Last week I wrote a story in four parts on Facebook. A serial, perhaps, of a kind of Scheherazade tale. I’ve no idea where it came from, the image arrived as I walked. But like any story, it demanded to be told, so I had no choice.
It was only later, when I’d finished, that I could see a few elements of traditional storytelling in it, and the sense that it would be the first tale from this place. Is there magic at the Sardan Cafe? I don’t know. Perhaps time will tell. And Barsan, he might have things of his own to say, his own wonders to unfurl. There will probably be more.
In the meantime, for those who don’t follow my Facebook Writer page (it’s here if you feel inclined, everybody welcome), the first tale from the Sardan Cafe, subtly edited from its original version. Like life, it’s bittersweet. There aren’t always happy endings.
Best enjoyed with strong, sweet coffee and baklava…
He’d lost track of her half an hour before. But even then, he couldn’t be certain the woman he’d seen was her; so much time had passed since he’d glimpsed her face.
Now he was drifting through the streets, hoping she might reappear. It was winter, a chilly dusk, the cramped houses and small shops closing in around him as tongues of mist swirl and vanished.
The light caught his eye, then the sign – Sardan Café, hand-painted and awkward. He was tired, he was thirsty. Inside it would be warm, at least. A tiny bell tinkled as he entered. Only six tables, each covered by an oilcloth. The air was heavy, damp. A scent of roasting meat and spices he couldn’t even begin to recognise.
With a sigh he sat. Within second a man appeared. He was about thirty, a full head of hair shining with oil, a heavy black moustache, and a long white tunic that clung to his paunch. Without speaking, he placed a small cup of coffee on the table, gave a brief smile and bow before disappearing into the back room.
Cautiously, the man took a sip. This wasn’t espresso, bitter and strong. This was real Turkish coffee, thick, with a taste as sweet as a dreaming woman.
He didn’t recall ordering food, but it came anyway. Flatbread, still warm from the oven, beef sliced thin in a sauce that clung to the meat then fell slowly in dark brown drops. The food seemed to dissolve in his mouth. He hardly needed to chew, the texture just rough enough against his tongue. Vegetables so crisp and full of taste they could have been picked in the moment moment before they were cooked. Flavours mingled and overwhelmed him, carrying him along. He wiped the plate with the last of the bread, then the waiter appeared with a small cut-glass dish.
‘Eat,’ he said quietly. ‘Eat and enjoy.’ His voice was heavily accented and his belly wobbled slightly as he spoke. Somehow, it made him seem harmless, jolly.
The man stared for a long time before he picked up the spoon. He was sated. But just a little, he told himself. A taste to show his gratitude, although he had no idea how much the meal could cost in the end.
The ice cream was cold on his tongue. He held it there and the flavours blossomed through his palate. Lavender, as warm as a July afternoon, the velvet scent of rose petals, other things that hovered on the edge of his senses, just beyond grasp. Another spoonful and another, then it was gone, and slowly the tastes faded from his mouth, like the memories of childhood or that last beautiful dream before waking. He closed his eyes for a moment when he opened them again, the waiter was sitting across the table from him.
‘In my country we say that food is friendship.’ He smiled, showing very white teeth, one with a small, glittering gold star set in the middle. He picked up a small, battered coffee pot, the metal dull and stained from use, and poured more coffee, one for the man, one for himself. ‘You’ve eaten my food, so now you are my friend.’ He raised his cup in a toast. ‘To the future.’
‘The future.’ This time the drink tasted of deep winter nights in front of a log fire and the glance of the lover you could never forget.
‘Welcome to the Sardan Café.’
‘How much do I owe you?’ he asked. ‘For the meal, the coffee, everything.’
The waiter waved it away.
‘The food was already made. Who else was in here to eat it? It would have only gone to waste otherwise.’
‘That’s very generous, Mr-’
‘Call me Barsan.’ He smiled again, displaying that gold tooth. ‘I don’t have too many customers these days. With takeaways and ready meals, people don’t seem to bother about places like this. Either it’s too exotic or not exotic enough.’ Barsan shrugged. It didn’t seem to matter to him.
