At the end of the day

It is 8 am and a new day has begun. Outside the wind is teasing the last red leaves still clinging on to life, pulling and pushing as if playing a game of tag. The streets are already filling with people huddling off to work, ant-like in their tracks. The ground is still wet from last night's drizzle, and everywhere, slippery leaves, having given up their battle, lie in wait for less cautious feet. Cars roll ceaselessly to and fro.

On the corner of an old brick building is a small coffee shop. Inside it a young woman is systematically taking chairs down from the tables, putting them into their rightful positions on the floor. Her hair is tied up in a loose ponytail and she is wearing a green apron, slightly too big for her. She glances over at the clock on the wall as she puts the last chair down. Half an hour till opening time. Her name is Linda. Her name tag says so, and she has been working in this same coffee shop for a little over three years now. She has grown into this place, and does everything by habit. She knows when and how things should be done without giving it much thought. When she smiles, she does so effortlessly.

She moves over to the counter to put the cakes out. She has finished with the chairs. Almost all of them are wooden ones; standard types for this sort of establishment, put together in twos or threes to fit around small rectangular tables. But at one side of the room, in a corner on its own, stands an old fashion armchair. Its green velvet cover is slightly worn at the edges, and what used to be a delicate flowery pattern has now faded into the fabric. Nevertheless, it stands out, and it is most definitely the favourite seat among customers. The chair knows this very well.

It was given as a contribution when the new owner took over, by a wealthy uncle who saw an opportunity to display his generosity while clearing off some storage space in his attic. The chair had been stacked away to collect dust for a decade or so, and the warm, open space in the coffee shop was a more than welcome change. In the beginning, the owner had wanted to get rid of it, as it clearly didn't match the rest of the interior. Noticing its instant popularity, however, amongst the city's coffee slouchers, he finally decided to let it stay. He put it in the corner along with a round, Parisian style side table and a reading lamp, which quickly became known as the 'comfy corner'.

Among the wooden seating, there is also a bench placed against the wall opposite to the chair. One of the staff had the brilliant idea of filling this up with colourful pillows to give it a more romantic touch. It worked. Groups of friends would gather here, or lovers, bundling together in the softness, with their vanilla flavoured mocha-lattes. The bench is the chair's passionate enemy. The chair finds it horrendously tacky, and its desperate attempts to imitate a couch is simply ridiculous. The bench is clearly a typical all-rounder, who rides on the mere convenience of having multiple seats. The chair scowls in its direction, before turning its attention elsewhere.

At the counter, Linda is preparing the kettle for today's freshly brewed coffee. Her nimble fingers work automatically; mind floating in some distant reverie. Her dark eyes gaze directly at the task at hand, but the tiny wrinkle on her brow reveals her detachment. She opens a silver box and uses a spoon to measure out the tiny coffee grinds. Each time she pours a spoonful into the tract, a gentle trickling sound can be heard; grinds hitting the paper filter. She closes the tract and turns the boiler on. A short interval of silence, and then the coffee maker starts hissing and spitting violently, as if it's trying to cough something up. Soon the black fluid is pouring into the glass container, and the familiar scent of roasted coffee beans fills the entire room. At this, Linda seems to be suddenly pulled out of her dreamlike state. With a quick glance at the clock, she hurries over to unlock the door.

During the first half an hour of the shop's opening time there is never much activity. A few people will come in to pick up their morning caffeine fix on their way to work, but it is a rather quiet time of the day. Until Nine-fifteen arrives.

Nine-fifteen, a man in the middle of his forties, is always punctual. Every morning, at exactly a quarter past nine he strolls in, dressed in his usual worn-down tweeds and trench coat, with a newspaper under his arm. Today his hair is looking more windblown than normally, and a wet leaf is half clinging to the underside of one of his shoes.

'Good morning', Linda invites, for which she earns one of his characteristic shy nods in return. 'The usual?', she asks. A nod and a mumble in confirmation. Ever since he first started to come here he has always had the same thing. A medium black coffee and a sugar sprinkled butter cookie. While she pours the coffee he reaches into his coat pocket and fishes up a bundle of coins in his fist. He pours them onto the counter, together with little crumpled pieces of paper and assorted piles. He picks out the exact change for his coffee and cookie, before putting the rest of the contents back into his pocket.

