The Peak District is always beautiful, regardless of the weather. Even the dullest of days feels brighter when you watch the rain bouncing off the surface of the Ladybower reservoir, and in every pub there’s a glowing fire ready to defrost your bones as you sip a well-earned pint. From 2016–2018, on any given Sunday morning, around 8am, if you happened to be driving along the A57 from Sheffield city centre towards Hope Valley, you would find me. A 20-year-old university student, young and vibrant and full of life, reacquainting myself with last night’s vodka red bulls by the side of the road. I worked weekends in that café for two years, and I was hangover-free approximately twice. At some point during the second year came Tony.
Tony was 60-something-years-old, from the generation that avoided the war and got a great pension. He used to be a teacher, although not a very good one; he was always getting drawn into debates with his students about irrelevant things. He knew they did it on purpose to avoid working, asking him the big questions they knew he couldn’t resist, but they weren’t aware he didn’t particularly want to read Of Mice And Men either. He lived on a boat.
I used to watch him tamper the coffee while he spoke. He was always passionate about coffee, and there was something so measured and calm about the force he used to press down the ground-up beans that suggested he’d done it a thousand times before. He cleaned the work surfaces the way only a man of his age could; a technique perfected through necessity, rather than any semblance of house pride.
His mother, somewhere in her 80s, was in a home. His father had died long ago, and a lifelong feud forced his brother overseas, so Tony was all she had. She was a cold woman; it was nothing but familial obligation that pulled him for a visit every week. There was so much Tony wished she’d have said, before a near-fatal stroke robbed her of the ability to even try.
He believed in equality for all, although he never felt strongly enough to actively participate in social justice, just to talk about it at length over a few bottles of wine. Tony grew up just outside of London, moving further and further North over the course of his life as he felt the people were more ‘his speed’. He settled in Chesterfield with his wife, half-raised two children and a dog before moving out. The houseboat was a choice, he liked the freedom, although its anchor hadn’t shifted for almost a decade.
I’m not sure what he found interesting about me. We worked well as a team; I knew he liked his bacon crispy and he knew I wanted my lattes extra hot. I can remember the feeling of polished wood through my tights as I sat on the counter, brushing traces of flour from an outfit hastily thrown together in a still-drunken haze hours before, while I interviewed him. At some point in his 40s he’d realised it doesn’t really matter what other people think, and it was this assertion that permitted him to speak candidly.
Do you have any regrets from your life?
Who is the worst person you’ve ever met?
Why don’t you see your kids anymore?
What happened to your marriage?
Who is Helen?
Tony’s eyes sparkled when he said her name. She was married, a busy woman with a full-time job and three teenage children, but she always found time for Tony. Her husband worked away sometimes. She came into the café once; I was taken aback by her distinct averageness. The descriptions I’d been given promised the extraordinary, in beauty and intelligence, but this was just a woman. A boring, adulterous woman.
His life was on pause. He wouldn’t move out, move forwards, until he was certain he could do it with her. Weekends away, stolen kisses, amateur espionage, he’d trapped himself inside a low-budget rom com that seemed like it would never end. With hindsight, I now see that our star-crossed lovers were just a pair of lonely cowards.