Short Story: Coffee and Cake

Henry lounged in the living room, watching the TV with the sound turned down and prodding at his mobile phone. Usually he was out with friends, or lost to the world of computer games. It wasn’t normal for him to intrude on my space at the weekend; it made me nervous that there was something wrong.

”How about we go out for a coffee?” I suggested.

He shrugged, non-committal and wordless.

“We can get cake?” I purposefully posed this as a question, just in case he wasn’t in the mood for sweet bribery. It was a tradition of ours; the dissolution of my marriage to Henry’s father, Jonathon, had precipitated the necessity of keeping Henry happy at all costs, and at the time the simplest way to ensure this for a twelve year old was to ply him with treats and delicious delights.

Henry gave another shrug, but he pulled himself up from the sofa and went to put his shoes on. Cake it was then: I was glad to see that the technique was just as effective for a fifteen year old.

The ride to the village was quiet. I tried to concentrate on the road ahead, but couldn’t resist repeated glances at Henry to see if he would suddenly reveal his reasons for the malaise that had overtaken him. All he did, however, was stare out of the window at the sullen weather with an expression that matched.

“Georgio’s or Sweet Jamaica?” I asked as we clambered out the car, Henry sighing deeply as he did so.

Please not another shrug, I thought, and was pleasantly surprised when he mumbled ‘Georgio’s’ under his breath. This was typically where he and his friends would go for lunch, so it was heartening to realise he didn’t mind being spotted there on the weekend with his Mum.

I stepped into a walk beside him as we made our way down the cobbled street to the quaint little cafe on the corner that I secretly adored. It wasn’t just the gingham tablecloths, or the quirky wall art, or even the cute salt and pepper sets that were shaped like a couple embracing, it was actually the warm, welcoming smile of Ted, the owner.

“Hey Sarah” Ted beamed as I approached and then he spied Henry behind, “Henry,” he nodded.

Henry bowed his head in reply and muttered something about finding a table before he went weaving in between the brightly painted chairs planting himself at a table as far away as possible. It was late afternoon, an hour before closing on a rainy day which possibly explained the deserted atmosphere.

“Hi Ted,” I greeted, “sorry about him, he’ll cheer up once he’s had a cappuccino and a large piece of your carrot cake.”

“Not to worry,” reassured Ted, with a smile that cast dimples in his cheeks below twinkling brown eyes, “he’ll grow out of it.”

“One can only hope.” I looked over my shoulder at my sulky teenage son, once again engrossed in his mobile phone. Turning back to Ted I jokingly queried, “when do they grow out of it?”

Ted laughed as he plated up two slices of carrot cake, “you know, I take it back: I don’t think us boys ever do. We’re constantly forlorn over some beautiful woman,” and he paused for half a breath to look up and link eyes with me.

I blushed, but broke the contact by turning to scrutinise Henry so that Ted wouldn’t see. Is that what was bothering him; A girl? I realised that, as rewarding as it might be to flirt with Ted, I should prioritise my son over any need for attention, no matter how attractive the man.

“You think that’s it?” I enquired, feeling my flush recede. “I didn’t even know Henry was into girls.”

Ted placed the cappuccino next to the pot of lemon and ginger tea, my favourite, on the counter and gave me a quizzical look.

“You didn’t think he was..?.”

I heard the latent question and hurried to correct Ted’s misunderstanding: “Oh no, nothing like that. Not that I’d mind, I just mean that he’s never mentioned any girls, that’s all.” I felt myself reddening again as I flustered for words, so I dug into my purse hastily to pay him.

“You’re short by eighty-one pence,” he said plainly, seeming offended by my abrupt manner.

“Sorry,” I blurted, handing over a note instead. I felt awkward now, and distracted by the thought that my fifteen year old son was concerned about girls.

Ted handed over the necessary change slowly, giving him chance to comment: “I wouldn’t worry, I’m sure he’ll get some good advice from Mum.” He grinned then, and winked conspiratorially. I let myself meet his dazzling brown eyes once more and smiled in response.

“Thanks”

Ted bowed his head in acknowledgement and then busied himself tidying the counter. I retrieved the tray and made my way through the maze of mismatched chairs to where Henry was now lounging, telephone discarded on the table.

“He’s creepy, he is.”

I scolded him as I put down the tray, “Henry, that’s not a very nice thing to say about someone you hardly know.”

Henry poured copious amounts of sugar into his coffee, “but he is, whenever we’re in here he always fawns all over you.”

“Fawns?” I repeated with a raised eyebrow, wondering where on earth my son had picked up such language.

“It’s what grandma said.”

Ah, that explains it, I thought. “Well, your grandma is a batty old woman who should keep her mouth closed and her nose out.” I wondered what else had been said about me and my life since I’d split up with her Lothario son.