'Thank you. I hope you enjoy', she says, handing him his order on a tray. She picks up the coins from the counter, and as he turns to leave she spots the leaf still sticking to his shoe. She opens her mouth as if to notify him, but seems to think better of it, and says nothing. Before he sits down, the man plucks out five packs of brown sugar, always five, and a stirring spoon from the side counter. He then goes to sit in his usual spot in the comfy corner.

He unbuttons his coat, and starts pouring the first pack of sugar into his coffee. He stirs the spoon in clockwise circles, three times. He pours the second pack in; this time stirring anti-clockwise. While he repeats this process, changing between clockwise and anti-clockwise stirring with each load of sugar, he opens the newspaper on the table. He starts skimming the text in front of him; searching. His eyes move ceaselessly from side to side, leaf by leaf. His finger traces a line while he reads. From time to time, he nibbles on his cookie, and takes small sips of sweet coffee, but he never takes his focus off the pages. He is transfixed.

After a while his finger suddenly stops. He begins tearing the page of the newspaper, carefully working towards the spot that has caught his attention, eager, almost frantic. For several months now he has followed this same routine; going to work on the daily newspaper, as if it was a secret document ready to be decoded. He tears out words, sentences, letters. Most of them he puts in his coat pocket, but some of them he places on the table in front of him.

At times, one of them falls down onto the floor, only to be swiped up and thrown away by the staff at the end of the day. Two of these have escaped into the narrow space between the seat and back of the chair, where no one can reach. There they lie, secretly; a treasure hidden from the world.

More people have started to fill up the empty chairs in the shop. A group of students have occupied the bench by the wall; their books and notes spread out on the table. Successfully ignoring these, they laugh and converse, munching on their chocolate chip muffins in a perfectly carefree manner. A woman is sitting nearby; knitting in her lap, and needles working like a fast bullet train. A low jazz tune is flowing from a speaker on the wall, and she gently hums along, ripe and glowing with pregnancy.

The door swings, and shortly after Linda is joined by a colleague, who quickly helps serving the customers queueing up. Always sweet; conversing with strangers like long lost friends, the young girl happily accepts her position at the counter, while Linda contents herself with making coffees. Always so quiet, the chair thinks.

In the meantime, Nine-fifteen has finished with his research for the day, and has started to re-button his coat. He stands up, folds the shrivelled and slightly abused-looking newspaper under his arm, leaves some coins on the table, before walking briskly towards the exit. The leaf under his shoe, now partly dried, still clings on; ready to take on the world with him. He leaves without a word, and as the door closes behind him, the two females behind the counter exchange significant looks.

'Go on', the other says to Linda, smiling. 'Go look. I'll be fine here.' Linda hesitates for a moment, then goes to pick up a tray and a cloth. 'Okay', she says, and heads off towards the armchair.

The torn out pieces of newspaper are there, tucked underneath a small tip as usual. She discreetly pockets the coins, before turning her attention to the small paper messages. Three of them today. Two words, and something that must have been part of a sentence. She leans over to see better, gently brushing her elbow against the soft fabric of the chair. The tiny fibres give way under her skin, bending slightly, like leaves of grass. The sudden friction causes an electrical charge to linger for a moment on the chair's surface.

Carefully she picks up the cut out words, as if they were ancient hieroglyphs that might perish any moment into dust; a curious smile playing on her lips. The chair watches her, as her dark eyes move from one word to another, trying to extract what meaning can be found there. Metal clinks against metal somewhere in a rhythmic, almost musical beat; a clock ticking at double speed. Linda stares at the words in her palm, intent on demystifying the message.

But as usual, it makes no sense. She curls up the pieces of paper in her hand with a sigh, and starts cleaning the table.

When she turns around, her eyes meet the pregnant woman's. She has been watching her, and she displays a knowing smile, as if she has just been listening in on a secret. She is knitting; her hands never stop, but move instinctively, like two spiders working on a web. Linda freezes in her movement, seemingly paralysed by the unexpected and sudden realisation of being watched. Then, just as sudden, as if Linda doesn't exist any more, the woman looks away.

After some time, a third member of staff arrives, which means that Linda has her lunch break. She always goes somewhere else during this time; never stays. The chair often wonders were she goes and if she is with someone. During these three years, no one has ever come or left with her.

