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Codes and Coffees

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'Hello, Mr Murchison,' said Allison Winterdale, tying her apron carefully behind her back. It was important that she tie it that way, because if she tied it in the front, the strings could get into the coffee. Allison had supposed as much when she accepted the job, but it was good to have it confirmed by Mr Murchison.

'Hello, Allison,' said her boss pleasantly. 'I wanted to let you know that you've done splendidly in your first week working here.'

'Thank you, Mr Murchison,' said Allison. 'I thought I had done rather well, but seeing as we've only been open this one week, I didn't have anything to compare it to, so it's nice to hear you say that to me.'

'Yes, Allison, you're quite right. This shop has been open exactly one week, although I've had the space rented for considerably longer than that. Since November the 23rd at eleven o'clock, to be precise. I was thinking, as I always do at eleven o'clock, that it would be nice to make a coffee, and ever since I was unexpectedly fired from my last job, I had been on the hunt for a new one. So I thought, why not combine those two ideas and open a coffee shop?'

'Yes, sir,' said Allison. 'I remember all this from when you told me at my interview two weeks ago Monday. You said you'd decided to open a coffee shop and you needed an employee, and I said that was very convenient, because I was a little short on rent, and having a job would make everything so much easier.'

'Yes,' said Mr Murchison, 'we were seated at that table in the corner. The big one, not the little one, only at the time most of our furniture had not yet arrived, so it was the only table in the corner.'

'Yes,' said Allison, nodding vigorously, 'and because the other one hadn't come in yet, we had more space to fill, so that table was a little bit to the left.'

'That's quite right,' said Mr Murchison, beaming. 'Now, Allison, I think you had better start brewing our first batches of coffee, because it's nearly eleven o'clock.'

'Of course, Mr Murchison,' said Allison. 'In fact, Mr Murchison, I can already see a customer waiting to come inside. Perhaps we ought to open earlier in the day, if people are lining up to wait for us.'

'Now that is an interesting thought,' said Mr Murchison. 'Well done, Allison. I shall ponder your idea while I go and unlock the door.'

Allison nodded as her boss crossed the room. She turned and set about preparing the morning's first coffee, but before she could so much as grind the beans, there was a clattering noise. She turned around, and she was startled to see that Mr Murchison had dropped his keys on the ground. He was looking at their first customer of the day as though he had seen him before, and unless Allison was much mistaken, it seemed as if these memories might be tinged with some sort of pain or regret.

Allison picked up a rag to wipe the brewer clean of stains. There weren't very many, and if pressed, she would have to admit that this was a stalling tactic of sorts. She was very curious to hear what she could of Mr Murchison's conversation, and if she started grinding coffee, she would not be able to hear very much.

'Hello, Control,' said Mr Murchison stiffly. He started to bend rather awkwardly to pick up his keys, which had fallen a ways away from his feet. They were, in fact, rather closer to Control's feet. Privately, Allison thought that Control was a very odd name for a person.

'Hello, Tony,' said the man called Control, and his voice was heavy with an emotion that Allison could not quite place. He held out a hand to stop Mr Murchison in mid-reach, and he smiled, although he somehow still looked very sad indeed. 'No, Tony, please. Allow me.' He reached down and retrieved Mr Murchison's keys, and he pressed them into his hand. Allison didn't want to presume too much, but it did seem as though Control kept his hand closed over Mr Murchison's for a half-second or two longer than strictly necessary.

'Thank you, Control, that's very kind,' said Mr Murchison, his voice equally tinged with a repressed emotion of sorts. 'I should very well have thrown my back out if you hadn't picked up my keys for me.' Based on Allison's observations of where the keys had fallen relative to where Mr Murchison stood, that seemed rather unlikely. Allison trembled with excitement as she wondered if it might have been a lie of sorts, so that Mr Murchison could prolong his conversation with Control, just as she herself was prolonging her coffee brewing in order to hear his conversation with Control.

'I doubt that very much, Tony,' said Control, echoing Allison's thoughts, 'but I am glad to have been able to help you in any way that I can. I don't mind telling you that I have been very lonely ever since the day that I had to fire you from your job.'

'Ah,' said Mr Murchison. 'I'm sorry to hear you've been lonely, Control, although I must admit I am pleased to hear that you've missed me, if indeed that is what you intended to imply by that statement.'

'It is, Tony, you're absolutely right. Naturally I was very pleased to hear through the grapevine that you had found yourself a new career, so I hastened to pay you a visit at the earliest opportunity.'

