The first time it happened, it had been a long day working in the cafe, with almost no customers since we’d opened that morning. Six A.M. every day, like clockwork. Fred always made me open up for the early rush, as he called it. Not that he would ever deign to get up that early. The early rush was my bailiwick entirely, getting there, opening the shutters, getting the water heaters going and the cookers all fired up.
Most days I’d have a dozen or so hungry taxi drivers, all parked outside in a neat little row, uniform black cabs with the odd rebel in red or green.
Today was different. It was a Wednesday, for starters. Not our best day of the week, historically. Normally we’d have enough people coming in to break even, or the odd day of profit now and then. In the winter we would always make money, people wanting to get inside out of the cold, feeling the need to get a nice hot drink inside them and perhaps even a slice or two of toast before battling their way back home through the bitter wind.
That day was our worst Wednesday ever. Fred insisted we always stayed open until at least ten, to catch the early pub crowds. Only I knew his name was Fred Smith, mind you. The name above the door read Costas Eviou. It made the locals think one of their own was making good, even if we never saw most of the local Greek Cypriot community in here. The last guy who came in was kind enough to tell me our coffee tasted, and I quote, “like warm piss gone bad.”
They’d all walk past every day and call in to me, “How’s Costas? Is business good?” Even when they could see for themselves that it wasn’t.
He had the gall to call the place Costas Cafe, but only after the coffee chain threatened legal action when he advertised as Costas Coffee. Not that he was ever here, mind you. It was almost always me, running the place on my own, opening up first thing, and shutting it all back up come ten o’clock.
It had been a god awful day though. I served a man on his own at noon. All he had wanted was one cup of tea. Nothing else, no matter how sweetly I smiled. I couldn’t tempt him to a sandwich, or toast. He didn’t even crack when I fried a couple of pieces of bread and two slices of bacon. I ended up eating that myself, as my lunch, along with a strong cup of coffee, to keep me going. I didn’t see another soul inside until just gone four PM. A young man on his way home from work.
At least that had been a full meal and some conversation.
“All right, love.”
I’d looked up and said hello. “What can I get you?”
He’d spent three seconds too long looking at my name badge. He’d taken ample time to stare at my boobs while he was down there, like a lot of men seem to. “Mandy, is it?”
He knew it was, what with the overly long glance down there. I nodded. “Yes dear, what would you like?”
From the look on his face, it wasn’t something listed on the menu behind my head. “Can you do me a full English, Mandy?”
I could, and I did, in less than seven minutes, from kitchen to plate. “One full English.” I pointed to the price on the menu. He’d asked to eat at the counter. We were otherwise dead, so it wasn’t going to hurt anyone. It certainly wasn’t a health or safety violation. To be honest, as creepy as he came off, I was still glad of the company. I stood there cleaning up, as he polished off his meal. The only other thing he wanted was some mustard which I had to go in the back for. I made sure the till was securely locked before I did. I’m not a hundred percent sure why, but I just felt like I had to.
He didn’t rob the place while I was back there though. He waited patiently for his mustard, saying thank you when I put it down. He even left me a tip when he paid his bill, without any fuss at all. And I’d had a nasty feeling he was going to give me trouble as well.
The rest of the day was a bleak silence. I tried turning the radio on for an hour, but after three minutes of terrible music and even worse disc jockey banter, I just ended up turning it off. The silence was far more preferable.
The old lady came in a little before ten, two minutes to, to be precise. She looked fine when she stood at the counter. “I know you’re about to close, but could you be an angel and do me a nice hot cup of tea, please?”
“Of course I can, love. I’d be happy to.” I smiled at her as she began to delve into her purse.
Almost right away, I saw that familiar look on her face. Either she didn’t have enough money to pay, or she had none at all. I was guessing none, from her eyes. She looked like she was about to burst into tears, poor woman. For a fraction of a second, I saw inside the purse. She hadn’t meant to tip her hand, but I could see for myself now, it was empty. Nothing but a light pink lining, and air.
She fixed me with a wavering smile. “Could I possibly ask a favour of you, my love?”
I tried to present the kindest face I could muster. “Sure, what is it?”
