It can't be very often that an act of literary criticism contributes to the rescuing of a cafe - and turns three people into business partners when all they thought they wanted was to buy an apartment for themselves. But we often hear now that any university degree ought to have transferable skills. Poe and Dostoevsky in their small way proved to me that a degree in literature needn't be devoid of practical merits.
I probably should have left the cafe when she took over from the previous owners. I had been working there for a couple of years and for most of the period since it had opened Kirsty managed it while the owners were either travelling or baking, or at least overseeing the bakers as they worked. The cafe was in Marchmont and the bakery they owned at Cannongate, and the two miles or so between the two places meant that we would see the owners only occasionally, when they sometimes delivered a new batch of cakes. The rest of the time Kirsty was left to run the place as if it were her own. The cafe was only itself around four years old, situated on a corner that previously hosted a wine shop that had been there for many years and had sat empty for a few months before the owners bought it, having opened the bakery a couple of years before that. I heard from other members of staff, people who would drop stuff off from the bakery, and had been working there since it opened, that the cafe was originally an opportunity to showcase the cakes with a more personal touch. They sold the baking throughout the city and nevertheless knew that often the baking would be the best food in many of the venues where they sold their cakes: that while the cakes were made with the best of ingredients, many of the savoury dishes these cafes sold used substandard ones; the coffee was bought in already ground, and the tea was rarely loose leaf. They wanted a place where the cakes could be eaten after a savoury dish made with artisan bread, with fresh smoked salmon from a fishmongers, with a coffee where people could smell the beans ground on the premises, and where the tea leaves weren't incarcerated in a bag.
I had moved to Edinburgh only weeks before getting the job, had sat and read in the cafe on a couple of occasions and noticed the second time that they were looking for staff. I left my CV a few days after that, the assistant manager remembered me, and that evening I received a call asking if I could come in the following day for a trial shift. And there I was, a cafe worker once again after leaving London. There I had been employed by a chain where the coffee was poor, the tea a bag in a large mug and where the cakes and savoury food could have been served on a plane. I am not an ambitious person but I have since a teenager always wanted to find myself in the right environment, as though I couldn't see myself making a fortune or becoming a great success but wished constantly to be in an agreeable milieu. The cafe seemed to me to be precisely that, and so I wasn't surprised when I heard that the owners wanted to make it a place that would match the effort they put into the cakes themselves.
Inside, the cafe was made up of a dozen tables, all bought second-hand and all made of oak, but otherwise showing no uniformity in style. The same with the chairs, all again made of a dark wood but not necessarily matching. The floors were made of stone and to kill the echo, and to suggest a bookish atmosphere and an aesthetic inclination, there were hundreds of books on shelves around the walls, and also a painting exhibition each month, mainly by graduate students from the art college who still saw painting as a meaningful way in which to produce work. For that first year, I occupied the space even more than in the apartment in which I lived. In the three-bedroom place I was sharing with a couple of others, I knew that the carpets on the floor, the light orange-coloured walls and the clumsily fitted kitchen, where there was too little chopping space and too small a sink for the dishes, and too narrow a side-board to place them, meant it was a flat I could live in (the rent was below average for the area), but couldn't in any way define myself in it. The cafe was very much that space and I would ask friends to meet me there with the pride others may have in inviting them into their homes. I knew other members of staff, who had been in the cafe even longer than I had, felt the same, and while along the road there was a fine pub for everybody to go to later in the evening, the cafe, called the Hub, was a place you could sit and relax in till as late as 9 at night, later than most cafes in the city. Occasionally there were poetry readings, gatherings, art gallery launches and so on which meant the place would close at midnight. It had no license but wine was usually available. I lived less than a hundred yards from the cafe and even on days off I sat for a couple of hours reading or chatting with friends.
But then the owners decided to sell and Kirsty was the most obvious person to buy it from one point of view; the last person who should have owned it from another. I never had any sense that Kirsty liked the decor, the ambience, or the clientele. The readings and events were usually organised by the staff in conjunction with the owners, and I don't recall Kirsty ever coming to any of them. She didn't really like people sitting in the cafe reading books and showed irritation if someone came in with a couple of friends and sat for hours. But there was nothing she could say since that was the ethos of the place: not long after it opened the owners gave several interviews to Scottish newspapers saying they wanted to open a cafe that obviously had to make a profit but that just as readily needed to be an environment those visiting felt welcome in. They had worked out a business model that meant even if half the clientele spent half the day sitting there they could still at the very least break even. These were articles you could read on the cafe's walls, alongside interviews with other modestly well-known creative people in the city who sometimes visited the cafe, even worked on their fiction, drew their cartoons, or wrote their newspaper articles here.