'Yes, well,' said Mr Murchison, blushing, 'it's nothing like my old job, of course, but I did always think I made a good cup of coffee, so I thought it might be a good idea to try to make a new living by making lots of good cups of coffee.'

'Oh, Tony,' said Control sadly, 'I can assure you that you made the best coffee I have ever tasted, or am ever likely to taste. Indeed, I would be very pleased if you might invite me inside your establishment so that I could have the pleasure of tasting your coffee another time.'

Mr Murchison smiled. 'Control, I would be most delighted if you would come in and try a cup of our fine coffee. My assistant Allison should have our first batch ready very soon indeed.'

Allison hurriedly tore her eyes and ears away from her boss and Control. She felt a flush creep up her neck as she rushed to grind the coffee. She had now been stalling for far too long, and that would not do at all.

'The brewer was rather badly stained,' Allison lied, as the two approached the counter. 'I had to clean it before I could make any coffee. I must have forgot to do it last night. How very silly of me.'

'That's quite all right, my dear,' said Control. 'My telephone call with the Russian ambassador isn't until a quarter past twelve, so I have plenty of time to wait. However, I think I'll take my coffee to go, if you can manage it. I so rarely have the opportunity to enjoy a pleasant walk in the middle of a long workday.'

'It's funny you should say that, Control, because I remember very well how you used to walk around your office for exercise in the middle of the day,' said Mr Murchison, 'unless my memory fails me, which at my age I suppose it might.'

'No, Tony, you're quite correct. I apologise for the misstatement. I ought to have said that I so rarely have the opportunity to enjoy a walk outside in the middle of the day.'

'Ah, I see,' said Mr Murchison. 'That does make it much clearer. Thank you, Control.'

'Not a problem, Tony. I certainly wouldn't want to leave you with any false impressions.' Control smiled, a bit less sadly this time. 'You do, of course, remember how I like my coffee?'

'Control, I can honestly say there is nothing I have ever remembered so well, or am ever likely to remember half as well, as how you like your coffee.' Mr Murchison smiled back at Control, and Allison, feeling that it would definitely be best to let Mr Murchison be the one to make his friend's coffee, busied herself sweeping the floor. She noted the looks on both of their faces as Control paid for his coffee and left the building. She felt very certain that both looks could be aptly described as longing gazes.

In fact, Mr Murchison's longing gaze not only followed Control out of the shop, but all the way down the street as he walked away. Allison cleared her throat. 'Mr Murchison, I have to confess something. I didn't really have to clean the brewer. I wanted to hear your conversation with friend. I hope that wasn't terribly presumptuous of me.'

'Not to worry, Allison,' said Mr Murchison gravely. 'I thought it might have been something like that. Did you find anything particularly edifying or instructive in my conversation with Control?'

'Yes, Mr Murchison, I do believe that I did. For one thing, I learned that your Christian name is Tony. For another, I learned that you have a friend called Control, and while that might be an odd name for a friend, it seemed that you missed him very dearly.'

Mr Murchison nodded. 'Yes, Allison, you are quite correct on both of those fronts. I would even go so far as to say that it tears my heart right out of my chest not to see Control every day as I used to do.'

Allison stared. She felt she ought to choose her words carefully, as this was clearly a delicate subject. 'Are you saying, Mr Murchison, that you are in love with your friend Control?'

Mr Murchison nodded again and smiled sadly at her. 'Excellent deduction, Allison. I have, indeed, long been in love with Control.'

'But,' said Allison, 'forgive me if I'm mistaken, Mr Murchison, but I thought I heard Control say that he had fired you from your old job. That seems a very cruel thing to have done, if you don't mind my saying so.'

'I don't mind, Allison, and you would be right, except that it was not Control's fault. He was forced to eliminate my position due to budget cuts. It was just frightfully inconvenient because that very day, I had intended to tell him I loved him. I was going to bring him a note with his morning coffee. It would have said, “Dearest Control, I have done some thinking and come to the conclusion that I am most violently in love with you. Yours faithfully, Tony Murchison.”'

'That would have been a lovely sentiment, Mr Murchison,' said Allison. 'I'm very sorry that Control had to fire you before you could do it. How very unfortunate for the two of you.'

