On the corner of Prince of Wales and Widowbridge sits an elegant, but often overlooked, coffee shop. Burnished gold cursive letters on a wine red plaque simply read “Gemma’s”. The sign swings above the door of the quaint shop, its architecture all that of antique charm with modern accents.
Stepping inside, small circular tables with stone tops dot the centre floor, and cozy, worn booths line the walls. The whole back of the shop is the storefront, save for a narrow hall that branches off three ways: one door leads to a unisex washroom, a swinging door to the kitchen/loading area, and finally, one to the manager’s office (which was recently renovated to its current state from its old status as a large storage room).
The walls of the establishment are painted the same red as the sign outside, with Turkish blue accents bringing pops of bright colour here and there. The floor is a warm dark wood, covered only in certain areas by wine red circular carpets under each table. Chalkboards with interesting quotes hang evenly on the walls, and the entire room is lit by pot lights (over the storefront area) and matte black industrial hanging lights (over the lounge).
Axel, a young barista in his early-twenties, gives the tables a final wipe down before the store opens. It’s 6:55 in the morning, his cash is in his register, and his co-worker known only as X is giving the glass door a quick wash before flipping the “Open/Closed” sign to start another day.
“Are we changing the sign today?” the larger man asks, referring to the chalk-art sign they put outside the establishment to lure customers in.
“Nah, our biscotti special is still on, and I still can’t think of something funnier than what we have already,” Axel replies, going to fetch the sign from where it rests against a booth.
“My idea was better, and more appropriate, than anything you thought of,” X reminds him, defending his crappy “You biscotti be kidding me” pun.
Axel rolls his eyes, and carries the sign through the door as X holds it open for him. “Showtime,” the older catboy says, tightening his red apron with the embroidered golden G.
Not long after the shop opened and the pair had assumed their positions behind the cash, the first wave of morning coffee-drinkers trickled in, ordering their usuals, or asking to try the new seasonal drinks (apple cinnamon this and pumpkin spice that). X and Axel work fluidly, complimenting one another’s work styles well. As always, they do their best to keep the line moving and make sure that there is someone on cash as much as possible if the other is making a drink or warming a freshly-made breakfast sandwich, assembled that morning before opening time.
The rush is nothing new to the pair, as they’d spent a year and a half working together and getting to know each other.
As 10 o’clock rolls around, the usual end-of-rush quiet assures Axel and X that it’s their chance to tidy up before the late-breakfast folks and the early lunch patrons start to show up. A few tables are occupied by respectfully quiet students on laptops, or with their heads bent over textbooks and notes. Mellow clarinet music plays over the shop’s loudspeakers, bringing a cozy friendliness to the room. Axel silently rinses coffee cups in the large back sink while X keeps an eye on the cash and cleans various parts of one of their French presses.
“So, do you think Mystery Curls will make a repeat appearance?” X asks his shiftmate.
“For one thing, his hair was more wavy than curly. And for another, no clue.” Axel doesn’t add that the prospect of closing and possibly seeing the cute guy he’d seen yesterday has him on edge, but not in a bad way.
He remembers the young man’s expression the most. He’d walked quickly to the front of the shop, and had tried the door, only to find it locked. The sheer disappointed that had twisted his expression from hopeful to desolate had pulled at a few of Axel’s heartstrings, and though he’d been in the back out of sight, he’d been tempted to go unlock the door, just to talk to him and maybe wipe away his frown with a bad joke.
“Bianca really needs to get that Store Hours sign made,” says Nadine, their resident cook. She wipes sudsy water off of her hands as she comes out of the kitchen.
Axel nods. “Totally. 3 o’clock is kind of a weird time to close, so we should be able to let people know somehow.” An idea occurs to him. “How about we change the sign outside to our hours?”
His co-workers consider it. X shakes his head. “I don’t know dude, it’ll only benefit our regulars in the long run.”
“And if people see how short our hours are, they might be discouraged to come back when there isn’t a later, more convenient time for them,” Nadine adds.
“Or the fleetingness of our hours will encourage them to come in while they can,” Axel argues. X shrugs, his face saying that Axel’s point is legitimate.
Nadine shakes her head, short blond bob swishing around her cheeks. “Sorry man, I don’t think Bianca will go for it. She wants art, jokes, and more patrons more than anything.”
The conversation ends as a fresh wave begins in the shop, with each employee returning to his or her post.
As 3 o’clock rolls around, X makes his way out the front door, wearing his fall coat and a beanie. “You sure you’re okay to close up?” he asks, not for the first time.
Axel grins. “No worries man. Don’t be late for your appointment.”
