Kissing sound, kissing sound – that’s what you want to hear. Don’t let the steam wand sound like it’s screaming in pain. The art of frothing milk should never be rushed. I walk past the window where there’s a small group of people standing outside the café. They stare at their phones and wait for their takeaway coffees to be served as I enter. I love coming here to Jabberwocky. The first thing I see when I walk in is the kitchen, right in front of me; it’s not hidden away behind a door that says ‘staff only.’ The table tops are wooden with a weak wash of blue paint that has soaked into the timber. Their legs are recycled from old sewing machines. On top of each of the tables is a tiny brown bottle with a dried sprig of white heath. The chairs are old and industrious, with rusty steel frames and upholstered in fake white leather. Behind the cash register is a mirrored wall with bottles of spirits along a shelf that multiply in a rainbow of colours. There are shelves around the top of the walls that have old books resting on them, along with white rabbit statues. Their table numbers are old books with numbers clear contacted onto the front covers. I like the idea of reading while you wait for your order. But what makes me feel like I’m home is the resident brown cat that has adopted Jabberwocky.My cats are back home in Melbourne. Her name is Arabica and she sits out the front of the café every morning for scraps that the staff give her. The staff; the chef Aaron wears a blue apron and a ginger beard. The barista Louise, clad in black with her tied up brown hair and the waiter Viggo, all greet you with a smile and take in all the strays that come off the street, furry or otherwise.
‘Hi Phoebe, cappuccino, one sugar?’ asks Viggo from behind the counter.
Viggo is your typical ABBA-inspired Scandinavian with blonde hair and a pronounced jawline, surrounded by stubble and just a few too many muscles.
‘Yes please,’ I say with a smile and hand him four dollars.
‘Sure, I’ll bring it out to you. Take a seat.’
I go back outside and sit at a table where Arabica sits on the opposite chair. We’re doused in shade from the awning jotting out from the front of the building. Arabica enjoys her pats from me as much as the breakfast she gets from Jabberwocky.
It’s my treat of the morning, the calm before the storm which is the rest of my day. I work in an office as a photocopier. Multiple floors of cubicles, twelve-by-twelve wide and long. The office has no distinguishing features; it is there to be an office and an office only. I have been reduced to photocopier mule but enjoy the coffee run as I get away from the printers and the grey and harsh fluorescent lights. There is life in the building but nobody living it. Although my colleagues are pleasant they’re porcelain white zombies who haven’t seen the sun in about twenty-five years. My supervisor Judy, who is a lot older than me, has frizzy red hair and massive purple glasses. She loves me and doesn’t want me to go, maybe because we’re the only two that aren’t life-sucking zombies.
Plus the money is great. I can afford to rent a terrace house in quirky old Newtown all to myself and who in their mid-twenties can say that? I can walk down the street to Jabberwocky anytime I want. I love to walk past the charity shop which has high-waist jeans that were cool fifteen years ago on display. I can go to the organic market and the newsagent where I can pick up a copy of ‘Sustainable Living’ magazine. I pass the cat shelter and look at the photos of all the cats for adoption in the window and fall in love with all of their faces. I don’t dare go in because I’ll walk out with the whole shop. But it would be nice to have somebody to come home to as it’s very lonely in Newtown.
I moved here from Melbourne for my Arts degree, taking the photocopier job to pay the rent, plus they asked for ‘creatively wired people’ and I thought that’s me! I graduated a year ago and I’m still here! I’m completely torn. Living out of my parents’ place wasn’t as magical as I thought it would be. I do love Newtown but I have found myself just doing grocery shopping, constantly! I’m always reduced to that last mouldy piece of cheese in the fridge and I don’t even eat cheese! I don’t even have friends to invite over to eat the cheese. I talk casually to the people in Jabberwocky, but I don’t have the courage to invite them over for dinner or something. I think that might be a bit of a stretch. I’ve found that adulthood is just another word for guessing and making it up as you go along.
