a short story by TOM FROZART
‘Sir… sir…’ The voice is soft, clear, a bit alien. Where am I? There is a smell of cold coffee grounds. Someone is gently tapping my right shoulder. Four or five people peer down at me from every direction. They have something of wax dummies, or models during a photoshoot… the words must come from someone else I can’t see. How long have they been spying at me lying down here?
Leaning on my left elbow I manage to sit up, all faces dissolve into thin air. I immediately recognize the surroundings from their gothic style, recall leaving home early in the morning for Fremantle’s Art Centre. I had reserved that day to visit ‘Café Culture’, an exhibition that had been the talk of the town for a year; the curators finally gathered a hundred or so photos, drawings and illustrations along with a variety of coffee-related impliments. Their website proudly emphasized that everything was on loan from private collections and museums worldwide. After a decade that saw would-be cafés popping-up all over the place we would have just a month to satiate our eyes and minds.
High up in the sky a tinge of pink hinted at some cold to come. Not enough to deter me from getting out, I grabbed my ticket and headed toward the train station despite a cool southwestern breeze.
Deciphering the alchemy of coffee for the benefit of the layperson is anything but easy. To make a long story short, Café Culture is akin to a cult with a variety of chapels, many fanatics and now heretics. Early believers cleared the way under the scrutiny of merchants circling the temple; during about four centuries, medical and religious scholars argued over the divine or evil roots of coffee plants. Even today, some, mostly writers in search of an audience, still feel the need to use their pen to dig up the shallow buried hatchet.
Freo’s Art Centre is hosted by a heritage building originally designed to lock-up the outcasts; after a century and a half the medieval styled gaol escaped demolition to be redeemed as a culture hub. The complete tour of the exhibition probably took around five hours, including plenty of time wasted navigating a multimedia maze designed for kids. Not a noise could be heard thanks to the thick limestone walls, except on the first floor and its creaking floorboards. That part, originally designed to be majestic, used to serve as the prison’s governor apartments; the most precious items requiring some surveillance were there on display under permanent watch. The perception of silence was eerie, barely eighty metres away from a procession of heavy loaded trucks heading to and from the harbour. I mused about being locked in one of those capsules for daring space-time explorers. All these drawings and paintings hanging on the walls were nothing other than portholes providing a glimpse of coffee related customs at different epochs and places.
About mid-afternoon I emerged from my caffeine trip to sit down at a table in the courtyard for a cup of heirloom Arabica. A rare Ethiopian variety had been selected to highlight the ancestry of coffee, and would be delisted right after the exhibition. It was served in a chiselled tin pot brought along with the bill in a tiny reed basket. The waitress stressed right away that the closing time was due shortly which I found a bit rude, but there would be no exception on behalf of culture. While she was away getting my change, other members of the staff started readying for the next day, sweeping the stone floor and bringing chairs and cushions inside for the night.
The sun was diving down rather fast and would soon be swallowed by the ocean, yet I didn’t feel the temperature dropping, which is unusual on a clear-skied wintry day. Sitting at a nearby table, a woman with sharp features was keeping her eyes locked on me as if my presence was out of place. Being the only male in sight was actually no different from what I experience in most art-friendly joints, but, strangely, there were no students either. I retaliated by looking her up and down and noticed that she, like the others including the waitress, was as pale as death and surrounded by a somewhat ethereal pale green aura. I haven’t absorbed any food since breakfast and the cafe kitchen is closed… could be a form of hallucination… if I shut my eyes, maybe the green thing would vanish… It didn’t.
As my time was counted I stopped inspecting the surroundings in order to enjoy my coffee while it was warm. It had little in common with the brews served in town. Its mildly bitter aftertaste hinted at absinthe, the ill-famed Green Fairy that got banned a hundred years earlier. Nowhere in the exhibition had I noticed any mention of this hallucinogenic plant in association with coffee. I started to conjure up visions of several classical paintings depicting European Cafés that served the mind-altering drink. Unlike coffee, absinthe was consumed in a totally different spirit; its drinkers were consistently depicted as loners avoiding interaction with fellow patrons. Anyway the Art Café wasn’t licenced and no alcoholic drinks could be consumed or even brought on the premises.
