Nick saw her first on a Sunday morning. It had been a warm and busy Summer but now it was September. The families had all returned home and the mornings, despite the sun, had a chill to them that told him Autumn was on it’s way.
He was the owner of a café that perched on the grass above a long sandy beach in a beautiful village that saw the extremes of the English seasons.
She came in that morning and ordered a strong black coffee. She smiled as she thanked him but it left her face quickly as she took her drink to the small table in the corner overlooking the sea. For the next hour she was alternately reading her book and gazing out to sea. She was alone and very obviously not expecting anyone. Nick was busy as the usual Sunday morning trade picked up, so didn’t notice her leave.
Later that day, as he locked up and said goodnight to his staff, he found his thoughts returning to the black coffee lady and he let himself wonder.
The following day she came again. This time Nick was in the kitchen helping his chef get things in order for the lunchtime visitors when he saw her ordering her coffee. She smiled at the waitress but once again the light in her eyes left as soon as she walked to her table…this time outside on the terrace. She pulled her thick, blue checked scarf around her jacket shoulders as the sun hadn’t yet warmed the morning air. She sat, again reading and looking towards the sea.
A while later Nick went outside to clear some tables and saw that she was still there, staring ahead of her, book open in her hands but unread, coffee cup half full but now stone cold.
“Can I get a refill ?” It was as if he had clicked his fingers and awoken her from a hypnotic trance. She jumped in shock and looked up at him
” Oh…oh…sorry…yes..Ok I didn’t realise… yes, yes thank you, that would be good”
He brought it out to her and once again, her eyes lit up as she smiled her thanks, then the light was again extinguished the moment the smile left.
He saw her every day. Sometimes he served her coffee, other times she passed the café window as she walked towards the beach where she would walk along the sand as far as the tide would let her. Her blue checked scarf wrapped tightly around her denim jacket shoulders. Sometimes he saw her coming out of the shop, or sitting on a bench on the cliffs or going into the art gallery. Always alone, always with that far away look around her.
After work one evening Nick went to see his Mum. She lived in the family home on the hill, overlooking the sweeping view of the village, beach, cliffs and sea. She spent her days painting (Nick exhibited her paintings in his café. They were always popular with the visitors who wanted something tasteful to remind them of their holiday), walking her dog along the beach, helping out at Nick’s café when he took a day off and taking care of the cottage opposite nick’s café that she owned, which she rented out to holiday makers.
They took their glasses of wine out onto the balcony to enjoy the last of the day’s warmth. As they caught up with each other’s news Nick noticed his Mum’s attention shift to a figure below them, walking along the path towards the beach.
“There’s Eve. She’s the lady who has taken the cottage this month. I was there yesterday just checking that everything was OK for her and we had a chat”
Nick followed her gaze and there she was. The black coffee lady with the sad eyes that lit up so magically when she smiled.
As he listened his Mum told him Eve’s story. Her husband had died tragically in an accident 6 weeks ago. Once the aftermath had died down and her children went back to their homes and jobs, she felt she needed to get away for a while, from the well meaning tilted head sympathy, the emptiness of her house and the feeling that she had to pull herself together. So here she was.
He continued to see her for the rest of the month. The odd few words as he brought her coffee, as he would with any of his regular visitors, but knowing now the root of her sadness. One weekend a car pulled up outside the cottage, and out spilled a young couple and their two boys, who ran into Eve’s open arms as she met them on the path. They came to his café and ate toasted teacakes and drank hot chocolate with whipped cream. He heard the children call her grandma and he saw the light fill her eyes and her smile stay for longer on her face.
Once she came in for lunch with another woman. They talked quietly over pot after pot of tea, and once or twice he saw Eve wipe her eyes as her friend took hold of her hand. She waved her friend off a few days later.
The month moved on. Nick was still busy, but now the visitors weren’t staying but passing through, or here just for the day to take walks along the cliffs or walk along the beach when the tide was out, or attend the art classes that were run in the gallery.
And then, as usual, with the turn of the year, the music nights began again in the Seahorse Pub . Nick’s old school friends always kicked the season off with their band Driftwood. They sang a mix of everyone’s favourite get-up-and-dance songs. The place was bouncing.
Across the bar Nick saw Eve walk in and stand at the bar . Once the barman brought her drink she glanced around for a seat. Nick’s table had a couple of seats which his friends had left empty when they joined the band. She asked if she could sit there.
It was loud, so Nick didn’t have to intrude on her thoughts, but once the band took a break he asked her if she had enjoyed her stay. She replied and tentatively he kept the conversation going. The light in her eyes flickered in and out as they discussed the village, his beach café, the band and the fact that this was her last night. . She explained to Nick about her husband’s accident and how this month had prepared her for the life she was returning to. She loved this village and when she was looking for an escape, this was where she felt she could retreat to.
The following morning she came in for her coffee. She sat in her favourite corner seat, gazing at the sea, and as she left she went to the counter and said goodbye to Nick. She thanked him for his delicious coffee, the cosy corner she could hide in and last night’s company. She left.
He waved from the café window as her car pulled away and drove up the steep bank out of the village.
And Autumn moved on from a gentle stroll into a fast paced, leaf blowing, low sun, dark eveninged Winter.
The café stayed open all Winter. It was a place the brave beach visitors could reward themselves with, the dog walkers could hurry to, the art students could chat in and the locals meet in. The Christmas season saw family parties laughing in the café, local book groups and choirs meeting for a celebration meal and Nick was happily sucked into it all.
But he did wonder.
Then one Spring day, in early May, when the sun had begun to warm the air again, he looked up to serve the next customer and there they were. The smiling eyes.
“Could I have a strong black coffee please”