A tea to take out

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Today is the end of an era. The closing credits of a classic. The final curtains on a record-breaking run. Our Starbucks has closed.

It’s okay, I know you’re probably laughing and rolling your eyes and tutting at the very notion that the closing down of an international, tax-dodging, fat-cat corporation could invoke any stronger reaction than a cursory shoulder-shrug. I know it’s absurd to feel any kind of emotional attachment or reluctance to say goodbye to a place as impersonal as a chain-outlet which holds over 23,187 stores in 64 countries (I Googled that by the way, I didn’t just know it, I’m not that obsessed!)

But you see, it is personal. Sorry, it was. Stop tutting, and I’ll try to explain.

Hubby and I were sitting in there yesterday morning (our final family trip to ‘the café’) trying to work out why, how and when we first started going in. We couldn’t remember what it used to be before it was a Starbucks, but we knew we didn’t go in there for some time once it became one. Some kind of anti-establishment protest we thought. Hilarious. But then I remembered that actually, although Hannah was only 9 months old when we moved here and was, to all intents and purposes, an entirely ‘normal’ and healthy little girl, we were rarely able to take her into coffee shops or cafes at all. I don’t recall that it was impossible, but I do recall that I used to look at other small people sitting contentedly whilst their mums chatted or engaged them in play with scribble pads or buggy toys, and know that I couldn’t do it. Hannah wouldn’t do it. The screaming episodes and outright protests didn’t start until around twenty months, but even in those earlier days I remember that it was challenging.

I don’t know when that changed, I really can’t pinpoint the time period, but I do know that one of my all-time favourite photos of Hannah was taken in Starbucks (I may even ask if I can have the painting which forms the backdrop!) She still has her beautiful curly bunches, is standing independently (on a sofa, little rebel) and is wearing the red winter coat I loved best of all coats, so I know that it was way before diagnosis and still in the days when we believed everything was fine. And she’s laughing, so I guess somewhere along the line we discovered that she was happy in there, in a way in which she was not happy in smaller, crowded, ‘quainter’ places. Which is undoubtedly why we kept going. As with many other things we learned in our life: if Hannah likes it, don’t fix it!

It’s a big store, with lots of space for buggies and wheelchairs and distance enough between tables to minimize the possibility of grabbing hands to reach their targets. The music is generally low and calm. The exit route is clear and easy. The disabled toilet is spacious and clean. Over the last four years, these are the things which have come to matter and which, I realise, have made it possible for us to ‘go for a coffee’ as a family without anxiety. As we chatted through the history of our family’s relationship with this store, sipping our tea (grande, English breakfast, one teabag) and Americano (black, with space for milk), from takeaway cups, we recalled that the habit of the takeaway cup was formed almost five years ago, when entering ‘the café’ at all was a gamble. We would hedge our bets and get take-outs, just in case we needed to make a fast getaway. Later, they became safer options on account of Hannah’s increasing tendency to grab and hit out at anything within lunging distance. We haven’t had to make a fast getaway for some time, but the grabbing persists, as does our health-and-safety habit.
As I said, the timeline of the relationship is blurry, but some memories are precise. In the days and weeks following diagnosis, for example, I can clearly remember sitting in there alone, wading through Rett Syndrome literature and tears and forms and more tears. We would give each other an hour ‘off’, just to get out of the house and breathe and think, and I would go there, knowing that even if people thought I was a crazy woman crying in the corner, they probably wouldn’t look twice. The impersonal, at that moment, was perfect.
But then happier times too: the two weeks of hubby’s paternity leave after son number 1 was born: drinking tea, planning fundraisers, watching a newborn sleeping, full of hope and awe and joy, finally, again; the slow realization that it was actually possible to meet friends for a tea, even with toddlers, because our sons would be content with a scribble pad and buggy toys – a whole new world; the even slower realization that even if all three children were awake, we could manage the ‘normality’ of a quick cuppa because actually, Hannah liked it; the rare moments of being just a husband and wife with time to talk and sip tea and watch the world go by.

I have collided with almost every friend I have in ‘the big Starbucks’ and shared time with them; I have been interviewed (about Rett Syndrome) by national and local newspapers; I have done endless marking and written innumerable reports; I have filled in a plethora of forms, ‘pinged’ out plentiful emails and made many, many phone calls; I have wept and laughed, received and given good news and bad, felt despair and hope. Hell, I’ve even done a pregnancy test (positive, son number two, happy news).

But it’s more than all of this. It’s not just the backdrop, the impersonal scenery in front of which several acts have been played, it has become part of the play itself. It has provided some of the loveliest characters in the show. Over the last couple of years the staff (now friends) in this store have supported our fundraising, donated raffle prizes, displayed endless posters, distributed fliers, chained our collection buckets to their tills and sacrificed their own tips jar for four full months. We didn’t ask, they just did. They ask after Hannah, they know about Rett Syndrome, they talk to others about Rett Syndrome. They ask for our news, they tell us theirs. They do not bat an eyelid when Hannah shouts (because she still does) and they smile conspiratorially at me when other customers do. I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty certain they crank up the caffeine levels when they can see we haven’t slept. Yep, it’s become pretty personal indeed.

So yes, it may be just another money-making global chain, but I am sad to say goodbye. Yes, there’s another one just down the road, but it’s small and cramped and there’s no way we’re getting in there with a buggy and a wheelchair and those grabby hands. Besides, Hannah has cried every time we’ve so much as tried. As I’ve written before, she’s an instinctive little girl who makes intuitive judgements about people which are pretty much unfailingly right. She adores those who are genuine and modest, who speak to her like a 7 year old girl, who look her in the eye, and who smile at her with their whole face. It’s ironic, I guess, that she, and we, have found those things within the four walls of a multi-million pound corporation’s coffee shop. One of 23,187. I can’t think of a good cliché for what it just goes to show, but it must just go to show something.

A good friend (one with whom I have shared many a cup of tea and moan about life in ‘the big Starbucks) recently amusedly shared with me the findings of a formal study into the demographic of regular customers of the three major coffee shop chains in this country. Starbucks, apparently, is the preferred choice for the young mums (I was delighted to find myself in agreement with this group, obviously!), Costa was the favourite of the ‘middle-aged’ woman, and Nero was number one for the men. My friend was dismayed to find that she fitted the stereotype for her age. I guess it’s time I started fitting it too. Mine’s a large tea . . .

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