“Could I impose on you to stay open just a little longer than normal? Fate seems to have caught me at a bad time, and I am currently without funds. If you could stay open, I’ll pop around the corner and see if I can persuade the cash machine to give me a little something.”
I didn’t get a chance to answer. The old lady turned and walked out, and across the street. She didn’t go any further though.
Not that it mattered. The nearest cash machine was a good mile-long walk from us. Granted, the pub at the bottom of the street had an ATM inside, but it charged extortionate fees to use the damn thing. And I hadn’t seen a bank card inside her purse either. It had been one of those old single compartment jobs. She really was old, if she had one like that.
I stood there watching her mumbling to herself, then she smiled, reached into the purse and pulled out a crisp five-pound note.
I stayed open a lot longer than a few minutes for the old lady. She had two full pots of tea, at first. Then six slices of toast, with Marmite. Well, someone’s got to eat the damn stuff! It takes all sorts, I suppose.
When I cleaned her table, the old lady smiled and said, “I don’t suppose you’ve got any cakes?”
I had a feeling we might have one custard slice in the back fridge which hadn’t quite gone out of date yet. “Would a custard slice be okay? I’m not sure if we’ve got any left.”
The old lady just smiled and muttered something under her breath.
When I looked, we didn’t have any custard slices. Out of date or not. We did, however, have two chocolate eclairs, well in date. I put one on a plate with a napkin and took it out to her.
She never even got to take a bite of it. When a heart attack strikes, it is quicker than you can comprehend.
One minute she was sitting comfortably in her seat, finishing her second pot of tea. The next, she was flat on the floor, grabbing my hand. “Don’t let go, dear.”
I couldn’t reach my phone. She was gone a second later. She’d tried to say something, but whatever those last words were, they went with her to her maker.
Having witnessed the death of a human being right before my eyes, I know I shouldn’t be glad that CCTV exists.
In his previous business life as Fredrick John Smith, Costas had been robbed many times. Often at knifepoint. So many times, that he insisted each of his businesses had day-round surveillance fitted inside them.
When the police and coroner finally arrived, I was able to show them the CCTV footage. The old lady had keeled over and simply died moments later, holding my hand.
After a brief look, the coroner was able to confirm my suspicions. She’d had a massive heart attack. “Did you hear what she said before she died?”
I shook my head. “I’m afraid not, officer. She held my hand and just went, like a light going out. Can I lock up now, please? I’d rather like to go home.”
And that was how my new life started. Of course, I didn’t know it was a new life at the time. I didn’t find out until that first interaction.
It had been with a young homeless man. He’d come in for toast and a coffee I had stood there, watching him count out loose coppers, just enough for the toast only. “Oh, sorry. I’ve only got enough for the toast.”
Then the guy behind him started kicking off. I could tell he’d been itching to say something, the whole time he’d been standing there. He clearly thought the homeless man didn’t belong in a nice clean cafe. “Miss, if he can’t pay, then he has to leave. Isn’t he something of a health hazard?”
I suddenly found myself wishing the homeless man had enough to pay for his coffee. Then I just looked at the guy behind him. “You. Shut up, now. He’s got every bit as much right to be in here as you have. If you’ve got a problem with him, you can take your business elsewhere.”
At that exact moment, he started coughing uncontrollably.
I just shouted at him. “I can’t have you coughing in here near food, you’ll have to leave. Don’t come back until you stop.”
I never saw him again.
Sure enough, the homeless guy had suddenly found a two-pound coin in his pocket. “I don’t remember being given this,” he said, with a look of confusion.
I just smiled and took the money. “You’ve got it now though. Here’s your coffee love. Go and enjoy your snack. Take as long as you need.”
I didn’t think anything of it, at the time. I assumed the homeless guy had either forgotten he’d been given the money, or he’d just got incredibly lucky, finding it at that precise moment.
You don’t expect magic. It doesn’t exist, it’s a thing of fairy stories. Magic isn’t real. Until it is.
You get all kinds of people coming into a cafe. The large majority remember they are talking to another human being, those who’ve been brought up right.
