The Second Chance Cafe in Carlton Square

By: Lilly Bartlett

Chapter 1

I can’t keep my hand from shaking as I reread the crinkled notice. What a complete load of rubbish! Criminals?! They’re only children, for heaven’s sake. Most of them haven’t even been to court yet. Intimidated grannies? Have you seen the old-timers around here? I wouldn’t fancy my chances against any of them down a dark alley.

This really is the last straw.

All publicity might be good publicity, but the leaflet that’s been pushed through every letterbox on the square won’t exactly bring the punters in for a cuppa, will it?

‘They were up all over the main road too,’ says Lou, chewing on the end of her pale blue hair. She knows it’s not attractive – or hygienic – when she does that, but who can blame her? She’s only worried for me. For all of us.

‘You want me to send the lads round to ’ave a word?’ she asks. ‘You know it’s her behind it.’ She punches her fist into the palm of her hand, like I wouldn’t catch her meaning otherwise. Fat chance of that. Lou’s about as subtle as an armed robbery. The last thing we need now is for her to go over there and prove everyone right.

Of course I know it’s her behind it. It’s been her behind it ever since we opened the café. But sending the kids around is only going to make the situation worse. And Lou knows that as well as I do.

I can feel tears welling in my eyes as I scan the leaflet again. It’s not sadness, though. It’s pissed-offness. I stare hard at the strings of calico bunting that criss-cross the ceiling until I’m sure I won’t weep in front of my employees. Every single person in here, I remind myself – sipping their hot drinks, chatting, laughing or quietly enjoying the warm cosy ambiance – loves our café. So get a grip on yourself. Sticks and stones and all that.

One of the walkie-talkies crackles to life on the countertop. ‘Emma, Emma, come in, Emma.’

I’m not sure why I ever thought it would be clever to let the customers upstairs give us orders over those things. Most of the time they use them to ask the answers to stupid trivia questions that they’re too lazy to look up on their phones.

I’m in no mood for trivia right now. ‘What is it, Leo?’ I’m sure my annoyance comes through loud and clear despite the static.

‘We need you upstairs.’

‘Do you actually need me to bring you something or is this your usual afternoon plea for attention? Because I haven’t really got time right now.’

There’s a pause. ‘It’s just my usual plea for attention. Sorry to bother you. Over and out.’ The walkie-talkie goes dead.

Now I’m cross and I feel bad. I’m absolutely definitely not treating Leo any differently than usual. I’d have been just as short with him yesterday. It’s the situation that’s changed, not me. And definitely not my feelings.

Something tells me today should have been a duvet day.

Two months earlier…

I’m sitting at our solid old dining room table, oblivious to the fact that I’m about to make a mortal enemy. I don’t even know Leo yet, or Lou or Joseph or most of the customers who will become my friends. Morning sun streams through the wide bay window in the front room, throwing a long rectangle of light along the floor. It’ll reach my chair in another hour, but I’ll be long gone by then.

That window is my favourite part of the whole house. It’s where Daniel and I looked out over our wedding reception at everyone in the world we love. It’s also where we took Auntie Rose’s advice not to wait till after the party to christen our new marriage. While it’s beyond mortifying to hear bedroom suggestions from your seventy-something great aunt, she was right. And there wasn’t even a sofa there yet. We used to live life on the edge.

Now our edges are blunt and you don’t really get any view from the window unless you stand up to look out over the window boxes – crammed full of colourful pansies and winter primroses – past the wrought-iron fence and over the quiet road into the garden square beyond.

I can’t claim credit for the flowers. Mrs Ishtiaque comes over every few months to plant new ones after I’ve killed the previous lot. It was involuntary plantslaughter, Your Honour.

Mrs Ishtiaque has lived next door to my parents my whole life. She looks out for me like I’m one of her daughters. She says that newly-weds should always have blossoms in their lives. Blooming flowers, blooming love, she claims. Though we’re not technically newly-weds anymore. I’ll have been married to Daniel two years in July. Sometimes it feels like two decades.

The twins are in lockdown in their high chairs, happily finger-painting stewed apples over everything. They’re a couple of Picassos, those two.