Tuesday 21 May 2024

Clemency by Rob Molan, chamomile tea,

Coming out of the warmth of the café into the cold is always a shock at this time of year and my fingers start to freeze as I’m locking up. I notice the homeless guy is lying in the doorway of the empty shop next door again. He’s wrapped up in a blue sleeping bag and resting on a cardboard mattress with his head covered with a balaclava. Mary from the bread shop was complaining about him when she was in this morning but I feel sorry for the poor sod. I remember my social worker pal telling me that many rough sleepers have been in prison, the army or care and struggle to lead independent lives after entering the outside world.


I’m running late. I told Kay I would meet her in the pub at eight and it’s twenty past. There’s so much I need to do now before I can get away at night. I look for a taxi but the first few aren’t free. I’m shivering with the cold and regret not putting on my extra thick, woolly tights. Eventually, a free cab appears which whisks me off to Camden Town.


The pub is packed and I see Kay sitting at a table with a big frown on her face and an empty glass in front of her, and rush over.


‘I’m so sorry I’m late.’


‘Thank God you’re here, Brigid. I’ve had some creep hitting on me. I called but you didn’t pick up.’ She’s got new highlights in her hair.


I look inside my handbag.


‘Damn. I’ve left my mobile in the café and will have to go back later. But let me get some drinks.’


Once we have two large glasses of Malbec on the table we start chatting.


‘So how are you?’ asks Kay resting her chin on a hand. ‘I’ve not seen you for ages.’


‘Cream crackered. Having your lover as a business partner is great when things are going well but not so when you break up and you’re left to run things yourself. Tim didn’t pull his weight. There was always a reason why he had to nip out during the day or finish early, leaving muggins here on her own. Whenever I complained, he was apologetic but nothing changed and I finally snapped one day and gave him his marching orders. He pleaded with me but wasn’t getting another chance.’


‘I’m sorry to hear that. But I heard you had a young woman helping you.’


‘I had to let her go a couple of weeks ago. She missed a few shifts due to childcare problems and I couldn’t rely on her.’


I take a sip of wine.


‘She was upset when I told her the news complaining that Christmas was coming up but she had blown the opportunity I’d given her. I’ve advertised for a replacement but have had no luck so far. Brexit has made it much harder to recruit staff in the sector.’


Kay frowns. I need to change the subject.


‘Sorry, that’s enough of me moaning. When did you change your hairstyle? It suits you.’


‘I’m glad you like it. I had it done last week.’ She smiles patting her head.


Our conversation then takes off in all sorts of directions, including holiday plans for our forthcoming birthdays – we’re both about to hit forty. Time flies and when I realise it’s nearly ten thirty. I make my excuses and leave, and jump on a bus back to King’s Cross. I get off at the stop opposite the café and spot a commotion outside the shop next door. Crossing the road, I see three young men kicking the homeless guy on the ground and him wrapped up into a ball to protect himself. I run over and shout at them.



‘Hey, stop that. I’m calling the police.’ I may be petite but I’ve got a powerful pair of lungs.


They turn around and then look at each other before scarpering. I know I took a risk there but the adrenalin kicked in.


‘I’ll get help,’ I say to the poor bloke who is writhing in pain and moaning.


I let myself into the café and call 999 and ask for the police and an ambulance before returning outside. I bend down and the street light reveals streaks of blood running down his greyish skin into a matted beard.


‘They won’t be long. I said you needed urgent assistance.’ His eyes are closed but thankfully he’s still breathing.


The ambulance arrives ten minutes later and the police shortly afterwards.


‘Did you get a clear view of the men?’ a young officer asks.


‘No. They had their hoods up and only turned round briefly. I hope you catch the thugs.’



The paramedics attend to the victim, carefully place him on a stretcher and carry him into the back of the ambulance. As it disappears into the night, a sense of exhaustion overwhelms me as I start the trek home back to my flat along the frosty pavement.




I’m pulling my hair out here. I’ve got four orders for a full English and other customers waiting for takeaway bacon rolls who are getting impatient.  And the flaming coffee machine is playing up again.


I hear the door open and, in the corner of my eye, see a tall chap enter and approach the counter.


‘I’ll be with you shortly,’ I say.


‘No problem, Brigid. Take your time.’ I turn and find his bright blue eyes staring at me.


I don’t recognise him.  He’s clean shaven and has cropped blonde hair and a long thin jaw.


“It’s me, the homeless guy you rescued,” he says softly. ‘You might not recognise me as I was in a right state the last time you saw me.’


‘Oh, it’s great to see you looking so well.’  He’s younger than I thought, probably in his mid-thirties.


‘Grab a seat and I’ll be with you as soon as I can.’


He nods and walks over to a table by the window.


When the rush is over, I make two instant coffees, take them over and sit down beside him.


‘So how are you?’


‘I’m fine now. The bruising on my ribs is a lot better and the headaches have stopped. I was released from hospital two weeks ago and have moved into a hostel. If you hadn’t had the guts to chase off those lads, God knows where I would be now. I’m ever so grateful.’


‘I had to do something. Have they caught the bastards?’