'Yes, Allison, it truly was. Even worse, I don't mind telling you, is that I would have done it ages ago, had I not been under the misapprehension that Control was married. He spoke quite often, and with deep affection, of a Mrs Control, whom I had rather foolishly presumed to be his wife.'

Allison pursed her lips in confusion. 'But Mr Murchison, I'm not sure I understand your meaning. Surely believing that Mrs Control was Control's wife was a perfectly logical assumption on your part.'

'Ah, well, you see, Allison,' Mr Murchison began. 'What I am about to tell you next must not leave this shop, do you understand?'

'Yes, sir,' said Allison. 'If it means that much to you, of course I won't tell.'

'Allison, as you know, I have not always been in the coffee trade. However, it may surprise you to learn that when I worked with Control, I was by profession a spee.'

'A spee?' said Allison. 'I'm most frightfully embarrassed, Mr Murchison, but I'm afraid I don't understand your meaning. What is a spee?'

'A code word,' said Mr Murchison, 'for my former profession. If I were not speaking in code, I would say that I was a spy.'

'Oh,' said Allison, blinking in surprise. 'It does make sense that you would speak in code, if you were, ah, a spee.'

'Exactly. Now, I'm deeply embarrassed by how long it took me to realise that Mrs Control was also a code name. While a very dear and important person to Control, she was not his wife.'

'Oh,' said Allison again. 'Who was she really?'

'His landlady,' said Mr Murchison wistfully. 'If only I had known before it was too late.'

'I'm so sorry,' said Allison. 'If Control comes in again, will you tell him that you love him?'

Mr Murchison shook his head. 'Oh, I couldn't do that. I see now that it would have been insanity to tell him before. It would be most unreasonable of me to trouble him with such potentially vexing information as the fact of my wasting away in desperate longing for him.'

'Oh,' said Allison a third time. 'I guess I should finish sweeping the floor, then.'

'An excellent idea,' said Mr Murchison sadly. 'I knew there was a reason I chose to hire you. You always know exactly what I'm thinking.'

'I do try my best to know what you're thinking, Mr Murchison,' said Allison, but at the moment she felt she hardly knew what he was thinking at all. It had been clear to her across the room that Control missed Mr Murchison as much Mr Murchison missed him, so how Mr Murchison could have failed to notice it rather befuddled her. But then she remembered something she had read in a book about how people in love can take leave of their senses, like one captive Major who had gravely jeopardised the Normandy Invasion in just such a way. This, she decided, must be what was happening to Mr Murchison.

Well, she thought, it was easily remedied, if she did say so herself. If and when Control came back to the shop, she could put her plan into action.

As it happened, Allison did not have to wait long. Control came back the very next day, and for extra convenience, Mr Murchison was busy in the back room. She decided not to disturb him, and instead asked Control how he liked his coffee. It seemed to her that Control felt deeply regretful at having to explain this.

Allison prepared Control's coffee as best she could, ignoring the impatient man behind him. Instead of serving it right away, she picked up her pen and scrawled a note on the cup: 'Dear Control, I'm terribly sorry to meddle in your affairs, but I thought you should know that Mr Murchison is wasting away in love with you. If this information brings you joy, please come by at seven o'clock when we lock up. Yours sincerely, Allison Winterdale.'

Control took barely one sip of his coffee before spitting it out, an expression of abject despair crossing his features. Evidently, Allison had not prepared his coffee quite as well as Mr Murchison could, even though she had followed his instructions exactly. But then he saw the note, and his eyes widened. He stared at Allison for a moment, and she stared back at him. As she did so, she felt a tingle of excitement rush down her spine. Not many coffee shop workers could say that they had ever stared down an actual spee. More than ever, she was utterly thrilled that Mr Murchison had chosen to give her the job.

'Excuse me,' said the next customer angrily, 'terribly sorry to interrupt, but I was wondering whether you planned to help me at any point in the next hour, seeing as how I am next in line and everything?' His reasoning was sound, Allison thought, but his tone was most unkind.

'Of course, sir,' said Allison, unabashed. 'I'll help you right now.' Control hurried out of the shop just as Mr Murchison poked his head out from the back room, doubtless wondering what all the fuss was about.

Seven o'clock came and went, and Allison was beginning to fear that her plan had not worked. Perhaps she had been mistaken, and the revelation that Mr Murchison was wasting away in love with Control did not bring him joy at all. That was hardly a jolly thought, she mused, not least because it would probably mean that Control wouldn't come back again. It really wouldn't do for her to have meddled in her boss's personal life and lost him a repeat customer in one go.

