God knows what. One of the men, the one who was doing badly for most of the fight, who probably has some of our ash tray stuck in his ass, and is bleeding from the nose, ducks out from the other guys grasp and bolts. He parts the crowd instantly, people yell out and pull their children and friends aside. The second guy runs after him, having the same effect. After a stunned second, everyone walks on, heading to McDonald’s or Primark or into the unnatural lights of the Intu centre. The police arrive.

Momo sweeps quickly and efficiently. “Sorry mate,” he says to passers-by and customers, “Please don’t come too close,” or “Be careful,” or “I know, it’s awful isn’t it?”

Kath calls the Manager. She doesn’t pick up her phone.

This is when The Backwards Man, who has watched the whole fight from near our outside tables decides to come in and hold up the queue by buying his marshmallows, one by one, and asking for each receipt. The rumour is that the numbers he looks for are the exact hour, minutes and seconds right before his young son was hit by a car. That’s also why he walks backwards, so he can always see cars coming.

He’s usually quiet, doesn’t say much apart from his order but today he does.

“It’s going to get worse. Something is coming.”

Lois and Charlie try not to laugh.

“What’s coming?”

“I don’t know. But it’s coming for you. Coming for all of us.”

“Oh no,” Lois says and then yells to the next customer to get started on their order.

“Carry on ignoring it. It’ll get you first,” Backwards Man says and then he walks off, backwards.

“Just fucking trying to survive here,” Charlie mutters to herself.

We all are.

*

The next Sunday we all gather at the shop at seven, when the café closes, half of us in our regular clothes that look bright and wrong next to those of us in our uniforms. We gather at the bar, then Kath disappears to answer the phone. Lois arrives to the gathering late because she had stepped in some vomit on the way here and had been rinsing it off in the back alley with hot water from the boiler. She comes back with one of her shoes off and when we all look at her she holds it up and says “It’s still wet.”

Kath comes back from the office.

“That was her,” Kath says, “She’s not coming. Lemon-Drizzle is sick.”

“Who the fuck is Lemon-Drizzle?” Charlie says.

“Her dog,” Momo says.

“What a fucking joke.”

“Can we report her again?”

“Is there any point?”

“Also,” Kath says, “Mark has to work tonight so he is dropping Joey off here. I’ll try and give him some colouring or something so we can clean but that little shit has been driving me crazy lately.”

“We can watch him as a team,” Momo says.

“Thank you, guys.”

When he gets there, we heat Joey up a Ham and Cheese toastie, sit him out of the view of the CCTV and get to work. Momo does the floors, getting down on his knees and scrubbing in between the tiles with those foamy wire brushes. Lois tips all the packets out of the sugar stand and pours hot water in there to melt all the escaped sugar. Eliza holds the ladder for Charlie as she dusts the air vents. Kath scrubs the toilets. They’re her biggest nemesis.

“I’ve run out of bleach,” she says when she re-emerges.

Joey runs at her legs and says “I need a new nappy.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

Momo stands up and wipes the sweat from his forehead, “I’ll get you the bleach,” he says.

“Thanks,” Kath says, “It’s in the basement.”

When Momo goes down there he finds the basement completely dark. The lights are supposed to come on automatically with the rest of the lights in the café. Momo reaches round the door for the light switch and tries it. Nothing. It stays dark.

“Guys,” he calls to us.

“Yeah?” Charlie yells back. She had come into the back to get another cloth.

“All the lights have gone in the basement.”

“What?” She appears at the top of the stairs looking down at Momo.

“I can’t see at all to replace them.”

“Don’t go in!” Charlie says, “Come back upstairs.”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s nothing. Bit weird though.”

The rest of us appear at the top of the stairs, holding dripping cloths and sponges, spray bottles of chemicals, and brooms.

“What’s going on?” Kath says.

“The lights have all gone,” Charlie.

“All of them?” Lois.

“What the fuck?” Eliza.

“Could be a monster.” Joey.

