The rain lets up a little bit, but I still drive slowly. The sign declaring I’m in Westmeadow is half hidden behind an overgrown bush and there’s almost enough dirt to cover the rest of it. The buildings come into view a couple of minutes later, houses first. The nicer ones, with big gardens and garages, a couple higher up on hills which show their expense in their gates and decorated fences.
Just beyond the houses starts the town centre, not that there’s much to see. A wider street, t with a shop, coupled with a post office, the police station, funeral home and The Brown Bear itself. A little bit of me thought the shop would have shut down, I remember that being the fear when I was in lower school, especially after they opened the supermarket between here and Wexgate.
There’s another building, one I’d forgotten about, between the police station and funeral home. Francine’s Cafe. I can’t believe I’d forgotten about it, chip butty and chocolate cake were my birthday treats pretty much every year. It’s still there now, I don’t believe it. The car is almost completely stopped, I’m frozen as the memories flood back.
Old Fran, that’s what Mum used to call her, died when I was a still a child. It was her daughter, Catherine, who took over the cafe. It was never much, but Mum always said the walls held memories. The last time I went in there, was the night before I turned eighteen. 2008. The place looked like something from the 1970s and hasn’t even changed now, ten years later. I pull the car up onto the curb outside the shop, between another couple of cars. They’re both newer than the one I’m driving, too new for anyone I knew from this town to own.
The inside of Fran’s hasn’t changed, it still looks decades out of date, but there is freshness to it. Someone has spent a lot of time cleaning the place up, replacing broken tiles and ripped upholstery. There’s a shine on the walls, like they had only been painted yesterday. I can see my face reflecting back at me in any of the metal chair legs. All the place mats and menus look as if they have just been printed, crisply folded out on each table. Weaving through the tables I approach the counter.
There are two people eating in the cafe, neither look up at me. I spend too long trying to figure out if I knew them either of them, heart racing, beating at my chest. There’s an elderly woman behind the counter, filling up the coffee machine. That machine is definitely new. Everything looks new, as if they replaced everything with new versions, just to keep the aesthetic.
The elderly woman looks up at me and smiles.
“Hello,” she says. “I don’t recognise you. Just passing through and want to get out the rain?”
“Something like that.”
“Well you couldn’t have picked a nicer place. It doesn’t look like much, but here at Francine’s we only serve the best. I can’t recommend our forest gateaux enough, freshly made every day. A cup of coffee to go with it?”
“Sure, that sounds nice.”
“Okay, take a seat and I’ll bring it right over.”
I’m glad I changed clothes before I got here. Not that I recognise anyone, it seems like this town has moved on with the rest of the world. It’s so neat, nothing like I remember. I remember the lights being dim, and cracks in the floor with ketchup stains filling them up. I remember the chairs being torn all over and fiddling with them to widen the holes. I remember the way the tables would rock slightly and if you put too much pressure when you stood up, everything would jump and fly off the table. Nothing like now. It’s as if someone reached in and only took the good parts of my memories and somehow made them even better.
“Here you go, sir. Anything else I can get you?”
“No. Thank you. This is more than enough.”
She places the plate down in front of me. This is new. Looks nicer than anything they used to make. I make eye contact with her as she places the cup in front of me, on top of a coaster. It’s her. Catherine. Time has moved on, fast. I can’t believe how old she looks. Still bright and full of life, but age has caught up with her.
“Catherine?” I ask, almost without thinking.
“Yes?” she asks, probably thinking I just read her name-tag.
“You still work here?”
“Huh?” she asks. “What do you mean?”
For a second her nice appearance fades and I see the old Catherine, the one that used to shout at me when I spoke to loudly or walked muddy footprints though the place. Everything changes in a second without warning. Her smile reappears, as if she’s a puppet and someone just pulled a string.
“Do I know you?” she asks with the cheeriness back in her voice.
“Yes, it’s me. Christian Hopkins. It’s been quite a while.”
“Little Hopkins?” she smiles. “As I live and breathe. I can’t believe it. Is it really you? You’ve grown up into quite a bit, I can see that.”
“Yes, it’s been a while. I didn’t recognise you straight away. The place looks a lot better now, really fixed the place up.”
“It took a while, but I managed it. Everything is good now. Everything is better.”
“I can see that.”
“So, what brings you back into town?”
“Just passing through. Thought I would drive through and take a look around the old place.”
