Welcome to Rosie Lee’s cafe in the heart of the East End – where there’s not an avocado, slice of sourdough or double-shot no-foam soy milk caramel latte on the menu!
Rosie-Lee’s owner Abby is a woman without a plan….and her beloved little cafe is a business with a serious lack of customers. The Rosie Lee’s fry-up is legendary, but cooked breakfasts alone – however perfectly sizzled the bacon – aren’t going to pay the bills.
Fast approaching forty and fighting a serious case of empty nest syndrome, Abby realises it’s not just her menu that needs a makeover. And when Jack Chance, her The One That Got Away, saunters through the cafe doors and back into her life things definitely look set to change…
Abby has always believed a cup of strong builders tea makes everything better, but Jack’s reappearance is a complication even the trusty sausage sarnie can’t resolve…
Rosie Lee’s Café is a typical example of what a good café can be like – as long as it’s 1988. That’s probably the last time the décor or the menu was updated. This reviewer suspects that the owner may be waiting until its particular interior design style comes back into fashion. They may be in for a long wait.
‘Bollocks!’ I exclaimed. The positive review I’d been hoping for obviously wasn’t about to materialise. I forced myself to read on.
Despite it being located just a stone’s throw from Old Spitalfields Market, a newly regenerated hub of all things creative and on trend, the tide of urban regeneration seems to have passed Rosie Lee’s by. I ordered the traditional breakfast fry-up and, I will say, the food didn’t disappoint. The breakfast was cooked to perfection and my cup of good old ‘Rosie Lee’ (tea) was hot and freshly brewed. And the toast, although not sourdough, was crisp and very tasty. I should mention, though, that there is no gluten-free option.
I winced at the memory of the day this reviewer had visited us. He’d asked Flo for gluten-free bread and she’d told him that if he wanted anything fancy he could take his hipster beard and bugger off somewhere else.
All in all, Rosie Lee’s Café is fairly uninspiring, but it won’t give you food poisoning. Just for that, this reviewer is giving it one teapot out of a potential five. Now, on to more interesting territory. Bare Naked Coffee is an artisanal bakery and coffee house…
I closed the newspaper. I didn’t need to read about how fabulous their unleavened hemp bread was, or how their primo coffee blend ‘was to die for!’
‘Bollocks,’ I repeated.
‘Abby! The coffee machine’s not working! Come and do that thing you do with it, would you, love?’
‘What’s up with it now, Flo?’ Her cries for help brought me out of the kitchen and into the café. A frazzled and sweaty-looking Flo stood in front of the offending machine.
‘The steam’s not working. I’m not getting any froth!’
‘Brilliant,’ I said, reaching for the spanner under the counter. This was the fourth time in the last week that the bloody machine had died on us, so I’d taken to keeping tools handy. There was a small queue of people all waiting for their orders, and I brandished my spanner at them, like some demented warrior queen.
‘Sorry for the wait, folks, let me just try and get this sorted for you.’ They looked at me and then at the spanner, undoubtedly expecting me to do something highly technical with it. Instead, I lifted it up high and brought it down heavily onto the top of the machine. Once, twice, three times. It hissed and wheezed for a few seconds and I held my breath.
‘I think you might have killed it completely this time,’ said Flo from her new, safer position on the other side of the counter.
‘Just wait for a minute, hold on.’ Taking a metal jug full of milk from beside the machine, I dipped the end of the steam nozzle into it. With one eye closed, I turned the handle that forced the steam into the milk and prayed that it wouldn’t explode in my face. From somewhere inside I heard gurgling, then the machine let out a high-pitched whistle as the milk began to bubble. Problem solved. The little queue of customers gave me a small ripple of applause and I turned to take a modest bow.
Flo came back around the counter and took the jug out of my hands.
‘Here, give us that. That bloody thing needs replacing. One of these days you’re gonna take a swing at it and it’ll go off like a rocket.’
‘I can’t afford a new machine, Flo, you know that. I’m barely making enough to cover costs as it is, let alone have any spare.’
‘Maybe you’ll have a bit extra once you’ve finished this catering job?’ she asked, hopefully.
