Red

For A – to say good luck, even if I can’t in person.

I

red

All the best stories – from the fairy tales, to Shakespearean plays, to so many modern films – start with a couple. Sometimes they start in a palace, all luxury and golden towers and backstabbing court politics; sometimes they start at a masquerade ball, with simple pretence that quickly turns far too complicated for one’s peace of mind.

However, sometimes they start in a small café somewhere in Aberdeen, with Van Morrison playing softly in the background.

It’s a small place, nothing special or unusual – after all, little restaurants and coffee shops gather round Union Street like a moth to a flame, looking for the shoppers and the tourists. It has, like the others, offers blu-tacked in the window and a grey city street outside. Inside, austere, simple wooden tables are set just far enough apart not to make things look cramped, and straight-backed chairs – old fashioned ones that look as if they’ve been stolen from some poor family’s dining room – huddle around them.

However, certain things differentiate this from any other coffee shop round Union Street. Well-stuffed, brightly-coloured and homemade-looking cushions rest on the chairs, just the sight of them offering comfort and reassurance to sensible arses that would otherwise shy away from the severe furniture. Bright, floral paintings line the walls, happy flashes of colour against the brown paint. A nearly full, often used bookshelf watches the comings and goings from its spot to the right of the cake counter.

All this is without even mentioning the rather exceptional customer service.

Customer service – at least on the weekends – is Cal, a lanky sixteen-year-old with a white-toothed, wide grin and a mop of stubborn brown hair that he somehow manages to tease into something that won’t terrify the customers every morning. He won’t admit that the hair gel is needed (it is, badly).

The bell above the door rings. It’s been a quiet afternoon, and he looks up in surprise from cleaning the counter to see the latest customer: a girl about his own age, a little on the short side (or maybe he’s just tall? Yeah, there is that), and oh, so much red. Red hair, red lips, red nails; red dress, red scarf around her neck. She walks slowly to the counter, seeming to consider the café as she does it. Her eyes move around the room. She takes in the paintings, the cushions and the Cal expectantly watching her. She holds her finger to those red, red lips as she thinks (and he likes the shape of them, he realises suddenly; fine lips she’s got there, very fine indeed).

He strokes his chin mock-thoughtfully. His expression radiates I am thinking busily and importantly. There is a pause, and then he says with a small smile, “So, I’m guessing your favourite colour is blue.”

Red cheeks, too, as she ducks her head demurely, prettily, huffing out a shy little laugh. “Close,” she says, and looks up, meeting his eye. Then her eyes stray to his chest, and she observes, “Nice apron.”

He looks down at himself with a wry, embarrassed, what can you do? sort of half-smile. “All part and parcel of being a barista, ‘m afraid. If you want me to get cappuccino foam all down my jeans, I can take it off…”

He looks back at her. She’s looking away from him, at the shiny silver counter, but there’s a smile on her face, one of challenge. She raises her head, and there’s something in her eyes that’s almost mischievous. “Oh really?”

He raises an eyebrow. “Maybe for you,” he teases, giving her a grin, “but I’m not sure you’re ready for the manly physique lurking beneath this apron.”

Her already reddening cheeks get redder, and she looks away from him, bites her lip. He thinks, watching her, that she’ll get lipstick on her teeth, and it dawns on him about a minute too late that he’s made her uncomfortable. “Maybe not,” is her quiet reply.

His thoughts halt for a moment; unsure what to say, he only manages, “Palm, meet face.” With a small groan, he slaps a hand to his forehead. “Shut up, Cal.”

He almost doesn’t catch the quiet word that falls from her lips. “Cal.”

“Feel free to actually tell me to shut up, I mean, everyone else does…” He registers what she’s said, stops. “Yeah. Cal. It’s faster.”

She offers him a small, tentative smile, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, and it spurs him on.

“Hey,” he says softly, the word at once an invitation and an apology, “what can I get you?”

