The old man, the cafe and me.

Simple little tale and completely and utterly true. It happened in Quantum Web Café no more than two weeks ago, a web café I own in Reading. Although fully staffed, I sometimes I work the shop floor myself to keep my hand in. It’s also a great way to get real feedback and really understand any issues that the guys may have raised.

It was a warm sunny morning and I’d not long opened the store. I do like working the shop floor sometimes as I get to meet the customers, the vast majority of whom are fun, respectful, polite or at the very least harmless. The grumpy or difficult ones are actually few and far between, possibly because we’re pretty laid back ourselves. There are many regulars both for internet and just lunches etc, but everyday we also see new customers coming through, which is great.

This particular morning, a very elderly gentleman shuffled into the café. He was probably in his late eighties or early nineties, but well dressed, neatly groomed and clearly still mobile, albeit with the aid of a walking stick. I gave him my usual cheery ‘good morning’ and asked if he needed any help.

“I’m just looking, thank you” he said as lucid and as clear as a man much younger.

Whilst listening to his response, I noticed he was wearing a dark blue blazer with an emblem on the left breast. I politely enquired about it. In an instant he stood up straight, full of pride, as if being addressed by a senior officer . It soon became clear why.

“Royal Navy” he said ” ’40 – ’45”

I love to meet people who served in the war. Partly it’s because I love to hear their stories, but mainly because I am in awe of them. It’s impossible for my generation, born twenty five years after the end of the war, to really understand what they did, and even more so for the generations that followed. Nevertheless, it is critical that we try. It is even more essential we remember.

I asked him a few gentle questions about where he served to gauge whether it was something he would talk about or not, and was pleased to get some limited details from him. He’d served in the Pacific mainly in the latter part of the war against the Japanese and clearly seen some action. He mentioned the names of the ships he had served on, but at this point, the café had started to get busy and I was still alone. So, I asked him to take a seat and I’d come to him to find out what we wanted. We don’t usually do table service, but I was happy to make an exception for him and, in truth, I think he was glad to sit down.

Within a couple of minutes I’d dealt with the rush, eager to get back to the humble navy man now sitting in my little café. I asked him what he’d like.

“Oh, just a bacon sandwich, white bread, and a mug of tea please” he said, thrusting a crumpled tenner into my hand.

“No problem at all, Sir” I said, but handed him the tenner back. “We’ll sort that out later” I continued “… save me coming back with the change” I said with a smile and a wink.

And off I went to the kitchen and put together the simple breakfast he had requested. With the equipment at temperature it took only a couple of minutes to produce it and I took it to his table, whereupon he again tried to give me the money. “It’s ok” I said “we’ll sort that at the end, just relax and enjoy your breakfast”

He was sat near the counter, so in-between me serving customers and his mouthfuls, we continued an ad-hoc chat. Like so many veterans who saw action, he was reluctant to talk details and I didn’t want to disrespect this by pushing too far. However, it soon became clear that the walking stick wasn’t due to old age; he’d had it since the war and been discharged, eventually, on medical grounds after being on a ship that had taken a hit.

Again, the café got busy and we weren’t able to continue the conversation to any meaningful degree and, soon enough, he finished his meal and his drink and stood up with a well practiced heave on his walking stick. Straightening his blazer and checking his collar, he shuffled to the counter to pay, once again producing the tenner he’d tried to impart twice before.

“Very nice” he said in his confident baritone voice “just what I needed. Lovely little place you have here”

“Thank you, Sir” I said, gently pushing his hand with the tenner back towards him. “But this one’s on me”

He seemed genuinely shocked and, for a second, I thought I may have done the wrong thing and possibly offended him. So I quickly added these words:

“You might sometimes think my generation isn’t always appreciative of what you guys did for us, but we are. Thank you, thank you for what you did”

It was a bit of clumsy sentence and the delivery equally so, but for something put together ‘on the fly’ it wasn’t bad. The old man stood motionless, with mouth half open and serious expression for a second and I saw moisture forming in the corner of his creased eyes. He blinked, looked down, looked away and looked back and in a whispered, shaky voice simply said “Thank you …. thank you”.

I smiled and there was a sort of brief, lingering look between us. Then he turned away, shuffled into the sunlight and was gone.

I haven’t seen the old man since, but I hope each day that I’m on site I’ll see him again. Perhaps when I do, he’ll tell me a little more about what happened, perhaps he won’t. But either way, he’ll always be welcome. They will all, always, be welcome.

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