A life lived is one lived for others, or through them.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how special it is.”

Eve Arnold

Working at the café down on the main street was convenient, it was within walking distance, had good hours, and made good coffee. It had its busy days and its quiet ones. It could freeze time, but it could also make the day seem like an hour. There were its regulars and its regular regulars.Each morning the same people came through, and each morning we’d have the same conversation. Good morning, how are you, what’s on today? Retired Paul that always sat on table 4. Dave in finance, always in a suit. Renee in her scrubs, are you just about to start or did you just finish? All of us just participated in enough small talk to get glimpses of each other’s lives.

It was easy to get lost in the café; float. Not actually lost, it wasn’t that big. But whilst clearing tables it’s hard not to get consumed by the stories and general chit. It became easy to live through the people that ordered and sat.

It was always bright, even when it was raining. The illuminate walls glowed under the downlights. It was always warm too, and if there was a brief chill it wouldn’t be long before the heat from a coffee would take it away.

Depending on the way the breeze went, the café would smell like bacon some days, and on others, it would draft of freshly roasted beans. Either way, nothing about the café was out of place.

It was perfectly mundane.

“I’d be smiling and chatting away, and my mind would be floating around somewhere else, like a balloon with a broken string.”

Haruki Murakami

“Mum, Mum, MUM! Did you hear anything I just said?”

The girl was frustrated, she held her mother’s hand tightly across the table trying to find her eyes. I’d been watching the pair since seating them. The girl wasn’t a girl though, she was at the age that wasn’t young but wasn’t old. Her mother’s age was hard to figure out too, but by the way her eyes floated, her mind was no longer there. I wondered if our minds would bump into each other. Maybe she’d tell me what her life was like outside the café.  

The girl still blabbered away; she knew that she was talking to herself, but there they sat.

I tried to imagine what these two people were beyond this moment; I could only gather what they were like by the way they poked at the banana bread and swirled their coffee.

“Sometimes you’ll never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

Dr Seuss

The milk screamed at me as I keep the steamer in for a few seconds longer than I should have. A temperamental thing, milk was. Especially soy, it’s weird brown, pink colouring, and the foul smell was anything but tasteful. It sat stale and stagnant the second it was poured into the shot. Ever since the likes of oat and almond, soymilk drinkers have dwindled.

As much as I disliked the milk now. A glass of it cold was like a treat to five-year-old me. I loved stealing it from my nan’s fridge. I’d watch the big clock that hung in her kitchen tick past the time as I’d swig back my little glass of milk like a 40-year-old man at his favourite watering hole.  

The next best thing in that fridge was plastic cheese, 10 slices in each packet, each slice wrapped individually. It always went down well after a glass of cold soy milk. Just like beer nuts, I guessed.

“Excuse me, sorry, hi. I was wondering if we could grab a table.”

Two ladies stood across from me, one was young and the other had her hands sternly gripped onto a walker frame. She stood shaky but held a calm smile. Her eyes flicked between the woman and me.

“Of course, jump in wherever and I’ll bring you out some menus.” I smiled at them.

The girl nodded and guided the older woman through the café, her walker bumping each table as they headed towards the back. I knew why they wanted that table; it was out of the way. I liked that table too.

Our menus weren’t anything special, coffee, tea, shakes, juices, burgers, and wraps. We were a café, the little local down the road. But I handed them out with the mandatory smile and quick rundown of how to order. Good morning, here are your menus. When you are ready to order you can either scan at the table or head up to the counter and one of our girls will serve you. They both smiled and nodded in-between sentences.

I liked these two ladies.

They stayed for most of the day, which gave me time to paint their characters.

“Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.”

Pablo Picasso

The woman didn’t have kids I decided. She was single as well, but I pictured her with a well-trained dog, or maybe a little cat. Something to make the house less quiet. The lines around her eyes and mouth gave her character, she was happy. They were smiling lines. Even with her mum now, which I am only going to assume, she smiled. She talked on and on, I couldn’t hear about what, but the old lady would tune in and out, sipping at her coffee.

The woman was tired, that much was obvious. Whether that was because of the lady sitting across from her or the dog she had left at home, I couldn’t tell. Her work was a flexible job, the work-it-when-you-want-too kind. The woman’s ability to procrastinate led to a lot of late nights. Her mother didn’t live with her, she did briefly after it was determined she couldn’t live on her own, but it all became too hard. With the dog and her work, her mother wasn’t fitting. So, she was moved to a retirement home.

Everything was localised, her mother, her café, and her job. She felt guilty, moving her mother out was hard because it felt like she was giving up. Her mother caused trouble in the home, she didn’t want to be there and spent hours convincing the doctors she was going back to live with her daughter.

Her mother had the woman at a late age, you could tell by the shakes of her hand and the softness of her voice. The mother begged to be a grandmother, but it wasn’t going to happen. This much I could tell by the hope that wandered around her eyes when it landed on a few of the babies in the café. The mother had lived a localised life too. She didn’t work a day and spent most of her time in the garden or at a café much like this one. But her fantasies of a larger life left her lonely.

The way she used to make her neighbours laugh, she now makes the nurses that care for her. The flowers she would give to the next-door neighbour’s children she now gave to the choir that sung to them once a week. Her life was large in the way that it impacted others. The older woman couldn’t see that it was, but her daughter could.

I gently stacked the chairs around the two, not wanting to ask them to leave just yet. But the girl was kind and knew that they had long overstayed. I didn’t ask for them to go, I wasn’t done figuring out who they were.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you guys had closed. Everything was beautiful.” She smiled the last bit, squinting her eyes.

Her mother fluttered with her chair and the walker attempting to get up by herself. I didn’t watch as the woman helped her mother because I knew too well that it’s something that can be awkward in public.

“Thank you for having us.”

“Have a beautiful day.”

“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

Albet Einstein

The house that I walked to wasn’t a home, it never really would be. It was quiet. But it worked well, close to the café and close to mum. She had once lived with me. But I couldn’t look after her like she needed.

I’d see her tomorrow, take her out to a café and try and find a table in the corner. I’d line her mind with fantasies and longing dreams. She thinks I work a flexible job, the work-it-when-you-want-too kind. It was easy to knit together a story, I’d just retell things that Dave told me about his job, or what Renee told me about hers.

I work part-time in a café. I don’t have a work-it-when-you-want-too kind of job. But at least my mum thinks so.

By Hailee Pickering

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