“I just don’t think we’re very compatible,” he said, looking down into his deluxe hot chocolate with extra marshmallows. We were sitting in one of his favourite coffee shops in Brighton, which has paintings all over the walls drawn by independent artists around the city. We sat here on our first date, and he made me try to guess which one he’d buy if he had the money.
Then we were back again, sitting on the same seats in the back room. This time, the first date electricity had gone, and our eyes were sad. I think on some level, we must have engineered this to maximum cinematic effect; we’d come back to the same coffee shop of our first date, in the dark and in the rain.
I’m 17 in this memory, and this café perfectly represents being this age. It’s him, and all the things he says I am, and it’s house parties at Level on Friday nights, and my Dad picking me up in his red Golf, wearing his pyjamas. I often say that my life could be mapped out by coffee shops. This was one of many experiences, and each one has taught me something different as I’ve grown up.
I remember taking a picture of my friend on my phone and just feeling this sense that we’d finally reached old age, and could do just about anything.
The first coffee shop to make a mark on my life was the Costa in the centre of town. It marked my first trip out with friends alone. I remember holding tight onto my coins, and spending ages looking through all the options on the big board above the counter. My friend and I both ordered a hot chocolate and a cheese panini, and we carried our wobbly trays upstairs to sit by the window.
We sat sipping, talking and watching the top of the buses graze past the window ledge. I remember taking a picture of my friend on my phone and just feeling this sense that we’d finally reached old age, and could do just about anything.
Years later, when I went for a university interview in Cambridge, my Dad and I went to a coffee shop before the start of my morning exam. I couldn’t eat anything before the interview because I was so nervous, so I just ordered water. It came in a glass bottle, and I remember thinking that this must be the epitome of poshness. I kept the glass bottle for years afterwards, and even though my mental map of that city has become rather extensive since then, I still look back at that café as its beginning, and its glowing centre.
I think we all had to pretend to know a lot less about each other than we did.
During university, this map of coffee shops has continued. In my first week, I sat downstairs in another café to try and write my first essay. I remember the dimness of the light, and the murmur of voices as staff shifted boxes around in the storage room behind me. I felt the emptiness of not being known, of not knowing where I was going next, and I just sat there, unable to write anything at all.
Later on, I found more of a routine. I would go to a café in the town centre every morning with my three friends and we’d work on our essays until one of us would have to go off to a lecture. We’d each get the 49p filter coffees and they’d always fill the cups right up to the brim, so we’d try to make each other laugh as we were walking up the stairs.
In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best place for productivity, because we’d often spend at least the first hour gossiping about antics from the night before, or being completely captivated by the conversation next to us about some girl’s ex-boyfriend or a builder’s mortar prices, but I still went each day because it made me feel part of something.
In fact, during our regular morning sessions, we became part of a weird community of regular coffee shop goers. There was one man who used to come in before work every day and sit and read his newspaper. On Fridays, his wife would come in and join him, and they’d discuss their children, and how they were going to manage all their extra-curricular activities.
We found out that he started coaching his daughter’s football team despite hating football, and we always had to stop ourselves from asking how it was going. After many weeks, he finally approached us, and we got chatting. I think we all had to pretend that we knew a lot less about each other than we did.
Most of my big life moments so far have happened in a coffee shop. The ones that happened elsewhere have been reflected upon, at length, in a coffee shop.
We developed a real bond with the barista who served us. She was a student too and was always struggling to navigate her degree and earning money. She’d often give us free coffees and ask about our days. On her last day of work there, we surprised her by turning up with a card and a box of chocolates. She was completely shocked, and gave us massive hugs, thrusting a big pile of free Christmas coffee vouchers into our hands. She probably didn’t realise that her kindness had such an impact on all of us living in a new city.
When lockdown hit, I didn’t realise that I would miss the gentle buzz of a coffee shop so much. I missed just sitting with friends and catching up about everything from job applications to emotions, and I missed just sitting with a coffee, and writing as people wafted in and out.
When I was little, I could never really understand why people would have such personal conversations in coffee shops. As I’ve grown up, I’ve realised that pretty much all of my big life moments so far have happened in a coffee shop. The ones that happened elsewhere have been reflected upon, at length, in a coffee shop. Some of these moments felt big at the time; like coffee after my graduation, or first dates and breakups. But some became big in retrospect, like writing my first CV, or making sure to order particular marshmallows on sticks every time I went into town with my grandparents and uncle.
I’ve sat in coffee shops and I’ve cried. I’ve sat in coffee shops and felt at utter peace. I think returning to the same cafés, with the same cakes and drinks behind the counter, will always remind me that no matter how much my life may change, I’ve been in this place before, and I’ll get to be here again.
This essay is published as part of Writers, Emerge! supported by I Like Networking.
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