“I remember you disappearing. It was the talk of the town, but that was then. Things are better now. How are you? Is life treating you well?”
“I can’t complain. I’m a writer now.”
“You always had a good imagination.”
“No, not like that. I could never actually sit down and just write, no I’m a journalist. For a website.”
“That’s nice. But there aren’t any stories around here. Everything is good here.”
“I can imagine, not many things change. The whole town looks better though, cleaner, almost brighter.”
“Yes. Everything is better now.”
“Yeah, you said.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll let you eat, it’s on the house.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pay.”
“No need, also I’m very sorry about your father. He was a good man. Always had a smile on his face. It was a sad day indeed. The whole town felt it.”
“What?” I asked, my heart stopping for a second. Each beat echoing throughout my body as a heat builds up and rushes through me.
“Your dad, dear. I thought someone would have reached out. I’m sorry. It’s not good for you to find out like this, but don’t be upset. He led a good life and he passed away peacefully with his wife by his side. About a year ago. Nothing is bad about that. Sad, maybe, but at least he lived a good life.”
“Are you talking about my Dad? David Hopkins?”
“Yes, dear. Your father.”
“He got remarried?”
“Yes, about five years ago. It was a good wedding. I held the reception here, myself.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“I’m sorry that you found out like this. He was a good man.”
“No, he wasn’t. He really wasn’t.”
“He was a good man. I can assure you that. He may have had his flaws, lord knows we all do, but he wasn’t a monster. He was a good father, and a good husband.”
“I should be the judge of that.”
“I suppose you should be dear, but the way I see it, you seem to be a good young man and his other son, Jonathan is a fine young lad.”
“Yes. Jonathan, he’s about four years old. A nice littlun.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“I can imagine it’s difficult, dear, but life does move on. It’s been a long time since you left. It’s a shame you didn’t get to say goodbye, but don’t be upset. He loved you, I can assure you that.”
I didn’t feel like arguing with her or telling her about how my Godlike father used to hit my mother. Or how he used to get drunk and forget to make me dinner. Or how he didn’t once reach out to me when I left for University even though he knew exactly which one I went too. He wasn’t a good man, and some stranger isn’t going to tell me otherwise.
“I’ll let you eat this, honestly don’t worry about the bill. I’ll cover it. Let me know if you want a refill.”
“Thanks,” I say, without really meaning it.
I wasn’t going to offer to pay now, not after that bombshell. That’s a crappy thing to do. It’s not her fault, she wasn’t doing anything wrong. I still don’t want to pay though. She knew what was going on back then, everyone must have known. It was behind closed doors, but it’s a small town and people talk. Neighbours must have heard, and rumours would have been spread.
He wasn’t a good man, I don’t care what she says. I shove a load of the cake into my mouth not really enjoying it. Just eating to do something, anything. I don’t want to cause a scene. I’m not a child any more, I just want to eat this and leave. I’m not going to pay for it, and that’s okay. She said don’t worry, and that’s the end of it. I can’t believe he got remarried, and he had another kid. I can’t believe that. One wasn’t enough to mess up. I really don’t feel like eating any more.
I take a mouthful of the coffee and leave without looking at any one else in the cafe. Back in the car I lean on the steering wheel, eyes closed and holding back tears. Too much to think about right now, Dad’s dead, I have a brother. A four-year-old. Jesus. What the hell happened? I expected my Dad to move on, but not quite like this. He wasn’t supposed to die without me speaking to him first. He wasn’t supposed to die at all.
Two in the afternoon. Still got a couple of hours before I need to get to Wexgate. This is crap. Screw Casey for doing this to me. I didn’t want to come, and now everything’s different. I could have lived the rest of my life knowing he was out there somewhere, never needing reassurance that he was already dead. I didn’t need to know. Screw her. She didn’t need to send me. I know there’s no story here. It’s a small town, and it seems to be a lot nicer than when I left. Maybe that’s the story. The people look after the town and not many want to commit suicide, you know that could be true. Not everything needs writing about.
I punch the steering wheel a couple of times, instantly regretting it. As the sting swells through my fist, I wipe my eyes with my other hand. This is stupid. I knew he was going to die at some point. I don’t care. He wasn’t a good man. I’m glad this other one gets to grow up without that in his life. Good for him if he was good dad for those few years, at least he doesn’t have time to snap and go back to his normal self.
To be continued…