Kath pushes through us and wobbles down the stairs, “Let me through. Let’s try it.”

We all follow. Charlie scoops up Joey so he doesn’t get trampled under the rest of our feet. Kath reaches the bottom of the stairs and peers round the doorway. The rest of us peer too, over the top of Kath or round the side of her and Momo.

“It’s dark as fuck,” Lois says.

“Don’t say eff around Joey,” Charlie says.

“He already knows it,” Kath says and she reaches around and hits the light switch once. Nothing. Then again.

The light flickers on.

“See there you go,” she says, and turns to go into the crowd of us.

“Doesn’t look very healthy,” Momo says.

The light bulb is dim, emitting a slightly green looking glow and there are corners of the room that are dark. Lois breaks away from us and goes into the basement, heading towards her den.

“What are you doing?” Charlie says.

“I’m getting my sketch book before it gets dark again. There is a really good drawing in there that I want to keep.”

As she goes into the next room, the darkness from the corners of the room seems to come to life, it begins to spread out in curling wisps, long black clouds like spindly hands reach out.

“What the fuck?” Eliza.

“Shit,” Momo.

Charlie screams.

“What, what, what, what?” Joey.

“Lois!” Kath.

Lois runs back with her sketch book under one arm. “Guys, get out, get out.” she says and runs past us. We all start running up the stairs, Charlie still clutching onto Joey who is looking over her shoulder back down at the basement and grinning.

We shut the door to the back room and go out to the bar and end up behind the coffee machine near the window all yelling at each other about what’s going on. The Backwards Man walks past, backwards, and he peers at us through the window. We go quiet. Kath smiles and waves and he looks at us blankly then walks on.

“It’s the Backwards Man’s curse,” Charlie says.

“It must have been some sort of mould,” Momo says, “Let’s be rational.”

“That was not mould,” Lois says. “It was moving.”

“Some sort of airborne mould?” Charlie says.

“Is that a thing?” Kath asks.

“Maybe on David Attenborough in some far reach country where no one lives. Not in fucking Derby,” Eliza says.

“We have to call the police,” Charlie says.

“And say what? They won’t believe us.”

“There is nothing to believe. There must be a logical explanation here,” Momo says.

“Maybe we should call head office,” Charlie says, “If it is mould.”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Eliza says.

“Eliza!” Momo says.

“Fuck off, Eliza,” Charlie says, holding tears back.

“That’s what will happen though isn’t? Head office gets wind of this and they’ll shut us down in a heartbeat. We won’t have time to take a breath.”

We are all quiet. We look around the soapy sponge abandoned in the middle of the floor which is half bright and half dull, at the ladder pointed at the air vents with no one on it, a mop lying across the top of the bucket and dripping onto the floor in a puddle. It smells like dirty nappies, used coffee grounds and bleach.

“Right, Kath?” Eliza says.

“Yeah.”

There is another long pause. Joey struggled to get down from Charlie’s arms and she lets him. He gallops off into the store growling “raw, raw, raw it’s a mean Mrs Monster.”

*

Kath gets a bunch of take-out cups and makes chamomile tea for everyone. We sit around one of the tables and sip it, quietly, while Joey plays inside a large box that the toilet roll gets delivered in making monster noises. Charlie starts crying and saying that she can’t lose her job because it will take a month to get signed up for unemployment benefits and to be honest, no one is going to give them to her if she says she lost her job because of a growing darkness in the basement.

We tell her to calm down. We decide that Momo should go down and investigate, because he is the only one of us with an absolutely firm belief that there is a logical explanation for this, and he does go down because he wants to prove it to us. The braver of us (all but Charlie) stand at the top of the stairs while he goes down and shine our phone lights down there as the first room is now dark too.

“I can’t really see much,” Momo says, standing at the doorway and looking in.

“We used to have a big torch somewhere. For finding keys and shit behind the counters,” Kath says.

“Yeah, we keep it in the basement,” says Lois.

