Her hand rests defiantly on the counter. I see her eyes deepen first; grooves wild and flaring in all directions sharpen and tense as I reach out. The door swings slow and burly on its hinges, reluctant to give way. I push hesitantly, again looking through my hand, past my own weathered skin, watching her. She watches me.

Five hours I’ve worked, not a word spoken, barely a soul seen. It’s quiet up here in the mountains. It is cold too: I sense her disappointment at a stranger almost immediately, palpable even through the clear glass pane of the door.

I remove my glasses and unclip the strap from my chin, a subconscious courtesy of sorts, perhaps. The clock above the counter catches my eye, the time reminding me of life away from the deserted mountain roads and the villages they serve. The second hand ticks tantalisingly slow, in fitting with its humble surroundings, seemingly impervious to time itself. I glance outside and away for a moment, toward that distant life. I see sodden stonewalls dripping wet, doors scattered up and down the street, from times long before myself, defiantly closed. What I see is decidedly dreary.

I take a seat and now ‘remove my cap’, along with my outer most layer and the contents of my pockets. My fingers lack sense, so they simply fish around, pulling out anything they can. A coin bounces away on to the floor and in to a dark corner, lost.

The anti-climax of a guest she cannot relive an old tale with is still heavy in the air. I sense guests are rare and an unknown all the more so. I try to be warm, both outwardly and inside, but neither is received, nor welcome, it seems. The cold has sunk to my bones the last hours and hers too, for the past fifty or so years it would seem. Her lip stands stout and strong, an unfamiliar silence echoes in my ears. I wish for another coin to hit the stone slates and cut the nothing.

We speak a few words, broken on my part and she clearly reluctantly turns her back. I hear the handle click in place and a slow whuur as the machine comes to life. Moments later she turns and approaches broaching a small mug and saucer in hand, a biscuit resting precariously on its side.

She places it down on the scared wooden table and stands over me in a rather maternal fashion, strikingly contrary to her prior manner. Instinctively my hand immediately searches out the handle. Her eyes stare intensely as I sip, as if watching me spoon in a miraculous medicine. And then, out of nowhere, comes a broad and overwhelming smile, as wide and encompassing as the very mountains I seek refuge from.

Drinking shit coffee is like a long tortuous climb in training, when the legs just aren’t there. It hurts, it’s no fun, but it serves a means to an end. You know how it should feel but that sensation never quiet arrives. And still you warm, regardless of the content, often finding solace simply in the end. Because in spite of their ardours nature, both a climb and a mug of dark liquid always seem to clear the mind, even on the worst of days.

But it’s not shit. It’s soothing, falling deep down, far further than I expected. She continues to smile as she retreats back to her place behind the countertop, back to where she begun. Her tone has now changed and as I catch her eye, the tension, the look through the door, the cold, disappears.

I realise I am not just a stranger to her, but to most. It is not normal what we do, out in that, up in this. And whilst some here may understand more than most, appreciate working out there, they also know to fear it. I think of the sweated, gritty, freckled face she saw through her door. The worn grubby hand reaching deep in to hidden pockets and juggling out a sprawl of coins and folded notes. The foreign and husked voice held back by a fogged brain and riddled airways. The hunger devouring the coffee in an instant.

I leave to return to life and she raises the hand, duly rested as I. A wave and smile deep in to my eyes cement I am no longer a stranger, despite the barriers that lay between her world and my own.

Image credit – Andy Waterman /