Months of nicotine patches, hypnotism and bitter-tasting gum had not cured Noel of his love affair with cigarettes. His mind was like the tip of a sword, focused on the missing pleasure. One bleak Friday, he sat facing his boss. He watched his lip curl around unintelligible phrases, his only thought the smooth descent of tobacco into his lungs. Until the words ‘no longer require your services’ and ‘severance package’ penetrated his consciousness.
Too stunned to defend himself, he rose and left the room. His heart thudded in his ears and he felt suspended above himself as he cleared out his desk. Conversations burbled around him, the tap-tap of fingers on keyboards and from a distant corner the faint bass of an electronica track. Anton, the senior graphic designer, approached with a USB stick, his forehead crinkled.
‘This is my fault. You covered for me with that missed deadline.’
Noel shook his head. ‘No. It’s because I kept getting the shakes in client meetings and forgetting my words. Art directors are meant to be smooth and articulate. I’ll get something else, don’t worry. It’s been great working with you.’
‘This is the Schweppes campaign—I saved it.’ Anton handed him the stick.
‘Thanks, mate. Much appreciated.’
Noel faced the revolving door at reception, waiting for the right moment to step inside. Revolving doors made him edgy. Would he be crushed against the glass if he were a second too late? Or worse, be forced into an embrace with a woman, or man?
He took a deep breath and charged in, his green bag of belongings swinging at his side. Missing the exit he went round twice more before the door spat him out.
As he strode, he imagined what he might have said to his boss. An impassioned and valiant speech, replacing the mute reality. Some minutes passed before he realized he was lost. He was stranded in a graffiti-encrusted alley. Above him a red and gold-curlicued sign read ‘The Lotus Café.’
Inside, he was cocooned in semi-darkness and settled into a purple velvet booth. A young couple sat in the corner, clad in kaftans and immersed in a leather-bound volume. Noel read the word ‘Kafka’ on the spine. A small man with a ginger beard and an embroidered Indian cap wiped down the counter and pointed at a blackboard opposite.
‘Good morning. What can I get you? We only serve coffee here.’
Noel scanned the blackboard. The writing was neat and miniscule. He squinted, overwhelmed by dozens of choices.
‘Cosmic latte. Sounds interesting. I’ll have one of those, please.’
‘Your wish?’ asked the man. He stroked his beard into a curl, like an upside-down question mark.
‘What do you mean, my wish?’
‘A cosmic latte must be ordered with a wish, otherwise it is ineffective.’
That’s easy, thought Noel. I wish I could stop craving cigarettes.
‘Er, I’ve made one,’ he said.
‘Cool,’ responded ginger-beard as his hand made circular motions with the cloth.
Without looking up he called out. ‘Radha?’
A willowy Indian woman padded in from the back room. She was dressed in a silver and red sari and brought her hands together as she waggled her head.
‘Cosmic latte. For the gentleman.’
Radha nodded and cast her spell on the coffee machine. It looked as if it had been purchased from the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory–bright yellow and chrome with copious levers and switches.
The machine hissed and sputtered, as if irritated at being woken. Radha turned and winked at him as she frothed the milk. She had full lips painted burgundy and liquid umber eyes. Noel swallowed and waited.
When placed in front of him the latte appeared ordinary. Earthenware cup and saucer, a swirl on the surface like a circular constellation. He thanked her and she murmured svaagat hai, her eyes downcast.
Noel woke at dawn, his nicotine cravings absent. He bolted upright and a smile spread on his lips. His mind was still sharpened to a fine point, except it was filled with gleaming ebony hair and ivory teeth. In equal measure was a devastating desire for coffee. He dressed in haste and steered his car towards the city, accelerating through orange lights. The alley was still there, the graffiti a riot of red, green and blue, climbing the walls like creative ivy. As he stared at the walls his shoulders drooped and he crouched on the footpath. The sign was gone. The entrance was no more than a spray-painted Amitabha buddha, serene and complacent.