Again that pause, that considering look; she bites her lip, looking somewhere just past his right shoulder, as if she’s seeing things he can’t. “Latte,” she says eventually. Her smile comes a moment later, small and reassuring, and he knows he hasn’t stepped too far into the shit.

He nods. “Sure.” He turns from her to attend to the machine. He grinds a few beans, a process that’s really all show, prepares the grounds and water and grabs a cup. He foams the milk, and she is silent – though he probably wouldn’t hear her anyway, with the machine’s loud retching and gargling.

Glancing over his shoulder, careful not to keep his mind too far from the work at hand as he deals with her coffee, he asks, “You a chocolate sprinkle kind of girl?”

She gives an affirmative, “Mmm-hmm,” and he grabs a few sprinkles, giving her a natty little spiral on top of the foam; it comes out a bit lop-sided, but he’s rather pleased with it, all things considered.

When he turns once more, moves to hand her her coffee, he asks, “Not from round here?”

A cornered look appears in her eyes, as if she’s trapped by his question, and she replies, looking away from him, “No. Not really.” She sounds English; he doesn’t know enough to place the region, if he’s honest. For now, considering he’ll never see her again, just English is good enough.

“Right. Cool.” It’s all he can think to say. He can’t help looking down, and he watches her take the cup; long, delicate fingers, her hands covered with words. He picks ones out at random – rain, street, man, cabbage – and finds that they make no sense; not reminders, not pieces of homework...

Cabbage? Seriously? What even – ?

She hands him her cash, and when he gives her her change, she smiles at him one more time. “Thanks.” Her eyes slide to the tip jar, and he sees her drop a fifty pence piece into it; she does it quickly, silently, as if hoping he won’t notice.

Then her back is to him, and she’s carrying her drink to a table, those long fingers careful as they cup the saucer and mug. She places it gently on the table, pulls out a chair… and halts. Her head turns, and he follows her gaze to the bookshelf. She walks to it slowly, cautiously, the same way she entered the café. She runs a finger over the spines lightly, almost reverently, and he’s at the right angle to see the small smile that grows on her face as she does it.

After a few moments, she seems to find what she’s looking for, and selects a book, sliding it from the shelf and carrying it under her arm. She puts it beside the table, digs somewhere around her hip… She opens the book with one well-practised hand. With the other, she slides (from a pocket he hadn’t noticed) a pair of glasses. Trusting the weight of the book to keep it open, she opens the glasses, slips them onto her face.

Red frames. Of course. He can’t help but smile.

Not wanting to look like a creep, he doesn’t especially try to watch her or anything; no, course not, it’s just that his eyes seem to drift to where she is with increasing and scary regularity as he carries on cleaning the counter, checks the cake shelf is stocked up (it is, Tom hasn’t been at the gateau again) and grabs himself a Diet Coke out of the freezer; they have them in the fancy glass bottles, to make themselves look like a proper, high-class establishment. He smiles at the thought, and it’s only as he’s hunting round for a bottle opener that he realises the rustling of turned pages has stopped. He grabs the opener, raising it into the air with a small “Hah!” of victory. It’s only awareness of his company that stops him adding a ridiculous little “Gotcha!”  He opens the bottle, enjoying the satisfying pop and hiss. He turns, still grinning, to find her watching him, the hint of a smile on her face.

She looks down at her book again, considering pretending that she hasn’t been caught out, then seems to change her mind. She raises her head and asks him, “Not coffee?”

He shakes his head with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Ah, never drink the stuff.” He fails to withhold a smirk at her reaction.

She recovers, raising an eyebrow. “So all that stuff about being a professional barista…?”

He steps back, showing his palms in surrender. “All true. I do make the coffee, y’know.”

She huffs out a laugh, pulling the book back up in front of her face, but he hears her smile. “Cheat.”

He takes a pull of Coke straight from the bottle, leaning back against the work surface and careful to avoid the coffee machine, before asking, mock-offended, “You calling me a liar?”

