*coffee machine, Tilda coleman tells a story
May starts awake from a deep dream she can’t remember. Cocooned in her old room at the top of the house, pale light poking in through the checked curtains, familiar pattern of pictures on the wall, she is disorientated for a moment by the simultaneous familiarity and dislocation she felt, unable to make sense of how old she is and why she is there. As she takes a breath and stretches her legs out, time comes back to her.
She gets out of bed, fast, and opens the curtains. The sun has just come up. No grey or rain for the first time in weeks. May moves to the bathroom and stands under the heat of the shower for as long as she can, gradually forcing herself to keep her eyes open. Once out, she dresses quickly. She checks the small, circular mirror above her desk before she leaves,
turning her head from side to side. She has just had a haircut; it used to swing down her back, now just skims her shoulders. She feels different with it shorter, a neater package of a person, more grown up.
The house is hushed as she moves downstairs. Her shift starts at 7am, so everyone is still asleep. She slips into her black work shoes, which are lined up neatly by the door, and braces herself for the cold outside.
May pauses for just a second in the doorway to look at the frost that’s been laid down overnight. She wants her camera; up close, each individual blade of grass is coated, but in the distance they come together to form a shimmering haze.
The drive to work is quick, only ten minutes, and May gets in on time. The head baker, Paul, is the only other person there. He nods and says morning, but they won’t chat; he doesn’t waste words. May works behind the bakery counter of a restaurant. It’s more than a restaurant, actually; it also has a huge, wood fired oven, in which high quality takeaway pizzas are made, and bedrooms, in which people can stay. And a bakery, where locals can get a takeaway coffee as they buy their bread or cake or weekend croissant.
May’s job revolves around the coffee machine. Since she’s moved home, she sometimes despairs that her whole life revolves around it. As soon as she gets in, before she sweeps the floor and puts out the labels for the bread and rotates the milk in the fridges and stamps the pizza boxes and changes the soup of the day board, before she even puts her apron on and sets up the till, she cleans the coffee machine. The place is known for its superior coffee, and people start coming in for their morning fix as soon as it opens. The machine must be clean, or the coffee won’t taste right, and cleaning takes a good ten minutes. So May has to get in on time, and she has to go straight over to the hulking great thing, a metal beast which takes up half of her counter, and start the process. First she turns it on, at the wall, then pulls out both of the metal filter heads and checks that they are empty of coffee grounds. Two other women work the bakery, Char and Robin. Char trained May; she is the bakery counter boss, and her word is law. Robin is seventeen, tall and gangly, with a slightly wonky face, full lips and slanted eyes. She has long legs, which she encloses in bodycon skirts, and a long neck, which she wraps in huge scarfs. Robin moans to May that Char is lippy, and has attitude. Today, even though the counter in general has been left clean and tidy, two pressed dark circles of old coffee grounds lurk, hidden, inside each filter. Char has forgotten, or not bothered, to clear them out, and May has to bash hard against the metal to dislodge them.
The problem with the machine is that it’s very old, and so very temperamental. If it was a person, May thinks, it would be an aging actor, or a dancer; some sort of performer, who had once been brilliantly skilled, but who was now outstaying their welcome on stage. Some days, it still works perfectly, making a great cup of coffee, and May imagines the audience whispering to each other in glee: ‘he’s still got it!’, ‘yes, there’s no one quite like him, I remember when I first saw him in ’63…’. But on other days it’s a nightmare, somehow managing to inject the beans with a slightly sour aftertaste, or to froth the milk with such force that it explodes over May. On those days, the audience shake their heads sadly, or tut- tut the arrogance of age.
Actually, what the audience do is get irritated with May. The place is always busy, and if there’s any sort of problem with the machine, the line gets long, and people get impatient. May hates the feeling of sweating in front of the machine, having to take bits off and examine them, whilst in front of her school run mums in gym kit crane their necks to see what’s causing the hold up, and old couples stand patiently, resolutely not counting out their change in advance, and kids run back and forth into the restaurant, pissing off May’s manager so that they come into the bakery, where they will sigh and make her move out of the way and try and solve the problem themselves.
But they never can, and the reason that they never can is that May knows the coffee machine best. She knows that you can’t rush it; if it’s having a problem, you have to try and sort it out gently, not bang about and make it nervous. She always starts by topping up the beans a bit, even if their nearly full, just to give it an extra boost of confidence. Completely illogically, that’s often all it takes to get it working again. If that fails, her next step is to untwist the filters and rinse them out carefully, with the hot water from the tap, not the boiling water from the machine itself. Again, illogical, because the water from the machine would clean them better, but May feels like the filters sometimes need a bit of a break, a minor change of scene. If all that doesn’t work, she just switches it off and on again. To reach the plug, she has to get on her hands and knees and bend underneath the counter. Whilst she’s down, she whispers a soft warning: ‘I’m just going to let you have a little nap, OK? When you wake up again, please work properly for me.’
She knows this is silly; it’s a coffee machine, not a person. But the days in the bakery are long, and this is a strange period. She sometimes feels stuck, and even a little lonely. When Char doesn’t look after the machine properly, or Robin whines about it, she wants to protest. Sorry, she wants to tell it, I’d never talk about you like that. I appreciate that you’re here, with me, every day; I know you’re tired, and sick of making coffee, I know you’re old and deserve a rest. I understand that you’re not a perfect coffee machine, but you’re not a bad one, either. Most of the time, your coffee tastes great. Don’t worry if you lose it a bit; I’m sure that, together, we can handle it.