Clara’s coffee house stood on the end of Mapley Street with red blinds that by now could only drop halfway down without splitting apart. The place looked out dated compared to the Starbucks a few roads over. There was an ‘O’ on the illuminated ‘Open’ sign that had flickered out almost seven months ago but no one had thought to change it yet.
“Thanks for the tips Marge, I’ll be sure to name my character after you!” Joe shouted as he waved back to the grocery store, holding a plastic bag nearly half empty. He walked along into the café, then sat down at the nearest table to the door and got out his pen and pads of paper. They already had scribbles all over them. She brought over a full plate to a man, who was sitting at a table next to the counter. He sighed as he slouched in the chair. As she put the plate down, she rested a hand on his shoulder, stroking off the dust from, what looked like, weeks of work at the construction site with no time to wash his overalls. He was a fairly large man and came here almost every morning. They exchanged a few words and he smiled as he tucked into his breakfast. She had a quaint kindness about her that Joe had always adored. She was the main reason most of the customers went there and didn’t Joe know it. That and the killer tuna salad sandwich her cook can make. Clara came over quickly and brought him his morning coffee: black. She was a timid woman who got along well with all her customers, unlike the usual boisterous characters in the area. Her thirty year old body wasn’t skinny, and her hair was always pinned up with one or two stray hairs that would rest on her cheek bones. She wore plain clothes and wore very little make up but she had an essence about her that called the community to her café like homing pigeons.
“Are those new shoes? They’re pretty.” Joe asked eagerly.
“Oh, yes. Bought them the other day at that market down town.” Clara replied while writing down his orders, oblivious to Joe’s attentive compliment.
“Rick looks exhausted today,” said Joe.
“I know, he just said that he’s worked double shifts this week,” she said as she glanced over at the table she had just served. “But how’s the book coming along?”
“Oh not too bad, I guess.” Clara smiled and squeezed Joe’s arm slightly then went back to the counter.
Behind him Joe heard someone screaming. Turning around to the window next to him he watched a man in a smart business suit yell down the phone. He was threatening all sorts of things that shocked even his creativity, before throwing the phone to the ground almost hitting a homeless man in the process. Leaving it lying on the floor he walked in, composed and sturdy again. Getting nowhere with his novel, Joe gawked at him as he sat down, concluding that he must live a stressed lifestyle to look so self-assured after that outburst. He got out the business section of the Independent and sat to read it only a few tables away. Close enough for him to hear when Clara, unaware of what had just occurred, came over to take his order. Getting to his table, she quickly went back behind the counter to bring over a high chair for the woman sitting at the table next to him, who was struggling to hold a toddler with one hand and a forkful of chicken nuggets in the other. The woman gleamed at Clara, while sitting the child down and proceeded to cut up the nuggets into bite size pieces. Clara went back to serve the man at the table, as Joe continued to stare at them. The man hesitated before looking up as though he was finishing reading a sentence. But then as soon as he saw her waiting patiently with a notepad still in hand, he smiled and asked for a latte with two and a half teaspoons of sugar. “Also what do you suggest as an accompaniment? A lady as beautiful as yourself must have exquisite taste.” His hair was perfectly combed back with just enough gel in it to shine slightly under this lighting. She had probably noticed that by now, Joe thought with a jealous tick coming along. She giggled at his boyish charm and suggested the scones. The toddler next to them started to cry, annoyed about one of his toys falling on the floor. Joe didn’t mind the noise too much, as his sister came round frequently with her two year old son. He did mind, however, that he could no longer hear the conversation between Clara and the man. They conversed for a few minutes and Clara’s smile had not once been interrupted. “Oh, Lewis you are so funny,” Joe heard Clara say when the child’s shrieks eventually subsided.
The next few weeks past in this manner with Lewis coming in in the mornings for a latte and scones then leaving for work while Clara giggled to herself as she cleaned the dishes. He seemed to work almost every day, whether it was a weekday or not. His handsome face and sturdy stance made her act like a young girl again causing Joe to grow more and more uncomfortable each day that Lewis came in. He fidgeted while watching Lewis and Clara speak each morning. Her lips had been smothered in a dark red lipstick lately, where packets of laughter escaped every now and again. They chimed in Joe’s brain leaving him with a pain that wouldn’t subside. He tried to carry on working on his novel though, staying from morning till late afternoon talking to Clara at every opportunity.
On a Saturday morning, Joe walked past Marge’s grocery store where she had bunches of flowers out on the front stand. Joe stopped mid walk to stare at the newly bloomed sunflowers. They were a deep purple, like the colour of Clara's apron. “These would be great for Clara don’t you think, Marge?”
“Oh wonderful, sunflowers are just the sort of thing that suits a woman. I see men who come here and always go for the red roses. Roses are for young sweethearts that you don’t much care to see when they grow old and haggard, like me.”
“Now don’t say that, you still are bursting with vibrance! Maybe these’ll put a bright smile on her face.” As Joe said it, he also mumbled a comment, which was inaudible to Marge.
Joe looked down at the flowers with a disappointed look so Marge shyly ignored what he had said.
“You should ask her out before it’s too late. And don’t give me that look I know you’ve always had a thing for her.”
Joe smiled, as though thinking back to a fond memory, and paid for the sunflowers. As he walked the few metres down to Clara’s, his hands trembled holding the bouquet of flowers. When he walked in he strode right up to Clara and handed her the flowers surprisingly confidently. “Oh thank you, Joe. These are beautiful,” she said smelling the flowers. She gave him a hug that reminded him of ones that old friends do when they haven’t seen each other in a long time. He stood, unable to move, and after a long pause managed to fumble out a few words to her, explaining how they reminded him of her then sprinted out of the café to figure out what to do. The homeless man was sitting there as usual. Joe rubbed his face, troubled from the ordeal he had just gone through. “Mate, you don’t look too well,” the homeless man said to Joe. He chuckled at the irony then took a deep breath and went back inside. Clara was filling up a vase full of water for the flowers as he opened the door and placed them on the counter top.
He sat down and while Clara brought him over some coffee and a sandwich. “On the house.” Joe smiled at her while sipping the coffee. He got out his papers and wrote with a spirit that hadn’t been there earlier.
‘Lewis hadn’t come in today’ Joe thought. But he briskly pushed away the thought, deciding that he should be grateful for such a thing. He’d started to write eagerly again and was enjoying all the attention from Clara.
When closing time came he waited for all the other customers to leave. Clara was washing up some mugs. He packed up his stuff and went towards the counter. A few steps away he paused abruptly and dropped his bag then ran straight to the bathroom. He splashed some water on his face and steadied his shaking hands on the edges of the sink. He looked up into the mirror and stared at his dripping face. His hair was straggly and his face unshaven. His shirt wasn’t even buttoned all the way to the top. “Could she say yes to me?” he said out loud to himself.
Then he heard the front door open. “Shit, she’s already leaving! You can do this, Joe, just ask her to dinner. It’s easy,” he said to himself. Then he ran out the bathroom, heading back towards the counter. He’d run through the flowers and broken glass. The vase had been thrown to the floor, leaving scattered petals everywhere.
Lewis had his hands round Clara’s neck. Joe ran at him. Joe hit him. Lewis let go. Lewis hit him back. Clara screamed. Clara cried. She ran out of the café.