X returns the smile, making his way down the two stone steps outside. “Will do, man. See you tomorrow!” He salutes his friend with the medium-sized travel cup he’s taking to go, filled to the brim with a French vanilla, as he starts his walk to the bus stop.
Running a list through his head of all the things he has left to do, Axel goes inside, locking the door behind him. Just as he reaches for his rag, discarded on the nearest table, he hears the muffled sound of running steps coming to a halt outside.
Axel turns, and sees a breathless, familiar figure outside. The blond, wavy-haired catboy has his hands on his knees, and is catching his breath. Without meaning to, Axel takes a step closer to the door, waiting to see what he’ll do next.
The blond catboy straightens up, and pulls the sleeve of his grey jacket back to check a simple gold watch. He grimaces, and looks to the door hopefully. The blond catboy freezes when he sees Axel standing there watching him, and for a moment, the two just regard each other.
As the moment passes, the two simultaneously take a step towards the door. Axel, who’d been closer, finds himself unlocking the door before he can think about it too long.
Cold air brushes across Axel’s bare forearms as he opens the door. He sucks in a breath before asking: “Can I help you…?”
The blond boy points to the sign. “Are you still open?” he asks.
Axel follows his gaze and realizes that he’d forgotten to flip the sign after the closing up. “Uh…” is all he can muster for a moment. “We close at 3…?” he adds, but it comes out sounding more like a question than a statement.
The blond boy’s face falls, but before he can voice an apology, Axel finds himself rushing to say: “But on Tuesdays we close at 4!”
Why did I say that?! Axel shrieks inwardly.
The blond catboy smiles, and Axel feels his heart stutter.
Oh. That’s why.
“Great! Could I trouble you for a coffee?” the boy asks.
The barista steps aside, waving his guest in. “N-not at all. Come take a look at our menu.” As soon as the blond boy walks by him, unbuttoning his coat, Axel shuts the door and flips the sign. As long as no one presses their nose against the glass, they probably won’t be seen. Heart pounding by what he’s just done, Axel almost misses a question the boy asks him from where he stands at the counter.
“You have such a wide selection! Where should I start?”
Axel blinks, reaching behind him to tighten his apron strings as he goes to join his guest. “Hard to tell. Do you like traditional coffee, or are you more of a luxury coffee kind of guy?”
The boy doesn’t take long to answer. “Sometimes I’ll have a mocha or caramel, uh, whatever type of drink those are, but for the most part I usually just get coffee with milk and sweetener.”
Axel nods, turning from where he stands behind the counter to look up at the suspended menu board. “In that case, for your first visit, I’ll start you off with our house coffee. The blend is pretty unique, if I do say so myself.”
The boy smiles again, reaching into his back pocket to pull out his wallet. “Sounds good. Could I have a… medium?”
Axel rings his purchase through, and tells him to sit wherever he’d like (while praying that he’d stay away from the windows). He watches as the boy selects a booth near the door, making Axel sigh with relief, and goes back to brewing a fresh cup with a French press.
A few minutes pass, during which Axel waits out the extraction process by trying to guess the boy’s name. He looks like an Alexander, or maybe a Matt? Axel chuckles as Charles comes to mind- it’s rather fitting.
He carries over a tray with the steaming cup of fresh coffee, a small ceramic cup with milk in it, and some packs of sweetener. “Here we go, fresh out of the, er, oven,” he announces, carefully placing the tray in front of his only patron.
The boy smiles, making Axel’s heart skip a beat again. “Thank you! It smells wonderful.” He pushes a notebook aside to make more room for the tray. A battered copy of Homer's “Odyssey” with post-its coming out of the side and top sits next to it.
The boy notices where Axel is looking and grimaces. “I’m working on my thesis. It’s taking one hundred years.”
The young barista notes that the post-its only fill half the tome. “Having a hard time getting through the book?” he asks politely.
The boy laughs. It’s a hearty, almost musical sound. “Far from it! I’ve read it like four times. I’m combing through it for details at the moment, and I don’t want to miss anything, so I’m taking it slow.”
Axel whistles. He doesn’t read as much as he’d like to, so his guest’s dedication is impressive. “Well, good luck to you!” he says, giving him a smile. He walks to the counter to grab a rag, needing the wipe off the last of the tables.
Feeling the boy’s eyes on him, he decides to make conversation. “Did you come by around this time yesterday? You look familiar.”
“I did, yeah. I, uh, finish work at 3, and I noticed the shop when I took an alternate route yesterday, so I thought I’d pop by to get some work done before heading home.”
“Busy home life?”