“Right, fuck it. I don’t get paid enough for this shit,” Momo says and goes in.

The rest of us wait.

“What’s happening? What’s happening?” Charlie says from the doorway, covering her eyes.

“Momo’s gone inside.”

“What?”

“I’m fine,” Momo calls from inside the basement, “I just can’t see a bloody thing.”

“Can you find your way out?”

“I’ve worked for this place for almost ten years, I can find my way out.”

“Come out now!” Charlie yells, but doesn’t move towards the door.

“We should have got some rope or something and tied him onto it,” Lois says.

“Will you lot calm down,” Momo yells, “I found it!”

“The torch?”

“Yes,” Momo says. “It’s working, kind of, it’s a lot dimmer than usual.”

“Just come out,” Kath says.

“It’s seems fine. Just dark.”

A small beam of light appears and then Momo, looking the same in his crumpled Barista shirt with the Coffee and You smiley face on his chest.

“Doesn’t explain what the fuck it is,” Charlie says.

“Just darkness I guess.”

“Why though?”

“Fuck knows.”

We conclude that whatever it is it doesn’t seem dangerous but that it’s definitely spreading. Momo says that the light seemed to work on it, and that maybe we just need stronger lights or more lights. We finish cleaning the store and then go home. Kath takes three Ham and Cheese toasties, four tuna melts and five little apple packets, all brandished with the Coffee and You smile, when she thinks no one is looking.

*

At six am the next morning we all come into work, even if we aren’t supposed to be there, because this thing is all of our problems if the Manager or Area Manager find out or if it starts to cover the whole store and we can’t see. We all bring in lamps and torches and extension leads. The darkness is expanding and making its way up the stairs. As we turn on more and more lights it backs away.

“It’s working,” Charlie says.

“Move the lights closer,” Kath says.

We all wriggle closer, tangled up in wires and moving the lamps and torches onto different steps.

“It’s working,” Charlie says again.

“Keep going forward,” Eliza says, too loudly, “Squish it backwards.”

We manage to push it back into the basement and leave all the torches and lamps in the doorway to stop the darkness coming out again.

“Do you think it’s going to work?” Lois asks.

Kath wipes the sweat off her forehead with the sleeve of her Coffee and You shirt, “It better fucking had.”

*

Then the day goes as usual apart from that whenever one of us goes to take the bins out, or needs some extra paper towels or another bag of coffee beans someone else will go “Check on the basement as well,” in a hushed voice and the other will go “I was going to.” When they come back they will shrug and go “It’s the same,” and then dump their paper towels or beans on the side. We watch the Derby public going back and forth outside more closely and try and work out if they know what’s going on. Momo goes round to HSBC on his break to “do some personal banking” and casually lets them know about a mould problem in the basement and says they probably shouldn’t go down there. They shrug and say they don’t anyway.

Lois and Charlie don’t know what to talk about while they’re making the coffees. There is only the darkness on their minds and they can’t discuss it. They are quiet, silent even, moving around each other, steaming milk and pulling coffee shots as usual asking only the necessary questions; do you want chocolate sprinkles? Whole, Skimmed or Semi Skimmed? Oh was it not hot enough for you? I’ll make it again.

Margie, who is usually in the café at exactly ten thirty is an hour late. It’s raining by the time she gets here and her white curls have flattened out and are plastered to her face. She goes straight to Momo who is cleaning a table, dripping with every step she takes.

“It’s happened,” she says.

“Paws?”

“Yeah.”

Momo lets her hug him even though it soaks his work shirt through. There isn’t a queue because of the rain so we all go over, bringing Margie a large cappuccino with lots of chocolate sprinkles. She wipes her cheeks with the Coffee and You smiley face napkins. There aren’t many other people in the café but the ones who are there stare at us, crowding round an old pensioner who is crying her eyes out about a cat.

“We bought that cat together, you know, me and Gerard” she says.

We don’t tell her that we do know, that she has told us almost every day for as long as each of us has worked here.

