The ritual would always begin at 5pm and take exactly five minutes. Molly would signal to her co-workers that she was getting ready to leave by sighing loudly and saying,
‘Right.’ She’d take her mug to the kitchen, wash and dry it, before returning it to its space next to the metal pen pot on her desk. She’d power down her ancient desktop computer and prepare for the polite small talk that was required before she could leave. As she gathered her lunchbox, her note pad, her phone, she’d take a weary breath.
‘I think that’s me then.’
‘You had enough?’ They said this every day.
‘Yep, I’ll be back for more tomorrow though,’ she said on Wednesday,
‘Yep, I think I’ve earned my keep for today!’ she said on Thursday,
‘Yep, it’s been a long week,’ she said on Friday. She would allow space for talk of who would be on The One Show that evening, questions about whether she would be watching, answers for what to do if Karen called about the posters for next weeks’ health fair. Then she could finally leave, with everyone satisfied and reassured. Always the need for ritual.
This was usually over by 5.05pm. 5.10pm at the very latest. Which would provide more than enough time for Molly to walk to the bus stop, catch the number 50, hopefully with a window seat, and get off three stops early so that she could make her Monday visit to the Wilderness Café.
Today, Molly does not know how significant 6.56pm will be. Her routine will be disrupted, but with good reason. At 5.00pm Molly had begun the dance. She sighed, grabbed her mug, walked to the kitchen to carefully wash and dry it. Only today as she walked back to her desk, there had stood Geoff, from Finance.
‘Molly, I’m so sorry to do this but we have an urgent change to the annual report proofs. One of the figures is incorrect and we can’t let it go to print.’ He saw that Molly had returned from the kitchen with an empty, very clean mug, and realised that she had started the ‘end of day process’.
‘I’m sorry are you about to leave? I’m not sure this can wait, didn’t you say that it needs to be finalised by 9am tomorrow?’
Molly smiled, if you’d looked closely, you would have noticed the tension, because this smile was stretched a little too tightly at the edges.
‘It’s okay, I can drop them an email, then I’ll give them a phone call to make sure they’ve got the amendments. Have you got them there?’ She looked at the florescent yellow post-it note clutched in Geoff’s hand.
‘Yes, thanks, Molly.’
By the time the email was sent, and the phone call made, it was 5.55pm. Molly missed her usual bus and had to get a later one which was crowded and meant she didn’t get a seat.
When she finally reaches The Wilderness Café it is 6.30pm. The café is another ritual, a Monday evening treat to set the week off right. It smells of cinnamon and warm bread. Molly always orders a chai tea with oat milk and eats warm, soft, homemade honey cake which sticks to the roof of her mouth and presses against the back of her throat in a way that is both comforting and slightly terrifying. On Wednesday evenings she sits here and pretends to read her Marian Keyes novel but she is really just thinking, not about anything in particular, but she sits in the warmth and doesn’t have to navigate awkward silences or using the right amount of eye contact or at which point to smile appropriately at a tedious story.
Today it is quieter than usual, and Molly is able to get her tea and her honey cake quickly. She turns to go to her usual seat, a table with two wooden chairs in a little corner, next to a bookcase and shielded from the windows of the glass fronted café so that she can see who comes in through the door. It is perfect because she can remain unseen, avoid bumping into anyone she may know, anyone who could sneak up on her and disturb her peace. Only today in this spot sits, Ted. Molly does not know Ted. He is 56 and just back from visiting his mother, Grace, who has been unwell with a cold for a few days. He has been in the area many times, but never stopped off at this café before, even though he has always meant to. Today as he had walked past, he had smelled the whiff of cinnamon rolls, his favourite, and decided that today he would drop in. So, here is Ted. Sitting in Molly’s nook, debating with himself over whether he can afford to take a cinnamon roll home for his wife.
Molly is annoyed that Ted has taken her spot. She knows that she is bring irrational, that it really isn’t her spot, that she has no entitlement to it at all, and yet she can’t stop herself from tutting, glaring at Ted’s back before scanning the small, cluttered room for another place to sit. The café is a community space, before it was a café it was a bookstore and it still feels, to Molly, like a space that is not quite what it should be. The chairs and tables are second hand, scuffed and dented. They don’t match each other or the décor of the place but she has to admit that this forcing together of odds and ends brings with it a certain charm. There are bookshelves, stuffed with not only books, but trinkets and figurines, boardgames, and puzzles.
