He loved them all: Esmeralda from Panama, Medellin from Colombia, Merthi from India and Oaxaca from Mexico. He loved their individuality, their essence. He coaxed them into releasing their secrets, with fire. Even today their earthy aromas brought powerful memories – the tang of anticipation – the first taste – the intoxicating rush – the feeling of being alive. And then there were his women: ill-considered, incandescent, disastrous.
His passport was that of a journalist or secret agent: Rwanda, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uganda. His quarry: single origin green coffee beans. He stuck out like a sore thumb wherever he went – all 6 feet of His Royal Goofyness. If you watched him in some third-world market you’d pray to yourself, ‘Jesus, I hope he doesn’t start flashing money about’. And then you’d see him start flashing money about. You’d wonder how he survived, let alone ran a successful business. He was a man of contradictions. He was Austin Vawdrey, master coffee roaster, and proprietor of Five Fires café, Melbourne.
As Austin arrived at Five Fires, his head barista Jennifer Wu was in full flow behind the La Marzocco. Jennifer was a sinewy Singaporean exile with a pierced lower lip. She was an unemployed film graduate who didn’t do latte art. Her irezumi-style sleeve tattoos flashed as she worked the group heads. Grind, tamp, seat, pump. She knocked the used grounds from a group head with a…
“Skinny Serpico Doobie!” she announced to the standing customers. “Americano, French Canadian and a Why Bother service up!” she called to the wait staff.
As Austin passed her she said, “oh, and a Facemelter for the boss.”
Austin offered her the shadow of a wave. “Thanks Jennifer, give me a moment,” he said in a voice thick with sleep. He took the double ristretto to his perch at the end of the counter, inhaled the aroma, and seemed to grow an inch taller with each sip. The lights began to twinkle.
“Mmm, a holy ‘spro, Jennifer,” he said at last.
It was love at first sight. At 9.30 am a new customer entered Five Fires – a petite woman, stylishly dressed in a grey pencil skirt and white blouse under a black, tight, cashmere cardigan offering a glimpse of lacy brassiere. Austin was taken – immediately so. He slid off his perch to take the order.
“Long macchiato,” said The Woman, “to have here.”
“Excellent,” replied Austin, “wanna try a Colombian roast I’ve been working on?”
“Sure, why not?”
Austin was staring at her exquisite lips. And glimpsing her lacy brassiere. Jennifer was looking on and watching her boss heading for the rocks.
The noise snapped Austin out of his reverie. The new customer, to be known as The Woman for now, retired to the table near the tall stained-glass window. The morning sun illuminated her in a golden light. Five Fires occupied the building formerly known as Our Lady of Victories church. The Woman opened a hardback book: Love in the Time of Cholera.
“Macchiato,” observed Jennifer, “not your usual type.”
“The Woman has something I can’t put my finger on,” said Austin.
“At least,” replied Jennifer.
“I must court her with single origin,” declared Austin. “Jennifer, start on a Long Karate Kid while I consider the perfect accompaniment.”
Austin delivered the coffee to The Woman accompanied by a single, prefect, fresh cherry.
“The acidity in the prunus cerasus offsets the sweetness in the Medellin bean,” he said, lingering for an awkward second too long.
Austin departed. The Woman sipped her coffee and read her novel. Austin watched her from the counter with Jennifer. The Woman checked her watch and left without looking up. The cherry was untouched.
“What are you thinking, boss?” asked Jennifer, both of them looking down at the solitary cherry.
“I’m thinking this needs a lot more thought,” replied Austin.
“Then you’ll need a coffee,” declared Jennifer.
“Yeah, Depth Charge Latte, Fukushima.
“The Woman is here!” announced Matt, the cook. Austin breezed through the kitchen to serve her.
“Pleased to see you again,” said Austin, “long macchiato, right?”
“Working around here?” he asked casually.
“Just started,” said The Woman, gesturing towards the university, “English lit.”
“Wonderful. I hope you will be my regular. I mean our regular,” corrected Austin, fumbling.
“Oh gawd,” said Jennifer under her breath.
Austin recovered slightly, “may I propose a Guatemalan Hascienda Carmona? I traveled there myself – a honey aroma, medium body with a buttery finish.”
“Sounds like Last Tango in Paris,” quipped Jennifer.
Austin smiled without quite getting the joke. The English Teacher went to sit at the table near the tall stained-glass window as before.
Austin delivered her long macchiato accompanied by a medjool date. “From the phoenix dactylifera,” he said as he set it down.
“Okay, thanks,” said The English Teacher looking up momentarily.
Austin was staring at her lively eyes. And again glimpsing her lacy brassiere.
“Subtext Austin?” asked Jennifer pointedly as he returned to the counter. She filled a group head with fresh grounds.
“What?” replied Austin, lost in another world.
“First a cherry, now a date? Why don’t you just tell her you want to roll off the pink and pot the brown?”
“Talk to your mother with that mouth?” asked Austin jovially. Then the dawn broke over him. “Oh shit! She’s going to think I’m a sleazebag.”
“At least,” said Jennifer, “The English Teacher will be all over subtext.”
Austin was found twenty minutes later in the dry store, sitting on a sack of green coffee beans, with his head in his hands. Jennifer showed him The English Teacher’s used crockery, pointing to the seed from the date.
“Maybe she likes the brown,” observed Jennifer as she departed.
Austin arrived early. His frontline roasting machine was a 1950’s vintage 12 kilogram Probat wired to a Macbook Pro. Today however, he was sitting on a bar stool at the gas range in the kitchen and using an antique pan roaster with a hand crank. His courtship of The English Teacher was going to another level. Matt was nearby plating up some omelettes.