“She was our only baby.”

“What about me?” Charlie says. She’s sitting next to Margie on the comfy chairs and stroking the damp arm of her coat. Margie laughs.

“Of course. I have you lot. But you lot will all go off. When I started coming here there was a whole different team. Years ago. Look at me. Waxing on about the good old days. I am such a stereotype.”

“Every coffee shop needs an old lady talking about the good old days,” Momo says. “They don’t let you stay open if you don’t have one.”

None of us really know what to say. Eliza brings Margie over a big slice of the chocolate cake and the rest of us leave Momo with her because if we aren’t making coffee we should be cleaning. That’s all we do, really, except today Charlie gets sent to Wilkos twice to buy as many lamps as she can carry which is about six if she pays for carrier bags.

*

In the afternoon we get a call from the Manager, who is still at home with Lemon-Drizzle the sick dog, and she tells us that we are having our audit prep tomorrow. This is where someone from another Coffee and You store, usually a trainee manager, comes in and completes a fake audit so we can get ready for our real audit. This is bad. It’s bad anyway, but we have a growing darkness in the basement.

We all stay after work to talk about what the fuck we are going to do. Charlie, who had left early to go to her hair and beauty practical test comes back. She passed but there isn’t time to be happy about it. She still has a year left of college that she needs money to get through. We have more chamomile tea.

“Will he check the Basement?” Lois asks.

“No other Coffee and You stores have big basements like ours so it’s not on the check list,” Kath says.

“But the emergency exits are on the checklist. And the dishwasher,” Eliza says.

“If we can keep the darkness into the basement there is no reason he will go down there.”

“We bought twelve more lamps today. It’s getting stronger,” Momo says.

“I thought you thought it was mould,” Eliza says.

“I don’t fucking know do I?”

“Calm down, guys,” Kath says, “We need to think.”

“We don’t have much more tips money left for more lamps either,” Lois says.

“Could we say we were buying stuff for the store? Like hand soap or something. And then just log it in the book,” Charlie says.

“It would get suspicious. The lamps cost like five pounds each,” Kath says, filling up her tea cup. She’s drinking tea like there’s no tomorrow.

“We could use our own money?” Charlie says.

“We don’t have any.”

“But we’ll have even less if we get shut down.”

“No one needs to spend any money,” Lois says, “I think I have an idea.”

She points outside. It’s dark and it’s raining again so there are little bubbles of rain on the window. A man in a dark coat and scruffy tracksuit bottoms is leaning in our doorway, rolling a cigarette.

“I’ll go tell him to fuck off,” Kath says, heaving herself out her seat.

“No,” Lois says, “I think he can help.”

Lois goes over and opens the door. The wind rushes in and rain spatters on the carpet where people are supposed to wipe their feet.

“Yeah, alright, I’ll move,” the guy says.

“No, it’s okay. Would you be interested in a tenner?”

The man looks at her, lights his cigarette and drags on it.

“For what?” he said, smoke puffing out with the words.

“We need a distraction. Tomorrow. We are having an audit and there is something in the basement they can’t see.”

Charlie gasps, Momo stands up to come and stop her, but Kath holds an arm out in front of him. “Wait and see,” she says.

“That sounds dodgy as fuck.”

“Do you want the money though? It would be a super easy thing. Just come in and make a scene tomorrow around eleven. Any kind of scene.”

“I want more than a tenner.”

“That’s all we can give you.”

“What about food?”

Lois looks to Kath, and the rest of us. Kath shrugs and says, “I guess, we all steal enough food from this place.”

“I want food for a month.”

“Fine,” Lois says.

“And, I wanna see what’s in the basement.”

We all wait and look at Kath. Kath goes to the door and looks up at the homeless guy.

“It’s not anything bad,” she says.

“How am I supposed to know?”

“I say we just show him,” says Lois. “He might even know what it is.”

“Is it some sort of ghost?” The man says, leering at Kath and Lois. He’s got an ugly face, wrinkled and coloured yellow from a bad diet of drugs and alcohol.

