The cafe opened at four every morning, though there were few people who wanted a bite or a coffee at that hour. The first few customers on the few days that the cafe saw its early customers were mostly people returning home from a night of revelry, or from dropping someone at the railway station, which at this hour would be done only for someone really close or someone they were glad to see the backs of. Otherwise, on most mornings, the cafe with its strong aroma of coffee and a hint of music had no one within the extent of their influence to invite in. But the cafe would open. At four. Every morning. Every day. And Mr Elvin, the old man who opened the shutters and ran it till about nine when the three employees his daughter had hired walked in. At nine, Mr Elvin would sit at the far table for two, facing away from the cafe and towards the road, and order his coffee and a morning bun like a customer — many a times the first of the establishment. He would then pick up the newspaper that had been dropped in at around seven but would be lying folded near the door, from where it was picked by Chia, the youngest of the staff, and given to him with his coffee and a smile.
From four, or rather from three thirty when he actually woke up, Mr Elvin wouldn’t find the time to make himself a coffee, or a bun, or even read the newspaper. He was always too busy, he would say when asked. The three helps came in at nine, and what the three did together from that hour onwards, he had to do all by himself.
“Do what, pa?” His daughter would prompt him from somewhere in the background, whenever she was around to hear him say this to a customer in the cafe, or a friend outside it. The daughter would ask him with a smile, really wanting to know what kept him so busy from four in the morning to nine in the morning when there were no customers, not very often, when the wares that could be sold even if someone did walk in were limited as the bakery delivered only between nine and nine-thirty. And the cafe was cleaned and made ready for the next day after the closing hour of eleven by the evening staff that was double in number to cater to the walk-ins that stopped on their way back from work, or from shopping, or after a movie at the theatre opposite.
“Do what, pa?” She would probe, softly. And smile.
And he would nod, turn to her slowly, using his shift of focus to get out of the conversation.
“Why don’t you get up early one and day and see for yourself?”
“Maybe I will. Maybe tomorrow.” Mr Elvin’s daughter was a lawyer, busy with her own life. But the cafe gave her something to do on the weekends when the loss of childhood friends to marriages, migration, and ambition was the most glaring. She was the only one left in the town after the rest of her generation had moved out. Or moved on. She had remained in the town of her birth, in the house she grew up in, with her parents. She hadn’t married. For the only reason that she did not have a reason to marry. Mr Elvin still harboured hopes that she would one day. But ever since he had lost his wife, he had been a little thankful that she hadn’t. Not that he wished it, but if she didn’t out of her own choice, then he could be thankful for the company, and be without guilt too.
Elvin’s Café had that unique and contrasting character that attracted the locals with its from-out-of-here feel, while it called on those who pitched here for a night on their way to the lake town further up with a sense of experiencing something that was very local. The cafe was a structure of glass supported by thick bamboos running parallel and perpendicular to each other. It was lit up by a string of small bulbs running along the length of the bamboo poles in the centre, and also along the bamboo poles overheard that supported a slanted ceiling made of many layers of thin plywood and topped with a tin sheet. This entire structure stood on the roof of Mr Elvin’s three-room cottage in which he had lived most of his life ever since he moved here from the city. And now that he had retired from his job in the outstation railway booking office, a post that made him part of the railways in a place that was a good thirty kilometers away from the last of the railway stations, he found himself speaking of stories of the great railway adventures that he had heard from others that were transferred here for a few years in their service. He too had been offered promotions and relocations to places where the trains chugged in and out, but he could never imagine a life away from his cottage across the road from the liqour shop. So when his daughter spoke of her plan to open a cafe on the roof, he was glad that he could look over and beyond the liqour shop and its many patrons, and at the slope of the hill behind it, and the rise off the hill beyond it.
