Back to Nature

An Amethyst Coffeehouse Story, no. 1

Copyright 1993 by David Mar.

It was a quiet night in the Amethyst Coffeehouse. It usually was. The regulars liked it that way, and so did Galileo. Perhaps I should explain.

Galileo keeps the espresso machine running. He's a scientific wizz, which I figure you need to be to operate that thing. It sits on the counter, with sparkling bits of chrome everywhere and lots of pipes all over the place. And the coffee drinkers tell me it makes the greatest coffee to be had anywhere. I usually stick to tea. The House has the best cup of Darjeeling I've ever found, so I guess the coffee drinkers are probably telling the truth.

But back to Galileo. Yeah, he's Italian. He has a long, curly white beard and greying hair. He looks like Galileo. And he answers to the name. But I've never seen anyone ask him if he's the Galileo. I mean, he couldn't be, so what's the point? Right?

Anyway, there was a bunch of the regulars in there. Talking about the usual stuff: work, study, relationships. Giving opinions on everything under the sun. Listening to each other. Taking a load off their feet and generally unwinding, which is pretty easy in those soft chairs.

Tim had just given a reading from his Book. He'd got up on the stage, eschewing the microphone for his natural voice, and told us all about his Aunt Martha, who'd died that morning. We listened as he remembered the love and familial caring that she had brought into his life, and we watched as he walked tearfully to the back wall to add a snapshot of Martha to the faces already there.

As he walked back to his seat, via the counter, Galileo filled his favourite mug with coffee, made from freshly ground beans from southern Venezuela. Tim let a smile show as he took the drink, and we knew he'd be all right.

Things were a little quiet, so Dick started a very soft but complicated rhythm on the bongos. It got people talking again. And it was then that the fellow walked in.

He could have been anyone. Nothing unusual in his clothes, or physical features. The sort of guy you walk past a thousand times every day in the street and never take a second look at. Only this time he looked a little more world-weary than most. And also as though he was beginning to regret coming into the House.

Maybe it was the fact that Amethyst doesn't look like your average coffeehouse. I mean, the walls are mostly covered with shelves of books. Except for the back wall, which is plastered with photos. Every one of the photos tells a story and I reckon, at a thousand words per picture, they about equal the books in content. And then there's the bay windows.

The House is situated in a house, one of those old rambling Victorian style ones. It's owned by a Mrs Shelley, who usually just hangs out in the place and lets Galileo run the show. The lower floor has been converted into Amethyst by knocking all the walls down, just leaving a few posts to support the ceiling. (I figure Mrs Shelley lives upstairs, but I've never asked.) The sunroom became a green area full of indoor plants; a nice place to sit and catch some natural warmth in the colder months. The windows look out at the town, and you can watch people walk by, busy with their lives.

But most of the room is decorated in theme and variation of purple, to go with the name. Now, purple isn't my favourite colour, but it's done subtly and tastefully enough to be pleasing to most eyes. The carpet is thick, and the chairs even thicker. I've had a few better sleeps in those chairs than in my own bed.

Then there's the stage. Not very big; just enough room for Dick and his bongos, space for maybe a trio of other instruments including the beat up piano, and the microphone. Mostly people just use their own voice, but occasionally some power is needed for a singer when the music really gets swinging. I guess the whole deal is a bit strange if you're not used to it.

At any rate, Galileo spotted him and ambled over to welcome him in. "Hi," he said to the stranger, "New here? Just come over to the counter and get yourself a cup of something hot. Sit anywhere. Listen to the entertainment, or join a conversation, or grab something from the library and just sit back reading." Galileo gestured at the books.

The fellow took a few seconds to make up his mind, but then followed Galileo back to the espresso machine. The rest of us went back to our own chatter. And then the guy chose to carry his coffee over to the chair next to mine.

I smiled at him, told him my name, and asked his.

"Philip," he said in a smooth tenor voice. "Is this... place for real?"

"Real?" I raised an eyebrow. "You're here, aren't you?"

"Yeah. I guess so." He paused and considered for a minute, eyeing the stage. "Is the stage open?"

"I don't see a fence."

Philip sat back and sipped his coffee. I let him be. After a few minutes, he started to rise, eyes on the stage.

"Philip," I said, holding him in his chair, "you'll need a Book."

"A book?"

"A Book. To use the stage. You have to donate a Book."

"What sort of book?"

