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The Little Coffee Shoppe at the End of the World

A short story about a day in the life of a cafe owner in future London.

By Suze KayPublished 10 months ago Updated 9 months ago 10 min read
First Place in 2023 Vocal Writing Awards - Science Fiction
60
All images from Midjourney, author's prompt

It's a one-man job these days. The cafe never closes, but I try to be in the shop nine to five. Seems only proper. You still need a human hand sometimes - a filter gets jammed in the drip machine, the cashier needs an authorization code, a skimmer biffs a handoff and I'll chase it down the street to safely deposit the missing coffee in its basket. Besides, I like our regulars, the ones who still come in with their trusty travel mugs and want a kind greeting to go with their latte.

Back when Pa first started the cafe, he hired gig workers. Young actresses, down-on-their-luck writers, bartenders who needed a day job, that type. They never stayed long. Our store was just a crossroads in their careers, but Pa and I stayed. He fired his last employee - a singer whose fingers slipped in the cash till one too many times - sometime in the 90s, then took me to the Automaton Depot to pick up a shiny new cashier.

"Dependable," he told me in the store full of gleaming machines. "Not like people." He bought a Tilldy 4, and dependable she was for almost twenty years, until a system update crashed her in the Great Liquidation. She'd been programmed to take digital currency, cards, and cash. When cash was taken out of the equation, she couldn't adjust.

That was after Pa died, so I went to the Depot alone and picked up a Greeta. She's great - she can even talk to the customers - but when I'm in a nostalgic mood, I still miss Tilldy's cold efficiency, the clank of coins in her metal tin.

I pilfer a cup of drip coffee from the back and nurse it at the window, peering out at the high street. I can just barely see the bottom of the hill, rippling strangely. After two weeks straight of rain it seems the sewers have finally overflowed, small puddles swelling and connecting to form a lake across the road. I stand there for a while, watching skimmers buzz by, waiting for one to attempt a crossing. None of them do, likely directed by their map system to find a new route.

Across the way, the skimmer window of the Little Coffee Shoppe hasn't opened once in the time I've stood here. Pa would've had a fit if he knew we had competition so close, but I wasn't worried. The name was pretentious, and when Henrietta introduced herself I didn't get the sense she was the business-minded sort. She came into my cafe last year, just after she'd opened, with her hands raised.

"Don't shoot," she joked. "I run the Little Coffee Shoppe, and I come in peace."

"A little competition never hurt anybody," I said. I was behind the counter, replacing the belt of a troublesome reheater. "Welcome to the neighborhood. I'd shake your hand, but mine are covered in grease."

She smiled, looking far too young to be a business owner. But I guess when you get older, you lose some of your ability to tell a person's age. She peppered me with questions about the type of traffic I saw, if summer was always this quiet, that sort of thing.

"If you don't mind me asking, where are you sourcing your flour? Ingredi-Haste is charging me way too much."

"What?" I asked her. "Nobody."

"You don't use flour for your pastries?"

"Oh, I bulk order the par-baked stuff from Sweet Eats. Pop 'em in this thing -" I gestured to the reheater before me "- and they're ready in a jiff. Really good, too. I'd offer you a sample, but we're having some technical difficulties." She laughed with me. "How much are they asking?"

"Almost twelve quid a kilo, if you can believe it." I whistled.

"Prices like that, you'll be lucky to stay open a month. If you're looking for some advice, just go with the premade. Less work. And customers really can't tell the difference."

"I'll take it under consideration," she said, looking a little sad. "Well, I won't take up any more of your time. Come by sometime, won't you?"

I assured her I would, but that was the last we saw of each other without a windowpane between us.

Around four, a customer fights his way out of the rain and into the cafe, stamping his feet on the entry mat.

"Oh, hi-ya," he says, surprised to see me at my table.

"Welcome to the Corner Cafe," Greeta recites. "How can I help you today?"

"Err, small americano with milk and a blueberry scone."

"That will be £10.67, please."

He presses his screen to Greeta's reciever.

"Transaction approved. Please wait for your order, Mark."

The espresso maker shrieks, the dropper retrieves a scone, and the reheater ticks to life. Mark returns his screen to his pocket.

"Terrible out, innit?" he asks me.

"I wouldn't know," I respond. "Haven't been out. Looks it, though."

"Haven't been out?" he repeats. "Then how'd you get here, geezer?"

Ah. He's that sort of man, then.

"I'm the proprietor," I say coldly. "I live just upstairs."

"Nice digs. Lucky, that. Skimmer's on the fritz, or I would've stayed in too." I nod, then return to my screen, where I'm looking over my sales data and scheduling my deliveries for the next week. His order has just tipped the blueberry scones into the red, and I add them to my list.

"Mark," Greeta announces. His order sits on the counter beside her, deposited by the cafe's delivery skimmer. When Mark collects his cup and bag, she thanks him. "Please come again."

"Ta," he says to Greeta, but he doesn't say anything to me as he returns to the rain.

