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Synopsis: “The Café with Five Faces, what the walls heard, 2018”

The key clicks in the lock, and the door swings open into my world…
Welcome to my café. My five-roomed empire. Each room named after a place I hold close to my heart.
One café, five rooms, five groups of people, all with their own stories to share and opinions to express. This is England, a country living through a period of rapid change and intense political conflict, in other words, now. People of all ages, races and backgrounds gather within these walls to share their thoughts on everything from travel to humour, romance to politics, art to human interest. 
The Café with Five Faces is an eclectic mix of stories on the trials and tribulations of every day life. Grab a coffee, take a wander through the cafe’s rooms and learn about the lives and loves of those within. 

Extract from “What the walls heard, 2018” (taken from the ‘Granada’ room)

In a summer like the one of 2018, the outdoor space was as hard to resist for the staff, mainly me, as it was for my customers. Matthew, Mark and Lois were clearly out of work but with some spare cash, in other words, the perfect clientele. In the heat of summer, one’s mind often turns to travel. With Matthew, Mark and Lois, it seldom turned to anything else and dodgy experiences were once again on the agenda.

“Do you always feel like a tourist when you’re abroad?” Lois sometimes sounded like a television interviewer with her questions, perhaps not surprisingly when this had been her ambition in her more youthful days.

“In some countries, never,” said Mark. “In Lebanon, for example, I’m often mistaken for being Lebanese and I always feel completely at home, at least in the Beirut and central coastal areas.”

“Same here,” added Matthew. “But sometimes, you just stand out like a sore thumb. I was in Tunis for a day or two a couple of years ago and was innocently heading to the souks for a quick look around when I was quite literally targeted by a local. I don’t think I was looking too helpless but he decided I was in need of his assistance. It started with an innocent question like, ‘Where are you from?’. ‘Manchester’, I replied as I always do when I’m travelling because no one has ever heard of my home town. ‘Oh, my cousin lives there’ was the response and, like a fool, I was temporarily hooked.”

“Familiar story,” said Lois.

“I didn’t realise how familiar, but more of that later,” Matthew responded with a wink. “Anyway, he followed me into the souk and by this time, I was a bit wary but I just couldn’t shake him off and then he said he had a friend who sold some nice stuff and he actually managed to make it sound tempting, so I went along.”

“Like the dipstick you are,” said Mark, a little unkindly.

“Well, gullible maybe,” conceded Matthew. “Turned out his friend sold perfume, not spices as I had thought. I was complimentary about them but then made to leave. That’s when the pressure started. I pointed out I was travelling with hand luggage only and couldn’t take liquids. ‘Oh, no problem,’ they said. ‘Yes, problem,’ I said. I’m not always that easily duped,” he added with a nod to Mark.

“That reminds me of my one and only trip to Saudi Arabia,” Mark digressed. “I had just given a talk at a conference and I was presented with a ceremonial Saudi dagger by way of a thank you. I expressed some concern that it wouldn’t fit into my luggage and they told me to take it on board! Can you imagine the reaction of airport security if I had?”

Lois and Matthew laughed before the latter’s mind returned to the Tunisian souks. “Anyway, I managed to escape the shop, but not my guide. I then mentioned I would like to walk around at my own pace. ‘No problem,’ he said, and followed me. ‘On my own is fine,’ I said. ‘Just pay me then,’ he said. ‘I don’t have any cash,’ I said, almost truthfully. ‘I’ll come with you to the ATM,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a card on me,’ I said, almost truthfully – actually this was a lie. At this, he was a mixture of sceptical and angry and I realised, rather belatedly, we had strayed into some very quiet streets. Slightly fearful, I just turned and walked away.” He paused, while the others waited. “And then ran away.”

“That must have been quite a sight,” said Lois, trying to imagine a not very fit but fashion-conscious Englishman being chased through the narrow streets of a souk by a wiry Arab.

“He had probably underestimated my sense of direction and I did manage to find my way back, close to where we had started, although I was rather breathless. And there he was, as large as life, calling me a madman. I just got out of there as quickly as possible – in case he had more friends. It really spoiled my only free afternoon in Tunisia, though,” he concluded. And then re-started, “And then, when I was almost back at my hotel, an older man on crutches stopped me and asked me where I was from. ‘Manchester,’ I replied. And guess what he said?”

“Oh, my cousin lives there!” chorused Mark and Lois.