“You believe in ghosts?” Lois asks.

The man shrugs, “I could do.”

We take him downstairs. The darkness is worse. It hasn’t come any further up the stairs than it did yesterday, but it seems darker somehow. He looks into it like he is on a pier looking out to sea.

“More darkness,” he says.

“What?” Kath says.

“I didn’t see the rest of the darkness but I heard about it.”

“What do you mean?” Eliza says.

“This apparently happened to British Home Stores too but you don’t think shit like that’s true do you.”

“Is that why they boarded it up?” Kath asks.

“Must have been.”

“Is it Backwards Man’s curse?” Charlie says.

“Backwards Man’s just a guy,” the man says.

“So they’re auditing us tomorrow and if they see this they’ll shut us down instantly. So can you help?”

“I’ll help you. I’ll do it for a tenner and a toastie to go.”

“Why?”

“Because after that I’m getting the fuck out of Derby.”

*

Connor from the Coffee and You in the Intu centre, the big one on the ground floor with the squeaky-clean refurb and robotic customers who all wear suits and all order double shot medium black Americanos, arrives at eleven o clock to the second.

We hate Connor. He has worked shifts at our store before when we have had staff off ill. “Don’t you put your syrup bottles near the coffee machine? That’s what we do, it makes it so much easier.” “Don’t you start close down at three so you can get out on time? That’s what we do.” “Don’t you have the new system on your tills yet? We do. It’s so much easier.”

Connor has a clipboard and is wearing a crisp white and blue uniform that we don’t have yet. We still have the brown and beige one. Even Connor’s Coffee and You smile is sky blue instead.

“Wrong uniform,” he says when he comes through the door and sees Momo sweeping the floor ahead of him.

“We don’t have the new uniforms yet,” Momo says, “You can ring head office about it before you mark us down.”

Momo looks small and wrinkled next to Connor. He is tall and chiselled from spending a year in jail for beating the shit out of a guy in a pub. He’s passionate, the management at Coffee and You in the Intu say. He’s taken his aggression and is channelling it into being the best goddamn barista in the city and then the country and then the world. He’s exactly the kind of guy that will be Area Manager in two years.

Our homeless man, who introduced himself as Kev, is in the corner of the café sipping a latte. Lois nods to him from her position at the bar and holds up ten fingers, ten minutes, as Connor will observe us making drinks and taking orders and then will go into the back to do health and safety checks. The darkness is creeping its way up the stairs again, darker than ever, and so under no circumstances can Connor go in the back.

“If I mark you down for it,” Connor says, “They might send them sooner.”

“If you mark us down for it, they might just close us down.”

“Potentially.”

Our coffees are perfect today. Our machine is old and it drips black water out the back that we have to scrub every night but it’s the only one we know how to use.

Connor looks down at the drinks and taps his clipboard. “Nice,” he says. He picks up the flat white Eliza has made with three little hearts and a leaf running up the side and sips it.

“Time for the fun bit.”

This is when Lois nods to Kev and Kev gets up from his seat. He starts talking, loud and slurred, to a woman with a young daughter sitting near him.

“What a pretty little girl!” He says. The café starts to quiet down as people get drowned out by his voice. The child, who has pigtails tied with those hair ties with glittery bobbles on them, looks up at him and starts to cry which is a nice touch.

“Don’t cry,” Kev says, wobbling towards her.

Momo drops his broom and goes over to them. Connor watches holding the flat white mid-air between the counter and his slightly open lips.

“Sir, you seem a little drunk. I am going to have to ask you to leave,” Momo says as the child jumps into her mother’s lap and her mother clutches her. The whole café is pretty much silent.

“I’m not leaving,” Kev says.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to. Or I’ll call the police.”