'Well,' said Allison sadly, 'good night, then, Mr Murchison.'

'I say, Allison,' said Mr Murchison, with the sharp perception of an ex-spee, 'you seem rather down. I hope you aren't starting to dislike working with me.'

'Of course not, Mr Murchison,' said Allison, trying her hardest to think of a good lie. She didn't like lying to Mr Murchison, but she could hardly tell him that the reason she was down was that she had told his former boss of his violent affections, only to learn they were not returned. 'I was just—'

'Miss Winterdale was merely worried that she had delivered me unwelcome news today,' said a voice coming towards them, and Allison and Mr Murchison looked up as one to see the approaching figure of Control. 'I must apologise for my lateness, Miss Winterdale, and I must further apologise for the fact that I cannot explain it to you without speaking in a code that you would be ill-prepared to understand. I was followed part of the way by a Rosian.'

Allison nodded and tried to suppress her smile. 'Were you able to get rid of the Rosian, Control?' she asked, as Mr Murchison continued to stare at his former employer in amazement.

'Yes, Miss Winterdale, I was,' said Control. 'I managed to lose him at a nearby Underground station by the simple expedient of appearing to board a train, but not actually boarding a train.'

'Ah,' said Mr Murchison. 'That's, er, very clever of you, Control.'

'Yes,' said Control. 'Yes, I was rather pleased with it myself. Now, Tony, I'm afraid we must turn away from the matter of my daring escape from the Rosian, and towards the matter of the message Miss Winterdale left on my cup of coffee this morning. She communicated to me that you were wasting away in love with me, and that if this news brought me joy, I should come by at seven o'clock to meet you. Now I know what you're thinking, Tony, and you mustn't be angry with Miss Winterdale. I was indeed most pleased to learn of your feelings, for I, in turn have been wasting away in love with you.'

'Oh,' said Mr Murchison, his face colouring. 'Oh, I see. Well, then, perhaps you might accompany me to my home, Control. It seems we have a lot to discuss between us.'

'That seems an excellent idea, Tony,' said Control, smiling brilliantly. 'Perhaps you would like to take my arm as we walk together.'

'I say, Control, that's dashed romantic of you,' said Mr Murchison. 'I think I would very much enjoy it. Er, Allison, I wouldn't worry about coming in at eleven sharp tomorrow. I think it highly likely that I may oversleep considerably.' He grinned with a degree of lasciviousness that Allison would never have expected of him, and for which she had to confess a certain degree of admiration, if she wanted to be quite honest with herself.

'Don't worry, Mr Murchison,' said Allison, smiling back at him. 'If you'll leave your key, I can open by myself tomorrow. I don't mind. I'm sure you and Control have a lot to talk about with each other.'

Mr Murchison blushed as he nodded. 'Yes, indeed we do. Thank you, Allison, I'll see you tomorrow.' He handed her his keys, and he and Control set off together. Allison waited a bit before following. She rather fancied she was starting to get the hang of this whole speeing thing.

'I must say, Tony, you've managed to hire a very clever assistant,' Allison heard Control say, and it was her own turn to blush with pride. 'I must have Valerie send her a thank-you card.'

'Yes,' Mr Murchison agreed, 'Allison has already proved herself quite invaluable to me. I do hope that no circumstances ever arise that would force me to fire her from her job.'

Allison paused at this, and as she did so, she thought she saw Control slip his hand over Mr Murchison's. 'As long as you don't make a habit of allowing her to make my coffee in your stead, Tony, I don't imagine you will have anything to worry about on that score.'

'Oh, dear,' said Mr Murchison. 'Are you saying she hasn't my touch?'

'Nobody could do, Tony,' said Control, a degree of lasciviousness slipping into his own voice now. 'And since you mention it, Tony, I should probably tell you that your touch is a subject I find ever so fascinating, which I look forward to exploring further tonight.'

'Aha,' said Mr Murchison, his voice sounding strangely choked. 'We're no longer talking about coffee, are we, Control?'

'No, Tony, we are not,' said Control. There was a hint of amusement in his voice, but for the most part his tone spoke of deep affection.

'Thank God for that,' said Mr Murchison, 'what with my shop being closed for the day and all.'

'Bo,' said Control, and he and Mr Murchison rounded a corner out of sight. Allison turned Mr Murchison's keys over in her hand. Yes, she was getting very good at this speeing thing indeed.