Arnold Harris had only been going to the new tea-shop in the High Street since the middle of last month. It had been open for only a few weeks at the time and he had been meaning to go there for a little while. It was at the quiet, unfashionable end of the long High Street drag, so it was never as busy as some of the usual chain coffee shops which jostled for customers in the prime sites near the big stores and the main car park entrances.
It was not quite as expensive as those places, and it was certainly quieter as most mums loaded down with hoards of kids and bulky pushchairs eschewed its relative isolation, narrow gangways and awkward entrance steps. That suited Harry, as he preferred to be known, hardly anyone ever called him Arnie and never Arnold. With the moniker of Harry Harris he was comfortable and names were like comfortable old shoes, only they never wore out or leaked in the rain, did they?
The fact that the tea shop was next to the post office and opposite the library affected the tea-shop’s clientele. Post offices are old-fashioned things, kids didn’t buy stamps anymore, wrote or posted letters and parcels. Packages were one-way deliveries, ordered on-line and delivered direct to the door, or collected from large out-of-town depots, apparently. Even men out of work, like Harry, were doled out their due allowances directly into their bank accounts and didn’t have to get off their butts at all. Only old people went to the post office and then the library and in between they needed the odd cup of tea and perhaps a toasted tea-cake or fruit scone to round off their intermittent excursions.
So this is where Harry sat most weekday mornings between 11 and 11.30, in one of the window seats if he could manage, or in the shadows near the rear from where he could observe the other patrons as they came, supped their brews and went, back on their weary way into the world they had come from, rested and refreshed, like reservists heading back reluctantly to the Front, knowing it was their duty so to do.
Harry didn’t really consider himself old. On the scrapheap, maybe, unemployable, unwanted, unloved, certainly, but if 55 was the new 40 then he felt he was only 39...
It was the woman in the twinkly top that caught his attention at first. It was a black top with the front littered with myriads of tiny sequins woven into the weave. She dazzled as she crossed his path as he walked towards the counter to put in his usual order for a pot of breakfast tea for one and a toasted tea-cake with butter.
The twinkly top woman was blond, not the platinum kind but more like autumn corn. She was autumn herself, too, with fair brown eye brows and lashes, laughter lines relaxing comfortably around her soft brown eyes, a smattering of brown freckles on rose-blushed cheeks, a sharp nose above full rosy-pink lips which pulled themselves upwards at the corners into a smile, revealing even ivory-white teeth, as she and Harry came close to collision. That smile reached those lovely soft eyes and the frozen image of that moment will forever be close to the forefront of Harry’s otherwise uncomplicated mind.
Her hands were occupied at the time with three plates of sliced gateaux wedges, which she carried to a table on the side of the shop about halfway down the tea-shop. Harry had never seen her there before at the times he frequented the establishment and he wanted to see more of her, perhaps hear her voice, even. He didn’t know or question why, he was just interested, nothing more or less. He collected his tea, put in his order, paid and moved to a table near the centre of the tea-shop, well away from his two favourite spots, close to where Twinkle Tee-shirt sat with two, no three friends.
Harry surmised that one friend had secured their table of choice, well away from the draughty front door and the gloomy rear. The second friend had gathered forks and serviettes and sweeteners. Twinkle had brought over most of the cakes and the fourth member of the team had brought a tray of mugs of coffee and the final cake plate to complete their tea-shop tableaux.
The girls, well what else could he call them? They were all about the same age, not that Harry was very good with women’s ages. They could have been anything between 50 and 60, which made them about his own age, the new mid-30s to mid-40s. They all wore wedding and engagement rings, he had no reason to believe they were anything other than happily spoken for. Only Harry spoke for Harry. They were all well-dressed, you know, what they call smart-casual. It was cold outside today so they all had heavy coats slung over their chairs and had discarded their hats, scarves and gloves to leave themselves unencumbered to enjoy their mid-morning refresher.
Harry enjoyed looking at people, he always had. Nowadays that was all he did. He had nothing anybody wanted him to do anymore from nine to five, even the job centre had finally given up on him. He watched people in the bus on the way to town, in the tea-shop, the library, the shopping mall down town off the main street next to the multi-storey, the Coronation Park if the weather was fine, the bus station on the way home. He could fill up his life looking at people. He had a busy time doing nothing did Harry.
