Authors: Jenny Oliver
The Grand Reopening of Dandelion Café
The cafe was closed. Behind the white writing on the windows and the little red chequered half-curtains, she could see the faint outline of booth seats and a counter far in the distance. A blackboard had been pulled inside, chalk letters that started big and got smaller as the writer ran out of space advertised milkshakes, best breakfast on the island, coffee for a pound fifty and cherry pie with custard.
Annie White never had it with custard. She had her cherry pie the way her dad had had it, with cream. Just enough to make a swirl in the cherry juices. Just enough to dampen the pastry but not enough to melt the sugar crystals on the lattice. Just enough to sweeten the bitterness of the cherries. But her dad always ate it with a fork. She never understood that. Why eat a pie with a fork when you can use a spoon?
‘I like this noise,’ he’d say, as the pastry cracked against the side of his fork.
Annie would frown and shake her head like he was a fool. Mouth full of cherries, bittersweet, plump like pillows, the weird feeling of the skin popping between her teeth, she’d say, ‘You should try it with a teaspoon. You won’t regret it. It makes it last longer.’
Her dad would return her frown.
‘You don’t get enough per spoonful,’ her brother would say as he shovelled his in at the speed of light, with cream, custard and, if he could swing it with Enid who owned the place, Neapolitan ice cream.
‘No one asked you,’ Annie would turn her back on him.
He’d scoff a laugh, cherry juice staining his teeth pink.
And invariably her mum would appear, fresh from her night shift as a hospital nurse, order a black coffee, give her dad the list of things he needed to fix around the house that weekend, and tell them off for bickering. Annie and her brother would look at each other over their Cokes and snigger and their dad might wink. It was just a normal Saturday morning. But at the time it was sitting at the scratched plastic table of the cafe, hoovering up cherry pie and having the best time in the world.
Annie tried the door.
Of course it was locked. This wasn’t the eighties. No one left a door open here any longer. She pulled up the collar of her mac. The sun was that early spring morning height in the sky that made her think of walking to school. After the arctic winter they’d had, she found herself barely able to trust the warmth of the sun – constantly surprised to see it there in the sky, beaming down on her, trying to make her shrug her coat off and pause to put her face up to the rays.
But with the morning spring sunshine nearly always came the cool mist and the humidity that wreaked havoc with her teenage hair and was doing the same now. The damp that slipped like tentacles down her back, rising up from the river and threading its way round her like a twister.
She paused for a second to smell the air; the unmistakable scent of river water and dewy grass that mixed with the chiselled wood shavings from the boatyard and the engine oil from the motorboats and generators to engulf her in a smell so familiar she almost couldn’t detect it. Like the clock that had ticked so long in her flat that she no longer heard it.
Peering in the window again, she narrowed her view with her hands against the glass, there were cups on the draining board. A jar with ‘Tips’ written in felt-tip and Sellotaped to the side. Newspapers stacked up on an odd-looking cupboard with only one door. Every table had a red and a brown sauce bottle and a dispenser for those waxy napkins that never cleaned anything. If she squinted she could see the lino on the booth seats, ripped and stuck together in places with Gaffer tape. When she exhaled, her breath steamed up the window and she took a step back. Looking up she saw the sign, same as always, hanging motionless at an angle, pushed back by the storm of ’86 and never forced straight. Dandelion Cafe written in scrolled white writing over a picture of a hand clutching a bunch of the yellow weeds, the paint scratched and faded, and marked with bird poo. Next to the sign, the torn fabric from the awning hung like ribbons and the windows in the flat above had a rug pinned up as curtains.
‘Anyway, it’s yours now,’ her mother had said on the phone the week before. ‘The cafe.’
‘I know.’ Annie barely knew what day it was she’d been working so hard, but she did know the Dandelion Cafe was hers and she’d been waiting for this phone call. Her father had left it to her in his will, on the understanding that Enid, his own father’s very best friend, would have it until she didn’t want to run it any more.
‘I didn’t see you at the funeral,’ her mum carried on.
‘That’s because I only popped in, Mum, and sat at the back; I didn’t want to make a fuss. Just say goodbye to Enid.’ An email popped up on Annie’s computer screen as she was on the phone, checking she was going to meet her deadline. She swivelled her chair round so she was facing the other way. She was in the middle of the biggest design job she’d ever taken on, one that she didn’t really have capacity for so had put in a huge quote, assuming they’d decline. When they accepted she’d had a momentary flutter that she would finally be able to pay off her mortgage – and in doing so, put the past behind her – but the flutter was short-lived since she’d been locked in her flat ever since, drinking too much tea and making her eyes go funny from the amount of screen time. Taking the half a day out for the funeral had meant working all night, but Enid had been like a surrogate granny; tiny, ferocious, terrifying but marvellous. She smoked Marlboro Reds – and Cuban cigars on her birthday – drank red wine throughout the day, wore great patterned shawls and black jumpsuits, every conceivable colour of Crocs and bare feet. With a face like a little raisin and wrinkles so deep they carved up her face like a ski-slope, she must have been pushing ninety but never admitted to being more than seventy-five.