Unexpectedly this is when the Backwards Man decides to turn up. He doesn’t do anything but turn around and stand in the corner and watch Momo and Kev have an argument, mumbling, swaying and holding his ten free Metro newspapers. Connor has a hard time choosing where to look. Kath pretends to call the police on her mobile. The customers in the queue tut and stare. Customers at the tables get up and sneak out. Eliza brings free cake to the mother and her daughter but it sits uneaten on their table.

Connor looks between the Backwards Man who has joined the queue but is still mumbling and Kev, who is now being escorted out by Momo and being slipped a ten-pound note, and takes a long slurp of his flat white, audible in the quiet of the café.

“Connor,” Kath says, “The police are going to be here soon. Do you mind coming back and doing your audit another day?”

“It’s not really acceptable, is it Kath?” He says.

“It’s not really our fault though is it?” Kath says.

Connor sips his flat white and shrugs, “I guess I have all I need.”

*

The next day when we come into work the darkness has crept up the stairs and the back office and dishwasher room are completely dark. All the lamps we had brought from home or bought from Wilkos are out. We send Momo into the darkness to retrieve them all and then we screw new lightbulbs into all the lamps. They don’t switch on.

We open the store as usual and Eliza stacks the dishwasher slowly in the dark. Whenever we need anything from the back room we put our hands out in front of us and feel through the darkness trying to detect the bobbly bags of beans or plastic wrap around the napkins. The phone rings about midday, and Kath walks towards the noise and bangs into the desk, and then paws her way through the files and papers to pick it up.

“It’s Connor,” he says, “I just wanted to let you know that I told head office about your problem with the homeless outside and they’re coming in tomorrow.”

We all put in a couple of quid and buy two more lamps. They burn out quickly and then we don’t have any money left, in tips or otherwise.

“What are we going to do?” Charlie says to Kath.

“I don’t know.”

We decide to shut the café and wait. We sit around a table like a group of customers and sip our tea. Momo puts his arm round Charlie and says she will get another job, that we all will, or Charlie will marry a rich stranger or inherit money from a relative she never knew she had.

After a while we realise that Margie hasn’t come in at all today, or yesterday. We worry but we realise that none of us have a number we can call or know the house number or even street where she lives.

A while after that, when we are on our third cup of tea, Lois stands up.

“Right, fuck em,” she says. “I’m getting what I can out of this.”

She goes to the fridge with the paninis and sandwiches in and stuffs a bunch in her bag. The rest of us look around at each other for a second and then get up and do the same. We take food, cups, cleaning products, toilet roll. We move quickly, getting bin bags out to fill them with things when our own bags get full. In the back we take pens and paper from the office and marshmallows and coffee beans and paper towels. We feel around to find these things, barely even noticing that we can’t see, like we have always been working in the darkness.

*

They come the next day. Three men and the Manager who hasn’t set foot in her own café for a week and a half because she hates the God awful place and is waiting it out for a promotion to an office job checking up on other managers. The men are suited, in grey and black pin stripe suits with no Coffee and You smiley faces on anything they are wearing or own.

They come about the problems with anti-social behaviour outside the café. They’ve decided that they don’t want the brand associated with this place on the high street anymore or anything that happens here. They come to start the process of shutting us down.

The Manager faints when she sees a weird creeping darkness which wisps its way out of the back room and into the main café. We didn’t open today and we are all lined up at the bar in our old issue Coffee and You shirts. They barely look at us, like we could fade away into the beige and grubby background of the café and they wouldn’t even notice.

They send us home, say they’ll sort the paperwork later, waving their hands at us as they talk on the phone to the higher ups. They bring people in to start boarding up the café up right away. Maybe there will be another mural. The Derby pedestrians stand and stare, some of them holding up their phones and recording it. A young boy at the right angle at the right time sees the darkness creeping around table legs and points to it, pulling on his father’s shirt, but then one of the suited men stands in front of him and his father pulls him away.

They wait until the entire café is boarded up, then they pick up their briefcases and get the fuck out of Derby.

Heather Cripps lives in Derby, England. She is a barista, library assistant and editor for Forge Literary Magazine.

 

 

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