“Not especially. I have a roommate who does his share of the housework, which is a plus, but I just find it hard to focus when I don’t have a good cup of coffee to get me through it.” Axel nods, thinking of all of the patrons he gets who spend a couple of hours doing homework in the morning. “Unfortunately, by the time I get home, it’s a little late for coffee.”
“I totally understand,” Axel replies, scrubbing at an invisible spot on one of the tables. “One of my co-workers, he makes the best cups of coffee I’ve ever tasted, but he can’t stand the stuff. He only drinks the luxury stuff that doesn’t really taste like coffee, you know? Anyway, I can’t get through the day without having at least… say, two cups? One in the morning after breakfast, and one after I eat my lunch.”
“I don’t trust people who don’t need caffeine to get through the day,” the blond boy says jokingly from behind him.
“Ditto. Speaking of…” The last part he mutters to himself, straightening out to walk behind the counter. He pours the rest of the coffee out of the French press and into a cup for himself, adding only a little cream to his. He sips it slowly- although he’d left it sitting in the press for a little longer than he would have liked, the flavour is rich and smooth. He mentally pats himself on the back for not serving complete shit to his handsome customer.
“Here’s to you, Charles,” he murmurs, taking another sip.
“What was that?”
The two work silently for twenty minutes or so, the blond boy pouring over his battered classic, and Axel sweeping and mopping the floors. The kitchen is spotless, since Nadine has all of the dishes done by the time she leaves at 2. She finishes baking at noon, unless they’re selling more pastries than usual, and has all of the extra ingredients put away and the dishes done before she heads out, an hour earlier than the others. The boys never minded, since she usually came in at 5:30 in the morning to make fresh goods and have a decent showcase ready by opening time.
X had helped Axel put away all the spare pastries before he left. “Gemma’s” policy was that each employee finishing at closing time could bring home one small box of 6 leftover goods, and the rest was donated to the local homeless shelter. It was never very much, since Nadine had mastered the art of Cooking Just the Right Amount of Everything, but it was still much better than just throwing it out.
Axel lifts the lid on his box of leftovers. “Do you want a free cookie?” he calls across the shop to his guest.
Looking up, he can see the boy grinning sheepishly. “I’d be happy to pay for it.”
“Nah, man, it’s fine. They aren’t very fresh at this time of day so I’d feel bad selling you a semi-stale cookie.” The boy laughs, and Axel can feel his cheeks warm a little at the sound. “So, do you want oatmeal raisin nutmeg, or coconut dark chocolate?”
“Uh, oatmeal sounds nice!”
Axel drops the cookie in a carry-out bag, and brings it over to his guest. He notices that his guest has mostly packed up his things. “Heading out?” Axel asks, placing the cookie near his notebook as he picks up the tray and the handful of dirty dishes.
“Yeah, I should start my commute before rush hour gets too bad.”
Axel nods. “Makes sense.”
He carries the tray to the large sink behind the counter, and proceeds to wash, sterilize, and dry the dishes.
Over the din of the running water, he hears a knocking sound coming from the counter.
He turns, and sees the blond boy leaning against the counter, one fisted hand still resting on it from when he’d knocked.
The boy gives him another heart-lurchingly genuine smile. “Thank you for the coffee, man. It was fantastic.” Axel is surprised when the boy holds out his hand over the counter.
He hastily wipes his own off on his apron and shakes his guest’s hand. “Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you liked it.”
Without releasing his hand, the boy asks: “Are there any other days that you close at 4?”
This is it. “Uh, yeah. Fridays we’re open a little later too.”
“Awesome. I’ll see you then?” Axel doesn’t miss the deliberate eye-contact his handsome guest is making with him.
Holy hell, his eyes are so green.
“A-absolutely.” Screwing his courage, his grips the stranger’s hand a moment longer as he asks: “What was your name?”
The boy smiles.
Please say Charles.
“It’s Basil. Yours?”
Basil. He didn’t think anything could have been more fitting than Charles, but he likes the sound of it. “Axel. Nice to meet you.”
Basil gives Axel’s hand another shake. “Nice to meet you too.” Finally, they both release their grips, and Axel watches as his new acquaintance-
- makes his way to the door.
The golden catboy turns, grinning.
Axel returns the smile. “I forgot to say so before, but welcome to Gemma’s!”
As Axel gives the shop one last cursory look, he clocks out, satisfied with how the day had turned out. As he walks by the counter, he notices a glint of gold in the tip jar. Confused, he goes to double-check. Hadn’t he and X split the tips at 3?
Sitting in the bottom of the jar is a loonie and two quarters.
He shakes the content of the jar out in his hand and puts it in his pocket. The tip is a little disproportionate to what Basil had received, but Axel doesn’t mind.
He’ll just have to earn it by putting in another extra hour on Friday.