They chattered away like birds, Harry observed. Although he was sat quite close, there was sufficient background noise to prevent him from clearly hearing a single word they said between them, only a general hubbub of chatter which appeared to entertain and amuse them all through their brief stay. From where he sat he could see Twinkle in profile and she certainly took her fair share in the conversation, they all did. Only one was fractionally more vociferous, a taller thinner woman with jet-blue-black hair with grey roots had more to say than the rest, she also laughed the least. Twinkle laughed the most and looked around the room more than the rest appeared to and a couple of times looked directly at Harry. Harry quickly looked away each time, he was a watcher, not a watched. When Harry looked back he noted that she wore a small smile on her face but he couldn’t be sure if she smiled at him being caught looking or at a current topic they were discussing. He decided the reasons for the smile mattered little in the scheme of things, he was certain though that it was the prettiest smile he had ever seen.
His tea-cake arrived and he buttered and ate it leisurely, observing the quartet’s loquacious animations. He quite forgot the time and missed the library early closing day at noon. He rose and left shortly after they had dressed themselves for the transition between the still steamy comfort of the shop and the brisk cold breeze of outdoors, maintaining their casual bonhomie until forced to hurry down the hill towards the beckoning sheltered pampering of the universal shopping mall.
Harry actually tried the door of the library before he realised the time had ebbed from the forenoon without his full appreciation. Rather than be deprived of fresh reading matter for the coming evening, he followed in the wake of the girls, but well after their passing, having left no sign of tracks. On the way, he observed that the second-hand bookshop, an oft-sought refuge where Harry harboured from time to time, were also strict adherents of the early closing Wednesday convention, so he continued his journey into the abyss of the multi-stored shopping mall in search of a Waterstones or WH Smiths. He ended up with an expensive and, as it turned out, unentertaining murder mystery that turned out to be no mystery at all.
It was the following Monday that he saw them again, in the same tea-shop. He must have arrived late, or maybe they were early. They had already consumed whatever plated snacks that had been set before them, evidenced by the four crumb-covered tea plates stacked neatly with three knives and a cake fork on top.
Harry smiled in his speculation at what constituted their repast, perhaps one gateau and three tea-cakes, and was Twinkle a cake or a tea-cake? Half the fun of observation was the subsequent speculation, just as delicious as anything served up by Sharon, the bored redhead dispensing cakes and barking drinks orders to the other girls.
Today, Harry chose a cheese scone for a change, which drew a remark of surprise from the said Sharon. Harry replied that the variation in his accustomed order was only to keep her on her toes and the other girls chipped in a few remarks directed at her, which were mildly derogatory, which Sharon took in good heart and all three girls and Harry chuckled about. When Harry turned with his tray, he noticed all four girls on the Twinkle table were looking at him with amused looks on their collective faces.
Harry’s resolve to sit at an adjacent table withered, the window seats were all taken and he proceeded to the rear wall where he could consume his libation and observe the object of his attention at some considerable distance. This time when they arose from the completion of their own partaking, he observed that Twinkle was not actually wearing anything remotely twinkly, but a warm chunky sweater. She was some way from being slim but nor could she be regarded as overweight. Cuddly, yes, cuddly came to mind. Not that there was any chance at all of a cuddle in the offing. Harry might have run a mile screaming if there had been, he was an untouchable, not a toucher. Tuesday meant another encounter, although their timing was off once more. Harry, mostly a creature of habit, was always there a handful of minutes either side of 11 o’clock, but Twinkle et al were all over the place in their visitations and Harry was just thinking of arising from his window table when they bustled in through the doorway discussing what each was deciding on having today like chattering magpies picking over the roadkill of the day. He heard Twinkle’s tinkling soprano beg for a Black Forest gateau and a hot chocolate with marshmallows while it was her turn to reconnoitre their temporary residence for their late-morning refreshments.
Twinkle looked around and espied Harry at his sole occupancy of his table for two in the window, a vacant table for four next to him, which was minus a full set of chairs. Placing her bag on one of the three chairs she approached Harry and asked with a warm smile.
“Is anyone using this chair?” she asked, referring to the empty one opposite Harry.
“No,” Harry smiled in return, as he put down his book which he had only looked at perfunctorily during his stay, “Take it, by all means.”
“Thank you,” she breathed and she grabbed the chair and spun it around, at the same time waving her heady scent in his direction. “You are too kind.”
“One is never too kind,” he smiled, “Kind enough usually suffices.”
“Then I will thank you just enough, kind sir!” she laughed.
Twinkle sat with her back to the window, once again presenting her profile to Harry. It was colder in the window seats on this side because of the doors continually being opened, so Harry noticed she kept her coat on.
