Always there, part of the furniture, but now this!
The best coffee in Australia was brewed at this historic premises. The Judgement Cafe was located a red tram ride from RMIT, formerly Melbourne Magistrate's Court.
Granny Mai felt at home in the caffeine addicts' paradise with its mismatched furniture, worn retro atmosphere, jam packed local crowd, and unique slogan:
"Our brew - guilty of excellence".
Theo, the current proprietor, always greeted Granny Mai with fondness. He could be her son, she often thought, his facial features a striking resemblance to her own, but he was too young.
"Good morning, my Mai!" he'd tease. "Pot of tea, or the usual?"
He knew she rarely chose tea, though it seemed more appropriate for her age. No, she preferred cappuccino.
"You know what I like, young man!" Granny would giggle, her eyes glinting wickedly, harking back to her days in the Women's Royal Naval Service. She’d once confided her war history to Theo, but nobody knew her age.
Her silver grey hair swept up regally into a soft, bulky bun clasped with her only jewellery, a tortoiseshell comb, diamond and pearl tiara attached. Despite her friendly, beautiful features, she needed to get more sun. Spidery hands, quaint clothing, she attracted double-takes of bemusement evoking memories of elbow length gloves, steam trains, crocheted doilies, and gentlemen duelling with matching ivory handled flintlock pistols.
There was some cynicism.
Homeless. Obviously the dirty old thing is crackers - senile
But Granny was scrupulously clean, of sound mind, and after thirty years most locals no longer noticed anything negative about her. Teenagers admired her nostalgic fashion.
She usually sat near the front windows where she could survey passing crowds, for a couple of hours each morning, before wandering off toward Queen Victoria markets. The winter sun relieved her phantom arthritis. In the hot months of summer, the staff adjusted the plastic blinds so she could enjoy her breakfast ritual in the patch of shade created by the café's logo; a stern appellation moulded into the plastic.
This privacy suited Granny Mai. She studied the crowd with interest, knew everyone's story, conversations - all about them. Her photographic memory resembled a computer. People may have objected were it not for her table's shrouded dimness and her enchanting deportment, her harmlessness. She blended in like the antiquated furniture. Theo had seriously considered asking permission to add her silhouette to the cafe trademark.
By devoted service, The Judgement Cafe amassed its customers. By accident, the Logo concealed Granny Mai.
Her manner, habits and denials camouflaged what everyone suspected, and chose to overlook.
She must be homeless
Within such a bustling anonymous city, who could be blamed for being too busy to follow up on the uneasiness they felt watching her disappear into the labyrinth of streets and alleys of the CBD? Granny Mai was renowned for her kindness to all, whatever their appearance or status, but she was no fool. Today, for the first time ever, someone held her under similar observation.
Brown suit sipped his flat-white sugary coffee in leisurely fashion, reading one of the free newspapers provided by the cafe.
The Judgement Cafe's amiable atmosphere was relaxing. Nobody hovered impatiently, waiting to clear his table.
He ordered again, swiped a finger across his iPhone, made a couple of calls, and checked emails using the complimentary Wi-Fi connection. Brown suit decided to return here over the next week or two. He adjusted his tie, gazed out the window, and looked at the tempting selection of baked goods on offer behind glass.
He never once glanced toward the elderly lady sitting three tables away. She likewise ignored him.
Her tuna sandwich was now just dainty crumbs on the white plate, alongside an empty sugar satchel and screwed up napkin. Friday was the busiest day.
Currently seated were several local shop owners, employees, students, and business people. A couple of emergency service personnel and real estate agents handed over money, and some tourists gathered their food, searching for tables.
One group, tradesmen in high-viz, waited at the counter. Amid their tumult no one noticed anything at first.
Granny Mai lowered her cup and stood, turned towards the crowd, and cleared her throat.
"Excuse me! Your attention please?" Her surprisingly loud, ex-Navy commandment projected to the far wall, and brought the clamorous horde to instant, shocked silence.
The locals and staff stared with open mouths. A barista burnt her hand. Foodies paused, butter knives in mid-air. The only baker left in the building, working overtime to finish a corporate lunch order of sausage rolls glanced up.