The counter, which sits directly opposite the front door is small and cluttered. It is piled high with homemade scones and pastries, cakes stuffed with juicy sultanas, cakes with frosting and jam. Next to the coffee machine, behind the till and against the back wall, sit mismatched teacups and saucers. Some gold rimmed, some with delicate floral patterns, all spotlessly clean and chip-free but obviously sourced from car boot sales and early morning Saturday markets.
Molly is not looking at these things, she is trying to work out where she should position herself. There is an empty table at the front of the café, just to the left of the front door, right in the corner where the glass front meets the interior wall of the café. A small table, with only one chair, far enough away from the door so that she won’t feel a draught from people coming in and out. Secluded enough so that she won’t have to make small talk with anybody who pops in, should she know them vaguely from the around area. She quickly makes her way to the table, sits down, frees herself from her woollen coat and her knitted scarf. She sits facing away from the café, with her back to everyone, so that she can simply stare out of the window, out onto the street. She drinks her tea slowly, eats the cake, tries to stop her mind from returning to thoughts of what she needs to do at work tomorrow.
It’s time. 6.56pm.
The street is practically empty now, as dusk begins to settle. There is that specific change of light as the sun begins its descent, as the world seems to visibly move from one position to the next. Molly stares out of the window at nothing in particular, and her gaze falls on a vacant building across the road, from her position she can see directly inside, it also has a glass front, it was a lady’s boutique but now it is empty. The sun continues to move, distorting the light in the street, casting shadows, illuminating spaces where the light can only reach at this specific time. A ray of light, breaks through the branch of a tree, providing a supernatural, mauve tinted beam into the vacant shop. Not bright enough for Molly to see clearly inside, but just enough for her to be able to see what she could not see before.
A man stands with his back to her, he is smartly dressed, and Molly doesn’t recognise him, but he is tall and from his build she can tell that he is fit and probably no older than 50. He is with a woman. The woman is young, probably in her 20s, her hair is cut into to a short, blunt bob with a severe fringe and dyed platinum blonde, which contrasts sharply with her lightly freckled face. A face which means she always gets ID’d when she tries to buy alcohol. She is dressed casually in jeans and a faded band t-shirt, but she also wears a pair of red sequinned shoes, cute rather than an attempt at being sexy.
Molly can see that she is looking up into the man’s face. They are talking, but Molly can see from the way the woman stands, the way she is leaning away slightly from the man, that they do not know each other. Molly can also see that there is something in the woman’s face. Polite confusion. It is only there for a moment, a second, before the man raises his arm sharply, and plunges it downwards, repeats the action quickly, methodically. It takes a moment for Molly to realise what she is seeing, for her to realise that the man is holding something in his hand, something heavy, something metal. The woman doesn’t have time to respond or to scream or to shield herself. She falls dumbly to the floor, crumpled up like an old pile of clothes. She is still.
Molly’s stomach feels as though it is being squeezed, her breath chokes out of her lungs and yet she cannot look away.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ Molly snaps around towards the voice, almost overturning her cup and saucer.
‘She’s…’ Molly begins, frantically trying to gather her words. She stops. She looks up into the face of the waitress who had spoken. She must be new, Molly thinks, because she has never seen her here before, and even with the frantic whirling of her brain she is able to retrieve the image of a ‘wanted’ card, stuck to the window of the cafe during her last visit, requesting the services of an ‘experienced assistant’. This is not what has stopped Molly, though. What has stopped her is the waitress’ face. Young and fresh and framed with stark blonde hair.
It is the face of the woman in the building across the street. The woman who has not moved from the floor, blood beginning to pool. Molly looks down at the waitress’ feet.
‘I know they’re a bit over the top, but I couldn’t resist. They make me feel like Dorothy,’ the waitress says. Molly doesn’t respond but turns immediately back to the window. Already, as she looks across at the building, the scene is beginning to shift. The light has moved, changed its angle and the picture has begun to fade. Molly can see the man kneeling down beside the woman, he removes an earring before placing it in his pocket and leaving.
She can see this happening, but not as clearly as before. As the light changes the scene fades into nothingness, the way an image would come to life on photographic paper in a darkroom, only in reverse. After a few seconds there is nothing but a vacant room.
‘Are you okay?’ the waitress asks, ‘did you want some more tea?’
‘Er, no…thank you’ Molly replies. The waitress smiles and goes to leave, ‘Is it your first day? I haven’t seen you here before?’