I used to love bragging to my friends back in Melbourne how successful I was in Sydney. In the beginning, it was great making them jealous, but now…it’s not enough. They’re all doing well back home and I’m feeling a little forgotten up here. Some getting married, some even having babies, some traveling all over the world with their partners and climbing the career ladder…and then there’s me. I’m stagnating.
Judy, with her hair positively sparking with electricity, was so excited after a heads-of-department meeting yesterday,
‘Phoebe, guess what? Upstairs is shuffling people. I’ll put a word in to promote you up next to me in photocopying. Wouldn’t you like that?’
I feel so conflicted because I don’t want to let her down but I think it’s time to leave. I don’t care about a promotion; I didn’t want to be working here as long as I already have been. What I want and love is the idea of owning my own café, and starting that dream by becoming a barista, a good place to learn the ropes and find out if hospitality is for me. I’d like my café to be an oasis for people to escape the daily grind by absorbing another kind of grind that is wonderful fair trade organic coffee. The drink that turns any zombie into a sociable being.
But this dream might mean sacrificing my apartment, my freedom and moving back to Melbourne, living with my parents for a while, but not for long. Mum keeps saying I’m always welcome back home but I think Dad has already turned my room into a music studio and she just wants the peace and quiet back. Maybe a café would do better in Melbourne anyway.
‘Here’s your cap.’ Viggo says as he brings out my coffee and puts it on the table.
‘Thanks!’ I say. A beautiful Rosetta leaf is crafted in the milk foam on top of the cup.
I have my first mouthful of coffee and it is like a warm hug. From what I’ve learned from Louise, the barista, this coffee is the result of an amazing blend that came from Brazil, Honduras and Venezuela. The little green beans travelled across the sea in hessian bags to end up being roasted, grinded and crushed to produce this liquid gold in front of me. Its’ not just me enjoying it. I look up to see the line of people at the window isn’t getting any shorter just yet. It’s amazing how many people go on pilgrimage and ritualise this little seed every morning. It all starts with the farmers who grow the beans, to the roaster preparing the coffee, to the barista lovingly crafting a made-to-order delight. It’s the seed that changed the world and I feel like it can change my little corner of the world too. Viggo comes back out with a small bowl of cream for Arabica and places it on the chair she’s on. She sits up and drinks. Viggo goes back inside with orders up, thick and fast. I pat Rabby on the head and she purrs. She’s friendlier than my own cats.
Just then a mass of white fur comes pelting out of nowhere, barking and growling like a leaf blower. Arabica growls back in fear and before I can grab her she’s off down the street and around the corner with a Maltese right behind her. I abandon my coffee and run after them. There’s a lady in lycra running in front of me, calling out,
‘Rocky! Come back here! Rocky!’
I can hear the dog barking and snapping, the lady shirking at the dog to get it under control. The cat yowls in pain and I run faster so I can see them around the corner. The lady has gotten hold of the lead, dragging the dog away, but the cat…Arabica is cowering in a corner. The fur along her spine is upstanding like a row of pine trees and her pupils are dilated, swallowing the darkness.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask the dog lady.
‘Yes, yes. I’m fine, Thanks. Come on, Rocky, come on. Bad dog, bad dog. We’re going home right now and you can forget your pig ears tonight.’ She pulls the dog away and smacks him with her freshly printed herald. She leaves me with Arabica. I go up close to her and kneel down but she’s growling at me, scared out of her wits. The cat curls up in the corner and is blinking heavily. Before I know it she’s passed out. Crap. ‘Rabby?’ I take my jacket off and wrap her up in a bundle. I don’t know what to do with her. I take her back to the café because maybe they can help me. They’re the closest thing to her home.
‘Viggo? Where’s Viggo?’ I walk in as the crazy cat lady.
Louise is busy frothing milk but she’s able to point to the bathroom. Viggo comes out and sees me there, confused. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asks.
