The Ghost of a Life – a flash sci-fi story

I’d given up on waiting for a chance to go home, settling instead for a life in this version of Leeds. I found a job in a coffee shop, where my lack of provable experience wouldn’t stand in my way. The work was monotonous, but I’d already lost the life where my passions lay, and anything would seem like a pale imitation by comparison. This way I could embrace my new station.

That changed one morning in September. The early rush was over and we had a few lone customers reading papers or using our wifi. Behind the counter, I was emptying mugs from the dishwasher.

“Hey, Holly.” Seamus spoke quietly. “Check out the dude in the armchair.”

There were only two seats in the place grand enough to count as armchairs, battered old constructions of padded leather. They faced each other across a low table by a window. A guy was sitting in one of them, staring blankly out into the street. His clothes were loose and crumpled, his beard unkempt, and his sunken eyes stared fixedly into the distance.

“What about him?” I whispered.

“He hasn’t moved in half an hour. Not even his face. Don’t you think that’s creepy?”

I shrugged, content to let Seamus take my gesture as agreement. But now he had my attention, I started noticing other things about the stranger. The faint swirling scars on his forearm, as if he’d been caught in a half-collapsed dimensional portal. The telltale callous on his little finger, like the one where my portal control ring had sat.

He was a Traveller, just like I’d been.

Milk poured across the floor as I crushed a plastic bottle.

“You alright, Holly?” Seamus asked.

“Gonna get a mop,” I said, making an excuse to get out from behind the counter. I skirted the edge of the room, staying as far from the Traveller as I could, and took shelter in a cramped closet. I didn’t even switch the light on, just stood in the darkness, catching my breath.

Who was this guy? A local figure of authority hunting down outsiders? A flunky of the people who stranded me here, sent with the mission of finishing me off?

Maybe he hadn’t noticed me or seen the connection between us. Maybe if I kept my head down I could keep things that way.


If I was ever to get home, I needed to take any chance I could.

And I did want to get home.

Didn’t I?

I emerged from the cupboard, mop in hand, and cleared the milk from behind the counter.

“Might as well do the floors while I’ve got the mop out,” I said to Seamus.

“Whatever.” The coffee machine hissed as he made drinks for a customer.

I mopped my way systematically over to the chairs by the window, then leaned in close to the Traveller.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” I whispered.

He turned to look at me. Eyes widened as he caught a glimpse of my calloused finger.

“There’s a ghost of a portal,” he said, pointing out of the window. “Just a remnant, but if I can get it open, I can get home.”

His voice, too loud for the coffee shop, drew brief, uncomfortable stares from the other customers. I cringed as Seamus looked over, one eyebrow raised, but I persisted in my conversation, lowering my voice further in hopes the Traveller would take the hint.

“Do you know how to open it?”

“I need more data first. That’s why I’m watching.” He tapped the side of his head. “My memory is special.”

I didn’t doubt it for a moment. People with eidetic memory were great for gathering intelligence off-world. It explained how someone this awkward had got recruited to a portal team.

“Everything OK?” Seamus called out.

“Fine,” I said, waving a hand. “Just talking TV.”

“No,” the Traveller began, “we were-”

“Never mind.” I snatched up my mop and walking away.

I had a life here now. The ghost of a life maybe, but better than nothing. If this guy made that difficult, or worse yet got me fired, then I would have nothing.

“Don’t you want to go home?” the Traveller called out. “To see the golden seas again? To spend time with your family?”

A thousand images flashed through my mind. Births, weddings, parties, funerals, wild nights on the town and quiet afternoons in the country. My heart thudded in my chest.

Seamus was picking up the phone. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d called social services to help with an emotionally damaged customer. I doubted that half those customers got the care they needed, but at least they stopped being our problem.

I reached out to stop Seamus.

“Guy just needs some company,” I said quietly. “Let me take my break. I’ll calm him down, see how it goes from there.”

“You sure?” Seamus asked. “Dude doesn’t seem right.”

He tapped the side of his head.

“I’m sure.”

I set the mop aside, took off my apron, and made myself a cappuccino. Then I pulled the other armchair around next to the Traveller and sat with him, staring out of the window.

“What are we looking for?” I asked.

* * *


Given how much time I spend in coffee shops, it’s a wonder I don’t set all my stories there. If you enjoyed this one then please share it with your friends. And if you’d like more like it, please sign up to my mailing list to get a free story straight to your inbox every Friday.

When Having a Choice Isn’t About Having a Choice

Mm, coffee.
Mm, coffee.

I’m in Bean and Bud, one of my favourite coffee shops, staring at a blackboard with the description of two types of coffee. Both descriptions make them sound delicious. I have to choose which bean I want my coffee made from. This is not a decision I can make, and I’m about to be paralysed with terror.

Paralysed with terror in a good way.

I like coffee a lot. I have a grinder, three cafetieres and two stovetop pots. I can tell good from bad. But I don’t have a refined palate, and unless someone gave me a cup of each type of coffee, then left me for ages to contrast and compare, I wouldn’t notice the distinction between those two options in Bean and Bud. I’d just know the coffee was good.

The first time I had to make that choice I was frozen. How the hell was I meant to decide? Rich and smooth sounds good, right? Except the other one’s peppery with hints of chocolate, and who doesn’t like hints of chocolate? At least if I decide once I’ll never have to do it again. Except those are today’s coffees – this is going to keep changing! How can I live with this elite consumerist madness? Argh! Biggest cliché joke first-world middle-class white guy writer problem in the world ever! Do I not really love coffee enough? Am I even good enough to be in this place?!?!?!

