The darkening sky boomed with sudden thunder, a rapid rattling, as if a giant celestial hand was shaking out huge sheets of metal laundry. And then, cataracts, cascades, fountains, and Downing Street a sluice gate, opened wide. Everyone in No.10 turned in unison to the big windows, all occupants together in a car wash world. Several customers hurried back to the bar, for a second order, a replenishing. If one was to wait in an ark, better to wait well-caffeinated. The power might go out, and then where would they be? Without phones, without coffee. Desolate.
A Viking has sailed into my coffee bar, thought Marjorie, looking up, hearing the front door open, as she finished a 16oz. Dirty Chai. She had not seen a Viking since her grade school days, when they sailed through her history text in their distinctive boats with red striped banners. She peered past the man, thinking perhaps a hefty woman was behind him in a fur jumper, blonde braids and a hair band of animal horns. No, he was alone. He was alone and coming toward her with such an extravagant smile as to suggest that they knew each other well, or were long lost first cousins. But she did not know him. Who was this young, sturdy man with gingersnap hair, snappy blue eyes, ruddy skin, luxurious ginger beard, red t shirt, bright green shorts, Alpine patterned knee socks, and hiking boots?
His hand, ruddy and hairy, was reaching for her, his voice booming.
“You must be Mrs. Dashwood!”
Marjorie knew some primal instinct—project confidence with Vikings.
“I must be!”
“Splendid! I’m Wally Cameron. I’ve heard you might be needing a barista.”
As if to punctuate this declaration, the thunder clapped again, and Wally Cameron’s smile widened—if possible.
He was right of course. She did need a barista. The last few days had been filled with drama, sudden challenges that had eclipsed a nearly seamless year of operation at the coffee bar. Marjorie, used to captaining a placid ship, did not enjoy the turbulence.
The still under warranty espresso machine had sputtered to silent stillness while Poppy finished an order. A few hours later the men’s restroom had suffered a malfunction that no one was eager to clean up. A water leak was discovered, coming from an adjacent building. The coffee bean shipment was delayed, and the Wifi went dead. Stella was about to call the police when a young man and woman got into a loud, heated argument that had everyone in the shop tense and wide-eyed. With a few flung expletives, the man had stalked out, kicking over an empty chair for emphasis.
“Big baby!” Stella had hissed loudly, her fists clenched, wanting to try out some of her recently learned personal defense class moves. Poppy had restrained her.
Rachel had to quit. She had wanted to work up to her due date, only three weeks away, but had been sent to bed by the doctor for minor complications.
All of this Marjorie could have worked through in reasonable stride. She had Bonnie, she had Anne’s extra hands. But it was the last act of Leo that had brought the highly fraught week to its unpleasant climax.
Marjorie had known, almost from the beginning, that Leo did not enjoy No.10, certainly not with the relish the girls did. He seemed alternately bored, or disdainful. Marking time. And he was, as Rachel had declared, brooding. Prickly. Unpredictable. His verbal attacks were like drive by shootings, random, unprovoked, painful.
It seemed he was always looking to provoke Stella. If Stella was in charge, he would make trouble in sly ways. Taking exaggerated time on duties. Subtle digs at her coffee making skills. Asking leading questions about her narrow social life.
Stella took Leo dismissively, never falling for his charm and vanity.
On this day, Leo had boldly gone to the chalkboard, erased Marjorie’s weekly quote, and written one of his own. Unoriginal, trite, and slightly suggestive.
“Marjorie won’t like that Leo,” Stella had said as she wiped down tables.
“You would say something childish like that,” he had laughed.
“You mean truthful. I’m saying something truthful.”
“You have no sense of humor Stella.”
“You have so sense of spelling,” she retorted sharply. “You misspelled—.”
Leo colored. “You have no sense of humor . . . among other things,” he hissed.
Stella stopped. Speechless. She was the girl back in eighth grade, uninvited, whispered about, insecure. What “other things” did she not have?
Poppy had stepped over. “Come on guys. Come on Leo. I think you should erase it too.”
The three of them were frozen in battle stances, when Marjorie had breezed in. The temperature reading was instantaneous.
All three looked away. Marjorie glanced at the shop, half full, and saw the board.
Her eyes fell on Leo, chalk in hand. His eyes did not waver from hers. Waiting. Challenging.
She reached for a cloth on the counter, and went to the board, erasing slowly. When she came back to the bar, all three were watching her.
