Sunday, 10 October 2010

Cafe Of Doom Scandal

Today, I really wanted to dine in a cave themed eatery with all the appeal of A Serbian film to a Disney fan, coupled with the gastronomic goodness of a donkey's toenail. "I know," I thought. "I'll eat at the Cafe of Doom."

The pitch black blanketed stairs beckoned to me like a hell bound death tunnel, the stale odour hanging in the stagnant air outside a mixture of cheap cigarettes and halitosis. As I advanced toward the entrance way, before I began to ascend the crustily carpeted steps, I noticed something different. The blackboard menu, usually awash with local culinary delicacies such as Roats Pots and Impudent Sassages, now resembled a Jackson Pollock style work of abstract expressionism. No exotic dishes proudly advertised, no tasty treats to tempt you in, just a smudgy scrawl.

I turned to the taxi driver leaning nonchalantly against his car nearby. His eyes and body language spoke silent volumes of his knowledge, his wisdom, as he arched one eyebrow slightly upon my approach, folded his arms and leant back a little further, one foot against his vehicle's wheel trim. His importance was brazenly broadcast through a blue-tooth headset looped around one ear, chunky mobile phone clipped to his belt in a bespoke leather pocket, Le Coq Sportif bum-bag holding plenty of ready coins to service the day's fares.  I had come to the right person for help.

"Do you know what's happening with the cafe?" I asked. "Is it open?"

"There's nothing I dunno about this place love", he said, puffing out his chest. Then dropping his cool and his eyebrow for a second, he beckoned me closer. His hand formed a conspiratorial cup next to his mouth, indicating invitation for a listening ear. I obliged with my right one. "Now you can't tell anyone about this, they don't want it getting out see 'cos it might affect trade. Christmas is coming up, and people travel from miles around to scoff some roats pots, and that's just the shoppers. The Christmas work parties are fully booked from July. Ronald has got 1400 Santa hats in boxes out the back. They were cheap like but it'd be a shame to waste 'em. Swear you won't say anything if I tell you what happened? On the bible, like?"

"Do you have a bible?" I asked.

"No, but you know what I mean. Would you swear on one if I had one?"

"Uh yes, sure."

And with that oath upon an imaginary copy of the bible, we had a deal, and my chauffeuring informant delivered the whole tale in hushed tones punctuated by sideways glances.

I had often looked skyward above the cafe entrance and wondered how many floors were in the building. Four, maybe five? And why the bars across a single window in the eaves? Now I had an answer to my idle wonderings.

I learnt that the proprietor Ronald's wife Mary, many years ago, suffered an addiction to the novels of the Bronte sisters, a rare disorder known as Bronte-itis. Initially, this was encouraged. Mary's mother Brenda had only ever expected to give birth to stupid children, such was the family tradition. When her youngest of nine began to devour literature other than Heat magazine upon being inspired by her English G.C.S.E. teacher, Brenda sprung into delighted action from a Jeremy Kyle and Jacob's Club induced coma (orange flavour) and 'phoned The Book Man* right away to order his entire classic collection. This happened to include several works by Jackie Collins, such was the Ton Pentre born Book Man's perception of classic prose, but no matter, they were saved for aunty Peg's Christmas present.

Mary relentlessly read her batch of novels through the day and night, only stopping to drink the odd cup of tea, barely uttering a word to her family and shunning television completely. Although unusual behaviour, Brenda's encouragement only turned to concern when her daughter's appetite waned. Adhering to another family tradition, Mary had always been a portly girl, pillows of flesh padding all potential bony edges. As the fat flattened out, Mary's mother began to keep a closer eye on her newly dilligent, slim-line daughter. She had been curious about the fate of the books Mary had bulldozed through. There was no bookshelf in the house, and they hadn't been lying around. One night, after Mary had, as usual, been holed up in her bedroom all day and again not eaten a thing, Brenda tip-toed up the stairs taking care to avoid the creaky floorboard, and edged her daughter's bedroom door open. She was confronted by a shocking sight.

Eyes wide and other-worldly, mouth foaming, Mary appeared to be in something of a frenzy. Sat on her bed, she was surrounded by hundreds of loose pages, their edges torn and frayed. Her cheeks bulged, protruding as a result of contents crammed in. Still viewing from her vantage point, mouth agape, Brenda saw her daughter crumple one of the strewn sheets, and push it past her teeth, biting down, chewing the paper into a pulp before swallowing. Her skin was flushed, hair dishevelled. Mary was eating her books.

Once safely at the local mental institution and a diagnosis of Bronte-itis reached, Mary's slow recovery began. Treatment involved extreme exposure to anti-literature, so a course of daytime TV and gossip magazines was administered. Sadly, this was the pre Big Brother and X-Factor era, treatments with their inclusion are now found to provoke a much faster recuperation. Achieving sustained good health involved indefinite avoidance of all book shops, period dramas and vintage clothes shops.