Giving the cafe this wide-open look was his idea. And it had worked well for them, his daughter would often say when they sat for their dinner at the cafe. This was when they took stock of the business, spoke of their day and heard the employees speak of their day and of things that could be improved or changed. They didn’t act on most of what was told to them. Both the Elvins had made a life of changing little, and had seen the town change a lot over the years. They felt the cafe could give this place something that had the reassurance of familiarity, and of being fixed in time. Everybody needed something that they could return to, knowing it would be there as they had left it. The coffees and the teas and the buns and patties were not the only reason why people dropped in. It was to touch and feel and see and smell something that they remembered from yesterday, and from the last fifteen years or so when it first opened its doors. That’s why most people sat in the places they always did. A few would even walk in and immediately walk out if they saw their place taken up by some tourists. Only to return later to just sit in it for a while, and go back to sleep in houses that had been converted from small houses into three storeyed apartments, all in their lifetimes.
A lot had changed for Mr Elvin too. Despite having lived in one cottage for most of his life, despite having worked in the same office and town for the better part of his life. And of all things that had changed, it was only in the early hours of the day that he could grasp a little of it. The cottage that they lived in had once looked out at the hills rolling ahead, just across the road. There was a cemented bench that a local politician had got constructed in memory of his mother, a plaque embedded at the back of the backrest of the bench reminded everybody who paused to look at it. But once you sat on it, there was nothing but the slope and the rise of the hills ahead, lined with tall pine trees that from this distant presented an unbroken cover of green, showing nothing of the brown hills below. At various times of the day, the sun in its journey would pull a dark sheet of shadow at various points, In the early mornings, it would rise from behind the hills ahead, and cast its shadow on the valley below. During the afternoon, the sun would be over the hills, and light up the green with its golden light, and then, as it came nearer the road and went over the cottage, it threw its pale yellow light on the hills it had risen behind of, and the elongated shadow of the cottage and the bench and the houses and shops around between it all, like a silhouette of the town that he would often trace with his eyes, as he stood by the window of his cottage, with a glass of brandy and warm water.
That silhouette had changed now. Behind him, the town had altered its shape as he looked away. Cottages had turned to multi-storeyed apartments, the sloping roofs that shed the rain water and the icicles formed overnight after it had snowed were now replaced by flat cemented roofs, the chimneys that jutted over the roofs had long been cut down to make way for floors above. Now, when the sun went over Mr Elvin’s cottage and behind the town, the shadows it drew wasn’t one that he could trace his eyes over. Instead of the slopes and the dips and the sudden rises and the thin spires that rivalled the trees on which they fell, the outlines of today were a flat, boring run. Like an artist teaching a little child to draw. When evenings came, it brought with it an image in black that he didn’t want to look at. But when mornings crept over the town, it was a different scene. It was still out of the past. The only difference was that the opening across the road where the bench had once stood, there was now a series of shops. So he had to change his vantage point. But that was one thing he was more than willing to change, all to retain some of the past, as he hoped to retain some of others’ past for them.
He never did open the cafe at four in the morning for the world, and if someone did walk in between that hour and nine, he served them with a slight sprinkle of irritation, that guests would put to the early hour, or to his old age. But whoever walked in this early an hour would themselves be lost in the sight of the night sky receding in a vignette over the hills visible beyond the shops across the road. No one had ever turned up at four, but some did trickle in at around five, or later. The time that the sun would start inching closer to the hills, and while it itself would be hidden behind, the rays would shoot out like eager children leaving their parents behind, and light up the sky in so many shades that people would forget their coffees and their quiches from overnight in trying to find out where one shade ended and the other began. The sky closest to the hills would be an impossible palette of pinks and yellows and oranges and countless other colours born out of these. And then slowly, the blue of the sky would take over, like a colour running from the spout of the hills, and gradually cover the rest of the colours in its single, bright, cool shade. And only then, with the carpet laid out, would the sun appear. Slowly at first, and then, as though suddenly reminded of its responsibilities, faster in pace, and brighter in appearance. The sky would turn a uniform blue, the night would withdraw. In a short span of less than an hour, the day would take over. And then the slopes of the hills ahead, the slopes of the hills in front of them, and the valley these two met in, were all smeared with a golden yellow hue. A view from the past, visible only from this perch, only at this hour.
