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The Memory Café

I don’t know what it was that made me step into that place. From the outside, it was an unspectacular shop front on a busy street with as many cafés as stray animals, sniffing around and lounging in any spot untouched by human feet. But I was parched from travel, and it was the first one my tired eyes focussed on close enough for me to stumble towards, and so I pushed open the old, creaking, green-painted, peeling wooden door.

A waft of mixed tea leaves and relaxing scents hit me and immediately unravelled the pressure I’d felt building up in my head. A lightness, a glee, a curiosity overtook me, and I took the final step over the barrier and let the door shut behind me, with a failed tinkling of the bell as the door knocked past it.

In big cities like this, I expected young energetic waiters in their fancy clothes to rush up to me, but instead an old lady sat patiently at the payment desk, smiling absentmindedly at me. It was closer to the inns I knew from villages and towns, but this smell was certainly new.

‘Morning,’ I muttered, feeling the stress build up in my head again and immediately dying to flop into one of the old, mismatching armchairs pushed up against the old wooden tables and guzzle the first liquid that came my way. Travelling for weeks on end to a new kingdom had taken it out of me, and I didn’t even know what to order if she offered me anything past the standard muck of over-boiled leaf juice that was all too common in the poor travellers’ inns I knew. I tossed my ponytail over my shoulder and forced myself to smile at her. To be nice when all I wanted to do was crash and sleep for a month.

She continued smiling the absentminded smile, but crinkles appeared at the corners of her pale blue eyes as she met my gaze. ‘Ooh, hello, dear. Have I met you before?’

I smiled back and shook my head. ‘I’m just travelling through.’

‘Travelling? Tiring business. Must be parched, you poor dear.’ She bumbled herself up to standing, not raising much more than she had been when she was sitting. Then, she shuffled about beside her, hunting for something. ‘Where is it?’ She muttered to herself. Then her face lit up. ‘Ah, there it is!’

The old lady pushed an old piece of paper towards me, with handwritten squiggles of what I saw to be a menu when I looked closer.

‘The tea here is special,’ she said with a warmth in her voice, like a grandmother to a favourite grandchild. ‘Choose any you like.’

I didn’t want to tell her I couldn’t really read it, and at this point, anything would do, so I pointed to one randomly and she bustled me off to sit on a chair by the fireplace—a prime spot, she said. Perfect for a traveller, she said.

I didn’t need to be told twice. I dumped my travel pack on the floor under my chair, tossed my coat onto the armchair’s back, and collapsed into the seat gratefully, leaning back and staring at the ceiling as my body creaked back into a sense of relaxation.

When was the last time I sat down like this?

The muddy banks of roads and smelly ale-infused wooden stools didn’t count.

While I waited, I traced my finger over the grains on the tabletop, and wondered about the tea I had ordered. While I hadn’t been picky, I really wanted to have something enjoyable for the first time in weeks. Some tea could be so bitter. I wanted something light, relaxing, refreshing.

A light rattling of china drew my attention across the café, and I saw it wasn’t just me who’d perked to attention. All eyes were on the little old lady as she tottered across the room with my cup of tea on a mismatching saucer, carrying it as carefully as she could, a soft smile on her face even though it was clearly shaking. Her focussed gaze told me it was mine.

I leapt back onto my blistered feet and rushed to take it from her. ‘Thank you! I’ll get it, don’t worry,’ I said breathlessly, nervous. I’d never expected her to bring it herself. I looked about behind her. Was there not anyone else working here?

‘Thank you, dear!’ she grinned. ‘What did you say your name was again?’

‘I didn’t,’ I said, taking a sniff at the tea. It seemed to smell quite decent, though I couldn’t recognise it. ‘It’s Emeline. What’s yours?’

‘Lovely name!’ she said, turning and tottering away without answering my question.

I shrugged. Perhaps she was private. And in any case, I’d become overly aware of the dryness of my mouth, and the strange tea was calling to me, so I carefully trod back to my chair and relaxed back into it, staring into the cup and wondering what I was about to drink.

Apprehensive, I took a tiny sip to test it.

Not bad, I thought, trying to identify the tastes. Something floral, perhaps. But I wasn’t familiar with these parts, and the plants could have been completely different in this climate. I made a mental note to ask her next time I spoke with her.