‘Making desserts for some random corporate event isn’t really going to help much,’ I said. ‘Besides, I really only did it as a favour to Liz.’
‘I did tell you to charge her more, didn’t I?’
‘Yes, Flo, you did. Several times actually.’
‘Well, she took the right piss, all that faffing about changing her mind, leaving it all to the last minute. I know she’s your friend, but she was a pain in the arse. Uppity little madam.’ I marvelled at how Flo managed to deliver this speech whilst simultaneously serving customers and wiping up spills on the counter. She was seventy years old, but she was still as feisty and energetic as ever; I couldn’t manage without her, despite her occasional bouts of rudeness towards anyone with too much facial hair.
‘Look, it’s done now. I’ve just got to drop off the last batch of tarts and then it’s over with. No more corporate catering for me.’ I draped my arm around her tiny shoulders and dropped a kiss on her head. I’d known Flo all my life. She was one of my mother’s oldest friends and although she might look tiny and fragile, she was formidable.
‘Well, bugger off, then, go and get rid of those cakes.’
‘I’ll be back as quick as I can,’ I said, pulling on my jacket. Now, where did I leave the van keys? I rifled through the pockets, pulling out old tissues and other assorted bits of crap until Flo jingled the missing keys in front of my face.
‘What would I do without you?’ I said, taking them from her and heading into the kitchen.
‘You’d manage. Look, there’s no need for you to rush back. I can take care of everything here. We’re not exactly rushed off our feet, are we?’
I looked back out to the café. It was true; business hadn’t been brisk. I had been hoping that a glowing review in the local paper might drum up a bit more trade, but there was no chance of that now. The development of the nearby market had been great for anyone in its immediate vicinity, but not for us. We were just that little bit too far outside the ‘development zone’. It wasn’t just my café either – all the shops in this little-forgotten corner of East London were struggling to stay afloat. I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind. There’d be plenty of time to obsess about my failing business later, hopefully, whilst relaxing in a hot bath with a glass or three of wine.
‘Are you sure you’ll be all right on your own?’ I didn’t want to take liberties; Flo might be mighty, but she was still seventy years old after all.
‘Positive. You’ve worked hard on all this.’ She gestured at the last batch of boxes I’d wrestled into my arms. ‘You deserve a few hours off.’
‘Okay. I might go and see if I can find a nice going-away present for Lucy.’
‘Lovely. Off you go, then, and I’ll see you in the morning. And tell Liz I said she got you cheap.’
I took the boxes and pushed my way through the back door. Flo was right of course; Liz had got me cheap, but she was my best friend. What was I supposed to do? She’d begged me to help her out after her other caterers had let her down; I wasn’t going to say no, was I? Charging her more would have felt like taking advantage of her desperation. It would have come in handy though, there was no doubt about that. Between my daughter’s imminent departure for university, the temperamental coffee maker and, now as I stood there looking at it, a delivery van that was on its last legs, my finances were stretched to the limit. The van, with its faded green paintwork and peeling pink cupcake on the side, sat in the yard looking old and knackered. Fifteen years of trips to the cash and carry and school runs in London traffic had taken their toll on the old girl. I knew how she felt. I secured the last of the boxes into the back of the van and shut the doors.
If you’re expecting a story that revolves around a cafe, you’ll be disappointed; the cafe does feature in this tale of second chances, family secrets and organised crime but its more about the heroine’s emotional journey than hearty breakfasts and afternoon tea.
Abby is a likeable protagonist, despite having a difficult childhood and teenage, she has enough people around her that care to make a success of life but she finds it difficult to trust and when her first love returns, even though she feels the emotional and sensual pull she runs the other way.
Jack is a dreamy hero, but he finds despite his entrepreneurial success, true love alludes him. He too has an emotional journey to travel, and he struggles to understand Abby and her conflicting signs and what he has to do, to get her in his life again.
Family and indeed community secrets are the backbone of this story, and they come across as believable, organised crime threatens everything Abby holds dear and as the secrets unravel the danger increases.
A mix of romance and crime make this an absorbing read, even if it’s not the feel-good cafe story I expected.
I received a copy of this book from Aria Fiction via NetGalley in return for an honest review.