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Short story: Coffice Unrest, by Sharni Wilson

Newsroom logo Newsroom 19/09/2020 Sharni Wilson
a cup of coffee on a table © Provided by Newsroom

"Coffee plus office equals coffice": a short story set in a deranged New Zealand of stern baristas and rebel forces, by Auckland writer Sharni Wilson

“This is not an office.” The barista’s voice was hard and cold with aggression, with a frighteningly wide smile: the kind of smile that you could easily imagine turning into a bite. She had a Free Waiheke badge pinned to her black apron.

“You’re right: it’s more of a coffice,” Anna said, smiling nervously, jiggling one leg slightly. Coffee plus office equals coffice. In her case, a lot of coffee made up that equation. She looked up and down the rows of digital nomads, some of whom had stopped work to connect to their personal hotspots, as the wifi was out. So was the power to the power points, as she had just let the barista know.

The barista shrugged. Get out, you vermin, her attitude said. You’ll be first against the wall.

Or maybe Anna was reading too much into it. Well, she’d done her job informing the staff. She also mentally shrugged. If you set up a place like this in central Auckland, with fast wifi, ample power points, and good coffee, you were going to attract digital workers and their devices like a flower garden drew bees. What was the problem? Were they not ordering enough food and drink to make it financially viable? The wifi and the seats were free. She’d been ordering a coffee every hour for the last two hours, she’d ordered number three, and she was jittery. She may as well order something to eat.

“Could I please get a half serving of the salad?”

“No. You can’t.” The barista was the only one at the counter, and she smiled again, enjoying her authority.

“Really? Because the reason is, I won’t be able to finish all of it and I hate wasting food,” Anna explained.

The barista turned her back and began cleaning the coffee machine.

“I don’t mind paying the same price for it, if you could just give me less?”

“No. Those are the rules.” Her mouth was like a shark’s, gums exposed.

“The other staff do it…” Anna trailed off. Oh shit, that was the wrong thing to say.

“No one, NO ONE, should be doing that. We’ll have to have a crackdown.”

All right then. Anna sloped off back to her seat. She’d wait until someone else was at the till.

Twenty minutes later her flat white arrived, placed on the table so firmly that some of the dishwater foam slopped over onto the shonky table surface and pooled. It had been badly over extracted: a thin pour with hardly any crema, producing a dull and bitter cup of coffee. The barista coughed, barely turning her head aside, and stomped away again.

“Try not to get on her bad side.” It was a whisper from the film director sitting next to her—what was her name? Pania? “Trust me, it’s not worth it, not if you want to keep working here.”

“Thanks. I really don’t know what her problem is,” Anna said cheerfully. What are you so afraid of? We’re all adults. She took a sip of the coffee. Ugh, it was like sandpaper. She added a generous spoonful of sugar to make it drinkable, stirred energetically and caught the barista glaring at her with open hatred.

Pania closed her laptop, slid it back into her leather satchel and slunk out the door, with a nod to John, the Australian musician.

“Don’t sweat it,” said John. “She worries too much.” His brown arms held traces of the Sydney sun, and Anna had often wondered what it would be like to slip inside them, except for the fact that he and Pania seemed to be in a relationship of some kind. At least, she’d seen them arguing in the way that only longstanding couples did. But then, he did most of the music for Pania’s arthouse films. A working relationship could be more intense than a romantic one.

“I’ve got nothing to worry about,” Anna said. “I have a right to be here.” She glanced down the table and caught Edouard looking at her, his eyes inscrutable, wireless earpieces on. He was another hottie, she thought, or was it just because he was French she thought so?

Across the table, Mei was hard at work as usual, typing away like a woman on a mission. Anna had often wondered what it would be like to be her: an environmental activist and influencer who spent a great deal of her time in the mountains of Nepal or the mangroves of Myanmar, and the rest of her time on social justice projects at home. Exhausting, probably, was the conclusion Anna had come to.