However, when Kirsty took over much of this changed. Even though the owners sold her the cafe at a modest price, Kirsty knew a far greater profit could be made from it, and also reckoned that one of the problems was that it was too homely. Why she said to us, when she closed the cafe for a fortnight to redecorate, would you want to create an environment where customers would wish to stay when the purpose as a businessperson was to get them to leave as quickly as possible after they had spent their money? During those two weeks, we were employed helping to paint and decorate the place and never has my heart been so absent from a task. By the end of it all, the cafe was cold and calculating, the stone floor remained but the oak tables were gone, the dark red walls replaced by a light blue, the bookshelves gone as well, the contents flogged cheaply to a second-hand bookstore along the road, and the oak tables and the wooden seats replaced by Formica-topped tables and homogenous steel-rimmed chairs. There would be no more artwork on the walls except specifically chosen by Kirsty, and up went some conventional photographic work of various cafe interiors around the world. The cafe was also renamed after herself of course: Kirsty's.
For the first year after she bought it over, the cafe was still doing well enough but not really any better despite all the changes. The original owners, Ben and Jill, knew the area well, it was where they had lived during their university years and for a while afterwards. They knew that it was a part of town that was nevertheless unlikely to attract too much passing traffic. It was a cafe reliant on the local population. Kirsty's decor increasingly alienated these regulars from the place, and after around six months I noticed probably fifty per-cent of those who visited at least every other day were going somewhere else. I no longer met friends there, or read there on my days off.
It would have been after Kirsty had been in charge for a year that a rumour started. Someone said that one night when they were closing up, she heard Kirsty on the phone to her partner saying that maybe she did believe in karma after all. She said that they should have been honest from day one, should never have siphoned off some of the money for themselves. Sure it meant they could buy it more cheaply, sure the owners thought it was making less money than it was, and sure they could afford it in the first place because of all the money they'd taken from the business while she was managing it, but now it was making less than it had before she bought it.
I didn't know if I trusted Pauline, who would call any customer who was in the cafe on their own a pariah and anybody who stayed for more than an hour a waste of space, and not least because the previous week she had fallen out with Kirsty over closing. Pauline didn't wash the floor down but had obviously only brushed it, and the next morning when Kirsty had come in she could see dried splashes of coffee and hot chocolate on the stones. Pauline, who had been working for only several months, and couldn't believe she'd been compelled to take so menial a job on graduating the previous summer, after applying for numerous posts in galleries throughout the country, didn't take kindly to the public dressing down she received in front of several other members of staff. Thus it was perfectly possible that she made the story up.
Yet I also remembered being surprised at how low the price had been, that given its popularity it was surely worth more than the 50,000 Kirsty had paid for it. Kirsty took over the management not long after Ben and Jill bought the place, and I suppose it was easy enough to take money out of a cafe in which she had been left so completely in charge. I'd assumed they were never that interested in the money and the most important thing was the ethos behind it, but then as soon as it was sold Kirsty did all the things she didn't dare to do when she merely managed the place, from a cold refurbishment to cancelling any events in the evening, from buying in cheaper supplies while retaining the price on the menu, to a more pushy policy when it came to customers sitting for what she thought was too long. I sensed that Pauline was exaggerating what she had heard but that she did hear something, and it was the most plausible reason I could think of why the prior owners had sold it to Kirsty so cheaply.
It was about three months after Kirsty had redecorated the cafe that Ben and Jill came in. They had been travelling for the previous few months, and in the brief chat I had with them while they waited for Kirsty to arrive, they said they were sourcing cocoa, cardamom and other ingredients for their cakes from various parts of the world. They looked as excited when they mentioned this as they were dismayed at the look of the cafe. As they passed their eyes over the impersonal photographs, the otherwise empty pale walls, the glass tables and the steel-rimmed chairs, so they saw a dream die just as they talked about another reborn. Was this the price they had to pay for sourcing ingredients from small producers around the world? Yet they didn't look that surprised, as though someone had told them in advance what the new owner had done to the place.
