If you’ll forgive me — I have to fetch the story from five years ago. I had just moved from Geneva back to Cape Town, crawling through the shards of a broken marriage. I came home from living abroad for almost six years to be in the shelter of my friends, to right the ship and regain some control of my life.
I spent the first few months house-sitting a mate’s place in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs as he was riding a motorcycle to Rwanda. Then, I rented a summer bungalow literally on the edge of Llandudno beach. Not because I was loaded, but because summer bungalows in Cape Town are very cheap in the gloriously miserable and wet winters of the Mother City.
During the day, I worked in the city, trying to scrape together a business from scratch. In the evenings I’d go back to someone’s dream destination, sit on the clammy porch, sipping on whiskey, listening to the roar of the tides in the dark. Occasionally the wet blanket above me would pull back and reveal glimpses of the Milky Way as it poured back into the ocean.
Just after sunrise, I’d get up, fire up my rusty old ’72 Citroën DS and glide back into the city for the daily hustle. Sometimes I’d go to the office, sometimes I’d head to the airport to fly up to the commercial capital of South Africa.
But most mornings, I’d make a stop at the last bend before the coastal road that snaked into Camps Bay. There, on the edge of the road, in a makeshift parking area, was a man who made coffee for a living.
His long blonde hair was bunched under a leathery hat. Or, at least, I think it was blonde. It might have just been bleached by the constant exposure to the sun, sea and wind. On top of a trailer, he built a mobile coffee shop that served the steady flow of motorists coming from Hout Bay and Llandudno into the city. And always, by his side, he had an old black dog of an uncertain breed, that shuffled from customer to customer, sniffing their legs and licking their fingers.
Client service was important at this joint.
I never knew the baristas name. Asking it would seem inappropriate. Introductions seemed beneath him. Are you here for coffee? I give you coffee, you give me money. That was the nature of our relationship.
Once, I did feel the need for some small talk. So I asked him what else he did for a living.
He spoke in few and simple sentences: “I get here before sunrise. I make coffee. I check where the best surf is. And when the customers dry up, I pack up, load up the dog and hit the waves until the sun goes down.”
Often, sitting on my porch, in the dark, allowing the healing of the Cape to flow through me, I’d think about the seaside barista. I imagined him, emerging from the sea, the dog lifting its arthritic body up from the beach to walk up and greet him. I’d imagine them going to wherever they live, lighting a fire and turning in early for the next cycle of coffee making, leg sniffing and surfing.
My own life was so complicated. And his was so simple. We both had the hours between sunrise and sunset, and his was filled with the two things he loved. The dog and the sea. I’m sure I romanticised it, but it all seemed so magnificent in its simplistic glory.
Perhaps that’s why I never asked his name. Or Googled him. Or tried to friend him on Facebook. I wanted him to have the answer and no other complications. His life of simplicity gave me hope.
Over the last few years, my mind often wandered back to him. I’ve moved back to Europe. I managed to get up and the scars have healed. I’ve remarried recently and I’m filled with the joy of hope of second chances.
Last month, I found myself back in Cape Town and of course, had to go see if it was still possible to get a coffee on the edge of the sea. To not introduce myself, to not make small talk, and to have my leg sniffed and my fingers licked.
As the rental car approached the bend, I was relieved to spot his trailer in the distance. I pulled up next to it and walked up to have my usual.
It wasn’t very busy. It was already close to nine in the morning and his clientele had already started drying up. He must have been close to calling it a day and head to the surf.
I didn’t expect him to remember me so I attempted a howzit that was somewhere between formal and familiar.
He nodded and asked what I wanted.
“Americano, black and bitter,” I said without adding my usual like my life joke.
He started firing up the coffee maker and I looked around. My heart was beginning to sink because there was no sign of the dog.
“The dog?” I said.
He just made a move with his hand to silence me.
“He’s gone,” he said matter of factly.
“Jeez, I’m sorry bru,” I said. I genuinely was. “That’s hectic.”
The empathy unlocked a follow-up: “He was in too much pain.”
He handed me my cup and I took a sip. The liquid was hot and burnt the inside of my mouth.
“Yeah,” he said. “I was time, hey. He got so sick he couldn’t get up anymore. So I started feeding the bugger rump steak every day. And the day he refused the steak I knew it was time.”
There was just silence. And the sound of the surf rolling in and out, crashing on the rocks beneath our feet. In, and out. In, and out.
Then he said: “It’s still a bit raw. But, I got a cat now.”
“Really!” I said.
“Ja, well, look, it’s not my cat hey. I think it lives somewhere else because it only shows up after dinner.”
He wiped the damp of the ocean spray off the espresso maker,
“Suits me, hey,” he shrugged under the leathery hat. “I don’t have to buy food. And I don’t have to pay the vet bills. But every night, it pops in through the window, crawls in under my blanket and lies next to my nut sack.”
I smiled. This was probably some little girl’s kitty cat that she cuddles during the day, completely unaware of the precise location where it sleeps every night.
I finished my coffee and nodded as if I’d see him the next day for another.
As I got in the car, I felt sad for the dog. But happy about the cat. Mostly, I felt relieved that the barista still makes coffee, that he still scans the ocean every day, looking for the breaks. And that he stays warm at night.
I thought of my new life. I thought of his. The love comes in and out. Everyday.
And that’s The Truth we all need to know today.