And then as the hours after seven approached, the magic would turn to lighting up the cafeteria, the cutlery, the chrome on the coffee machine, the sides of the mugs hung up on the wall. The glass on the display window of the counter that would soon hold freshly baked buns and patties were lit up too, making them look emptier. Through this, the only thing Mr Elvin feared was that word would spread and these early hours would become packed with guests blocking his view by their presence and orders. Luckily, or such is human nature he had learnt at this age, people seldom did things that they knew would give them certain happiness. Instead, they chased things that held promise, but no proof. Only few, like he himself, could live with something that he knew worked for him. Maybe there were many things out there that he could do too, maybe he had never given them a chance. But he never regretted, as long as he could hold onto this one sight, in these few hours, welcoming the sun from the large glass windows of the café on the roof of his house.
And then Chia would walk up, the young girl who was always the first to turn up. She would walk over to where he stood, taking in the last few minutes of the sun’s journey, the exact few minutes he used to have his tea looking out before heading out to do other things.
“Good morning Mr Elvin,” Chia would say in her sing-song voice, “You can leave the cafe and the window to me.”
Mr Elvin would turn to return her smile and her greeting and wonder what brought her here. A place so like her home in the hills, but not her home. If she had to leave home, why didn’t she go to a place totally different, where she could do better too. And if she wanted to stay at home, why not stay at home? But he never asked here. She always seemed so cheerful and happy and content. At an age so young, these were remarkable traits to possess. Especially the last one.
If anybody asked Chia how could she look so content at her age, she wouldn’t know the answer. Or even that she was content. She had known no other way and so couldn’t compare it to what else she could have been. Since childhood, she had seen her parents climbing down the wooden steps hammered into the wall of the lower room that served as an eatery, or climbing up from it to the room on top that served as their home. In fact, both the rooms were home to her, but during the day the lower one was used to serve noodles, momo, and soup to people who were waiting for the bus to pick them up, or had just gotten off one. While anybody was free to knock at any hour and ask if there was anything that could be served to them, it was at nine every morning that the eatery was formally considered open. It was at around nine that the first bus reached this point in its journey, and stopped for a few minutes for the driver and the passengers to stretch their legs, light a cigarette, and eat something that will see them for the rest of the journey. The place where their home stood was not near to a bus-stop, but in this small town that started after a brief climb from this point and fanned out across terraced fields, this U-bend in the road from one town to another served as a bus-stop. Not only was the road wider here, allowing the bus to stay parked to one side while people loaded or off-loaded their luggage, the point also gave a good view of the road going up, and of the road going down. So people knew if they had time for a chicken soup, or mutton momos, or if they should just ask for a mug of the salted butter tea that was forever bubbling in the cold weather of her hometown. Till she was nineteen, she and her brother would walk to the school in the town above, and later take a bus to the college below. And between their two destinations, there stood their home and the endless streams of people sipping up the hot soup and blowing into the noodles swimming in a spicy broth. The cold never left this town, and nor did the warmth of her parents’ servings.
Chia was younger than her brother by two years. So when he decided to leave for the city to make his own life there, his mother never asked him to reconsider. His father spoke to him once on his way back from the vegetable shop after picking up supplies for the day’s menu. He may have spoken of the time that he too had left for the city and returned to the house and profession of his own parents. Or of him taking over the family eatery. Her brother may have countered it with his own plans and ambitions, or may have argued in his own way. Chia could only guess. But one day when the bus stopped, her brother boarded it and waved away at the three. That day the mother had forgotten to put the tea on the stove and many customers went away cold.
Chia and her family lived a little away from the town, and even people in the town lived far apart with their own terraced fields separating most houses. So that night, Chia and her parents each felt as though half the town had been deserted. But next day when she woke up to get dressed for her college, her parents were back at work. And in a few weeks, the place was back to normal, with the brother returning home once every month, bringing stories of possibilities and going back with some money to see him through till he found some work.