When Kirsty arrived she looked a little non-plussed to see them and perhaps even deferential or apologetic in her greeting. Maybe this was the automatic body language of a former employee, or it might have been a consequence of seeing the cafe for the first time with their eyes upon it. It wasn't as if others before them hadn't looked disappointed, even aghast at the new look, but for Kirsty these were customers that she was in some instances happy to lose anyway. As she said one afternoon, on hearing a couple of regulars going out the door saying to each other it had lost something: losing them wasn't going to be much of a loss. But here she was facing the former owners whose expression said it all, or said at least something Kirsty wasn't keen to hear. As the three of them disappeared into the compact office behind the counter, so I heard, even with the door shut, and during the moments when the coffee machine wasn't loudly drowning them out, little bits of their conversation, or rather more the tone of it. They seemed to be expressing annoyance at Kirsty reneging on a spoken agreement that she should have maintained the look and ethos of the cafe; that its purpose was to be part of the community and not only a business exploiting it. Kirsty said that for a long time she retained their wishes while she was managing the place but it wasn't fair for them to walk away and come back acting like the place was still there's. She said it without much conviction and with a beseeching tone I'd never heard her use before, and certainly not to any members of staff, who were usually talked to brusquely: a tone she would have insisted wasn't rudeness but efficiency. Kirsty saw herself as a busy woman dealing with idlers, even if we all knew that there was often efficiency to our more casual demeanour and ineffectualness in her determination to illustrate her authority.
It was good to hear her small next to others even if from another point of view I might have been more sympathetic to Kirsty than to Ben and Jill. I knew Kirsty came from a much more modest background than the former owners (knew that on her grandfather's side the men had been miners for a couple of generations), and knew that she had remortgaged her flat to buy the cafe, while Ben and Jill were both from families who owned land around the city, and who could start whatever business they chose without worrying too much about how much it might cost. That is more or less how Kirsty put it that afternoon to Ben after he felt a little uneasy by the cafe's new look. She added that it was all very well having a cosy environment but who was going to pay for that? She said it apologetically and yet firmly, as if she had practicality on her side while Ben and Jill merely had an ethos that couldn't simply be separated from their own comfort.
It wasn't as though I'd never thought about Ben and Jill's money. I was well aware the cafe I had not only worked in but liked more than any other in the city had been backed up by cash accumulated over generations. In theory, I was on Kirsty's side; in practice the previous owners'. As they were leaving, with Kirsty still in the office, they asked how things were, said they were pleased I was still working there and that it was important they felt there was some continuity. They were both tanned from their travelling and when they smiled the teeth and eyes flashed with moneyed ease, like the smiles of stars whose greatest worry in the world would be how their profile looked when walking along the red-carpet. They were both good-looking people, and the time off, the selling of the business, the trip, had made them look better still. When Kirsty came out a minute later she seemed somehow small and harried, haggard and drawn, and yet I couldn't like her any the more for that. I would have been happier talking to Ben and Jill for a couple of more minutes alone. I didn't think they asked how I was to find out if I was as disappointed in the 'improvements' as they had been, but just as I had listened to the conversation they were all having inside the office, no doubt Kirsty had heard the few words they had offered and wondered if we had been about to discuss it in more detail. Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds was aptly playing through the speakers, a late sixties song but by one of the late fifties and early sixties singers Kirsty usually played that matched her own style: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Ritchie Valens, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course Presley himself. Her attire was usually pencil skirts, often Parakeet green, butter-yellow or Carolina blue, with heels and beehive blonde hair. She knew how to mix colours and knew how to differentiate them. Whenever one of the other staff would ask her about what she was wearing she answered precisely when they said they liked her yellow skirt: butter-yellow she insisted, though she had another in dandelion that few but the very discerning would have been able to differentiate from the butter one.