‘Not to my knowledge.’ He shrugs his shoulders.


‘What are your plans?’


‘I’ve signed on and am looking for a job. I want to stand on my own feet.’


I don’t often have light bulb moments but this is one of them.


‘If you’re interested, I can let you have a few hours a day here. It will just be washing dishes, clearing and wiping tables and it will be cash in hand.’


‘Brilliant. When can I start?’ He jumps up.


‘Be here at seven thirty tomorrow. What’s your name by the way?’


‘Keith. The policeman who took my statement was kind enough to tell me yours.’


‘Welcome on board, Keith.’




‘How does Moses brew his coffee?’


‘No idea.’


‘Hebrews it!’


‘Groan!’ Keith keeps coming out with these corny jokes. ‘’Can you pop up that bread in the toaster before it turns into a cinder?’


‘No problem,’ he replies.


I’ve had a smile on my face at work since he started six weeks ago.  More importantly, he’s a real grafter, washing and scrubbing anything and everything, leaving the tables spotless after clearing them. And the coffee machine is never out of action now.  He’s also showing an interest in helping me with the cooking.


The customers love him. A few taxi drivers were sitting round a table the other day and Keith was loading dirty dishes onto a tray.


‘Don’t you get fed up with Brigid bossing you about?’ asked one of them with a twinkle in his eye.


‘No, I’ve had worse. You know I was in a cab yesterday and the driver said he loved his job as nobody told him what to do. He wasn’t happy though when I told him to turn left.’


‘You should be on the stage. Then I could heckle you,’ laughs another.


When grumpy Mary came in and met Keith for the first time, she started flirting with him.


‘So where did you appear from?’ she asked in a husky voice.


‘I was hiding in plain sight,’ he replied with a big grin.


She looked at him blankly and I couldn’t stop myself giggling.


It’s also handy to have him around when customers kick off, like one did last week.


‘I gave you a twenty, love, but you’ve given me change from a ten.’  The big lump was sticking his hand out as he eyeballed me.


‘No. It was definitely a tenner,’ I replied calmly.


‘I’ll come round the other side and take what you owe me,’ he threatened, jabbing a finger at me.


Keith was across in a flash and pulled himself up to his full height.


‘That wouldn’t be very clever, sir. Would it?’ The oaf turned and sloped off without replying.


Today, I need a favour from Keith.


‘Can you stay a bit later tonight and cash up for me?’ I’ve shown him how to do this and trust him with the till. ‘I need to get away an hour early so I can complete my tax return. While I’m at it, I’ll register you for tax and national insurance contributions. It’s time to put you on the books.’


‘That’s great. I’ve got my benefit slip in my jacket in a minute and it’s got my national insurance number on it.’


Later at home, I spend several hours working on the return. When it’s finally submitted, I take Keith’s benefit slip out of my handbag before logging onto the registration website. Funnily, I’ve never asked him what his surname is and when I see it in black and white my stomach lurches.

I never saw the robber’s face when he grabbed the handbag off my shoulder and sprinted away. I was summoned though a few months later to give evidence in the trial of a certain Keith Coady. But the case never went to trial in the end because he was charged with a string of other, similar offences and changed his plea to guilty to all of them. That was four years ago but I still remember the shock of being robbed by a stranger and the feelings of anxiety when I went out on my own in the weeks which followed.


I don’t like being taken for a mug and will have it out with him tomorrow. But I need to get to bed now as I can’t keep my eyes open.



‘Good morning, Brigid. How are you?’ Now he has his own key, he’s usually in before me.


I don’t reply and walk through to the back and hang up my coat. I take a deep breath before coming back to the front.


‘Err, I’ve made a brew for us.’ He looks sideways at me.


I take the mug from him, have a sip of the hot, sweet coffee and look him in the eye.


‘When did you get out of prison?’


His face goes beetroot.


‘Is it that obvious I was inside?’


‘Let’s call it an educated guess.’


His shoulders slump.


‘Six months ago.’ His voice drops. ‘I didn’t want to go back to the life and people I knew before and so ended up living on the streets. I was hoping to find a job and somewhere to live but had almost given up by the time I got beaten up by those guys. Surviving that, gave me renewed hope and then you gave me this chance.’


‘It would have been better if you’d told me this before. Don’t you think?’


‘Yes,’ he mumbles.


‘I’d be within my rights to sack you.’


He nods slowly and starts to take off his apron


‘But I’m not going to.’


His jaw slackens.


‘I’ve booked a city break with a friend next week to celebrate our birthdays and I need you to manage the café while I’m away.  And when I get back, I’m going to increase your hours.’


Maybe I’m turning soft but I’ve had enough of working twelve hour days and anyway the guy has earned himself a break.


‘You won’t regret it. I promise you.’


‘I’d better not, otherwise you’ll be back sleeping in doorways. Anyway, we need to get a move on, we’re opening in a few minutes.’

About the author 

Rob lives in Edinburgh started writing short stories during lockdown. To date, he's had a few stories published by Cafe Lit and in various anthologies. He likes to experiment with different genres and styles of writing. 

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