‘It feels very welcoming.’ That was exactly it, he decided. The pale walls, rugs tacked up for decoration. Like a pair of arms that wrapped comfortingly around you.
‘Thank you.’ He dipped his head. ‘My father opened the café after he came here. Forty-three years ago. It was popular then. Maybe we had more dreamers in those days.’
‘You don’t think there are now?’
‘Maybe they’ve gone elsewhere. Found places that suit them better. I seem to attract more of the lost souls.’ He cocked his head to one side. ‘Like you. People who thought they had something and lost it.’
He thought of the woman. The argument years before, the way she’d stormed out and he knew she wouldn’t be back in his life. Of the other women since, the jobs, the hopes that had all fallen by the wayside.
‘Maybe I have.’
Barsan poured more coffee from the pot.
‘Let us talk, my friend. There’s nothing else you need to do tonight, is there?’
It was funny, he thought. It seemed as if Barsan said a great deal, but really he just listened. He was the one who spoke. Bit and pieces, things that connected to each other in a way that made no sense to anyone else.
They drank coffee; the pot was tiny but somehow it was never empty. Barsan smoked his cigarettes, the tobacco with the aroma of wild thyme crushed underfoot. He smiled a lot, showing the gold tooth.
Finally he seemed to wind down, feeling as if he’d exhausted all the words that had been waiting inside him for the time to tumble out. No other customers had come in the café. How does it stay in business, he wondered at one point? How can it make money? Then the thought rose and drifted away.
He shook his head and glanced up. It had been night when he began to talk. Now he could see the first light of dawn on the horizon, rising in the sky. That wasn’t possible. It couldn’t have been more than an hour. Two at the very most. He started to panic, pushing himself upright.
‘Time passes quickly in good company,’ Barsan told him with an impish grin. Then, more seriously, ‘You miss her, don’t you?’
He nodded, not trusting himself to say more about that. He’d mentioned her briefly, then skirted the subject. Not the one he imagined he’d glimpsed. She’d made her decision and it was probably the right one; she was better off without his madness. The one he’d barely spoken about was their daughter, dead for eight years now. Playing in the garden when a car ploughed through the fence. The driver had suffered a heart attack. Instant. But it had taken three days for Jane to go. And after that his life could never be the same.
‘Here,’ Barsan said. Had he been into the kitchen? The man hadn’t seen him go. How could he have missed that? But he was holding a plate with a small piece of pastry on it. ‘Eat it, my friend. It’s baklava, sweet with honey. A good end to a meal.’ His eyes twinkled kindly. ‘Or a start to a day.’
He took one bite, then a second. It seemed to dissolve on his tongue, the taste filling his mouth. He need to close his eyes to absorb, to relish it. And as he did, he images came.
Jane at seven, laughing, at ten running in the sprint at school. Fifteen and the dark arguments with her parents, weighing every word before speaking. Eighteen: exam results and the joy of a university place. Taller, happier, more confident. With her degree, a job she didn’t enjoy but a life that brought her pleasure, helping at a charity. Serious boyfriend, marriage. Her first child, a daughter named Helen after her mother. A miscarriage, then a second girl.
Each picture seemed alive. He could smell, touch, feel, just as surely as if he was in it. And with every one, he was fading a little, Growing older. Until the last. Jane, the girls at her side, the pair of them almost grown. She was waving and blowing a kiss.
Very slowly, he opened his eyes.
‘Good, yes?’ Barsan asked.
‘Very.’ He had no idea what else to say. The man had given him the life that had been taken away. Glimpses of what might have happened. No more what if. He knew. ‘Thank you. Thank you.’
Barsan stood and stretched.
‘My friend, it is my pleasure. And now, perhaps, we should both find some sleep, eh? You know where Sardan Café is now. You must come again.’
Walking down the street he glanced over his shoulder. The city was coming to life around him, the mundane sound of buses and traffic. No light burned in the café’s window.