The transmutation of the first coffee-houses into today’s version was the Ariadne thread of the exhibition. Cafés initially played the role of community hubs relaying folk culture and news. This aspect is now shunned in most countries where coffee drinking is reduced to the solitary absorption of a shot of caffeine as a ritual of daily life. Its relationship to community is being lost where it used to be one of the two faces of the same coin. How could that divorce have happened?
While I was waiting for the waitress to return, I peered down into my cup in the hope of finding an answer in the left-over mixture of grounds and cold liquid coffee. I briefly saw my own face before my reflection was blurred; circular ripples were undulating from the edge of the cup, pushing the liquid and my distorted face toward the centre where it whirled down a barely visible conduit. A black hole in a cup… I tried to resist the strength of its hypnotic pull to no avail, I was overwhelmed and let go to be slowly sucked down the dark slide.
The fall itself felt immaterial, ultra light and quiet and I witnessed scenes that used to be separated by both centuries and hundreds of kilometres. All during my fall I was able to halt it whenever I felt like doing so. Each scene was echoing some document or artefact on display in the exhibition; however instead of being just snapshots they were developing as part of live plays illustrating different fragments of Café history. The narrative of Café Rituals was setting the pace, without any chronological order, timeline, or logic to link the scenes.
The very first one I stopped by was set in Paris around the end of the 19th century; a young woman with a hat on was sitting at a wrought iron table very similar to the one in front of me. I recognized her as the Absinthe Drinker by Degas. Instead of being still and dreamy as in the painting, her sight was following drops of iced water splashing into a green liquid at the bottom of her glass. Her neighbour at the next table was looking into the distance; a scruffy man wearing a scarf, probably an artist in his thirties drowning his sorrow caused by art collectors’ lack of vision. At shoulder level between the pair, a tiny greenish genie was fluttering; its presence had obviously evaded Degas’ eye.
Spiralling down a bit further, I stopped by a 15th century coffee-house in Istanbul; turban wearing merchants and a Venetian agent were negotiating some seaborne cargo. The group was tucked away in a nook by a stained glass window, puffing on narghiles and sipping coffee around a low-lying table. Close by on a large woven mat, squatting students were listening to a storyteller dressed in a white robe.
Warring tribes from the Arabic peninsula introduced coffee drinking to the Middle East as a trophy from the tablelands of the horn of Africa. In their quest to propagate their faith, they had adopted it for the relief it brought to religious people fighting to stay awake for night prayers. During a stopover at Mecca I witnessed a heated debate that eventually sealed the fate of coffee: a fatwa was at stake, coffee or not coffee for all. Hardliners were trying to outlaw its possession, trade and use, arguing that its long lasting stimulating effect exceeded prayer time by far; they said it would distract the masses from religion on the long run. In the opposite camp, liberal Muslim scholars had joined efforts with the backing of Sultans. The latter eventually won the confrontation. Coffee-houses were tolerated, survived, then thrived, and finally contributed to cementing the fabric of a nascent urban civilization from Yemen to Turkey and the Mediterranean.
In no time the next leg of my journey took me to the cold shores of Northern Europe. In the wake of the face-off between Christianity and Islam, coffee quickly migrated North, entering through sea ports and spreading to major cities; only rural inland-Europe was left immune of the contamination. Coffee-houses were used as a convenient neutral territory for traders of different creeds and origins. The ultimate outreach of the black beans occurred after a clash with the prominent beer and spirit culture of Northern Western Europe. The divide eventually gave rise to the modern breed of Café Culture. Today’s Coffee-houses that flourish in the rectangular street grid of our cities wouldn’t have had a chance of fitting into ancient undisciplined alleyways.
At all times I could notice that coffee was served in dedicated drinking holes owing to the complex transmutation of coffee beans into a drinkable black liquid. This immutable nature is the corner stone of Café Culture; instant drinks don’t belong to that world.