‘Rabby got attacked by a dog. I don’t know what to do with her.’ I show him Arabica, curled up like a cinnamon scroll.
‘Take her to the cat shelter down the road. My shift ends in twenty minutes, I’ll meet you there.’ he says.
‘Okay…’ I say. How did this become my day? I quickly pace down the street, passing the organic market and the newsagent to get to the cat shelter. I press the buzzer with the finger I can manage to get free.
‘Please, please can you help me? This cat was attacked by a dog.’ I tell the lady at the reception desk, probably wondering why I was carrying my jacket in a bundle.
‘Oh the poor thing,’ she says, taking my bundle. She’s a short, stocky lady who looks like she wrestled with a hair straightener for two hours this morning.
‘I’ll take her through straight away,’ She scoops it up, ‘Is it your cat?’ she asks.
‘No, it’s not, but it hangs out at Jabberwocky. She’s a stray.’ I say and she bustles out the back door.
She comes back in a couple of minutes with my jacket.
‘Here you go. Doesn’t look like there’s blood on it,’ she says.
‘Thanks. How’s the cat?’ I ask, putting my jacket back on, realising it has now been cat-furred.
‘Not sure. Our vet is looking at her now. She’ll do her best. So you think it goes to the café down the street?’ she asks.
‘Yes, I think so. The waiter is coming up to see her.’
‘Okay, if you could just fill in this cat admission form, just your name and number, plus the cat’s name. We’ll do our best.’
My day was long and relentless, there were copying orders coming out of my ears. Judy was again so happy with my work on her five-hundred-and-thirty-five page major development proposal and paid me back with a coffee. I can still feel the caffeine sparking in my blood five hours later. I kick off my shoes, put the kettle on for my two-minute noodles and flop down onto the mattress on the floor. Just then my phone rings in my handbag. I really, really hope it’s not the office.
‘Hi Phoebe, Its’ Hannah from the cat shelter. How are you tonight?’ she chirps.
‘Oh hi, I’m good thanks. How’s Arabica?’ I say, the words spilling from my mouth.
‘She’s doing really well. She was really malnourished and dehydrated. The vet couldn’t find a microchip so we’re pretty sure she doesn’t have an owner. We were wondering if you would consider adopting her when she’s recovered?’
‘I uh…I’m not really in a position to have a cat, I’m sorry.’
‘Oh okay. Look, that’s fine. I’m only asking because the waiter down the road did come by after you left this morning and said you seemed keen to take her because the café can’t keep offering food to her. Health and safety, you know.’
‘Oh, right. Yeah, of course,’ I say, lost for words.
‘So that’s fine, I’ll put her up for adoption then. Thanks Phoebe!’ she hangs up before I can say anything else. I stare at my phone for a moment and the screen goes dark. Hmm. I think at least Arabica will now have a proper home. I get up to pour hot water onto dehydrated noodles. My life is as exciting as choosing between chicken or oriental flavour.
The next morning I am relishing in just staring at the ceiling because it’s my day off. Not having to go anywhere or adhere to the emotionally sensitive printers and having to deal with their breakdowns and paper jams. Twenty-four hours that are completely mine. I get up eventually and go to the fridge. That mysterious block of mouldy cheese is still there. I throw it out and decide to go down to Jabberwocky for breakfast.
Breakfast at midday! I’m relishing it. I sit at a table outside under the awning. I look down at the chair where Arabica would sit and something doesn’t feel right. Viggo comes out to take my order but surprizes me by asking eagerly,
‘Phoebe! Did you take the cat?’
‘Oh…no,’ I say.
‘Oh,’ he says, deflated. ‘Well, can I get you a cap with one sugar then?’
‘Yes please.’ I say. But then more words spill out of my mouth, I hold up my hand to make him pause. ‘No, wait. Can I get the cap to go? I’m on my way to pick her up.’