What do you most need when facing a complete disintegration of the life you have been leading? Where does the loss of your job, the betrayal of your wife, lead you?
Well, in Neville’s case to a small tea shop at the foot of the Malvern hills. But if he has gone there for some peace, some solitude, the chance to assess his situation and get his life back in order, then he is in for a shock. Is it madness that makes his coffee cup keep magically refilling, or the china geese on the wall try and fly away? And how could it be possible that a stale slice of Black Forest Gateaux would suddenly be able to offer him Agony Aunt advice?
Guided by Samuel, an aged coach driver (in his equally aged coach!), follow Neville as his travels take him to Paris, to the Derby at Epsom, dancing on a cruise ship, and into outrageous and dangerous adventures – and towards an unlikely romance that might just save his life…
In a Malvern tea-shop he sat, watching the steam from his coffee filter rise unevenly above the rim of a faded white cup. Beneath the porous surface of the filter, he could imagine the liquid dripping slowly – drip, drip, drip – and adding to the volume of the dark fluid beneath. Despite his present preoccupation (or perhaps because of it) he allowed the diversion of his coffee to tug at his mind, and he sniffed, searching for a distinctive aroma. One of the women on the next table – a large, well-coiffured, Conservative kind of woman – looked coldly across at him, eyes betraying her reaction to an interruption. Perhaps he had sniffed a little too loudly or intrusively – though given the nature of the offence, it was something he could not permit himself to dwell upon. He returned her stare without emotion and, seeming to have failed in her challenge of him, she resumed her conversation.
The tea shop – a tired establishment which, he imagined, owed more to the past than the present – was mostly empty. Apart from the Conservative lady and her companion, there were only two other patrons present: a younger couple in muddied walking boots sitting against the back wall, their bright waterproofs a marked contrast to the plain and drab decor. When they had entered, Neville, drawn to their arrival by the weary “ping” of the door’s bell, had watched as the Proprietress – a large lady who looked as if she might have personally sampled every meal ever served there – had stared warningly at their boots, almost as if the intensity of her gaze alone might physically clean them. To the credit of the boots’ owners, they had, in consequence, been almost over-zealous in the vigorous attention they bestowed upon the doormat, which seemed momentarily to groan under the pressure of their scrapings and rubbings.
Neville, having relived that recent memory, glanced back down at his coffee. The filter appeared to somehow contain more water than it had a few moments before, as if the drip, drip, drip had ceased and the cup, in some kind of rebellion, had started to force the liquid back from whence it had come. He felt too tired to respond to the evidence of his own eyes, and, ignoring the impossibility of the happenings on the table in front of him, looked out of the window by which he sat as if, in doing so, he might remind himself of his situation, of his relation to the outside world, and of the reason he was there.
‘So why are you here?’
The voice had come suddenly to him from nearby; it was a quick, shrill, impatient voice, carrying with it a not insignificant air of menace. He hesitated a fraction then turned, expecting to find himself confronted by either the Conservative lady or the establishment’s owner; but the former was still in conversation and the latter nowhere to be seen. The smell from his cup – that which he had been seeking just a few moments earlier – now forced him to look down at his coffee again. The filter was now empty. Lifting it away, he revealed a cup full of dark coffee. Outside an old bus rumbled slowly passed the window, coughing from its exhaust like an old man about to expire.