The Heartbreak Cafe, page 1part #1 of Lakeview Series
The Heartbreak Café
Copyright 2010 by Melissa Hill
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Disclaimer: The persons, places, things, and otherwise animate or inanimate objects mentioned in this novel are figments of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to anything or anyone living (or dead) is unintentional.
‘To be honest, the first thing that crossed my mind was that it must be my doughnut delivery,’ Ella began. ‘Or a delivery of some kind – it isn’t unusual to find fresh stock on the doorstep of the café so early in the morning.’
‘What time was it exactly?’
‘Well, let me think,’ she replied, pausing for a moment. ‘The milk is usually dropped off around five, a good two hours before I open up, and my usual half a dozen litres was tucked away to the left of the doorway. But the box was right in front of the door, making it impossible for me to miss.’
‘I was a bit annoyed actually, and was thinking I was going to give the wholesaler a piece of my mind for not letting me know they’d be delivering outside opening hours,’ she continued, her tone measured. ‘And then, just as I was about to open the box to see if they were indeed the culprits, I heard … well some kind of sound coming from it.’
‘A sort of whine, I suppose? Very weak, like from a small animal, or something. Of course, straight away I thought; here we go, another wretched creature to add to the family.’
‘You thought that someone who knows you take in strays was leaving another one for you?’
‘Exactly. Everyone here in Lakeview knows what I’m like and that I can’t say no.’ She smiled a little. ‘But then I thought, well, at least this one was coming with a readymade name. So I reached inside, already deciding that if it was a cat, dog, hamster or whatever that I would call it Doughnut.’ She shook her head. ‘But when I pulled back the folds and discovered exactly what I’d been landed with this time, I got the biggest shock of my life.’
Ella was quiet for a moment, as the impact of her words began to sink in.
‘And what did you do then?’
‘Well, I called the guards of course … Frank was here within a couple of minutes, the police station is only walking distance but he took the car anyway. And I rang Jim Kelly too.’
‘The local GP.’‘
‘Yes. An ambulance too just in case, although the box looked well insulated and there were plenty of blankets. Still I thought it best to be sure.’
‘Sounds like you were very clear-headed about it.’
‘Not at all,’ she protested, sounding a little nervous. ‘Truth be told I was in complete shock. It was only when the ambulance left and Doctor Kelly told us that vitals looked good and there were no signs of hypothermia that I managed to relax a little. As I said, I doubted the box was there that long – and we all agreed that whoever left it must have been acquainted with my routine.’
‘No excuse though, is it? I mean, what kind of person would dump a newborn baby in a cardboard box on the side of the street in the freezing cold?’
‘I know, and Frank suggested that maybe the mother was hiding nearby, keeping an eye out, waiting for me to show up. To be honest, I was so taken aback that I didn’t think to look.’
‘He reckoned that it was most likely a misunderstanding of some kind and that he’d have it all sorted out in no time. He said to me “Ella, for what it’s worth, I think leaving it outside your place was intentional because if there’s one person in this village who’d know exactly what to do it’s you. You’re great with kids and sure aren’t you always taking in strays? This place isn’t nicknamed The Heartbreak Café for nothing.” She shook her head sadly. ‘And while I agreed with him, I just thought that this was a lot more than a miserable old mongrel – it was a poor innocent little baby. And not only that, but this is a small town, a small community where people look out for each other – not some anonymous city.’
‘I know what you mean.’
‘So I had very little sympathy, and as far as I was concerned there’s nothing – absolutely no reason in the world that could justify abandoning a poor defenceless baby on the street. But,’ Ella added with a heavy sigh, ‘I suppose it’s all too easy to play judge and jury until you know the whole story.’
Nina Hughes had never liked Lakeview and this time was certain she’d like it even less. She sorely wished that her mother had picked another time to go travelling the world with her stepfather, especially when Nina really needed a shoulder to cry on – or more importantly, a place to stay. After all that had happened with Steve, she couldn’t stay in Galway and run the risk of bumping into him; it was a small city after all. Instead, she needed to get away and be somewhere she could clear her head. Even so, she couldn’t believe that she’d been reduced to asking her father if she could stay with him.
But she’d had little choice. While normally she could just return to Dublin and move back in with her mum for a while until she got herself sorted, her mother and Tony were currently travelling, and had rented their house out for the six months they’d be away. So instead, she’d decided to ask Patrick if she could come and stay in Lakeview. It would only be for a while, at least until she got her head together and figured out what she should do next.
Feeling like a silly teenager, and not at all like the mature, self-assured thirty-year old she was, Nina had phoned a few days before to ask if he could put her up.