Her style was strict and she wanted the cafe to reflect that, otherwise maybe she might have gone for something closer to a diner with checkboard floors, chrome jukeboxes, and pastel pink and blue interiors. When I once in a casual conversation with her mentioned this, she said that she thought she was a bit more classy than that; as though I was somehow undermining her. She said that not all of us had gone to art college. It was a non sequitur from one perspective; a telling remark from another. I had indeed gone to art college and she had not, but it isn't as though she hadn't any education at all just a different one. Kirsty had studied business at a polytechnic turned university here in Edinburgh; I'd been to art school in Glasgow; then followed with a Master's in aesthetic criticism down in London, analysing anything from a van Gogh painting to a Citroen car, a Poe short story to a pop song. She had to be practical she insisted; it seems that I could afford to be more laid back in my approach to education, she said, a smile on her face but without any humour in her eyes. She knew I'd been brought up in Milngavie, that my mother was a teacher and my father a TV sports journalist, just as I knew that her mother was a care worker and her father a taxi driver and that she was brought up in Pilton. There was no serious money in my family but there were no serious money problems either. On the one occasion Kirsty and I had talked about our backgrounds she suggested there had been plenty of these worries when she was growing up. I knew there had been some for my parents too, whose parents would have been no richer than Kirsty's. But those serious worries were a generation before my arrival.
During the next six months, the cafe continued to make money but it seemed to have lost a few of the former regulars without gaining very many new visitors. It was now September and while many a cafe in the city made much of its cash during the previous month, during the theatre festival, ours was never quite central enough for that. There were no theatres in Marchmont, not even makeshift ones for the festival, and so unlike numerous other places we didn't have people sitting between plays picking up a Latte, people passing by on their way to a performance. There were of course tourists who found their way to us, some who discovered us in tour guides and on websites recommending the cafe, though usually with images from before the makeover. And there were plenty of those who were in the city for the festival who were renting flats for the period in Marchmont; sometimes they would pick up a coffee on their way into town. Yet there was no sense, as in the previous year, of people discovering the cafe and making it their regular while they were staying in the city during August. We were thus more than most reliant on locals, and also on the students who returned in September. But that year, the first since the refurb, very few students came in except for a takeaway, and even then the numbers were far lower than twelve months earlier. Before, between 10 and 12 we would have groups of mothers with their babies, coming in for their cappuccinos and babyccinos, shamefacedly asking for a mini-version for their children which of course consisted of nothing more than frothy milk with some chocolate sprinkled on top.
I could see through the second half of September and the first couple of weeks of October, Kirsty looking increasingly anxious and acting ever more irritable, occasionally taking it out on her staff. While she had often been abrupt, a little rude and always suspicious, now she became openly hostile, yelling at a couple of the younger employees who she knew wouldn't at all stand up to her, and once coming out of the office and shouting at three of us that she knew her staff was against her, that the cafe would be making a fortune if she just managed to find the people who would be on her side. That afternoon Kirsty kept walking through the cafe and out the door. It was 1030 in the morning and we had been open for two and a half hours without a single customer seated inside; only a few who had ordered takeaways. That afternoon when Melinda and Mark, who had been working in the cafe as long as I had, came in for their shift, I told them what had happened, and Melinda said she heard Kirsty had broken up with her partner. Melinda had knocked on the office door a few days earlier and Kirsty asked her to wait a moment, opened the door and asked what was wrong. There had been a problem with the dishwasher she was about to say but saw immediately that there was something wrong too with Kirsty. She had been crying and started again when Melinda asked her if everything was okay. She said the previous week she and her partner had broken up, that she would be okay in time but what with the cafe struggling, the staff against her and now her partner leaving her, everything was too much. Melinda said she was sorry, the staff wanted the best for the cafe, and that maybe she could mend things with her boyfriend. As Melinda told us this she also asked if Mark and I had ever met him, even knew his name. I said I hadn't; Mark concurred, and both of us said she must have mentioned his name on a few occasions but we couldn't remember it.
He remained anonymous for only a few days longer. At the beginning of the next week, in mid-October, Melinda and I were closing up, Kirsty was doing paperwork in the office, and someone came through the door. I said that unfortunately we were closed, and he said fortunately he wasn't here for a cafe latte, a sarcastic tone in his voice which also carried a slur. He banged into the table near the door and said he was here to see the owner. Again the word was offered with a sneer and I asked who wanted to see her. He said Robbie. Melinda knocked on the office door and said someone called Robbie was here. As she came out, he moved towards her, said that he was going to tell everybody what he knew, that she bought the cafe on the cheap because she had been stealing money from it for more than a year. She pretended to be this little businesswoman with her hair all up and her tight skirts and her high heels and she was no better than him, a petty criminal who got a bit lucky. I might sell a few drugs he said but he didn't steal from anybody. He spoke as if continuing an argument they must have had a few days prior, as though the discussion had been rattling around in his head ever since and here he was, at 930 in the evening, probably having drunk all afternoon, determined to have it out with her and caring not at all who happened to be listening.