She lowers the book; it leaves most of her face hidden, but her eyes regard him over the top of the pages, hazel and just a little mischievous.  Those eyes crease with a smile as she replies, “Never.”

After getting a look at the book’s spine and noting the title, he shakes his head in disbelief, rolling his eyes and getting back to the Coke. The comfortable silence settles once again in the café, only interrupted by the regular sound of a page being turned – the silence pulls back a little to accommodate it, then moves back into place as if nothing has happened. Meanwhile, Cal continues with the little chores, the things that make a business like his family’s go round – the cleaning and the replacing of things like the spoons and little bags of sugar, checking the supplies of water and milk in the machine.

He tells himself that he’s not waiting for her to speak to him again; that he’s perfectly happy as he is; that he’s not even aware of the pretty girl in the corner steadily making her way through Mum’s copy of Hamlet and getting lipstick on her latte cup. Nope, not even seeing her. He carries on with his work, refusing to look behind him, acutely aware of the girl’s presence.

It must be half an hour later when he finally gets a chance to take a breather; putting another bunch of serviettes – or “tissues” as he and all other people who aren’t his mother call them – in the container next to the counter. He exhales, at last allowing himself to look around, and he sees his lone customer gently sliding the book back onto the shelf. She turns her head, catching him watching her, and he immediately ducks his head to look at the napkins. (Stupid, totally uninteresting napkins that give him no excuse to look away so suddenly. It’s not like they’re going to suddenly get up and dance or something, is it? Smooth, Cal.)

She gives him another of those small smiles, her eyes warm. “Thanks, Cal.”

He doesn’t show his surprise – it’s probably the second time a customer’s ever actually used his name. That said, how many has he actually told it to? Pretending to take it in his stride, he gives her a grin. “No problem, Red.” It just slips out – the nickname that’s somehow wormed its way into his head without him noticing. (Because she wears a lot of red. In the future, great authors will look at him and gape, cry, “Look how original, how inspired this guy is!” Yeah. Sure. He believes that.)

Her smile doesn’t fade, and she nods, turning and heading back through the shop.

“See you around,” he calls, his customary greeting – at least half their customers in a day they never see again, but it’s nice to make them feel like their return is anticipated.

Looking over her shoulder, she replies, “Yeah. Maybe.” There’s something sad, not-quite-there in her smile, but before he has time to read anything into it, the door is shutting, the bell tinkling in the sudden, empty silence. She slips out of sight, the pane of glass on the door now only showing the same old street it always has. He watches the door for a moment, brows creased in a frown, processing the loss of her presence. Then he shakes his head, shakes himself out of it, and prepares for the next customer.

His mother and Tom return a few minutes later, coming through the back door with arms full of shopping bags. He helps them unpack the groceries, gets on with the rest of the night, the girl in red forgotten.

It’s only as he’s loading the dishwasher with Tom that his brother holds up one of the mugs, his smile one of bemusement. “Had a lady in, Cal?”

Cal frowns, uncomprehending, until Tom turns the mug around to show him the perfect little arc of red lipstick at the rim. He draws in a breath, remembering the girl with the lovely lips, and nods. “Uh, yeah,” he says casually. “Nice girl. Tipped me.”

Tom waggles his eyebrows. “Tipped you, did she?”

Cal shakes his head, trying not to laugh, and attempts to carry on with the loading. It’s kinda hard, though, with his brother refusing to help him, too busy singing a hopelessly, joyfully off-key rendition of “Love Is In The Air”.

“Shut up, Tom,” he mutters.

“Nope. Never,” his brother happily replies with a shake of his head, his grin ear-to-ear and smug as all hell.

Scowling, Cal grabs the mug from him and shoves it in the dishwasher; Tom gives in, finally shutting up, and the piece of crockery is forgotten as it rests amongst the others. 

I wanted to write a gift for a friend, and so I challenged myself to write something simple and a little girly, just based on observations, with no fantasy or sci-fi elements and a hint of romance (not my field at all). Here it is.

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