“You know, she scares the shit out of me,” confided Austin, turning the crank slowly.
“The English Teacher?” asked Matt.
“Jennifer,” replied Austin.
“Sweet kid,” said Matt. “Hell of a barista.”
“Yeah I’m sure you can take her home to meet your folks. Provided she owns a long sleeve shirt. They’d probably think she’s a heroin addict. Private girls’ schools have a lot to answer for you know.”
Austin turned the hand crank steadily. “I mean, that tattoo look of hers is such an absolute commitment – so irreversible – so young. It’s like going straight to nukes.”
“Well,” said Matt, ringing the service bell, “if you didn’t hire people with tatts there’d be nobody working here.” He made two fists and showed Austin his HOLD-FAST knuckles.
“Yeah, but how could a man deliver with a chick like that?” asked Austin.
“You don’t need to worry,” said Matt, “she’s a ladies’ woman.”
“Like I said, private girls’ schools.” said Austin.
“You know if we’re being honest Austin,” said Matt, “your selection of women to date has not been – shall we say – very selective.”
“I just want somebody unique. Too much to ask?”
Jennifer stuck her head through the servery, “Facemelter boss?”
“Yeah, Doobie me, I’m going up the street to the university bookshop.”
“Oh, by the way,” said Jennifer theatrically, ”I asked around. The English Teacher has a name.”
Austin was all ears.
“Really? Marion?” asked Austin, mouthing the name again.
“Like Mrs Cunningham in Happy Days,” said Matt, all cheese.
“Or John Wayne,” observed Jennifer.
In the university bookstore, Austin went hunting for and found a Colombian. He timed his departure to bump into Marion on his way back to Five Fires.
“Austin,” she said.
Austin was taken aback.
“I asked around.”
“Marion,” he answered smiling, “Jennifer asked around.”
“Barista. Film critic. Tatts, lip ring?”
“Of course. Hey I’m headed to your café,” she said.
“Me too,” said Austin. “Oh, I got you this.” He opened the bag and passed Marion a copy of Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons. “No subtext.”
“On the love or the demons?” asked Marion.
“Oh it’s nothing – Jennifer’s big on subtext. I was in Colombia earlier this year. Márquez is a big deal there.”
“He sure is. Thanks. I’m actually more of a Kerouac girl.”
“Well I’m the Marion kind,” said Austin suddenly, wishing immediately he hadn’t. He winced.
Marion looked at him, taking in all six feet of His Royal Goofyness.
“How about a drink after work?” she said.
“Let’s take the edge off with a G&T,” declared Marion. “After all it is a school night.”
“Good for malaria also,” said Austin. They ordered at the bar and sat opposite each other in a booth. “I made you a coffee,” said Austin. He handed Marion a brown bag. “Or rather, I roasted you some beans.”
“Get out of here!” she said, opening the bag gently and breathing in the aroma. “Gorgeous. Now this is definitely a first. You really are into coffee.”
“I’m into all sorts of things. Anything a bit out of the ordinary,” admitted Austin.
“You travel a lot?”
“Yep, always looking for the next little farm that’s got something special.”
“An adventurous man,” declared Marion.
“It’s funny though, when I’m home I mostly hang out at the apartment or Five Fires.”
“So, what about a Significant Other?”
“Ever see Air Crash Investigators?” asked Austin.
“Matt tells me – he’s my cook. Matt tells me I don’t know what’s good for me.”
“Well, what kind of people do you admire?” asked Marion.
Austin thought for a moment, “I admire self-made people.”
The drinks arrived.
“Cheers,” he said.
“Well here’s to self-made people,” said Marion.
Marion came into Five Fires in the late afternoon. Austin was alone at the counter.
“Espresso?” he asked.
Marion settled into her seat at the table near the tall stained-glass window. Austin brought the coffee over and sat down with her.
“I enjoyed our drink last night,” she said.
“I’m really into you,” said Austin.
“I want to talk to you about that,” said Marion. “I like you too. But I want you to know what you’re getting in for.”
“I’ve never been more certain,” said Austin, “I’ve been – transported by you.”
Marion looked at him, judging the range, her tongue feeling for the edge of her exquisite lips.
“You said you admire self-made people.”
“I completely understand if this isn’t your thing,” said Marion, holding his gaze.
Austin looked into her serious eyes.
“I haven’t always been a woman,” she said evenly.
Austin felt the heat fill his neck and scalp. He breathed in through his nose.
“Austin?” asked Marion.
Austin felt the tang of anticipation – imagined the first taste.
“Austin?” asked Marion again.
Austin felt the intoxicating rush – the feeling of being alive. And he felt a surprising pressure building in his trousers.
“That’s okay,” he said eventually, “I haven’t always been much of a man.”
Relief flooded Marion’s face. She smiled. Austin looked into her lively eyes.
“Wanna Doobie me?” she ventured.
“Yeah,” said Austin, “Doobie me now.”
Origin of Terms
Canadian = Decaf Americano
Depth Charge = Double Shot
Doobie = Take Away (from the song Takin’ it to the Streets by the Doobie Brothers)
Facemelter = Double Ristretto
French Canadian = Double Shot Decaf Americano
Fukushima = Extra Hot
Karate Kid = Macchiato (from the movie starring Ralph Macchio)
Serpico = cappuccino (from the movie starring Al Pacino)
Why Bother = a Decaffeinated Café Latte with low-fat milk