Kirsty stared at him stunned and tried not to look at us at all. She first asked him to leave immediately and when it was clear he had no intention of going anywhere, and with Kirsty no doubt determined to keep us from hearing further accusations, she asked Melinda and me to leave: she would finish closing up herself. We feared not a little for her safety but she looked like she feared even more further divulgences from Robbie. We said she should phone if she needed us, then decided to go for a drink at the pub on the other side of the road a hundred and fifty yards away. It was a little too cold to sit outside but we did so nevertheless, believing that if anything happened she could phone us and we would be there in a minute, and if she didn't we could at least see if and when she left, or when she could get rid of Robbie. About twenty minutes later we saw Robbie leave the premises and move in our direction. Melinda thought it was best if we quickly went inside; he'd be less likely to hassle us there. I said we should wait, unaware of my motive; perhaps feeling that it wasn't fair to create a scene inside the pub; better to have one on the pavement. Now I might think that if I wanted to know more, a raucous Robbie was a lot more useful for the truth than a pernicious Pauline. Seeing us seated as he was going past, he stopped, looked at Melinda and me with the drunken deliberation of someone whose thoughts are more transparent than usual, and said that he wanted to apologise for the scene he created in the cafe. He added that his ex-girlfriend wasn't to be trusted; the only reason she could buy the cafe was that she had fleeced the owner she bought it from. Now she wanted to fleece him out of the apartment by throwing him on the street. He continued walking and Melinda and I discussed afterwards what seemed now unequivocal; there was a reason why Kirsty got the cafe cheaply.
Over the next few days, instead of appearing worried and contrite, afraid for her business and afraid that we might now question her authority, Kirsty became even more demanding, bossy and irritable. Pauline handed in her resignation and another, Maria, a friend of Pauline's, of a gentler disposition and who'd been hired that September, burst into tears after a harsh reprimand. Somebody had asked for extra hot chocolate. Since the drink was made with chocolate buttons, if someone asked for extra we were supposed to add another seventy pence to the cost. It was the first time someone had requested it from Maria and she didn't realise, charging the usual price. Kirsty saw this and asked her to come into the office, where she attacked her incompetence. I wasn't working at the time, but Mark said Maria came out of the office still in tears, disappeared into the kitchen and devoted herself to loading up the now functioning dishwasher. Mark went in and asked if she was okay, and Maria explained what happened.
After the incident, the following day, Mark, Melinda and I arranged a meeting together. We could all be free at the weekend and agreed to meet in the nearby pub to discuss what we were going to do, what we were going to say. I think our original intention had been no more than to threaten to leave en masse, leaving Kirsty without any long-term, full-time staff, and to run the cafe herself. But over two hours, as we went through between us two bottles of white wine, we decided that we would insist on nothing less than a coup. Melinda knew that Mark and I had, like her, been saving, since we often discussed the property market in Edinburgh and hoped soon that prices would drop even if there was nothing to suggest it. Mark had even come close to buying a couple of times but his offers had been lower than the people who got the flats. If we can't own an apartment, Melinda proposed, then at least let us own the cafe that we work in. Melinda reckoned that we should tell Kirsty that we knew she got the place by illegal means and that we would be happy to give her the money she initially paid for the premises and we wouldn't say anything to Ben and Jill. We would tell her Pauline had overheard her speaking about it, and then there was the incident with her ex-boyfriend. Mark said there was nothing to prove it and she would easily deny it. I wasn't so sure. I mentioned Poe and Dostoevsky. They both laughed, saying what had two dead writers to do with a small cafe in Marchmont? I said I believed Kirsty wanted to make people aware of her guilt, or that at least she couldn't really hide it. I said I thought the refurbishment was perhaps even a whitewashing of her crime, a determined need to redesign the cafe to banish from her mind the presence of the ex-owners she had embezzled from. We all admitted that the cafe refurb seemed like an act of self-harm: that Kirsty had taken a business that was doing very well and turned it into one that was beginning to struggle. It was as though so determined was she to remove any trace of the previous owners from her guilty conscience she had to make the cafe resemble the denial in her mind. I told them that I remembered thinking after seeing the work done to the cafe that it resembled someone leaving spotless a scene of a crime, as if there wouldn't be any fingerprints at all. My impression was that Kirsty wanted to admit her guilt and at the same time escape punishment. She knew now that the cafe would never really be hers and that anything she did to it was like living in a plush house on top of a burial site: it would remain somehow haunted.
