Mike watched the electronic boards flicker round to the inevitable delayed notifications. Not only was he now going to miss the first hour of the conference, but he also knew he would be forced to hang around in a ridiculous coffee shop for an hour whilst the rail network corrected itself and provided the transport he had paid for. There was a collective sag of shoulders on the platform. Mike sauntered out of the station amongst the other dejected commuters in search of the nearest place to get a drink.
Standing alone, tight up against the embankment wall of the train station, he spotted a glinting metal building, with a dark cobalt roof. Through the long glass window he saw what appeared to be a stainless steel counter. Just outside, a black sandwich board wobbled slightly in the morning breeze. In simplistic writing the word ‘Coffee’ had been emblazoned in blue chalk. This was enough to entice him in.
The Peoples ‘ethically sourced coffee’ he read in monochrome arch above the doorway. He saw most of the commuters wandering away in other directions, which suited him just fine. Why would he want to spend the next hour awkwardly exchanging glances with people who believed they had a common late commuter cause or worse still, tried to engage him in pointless, mind-numbing conversation.
‘Peoples coffee’ was remarkably quiet for an early morning. In fact, there appeared to be only one other customer. As the door closed with a click, the noise seemed to prompt the bearded chap at one of the tables to spring into action. It turned out the presumed customer was actually the staff, even better.
‘Morning’ the bearded chap chirped, and welcome to Peoples coffee. What can I get for you? he said moving round to the other side of the counter. The newly identified barista looked to be a hipster type, with a smart black and silver apron. He had a sallow complexion and piercing eyes. His sad clothes on the other hand looked like they may well have been rescued from a skip.
Mike reviewed the chalkboard behind the barista. It was difficult to focus on. The writing seemed too small to read and was jumping around all over the place. He knew at some point soon he was going to have to give in to age and get glasses, vanity would push him to hold off for now though. Forcing his hand he knew he would just have to ask for something and hope it was on the menu. Surely coffee was coffee though? Giving customers every possible combination or version of the same drink always seemed a bit pompous and unnecessary. You make a coffee, maybe you put in too much milk, that’s a latte. On the way back to the cupboard you spill some cocoa on top, now it’s a cappuccino. These so-called coffee experts needed to get over themselves.
‘Would you like some assistance choosing your drink Sir’ said the barista. I can offer several excellent recommendations.
‘Just something simple will be fine’ Mike mumbled. He was already flustered by the thought of the myriad of questions about to come his way. He glanced around the café. There were several chairs and tables, none of which seemed to match. This was in stark contrast to the gleaming metal counters and floors. Must be a new hipster style thing, still odd though.
‘Of course, Sir, we have some amazing choices today that I can grind for you fresh. May I recommend the Tongan, smoky and sweet? Or perhaps our Javan lava blend, it’s infused through the volcanic rocks and topped with a bitter chocolate note. Very satisfying’ he grinned. The baristas teeth looked sharp and grey; the incisors, in particular appeared almost triangular.
‘Does it taste like coffee? Mike offered sarcastically. If it tastes like coffee, I will just have that. I don’t really care.
The barista looked confused and a little hurt. ‘They are all different sir, coffee, in the right hands is like a good wine or whisky, they all have different notes depending on the blend, a different feel on the tongue’
‘The first one will be fine’ Mike sighed. This guy was going to end up wearing this coffee if he carried on.
‘Sure, no problem. The barista turned and selected a mason jar of beans from a range behind him. He popped open the lid with long delicate fingers and swirled the jar round in front of him, inhaling deeply from the rattling contents as if reviewing a good merlot. His chest audibly crackled slightly as he breathed out. Probably the unethically sourced rollups Mike thought.
The barista smiled again at Mike. ‘I just love this one though, so smoky, leathery, salty’. He closed his eyes for a second.
Mike just stared at him. He found this approach was best in dealing with people when the words that were forming in his brain were so unpleasant.
‘And what about the milk sir?’
Here we go again.
‘Obviously we have the usual range, full fat, half fat, skinny, best of both. Oatmeal, almond milk, soy, goat milk, sheep milk, yak milk…
Oh, yes, it’s sweet, you can taste the mountain air and…
‘Full fat milk please’.
‘Of course, no problems Sir’
Mike shifted his weight to the other foot. He was about to say he had changed his mind, but the bearded barista had loaded the contents of the jar into the grinder and switched it on. The churning and grinding followed by the hiss of the espresso machine killed any hope of conversation for the next couple of minutes. A blessed relief. As the grinding machine wound down, the barista returned to the counter. More questions no doubt.
We do have our Peoples ethically sourced milk as well, sir, it’s a very special blend, sweet, familiar. Would you like to try it?
