I’d been watching a toddler get a lecture from his mum: his look of utter misery, her restrained rage. I’d never seen anyone look as worried as that little boy did just then. Maybe that’s why it took me a moment to register that someone had asked me a question.
‘I said, mind if I sit here, love?’
There was a walking frame and its owner. She was an elderly lady with a face like a peach that’s been in the bowl too long.
‘Just need to rest me legs.’
‘No, of course.’ I smiled and went to move my shopping bags from the bench.
‘Ooh, my arse ain’t that big,’ she laughed.
I forced a laugh, left the bags where they were and she settled down beside them.
‘You working?’ she said.
‘Not today. I’m going to meet a friend, but I’m a bit early.’
‘Right, right.’ She stretched her legs out in front of her, flexing her knees. ‘Where you meeting? Café is it?’
‘I used to run a café.’
‘Know the place across there- the fruit market?’
I could hear the owner calling ‘strawbreez,’ ‘taters by the pand,’ torturing the vowels out of shape. ‘Git your peeeches, pand a punnet.’ I thought of the lady’s soft wrinkly face. I nodded.
‘Well, that used to be a café, that did. Best café on the street. And I should know, cos I ran it.
‘Clean as a whistle- spotless. None of your plastic tablecloths with drawing pins stuck in ‘em- we had proper cotton, all red and white check like you find in Italy. And no sauce bottles with all the top gummed up neither. We put our sauce in those squeezy plastic tomatoes- wiped clean every day.
‘Proper tea too, not stewed in a big pot and the bacon was always done just right with no rind on, you know?’
She talked about how busy the cafe had been, that people from the television studio had gone there for breakfast because her fried bread was so famous. She’d had photos taken and mounted on the walls.
‘There was a competition in them days,’ she said, ‘back in the seventies, for the best café in South Bristol. Who do you think won it four times in a row? Me, of course.’
‘You must have been very good.’
‘Oh, I was. Would’ve won a fifth too if it wasn’t for the landlord. Decided he wanted us out and the amusement arcade in- greedy git. The day I found out, I was so angry. You know what I did?’ She nudged me as if about to share a confidence.
‘I found out where he lived. I left my sister-in-law in charge of the cafe and I got on the bus- two buses it was. I went up to his house, over the other side of the river. Big house, with a gravel drive and columns- columns, do you believe it? I knocked on his door. This woman answered, all pearls and a twin-set. I says, “Is he in?” she says, “Is who in?” but she knew who I meant. She vanished inside and found him.’
Her voice had dropped to a whisper.
‘He came to the door, just in his shirtsleeves, no jacket- shirt buttons underdone to there like he was a singer in a club. He smelt like meat and sweat- like a pig. A good foot and a half taller than me, he was, but still I didn’t care. I stood right up close to him.’
She leaned towards me. Her eyes seemed suddenly flat, the sparkle swallowed by something darker. Her top lip formed into a curl.
‘I says, “If we was back home in Sicily, you’d be in trouble, boy. Back home, my Poppa would’ve taken his belt to you. The buckle’s this big- big as my fists together. I seen that buckle take a strip of skin two inches wide off a man’s back. Do you know what my Poppa is? He’s Cosa Notra.”’
She caught her thumb a vicious tug with her teeth. ‘”My Poppa ain’t afraid of no one and neither is Rosa. Remember that, if you want to keep what you’ve got.”’
She leaned back on the bench, her lip still curled at the memory.
I looked at my phone, eager to be gone.
She muttered, ‘Know what he said? Nothing. I left. He said nothing.’
‘Err. Did he evict you?’
‘Nah. He offered me a twenty-five year lease.’
‘So you kept the cafe?’
She shrugged. ‘No, I’d got tired of the long hours and smelling of fried bacon.’
I felt I’d missed something. ‘So why…?’
She leaned forward again, resting her hand on mine- she smelt of peppermint and unwashed clothes. ‘My Poppa used to say- “Always make sure other people see you win. Even if you’re not bothered about the race.”’
Today’s Prompt: Write a post inspired by a real-world conversation.
Inspired by a meeting on my local shopping street. If you’re reading, Rosa- all respect due.