Tuesday 27 February 2024

All Change by Jane Mooney, milky instant coffee.


I struggled to wake from the fog of a deep sleep. My limbs felt heavy. My mouth was dry and sticky, like peanut butter. The beginnings of a headache were tickling around my temples and the bright lights in the train carriage hurt my eyes. As I reached for my bag to look for the paracetamol there was an announcement over the tannoy.

We will shortly be arriving in Plymouth. This train terminates here. All change.

Panic clenched my chest. How was I in Plymouth? I was supposed to be in Doncaster! I racked my brains. We’d been out in York celebrating Joan’s retirement. We’d done Bottomless Brunch, which had seemed like a good idea at the time. For an all-inclusive price of £35 we got something to eat and as much as we could drink in two hours. I’m a lightweight when it comes to drinking, so I liked the idea that it was time limited. I figured I couldn’t do too much damage in two hours.

Well, it hadn’t quite worked like that. After the limited time, we’d gone on to another bar, then another. I had a vague memory of drunken, giggly hugs at York station before we’d all gone our separate ways.

And here I was in Plymouth. The train slowed to a screeching halt, and I took my purse out of my pocket to see how much cash I’d got. £3.75. And I’d left my bank cards at home so I didn’t overspend. Oh Gosh, how on Earth was I going to get back to Doncaster? 

The train pulled out of the station, leaving me on a windy, deserted platform. I thought there’d be someone to ask, but it was the middle of the night and there was no-one around so I made my way through a subway and into the ticket hall. The doors were locked. I couldn’t get out.

I sat down heavily on a bench with a lump in my throat. How could I have been so careless? The first time I’d been out since I’d lost Geoff and I’d managed to get on the wrong train AND to fall asleep as well! I pulled my cardi tight around my shoulders and cursed my friend Moira who’d persuaded me to wear this stupid flimsy dress.

Despite the cold I must have fallen asleep because I woke suddenly when a group of shouting lads emerged from the subway. They were about 16 or 17, just a little younger than my girls. I shrank into the seat hoping they wouldn’t notice me. At first, they were too busy showing off to each other, but then they spotted me.

‘Hey! What we got here?’ said one.

‘Looks like she’s ‘ad a rough night!’ said another.

‘Let’s see if she’s got anything worth ‘aving,’ said the biggest of the boys as he reached for my handbag.

He grabbed one handle. I had hold of the other, and as he tugged the bag towards him, he pulled me out of my seat.

‘Give it here!’ I yelled, yanking it back in a ridiculous tug of war.

‘Why should I?’ he whispered quietly.

He moved closer, so close I could smell the alcohol and cannabis on his breath. I tasted fear, sharp and metallic in the back of my mouth, but I wasn’t going to let him have my bag. The rest of them were closing in, like a pack of hyenas in a TV documentary. I looked around for an escape route and noticed that the doors at the front of the station were now open. With a well-aimed kick to his shins, I was able to grab the bag and run for the open doors. I ran out of the station and kept on running.


When I eventually stopped, I was out of breath and shaking, but it didn’t look as if the boys had followed me. The air was chilly and the sky was all shades of pink and purple. There was a café on the corner, lights on, windows steamed up. It looked very welcoming.

As I pushed the door open the hot aroma of frying bacon hit me, and my mouth started to water. It was crowded. Mostly workmen in overalls. The odd businessman in a smart suit. No women other than a harassed looking waitress behind the counter.

I was still shaking, and my head was throbbing. I took a few deep breaths to steady myself before stepping forward.

‘What can I do for you love?’ the waitress asked.

‘Just a coffee please.’

She steamed the milk and poured it onto instant coffee granules.

‘Nothing else love?’ 

Studying the menu which hung above the counter, I checked my pockets for further stashes of cash, hoping I had enough for a bacon sandwich. Nothing.

‘Maybe a glass of water.’ I said. At least that should help the hangover.

I carried my drinks to a table by the window and leaned my head against the damp glass. The coolness felt good against my pounding head. I heaped two spoonful’s of sugar into the mug and stirred it slowly. After the first scalding hot, milky sip I began to think straight, and to wonder how on Earth I was going to get home?

Always one for a good list, I pulled a notebook and pen out of my bag and started to jot down ideas:

  1. Hitchhike.

But it’s a long way from Plymouth to Yorkshire, and I might get murdered.

