Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Cafe Stories

                       the lonely cafe by April Wednesday

1. Empire Cafe, Soho

As a haven for the unloved, the eccentric and the lost,  the Empire Cafe was perfectly situated in a little corner of Soho. It also prided itself as a home for those on their way up and a passing place for those on the way down. 

It had been known over the years by several different names, some of which you most definitely would have read about, but its charm was in the fact that it had served coffee, and later tea, from the same premises for over three hundred years. There is a signature carved into the wood that suggests Benjamin Franklin had happily visited the place and it is known that Samuel Pepys mentioned the Cafe in his diaries.

If you’ve ever been to London and drifted around that part of town then I know you must have passed it. Perhaps you drank in it and were unaware of where you were. Perhaps you hadn't see the Cafe because you were looking up at some other building or maybe you had just been checking your appearance in the reflection of the Cafe’s window; but the place is there, I promise you.

One sunny afternoon, just after I returned home from a bad war in North Africa, I walked through its doors and never really left. I sometimes feel the place had been waiting on me. 

It was run by Mister Chestnut and he was never referred to as Andrew Chestnut, or even Andy. He was just Mister Chestnut, plain and simple, and when he and his Father both ran the place, then he was simply known as Junior. 

In the mid 1700s, it was rumoured that the Hellfire Club met in secret at the coffee shop and that one night it was lost on the turn of a card. One of Mister Chestnut’s ancestors was asked to hold on to the property until the rightful owner came to claim it. He never did, and there was talk that the owner had been killed in a duel. So through this one act of God, the Chestnuts became part of the Soho establishment. 

I was taken on in 1946 as chief dishwasher and toilet cleaner and I loved it, every grimy second of it. Those who used the place were a who’s who of all the movers and shakers of their day. In the late evening, when we closed up shop and over a hot cup of Java, my employer would tell me stories of the past, those he had witnessed and those he had been told about by his Father and his Grandfather; all the wonderfulness that had been passed down through the family.

Regardless of claims by other establishments and by other people, Grandfather Chestnut swore that he had watched Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels spend most of their days in the corner table furthest from the door, writing the Communist Manifesto.
“Always with the one coffee between them” his Grandfather had told him, “one coffee for the whole day”, he added, then he would let out an eruption of a laugh. 

Mister Chestnut told me of  the “saddest man who ever walked through those doors”.
“Must have been February, yes it was, it was February..”
“What year?” I asked him.
“Let me think. 1895, as sure as eggs is eggs, ‘cause it was just after my fourteenth birthday. In he came, all broken. He sat down over there and I asked him if he wanted something to drink. ’Hemlock, dear boy, hemlock' . I asked my Father for hemlock and he clipped me around the ear. ’Don’t be so bleeding stupid’ said my Father, ‘You must have misheard him.’ So I walked back towards the table when I spotted that he was sitting with a young man, older than me but younger than him and get this, they were holding hands. The young man read from a card that the older man has passed to him ’For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite – Good God Oscar, my father can’t even spell. The ignorant beast.’

“I only saw the older man once again when he came in a few weeks later. He had aged so much in that short time, and as he sat down all the rest of the people in the cafe got up and left. Apparently he went to prison  not long afterwards."

 "But there was a more curious one than that” said Mister Chestnut, “just let me put on another pot of coffee as I think you may need it.”
When the coffee had been brewed and we were both sitting comfortably once more, the storyteller continued. 

“He was a little man, spoke with a German accent. Now I know what you are thinking young man, you are saying to yourself that the description would fit many people. And you would be correct to make that assumption, except I remember him for something he said. He shouted at me that I was to bring him a coffee and that is what I did. As I approached the table I could hear him laughing, so I smiled back at him. A happy customer is a returning customer and I was just about to tell him to recommend us to all his friends when I saw what he was so happy about, on a newspaper sitting on his table were the headlines ‘Over fifteen hundred sank to death with giant White Star steamer Titanic’. “Bloody rich Jews” he said, “best place for them”

“To say I was shocked, disgusted even, that a man like this could say such evil things about other human beings. I was about to ask him to leave when a second man came in, his brother Alois, I had seen him in the cafe before. If I remember correctly, he and his brother Adolf had lived in Liverpool for a while to avoid conscription to the Austrian Army.”
“Not Adolf Hitler?”I asked.
“The very same.” Came his reply. 