I took a bigger gulp, ignoring the searing heat and letting my animalistic, needing side take over. I cried out lightly with the heat, but the strange floral taste gushed down with the heat, and it left an instant refreshing buzz through my body. I felt lighter, and something nostalgic flushed through me.

I’d never had this taste before, but somehow, I thought of my home town. Where I’d come from. My family, my childhood.

A light smile crossed my face and I sat contently, sipping and looking curiously about the room now my base thirst had been sated. The room was cosier than I’d thought on first looks. The mismatching fabrics on the armchairs looked cute and clearly a labour of love as if the lady had looked after and mended these chairs all her life. The tables and mismatching china cups and saucers too. Little candle-lit lamps fluttered warm light through the room, and daylight came in through the dusty windows. Everyone seemed happy enough. A lightness in their postures, smiles on their faces as they chatted and laughed, a light buzz over the room.

It was an old looking place, but one that seemed full of soft love.

I took another bigger gulp of my tea and felt that flush of floral nostalgia flush through my body again. Really, what was this tea? It was like the worries of my travel had left my body and years were being shaved off me. Memories of lighter times crossed my mind, and I smiled as I stared unseeing at the fire, instead thinking of my life before. Of times I had played with my brother in the fields and helped my father gather twigs for the fire.

When the last drop of tea was drunk, I was surprised to feel disappointment. As if I wanted to keep drinking forever. I’d never felt so relaxed in a long time, nor had the opportunity to sit and think about times before. Life had been so busy, stressful. It had all changed. I never gave myself time to reminisce. Perhaps it was this setting.

I saw the old lady sitting at the counter again and decided to ask her about the tea. If I could purchase some of the tea leaves in this town and take it with me, perhaps I could enjoy my travels a little more. Take a piece of luxury with me.

‘Oh, hello, dear! Have I seen you before? Would you like some tea?’

I paused and blinked. ‘Um, no thank you. I’ve just had some, remember?’

‘Oh, is that right?’

Her face looked innocent enough, so I smiled and shrugged it off. She must be busy, running this place all on her own, meeting lots of people coming and going.

‘I actually wanted to ask about the tea I had. It was wonderful. So light. Refreshing. Can I buy the leaves around here?’

She smiled. ‘This tea is special tea,’ she said again. She rose to her feet again and bustled about her, looking for something. ‘Ah, there it is.’ She smiled as she handed me the menu again.

‘It was this one,’ I said, pointing at the one I was sure I’d chosen before. ‘What is it?’

‘You’d like that one? Good choice. You sit down and rest. You look tired, dear. I’ll make it.’

I looked up from the menu at her again, something striking like a warning through my body. ‘No, err. I’ve already had it. What was it called again?’

‘Oh, have you really? Oh! Lovely!’

I just looked at her, not really sure what to say.

‘That one is special tea,’ she said again. I was about to open my mouth when she leaned in conspiratorially and raised her hand to her mouth as if guarding a secret. ‘All the tea here is. It gives you your memories.’

That made me pause. I didn’t really know what she’d meant. Before I could say anything else though, her eyes flashed as if she’d remembered something.

‘Kettle’s ready!’ she said, and she turned to bustle about behind her, pouring water into a teapot and lightly stirring it with a soft, absentminded smile on her face. Then she gave a little satisfied nod and poured it into a china cup, turning behind her to choose a mismatching saucer from a shelf full of just saucers.

I didn’t know why she just didn’t store them all paired up.

Instead of commenting, I watched her carefully making her way across the floor to a customer, the cup tinkling lightly on the saucer as she walked. As she stood in front of a table, the customer leapt up and took it from her and smiled gratefully, but then looked down at the tea, confused.

‘Wait, I’ve already had my tea,’ they realised. They looked around. ‘Is this someone else’s?’

The room fell quiet, and people shook their head. Someone piped up, ‘I’m waiting on an alderfruit, but that smells leaf-based?’

But the lady had walked off by the time they’d conversed, and she was back in front of me at the counter. Confused, the customers simply sat down, staring at the tea and shrugging at one another.

I wondered if the lady would make the other customer’s leaf tea next, but she simply sat down and smiled at me. ‘Oh, hello, dear. Would you like some tea?’

