Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Starry Skies Over The Chocolate Pot Café’ by Jessica Redland.
Starry Skies Over The Chocolate Pot Café
A few minutes of courage might change your life
A rattling of metal stirred me from my sleep. Rolling onto my back, I lay still for a minute or two, steadily transitioning from the world of dreams into the world of reality.
The rattling started again and I smiled. ‘I can hear you, Hercules. I’m on my way.’
My two-year-old Flemish Giant house rabbit was more effective than any alarm clock I’d ever owned. At 6 a.m. every morning, without fail, he nudged the door of the huge dog crate where he slept at night and kept rattling it until I got up and let him out.
Peeling back the duvet, I paused for a moment and my stomach sank as I registered what day it was: Christmas Eve. Great. Sighing, I pulled on my slippers and a fleecy top, then made my way to the crate.
Hercules wiggled his scut as soon as he spotted me, just like a dog wagging its tail. I swear he identified as dog rather than rabbit. The moment I opened the door, he bounded out of his crate for cuddles, then followed me into the bathroom, eager for more attention. It wouldn’t surprise me if, one morning, he rolled onto his back so I could tickle his belly.
After I’d put some fresh food and water out for him, I took a shower, the powerful flow helping to ease the tension in my shoulders. It was nearly over. There was just today to get through, then tomorrow, then Christmas was done for another year. Of course, I wasn’t out of the woods at that point. There was still New Year’s Eve to face – the worst day of all – but one step at a time. One difficult step at a time.
Christmas Eve used to be my favourite day of the year. Even as a child, I preferred it to Christmas Day. My dad pulled out all the stops to make Christmas Eve exciting and magical. In the morning, our house would be filled with the tantalising aroma of gingerbread as the pair of us mixed the dough then rolled out the shapes needed for our construction project. When the gingerbread was ready, we’d build and ice a house and Mum would help me decorate it with sweets. Sometimes she only had the energy to manage a few minutes up at the table but even the smallest amount of time meant the world to me.
Dad and I would spend the rest of the day making Christmas crafts while seasonal music played. When dusk fell, we’d wrap up warmly and wander up and down the local streets, looking for the best-decorated house. I’d take a notepad and felt-tip pen with me and we’d award scores out of ten for how pretty they were. The winner was treated to a home-made congratulations card and a bar of chocolate through their letterbox ‘from Santa’s Elves for the prettiest house ever’.
As bedtime approached, Dad and I would go outside and bang a wooden ‘Santa stop here’ sign into the middle of the front lawn – or into the flowerbed if there’d been a heavy frost – while Mum made hot chocolate with marshmallows.
We’d each open a Christmas box containing a book, new PJs, a pair of slippers and, in my box, a teddy bear. Wearing our new gifts, we’d finally watch a family Christmas film – just the three of us plus my new teddy – snuggled on the sofa together. Perfect.
‘So, my little Pollyanna,’ Dad would say as we prepared drinks and snacks for Santa and the reindeer after the film, ‘do you think Father Christmas will remember to visit this year?’
I always giggled when he called me Pollyanna, after the main character in the children’s book of the same name. ‘My name’s not Pollyanna. It’s Tamara.’
‘But you’re just like Pollyanna, aren’t you? A little ray of sunshine and positivity in our lives.’
Then he’d hug me tightly and tell me how much he and Mum loved me and how lucky they were to have me, especially when ‘the black cloak’ wrapped itself round Mum and she struggled to see the sunshine through the darkness.
‘Promise me you’ll always be like Pollyanna,’ he’d say.
And it wasn’t hard back then, despite Mum’s situation. An eternal optimist, just like Pollyanna, I could find the good in anyone and any situation, no matter how dire. I believed in the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas. I believed that friends and family were people who loved you unconditionally and would never hurt you. I believed that people were good and told the truth.
As the years passed and my life changed beyond all recognition, I still tried to be Pollyanna every day. I tried so hard to keep my promise to Dad. I believed that ‘the black cloak’ would lift from Mum like it had done on The Best Day Ever. I believed that I’d leave foster care one day and be reunited with Mum again. And I believed that all my foster families genuinely cared about me and had my best interests at heart, especially my foster sister Leanne.
But it turns out that not all people are good, they don’t tell the truth, and they don’t care who they hurt or how they do it.
I stared at the array of bright-coloured polo shirts – my work uniform – hanging in my wardrobe like a rainbow.
‘I suppose I should show willing and go for the festive red today, shouldn’t I?’ I said to Hercules. ‘One nose twitch for no, two for yes.’