He decided he needed an excuse to stay longer, it was about quarter to 12, normally too early for lunch. The tea-shop didn’t have much in the way of a lunch menu but they did serve soup and a roll. Leaving his coat and book to reserve his comfortable place, he went up to the counter to put in and pay for his order. By the time he returned the four girls were sitting down and enjoying their cake and hot drinks. It was dry outside but a raw Northerly wind was blowing, one so lazy it wouldn’t go round anyone, just right through you, so Harry was pleased when the soup arrived, a spicy mulligatawny.
Twinkle caught the aroma of the soup as it was carried to Harry’s table. She watched it being delivered and saw Harry break his hunk of bread, dunk it and observed Harry chew off the hot wet end. As he looked up their eyes met and Harry smiled.
“That smells delicious, does it taste as good as it smells?” Twinkle asked.
“I might try that next time.”
“If it’s as cold out as it is today, you’ll appreciate it.”
“I probably will.”
By now the conversation between the other three girls had stopped and they were now all looking at Harry.
“Ladies,” he said, nodding to them, then focussed his attention to dunking and eating his bread and soup. It seemed a long while but it was probably only a few seconds before their conversation started up again and Harry felt able to lift his eyes momentarily once in a while and take in snippets of conversation. By that means he discovered that his Twinkle was actually christened someone else’s Valerie.
It was another week before Harry met Valerie again. It was a Wednesday morning and she was already there when he arrived at 11. She was not with her usual group of friends, sitting by the window in the corner, nor was she alone. A little girl aged he guessed between 2 and 3 was with her, eating a fruit scone with jam.
Harry smiled at both as he came in. Twinkle smiled back. By the time he had collected his usual pot of breakfast tea and ordered his toasted tea-cake, he was struggling to find anywhere to sit. There had been a spare table in the window when he first came in but a group had sat there in the meantime. Twinkle waved to him and called out that he could sit at their table. He smiled thanks and sat opposite Twinkle and next to the little girl.
The little blond-haired girl grinned at him as he sat down, her cute plump face smeared with raspberry jam.
“Who you?” the little girl asked.
“Harry.” Harry replied.
“What you doin’?” she asked.
“I’m sitting here waiting for my tea to brew.” Harry answered.
“My tea,” he reiterated, adding “and I’ve got a toasted tea-cake coming.”
“It’s just like your scone, only it will be be warm and I will just have butter with it, no jam.”
“Oh,” she said, stuffing another nubbin of sultana-spotted scone in her mouth.
“Are you enjoying that?” Harry thought it was about time he started asking questions.
“Mmmmm,” came the muffled reply.
Harry looked up at Twinkle, she was smiling at the pair of them.
“Cute kid,” he said.
“Yes, she’s my granddaughter, Victoria.” Valerie said “Do you have any children of your own?”
“No,” Harry said sadly. “I married too young and in some ways it was fortunate that it didn’t last long enough to have any children. How many have you got?”
“Two,” she smiled, “My son Alan who is single and in the Navy, and my daughter Sophia who is Victoria’s mother.” Suddenly she looked sad and continued very quietly, “Sophia’s husband was killed in Afghanistan last month and is taking it all rather badly.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Harry was sympathetic but wasn’t sure what to say in this situation. Just then the waitress saved him by bringing his toasted tea-cake. “Thank you,” he said to her.
“Wha’s that?” enquired Victoria when his tea-cake arrived.
Harry saw that she had demolished her scone into mainly a residue of crumbs.
“It’s my toasted tea-cake. Do you want to try a small piece?”
She nodded, “OK.”
Harry spread some butter on one of his tea-cakes and cut off a slice. He put the slice on her plate, “Careful, it might be hot.”
The girl picked it up and her grandmother said, “Victoria, what do you say to the nice gentleman?”
“Than-kyou!” with a big grin, showing large gaps between her white baby teeth, and started chewing the morsel.
“Is that nice?” asked Twinkle.
“Mmmmm,” came Victoria’s muffled reply.
“I think she likes it,” Harry said before taking a bite from his own, “Mmmm, yes this is nice!”
Then Harry and Victoria put their heads together and both said “Mmmm!” at the same time.
Twinkle laughed at the pair of them.
It wasn’t long before Victoria begged a slice from Harry’s second half of his tea-cake. Harry looked up at Valerie, who nodded her approval, so he cut off another buttery slice for her.