Mister Chestnut kept me on for most of ’46 and ’47 washing and cleaning until one day he took me into his office. I had been there for two years and this was my first visit to the inner sanctum. It smelt of liquorice and tobacco and looked as if it was decorated for a fortune teller rather than a cafe manager. 

“I want to promote you, my boy. Enrique is old and leaving at the end of the month and I will need a waiter. Of course it will mean more money for you and also the Olympics will be here soon. I will need a much younger man to deal with all our visitors and friends."

So that was that, I had a few more shillings in my pockets and no more cleaning of the toilets. I handed over my brushes to the new boy, donned my waiter’s apron and started whistling.

He was correct, was Mister Chestnut, the year of the Olympics was the busiest I could remember.We worked every day from sunrise to almost sunrise the following day. Naps had to be taken, when and where we could find the time. There was a little store room out the back where I managed to take forty winks now and again. 

I remember one night I had just splashed water on my face to waken me up when this very distinguished gentleman entered with a young blond girl in tow. The two of them asked for the quietest table, which was always the one at the back next to the toilets. Now I tell you this dear friends, I will go to my grave believing that it was the Queen’s husband whom I served that night and the blond woman was not his wife. This is not the place to tell such a story since he is not able to defend himself but I promise you - if it was not Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh then I will eat my hat. I looked over at Mister Chestnut and I know he recognised the man because he put his finger to his lips to warn me to say nothing.

On Christmas Eve 1950 I asked Maria, the most beautiful girl who worked in the restaurant next door, to marry me. She accepted and we got married in the New Year holding the reception at the Empire Cafe. We invited all the regulars. It was a night I shall never forget.

One day in 1951, Mister Chestnut took me into his office for only the second time and told me that it was all mine. “The time has come - you have a family to consider” he said “I will be seventy this year and enough is enough.” There was no son to pass his business on to, "God's will", he would say. So he considered me the nearest thing he had to a son and the Cafe was to be my inheritance. He slapped the keys in the palm of my hand, put on his big overcoat and never crossed the threshold again. 

My neighbours were actors, jazz musicians and more recently Chinese. After Limehouse had been bombed in the war, the Chinese had begun to move into Gerard Street and the areas surrounding it. This brought with them, the Chinese gangsters - as if there weren’t enough British ones in Soho. 

Talking of gangsters, the first time I saw one of the Kray brothers he was sitting having a coffee, minding his own business when the coppers  rushed in and dragged him out of my cafe. He had apparently deserted from national service in the army for the fourth time.

What I also remember about the Fifties was the music. Now there are some who will tell you that the birth of British Rock and Roll started in the 2I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, but I say it was at the Empire Cafe. On Saturday nights we would have Tommy Steele, Wee Willie Harris, Cliff Richard and Hank Marvin. The Cafe was always crowded at weekends, so much so that some of those that couldn’t get in, moved to the 2I’s, which was a bigger venue. Perhaps that is why they claim to be the birthplace but I know the truth, we were first.

As for the gangs, the Krays had always stayed up east and the Richardsons to the south of the river. One night the Kray twins came in and took a table from a couple who were already sitting at it. The boyfriend got up to challenge them and Reggie Kray slapped the boy and threw him and his girlfriend through the door. I was about to say something  when Ronnie Kray told me that if I knew what was good for me, I would get them coffees and leave them alone. 
I learned that night, if you wanted to stay in business in Soho then you had to see nothing and say even less.

Luckily my wife, Maria, didn’t see any of this as she was now at home looking after our two sons, James and Robert. I have a photo on the Cafe wall of  James with Bobby Moore when he and his wife came to the Cafe just before he flew to Mexico for the World Cup. 

As the Sixties turned into the Seventies, Robert began to take on more of the responsibility for running the cafe. James had decided to work in computers and had joined an IT company over in Putney. He and his wife moved into a flat in Chelsea and very rarely ventured into the West End.

In 1976 I became a grandfather for the very first time and Maria suggested that I took more of a back seat in the business. We stayed in Dulwich for a while but I still insisted on visiting the Cafe three or four times a week.
In 1980 we moved to Deal by the sea; it was  Maria’s idea and was probably helped by Robert who may have felt that I was interfering too much in his business.