Bending down, I gave his soft ears a stroke, then pulled on my jeans and red polo shirt before making my way down two flights of stairs and through the internal door at the back of The Chocolate Pot, a café I’d set up in the summer, thirteen years ago when I was twenty-two.
Switching on the lights, I paused and smiled as I looked round. My café. My home. Every time I stepped through the door, I couldn’t help feeling a swell of pride at what I’d achieved.
An eclectic mix of mismatched wooden tables of varying sizes were flanked by wooden chairs, padded benches or high-backed leather armchairs. The combination of wood, colour and lighting created a warm and inviting ambience. The soft cream walls were a sea of colour courtesy of a large collection of vintage metal signs. Some signs advertised cakes, coffee and milkshakes, and others represented the seaside: boats, beach huts and, my personal favourite, a red-and-white striped lighthouse just like the one down in Whitsborough Bay harbour. Just like the ones Mum used to paint.
As I passed each pillar on my way towards the serving counter and the kitchen, I flicked on the red and white fairy lights wrapped round them. It was nowhere near opening time but there was no harm in making the place look pretty already. Despite dreading Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I still loved the lights and decorations, and thrived on the buzz of excitement that surrounded Christmas. Plus, of course, it was a hugely profitable time of year with fraught shoppers keen for sustenance. The tips were generous too and my team worked hard so they definitely deserved them.
I switched on the multi-coloured lights draped round the slimline tree in the corner between the counter and the window and paused to turn a couple of the decorations which were facing the wrong way. I’d gone for a nautical theme this year with sailing boats made from driftwood with material sails, glittery seashells and starfish, clear glass baubles filled with sand and shells, and brightly coloured fabric and felt beach huts. Every year, we received compliments galore about the unique Christmas decorations in The Chocolate Pot. I’d casually thank the customers and tell them that everything was made in North Yorkshire and available from ‘The Cobbly Crafter’ on Etsy. It was the truth. After all, they were available from Etsy if anyone wanted to buy them – I just failed to mention that ‘The Cobbly Crafter’ was me. There was no need for anyone – staff or customers – to know that crafting was a huge passion of mine. There was no need for anyone to know anything about me outside of work. I let them see what I wanted them to see: a successful entrepreneur, an excellent chef, and a fair boss who stood for no nonsense. When you let people in – fully in – they have a habit of letting you down, so it’s easier to keep them at arm’s length. That way, they won’t break your heart. I’d learned that lesson the hard way.
Behind the counter, I switched the coffee machine on, then headed into the kitchen to start baking. As a child, Dad had ignited a spark of passion in me for baking that had never burned out, no matter what life had thrown at me. Although the gingerbread house had been his Christmas Eve speciality, his skills in the kitchen hadn’t ended there. His grandparents had owned a bakery and he’d loved spending his weekends helping out. I tried not to think about how different things could have been if they hadn’t retired and sold the bakery while he was still at school, sending him down a completely different career path; one that took him away from me.
Dad and I baked something together most weekends and he always turned it into an adventure, talking in hushed tones about ‘secret recipes’ and ‘magical ingredients’. I relished the ninety minutes or so of peace and solitude each morning when I had the kitchen all to myself and often imagined Dad by my side, a finger pressed to his lips as he glanced furtively towards the door before adding something ‘special’ into the mixture.
With a name like The Chocolate Pot, it probably isn’t a surprise that our speciality is anything chocolate-related. As well as a good range of teas and coffees, we serve a variety of hot chocolates, changing flavours with the season and trends. There’s always a speciality chocolate cake of the day, a flavoured chocolate brownie, a regular brownie, and various other baked goods, all freshly made on the premises. Vegan? Gluten-free? We have something to suit everyone.
Monday to Saturday, the café opened at half eight to catch the pre-work takeaway trade. On a Sunday, like today, we opened at ten. I didn’t normally work on Sundays other than to bake first thing but, with Christmas Eve being one of our busiest days of the year, there was no way I was going to stay upstairs when my team would be rushed off their feet.
Maria, my assistant manager, arrived at about 9.20 a.m., just as I was taking the brownies out the oven.
‘Morning, Tara! Do I smell cinnamon?’ she asked, sniffing the air as she stepped into the kitchen. ‘Or is it gingerbread?’
‘Both. Cinnamon and gingerbread brownies.’ I placed the traybake down on top of the oven. ‘I made some gingerbread reindeers and snowmen last night which I’ve iced this morning, and there’s a sticky ginger cake baking.’