Henry shrugged, slurping his drink and attacking the cake. “Whatev’s”

I rolled my eyes theatrically; everyday Henry said something that I didn’t quite believe could be correct and proper English, but no doubt it would soon make it into the dictionary if all the kids starting using it.

“So, everything alright at school?” I enquired, realising as soon as I said it how clichéd, and therefore lame, it sounded.

Another shrug. What was it with teenagers and shrugs?

We ate in silence for a little while until Henry said, “Dad says he doesn’t like you coming in here cause of Ted.”

“He does, does he?”

“Reckons you’re gonna start shagging him, I think”

“Henry!” I scolded again, then, curiosity getting the better of me I commented: “Really?”

This was the fifth exchange I’d had with Henry about his father’s paranoia regarding me seeing other men. I supposed it was natural for Henry to express concern given our recent divorce, although I did wish Jonathon wouldn’t openly share his bitter views with Henry.

“Would you like to?”

I abruptly pulled my thoughts back to the conversation, “Would I like to what?”

“Shag Ted?”

“No, Henry” Although I imagine it would be lovely, I thought, but didn’t add. I cast a cheeky glance over at Ted, tidying away the pots for the day.

“I wouldn’t care, you know”

I brought my gaze to rest back on my son: “I thought you said he was creepy.”

“Grandma said that”

“So you don’t think he’s a creep?” Sometimes it was hard to keep track of a teenager’s opinions.

“He’s alright,” Henry admitted, with another shrug. “Better than Dad I guess.”

I looked up from my cake and across the table at Henry who sat staring at me with a placid expression. I was now concerned and confused at the sudden turn of our conversation.

“What do you mean, better than Dad?”

Henry gave yet another shrug, and then almost like an afterthought, added “At least Ted makes you smile.”

“Does he?” Although I couldn’t keep the corners of my mouth rising upward into a smile at the thought of Ted, thus giving myself away.

“Yeah, a bit like that.” Henry laughed.

I was taken aback by my astute son: was Henry giving me permission to move on from his father?

“Well, we all need a little cheering up now and again” I concluded, assuming that Henry had said what he needed to; he certainly seemed more relaxed.

“You should ask him out.”

I almost spat out my tea. Had my fifteen year old son really just suggested I ask Ted out on a date?

“What?” I spluttered.

“Yeah, you should ask him out.” Henry waved toward the counter, “Go on, I’ll finish off your cake.” He pulled the plate toward him, as though it was no big deal that he’d instructed his own mother to offer herself up to another man.

“I don’t think so,” I replied, pulling my half-eaten cake back, assuming he’d been joking.

“Really?” Henry asked, in that same tone that I myself had used to suggest cake not half an hour before. “Don’t you fancy him then?”

I felt my entire face go beet-red; “Henry!”

Henry chuckled, leaned back in his chair and looked over to where Ted was leaning against the counter.

“She fancies you mate, but she’s too scared to ask you out.”

“HENRY!” I was mortified by his behaviour. I won’t be coming in here anymore then, I thought as my face burned with embarrassment.

“No, no, don’t blame him,” Ted called, moving forward with his hands outstretched. “It’s my fault.” He came to sit between us, clasping Henry’s shoulder reassuringly as he did so. “Henry and I hatched ourselves a little plan that appears to have gone a little awry.”

I flicked my head back and forth between them: Henry and Ted, Ted and Henry. Henry was sitting bolt upright, a suspicious grin on his young face. Ted was no better, his dimples deep in his slightly flushed cheeks. What had I been dragged into?

“I made the mistake of thinking Henry here could be discreet, and asked if you were planning to reconcile with his dad.”

“Which you’re not, right?” Henry interjected.

I shook my head, stunned into compliance.

“And when he and his friends,” Ted cast Henry a sideways glance of supposed annoyance, “found out that the reason I wanted to know was because I was thinking of asking you out; well, Henry decided he wanted to help by sounding you out for me.”

“Oh,” I managed. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, nor how I was supposed to act in such odd circumstances.

“So are you going to?” Henry persisted.

“Going to what?” I asked dumbly.

“Say yes?”

It seemed trite to point it out, but I unexpectedly found myself in the middle of their game. Still reeling from the fact that my son had outed my crush, I decided to play along. Sitting up straight and pushing the hair from my eyes I smiled.

“I haven’t been asked yet Henry”

Henry elbowed Ted. Ted smirked confidently; again with the dimples and those sparkling eyes.

“Fancy going out for a drink sometime?”

“That would be lovely,” I responded formally, then leaned in slightly to whisper, “but perhaps, given all this effort you’ve gone to, we could precede drinks with dinner?”

Ted laughed, Henry leaned back in his chair with a silly grin, mobile phone already in hand – no doubt informing his friends of the developments – and I smiled contently at them both.

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