Prior to the sprawling urbanization of Europe, coffee-houses were men’s dens, just another sort of tavern where the occasional woman belonged to the owner’s family; when she could be seen she was usually acting as the cashier. However, unlike medieval taverns, meals were rarely served in Cafés, patrons and visitors preferring to feed on immaterial deals, juggling with political issues and figures.
Contrary to Northern European taverns where discussions were known to get sour and end up in drunken fights, coffee-houses kept taking after their Middle-Eastern forebears and encouraged sober conversation and in-depth thinking. Anybody was able to either keep their conversation private or grab the opportunity to ask questions without caution, and could expect being answered in a civil manner.
The pre-eminence of wit over fist is the most concrete premise of Café Civilization. While coffee was being prepared new ideas could brew. Idle time being considered evil by ruling powers and clerics alike, irrespective of any particular faith, every breed of secular ruler was tempted to either close or control coffee-houses. Such attacks were repelled in all the countries of the Christian Western hemisphere, just as they were in the early Islamic world. ‘Penny Universities’ from Victorian Britain followed the same path and contributed to developing social intercourse by mimicking the social role played by their Middle-Eastern models. If religion is the opium of the people, coffee was often seen as its potent and feared radical antidote.
None of the characters I was coming across during my space-time journey were complete strangers; all those who appeared in the flesh had dropped out of manuscripts and pictures I saw in the Art Centre. In the absence of any feeling of flowing time, I had taken for granted that nobody ever paid any attention to my presence. Whereas I was able to move freely from table to table and even sit by in private alcoves, I certainly remained invisible to these characters. They never addressed me directly but when I joined in, my remarks, including the most silent or naive ones, received clear answers. Never before had I experienced such a full command of whatever language was spoken. Meanwhile people were casually coming and going, sitting at the first vacant seat they could find, unlike pubs that often cater to distinct social groups.
The very last stop of the way down the funnel occurred in early 18th century Paris. Francesco Procopio, a Sicilian, had recently taken over a declining Armenian coffee-house established on the left bank of the river. Upon spicing up the décor with Middle-East themes on fashion within the elite, Procopio made a splash with the literary mob. Within weeks the place was turned into a trend setters hub. Today’s establishment still bears the original name ‘Café Procope’; not a café any more, certainly not a coffee-house mixing social types, just a magnet for visitors buying nostalgia.
The rotation speed was now slowing down, would come to a standstill at any moment, a clear indication that my descent was nearing its end. I was feeling dizzy upon stepping up to be greeted by the Green Fairy herself who would show me the way out. When I tried to reach for her evanescent figure it popped; I lost my balance, banged my forehead on the table and sent the cup flying with the saucer.
‘Sir… sir, are you OK? We are closing now, you can’t stay. Don’t worry about the mess, we’ll clean it up tomorrow.’
The low-lying sun was painting the sky pink and the time on my watch did not match the elongated blue shadows cast on the walls.
Alone in the empty courtyard I was feeling the chill creeping in. High time to head home for a boiling-hot pot of tea.
© Tom Frozart, 2018
Tom’s writing is mainly inspired by a variety of life experience from the corporate world to isolated communities of Algeria or the Australian desert, and Antarctica where he was head of scientific teams for international projects.
He’s interested in the ethical aspects of science, the fabrication of evidence, delusion, the intricacies of our perception of the world and how our behaviour evolve under social, religious, or environmental pressures.
Short stories & essays:
- in English: Sow Time, The Drifters, Last Drop, Blue Night, Operation Pied Piper, Calcius Blues.
- in French: Big Bang, Rat bien cuit.
- in English: Burnt Offering, Lying on a Couch, Monkey Business, Ice Dream.
- in French: Le Manchot aux œufs d’or
- The Finger and the Moon
Tom Frozart holds a PhD in Information Science; he currently shares his time as a project management consultant for hi-flying industries and shares his time between Australia and France.