‘OK, Nina.’ Her father had said in his usual calm, disinterested way, and she guessed that he hadn’t changed much in the eight years or so since she’d had anything to do with him. Her mum used to force her on duty visits when she was younger, although in all honesty, Nina felt that Patrick didn’t care one way or another whether or not he got to see his only daughter.
Her parents split up when she was a child, and Nina couldn’t understand how they’d ever got together in the first place, as her quiet, stern father was the total opposite to her bright and bubbly mum. Probably because they’d both grown up in the same small town – although Lakeview was more of a village really.
And while Cathy her mother, had never admitted as much, Nina suspected that her conception hadn’t exactly been planned, and that her parents’ marriage was less of the romantic and more of the shotgun variety. But that didn’t bother her; her mum was now blissfully happy in Dublin with Tony (who was more of a father to Nina than Patrick had ever been) and while she’d endured the odd childhood weekend down in Lakeview, once she hit her mid-teens she’d put her foot down and stopped going altogether. If this bothered her father he’d never let on, and in all honesty, Nina didn’t particularly care. She didn’t know the guy, had never known him really, and it was mere desperation that was forcing her to stay with him now.
She wondered if he was still obsessed with collecting and fixing things. Patrick patiently taking apart and fixing TV sets, radios – anything electronic, and rambling on to her about them was probably her most enduring memory of her childhoo
‘Patrick is a kind and very generous man,’ her mother would repeatedly tell her, determined never to say a bad word against him, which Nina suspected was mostly borne out of guilt for leaving him and taking away his daughter. ‘Even after we separated, he never let me want for anything as far as you’re concerned.’
Which Nina supposed was honourable given the fact that she knew Patrick had no interest in her whatsoever. She was always just this annoying kid who turned up now and again to mess up his pristine house and orderly way of life. And boy was her father orderly. Back then, he used to rise at seven am on the dot (even at weekends), go out to the local newsagents, after which he’d read the morning paper over a breakfast of tea (with two sugars) and of fried eggs and bacon with toast. Nina recalled one time in a childish attempt to please him she’d overdone the toast and he’d gone ballistic. Not angry as such, just a quiet, barely controlled annoyance, which to a ten-year old was somehow even scarier. Nina had never again attempted to make him breakfast after that.
Now as the bus approached the outskirts of Lakeview, she wondered if anything had changed. The popular tourist village – centred round a broad oxbow lake from which it took its name – was very pretty certainly. The lake, surrounded by low-hanging beech and willow trees, wound its way around the centre and a small humpback stone bridge joined all sides of the township together.
But it was the cobbled streets and ornate lanterns on Main Street, as well as the beautiful one-hundred-year-old artisan cottages decorated with hanging floral baskets, that were the true attraction here.
Because of its picturesque beauty, the village had long ago been designated heritage status by the Irish Tourist Board, so the chocolate-box look and feel of the place was intentionally well preserved.
As for changes Nina noted, well there were certainly a lot more houses anyway; newer more ostentatious ones on the outskirts, the kind that city types moving to the country built trying to prove to their friends that they were living the good life, when in reality most of them were probably desperate to escape back to Dublin. Humongous bedrooms, huge gardens and outdoor hot-tubs would never be enough to mask the dreary realities of small town living, at least not as far as she was concerned.
Nope Lakeview was a temporary stop, an emergency stop almost, and as soon as she’d got her head together, she’d be out of here quick as you like.
She got off on Main Street at the bus stop nearest the lake, outside that café that had been there for donkeys years, the Heartbreak Café the locals used to jokingly refer to it – supposedly due to the fact that it was a long-time favourite haunt in which to get dumped. She wondered if that older woman who collected all the stray animals still ran the place. Ella, wasn’t it? What was it with this place and collecting things? Although that was unfair really, Ella had always been very nice to Nina, cottoning on to the fact that she was usually there against her will. Or perhaps she just sympathised with the fact that Nina’s dad never really had much time for her.
Putting her backpack over her shoulders, she walked along the lake and headed out across the old stone bridge that led in the direction of her father’s house.
She’d told him on the phone that she’d be there around six.
‘That’ll be dinnertime. Do you want me to make extra?’ he asked.
Nina hesitated. ‘What are you having?’
‘Bacon and cabbage,’ he told her and again, she couldn’t help but shake her head in amazement. How could she have forgotten? Pork chops on Mondays, steak on Tuesdays, and bacon and cabbage on Wednesdays… Patrick Hughes had cooked these same dishes without fail on the same days all that time ago, and now years later was still doing the same.
And once again Nina wondered what on earth she had let herself in for.
‘Hello Nina,’ Patrick said somewhat distractedly when she reached the house a little after six. He stood back as she came through the doorway.
‘Hi Dad, how are you?’ She didn’t attempt to hug or embrace him; theirs was not a hugging sort of relationship, but she did feel slightly put out by her father’s almost casual indifference to her appearance after so long. There was no great welcome, or no sense of enthusiasm or interest in her visit.
