Happy Birthday No.10!
It was hard to believe the newest business on Downing Street, the coffee bar at No. 10, was already a year old. And now, the veteran employees of the establishment, Poppy and Stella, were given charge to plan the celebration. They were both, immediately, pleased with the duty and distinction. Marjorie could count on them. Control of a budget, and a reason to party. What could be better? And what had started as an uneasy working relationship between the two very different young women had developed over the year into a close friendship. Marjorie was surprised and thrilled.
Stella was Poppy’s stability, Poppy was Stella’s healthy stretch. It had begun slowly from the day their mother’s had come to No.10, forcing them to expose their respective insecurities. In recent months their friendship went to roommates. Stella had moved out from her parents, Poppy had moved into her first apartment. The close living quarters, the personal oddities, had not deterred them. An unlikely, unexpected alliance that would go forward into the coming years, with Stella one day naming her first red-haired daughter Marjorie Poppy Cameron. When Poppy faced a daunting medical challenge, it was Stella who traveled across country to be with her.
He moved with quiet efficiency, self-contained and polite. At first, the voluble, friendly Poppy had not known quite what to make of Ian Bingley. He was so . . . gentlemanly, his smile over her jokes coming slowly. Stella liked him. She was far more prosaic. He was not Leo. Ian Bingley had initially taken the part time job for more social contact and acclamation in the mountain community, less for the income. He liked the atmosphere Marjorie had created even while dispensing a drink he did not care for. He liked Poppy and Stella’s simple natures, their acceptance of him. In a few weeks, he felt in some abstract way as if he had the family he had never had—quirky sisters and a kind pseudo mom, and a wider extended family in the returning customers. He had made a good choice. The big city, colorless life he had known, faded. This new life had color. And though he should not hope too much, too quickly, this new life had the color of Anne Dashwood. She was, simply, the loveliest, most singularly intriguing young woman he had ever met. And then she came to No.10 as part-time help. By the end of that first week, Ian Bingly had hopes well-anchored by her smile, her laughter. When a customer had looked blankly at the latte Ian handed him, saying timidly, “I don’t think . . . you put any coffee in my drink,” Ian had immediately known he had to reign in his interest and proceed slowly.
Who could not like the smell of crayons? Anne Dashwood thought. Who could not like the feel of the soft patina laid on paper? And who could not like the widely creative names—jazzberry jam, mango tango, sunglow, timberwolf, robin egg, mac and cheese. One could get hungry just coloring, reflected Anne. There were other colors to avoid of course. Inchworm, atomic tangerine, cotton candy, screamin’ green. Who could not appreciate the relaxation of coloring, the slow drawing back for a moment to childhood simplicity? Anne sighed contentedly. Spending time with Joy coloring was peaceful, soul satisfying, in an odd, unexpected way. She could be quiet, she could think, sort herself out, pray, and hope as she sat with this young girl she had quickly grown to love. To be with a child who needed her, fed and healed Anne Dashwood like few things could. What and when and where was her future? It did not matter much now in this season. She was working part time for her mother, caring part time for Joy, reestablishing relationships, healing, and being loved by a thirteen-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome. It was a perfect life. Joy rose from the booth to stand beside Anne, to peer critically at her drawing, to lean against her, to pat her shoulder, to give her artistic approval, to radiate love. A tiny life has slipped away, never forgotten, a new love had been slipped into the breech.
Henri Dylan stood before his long bedroom mirror, eyeing himself critically. A man of sixty-three, he thought with some chagrin, trying to spruce himself up for courting. Marjorie’s favorite color was blue. Would the pale blue shirt be better than the royal blue? Which made him look healthier? Which made him look younger? He sighed and shook his head at such silliness. Marjorie was deeper than any hue, he told himself, and would take, or reject him, far beyond a shirt color. He chose the paler shade. Before the bathroom mirror, splashing on aftershave, he found himself always shocked at the near absence of hair. All he had now was a healthy gray graze, chaff really. Gloria had so loved his luxurious hair. As he looked at his head, he thought of James Knightly. Thick dark hair with the distinguished touch of gray at the temples. He suddenly felt tired. He went to the bedroom and sat down. Romantic complications, he mused, did not uncomplicate just because you were a grandfather, just because you were in the last laps of life.
Today was No.10’s birthday and he had told Marjorie he would drop in. He would go, find a chair, visit with people he knew, and generally just sit back and enjoy watching this friend, Marjorie. She would be smiling and happy and laughing, enjoying the community of life that her coffee bar had created. Her friends would be there, loyal customers, family, and likely James Knightly. She had told Henri that she had gone to dinner with him. She’d become awkward, and he hated that. Things had been so easy and comfortable between them. He had tried to assure her it was all right. But the words had felt hollow in his ears. And that night, he had tossed more than slept.
He reached for the paper on his dresser, the printed email that he had now read through a dozen times, though it had come only yesterday. From a close friend serving as a missionary in Asia. Asking him if he was interested in joining the church plant there. Another hand, another servant, someone to teach and lead music. It had come to Henri like a fresh, cool breeze over the stubble of his old life. With the battle waged and won, for now, he wanted new purpose. And here it was. He closed his eyes. But he did not want to go alone.