Leo snatched off his apron, tossed it to the floor, and stalked to the back door.
Marjorie glanced at the girls. This was not what she had hoped for her afternoon. Her mind had largely been on the phone conversation of the night before that had gone for nearly two hours with James Knightly. Long weeks earlier, that afternoon when he had met her on the street, with Henri bisecting his path, and then Elizabeth’s fateful call about Anne, he had put his interest in Marjorie Dashwood on pause. Her brief phone call to him two days later, of apology and scant information, had been full of distraction and obvious distress. He had said little, made no mention of the future. He had returned to his own routines of life, and discreetly waited. Nearly two months later, he had called. After her initial surprise, Marjorie had sounded glad to hear from him. They had fallen into relatively easy conversation. The next day, Marjorie was still dissecting their exchange, still thinking over what she was learning about this cosmopolitan man. How was he different from Henri Dylan, with whom she had also slowly started spending time with? For Marjorie, this was a heady development, in her otherwise predictable life.
Now one of her employees was erupting. Personal life evaluation—on hold.
She followed Leo, who had burst through the back door, to the empty back parking lot.
He stood arms crossed, leaning against the building, his eyes to the distant view, frowning. Marjorie’s glance took in the muscle that twitched in the clenched jaw. She looked away and waited.
Finally he swung around to her, his dark eyes flashing, his voice brittle. “I’m quitting. Either today if you want . . . or this is my two week notice. It doesn’t matter to me. You decide.”
Marjorie did not especially like this gauntlet thrown down. She sighed. She was too old, too tired for this. She looked toward the mountainside, just a slender triangle visible, a wedge of green and yellow, a timeless beauty.
She looked back to the young man. He was so hardened. Why? How could she help him?
What makes us put on such tight, nearly seamless amour? What penetrates such a thick defense?
“Leo . . . Leo, I’m sorry you’re so angry. It seems to me you’ve been angry since the first day you came to work. You’re an excellent barista, and I have never had any complaints on your work. You have some really great qualities. I would like you to keep working. I would like to be your friend. But you are so angry. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t pity you, Leo. But I am so sorry you have that anger. It must be very tiring and very lonely to carry.”
Words that hung there in the early fall afternoon, surprising to them both.
There was less flash to his eyes as he considered Marjorie Dashwood. Her voice had been . . . been as he imagined . . . a mother’s voice, trying to soothe a hurting little boy. He had tried to resent her, resent her kindness, her silly quotes of encouragement, her overlooking his condescension, and insults. She was patient with him.
The outer layer slipped aside for a moment. His shoulders sagged.
The door eased open. Stella stood, awkward. “Leo, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry I called you a bad speller.”
Marjorie would laugh about this later. Dear Stella, diffusing and shifting the shell in her own way.
Leo looked up, studied her a moment, his smile rueful. “It’s ok, Stella. I’m sorry too.”
They were alone together again. Leo drew himself up, his voice crisp.
“You didn’t say Marjorie. When would you like me to quit?”
So many things went through her mind. She was inadequate for this job in so many ways, in this way, dealing with this young man, dealing with an unhappy employee. She felt a failure.
He dug into his jeans for his keys. “I’ll help you out. Today’s my last day. I’m done.”
He took a few steps toward his car, the unhappiness back in his eyes, but finding hers. “You were a good employer Marjorie. I mean that. You’re best quality, you always . . . you always see the good in people.”
He was gone.
Wally Cameron’s signature voice brought her back to the present.
“I’m a friend of Gary, Rachel’s husband. That’s how I knew of your need for a bartender! May I tell you about myself Mrs. Dashwood?”
In the following five minutes the owner of No.10 learned this young man loved to ski, read science fiction, was allergic to shellfish, slept with windows open year round, hoped to travel to Israel someday, broke his left ankle in fifth grade, had a great grandmother who had been a Cuban spy, and preferred cats to dogs. He was a junior high science teacher who loved to work in the food industry part time. He had great references. He loved people. Was there anything else she would like to know?
“Great quote by Churchill by the way,” he said nodding at the blackboard.
Marjorie revised her first view of Wally. He was less a Viking, more a mix of a young Kris Kringle, and Tolkien dwarf. The combination was both fascinating, and irresistible.
No carapace here.
Like the melodrama of old, this was the beginning of a great friendship.️