While she is gone, two Japanese women settle themselves in the comfy corner. While one of them seats herself in the armchair, the other moves one of the wooden chairs up to the Parisian table. Personally, the armchair dislikes this. On the other hand, they also take a pillow each from the bench, making an unmistakable gap in the normally neat arrangement of pillows, which is a personal triumph for the armchair. 1-0 to good taste.

The two women drink tea and chatter in their own language; a soft melodious flow of high and low tones; trilling, like playful notes on the piano. The chair amuses itself with pretending to be a big cushion, supporting an emperor's wife at a tea party in some distant era. But then the Japanese ladies leave, and are replaced by a mother with her toddler son.

Having managed to arrange herself and her son in the armchair, after much kicking and objecting from the latter, the mother produces a bottle of dark red juice from a pram. The offspring eagerly accepts. This allows her a moment of peace and a chance to enjoy her own cup of camomile tea and a magazine.

At this point Linda returns from her break, her hair looking slightly dishevelled from the wind; cheeks blushing from the cold. The shop is now crowded with people, all looking to fulfil their luncheon needs, and the three members of staff are soon busily taking orders, toasting paninis and clearing tables at fast pace.

The toddler, having lost interest in the content of the bottle and getting bored with all this sitting down business, starts to wriggle in his mother's lap, trying to get down. The mother, being used to daily catastrophes, quickly puts her cup of tea back on the table and tries to take the bottle from her child. Easier said than done. The child wrenches his little fingers around the bottle in a surprisingly strong grip, and when mommy tries to interfere even more, lets out a high pitched, furious scream. It sounds like a goblin going to war. It turns quite a few heads in their direction, but the mother is used to this as well. She efficiently manages to retrieve the bottle, ignoring the fact that she has the attention of half the people in the room. She places the bottle on the table, and in effect, the child starts crying.

"Alright, alright", the mother says wearily, and reaches for a favourite toy placed in the pram for moments like these. But that is all the distraction the child needs, and before the mother has time to turn around, the bottle is once again in his hands, being shaken up and down like a cocktail. And then the unavoidable happens.

The lid pops open, and blueberry juice splashes all over the child, the mother and the armchair. This time the mother screams; an angry Amazon under attack. She pulls the empty bottle from the child with a growl, causing another flow of tears, and desperately tries to remove some of the stains from their clothes with a napkin. Realising the futility, she puts the bawling child rather awkwardly into his pram, and hurries towards the exit with an apologetic glance at the staff.

The armchair is covered with dark splatters of blueberry juice, and when Linda comes over to verify the damage, her look is one of terrified disbelief. There is a large spot soaking into the seat, drawn in rapidly by the super absorbing velvet fabric. Linda rushes off to get a cloth and soap water, and when she comes back she is down on her knees in a second, scrubbing.

Back and forth she scrubs, only stopping to pour on more soap water. Her breathing grows rapid, following the rhythm of her working hands. Soon the surface fills up with blue soapy foam, but the spot remains just as dark and big as ever. The chair knows it is no use. No one will ever get that stain out, no matter how long they scrub. It has gone in too deep. The owner will not waste money on dry cleaning or a re-covering, when he can just as well buy a new and more modern chair for the same price. It is over.

Linda's eyes start to water, and soon, tears run down her face. Her scrubbing is becoming more desperate, and some of the nearby customers have started to throw her curious glances. She makes one last violent push against the stain, before she gives up altogether, and puts her head down on her outstretched arms with a sob. She clings to the chair, digging her fingers into the crack between the seat and the back support. A man has gotten out of his chair to find out what is wrong, but she does not look up nor answer his call.

Suddenly Linda feels something there, deep into the crack of the chair, and she reaches in further, only to come out with two small, crumpled notes between her fingers. They have been torn out of newspapers.

She stops crying and sits up so abruptly that the man who tried to speak to her takes a step back. She unfolds the notes and looks at them. First at one, then at the other. After staring at them both, eyes growing larger, she suddenly bursts into laughter. She laughs and laughs without stopping. People have started to gather around her now, thinking that she has clearly lost her mind.

'Um.. are you okay?', the man from before ask cautiously. Her laughter gradually ceases and she looks at him, as if noticing him for the first time. He looks worried; kind. 'Yes', she says. 'Yes, I am fine'. He takes a step closer, not so intimidated any more. 'I'm glad to hear it..' He looks at her name tag. '..Linda.' He smiles. She smiles back at him. A genuine smile, the chair thinks happily.

That's a first.