Then there’s the other sort of people. Those who treat you like dirt. The ones who were clearly dragged up, and not taught any manners by their parents. If they had any parents. I soon found that magic was real, or at least small curses were.
Not the big, grand ones. Oh, you could think things like, “I hope you die in a freak yachting accident!” but it was never going to happen. I found you had to think a whole lot smaller, for it to work.
Like the man who didn’t give me enough money then accused me of short-changing him. I could have just replayed the CCTV, I had the screen right behind the till after all.
Instead, I felt like cursing him. “May your laces always be untied.”
He walked right out of his shoes as he left. That made me chuckle, I can tell you! Especially when he stepped right into a pile of fresh dog poo just outside the door.
Do you want to know what’s really odd though? I didn’t even have to go outside and clean that up either. Once he hobbled off down the road, it started pelting down with rain. Within two minutes the whole pavement was spotless.
I didn’t just get annoying people in the cafe. They were everywhere. The woman who shoved me out of the way to get the last seat on my bus home.
“May you be stung by every passing wasp.”
She lived to regret that one almost immediately. Within minutes of taking that last seat, I saw her jump off, trying to fend off two wasps.
It took time, but the answer arrived eventually.
It was deep into the coldest winter I could remember, when she came in. “Blessings be upon this humble cafe.”
I nodded at her. “Hello, what can I get you?”
She gave me the oddest smile. “It’s not what you can get me, Mandy. It’s what I can give you. Free advice, dear.”
I can hear you all thinking, okay, so she read your name off the badge on your chest. Actually no, she didn’t. I had forgotten to put it on that morning, in my haste to catch the bus on time. She’d certainly never been in here before while I had been working here. I have a very good memory for faces. The only thought which crossed my mind was that she kind of reminded me of the old lady who had died holding my hand.
“I’m Aggie. Her name was Frances, love. She was an old and dear friend of mine, and a sister in the craft. I can see that she gave you her gift too, Mandy. I don’t suppose she had time to tell you she was a witch, did she?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
“It won’t be the first time you feel like that, Mandy, and nor will it be the last. Now all the sisters know you’re here, some of them will seek you out, when it comes to be their time. Just be there for them, and hold their hands. You’ll make a good witch, Mandy. You can’t do much, right now. Only low-powered curses, the occasional small wish too. You’ll be able to help those who can’t help themselves, and sort out those who should really know better. From the look on your face, I’d say you’ve already started in that field?” Aggie cackled.
I’d always thought that witches only cackled in fairy stories. Now I know there’s nothing like a good hard cackle now and then, just to break up the monotony.
I might curse someone, to always have a stone stuck in their shoe. Or be ten pence short to pay any bill, that’s always a good one, especially to those people jumping a bus queue.
Aggie drops by from time to time, just to check on me, and see how my powers are stacking up.
It’s hard to say that you could ever get used to random old ladies just dying in your arms, but I am. Well, I am now.
Five times, in the last three years. It’s always been somewhere different. On the tube, in London.
On a beach, in Blackpool. She was a rum old bird, so she was. I finally found out what every witches last words are. It’s the same every time. She said, “passage!” as she gripped my hand so tightly she nearly broke my fingers. I think she’d had one tot of rum too many, probably knowing her number was almost up.
Once under the Eiffel Tower, in Paris. And no, it wasn’t a French witch either. Just another old lady, with a thick Yorkshire accent who grabbed my hand, muttered, “Tha’ took thee time, lass.” Then almost imperceptibly said, “passage” and died.
I’m honour bound not to mention the last two. I can’t say why, I’m sure you’ll understand.
They do it for a reason, you know.
You can’t teach someone witchcraft. As a matter of fact, you can’t teach anyone witchcraft. It has to be passed from woman to woman. Witches can always tell who’s right for the job, too.
I’ve made it nice here, over the last five decades. The place never gets completely full, mind you. There’s always one free table by the counter. The sisters all pop by every day at five. I take a break, let the new girl mind the shop and join them for a hot pot of tea or four.
I think she’ll make a good witch, given time. She’s a nice kid, with a good temperament.
Or at least I hope she is.
I guess we’ll find out next week. Now then, how does that transfer spell go again?