In the dim evening, the Little Coffee Shoppe keeps drawing my eye. Its skimmer window remains empty, but there's something attractive about the glow it emits. The light pouring through is golden, burning through the gloom, reflecting in street puddles like the flicker of a candle. I check my screen. 4:45.

"Might as well show a struggling business some love. What do you say, Greeta?"

"Is there anything I can help you with?" she asks, polite as ever.

"No, thank you."

"Ok. Have a good evening. Please come again."

I tap on my screen to change the window display (Manager on duty to Manager back in five minutes). I consider going upstairs for a coat or an umbrella but opt to move quickly instead. They say the acid rain isn't too terrible for the skin, after all, as long as you don't get much in your eyes.

Crossing the street in a light jog, I'm winded by the time I round the corner. Catching my breath under her awning, I look through her shop window and chuckle. So that's why her light looks so different - somehow, she's found someone willing to part with a stock of incandescent bulbs. And been stupid enough to waste them lighting her shop.

I shake my head and open the door. The air that wafts over me is lovely, warm after my short walk in the chilly rain, scented with cinnamon and a hint of caramelized sugar. A cheery bell announces my arrival, and a collection of pleasant faces turn to me. The Little Coffee Shoppe's skimmer window may be empty, but its interior is crammed full. People sit at tables and on overstuffed couches, reading screens and books, chatting and writing, sipping at chipped ceramic mugs, taking bites from pastries on crumb-filled plates.

"One second!" Henrietta calls from the back. I approach the counter, looking for her cashier. She doesn't have one, just an old-timey screen system. Shame, she probably can't afford a more functional model. While I wait for her, I look over the overwhelming pastry display. Puffy croissants and hand pies, sweating slices of quiche, chocolate bonbons, and glazed donuts sit on trays, each with a hand-lettered chalk placard announcing their flavors.

"Thanks for waiting," Henrietta says, wiping floury hands on a worn apron. "Oh, it's you!"

"Yeah, here I am. Thought I'd pop in and buy a cuppa."

"Nonsense! On the house for a neighbor. What's your preferred? Pick a seat and I'll bring it over in a second. Just need to get some biscuits in the oven."

I choose an empty couch in the corner, and a couple of minutes later Henrietta returns with a tray of Earl Grey tea and apricot jam cookies. The cookies are delicious, with jam tart enough to make my mouth water.

"How's business?" I ask. "Skimmer window looked slow this afternoon." She laughs.

"Oh, I only keep that open in the morning rush. Too much to keep track of when I'm in the kitchen. I guess today has been a little slow, but nothing to worry about. I'm still expecting bunches to show for the reading tonight."

"The reading?"

"You know Seamus Filligan, yeah?" I nod, raising my eyebrows. His books are a little schmaltzy for my taste, but best-seller lists don't lie. Besides, I liked the movie version of Indelicate just fine. "Well, turns out he lives 'round the block. Comes in here to write sometimes. He's going to be reading a chapter from his new book tonight. I practically had to get on my knees and beg him, but he was just holding out for free pastries."

"You do that sort of thing often? Host events?"

"Here and there. You know what it's like, you want to build a community. I'd offer you a seat for tonight, but we're all booked up. You wouldn't believe how fast those tickets went." Her screen dings. "The biscuits! Stay right there."

I pull out my screen and am surprised to see a prompt inviting me to join the shop's guest WiFi. I shut mine off years ago, after one too many visits from the digital police looking for information about whichever latest scumbag had used my public stream to download vile things. I knew that would mean losing some regulars, but skimmer business had taken off enough to make up for it.

Does Henrietta get visits like that? I look around and suppose her clientele isn't the sort of riffraff likely to abuse her WiFi. One gets up, clearing his table himself before an automaton can get to it. Slowly, I realize there isn't an automaton in sight. I'd wager that behind the counter, it's the same. I'm sitting in an analog island.

She returns with a plate of biscuits.

"Watch out, they're hot." I take one anyway, juggling it between my hands to cool it. She passes some out to others in the cafe, who thank her. She knows all their names. When she returns, there's just one left for her. We take a bite together. Divine. "What do you think?" she asks. "It's a new recipe, using cricket flour. Wheat is getting to be too expensive."

"I wouldn't have known," I say, surprised. When Sweet Eats cut their flour with cricket dust, I got complaints about the off flavor. But this biscuit is buttery and crisp, just perfect. She takes another bite and pulls a face.

"Not right yet."

"Henrietta, I have to ask. How do you do it?"

"What? Bake?"

"No, put together such a... unique business. How do you do it without automatons?" She shrugs.

"They creep me out. Too soulless. I think people can taste when there's love in something, cricket flour or no."

"And the bottom line? It works out?" She nods proudly.

"Beautifully. Turns out, I'm not the only one that feels she was born in the wrong century. I've been thinking of starting a second location, but I'm worried about spreading myself too thin."

I cough on my biscuit, spraying crumbs across my lap. A second location? Business must be good, indeed. She hands me a napkin.

"Hold on, I've got to make an announcement." She stands and clears her throat. "Hello, lovelies! It's just gone five. You're welcome to stay until Seamus's reading at six, but I've got to get started arranging the furniture. Would anyone be game to help out?"