Deep breaths. I can do this. Just pick a coffee, order my sandwich and cake (also great, and with choices I can understand), go and sit down. My coffee arrives. It’s delicious. A splendid lunch is had.

Next time I go there I stay calm. I read the boards carefully. I make my choice. It arrives. It’s delicious. I try to remember – is this the coffee I had before? I don’t recall. I can’t tell. I am a failure at coffee drinking. Woe is me. Still, that was a delicious lunch, so I’ll live with my shame.

Finally, this week, I made peace with the choice. I went in, resigned to asking the barista’s opinion. Except she didn’t even ask me. She either forgot or saw the hint of panic twisting my face as the coffee menu loomed over me like a disappointed parent. When my coffee arrived she told me what she’d chosen and that it was good. I was happy with that. Relieved even.

She was right. It was delicious coffee.

That evening, I was telling someone about Bean and Bud. In trying to describe why it was so good, I said you had a choice of coffee beans. Because even though that choice is meaningless to me, it is a sign of quality. The people making my coffee there are passionate enough to distinguish between beans and excited enough to want to share that choice and that passion. Even if I can’t make the most of that choice, it’s a sign that I’m going to get something excellent.

I want to turn this into a writing lesson, but I guess it’s more of a reading lesson. Drinking coffee in Bean and Bud is like raiding my brother’s jazz collection or listening David Tallerman’s opinions on films – the distinctions they draw are based on aspects of music or film that affect my enjoyment without my understanding them. I don’t need to follow the distinctions to make the most of their recommendations. Sometimes it’s good, whether you’re picking books, films, music or coffee, to have someone around who’ll offer you sophisticated choices, and then relieve you of that choice when the panic sets in.

Now excuse me, I’m off to make two cups of coffee and try to tell the difference.

The difference will be that I’m over-caffeinated.

Tea or coffee?

As an Englishman, it’s my patriotic duty to drink tea. I’m fine with that. The world is full of fine teas, from a full bodied English breakfast to a delicate oolong or an invigorating cup of Earl Grey. But, as my story Surprise Me (free to read now on the Daily Science Fiction website) hints, my true love is coffee.

What’s wrong with me? How have I stumbled so far from the true path of my forefathers?

Lets find out.

Look, coffee can be civilised too
Look, coffee can be civilised too

Buzzing like a bee

Like so many, my love of coffee started in university. Faced with the struggle to face early lectures after a late night, the coffee pot was the first thing I reached for every morning. Sure, as a history student ‘early’ meant somewhere around eleven o’clock, but there were some very late nights.

When it came to essays too, coffee was the way to keep me focussed. A cup of tea might freshen my reflective faculties, but coffee got my fingers twitching at the keys, frantically pounding out essays to meet neglected deadlines.

As a side note, one uni friend over-did this tactic while working on his computer science final project. He consumed so much caffeine that he was awake half the night unable to type from the trembling in his hands. Let this be a lesson to us all – computer science is not the answer.

A place to be

Part of it’s also about the difference between coffee shops and tea-oriented establishments.

Around here there are three types of places I can go for a hot beverage and to get some work done – cafés, tearooms and coffee shops.

Cafés are the sort of places you go for a greasy fry-up. Even as a vegetarian I love a greasy fry-up, but it plays hell with the keyboard. Plus those places are a bit too noisy for me to concentrate in, and lack the sort of high class teas and coffees that a gentleman, or worse yet a writer, wants to get him through the day. Instant coffee and PG Tips are not for me.

Tearooms also have a fond place in my heart. Laura and I spend a lot of our holiday time visiting tearooms, eating scones and drinking tea. They are a delightful novelty, a truly English way to treat yourself, and the place to be if you want Darjeeling rather than English breakfast. There’s a sense of ritual to them – stirring the pot, spreading jam and cream on your scones, using cups and saucers. Like the Japanese, when we English do tea properly it’s a matter of ceremony. It’s civilised and pleasant, but it’s not the pure uncluttered space I most often crave.

Which leaves coffee shops. They have comfy seats. They have clean, modern, undistracting décor. Most of them have plug sockets and wifi, essential for the ‘working’ writer. So it’s coffee shops I go for.

Yes, coffee shops also sell tea, many even have a range of teas. But it’s coffee that they do really well, so that’s what I drink. After all, you go to the zoo to look at the monkeys, however nice the trees are.

Another aside – England actually has a long tradition of coffee shops. It was in 17th and 18th century English coffee shops that insurance was invented, to the outrage of people who opposed gambling on others’ misfortunes. Looking at modern investment banking, I wonder if they were right.

An unsubtle age

Lets face it, I live in a less subtle age than my national predecessors. Sure, we can still do subtle and sophisticated, but even the English are allowed to express their emotions and opinions these days. Our culture is full of bright, shiny things that push aesthetics to the extremes – louder, darker, smellier. Amidst all that, is it any wonder that we’re drifting towards the more in-your-face flavour of coffee?

If you haven’t already, please go and read Surprise Me, my coffee shop story at Daily Science Fiction. Let me know what you think of the story, and what your favourite beverage is and why. After all, what are tea and coffee without a little conversation?



Photo by LWYang via Flickr creative commons.