“I almost changed my mind to Birmingham to see if he had cousins there as well, but it seemed a little late, and perhaps rude, to forget where I was from,” Matthew went on. “And then he asked me if I wanted to go to the souks. Well, I had just walked twenty minutes at pretty full speed from the souks and he was on crutches, so I think it might have taken the rest of the evening and involved a missed dinner engagement had I accepted, although I really had no wish to see them again for fairly obvious reasons. I told him I had just been and left before I fell for another story or was asked to visit the nearest ATM!”

“And the moral of the story is, never believe a Tunisian who claims to have cousins in the UK,” summarised Mark.

“A bit of a shame for those who actually do!”

“Quite eventful for one afternoon,” Lois commented.

“Quite so,” said Matthew. “And then I got to the airport the morning after and realised I’d left my passport at the hotel reception. I’ve never come so close to missing a plane! I had to beg a taxi driver to take me back with genuinely the only remaining cash I had, and when we got back, the queues at security and customs sent me for my stress pills!”

“You got there, though?”

“Just. Literally, the last minute and the last person to board.”

“I had a really good time when I went to next-door Algeria,” said Lois. “I met some really nice, helpful people who took me and my friend to so many places, but in one case, they were only able to be helpful after the event. There’s a really old part of Algiers called the Casbah, which is a protected area so no one can actually renovate it. Some parts are really beautiful, some parts look like Andalucía, some parts are striking and some parts are run-down and dirty. Not a place to wander around on your own, so we were told afterwards, especially if you are a couple of very obvious non-locals. But wander around we did.”

“So, were you threatened at all, or did you feel threatened?” asked Matthew.

“Actually, not at all, except when we got to the top of the hill and there were a couple of guys who looked like they’d just come from a terrorist training camp in the desert.” Lois smiled, presumably in the relief garnered by survival. “That’s when we realised we may have made the wrong choice, which colleagues at work confirmed the day after.”

“Oops!” Mark’s reaction was light-hearted in the circumstances. Dangerous situations often seem less dangerous in retrospect. “Talking of sore thumbs,” he continued, although Matthew and Lois had to cast their collective mind back a good few minutes to remember previous reference to a painful digit, “I was of the same description the weekend I acquired the nickname Manila Mark.”

Matthew and Lois laughed. “I presume because you visited Manila?” Lois enquired.

“Got it in one,” Mark affirmed. “I had a reputation at the time for taking any opportunity to travel absolutely anywhere and this was my first time in South East Asia, working on a summer school in Hong Kong. We had a three-day weekend and I was wondering what to do…”

“So, you obviously went to Manila,” Matthew said with an amused expression.

“As you do,” said Mark.

“Or at least as you do,” Lois butted in, also with a smile.

“It didn’t work out quite according to plan in several respects,” Mark continued. “The flights were only possible early Saturday and late Sunday so it ended up as a two-day weekend after all. Then the flight was a little late leaving but even later arriving as it was held for an hour on the runway in Manila waiting for a parking place. When I finally got out of the airport, the traffic was so bad, I decided a taxi was pointless and started walking until I accepted the futility of a hike in the heat and got in a car. I think I finally arrived at the hotel at the end of the afternoon rather than the end of the morning.”

“Such a waste of time, but it’s happened to all of us at some time, I suppose,” commented Lois.

“There was a knock-on effect here though as well,” Mark went on. “Obviously, I decided not to lose the day completely so I set off on my intended walk around one of the districts, or rather shanty towns – Intramuros rings a bell.”

“Don’t tell me – smartphone there for all to see?” Matthew had an air of despair.

“This was 1997,” retorted Mark. “I didn’t even have a mobile!” He paused and took a drink, rather unusually of Georgian mineral water (and to allow both listeners and readers to recall the days when smartphones were unheard of). He then coughed rather apologetically before continuing. “However, I did get a little lost – it was an incredibly densely populated area – and I do remember standing on a pitch-black street corner at ten o’clock at night with a map in one hand and a rather expensive SLR camera in the other.”

“What an idiot!” I wasn’t sure whether Matthew or Lois spoke first but the sentiment was shared, to Mark’s chagrin.

“I won’t bother arguing,” said Mark. “Although travelling all that way to spend the evening staring at the walls of a hotel wasn’t really a viable option either.”