The others looked at me unsure whether to be impressed by my ingenuity, amazed that a hermeneutic education could be at all practically useful (I explained to them what hermeneutic meant in a literary context), and certain, finally, that such thoughts, while entertaining, were unlikely to impact at all on the real world. Mark reckoned Kirsty would say no. I continued, saying that we were doing no more than buying her out at exactly the same price she paid for the business. She could start another one elsewhere, a location that needn't have spirits haunting her, and would have staff who didn't dislike her. We all knew the cafe still made money, just not as much as it did in the past and one reason for this was because the clientele didn't want a pristine place that was run by a woman with beehive hair, pencil skirts and stilettos. There was a place for such a cafe, perhaps in the New Town, almost certainly around by the business district, but not in leafy, sleepy Marchmont. I had moved from literary analysis to the sociological where to next, they joked. I said that we could buy the cafe by selling her on the notion of another one that would better suit her style.
By the end of the evening, we were all drunk on booze and belief, in the hope that we could persuade her to sell.
It was the beginning of November and we still hadn't said anything to Kirsty but Melinda saw Ben and Jill at the fishmongers in Marchmont a couple of days earlier. It was known to be the best in Edinburgh and Melinda occasionally treated herself to a piece of trout or salmon, and wasn't surprised to hear them say to her that it was their regular they happily crossed the city to buy fish from a place they had shopped in ever since they lived in the area, and still insisted on doing so even though they lived outside of town. They asked Melinda how the cafe was doing, and Melinda said it was fine but also admitted that it wasn't like it was before; that Kirsty had put a very different stamp upon it. They agreed, saying they didn't even want to go in any longer; someone else always brought the cakes since the last time they were in some months earlier. They didn't feel very welcome, and they didn't know whether it was Kirsty herself or whether it was a sense they got from the environment. It seemed so forbidding Jill said. It was as though the dead were haunting it from below Ben added, laughing. Melinda didn't laugh; she felt a strange feeling pass through her, one that suggested finding a way to take over the cafe with Mark and me contained an imperative greater than merely becoming business people.
She offered this remark to me a couple of days later, the day before the three of us arranged a meeting with Kirsty, saying we had a proposition. During the meeting which took place in the late afternoon in the nearby pub, we told her that we knew she had been embezzling money from the business ever since she started working there, and had acquired the property on the cheap. We didn't want to go to the police and it was true that all we had to go on was a comment Pauline overheard and an outburst by her ex-boyfriend but maybe if we went to the police and they decided to investigate they would find a lot more evidence. We could also tell Ben and Jill what we had heard and perhaps they would be interested in investigating further. But we said our purpose was less to punish her for any wrongdoing than to take over the cafe. Between us, we had access to fifty-thousand pounds and wished to buy her out. She wouldn't be a penny the worse off and could open another cafe somewhere else in the city.
I expected her to resist, claim she hadn't done anything wrong, that Pauline had made up gossip and that her ex was a raving drunk. Instead, she broke down, showing the strain of a broken relationship, exploiting her former employers and the stress of running a cafe that wasn't quite losing money but was no longer an unequivocal success. It was as if she could see on so many people's faces a sense of disappointment, that former regulars occasionally popped in for a takeaway coffee but did not wish to linger. I suppose even Kirsty felt it as a form of rejection; exacerbated by the collapse of her relationship it left her feeling the failure that was the very opposite of the success she was sure she would become. As she sat in tears, Melinda went over to her and said it would be alright. We had no intention of reporting her, were sorry about her break-up, and merely thought that she wasn't getting the best out of the cafe or out of the staff. She said that she would be happy to hand the cafe over to us, that she was looking for a way to get out and that maybe she was always suspicious: that the cafe was failing because she hadn't acted honestly. She didn't quite admit that she had stolen money but she didn't really need to: we knew that she knew we knew and that what mattered was the handover of the cafe to us, not in the least Kirsty to the authorities. Maybe she owed Ben and Jill quite a lot of money but if they were to find out that the cafe was worth well over a hundred thousand, not only would they demand the money back off Kirsty, they could then insist that we pay far more for it too. In a very roundabout way Kirsty had done us a favour, her stealing from the rich now allowed us to buy it as a collective enterprise and turn it into the type of cafe it once was but owned by three workers without wealth rather than two owners who had plenty. Kirsty was in this sense a useful middle-man, in Marxist terms the bourgeoisie taking over the means of production before the proletariat gets to take over again. That was how Mark put it later that evening as we continued drinking in the pub after Kirsty left, bringing in a little political economics to match my earlier hermeneutic analysis. It was a joke of course but there was no doubt that the three of us felt that evening like we had instigated a minor revolt if not quite a revolution.