‘I’m salivating,’ Maria said. ‘I’ll dump my stuff upstairs, then give you a hand.’
The first floor acted as an overspill café on busy days and had the potential to be used as a function room. There were additional toilets upstairs and a small staffroom.
Listening to Maria running up the stairs moments later, I took a deep breath. It was hard to believe that this was going to be my twenty-seventh Christmas without my parents, and my fourteenth completely on my own. Where did the years go?
The buzzer on the oven signalled that the sticky ginger cake was ready, providing a welcome refocus away from reminiscing. I’d be fine. The day was going to whizz by, especially if the nonstop craziness of yesterday was anything to go by. After that, I could retreat to the flat where Hercules and I would pretend it was just a regular weekend.
* * *
Maria’s best friend, Callie, appeared around mid-afternoon with a buggy, a toddler, and Maria’s five-year-old daughter, Sofia, who immediately leapt into my arms for a hug.
‘Hi, Tara,’ Callie said, looking frazzled as she blew her fringe out of her eyes. ‘Any chance of a table?’
‘You’re in luck,’ I said, smiling as Sofia pressed her soft, cold cheek against mine. ‘It’s barely stopped all day but that table opposite has just come free. Would you like that one, Sofia?’
‘Can I have the pink chair?’
‘You certainly can. Let me put you down so I can clear the plates.’
Sofia immediately clambered onto her chosen chair. As I cleared and wiped the table, I watched Callie with admiration as she simultaneously parked the buggy containing her sleeping baby son, Tyler, and removed a coat from her two-year-old Esme.
‘Are you excited about Santa coming tonight?’ I asked Sofia.
She nodded. ‘And it’s my birthday on Friday. I’ll be six.’
‘I know. That’s two lots of presents to open. What have you asked Santa for?’
Sofia looked up at me, eyes wide, face solemn. ‘For Mummy and Marc to get married so George can be my brother. And George has asked for the same so Santa will make it happen, won’t he? I want a proper family.’
‘I’m sure he’ll do his best,’ I said, swallowing hard on the lump in my throat. A family? As a youngster, how many times had I been asked what I wanted for Christmas and been unable to give an honest answer? I’d politely asked for some art or craft supplies when all I really wanted was the one thing Santa could never bring me – my parents.
A queue for tables had formed again and I reassured the customers that there wouldn’t be a long wait. Nobody seemed to mind and it filled me with joy to hear them saying the amazing food and great service was definitely worth it.
All day, The Chocolate Pot was filled with excited chatter and laughter – exactly how I loved it. Judging by the piles of bags everyone seemed to be carrying, it looked like they’d all left their Christmas shopping until last minute.
I gazed wistfully at a group of women exchanging gifts. I hadn’t purchased a Christmas present for anyone or received a gift in return for well over a decade. In fact, I hadn’t received a gift of any kind in all that time. I insisted the team didn’t buy me anything for Christmas and nobody in Whitsborough Bay knew when my birthday was because, like Christmas and New Year, it was no cause for celebration. After what happened on the weekend of my twenty-second birthday, the day meant nothing to me. Just like the people who’d ruined it.
When Sofia appeared at the counter to pick which gingerbread snowman she wanted, my thoughts turned to her Christmas wish for a family. How long had Maria and Marc been seeing each other? It had to be at least two years. Maria had been damaged by a very toxic relationship with Sofia’s father, Tony, and Marc’s wife had left him for another man when George was a baby so neither of them had been looking for love. Sofia and George had other ideas. Best buddies at the same nursery school, they kept nagging for playdates. Eventually Maria caved and arranged to meet Marc and George at The Chocolate Pot one Saturday. I recalled looking across at the four of them chatting and laughing and marvelling at how Maria and Marc had only just met yet they already looked like the perfect family. I therefore wasn’t surprised when the playdates turned into proper dates. I also remembered thinking how lucky Maria was. Tony had treated her so badly yet she’d managed to push the hurt aside and move on; something I’d never been able to do.
‘I hope Santa brings you and George everything you’ve asked for,’ I said to Sofia, placing her snowman on a pink plate and handing it to her. ‘I’ll wish for it too, should I?’
‘Ooh, yes please,’ she gushed, giving me the biggest smile ever.
I watched her returning to the table with her snowman in one hand and the plate in the other. Yes, I’d wish for a happy ever after for Maria and Marc. And try not to think about how I would never have mine.
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