“Fair point,” Matthew conceded, “although a nice restaurant would have presented a decent alternative. I hope the second day was more productive.” He could tell from his friend’s resulting expression that this was not how he would have described it. “So, what went wrong?”

“I paid to go on a tour to see the Taal Volcano as my hotel recommended it.”

“Sounds reasonable,” said Lois, although she was clearly wondering if a hotel building possessed the ability to orally interact.

“We travelled for a couple of hours there and back to a hilltop which looked down on the volcano.”

“Still sounds OK.”

“It might have been, had the fog been somewhere else other than between our hill and the volcano crater,” sighed Mark. “It was a complete waste of time without even a decent coffee.” I wasn’t altogether sure if the lack of coffee wasn’t more important. “And then on the way back, we stopped at some obscure factory which made buses, jeepneys or something. No idea why!”

“I sometimes think these places pay tour companies to pop in with their coachloads of often gullible tourists,” said Matthew. “I was taken to some very odd souvenir establishments in the middle of the Vietnamese countryside on the way to the destinations we had actually paid to go to.”

“Explains a lot!” Mark agreed.

“So, was there nothing good about the weekend at all?” asked Lois, returning to the matter in hand.

“Well, I suppose the rest of the day was better,” said Mark, a little more brightly. “I spent the afternoon walking around a mini-Philippines park. It’s the sort of thing I don’t usually enjoy but after the hassle of the previous thirty hours, it was something of a welcome relief and it allowed me to see at least something of the country, even if it was in miniature! This is where the ‘sore thumb’ part was most obvious. Most Filipinos are short and swarthy with a full head of hair, so it’s fair to say I didn’t quite blend in.”

“You can say that again,” said Matthew.

“I didn’t quite blend in,” Mark obliged. “At one point, I was being followed by a large number of teenage girls…”

“That’s the stuff of dreams for you, isn’t it?” teased Lois.

“Not when they’re pointing me out to anyone who would listen, saying, ‘Look; tall white man with no hair’ and dissolving into fits of giggles at every possible opportunity.”

Lois and Matthew smiled at each other, knowing that in times past, Mark had been more than a little sensitive about his lack of a thatch.

“Anyway, I was upped to first class going back to Hong Kong.” Mark brought the story of the weekend to a close with an apparent high. “I’d been walking all day, sweating like a pig and was wearing bright red Charlie Brown socks,” he added, somewhat spoiling the effect. “And the poor guy next to me had paid extra to sit there.” He shook his head in sympathy with the stranger’s obvious and rather odorous plight. His mind turned to brighter thoughts. “Can I have a Caprese salad, please, Chaelli?” Quite what took his mind from a first-class flight between Manila and Hong Kong with smelly socks to a Caprese salad puzzled me somewhat, but a sale’s a sale.

“Mmmm, make that two,” added Lois.

“And three.” Matthew made it a hat-trick.

“What the walls heard, 2019”

You can start to read the 2019 edition by following the blog, starting with updates from the ‘Cape Town’, ‘Beirut’ and ‘Hebden Bridge’ rooms: https://thecafewith5faces.com/blog/

Author bio

A traveller, an observer and a coffee fanatic, Chaelli has, to use a turn of phrase, been around a bit!

He has travelled the world in his capacity as a trainer, working primarily in Europe, but also in South Africa, Central and South America, Australia and New Zealand, the Middle East and Central and South-East Asia. During this time, he has developed a particular affection for, and affinity with Beirut, Budapest, Cape Town and Granada, along with the much closer to home Hebden Bridge. Having spent many months in all of these places, he has named a room in his café after each of them, hence The Café with Five Faces.

His ‘day job’ involves a lot of observation and he has used these ‘skills’, also known as ‘nosiness’, to put together The Café with Five Faces, a book of the stories his café’s walls have overheard, and will continue to overhear.

Delving back into the annals of history, Chaelli studied History and Politics and maintains an active interest in the latter, being a vocal member of most things anti-Brexit, a mistake he views as a form of national suicide.

These days, he is studying for a Diploma in Coffee Skills and has so far taken courses in Beirut, London, Cape Town, Bogota and Villa de Leyva (Colombia).

He has been a writer for a long time, starting with children’s adventure stories written when barely a teen, through to materials and courses for English teachers and an as yet unpublished travelogue.

Author pic: sampling coffee – obviously – in one of Budapest’s new -style cafés
Cover to the 2018 edition
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