OK, perhaps it had been her own choice not to visit for so long, but it still bothered her to think that her father had never once of his own accord tried to spend time with her either. She’d also hoped he might notice an improvement in her since the last time he’d seen her – she’d lost over a stone in weight and her previously short dark hair now reached well below her shoulders. But if Patrick noticed any changes in her, he didn’t mention it.
‘I’m fine, thanks. I was just having dinner. I made some for you, but it might be a bit cold now,’ he told her and Nina immediately identified the root of his agitation. She’d told Patrick that she’d be here around six and it was now quarter past. She was late.
‘The bus just dropped me off down town, I thought I’d be earlier….’ Then her voice trailed off as she wondered why she felt the need to explain herself like this. It wasn’t as though she was ten years old anymore. And she was ten minutes late, so what was the big deal? ‘I hope you went ahead and had yours; there was no need to wait for me and if it’s cold, I can always stick it in the microwave.’
But she knew there was no question of her father waiting for her arrival before he ate his evening meal; as usual, he would eat without fail in front of the six o’clock news and a visit from the daughter he hadn’t seen in years would hardly change that.
‘I was just watching the news,’ he said, confirming her suspicions, and Nina inwardly rolled her eyes.
She followed him into the living room, which hadn’t changed a bit since the last time she was here, and dropped her bag on the sofa. Almost immediately, Patrick shot the backpack an agitated look.
‘I made up your old room,’ he said, which to Nina suggested that she should stow it away upstairs rather than mess up his nice tidy, living room.
‘Thanks, I’ll unpack after I’ve had dinner if that’s OK – I’m a bit tired after the bus journey.’ Again Nina hated the way she always felt so awkward and ill at ease around him.
‘That’s fine,’ he said non-committally as if she’d just told him she didn’t want sugar in her tea. No offers to help her with her things or questions about the journey, just Patrick’s typical disinterested response, before he sat down in his armchair to watch the TV.
Going into the kitchen (which also hadn’t changed) Nina recalled exactly why she’d stopped visiting her father all that time ago. His constant lack of interest and almost downright indifference to her was frustrating, and actually quite hurtful. She was in a fix, her heart had been broken into a million pieces and like always, her father just didn’t want to know.
Couldn’t he at least pretend to be curious as to why she’d turned up at his doorstep after all this time? Or was he so uninterested in her that he couldn’t care less either way? He really was the complete opposite of her loving, kind-hearted mother, who Nina knew was beside herself with remorse for being so far away at such a difficult time.
OK, so she hadn’t particularly expected Patrick to welcome her home with open arms and a box of Kleenex, but surely a simple enquiry about her well-being wasn’t too much to ask?
Nina put the plate of food he’d prepared for her into the microwave, and while she waited for it to heat up, she looked around and marvelled at her father’s fastidiousness. Despite having prepared dinner, the kitchen was meticulous and there was no sign of food preparation anywhere. Pots, pans and cooking utensils were already rinsed out and neatly stacked in a pile ready to be washed, and there wasn’t a drop of liquid or trace debris on any surface.
She recalled how her father had always cleaned and tidied as he went, instead of leaving piles of food packaging and vegetable peels on every surface like her mother did. At dinnertime, her mother’s kitchen always looked like a bomb had hit it, the complete opposite of this calm, pristine space over which Patrick presided.
The microwave pinged and Nina reluctantly took her plate into the living room to join her father in front of the TV.
‘This is lovely,’ she commented, as she ate the boringly old-fashioned dish he was so fond of, although the bacon was quite nice.
But her father just gave a distracted nod in response. OK, so he was watching the news and probably didn’t want to get involved in inane small talk until it was over, but couldn’t the world’s depressing problems wait for one day?
‘Did you get the kitchen units changed since I was here last?’ she piped up again, more out of politeness than anything else, as she knew well Patrick hadn’t done a thing to the house in years.
‘I’m not sure,’ he replied, thinking seriously about it. ‘When were you here last?’
‘Eight years,’ she said, intentionally ramming the point home that as she hadn’t been here in so long, the least he could have done was got the welcome wagons out.
But Patrick seemed oblivious. ‘No,’ he answered definitively, ‘they haven’t been changed since then.’ With that, he picked up the remote control and rudely turned up the TV volume. End of conversation.
Right. So much for her opening gambits, Nina thought. Still, she was determined to make the effort even if he wasn’t. ‘The garden looks well at this time of year with all the roses in full bloom, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes it does.’
‘I noticed on the bus that there are lots of new houses on the way in. I suppose the town is full of blow-ins now,’ she added jokingly, but her father obviously didn’t get the joke or just wasn’t interested, as again he just nodded impassively and continued watching TV.