It isn’t often that you wake from a doze and find the person you’ve been dreaming about standing right in front of you. Especially when you haven’t seen them for 25 years and even more especially when they haven’t changed a bit.
But that’s what happened to me. It had been an exhausting few days at Nettie’s, my now world famous tea shop, and I’d had the chance to get away for a day. I’d done my washing, cleaned up the house and been out to buy supplies. I’d even tidied up in the garden a bit and then I’d just sat down in the afternoon sunshine and dozed off. I thought about Nettie herself. It was an old habit and it comforted me.
We’d met in that nowhere space just after University. We’d both gone along to a mutual friend’s bonfire party, started chatting and hadn’t stopped. That first night we slept by the dieing fire, wrapped in each others’ arms. Two weeks later she gave up her lousy little bedsit and moved in with me in the rundown old caravan I occupied at the side of a friendly farmer’s field. We hardly saw another soul for six months. We talked and talked and talked and, of course, we made love almost constantly. We were so covered in each others’s bodily fluids that we crackled when we moved. We just couldn’t get enough of each other.
We finally moved on a bit. We travelled, we saw the world, we did odd jobs for petty cash, we lived on the beaches of the Greek Islands, we slept in doss-houses in India and we were never apart.
After two years we both knew that we had to start earning a living. This idyll could not continue for ever. Nettie had always wanted to be a doctor and when she was admitted to St. Thomas’s in London to start her training we both moved to the big smoke. I still had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. I got into drugs in a big way, I got into a mess and I hated London. I hated it with a passion. I tried, I really did try, to learn to adapt but I was a bumpkin in a flash, dirty and aggressive land.
We didn’t fight. We were still hopelessly in love but Nettie was driven and I was not. She was a child of the city and I was a country boy. She loved it, being back on her home turf, and I couldn’t take a moment longer. I knew I would be lost for good.
Sadly, reluctantly, I returned to my little city in the sticks. I bunked down with an old friend and got a job in the local hippy cafe. I served tea, made flapjacks and tried to stop the hippies being too out of it. One day a belligerent gentleman with hair down his back and a battered old hat on his head skinned up in the middle of the cafe. I asked him to desist as the Old Bill would have loved an excuse to close us down but he just told me to chill. An argument ensued and I ended up losing my temper and clocking him one. He was an arsehole but I was uncool. Arsehole beats uncool any day in the life of Hippy Top Trumps and I lost my job.
I had, though, learnt the ways of the cafe and I was determined that I could do better. I was lent the use of a kitchen by an old friend of my mother’s and I learned to cook pastries to delight the mind, cakes to bolster the soul and fancies to turn the head of the most unlikely maiden.
I borrowed some money and opened a little cafe of my own. Within a month you had to have a reservation to get a table. We served two shifts at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at a price of £15 per head - a fortune in those days. For that you got the world’s best sandwiches and a selection of my baklava oozing honey and sweet almonds, light fluffy eclairs with deep chocolate and the best cream money could buy, cup cakes, fairy cakes, miniature doughnuts and danish pastries to delight a Queen. I made them all myself. I was there at 6 a.m. every morning, kneading, baking and stuffing. The aroma filled the little shop and when the customers were admitted in the early afternoon they salivated at the prospect of what was to come. I did not disappoint them. When a London journalist dropped by one day I didn’t think a lot of it. But the review in one of the fancy papers said I’d created the best cafe in the country and the legend of Nettie’s began.
It was only three months later that I took the lease on a huge glass fronted emporium in the High Street. I no longer had six tables to serve but fifty. I had staff. No longer was my lovely friend Katie the only waitress. I had bevies of staff. I hired patissiers and patissieres, experienced front of house staff and even accounts personnel.
We didn’t accept bookings and from the first day onwards we were full within an hour of opening our doors. The queue would build up and I hired buskers to keep them entertained. There was even a special waitress who would serve drinks and little nibbles to the eagerly awaiting customers. We treated them like royalty. Inside the food and the drink were constantly scrutinised. I toiled endlessly to create better and better products. We were the talk of the time. Pop star royalty came and ate with us - but they had to queue just like everyone else. They would take their turn on the busker’s stand, as would the top comedians of the day, the dancers, the musicians and the outstanding authors and poets.
Nettie’s was the watchword for quality and delight. Americans, Europeans and even wealthy Japanese would fly over especially to sample our fare. I refused to move out of the city and I refused to open any other franchise. I did open a shop in the back and sold our products in beautiful pink boxes with our logo scrawled elegantly on the lid.
I made money, of course I did, but nowhere near as much as I could have done if I’d been willing to hawk the name. But that name was precious. More precious even than the cafe itself. I had girlfriends. They came and went but were always infuriated by my work schedule. Seven days a week I went in and it took me ten years to take a day off.
I never heard from Nettie and I never saw her. I longed for the day when she would just walk in and say ‘hi’. I dreamt of my response. Sometimes I would sink to my knees and cry ‘it’s all for you’ and others I would scoop her into my arms and we would be together once more, locked away from the world.
And now, as I finally began to withdraw a little from my business and leave things occasionally to my wonderful and faithful staff, here she was standing in front of me.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Annie and I’m your daughter.”
She told me that Nettie had died four weeks ago. In her belongings Annie had found a letter addressed to her. Nettie finally revealed the identity of her father to her. She knew, of course, where I was and what I did. She’d never married, she’d been enormously successful as a paediatrician, she’d loved her London life, going to concerts and art galleries, eating in the best restaurants and loving her daughter, our daughter, in a deep and tender way.
Annie and I talked that afternoon and way into the evening and the night. We talked about everything. How we felt about Nettie, how we felt about life, how we felt about each other. Right from the start the barriers came down. We were both intensely private people who opened up to each other with barely a tremble.
Annie moved in with me and learnt the trade. She became my right hand, my friend and my confidante. We cooked together, we drank together, we socialised separately. She almost made me whole again but the gap that was Nettie was never fully healed - for either of us. But when you accept that gap then you learn to live with it and we did.
After four years Annie met a young lecturer at the local University and they fell in love. I liked him and he liked me. She moved in with him and the house was suddenly more silent. It wasn’t Annie I missed but Nettie. I heard her and saw her in every corner. Through our daughter she had come back into my life and I wept at her physical absence.
Now, as I dandle a grand-daughter on my knee, I yearn for her even more. I think of what we could have had and we did have. She would never have lived my life and I would never have lived hers and I think I accept that. But what if, I ask myself, day after day, what if.