  1. Beg, steal, or borrow the money for the train ticket.

But I’m too shy to beg, too honest to steal and I didn’t know anyone in Plymouth to borrow from.

  1. Get a job and earn the money for the ticket.

But doing what? 

  1. Phone Moira and see if she can come and pick me up.

I’d never live that down.


I’d run out of ideas. I reckoned phoning Moira might be the best bet, and in any case, I should let her know I wouldn’t be coming into work. I pulled my phone out of my pocket, but the screen was black. Completely dead. Of course! I’d been using Google maps to find my way around York and that always eats up the battery. I delved into my bag to see if I had my charger with me. Nope. Well so much for that idea.

Behind the counter the waitress was yelling into her phone. She threw it down, tore off her apron, and stormed angrily out of the door. Through the window I could see her shaking a cigarette carton. It was empty. She leaned back against the window. Then I remembered I had Moira’s fags in my bag from yesterday so I went outside and offered them to the her.


‘Thanks love, you’ve no idea how much I need this!’ She put the cigarette between her lips and lit it. She took a deep pull and breathed out slowly.

‘That’s better,’ she said. ‘The girl who helps with lunches has blobbed again. It’s the third time in a fortnight, and I could really do without it today. I need to get everything cleaned up quickly ‘cos it’s my little boy’s school assembly.’

‘Can I help?’

‘Are you a waitress?’

‘No, I’m a lab assistant,’ I said. ‘But I know how to wash up and I’ve nothing else to do today?’

‘You sure?’

‘Sure I’m sure,’ I said. ‘And if you’ve got an iPhone charger so I can charge my phone I’m even more sure!’

‘Well, you’re on Missus,’ said the waitress. ‘I’m Tash.’


‘Well Liz, you might just be a life saver today.’

We went inside and Tash pointed to a phone charger in the corner of the kitchen, then gave me an apron to wear and showed me where I could lock my bag and coat in the storeroom. The first job was to clear the tables, which were stacked high with greasy plates from the breakfast rush. I dumped them in the sink and spent the next twenty minutes up to my elbows in hot, soapy bubbliness. This was very different to washing test tubes and flasks. Then there were salads to wash and vegetables to prepare.

We chatted as we worked. Tash told me about her little boy, eight years old and thought he was the next David Beckham. I told her about my two girls, off at university and almost grown up. At lunchtime Tash took the orders and did the cooking and I delivered the plates of food and cleared the tables. I couldn’t believe how many people came through the door of this small café in a couple of hours. There were takeaway orders too, office workers coming in for sandwiches or burgers to take back to their desks. Around two it quietened off and Tash handed me a cup of coffee.

‘Something to eat?’ she asked. ‘There’s some meat and potato pie left.’

I attacked the pie with gusto.

‘You look like you haven’t eaten in days,’ Tash joked.

My face burned when I told her my last meal had been ‘Brunch’ in York yesterday, and there’d been a lot more drinking than eating involved. I told her about falling asleep on the train, and ending up in Plymouth, and the lads who tried to nick my bag at the train station.

‘Oh blimey,’ said Tash, ‘and I thought I was having a bad day.’

‘Well, it got better after I came in here.’ I said. ‘I’ve really enjoyed helping you, especially the banter with the customers. You don’t get that in the hospital lab.’

‘Why didn’t you just get a train straight back?’

‘No money,’ I said with a shrug.

Tash went to the till and pulled out six £20 notes which she put down on the table in front of me.

‘Oh, Tash, I wasn’t asking for money. I wanted to help you out.’

‘You’ve earned it. I’d never have got through today if you hadn’t been here to help.’

I looked at the notes on the table. It was probably enough to get me home. Problem solved.

‘How about staying on?’ asked Tash. ‘I was going to kick my assistant into touch. She keeps letting me down. So I can offer you regular work, five days a week. What do you say?’

I was about to say, No. I can’t. I live in Doncaster. Then I thought, Why not? What was keeping me in Doncaster now the girls were at university? My job had felt like a dead end for the last ten years. Perhaps it was time for a complete change.

‘Pass me my phone,’ I said. I dialed Moira’s number.

About the author

Jane Mooney writes in West Yorkshire where she enjoys walking in the Pennine hills and watching the sunset. She was a finalist in the 'Women on Writing Summer ’23 Flash Fiction Contest', and her short stories have been published by Funny Pearls’ , Café Lit and The People’s Friend

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