People rise, following her gentle directions to drag couches and chairs into tidy rows. I stand and make as if to help, but she waves me off.

"Let the young ones do it." I'm reminded of Mark from earlier, calling me a geezer. Somehow I'm less angry when she puts me in the same box with a smile.

"I really ought to be getting back. Thanks for the tea and treats."

"Come back tomorrow evening, yeah? Help me taste round two of the evil cricket biscuit."

"Yeah, sure," I say, and this time I mean it.

I walk slowly back across the street, not minding the rain that trickles down my collar. The low buzz of the door alert startles me.

"Welcome to the Corner Cafe," says Greeta. "How can I help you tonight?"

"Fuck off," I mutter.

"I'm sorry, can you repeat that?"

"Fuck off!" I shout. She doesn't respond, but my screen pulses rapidly in my pocket, alerting me to an unruly customer. Me.

I lock the door and set the window display (Skimmer window only). I turn off the overhead lighting, newly bluish and unkind in my eyes, and trudge up the stairs to my flat. After heaving myself into Pa's old armchair, I turn on the lamp that's been there for as long as I can remember. It sat in this corner before the Great Liquidation, before Venice sank, even before the States cracked in two and the Royal Navy closed our border.

I tap at my screen, trying to find a warm golden setting and giving up on yellow. It's as close as the LED bulb will get to the incandescent glow of the Little Coffee Shoppe, the light that reminds me of sitting on Pa's knee in this chair and reading ancient Narnia paperbacks together.

It's not the same.

future
60

About the Creator

Suze Kay

Pastry chef by day, insomniac writer by night.

Find here: stories that creep up on you, poems to stumble over, and the weird words I hold them in.

Or, let me catch you at www.suzekay.com

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  3. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  1. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

  2. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  3. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  4. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

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Comments (35)

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  • Dominic Casey-Lee20 days ago

    Excellent story! You'd definitely find me in The Little Coffee Shoppe come the dystopian future.

  • Joe O’Connor2 months ago

    I have no idea but also a very good idea of what this line means- "a skimmer biffs a handoff", and I think that's a great indication of why this works so well. It's familiar, but also not. Science Fiction to a T! The contrast between Greeta and Henrietta is subtle but nicely done. " I'm sitting in an analog island." sums it up so well Suze. Excellent story!! This was such an enjoyable read:)

  • Christy Munson3 months ago

    Loved this story from start to finish! Beautifully written.

  • G. A. Botero3 months ago

    What a great story. So glad a came across it.

  • John Cox4 months ago

    If your writing is this good, I can only imagine how wonderful your pastries are! This story sneaks up on you. I write the way I ran when I was in the army, take off like a bat from hell and finish at a slow jog. You are a truly masterful storyteller.

  • JBaz6 months ago

    A well written piece with heart and lots of substance, Congratulations

  • Test6 months ago

    Terrific work! Keep it going—congratulations!

  • J. Jay6 months ago

    Congratulations!! I loved this story!

  • Poppy 6 months ago

    CONGRATULATIONS SUZE!!! I was so excited to see your name! Another well deserved win💛

  • Scott Christenson6 months ago

    Congrats! A scifi story that was very relatable and pulled us in. I enjoyed all the little extrapolations of where the world is heading now.

  • Congratulations, Suze. You kept me thoroughly engrossed & enthralled while reading it.

  • Phil Flannery6 months ago

    I loved this one. Congratulations

  • Cathy holmes6 months ago

    Congrats. Wonderful story.

  • Caroline Jane6 months ago

    Congratulations!! ❤

  • Alexander McEvoy6 months ago

    Hey! Congratulations on coming first! Very very well deserved :) If I didn’t win I was so hoping it would be this one!

  • Judey Kalchik 6 months ago

    Your word choice, composition, and precise editing puts us right there in time. Congratulations on this win!

  • Mackenzie Davis6 months ago

    CONGRATULATIONS, Suze!!! This was a fantastic story. So pleased to see you win! ❤️👏🎊

  • Hi we are featuring your excellent Top Story in our Community Adventure Thread in The Vocal Social Society on Facebook and would love for you to join us there

  • Adam Clost9 months ago

    Brilliant way to develop the narrator's character in an unexpected way by using the other coffee shop owner as the foil - Someone who truly cares about what they're doing vs a jaded person just 'carrying on.' Loved the bitterness we see at the end too. Tells you a lot about the character's mentality.

  • Poppy 9 months ago

    This is awesome. Great message and great imagery and description. I loved the images too, they really added to the feel of the story. And I loved the Narnia reference at the end too!!

  • L.C. Schäfer9 months ago

    For a minute I was in another world and longing for this one! 😁

  • Aksaya Bandodker9 months ago

    Nice article! Keep it up!! You can check out my work too!

  • Missclicked9 months ago

    FANTASTIC story, loved reading it. Congratulations on top story, keep growing!

  • Wonderful, wonderful story. I loved reading it and I love your conversational writing style. It feels very down to earth to me.

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