by John Crompton
Winner, MHFGA short story competition 2020
Michael took his Americano from the counter and sat down at a large table. The coffee was in a paper cup which was one of the many changes since March. Before then he usually had to share a table but now he usually had the station buffet to himself. This made it easier to have a look round the rather timeless surroundings of what had originally been called the general refreshment room. It was over 110 years old and judging by the sepia pictures on the wall the shape of the room had not changed since then, but obviously the fittings had been updated as had the refreshments on offer. What, he wondered, would a soldier returning from the trenches in 1918 have made of a flat white or a smoked cheese ciabatta. Would the coffee aroma have been as enticing back then? Probably – providing you could smell it for all the cigarette smoke of course.
As there was seldom anyone to talk to nowadays Michael would often imagine the events which the buffet had witnessed through the years both pleasant and unpleasant and those with an element of both such as lovers bidding each other a tearful farewell until the next time. Somehow it made him feel better when he considered the various adversities which previous customers had endured. There had been two world wars yet life had continued pretty much the same afterwards. So why should it be any different with Covid?
When Michael used the buffet on his way home in the evening there was often a spot of banter between the tables as to what excuse the announcer would come up with next to explain the train delays. His favourite was that the late running was due to earlier late running. He felt sorry for those less seasoned passengers around him who sat with a fixed half smile while keeping one eye on the monitors. 10 minutes late, 14 and then –“We are sorry to announce that the train was withdrawn from service at the previous station.” Different sort of passengers in the evening –barristers going back to London proud of the fact that they had persuaded the jury to make the right decision, actors who had passed their audition and were loudly repeating the good news to all and sundry on their phone and tipsy race goers dressed up to the nines in search of a final bottle of prosecco to enjoy on the train.
Back to the present morning. It was time for Michael’s connecting train and as was usually the case he struggled to find something original to say to the manager on his way out. The man was the only member of staff left now. Michael didn’t like to refer to what had happened to the others as he was only too well aware that the same fate probably awaited the manager too. Just as it had to everyone working in the rival buffet on the other side of the station and the pop up kiosks-which in recent years had appeared to cater for what he called the caffeine fiend in a hurry. The sort of person who had no trouble in striding along the platform talking into the mobile in one hand whilst sipping coffee from the cup in the other.
A few weeks later it was Michael’s first day back in the office after a short stint working from home. He was in good spirits and approached the buffet in keen anticipation of his Americano. He didn’t spot that the place was in semi darkness and it was only when he got to the door that he saw the notice which announced that the buffet was closed until further notice and thanking patrons for their custom and understanding. At first he thought the closure would only be temporary- perhaps to allow the manager to take a holiday. But then he noticed that the tables and chairs were stacked up as if in preparation for a visit by the administrators and his heart sank further when he spotted a spotlight above the open till to emphasise that it was empty. Ah well, he thought perhaps the rival buffet will have reopened. He set off towards the footbridge but then peered across the platforms and spotted someone trying in vain to open the café door.
So no coffee today, tomorrow or the next day. What would those soldiers returning from the trenches have made of that?