I stared. ‘Um, no thank you. I wanted to pay.’

Digging into my money pouch, I saw the coins for the number scrawled on the menu and left her extra. She clutched the coins in her little wrinkled hands as if they were treasure, and she smiled up at me as if she was surprised to receive it. I couldn’t help but smile back, though worry gnawed at me. I grabbed my travel pack and coat and waved as I left, giving genuine thanks.

It was the best tea I could ever remember. And it had helped me to remember a lot.

But as I walked away, something made me stop and turn and look back at the café. And this time, I noticed the old, peeling painted sign about the door.

Mystea Memories.

I let out a soft breath. An appropriate name indeed.

‘Oh, old Nimmie’s place?’ A market keeper asked me as I enquired about the tea leaves a few minutes later at the local markets as I stopped for supplies. ‘Yes, people love her tea. Brings back their memories, they say. I’m afraid that’s special tea. I’ve never been able to find it, and Nimmie keeps it a closely guarded secret.’

I looked at the stocky market woman curiously as she packed my fruits and vegetables into a little canvas sack to place inside my pack for me.

‘True, honest. It’s a little grubby, but it’s the hope of the town. We all go there at some point.’ She sighed and looked down. ‘If we’ve lost something and want to find it again. In our heads, that is. Some things can’t be found again.’ She looked up at me knowingly. ‘Reckon that’s how she started it. She’s not been the same since her wife Valeria died. And as she’s got older on her own, she’s gotten a bit forgetful, you know. Always mixing orders up. Forgetting them. Giving people two lots. But we just get used to it.’ She gave an amused snort. ‘We just fix it ourselves. But travellers like you get a bit confused.’

I agreed.

‘Happens to us all, as you get old. Reckon she made the tea to help her remember—remember Valeria, that is. Then just kind of opened up her home as a café to help others remember too. You must’ve seen something too, right?’

I gawped. ‘That was the tea? I thought it was just the cosyness and finally being able to rest?’

‘Yeah, see. Special stuff.’ She handed me the bag, and I gave her the coins. ‘Sorry I can’t get ya them leaves. But I snuck somethin’ extra in there for you.’ A big grin crossed her face as I stuttered a thanks. ‘You’ll find the baker down there,’ she jabbed a thumb down the street. ‘Make sure you look after yourself on the roads. Dangerous places.’

I left to let her help the person behind me, and stared back at Mystea Memories, thinking of old Nimmie, how she’d sat there smiling absentmindedly, bustling about. Her little absentminded stare and smile.

How she’d been running a tea shop just to remember her wife. I wondered for how long she’d been alone.

Tears stung my eyes, but I gulped them back.

They were all right. That was special tea. And a special woman. I had a feeling Nimmie would leave a mark on me forever.

I left a mark on my map for her. A memory.


Sarah’s note

I don’t really know how to process grief. I’m in another country, on the other side of the world, far away from what my family had experienced.

My grandmother had suffered from dementia for a while, and each time I video called her when my dad could drive ‘up north’ to visit her, I saw the signs dig in a little more.

The absentminded stares. How she’d just watch me, fascinated that she could talk to me on a screen on the other side of the world. Just listening to Papa and me as she spoke and tried to bring her into the conversations.

It started with repetition. The same stories. But I’d thought that was normal. She’s done that ever since I was a little girl. Each time we drove up north to see her. But then it got worse.

But it didn’t really bite until I after I’d been away from the country for a couple of years.

Then the falls started. I didn’t realise until recently that dementia could cause falls. That your brain stopped telling your body things.

She was strong, sturdy, stubborn. A northern woman. Hardy. It felt so odd. We knew she’d die, but didn’t really believe it, really. How could we? She lived so long after her husband died, but I wondered in her days with dementia what she remembered.

She remembered me. She even remembered my son, even though she couldn’t remember other ‘new’ things. She didn’t remember my husband, I think. But my child, her first and only grandchild, was such a big moment, they said, that she remembered. And my family took new printed pictures of my son each time they visited so she could see him even when they weren’t there.

She had pictures of him all over her room.

I wish I could have taken him to see her, but it felt too far for such a small child.

I don’t know how to process this, and this piece of writing has been brewing for months. Since before she died. Since I saw things getting worse.

I think I could finally get it out.

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