Mei noticed Anna staring at her, and smiled—an irresistible beam of sunshine that made Anna feel better somehow.

Right. Back to work. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

*

Things had escalated to the point where Anna no longer ordered if the barista was on the till, and every time the barista walked past she seemed to bump into Anna’s chair. The café had stopped serving salad altogether, although that was probably a knock-on effect of the ongoing food shortages rather than anything personal.

Pania noticed: she seemed to pick up on tension like a theremin. “Anna, you should know, it was before your time but there was a girl who used to work here every day, and got offside with the barista, and she got banned from the café.”

“No way! That’s legal?”

“Yes, they can do so, if they use the right reason. I think they said she was causing a disturbance, something like that. I don’t know if it’s strictly legal, but they could make it unpleasant enough that the legality of it would be moot.”

John cut into their conversation without seeming to notice they were having one. “Pan, did you hear about the rebels on Waiheke?” He was staring at his screen, frowning.

“No, I’m not really following it. What are they up to now?”

“It says here that they’ve got the port in a lockdown,” John continued. “Weren’t you waiting on that shipment of film equipment?”

“No, we decided to hire, in the end.”

“Speaking of which, wouldn’t it be cool to do a doco on the rebels? If you got an in with them, found the right angle…”

The barista shoved past Anna’s chair to collect her cup, which was about a quarter full. Hey, I was still drinking that, she wanted to say, but the words died in her throat when she saw the barista’s set face.

*

The five hard-core regulars were sitting outside at the big table in the café courtyard, making the most of the mild May sun, when the barista strode in. “Look at this mess!” she said in an exasperated tone, and they were instantly reduced to the role of grubby toddlers cowering at their mother’s anger.

Anna looked: it wasn’t even that bad. There were some coffee cups, plates, and a lone tea pot shepherded into one corner of the wide table. She ducked out of the way as the barista stormed past, sweeping things up in her arms, shoving them onto her tray.

“Excuse me while I have a small rant,” the barista began (although not waiting for permission). “You’re just sitting on your bums all day—ALL DAY—making a huge mess and not cleaning up any of it.”

Anna felt this was a little unfair. “I used to take my dishes back, and the other staff told me not to,” she said. Also, it was part of the job, wasn’t it? At least it had been when it had been her job. “We sit down to work. You could install some standing tables? Or stationary bikes?”

The barista glared. Not funny.

I’ve worked as a barista, for minimum wage, Anna wanted to say. I probably get less income per hour worked right now than you do, and the only reason I buy coffee is because I’ve given up all hope of owning a house, I live in a rank shithole with too many flatmates, and I need somewhere to work.

The barista snatched up a full glass, perhaps not realising it was full, and an arc of water fountained up and splattered down on laptops, papers, headphones, Anna, Pania, John, Edouard, and Mei. For the first time, Anna saw her really smile: a big, genuine beam.

“Sorry.”

She left to get paper napkins, and halfheartedly patted at a few screens with them, while the others tipped the water off their possessions and waved them around in the air.

On the way home, Anna dropped by her local supermarket to pick up another box of Weetbix, but it was occupied again. The rebels barricading the entrance all wore face shields, so all she could see were their eyes, but she didn’t recognise anyone she knew. Then as she was walking away to the corner shop, she heard her name being called.

“Hey, Anna!” It was her flatmate Ben.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, for something to say.

“What do you think?” He jerked his head at the huge banner, and then struck a pose in his camo gear. “Nah, to be honest, I’m really here for the food. Anything I can get you?”

Anna thought about her Weetbix. “Nah, I’m good,” she said. “Catch you later.”