The waitress stops, she is glad for the opportunity to demonstrate the ‘great communication skills’ that she had bragged about during her interview.
‘Third, actually. I’m working here but I’m an illustrator really, this’ll provide a bit of stability, financially. I’m Yara, by the way.’
Molly looks back out of the window, trying to get one last glimpse of the man, but he is gone and the image of the two has almost disappeared, the last thing Molly sees is the pool of blood spreading up towards the woman’s head, her cheek is pressed into it now, and it has begun so seep into her hair, a dark patch creeping from the ends up towards her scalp.
‘Are you waiting for someone?’ the waitress asks. Molly looks up at her and begins to answer but notices something. The woman has the dyed blonde hair, yes, but no fringe. Her hair is short and loosely cut into the style of a bob but there is definitely no fringe. Molly understands what this means.
‘Do you work here every day?’ Molly asks.
The waitress thinks that the question is a little over familiar, but her politeness forces her to answer anyway.
‘Weekdays, 3-8. Only I’m not in tomorrow as I’ve got a hair appointment, I’ve had it booked for ages,’ she leans in conspiratorially ‘Get my roots done, and a bit of a cut. Might go wild and ask for something completely different!’ She notices another customer waving at her, trying to get her attention and she walks away to find out how she can help.
Molly sits still watching the waitress, the very real crushing sensation in her chest provides her with the certainty that the scene she just witnessed will happen. She is as sure of it as she is that tomorrow is Tuesday.
The next 24 hours move by with a new detached quality, one Molly finds allows her to be both polite and efficient. She is able to get through her work tasks quickly, methodically, whilst having the mental background noise of trying to work out what she can do to change the scene from the café. Or even whether she should do anything at all. She knows that she will return to the café, but why? The waitress won’t be there, she already knows this. But she must see it again, witness the act. She has decided that if she can view the…what is it? A preview? A premonition? A murder? Then maybe some clue can be gleaned, some hint of how she can change its course. Why else would she have been chosen to view this, if not as a demonstration of her own importance in this story?
Molly arrives at the Wilderness Café. It is 6.30pm. Later than her usual time but visiting on a Tuesday is already outside the framework of her usual routine and she instinctively knows that there must be something in the differences of her Monday visit that afforded her this glimpse into the future. She buys her chai and her honey cake; she is not sure exactly which of the things that she did yesterday precipitated her brush with the supernatural, but she has decided to replicate everything as she can remember.
Molly quickly makes her way to the same table, trying to appear casual but, from the slightly chaotic way that she moves, balancing the yellow leather satchel which hangs from her shoulder, whilst holding her tray of tea and cake, it is clear that she is anxious.
She sits, not bothering to remove her coat this time. She waits, looking across into the empty boutique, but she sees nothing. Molly cannot remember the exact time that she saw the man, when he appeared with the woman, but she knows that something is different today. And then she remembers the light. She knows that she must wait for it to begin to move, to change. She gets her phone out of her bag so that she can make a note of the time, so that she knows the exact moment. She has no doubt that she will see it again. And then, we are here again. 6.56pm. As the light hits, Molly sees him, and the same scene begins to unfold.
Molly watches again, trying to find a detail, something which will help her to figure out an exact time, an exact place where this event will happen. She cannot see much of the man, only the back of his dark blue, well-tailored suit and so she focusses on the waitress. She is wearing the same red, sparkly shoes, she wears well worn, tightly fitted dark blue jeans which are ripped, fashionably, on the right knee. She wears the same band t-shirt, faded black, Led Zeppelin printed in florid yellow, cupid mid-air, back arched in front of a rainbow tinged horizon.
Again, the waitress is looking up into the man’s face with that look of confusion, embarrassment that she hasn’t recognised him when seemingly she should. The fight between knowing that she should not engage with this man and the fear of being impolite, overriding her instinct to flee. Even though Molly wants to get up, to run out into the street, she keeps watching. Just as the man raises his hand again, begins to rain down blows, Molly notices something new. It is the waitress’ hair, newly cut with its blunt fringe but this time, there is a streak of fuchsia, a pink strip on the left side of the waitress’ head. And then she is on the floor again, bloody. The man kneeling, collecting his trophy.
Molly continues to watch as the scene begins to evaporate, until the room is once again just an empty space. She gets up and leaves, her honey cake and chai untouched.