Over the next six months, we transformed the cafe back to its earlier self. The bookcases returned and the tables and chairs all found their way to Kirsty's new cafe in Stockbridge. We bought our own from furniture charity shops and the lower end of the antique market. We painted the walls red, and once again asked artists to use the gallery space: every month a new artist would contribute their work and at the beginning of each month we launched the exhibition with an opening. We also regularly hosted literary events and occasionally political discussion groups. In time, and by the end of the academic year, we were once again frequently serving babycinnos to abashed mothers in the morning, while we offered in the afternoon a large coffee pot where students could help themselves in return for a pound a cup. We also bought a samovar and for 2 people could have as much tea as they liked, taking a small cup of stewed tea and adding hot water as they needed it; strong tea as they desired. Sometimes people would sit there all afternoon but we never moved someone on. Did we lose business? I suppose it depends on how you look at it. The person sitting there reading a book was giving ambiance to the cafe, the one on their laptop might have hogged the table for several hours but we asked them at least to share it. No doubt one or two were annoyed by this and didn't come back, but most seemed to welcome our suggestion and numerous conversations were started as a consequence of people sharing. I wouldn't want to exaggerate and claim the cafe had an obligation to the community but we did think the only way it could be a successful business was by playing an important role within it. We also renamed the cafe The Hub.
Ben and Jill occasionally came in again, stopped for a chat and admitted they were happy that the old ethos was back, pleased that we had expanded it. Yet we had no interest in telling them the truth. I suppose we may claim that the end justifies the means, especially when the means belong to those like Ben and Jill who have the money to start businesses like the one we are now running with such pleasure.
It was one evening while thinking such thoughts I investigated a little further Ben and Jill's background. I knew their families owned land around Edinburgh but I also discovered that they were from landed aristocracy and that Ben's great, great, great grandfather had been paid compensation after slavery was banned by the British government. The family had tobacco and sugar cane interests in the Caribbean. There were other stories of exploitation: Ben's ancestors paying labourers below a liveable wage which led to jail sentences for some of the protestors, who were regarded as revolutionary types that had to be quashed. Meanwhile, Jill's family owned mines dotted around the south of Scotland where numerous miners had died in accidents that in certain instances could have been prevented by better safety regulations. I wondered at that moment whether Kirsty's grandfather's family had worked in their mines, and if so whether Kirsty knew this, which might have justified her theft on the basis of some historical grievance.
The next time Ben and Jill came into the cafe I saw in them not only two warm and jovial people who always said hello to any member of staff they came into contact with, who asked us all how we were and never for a moment gave the impression that the cafe was still there's, but two people carrying in that warmth centuries of coldness that they weren't remotely responsible for but that they had entirely benefitted from. I realised that whatever fondness I had for them, however much I liked seeing them and chatting to them, my affiliation with Kirsty was finally much more pronounced, that part of what I didn't like in Kirsty was, probably, her class consciousness as an impulse, and her obliviousness to the middle-class mores that seemed more or less a prerequisite in running a cafe in a bourgeois bohemian part of town. They were aspects to her personality I resisted and yet were potentially politically closer to my own. I still have no problem running the cafe we do, believing that we offer a decent ethos alongside good cakes, tea and coffee, as well as soups, salads and sandwiches. But I no longer feel so friendly with Ben and Jill even if it is because of no fault of their own, and find myself increasingly feeling complicity with another of the cafe's previous owners who I am nevertheless very pleased is no longer running it. That she seems now to be doing well in an enterprise honestly gained suggests that guilt has its uses while I wondered if Jill and Ben ever felt any themselves. Maybe I should feel just a little too, but, then, who, supping on, or serving up, a cappuccino or latte doesn't, and who shouldn't?
© Tony McKibbin