Rachel sat rocking her little one. People paid big bucks for all sorts of thrills and pleasures—that faded, that soured, that broke. And here was one, she smiled, smoothing down her daughters silken hair that was priceless, ageless, and deeply soul satisfying. And it had come to her and Gary. She was so thankful. A healthy young life asleep in her arms. She lifted the baby closer to her face and breathed in deeply. Today was the party at No.10. She would dress her in pink and white finery, a creation of frills and lace, her daughter would look like a dollop of meringue. People would “ooh” and “ahh.” Rachel smiled. They would think she was there to celebrate the town’s favorite coffee. But this new mother would be celebrating the most important life in her heart.
When James Knigthly had realized, with regret, he had to be out of town for No.10’s one year celebration day, he had had to come up with a suitable replacement. He would send the biggest, most beautiful bouquet of flowers he could find in town. When it came to signing the attached card, he had hesitated. He could feel the sales woman’s eyes upon him. He was a local celebrity. Who was he sending this serious arrangement to?
“To the best coffee bar in town, congratulations No.10! And the loveliest coffee bar owner.”
He had laid the pen on the counter, sealed the tiny envelope, and realized how suddenly he was sweating. Was that too forward? He had turned and hurried out. She said she liked decisiveness and courage he recalled. Hopefully she would appreciate his Churchillian touch.
Marjorie’s newest barista, Wally Cameron, had decided to honor No.10’s first birthday in a signature, personal, way—waxing his luxurious crimson mustache to rapier points. It was a dramatic statement. Marjorie, during the course of the day, was privately consoled with the assurance that if one of the restrooms was accidentally locked, they could ask Wally to simply bend down to the doorknob and apply his facial hair as a pick.
Marjorie loved the young man’s heartiness, his exuberance for life, for people, for good coffee. In two short weeks, she could not really imagine the coffee bar without his effervescent presence. If he was not behind the bar, humming Polish folk songs while making drinks, he was polishing, cleaning, quoting from ancient poetry, laughing with Poppy, Stella, and Anne, chatting encouragement to Ian. Away from the bar he was weaving between tables, solicitous and friendly, without being obnoxious or kinetic, getting things for customers, learning about their lives, asking about their children, their pets, their jobs. He chatted sports, weather, politics, all in smiling bonhomie. And when he wasn’t chatting, he was listening well. He was unique. He was kind. And Marjorie was immensely grateful for his energetic contribution to her little world. No.10 would sail into its second year with a healthy crew.
Where Wally had brought fuel, Bonnie added ballast. She moved quietly efficient, making suggestions with tact, doing all the mundane things that kept No.10 legal, safe, hale and hearty. The paperwork had been Marjorie’s bane. It was Bonnie’s forte. The caffeinated world of No. 10 was a stimulating, encouraging, enjoyable place for the 43-year-old woman, her personal life challenging with a disabled husband and special needs daughter at home. She loved the part-time job, all the girls, Ian, and now Wally. She could keep mothering by proxy. She loved that Anne Dashwood so clearly loved her little girl. Her life had taken a deeper luster.
It had been a perfect day. The huge bouquet of red roses, prominent on a front table, had brought raised eyebrows from her staff as they read the card. Marjorie had been appropriately flustered. Stella and Poppy had no reservations about asking Anne direct.
“Are they dating?”
“I’m not sure,” Anne hedged.
“I thought she liked that older guy, that other guy, Henri something.”
Stella offered her assessment in typical fashion. “Marjorie is getting into this dating thing. Not one but two! You go girl!”
All three young women had burst out laughing. Across the room, Marjorie had looked up and somehow instinctively known they were talking about her.
This celebration day had been much like that first day, Marjorie thought as she moved through the crowd, talking, laughing, serving the free refreshments that Poppy and Stella had organized. They had done a great job. Delicious treats with the half-price drinks, a soulful young man strumming an acoustic guitar in the corner for subtle background music, the streamers, the flowers. And her personal favorite, the life-size posterboard figure of Winston Churchill in bowler hat and cigar, with a few balloons attached, and dialogue bubble above his head, “Happy Birthday No.10! Never, Never, Never give up!” The girls had been beaming when Marjorie had first seen it, thrilled that their surprise had touched her.
When she had slipped into the office cubicle for a moment, she had found a thin package on her desk. The scrawled handwriting had been familiar. She opened the envelope and found a used book of Churchill’s quotes. She unfolded the note stuck in the center.
I found this in a used book store. I thought of you of course. I hope you like it. I am glad of my time there. Never giving in, Leo
Marjorie’s eyes had filled. She felt she had failed Leo somehow, not reached him. But maybe . . . maybe she had in some small, nascent way. And where she had not, she could pray. She returned to her party smiling.
It was quiet at last. All over, all cleaned up. Only she and her beloved daughter to lock things up, go home. They stood on the front sidewalk, Marjorie giving a quick watering to the pumpkin-colored mums beside the door.
A breeze fluttered as stars slid into place, against purple. Anne put her arm around her mother, leaning in. There was no need for words.
What color is happiness, Anne wondered.