Wednesday is as unremarkable as any other midweek day and when she gets to the Wilderness Café, Molly still carries the cool detachment that has been with her all day. She arrives at her usual Wednesday time which is 5.30pm because she is not here to watch the vacant boutique but to see the waitress. She knows that she cannot try to explain to the waitress what she has seen, but she needs to see her, to check her appearance. She has decided that this is the only thing she can really use as a point of reference.
The café is busier at this time, with people on their commute home dropping in for sourdough loaves and working mums collecting giant cookies for children who don’t want to talk about what happened at school that day. She joins the back of the queue and scans the café for signs of Yara. She sees that the woman serving behind the till is not her waitress and for a moment she feels terror scuttle across her scalp and down the back of her neck like a cockroach. Maybe Molly is too late? Maybe it has already happened somewhere else? Just as these thoughts begin to scurry their way around her brain, the door opens and in Yara walks, apologetic and obviously flustered; she disappears into to the back of the café to drop off her bag and coat, before returning, hastily tying an apron around her waist as she walks. She moves to behind the counter, smiles at the woman who is already preparing a cappuccino to go and starts to serve the next customer.
Molly watches her but she already knows what she will see. The Led Zeppelin t-shirt, the jeans ripped at the right knee, the red shoes sparkling under the harsh, artificial light.
It is Molly’s turn to be served.
‘Hello again,’ Yara says, ‘What can I get you?’
‘Just a tea, please,’ Molly says. The strip of fuchsia is even brighter this close up, you can see that it has been expertly done by its precision. Yara notices Molly looking at her hair.
‘Yeah, I thought I’d really go for it. I’m not sure about the fringe though, it’s a bit short. It was one of those cool salons and I didn’t want to say anything, y’know?’
‘I like it,’ Molly says,
‘Thanks!’ Yara says, pleased, ‘I’ll bring your tea over.’
Molly quickly finds a seat, it doesn’t matter which today, so she chooses one at the back of the café, near the counter. Soon the waitress is coming over with a tray, tea brewing in a glass teapot, milk in a tiny white jug. She carefully lays the tray on the table in front of Molly.
‘Here you go.’
She nods towards the café owner, Mabel, who is stood behind the counter, wiping down the coffee machine.
‘Don’t think she’s pleased with me, I was a bit late.’
Molly notices the earrings that Yara is wearing, delicate gold wings which creep along her earlobes. She thinks about the man kneeling next to her, removing one of these earrings and placing it into his pocket.
‘I’m sure she’ll be fine,’ Molly replies.
‘Well, I’m closing up on my own tonight so she can leave soon,’ she smiles and goes to help with the coffee machine.
Molly lets the tea go cold. She is thinking about what she needs to do next. Yara will meet this man tonight. He will kill her. Unless Molly can change this somehow, and she believes that she has to power to do so. After the café closes at 8pm Molly goes and sits at the bus shelter across the road. When the number 50 arrives, she does not get on but continues to sit and watch. Molly can see Yara as she sweeps up, carefully placing each chair, upturned onto each table, so that she can mop the floor. Another bus comes and goes. 25 minutes after closing the waitress is finally finished. When she goes to get her bag and coat, Molly retrieves her book from her bag and pretends to read. Yara comes back into view, switches off the lights and Molly hears the beeping of an alarm being set, she glances up to see Yara locking the front door of the café.
Molly watches her, willing her to look over, beginning to formulate some reason to approach her if she does not. Just as Molly begins to think that she will have to fabricate some story about a lost cardigan or glasses left behind on the table, Yara looks up and over to the bus shelter. She pauses, before smiling and waving.
‘The bus hasn’t turned up,’ Molly shouts.
Yara makes an exaggerated gesture, shaking her head as if exasperated. Molly begins to speak again, makes a show of thinking better of it and takes this chance to cross the road to speak to her.
‘Thought I’d come over rather than keep shouting. Which way are you going?’ she asks.
‘I don’t live that far from here. I’ll just walk if the busses are playing up,’ Yara replies, looking up the street towards the local park, which she’s been told she shouldn’t use as a short cut to the flat where she lives, but often does because it saves her ten minutes.
‘Up past the park?’ Molly asks.
Yara is unsure about giving the specifics of where she lives to a stranger. She pulls her hair behind her left ear to buy herself time to assess the risk of doing so.
‘Yes, I live on Clarence Road.’ she says, once she has made her decision.
‘Ah, I’m going that way,’ Molly lies, ‘mind if I walk with you?’
They walk together making small talk, it’s not uncomfortable, but Molly is pleased when Yara stops and says,
‘This is me,’ gesturing towards a row of converted Victorian houses.