‘Fine, that’s fine’ He just wanted this to be over. He had an hour to kill but if he didn’t get this done with soon he was sure that was exactly what was going to happen.
‘Some of our customers like a dust on top, would you like a dust sir?
‘A dust? A dust of what?’
‘Oh well sir we have cinnamon, chocolate, maple, and our special peoples ethically sourced dust’
Mike put his hand over his eyes and laughed. ‘For God’s sake man, have you heard yourself, ethically sourced people dust. What does that even mean? What’s that made from? Ethically sourced people?’
The barista paused thoughtfully as he tipped the frothy steamed milk over the hot black juice.
‘Yes, sir that is, as you say, correct’. The barista didn’t look up from his work. He continued to concentrate on the coffee. Mike thought he could be smirking, or perhaps just showing his teeth ever so slightly.
Assuming this was just a weird hipster joke Mike tried again ‘Excuse me?’
The barista slowly leaned over the counter, staring Mike straight in the eye. He grinned again showing those pointed teeth. It may have been the lighting, but the teeth looked silver in this light and his mouth seemed almost black. His demeanour had changed now. Warning signals were flashing all round Mike’s head.
‘I said yes sir, we are the ethically sourced Peoples coffee company. We find ways to ethically source all our ingredients. Ethical sourcing is critical to our future. Consider if you will the one thing that has been most devastating to this planet, it’s people. They are wasteful, all consuming, inefficient polluters. Would it not be so much better if there were, less of them, don’t you think? We believe we have found a way to address the balance somewhat. Many of our customers think so, don’t you agree…Mike?’
That dream like sense of being the fly in a spider web had gripped him like sticky threads. Mike could not speak, only barely nod. He could really do with a drink but the one on the counter in front of him had somehow lost its appeal. He did not remember sharing his name with the barista, maybe he had. Desperately thirsty now.
Quickly the barista moved away from the counter towards the espresso machine, sweat was beginning to trickle down Mike’s shirt back under his suit. The barista delicately placed the steaming cup of smoky liquid on the counter and slid it towards Mike with a single bony finger.
‘Your coffee Sir, just how you like it, flat white. I took the liberty of adding the Peoples ethical dust sprinkles myself. It really does have a wonderful flavour’
Mike heard himself say. ‘Are you telling me this coffee is, this is, people?
‘Ethically sourced, People coffee sir’
Mike stared again at the horrific cup in front of him. He imagined he would feel nausea but didn’t. It smelled delicious. He was so thirsty.
The barista leaned forward. ‘Won’t you try it sir?’ Mike took the cue that this was not a suggestion. It was an order. The room had a strange spinning quality to it, as if he was being turned over and over, fastened in tight.
Mike warily took the cup and sat down at a table, aware of the watchful gaze of the barista. He noticed the large and bulging hessian sacks piled in the corner, all marked with Peoples ethically sourced produce. Just next to this was a large glass door behind which sat a giant stainless steel drum type apparatus. He noticed that there were no other customers in the shop. The blinds were now shut and the door…well he could not see where the door was anymore.
The barista strolled over to the stainless-steel apparatus in the corner, pressed a flashing switch and the machine kicked into life. It made a weird, steamy grinding noise. Like it would freeze dry and shred anything that was thrown into it.
‘That’s it, why don’t you just relax, sir’ said the barista, finish up your delicious Peoples ethically sourced coffee’
Mike put the cup to his lips and sipped. It was the best coffee he had ever tasted. He felt heady and warm. It did not feel like a caffeine hit, more like a tranquilizer.
‘And as soon as you are finished, we can get started’ said the barista, gently patting the grinding machine. He grinned again. ‘I am so glad you chose to join us today. You will perhaps have realised we are… not a local company. As a special customer, perhaps you would be willing to help me prepare some ethically sourced biofuel for my trip home this evening?’ He heard the glass door to the engine room slide open. The steel fuelling trap, slid and gaped open. Just wide enough to fit a person inside.
Mike felt his brain drifting away from the situation, the world of commuting and conferences seemed a distant nonsense. As if his insides had been numbed and were seeping out into the space around him.
‘Oh, I almost forgot, said the barista. Thank you for purchasing Peoples ethically sourced today. Helping us to save your planet, one Peoples coffee at a time’.
Gavin Turner is poet and writer of short fiction. He has recently had work published in Roi Faineant press, Void space and The Chamber magazine. His debut Chapbook ‘The Round Journey’ was released in 2022. Gavin lives and works in Wigan, England. When not writing he enjoys spending time with his family and taking walks with his dog. You can find more information about his work at www.gtpoems.com and @GtPoems on Twitter.