There are so many stories about the Empire Cafe that I want to tell you. Ones concerning prime ministers and princesses, rich men and poor women,  writers and painters, musicians and kings. All of them true and all of them from the Empire Cafe. 

I will, one day, I promise.
I am well into my eighties now and the Cafe is run by Robert's own daughters and sons. It’s been years since I last laid eyes on the place, but if you happen to be passing then why don’t you pop in for a coffee and ask them for a story? 
Tell them I sent you.

2. The Sunrise Cafe: The Man Who Came Out Of
The Sea.

It was a Saturday and it was so easy to remember because it looked and felt like a Saturday. It was just one of those days that you’d pass through on the way to somewhere else.

The café had stood on the edge of the sands since 1927 when old Sonny Mist built it with his father using wood from the wrecks of two barges that had washed up along the shore. It was originally opened under the name, ‘The Resurrection Café’ but when Charlie Mist died his son changed the name to ‘Sunrise’ the day after the funeral.
It hadn’t been loved the way Sonny had promised his dad. There was rot along the outside front and damp hid in every corner - yet despite everything, it was the only café for miles around and provided a welcome rest to those who walked the sands.

Sonny would recognize faces that turned up again and again. Some grew older and brought loved ones, some came here with lovers who were meant to be kept secret, and some just stopped off once and never returned.

On that Saturday there was a sharp coldness that was tempered with sunshine.
A snowstorm had promised to blow in from the swell of the eastern sea. Inside the building, the Café smelled of the gas ring from the cooker that was boiling up another kettle of water. A small coal fire kept the winter chill at bay.

Sonny wandered over to the fire and nodded to the man in passing. “Cold again,” said Sonny in a mumble that made the man think he had said ‘old again’.
Sonny shovelled on a miserly amount of coal, smiled at the fire then hobbled back to his little wooden desk.

The man had just been blowing on the steam that had risen from his second cup of tea and was wiping the condensation from the window, when he saw a blackness moving in the distance. He could have sworn that it had emerged from the sea but just then, more condensation lay on top of the small clearing and all visibility was gone. 

The next time he saw the blackness it was standing outside the café. The door opened and banged against the wall powered by the wind and then let the depressing sea air fill the room. The blackness now recognized as a man in an American army uniform who slammed the door behind him.

“If that don’t beat all,” he said, slapping his arms and legs to restore some sort of blood supply.  The man in the uniform wandered over to the fire and warmed his hands.

“Hey bud, you could do with some more coal on here.”
Sonny looked up, smiled a little and went back to sorting his teacups.
“By any chance would you have some coffee?” Asked the American.
Without looking up, Sonny told him there hadn’t been any since 1939.
“Are you sure? Maybe you could you check bud, just for me.” The American asked again.

Sonny was almost sure that he was sure - then he remembered an old tin that had lain at the back of his mother’s cabinet where she had kept all the good china teacups. He wandered over and checked, and sure enough there was enough for a pot of coffee.

The news seemed to cheer the American up who was sitting on a chair close to the fire.

“This country is always cold,” he said. There was seawater dripping from his uniform and creating a huge pool on the floor. 

“You’re wet,” said the man sipping his Saturday cup of tea.
The American looked at his uniform as if it was for the very first time.
“Well what do you know, would you look at that.  I wonder how that happened?” Said the man in uniform.The man sipping his tea was ready to mention that he thought he had seen the American  emerging from the sea but just then Sonny came over with a plate and a cup.  

“Your coffee will be ready shortly, “ said  Sonny.
The American rubbed his hands again and then looked over at the tea man.
“The name’s Miller,” said the American as he put his hand out to shake the tea drinker.
“John, John Rush,” said the man in a very English accent.

“Good to meet you John, real good to meet you.”
“You’re a major,” said John.
“Sure am,” said Major Miller who didn’t continue with the conversation.
“I might be wrong but did I just see you just come out of the sea?” Asked John.
Just then Sonny brought over a steaming pot of coffee.

“You’re a life saver,” said the Major.
Sonny stared at John, then added “I think you’re wrong there, John. I’m sure you couldn’t see out the window. The Major didn’t come out of the sea, did you Major?” Asked Sonny.
But the Major was too busy sipping his coffee. “Mmm, this is real good, just like back home. The best I’ve tasted in this war,” said the Major.