‘Oh, okay, I’m not far from here.’ Molly waits and there is an awkward pause as Yara realises that Molly is waiting for her to go into her flat.
‘Right, well. See you soon.’ Yara walks up the path of a house with a mint green door. Molly can feel the awkwardness, but she endures it, keeps watching until Yara is safely on the other side of the door. Molly is now more than an hours’ walk away from her own home. As she walks away from the house, she reaches into her pocket, retrieves her phone and begins to dial her local taxi firm.
Thursday feels like a good day to Molly. Her mood is buoyed by the sense that she did something good, that she acted in the right way and therefore a tragedy was averted. She decides to visit the Wilderness Café again this evening, at that specific time. She tells herself that this visit is just to make sure, to go and see that Yara is really okay, but that is not the full truth of it. It is also to commend herself for doing the right thing. To confirm to herself that danger can be circumnavigated if only people take the right action.
When Molly enters the Wilderness Café today, she is smiling. She walks with a lightness in her step, does a small two step shuffle to allow a man to exit the café before she enters. It is 6.45pm, the rush of commuters has left and so Molly is able to walk straight up to the till. There is nobody behind the counter and for the smallest moment, Molly is afraid, maybe nothing is changed. Her fear is imperceptible to the onlooker but there is a quickening of her pulse. Then Molly sees Mabel unloading a dishwasher at the back of the café. Mabel has seen Molly, but she is gathering herself, unnerved by this woman who has been in everyday this week, and trying to order the words she will have to say. Molly watches, thinking that Mabel must not have seen her, she is trying to formulate her own way to ask a question. Eventually, Mabel walks to the counter, they both rush to speak at the same time.
‘Sorry, you first.’
‘Is Yara not in today?’
Molly does not miss the flash of concern which moves across Mabel’s face, despite her attempt to appear neutral.
‘I’m covering her shift today. Actually, I need to speak to you about Yara.
She mentioned that you’ve been…here a lot. That you were waiting outside for her after we closed the other night. I’m not sure what you were thinking but that’s inappropriate and you are making her feel uncomfortable. If this doesn’t stop then I am going to have to ask that you stop coming in.’
The shame that rises from Molly’s chest and into her face is scalding. ‘I’m…sorry…I…it won’t happen again.’
Mabel nods, ‘Chai and honey cake is it?’
Molly is still hot with shame as she sits at the window seat, but she forces herself to stay. Mabel brings over a tray with Molly’s tea and cake. As she sets the tray on the table, Mabel performs a show of nonchalance, at pains to move past their awkward conversation. Molly tries to join her in this pretence but when she looks up to thank her, the pity threaded through Mabel’s expression makes Molly’s shame begin to rise again. She looks away quickly, down at Mabel’s feet, the legs encased in bright teal tights, stark against the short, black dress she wears.
When Mabel leaves, Molly sits for a while before taking her fork and breaking the honey cake apart. The light begins its transition, moving once again, taking on the mauve tint that has captivated and confounded for so long.
Molly pretends (to whom?) that she does not want to look into the shop front, but time is moving towards 6.56pm and she can’t stop herself. Not really. She glances over, just as the light hits, hoping to see nothing but apprehensive, still.
The man stands with his back to her. His suit frames his back, emphasising the width of his shoulders in comparison to the neatness of his waist. Molly can see the face of the woman standing in front of him. She can see that this woman wears a short, black corduroy dress over opaque teal tights. She is looking at the man with a tight smile on her lips. The man raises his arm sharply. Molly looks away, releases a gust of air which catches in her throat, producing an involuntary bark. She is unsure of what to do, frozen with indecision. She begins to comprehend, slowly at first and then completely. Yara is saved, but fate will not be cheated. Someone must take her place. Molly has changed nothing, the power she believed she possessed no more effective than a child at a toy ship’s wheel.
Molly gets up and leaves the café, running, not towards the boutique but away, away from this scene that she now understands but doesn’t want to. She runs home, back to safety; to waking up at 7.30am to drink weak tea from the yellow mug; to eating cheese sandwiches with Paula at Wednesday lunchtime, discussing what they would do if they won the lottery; to only ordering the black Staedtler pens and not the blue.
Hayley Davis is a writer and performer who is based in Birmingham. She writes for a variety of mediums and has shown work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Birmingham Film Festival where her short film won Best Local Film. She is currently studying for her MA in Creative Writing at University of Birmingham.
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