Decades on, Mary had embraced her opportunity for a fresh start. She resolutely avoided anything literature-like, and her time in hospital had suppressed all inclination toward the intelligent. She ate non-literature based lunches, married Ronald, together they bought the Cafe of Doom, and settled into their life in Valley suburbia. Calm had been restored until Mary learnt she was expecting the couple's first child. It was a turbulent pregnancy, with sickness throughout the nine months, sleepless nights, and constant kicking from the baby inside. Then, the time of the birth arrived. After an agonising labour, an ashen faced doctor approached Mary and Ronald at the hospital bed side.

"Mary, Ronald. There's no easy way to say this. I've been looking through your medical records. I didn't believe this could have happened until I saw the confirmation of your previous illness for myself. The Bronte-itis you suffered ten years ago...there's an infinitesimal chance that female sufferers bare children linked to the characters of the Bronte sisters....I'm afraid you've given birth to a Bertha, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester."

And so, the calm which had been restored to Mary's life was once more shattered, this time indefinitely so. She and Ronald would never experience the pleasures of regular parenthood, of dropping their child off at the school gates, of sports days and birthday parties and trips to the zoo. The doctor morosely explained to the weeping couple that the only way to care for a Bertha was to treat her in the same way as the character. This was her expectation, her reality, and although she wouldn't enjoy being locked up, any diversion from this would likely result in a mental collapse. She too had been born with Bronte-itis but as she was already mad, in her case it could be satiated. Thus, the attic of the Cafe of Doom was transformed into a cell. Bars were placed across the windows, it was sparsely furnished, and a meal hatch installed into the door through which regular bread, water and novels were delivered. Only the couple's closest friends knew about the existence of Bertha, the wider circle of acquaintances and gossips were told of a tragedy, and whilst technically true, the inferred implications meant no questions were ever asked.

Today had been a busy one in the cafe. Orders for impudent sassages were flying in, and hundreds of roats pots being prepared. As the aroma of the foods drifted up the staircase, around the corners and under the door of Bertha's cell, something within her stirred. The kitchen is situated on the second floor of the cafe, Bertha's room the fifth.  A strict rule insisting that the kitchen door be kept closed, the extractor fan switched on to top speed usually stopped that happening, but alas, today a new member of staff had begun, and forgotten these directives. 

The scent awoke something instinctive within Bertha, something neglected on lunches of literature and Tesco Value bread, filling her with a superhuman strength. She prised open her room door, tore down the flights of stairs, charged through the cafe sending customers, mobility scooters, tables, small dogs and plates crashing in all directions as she burst out of the entrance way. Upon seeing the blackboard menu adorned with forbidden delicacies she let out a rumbling roar and wiped them off vigorously, grabbing a stick of chalk and scrawling over the remaining smudges. Her cries of outrage could be heard as far as the outdoor market and Wilkinson's - naturally drawing a crowd of toothless women carrying striped bags of fruit and vegetables. It took Ronald, plus four of his meatiest male customers and one questionable female to lift a screaming, struggling Bertha back into the cafe, and then only because she was promised a stack of impudent sassages as reward. It took thirty seven additional roats pots before she was relaxed enough to be escorted back to her room, and upon arrival, this time shackled.

Thus, I discovered the fate of today's delicious Cafe of Doom fare and was forced to dine somewhere with a much more welcoming entrance way. Mary and Ronald would be closing for the rest of the week, attributing the incident to a sick cousin from London come to visit. The locals were already suspicious of (The) London so would easily write off such behaviour if associated with that place.

"Keep it schtum now mind love", winked the taxi driver, relishing the regaling of his tale but finally drawing to a close as a potential customer arrived. "Wouldn't want to miss out on our roats pots now would we?"

* There are multiple Book Men in the South Wales Valleys, but only ever referred to as a single person. The role of a Book Man is a full time one, which involves bringing a selection of books directly to the people of the valleys in exchange for cash, as a replacement for them visiting an actual shop. If you receive a book from a valleys gran or aunty for Christmas, it has probably been purchased from The Book Man. The chance of that is tripled if said book is authored by Dan Brown or Jackie Collins.


  1. Really enjoyed the mash-up of the Book Man, the taxi driver, the Brontes and the story behind the Cafe of Doom. Excellent story, I loved this!

  2. Thanks very much for your feedback Kath, I really appreciate it :) A mash-up of ideas and valleys observations is how I see my stories so I love your description, it's a relief somebody else shares the same view of them!

  3. Your first paragraph made me laugh and hooked me in to read the rest of the story. Hope you go back to the Cafe of Doom another day...

  4. That's great to hear, thank you :) I'll definitely be going back there!