“It was a little luxury of my mother’s,” said Sonny.
“Well tell her thanks,” said the Major. 
“She’s long gone,” said Sonny.

“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” said Sonny. “She’d be pleased someone’s enjoying it. She was the only coffee drinker in a familyof  tea drinkers.” “It’ll be Christmas soon, said John. The calendar on the wall showed that it was December 16th, 1944.

“The way things are going over there, this might be the last Christmas in wartime,” said the Major.

“I’m hoping,” said Sonny. “I’m praying.”  And he clasped his hands as if he was really hoping that God was listening.The three of them sat in silence for a while, save only for the odd crackling of the fire and the sea wind buffeting the café windows and doors. Then the Major took out his wallet to pay for the coffee.

“On the house for a fighting man,” said Sonny. “Put your money away.”

“Much obliged,” said the Major. “Well I’ve dried some, so I think I’ll be heading - if that's okay with you guy?” The American stood, patted down his uniform then shook both Sonny and John’s hands.

“I’ll be seeing you and it's been a real pleasure to meet the both of you,” said the Major who was out of the door in an instant.

It was then that John noticed the American had dropped his wallet. In picking it up, it fell open and there was the man’s army ID: ‘Major Alton Glenn Miller’.

Background information
Birth name
Alton Glenn Miller
March 1, 1904
Clarinda, Iowa, United States
December 15, 1944 (aged 40)
Plane missing over the English Channel
Swing music, big band
Bandleader, Musician,

3. Tea-times At The Empire Cafe, Hastings

December 1955 

Even although she pulled her coat in as tight as she could, the snow and sleet coming off the Channel still managed to make her shiver. She’d stop in at the Empire Café for a reviving cup of tea, she decided. It’s not as if Mother was in any danger; at least she could wait another fifteen minutes for her prescription medicines.

She managed to have so little time to herself these days. It hadn’t meant to be this way. By now, she should have been living out on some farm in Western Australia with the love of her life. Except he had never returned - like so many others - and after father died of pneumonia, her mother had deteriorated so quickly that it had caught her unawares.

She was destined to being her mother’s nurse until the end.

When she had finished her tea and cake, she noticed that the snow had stopped and that the sun was fighting to come through. A little hope, she thought, and she caught herself smiling as she stepped out into the afternoon. 

July 1930 

The Empire Café was still there thank goodness. He’d come here with his grandparents before the Great War, and it was always a place of happiness to him. Today, all the bright young things were occupying the promenade with their energy and laughter and the rest of the world could go hang, as far as they were concerned.

He had been young once, too. A very long time ago when Victorian values had ruled on things such as smiling and laughter; they had been frowned upon and were always kept behind closed doors.

He was jealous of the young, they had it so much easier - and as he sat in the Empire nursing his tea, he wished that this was his time and that he was nineteen again.

He was startled by a very pretty girl, high on champagne, who knocked on the large glass window and waved to those inside. They did all they could not to catch her eye, not in disapproval, but knowing if they looked up they’d wish it was them who were out there that day.

August 1972

He doubted if anyone in the world could be more excited than he was right at that moment.
He’d asked his boss if he could leave at mid-day, as he had to visit his grandmother on the south coast. She was keeping poorly and probably wouldn’t make it to Christmas. He wondered if his boss had realised that was the third time he’d used that excuse in as many months?

He’d never been to Hastings before but thought that the Empire Café seemed a reasonable place to change his clothes.  He’d left for work that morning to go to Friars and Friars, who were known as the best accountants in Westly. He sat in the café dressed in his dull brown suit and drank his tea. He was hoping that the place would quieten down, and then he’d make his move.

By his third cup of tea, he decided that things weren’t going to improve and took his chance. Both he, and the little suitcase he’d packed away and hidden under the bed went to the Men’s toilets. He carefully folded away his dull clothes and changed into his glam-rock ones. It was a bit like superman, except this wasn’t a telephone kiosk.

No one had noticed him enter the café, but they all noticed him now. He was dressed from head to toe in a shiny silver suit and he wore the largest pair of glittery bright red boots ever seen in the Empire. He wondered if the make-up on his face was a step too far.

He could hear a few of the older ones choke on their teacakes, as he proudly strolled out of the café into the big wide world - accountant by day and glam-rocker by night. It was 1972 and anything was possible. 

bobby stevenson 2013

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