*

A few weeks later, Anna joined the big protest march. Everyone was going. People were angry—the leader of the rebels had died in police custody. It was New Zealand’s largest ever protest, the commentators said, before the internet was cut off. It was inspiring to be part of something like this, Anna thought. Making history. Waiheke had become a symbol of something bigger. The disenfranchised, the hungry, the people living out of their cars or on the street, the workers who weren’t paid enough to survive—Māori, Pākehā, Pacific Islander, Asian. It was peaceful, at least in the beginning. She chanted the slogans with her flatmates, sang along to Whakaaria Mai and Ten Guitars, joined in with the chorus of Chains. But after that, things got a bit weird, and it was difficult to tell what was going on. There were too many people: people pushing, throwing bricks and bottles, breaking into shops; police with riot shields, batons and tasers. She left early.

Anna didn’t have a TV or radio. She wondered whether she should stay indoors for now, or even go stay with her parents until things were more settled. She didn’t have a car, so it wasn’t that easy. A lot of people were gone by now, headed further south. She knocked around at home, but with no internet, she was bored, and tired of playing cards and watching the pillars of smoke with her pisshead flatmates, so she ended up going to the café that day out of habit. She could work on her novel, she thought. That went better without internet access. The buses were still running, and there were people on the streets. She saw an overturned car, still burning, and a peaked police cap in the gutter. Most of the shops had their metal roller shutters down. Some of the ones that didn’t had windows spiderwebbed with cracks, or gaping holes with glass stalactites.

Pania, Edouard and Mei were sitting there at the café’s long table, but it didn’t look as if much work was being done. The barista cheerfully told Anna that the eftpos was down. There were no other staff to be seen. Anna ordered a flat white with the change she had in her purse.

Pania’s cheeks were blotchy, and her hair was a mess.

Anna moved Pania’s satchel to the neighbouring chair so that she could sit next to her. “Where’s John?” she asked—oops, that was obviously the wrong thing to say. Pania folded over as if she’d been punched, fresh tears spilling.

“He’s gone,” Edouard explained. “Ils ont rompu. Il est retourné en Australie.” Seeing Anna’s puzzled look, he grinned and elaborated: “Back to Australia.” He stroked Pania’s hair with great tenderness, and Anna felt a twinge of jealousy. What did Pania have that she didn’t?

A strange, tunelessly happy sound mingled with the hissing of the coffee machine—the barista was whistling.

“Seriously though,” Mei said, looking up from her screen, “I think he might have the right idea.”

Edouard looked over at Mei with unusual intensity.

*

Anna was waiting to see the doctor to get a new prescription for her meds. There seemed to be a lot of whispering over by the reception desk. When the doctor finally emerged and waved her into her office, she looked grim.

“So, unfortunately you’re on my list as a no-go,” the doctor explained as soon as they were seated.

“No-go? What does that mean?”

“That means that I’m not able to give you a prescription today.”

“Um, could you recommend another doctor? Or could you refer me to a specialist?”

“I’m afraid none of the doctors here will be able to treat you. You could try the black market… or perhaps wait it out and hope for the best. You’re on quite a low dosage.”

Anna was still processing that when the doctor stood up again.

“I hope you understand, but I need you to leave straight away, or I’m calling security.”

Anna got up, and made her shaky legs walk to the exit, slowly, slowly, not drawing attention to herself. She got out the door and there was Pania, walking along alone with her leather satchel hanging from her shoulder.

“Pania! Hi!” Anna’s voice sounded too falsely cheery, and she tried to get it under control. “So what brings you to this neck of the woods?”

“Looking for a new place to work. I got some great footage of the riots in town, but the café closed down for good just now. Kicked everyone out. Not that many were left.”

“Oh no.” Anna’s mouth felt wobbly. “What happened to the others? Have you seen them?”

“Oh, apparently Edouard and Mei fled to France,” Pania said, with a slight edge to her voice. “I hear they even got married. Shame we weren’t invited.”

Anna imagined Edouard and Mei in a small chapel on the edge of a vineyard in France, so far away from it all. Je le veux.

*

The coup d’état was successful.

