~ coffee smells like freedom sometimes… ~ (Stella L.)
On another one of those terribly quiet and slate-gray afternoons, Charlie got up from his bedroom armchair. He walked from his table laden with greyish folders past a carved bookcase displaying well-bound books with gilded stripes. They were his father’s and all bore “Law” in their titles. Charlie walked towards the window and leaned against the wall. His eyelids kept closing slowly over his red-rimmed eyes. The short pops of his knuckles, the duller, deeper cracking of his neck. Rubbing his elbows, he sat on the windowsill, inhaled deeply and in between stretched his mouth into a yawn.
Charlie had been studying for weeks now, and the bar exam was ominously approaching. A big hurdle that he was doubtful he could jump over. He failed it in January, and it was dead-end November with its display of grey. The grey clouds, rain, streets. The grey light in the afternoon. The grey bedspread. The grey folders hugging the stapled pages of black on white.
Three taps on the door went unnoticed and after a few moments the maid opened the door balancing the tray with biscuits and coffee in her left hand.
“I brought your evening coffee, Mr. Charles. I’ll just put it on your desk. If you should need anything else…”
“No. Thank you Grace. That won’t be necessary. I’ll be leaving soon,” Charlie answered without looking at her.
“Shall I arrange for a driver?” she enquired.
“No need, I’ll be driving myself tonight,” Charlie said, still looking out the window.
“Then have a nice evening, sir,” said Grace leaving the room, pushing the door into its place softly behind her.
The window showed a street empty and bleak, but for the sway of leaves and tree branches there was nothing alive, nothing comforting. Charlie stood up, walked to the coat hanger and selected a neatly-tailored coat and a matching hat. With the hat in his hand he exited the room; the steaming coffee and freshly-baked biscuits sprinkled with sugar sitting on the table untouched. He knew the recipe well. He had made these biscuits many times and knew that if you covered the cookies with a damp cloth just after taking them out of the oven, they were even better.
He returned the next morning at a quarter past 7:00. He had spent the night in a hotel, the receipt for the room still in his coat pocket neatly folded. He took off his hat and sat in his armchair still wearing his coat. The coffee and biscuits were gone. The bed was made, the bedspread now navy blue. Grace knocked.
“Good morning, sir. Breakfast will be served in an hour, but I if you prefer to eat early, I can bring breakfast up to you.”
“I would like to make my own breakfast today.”
“Well… sir. I’ll prepare anything, if you just tell me…”
“Have you eaten yet?” he said.
“Well… no, but I…”
“Then I’ll make us some breakfast.”
He walked past her without giving her a chance to reply, descending the steps. Dozens of old gilded frames bearing important family faces were displayed along the circular hallway and down the carved steps bigger family portraits hung, some in complete darkness, some half-lit. The last in the line was the portrait of his father.
Grace turned around and hurried down the steps, while Charlie had already reached the kitchen. She pressed her whole palm against the revolving glass door and clasping her hands by her elbows moved quickly behind the counter. Charlie’s coat was on the hanger and he was wearing an apron with blue dots.
“Please sit down and tell me what you would like to eat,” said Charlie.
“Mr. Charles, I can make…”
“I know you can,” he said.
“Please, let me…” she said.
“Please, let me,” Charlie said finally.
Grace was still standing behind the counter and rubbing her fingers.
“I like milk-rolls with honey for breakfast. And a cup of white coffee. No sugar,” she said.
Charlie turned around and opened a cabinet on his left. He took out a flat baking tin and covered it with baking paper he took out of the drawer on his right.
“There are fresh rolls and croissants in the pantry, Charles… Mr. Charles.”
“I know there are, but I’m going to bake some,” he said.
“I’ll bring flour and…” she said.
“No, please sit. I’ll make breakfast.”
Grace did sit down and she watched Charlie make the dough with his hands, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up, flour on his fingers and under his nails. He was silent. Grace, still fidgeting, did not say a word. Charlie felt awkward and tried to move past it by making small talk.
“How are you feeling today Grace?”
“I’m fine, sir,” she said.
“Please call me Charlie,” he said. He wanted to sound natural, but his words kept sounding artificial; he had already heard variations of this sentence millions of times on TV.
“I-I-don’t think it’s appropriate, sir.”
“Then call me Charles, you did just a minute ago.”
Grace’s cheeks were turning to peach, but it was true; she did call him by his first name.
“All right, Charles,” she said, her cheeks ripe and golden.
Grace watched him fold the rolls; gentle creases skillfully appeared under his fingers. He brushed the rolls with egg yolk and sprinkled lime peel on top. He placed the shiny small heaps into the oven. He poured dark coffee into two transparent tall glasses and poured the frothy cream and milk in the center, gradually making the dark coffee white. He poured caramel on top, which sunk slowly through the stiff cream. He took the rolls out of the oven, placed a few on a shallow square plate next to sliced greengage and torn mint. He made circles around them with a spoon covered in honey.
They ate together and sipped coffee like old friends, although they did not really know each other. They didn’t speak. They didn’t have to. The shared silence was a comfort to both.
Grace cleared everything away when they finished eating.
“I’m not taking the bar again,” he said.
“You shouldn’t,” she agreed.
Charlie exhaled lightly and joined his hands together. Staring at them, he said:
“I’m telling my father tomorrow. I cannot be a lawyer.”
Facing Charlie, Grace leaned on a cupboard. She did not say anything, but lightly nodded her head. Charlie, now almost relaxed, felt he was being listened to and allowed to speak his mind, something his father had never done. The wall between them never revealed any cracks and never needed repainting. They were always each on one side, his father shouting orders from his side and Charlie silently listening on his.
“When I checked myself in a hotel yesterday I just wanted to get out of this house. I just couldn’t push through – I’m not meant to be a lawyer, I never wanted this. But it was always so important that I continue the all and mighty family practice and have my name on a gilded plaque outside a fancy, tall building,” he said raising his hands and placing them back on the table. Grace stood silent.
“When I walked down to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner yesterday, I walked past the kitchen. I looked through the oval window on the double doors and everything in that kitchen was just so alive. Each any every cook was delightfully busy with food. It was just – just beautiful,” he said, staring at Grace with a passionate flush in his cheeks.
“I paid the head chef to let me stay in the kitchen and watch. I watched him and the other chefs the entire evening. I watched them bake in the morning,” he said.
Grace’s lips revealed a faint smile in the corners while Charlie kept on adding sentence after sentence about what ingredients the chefs had used and how they moved their hands, quickly but precisely. He would tell his father the next morning that he had bought a plane ticket for Italy, that he wanted to cook. He would listen to his father saying that he was a disappointment for wanting to chop vegetables for all of his life. He would let his father finish, pack his suitcase and walk out the door.