I recognised the Sleeper as soon as he crossed the tiled store front. He had his thick black leather jacket on, riddled with cracks, the frayed lining exposed. The jacket hugged him tight around his hips, and beneath it he was dressed oddly dapper - rich blue knit, linen slacks and a paisley collar just visible, encircling his weary neck. His silver hair seemed to thin and retreat even more every time I saw him.
Having worked in this cafe for just four weeks, I had discovered that eighty per cent of the customers were seasoned regulars who had grown used to walking in to find their 'usual' cuppa awaiting them on the bar and the loyalty stamp poised to reward them. This meant that I had to learn quick, prove myself and earn my keep. I'm naturally sociable, luckily; I can chat for hours even when I'm given almost nothing to work with and the most sour and sullen of people to engage with. It's one of my redeeming qualities - I'm always a friend.
I just like to imagine that when I hand over an especially foamy mocha or a perfect ristretto espresso, I'm making someone's day just a fraction of a tad more bearable. Maybe I'm making it, period.
This customer, the Sleeper, strikes me as a lost soul in need of a good day. Or a string of good days. He's a local legend; he's out all night sinking ships and spirits in every public house along the old high street, come closing time he's wandering about freely but always constricted by something big and invisible - then by 7:10am he finds his way to our cafe, his safe sleeping spot. He sleeps. He sleeps on our sofas or propped in a chair, slumped on the round tables or reclining in the coveted winged armchairs in the back window. He moves from one spot to another, for hours on end, all day every day. Most days he comes to his senses and clears off by early afternoon, but some days he stays until past 5pm. Other customers, the suited and booted board-meeting mates, the gossiping girls and the young mums, the avid readers or the wifi hijackers, all take turns coming up to the counter and alerting us of his presence at the table next to theirs; 'stinking up the place', 'making everyone uncomfortable', 'taking the mick'... We apologise and explain. He's a regular. We wouldn't, couldn't, turn him away. He's lost and probably lonely. I personally reckon he's fighting a battle, and has been for some time.
Today, he bypasses the manager who is a proud veteran when it comes to dealing with him, and he approaches me. Manager M gives me a look, a raised-eyebrow licked-lips 'you got this?' expression. I nod quickly and easily, blink and you'll miss it.
'Good morning, sir! How are you today?' I can tell I've spoken too loudly, too early. He's searching the wall behind me, above my head, choosing which drink he'll be purchasing today and then leaving unattended on the floor by his seat, as usual. He brings his eyes down to my level. His eyes contract and get locked in a long blink as he adjusts to my brightness and volume.
'Black tea, to have in...please, miss.'
'Regular, or grande, sir? It's the same price for a grahhn-day.'
I spin around and get to work. I pride myself on my ability to skid and spin around behind the bar, it makes me feel cool and cute. It also makes me seem spry and efficient. It's an art of deceit.
'You're sweet,' I hear him mumble behind me as I drop the teabag in. 'A sweet treat.' I assume he's talking to the little packet of white sugar he's twiddling and tapping between his fingers. I turn and his melted ice-blue eyes are looking through my friendly front. He's seeing something beyond. His inebriated state doesn't do him any favours. Or does it amplify everything and bring clarity?
I retrieve the mug from under the boiling steam tap. I turn and smile. I place it on the glass counter and push it gently toward the Sleeper. He tries so hard to pull his smile up to his eyes. I see a decade of sad winter Sundays pass behind those eyes. He extracts a wad of notes from his jacket pocket. All purple notes. An abundance of twenties. He must have just shy of four hundred there in his paws.
I could always tell he wasn't homeless, as some of my colleagues would sympathetically suggest and our customers would disgustedly insist. He has a back story, and it involves a frisky fortune being caught too early and carried away on the breeze.
The Sleeper apparently disappeared for six months, about a year ago. The town missed him somewhat; he was a sore subject, and the stuff of lore. The pubs all conferred and none had held his presence, no bartender had reluctantly pulled him a pint and tried to make sense of him, for quite some time. They wouldn't admit it, but they worried. They'd say they were afraid they'd lose a substantial amount of their weekly intake without him sitting at their bars each night - barrels would be sitting in the basement untouched, their deliveries would be out of sync, they'd have more goods coming in than going out, the other regulars would feel worse about themselves because if the poor sap who was always around had tidied himself up and packed his bags, why couldn't they? - but really, they feared he was in trouble. They envisioned him banged up or beaten down, locked away or pushed over the edge. He then returned abruptly and continued his usual anarchic yet resigned activities as if he'd never left, but he was 'different'. Something must have happened. He wasn't in this world any more.
'You remind me of a daughter I had some time ago.'
I'm jolted back to the present.
'Excuse me, sir?'
'I had a daughter.'
'Is that so, sir?'
'You could be her.'
Stumped, I say, 'I assure you I'm not. Sorry, sir.'
His face falls even further. He produces a thin wooden stirrer stick from nowhere, and pops it between his teeth. He's shouldering a burden. I daren't ask.
I pick up the grande mug, and press it into his open hand, careful not to upset the sad wedge of wasted money. 'Enjoy your tea, sir.'
He makes a sound, a unique sound born to a growl and a whimper, and he backs away to his favourite sofa. He places the mug on the very edge of the marble table, sits, and slides down into sleep instantly. Sleep is his relief and his insane sanctuary. I look on, and I wish I could help. I wish someone, anyone, could. For now though, he can sleep.