Anna was almost relieved: perhaps things could get back to normal now? The internet was reinstated. She could work again. She heard from her parents again—they were okay, down in Pokeno. Ben moved out of the flat into a military barracks, but the new government (the rebels, who were now the incumbents) had nationalised all privately-held real estate, so Anna didn’t have to worry about covering his share of the rent. She set up a workspace in his old room. She was saving money in her international bank account online. Just in case, she thought. In case she really needed to get out. But things weren’t that bad. She had supported the revolution; she had marched and chanted. Things would get better.

Mei shared various honeymoon pics on her social media accounts: mountain-biking down a glacier at Alpe d’Huez, paddleboarding the French Riviera, drinking wine at a sidewalk terrace café in Paris. Nestling in Edouard’s tanned arms, on a white sand beach that looked completely deserted. Thousands of likes, hundreds of comments. Anna looked at Mei’s pictures far too often. She scrolled through the comments, searching for any bitchy ones. She typed “Hi, how’s it going!” into a private message, but didn’t hit Send. And then came the event which became known as Black Sunday. After that, all forms of social media were blocked by the ISPs.

A couple of months later, Anna was arrested as she waited in the food bank queue. She didn’t know why—she kept running over in her mind who she could’ve offended. Who had it in for her, who might’ve reported her? Or was it big data: the sites she’d browsed, or her face in the same photo as other, more notorious faces, the faces of former government officials, or the emerging resistance movement? Cookies, preferences, location tracking—there was no end to the possibilities.

One of the other prisoners had a theory. “It’s because we were identified as having unfair levels of privilege,” she had whispered to Anna, one night after lights out. “They spat in my face and called me a one-percenter.”

“Are you…?”

“Silence!” the warden called, and they obeyed. They’d seen what happened when orders weren’t followed here.

The cell, packed to bursting with women, soon became her world. Amazing what you can get used to, she thought, as she peed in the bucket for the nth time.

The door slammed open, and armed guards poured in again, grabbing Anna as she was pulling up her underwear. They smelt like hot metal. One of the guards was Ben. As soon as she saw his face, she became unpleasantly aware of what she’d become—a filthy, stinking, bony animal—and shrivelled with shame. He didn’t look at Anna at all, focused on restraining his struggling prisoner. What if I got his attention somehow… What if I begged him… But she couldn’t make herself act.

Five of the prisoners, including Anna, were lined up in the harsh sunlight outside the cells, and then an officer came out to inspect them. As the officer took Anna by the chin to look into her eyes, Anna had a sudden flash of déjà vu.

“Not her,” the barista said. “No, not her. She can go.”

Anna was dragged out of the line by her bound arms. The barista marched along, leading the way to the heavily guarded exit, and there Anna was pushed out into the street. She stood awkwardly and didn’t know what to say, as the guard uncuffed her and left.

“Don’t thank me,” the barista said. “I know you’re harmless. Right?” She smiled, that same shark-like grin, but a bit more harried-looking, a bit more human. “By the way, I heard that there’s a large group of resistance south of the Bombay Hills. Still, might be safer to lie low, get out of the country if you can. I better go. Take care now.”

The door closed gently in Anna’s face. She looked around. The street was deserted, except for a couple of men with guns and Free Waiheke t-shirts lounging on the curb nearby. What I wouldn’t give for a coffee right now… The barista’s face had triggered a familiar longing.

Anna walked slowly down the street, not drawing attention to herself. Against the wall was a big rubbish skip, piled high. A familiar leather satchel was balanced on top, and she thought about grabbing it to check whether it really was Pania’s, but what good would that do, anyway? It could be anyone’s bag. There are probably a million bags like it…

Underneath the satchel was something else, something that looked like Pania’s hair.

Anna glanced behind her—the men were watching. She turned her eyes back to the front, and kept walking, slowly, slowly.

"Coffice Unrest" appears in the new anthology of Auckland writing, Best of Auckland  (Writers Café, $28), available in selected bookstores or direct from the publishers.

*ReadingRoom short stories appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*

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