Back in 1992, almost twenty years ago to the day, coffee and café culture was almost unknown in Great Britain.
When you ordered a coffee, it was typically one type – percolated (aka filter) – and often served in a mug, rather than a cup. In the “greasy spoons” – which is the collective name for those little establishments that serve little more than a full English breakfast of bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms, toast and either fried or scrambled eggs – it was an alternative to a mug of tea and instant, generally Nescafé.
The former was the case with the café I ended up frequenting, but the friendly ladies running it somehow served in a way that made the coffee and the mug hold just the right level of warmth for me – even without it being a latte, cappuccino or “flat white” (as is now popular).
I think the experience was tinged by the fact that my return to England was not an easy one, as my mother had contracted a terminal illness called multiple myelloma in the year before – and so I had spent four months back in my native New Zealand watching her fade away, starved of oxygen by the inability of the red blood corpuscles being able to reproduce (as this is what this vicious form of cancer does).
Grief had left me feeling numb at first – and I later understood that this is typical, but for some reason I took comfort in going to this little café just off the market in Dartford.
The café is (or was?) a place where elderly ladies – or middle-aged mums and their grown-up daughters – met for morning or afternoon tea, and drank tea out of nice china cups along with nicely cut sandwiches or freshly made cake to go with it. Yet it did a great cup of filter coffee too, and the best scones with strawberry jam and double cream. It was a new girlfriend of mine, who worked as the Market Officer on the Dartford Market, who had introduced me to it – and so became the place we met on Saturdays after she did her work.
Thinking back on it now, I think it was as much the comfort of seeing “the blue rinse set” enjoying their outing together that I remember and somehow liked about going there – as I had somehow managed to miss that time of my mother’s life, although she was only 70 when she died, as I had spent 5 or more years working and travelling (and oblivious to her getting older, perhaps down to me having been the child she had had in her forties and so used to her always being older than other mums).
Now I am back here again, in old Blighty – twenty years later – I must go back to that café and see if it is still there, perhaps even down to posting photographs of it in an update to this blog post, and with a view to seeing what it was that made it stick in my mind as being a place to include on the list of cafés on my quest.
Certainly it seemed to sum up the classically twee tea shop, yet somehow be curiously comforting to me in my early stages of grieving. I wonder if anyone else has had this kind of experience with what would otherwise be “just an ordinary café”.