Enid had invented the famous Cherry Pie recipe and spent hours in the orchard behind the cafe tending to the cherry trees. When Annie was a kid, Enid would do things like announce an annual dandelion day, usually in early June, when she felt the little yellow weeds were at their brightest – a golden carpet on the orchard floor. They’d pick as many bunches as they could while above them the white blossom of the cherries shone like snow. As she put them in jam jars on the cafe tables, Enid would tell Annie and her friends despicable stories that made Annie nearly fall off her seat with laughter, while her own daughter, Martha, rolled her eyes at their inappropriateness. But ask Enid anything about herself, about maybe her life before Martha, and she would shut down like a Transformer. Her face would change. Her eyes would dull. And Annie would feel like she did when it thundered as a kid and it felt like the roof shook.
‘Well, we had a lovely party in her honour the next day. Lots of food and lots and lots of wine and, oh Annie, the snowdrops are out and the blossom is just starting, just the odd tree, and so we had lights strung up and a bit of a dance and then we scattered her ashes, just next to your father’s, in the cherry orchard. It was lovely. Martha read a poem and then we all went to the cafe for a cup of tea.’
Annie remembered the very same thing happening at her father’s funeral. Except at his she’d been left with not only a great, gaping hole of exquisite sadness, but also a sense of utter frustration that she had been on the verge, on the cusp, so close to paying him back, of surprising him with the fact that he could have the money back he’d used to bail her out, but then he had died. Poof. Gone. Taken. And he had never known.
‘Don’t get your hopes up. About the cafe. It’s gone a bit, well, rack and ruin springs to mind.’
‘I’m not coming home to run a cafe. You know that, don’t you?’
‘Of course, darling. Of course.’ There was a pause. ‘But I’m assuming you’re going to come and just take a quick peek?’
Annie glanced back to her computer. Ten new emails. Three about the current project. The rest about the others that she’d taken on concurrently. She rubbed her eyes.
‘I have to go, I have to work. I’ve kind of over-promised myself.’
‘Well when will we see you?’
‘I don’t know. I have so much to do.’
‘Well it would be useful to know, sweetheart, because we’re doing a Come Dine With Me on Saturday and I’ll need to know whether to set another place. I lost last time to the bloody Senior Sister at work so I’m all out to win this one.’
Formed by a tributary off the Thames, in leafy West London, accessed only by a wooden footbridge, was the island Annie once called home. Quirky, odd, damp, secluded, Cherry Pie Island was a haven of artists’ shacks, houseboats, narrow lanes with ramshackle gardens overflowing with hollyhocks, a recording studio, boathouse, pub, a smattering of shops, a much-contested new-build development, and, of course, the Dandelion Cafe, where she now stood, a week too late for her mum’s Come Dine With Me evening.
Annie’s sleep patterns had been so disturbed by the now-complete work deadline that when she’d woken up at six she’d just got in the car. It was a half-hour drive from her Hampstead flat at this time in the morning, with no other cars on the road and now, as she yawned, she wished that she’d rolled over in bed and tried for a little more sleep.
At the end of the road she could see the sun ripple off the river in rings; swans gliding, brilliant white in the early-light; the pub garden twinkling with dew on the vine leaves; butter-yellow crocuses dotted along the path like goblets; the sounds in the still air of dogs barking, rowing blades on the water, a motorboat engine, the milk van. She took a step back to let it pass, and as it pulled in just past the cafe the same old milkman, Mr Lewis, jumped out and heaved up a crate of silver-topped bottles. She could barely believe he was still alive. He’d looked about eighty when she’d been little. The most miserable man on the island.
‘This place yours now I hear,’ he muttered as he laboriously hauled a crate of rattling milk bottles from the back of the van. ‘Make yourself useful. Thank you,’ he said as he thrust them at her. ‘Poisoned chalice,’ he added with a nod up towards the cafe.
‘Erm.’ Annie frowned, struggling under the weight of the unexpected milk crate, and feeling she should defend the cafe against his notoriously depressing point of view. ‘It could have potential,’ she said.
He laughed. ‘There’ll be a board on it by the end of the month I don’t doubt. You’ll have run a mile.’
He drove off at the two miles per hour that milk vans can drive while Annie was still trying to formulate a reply. The irritating point was he was probably right.
As she adjusted the milk crate in her arms she glanced to her left and paused for a second, catching sight of her very favourite view.
The cherry trees.
Planted on a slight hill at the back of the cafe, the ancient trees stood
and higgledy-piggledy. Branches like nets catching clouds from the sky, buds poised to pop in white bunches, a carpet of lush grass and wild flowers, snowdrops and crocuses, and little blue tits and chaffinches dancing from one perch to the next. The trees closest to her were so old and set now at such precarious angles, it was like their tired old branches were taking a rest on whatever they could find – their boughs propped up on the crumbling stone wall that hemmed them in, some tangled together like arms linked for support, one leaning on a huge sycamore that shaded the back yard of her cafe. This was the view on all the postcards they sold at The Cherry Pie General Store. And Annie adored it. It was the view that made her tilt her head to the side and wish she was ten years old and dressed in the new summer outfit her mum would buy her every year on a trip to London. Or maybe be seventeen and walking tipsily from one of the parties at the rowing club with the strokeman of the 1st VIII, feeling the back of his hand as it grazed against hers as the sun came up, or just lying in her bikini drinking 7Up and getting pissed off with her brother for spraying the hose at her.