The two-room house that gave up half its identity to become a source of livelihood for the family and a source of warmth for the travellers had started looking oversized now. And slowly, the pots and the pans and the ladles and the stove stopped being pushed to one side to make room for a bed. From being part of a house, it slowly took on the appearance of being just a shop. Part of their lives, but belonging to others as well. A little like her brother.
Then one day, the brand-new bus stand was inaugurated with much pomp by the local political representative at a place a little further down the road. Work on it had been going for years, and except for some timber and steel rods and a sign that announced the name of the place above, little had moved. But now this road had been chosen by a political figure higher up the order to take a tour of the state. And suddenly, almost overnight, the bus stand had been set up. The board with the name of the place had been repainted, over the faded letters that had marked out the delay in the project. And though the political figure’s motorcade did not even stop to take a look at this perceived sign of progress for a remote village, it changed everything for Chia’s family. With buses no longer stopping here, and the bus stop having been provided with a small space for an eatery that was given to someone from elsewhere to run, the family near the U-bend lost most of the customers. As for the new owner of the new eatery, he had been advised by the regulars on what they were used to eating and drinking on these trips, and it wasn’t difficult for him to replicate the menu. So that the travellers didn’t miss much. Though the travellers continued to wave and smile at the family on their way up and down. For were still friends, just not customers any more.
The night of the day that Chia’s father left with his son to look for work in the city he now worked and lived in, her mother and she slept in the lower room, and felt alone for the first time. Not lonely, but alone, as if each were living alone and not with each other.
In three days, the men of the house had returned. And for the next three days that they stayed together like they always had; and Chia felt her old self again. The kitchen felt like their old eatery again, with just the family for customers. Over a meal, they told Chia that they were now selling the house and with the money they were going to buy two second hand cars in the city that her father and her brother would drive as taxis, to ferry tourists and passengers from the railway station to the camping grounds farther up the hill. The numbers of the tourists had been growing steadily over the past few years, an opportunity they only got to know of when the son had gone over to the city. When her father spoke about how her brother had transformed himself into a very capable guide and booking agent for many camping companies, he too genuinely seemed excited at the potential of their future. Chia could sense an almost cheerful, bordering on festive, atmosphere in the house as the deal for the house was being made, as the list of things they will pack and the things they will leave behind was being made, as the last few regulars were being told of the two cars they had already found and of the pretty little house opposite a cinema hall they had already decided to buy in a few years, or hopefully within months if all went to plan. It was this that made Chia realise that it wasn’t just her brother who wanted to escape the one room on top of the other at the edge of a hill somewhere in the middle of other peoples’ journey. Her father had wished for the same, but could never do it. Till his own son made it a possibility for him. She could see how the realisation of a long-forgotten dream that he had stopped thinking of had brought out the youth in him. It was like seeing two brothers dealing with matters that were taking them closer and closer to a better life. And her mother, who would often look at her as she took down photo frames from the wall by the stairs, and packed her kitchen items in one basket, and everything else in any random fashion, displayed no emotion. If she was happy for her husband who may have shared his dreams with her in their younger days, it was perhaps countered by the sadness at leaving this place. If she was sad for the life she had always known coming to an end, it was perhaps balanced by the sight of her son being the responsible, grown-up man she had always hoped he would turn out to be. He was taking most decisions now, with the father nodding and smiling proudly by his side.
So on an early morning day, around a month later, two cars drove up the road. The villagers had gathered to wave them goodbye, and many had brought them gifts. They kept telling them that their village wasn’t too far to come over every now and then, especially now that they had cars to drive over in. And they kept telling the mother to open up her eatery down in the city. And she would smile and tell every single person who gave the suggestion that the city was never cold enough for her warm broth.
By the time they had loaded all their possessions, and shut the door for the last time and handed over the keys to the new owner, it was around nine. The hour when they would open the doors to their customers.
Mr Elvin was walking down the steps, thinking of Chia and the fading view that got him up every morning and wondered what was it that made Chia walk in every morning at nine, cheerful and happy to spend her day so far from home and family.