"One that tells us something about you. But don't worry. The rule is that only you can read your own Book."

His brow creased for a second. Then he reached into his jacket and pulled out a pocket diary. "Will this do? My whole life goes in here. And the thing I want to say is written in it, too."

"Perfect." I smiled.

Philip stood up and took the stage. Conversations trailed off as people noticed him standing there. Dick took the bongos through a crescendo and ended his piece, plunging the House into silence. Everyone's eyes were on Philip, but I guess he expected that, because he didn't look nervous.

He cleared his throat and held his diary up. "My Book. I guess it can stay here after tonight. I don't want my life this organised any more."

He opened the diary to a page and began to read. "Eleven a.m. Meeting with Jackie. She's my boss," he explained, looking out at the rest of us. "Was my boss. Staff cutbacks, redundancy package, the whole nasty business."

That got some sympathy. A couple of the regulars had lost their jobs recently too.

"And now I don't know what to do. But I want to say: modern living is far too restrictive. You need things like this," he waved his diary, "to cope with just staying alive. I don't want to have to do that any more. I want to live my way, not the way somebody with more money tells me to live. But I don't know if it's possible."

"Of course it is," said Mrs Shelley, from her seat near the bay windows, "Go back to nature. Live off the land."

"For most of us," answered Philip, "That isn't an option. We've all lost the ability to do that."

"Ah," said Galileo, "I'm afraid you are wrong, my friend. You cannot lose that which you never had. Most people merely have never learnt these things."

"Are you saying that I could learn to live without civilisation?"

"People did it for millenia," replied Galileo with an expansive gesture. "Take a book. I'm sure we have one on wilderness survival. Take it with you if you want." Galileo's like that. Always generous with the resources of the House, because he knows it never bothers Mrs Shelley. And a lot of the time those resources are just the people there.

"I don't know if I can..." said Philip.

"Sure you can," I said. "The question is: do you want to?"

Amethyst was quiet for a minute or so, while Philip tossed around some things in his mind. He had the full attention of everyone there. That's another good thing about the House. When you need people to care, they do. And they'll sit and wait until you're ready to talk. No prodding or poking for how you're feeling.

"Yeah," Philip decided. "I'll give it a shot."

He spent the rest of that evening sipping coffee and mingling with people. Making friends. That's one thing we like to do both often and well. And when he left, he took with him a battered copy of a book that had everything you need to know about getting food and shelter away from civilisation, and left behind his diary.

That diary stayed where he left it, on one of the coffee tables, for nearly two months. Then one day, Philip returned. Galileo recognised him instantly, despite the newly grown beard and rugged clothing.

"Hi Philip," he said. "Jamaican with a splash of milk, right?"

"Right," answered Philip. "My last coffee - I may as well make it a good one. I brought this back." He held up the book he'd been given.

Galileo smiled and nodded at the bookshelves. "Back in there."

Philip returned the book to its shelf and brought his coffee over to the chair by mine again. He picked up his diary and flicked through it with a wistful look. I handed him a pen.

He took it carefully and then used it to write a short entry while a small combo played something slightly jazzy from the stage. When they had finished, he tossed my pen back and walked up to the microphone. Angling it away from him, he raised his Book and read:

"Seven p.m. Over the past eight weeks, I've read, and learnt, and put into practice the methods of hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering that will allow me to live without the need for assistance. I've spent five weeks camping in the mountains, proving that I can manage. I'm no longer dependent on money, or the whims of the human socio-economic world. For the first time in my life, I feel truly free. I feel truly in charge of my own destiny. And I have this place to thank for that.

"I hope that you who come here regularly can see some of the wonder and magic that you have here. And I bid you all farewell. If you ever come up to the mountains, look me up. I'll be somewhere around the northern shore of the lake. I'd like to see some of you once in a while."

With that, Philip left the stage. He walked over to a mostly empty shelf and placed his Book there. Then he came back to his chair and downed his coffee in one gulp. He took the cup back to the counter and rinsed it out, just as everyone else did with their own cups at the end of a night.

When he turned around, we were all standing, between him and the door. Everyone got a hug. Galileo was last. As he slapped Philip on the back, he said, "It doesn't have to be your last coffee. Come back some time and read us the next chapter."

"Maybe I will," Philip smiled. "If you'll take a fresh fish from the lake as payment for the drink."

I couldn't see Galileo's face, but Philip smiled even more broadly as he turned and walked out the door.

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