Granny's eyes followed a solid young workman, coming in for lunch. He stopped abruptly; glanced around at the frozen crowd and realised something wasn’t right here. He stared at them, then at Granny Mai.
Waste of time you hearing this
She spoke calmly, turning to address them all.
"You may sometimes notice my appearance, and wonder who I am. Well, today I have no choice but to tell you.
Sitting here every day, over the past decades, I could describe in detail, the lives of every one of you, your parents, your grandparents, your children, your grandchildren. Oh yes, I could trumpet all your darkest secrets from the rooftops."
Nobody breathed. Silence except distant traffic, tram bells, and much closer the pastry chef stacking baking pans in the kitchen.
"But this is not about you. Yesterday, I was evicted from my home. Yes, one of those snobby mansions up at Crestmont Hill. You’re thinking; why? You would never have financial concerns. Well, there's the shame."
She paused for effect, even managing to squeeze out a tear, allowing her voice to crack, and give a convincing, emotional warble.
Theo the owner noticed Granny Mai's expensive hair clasp was missing, and tried to intervene.
"Mai, I'm not sure..." She cut him off with raised bony fingers.
"Theo. I'm a gambler and a drug addict. Yes! I know it's hard to believe, but I've lost the lot. Most at the Casino, but just as much injected into my veins."
The bistro erupted, everyone talking at once. The shock wore off rapidly. Most faces showed disgust and repulsion.
A voice near the back called out clearly through the throng. Brown Suit pointed at her, viciously accusing.
"Yes. I was the prosecutor! Go on. Tell them the rest..."
Others, sensing someone weak, vulnerable, joined in the chorus.
"Why tell us? Economy's stuffed you know."
"Deserve everything you get, yer silly Meth-head cow".
"Think anyone’s feelin’ sorry for yeh?" Any sympathy soon changed to quiet anger, as Granny Mai's next words rang across the cafe.
"Not just that. I'm a shoplifter. I stole money from housing funds, youth centres, family, and friends. I robbed grandchildren's piggy banks. I stole to buy drugs”. Before she'd finished people were already stumbling outside, getting away from this crazy old lady who, with a few words, had morphed into their most abhorrent nightmare.
“I’m sorry for my actions!” They didn't want to listen - didn't want her near their kids. "Wait. Help me, please!" she spoke quickly. Some were still in earshot, but the cafe was emptying. She made one last bid at their departing backs. "I beg you all for help. I have nowhere to live. Will anyone help me? Please?"
But everyone had either left, or avoided her eye, and ignored her from then on.
After a few minutes, she too collected her things and left. The only person to approach after her bizarre speech was the cafe owner, Theo, but only to clear her table. His face was closed over, and cold. Of all people, he was the one who disappointed her the most.
Brown suit murmured to her as she walked outside.
"That was...interesting. Did you get the reaction you'd hoped?" he asked, his neatly trimmed beard kept his shrewd face expressionless.
"I'm not sure, but we'll see".
Granny Mai didn't return for a couple of weeks, but one rainy Monday morning she slipped, and her handbag upended among the pedestrians, right in front of The Judgement Cafe.
"H...Hello, Granny Mai, can I lend a hand?" She glanced up, recognising the young carpenter squatting to assist her. She smiled thanks, brushing off his concerned questions, and continued into The Judgement Cafe. He stood puzzled, still picturing a couple of handbag items. Nothing made sense. The young tradesman returned to his nailbag, his compound saw and Paslode nail gun at the nearby building site. But as he worked his mind kept recalling what he'd seen. Next time he saw Granny Mai he'd ask her. What a strange vocal old lady.
After recovering, Granny Mai headed straight into The Judgement Cafe, ordered and sat down quickly. She needed time to think. Had she been too obvious? Did the boy catch on?
People came in from the pouring rain; breathless, damp haired and red faced. They held dripping umbrellas and puffed steam. They rushed back outside clutching brown paper bags. Hardly anyone sat down. The exceptions were a young couple seated down the back, and the lone Brown Suit man, as Granny Mai affectionately dubbed him. Nobody spoke to her, not even a greeting, and the staff, while still professional and courteous, didn't stop to chat. The cooler temperature in here today had nothing to do with the weather outside.
But Granny Mai expected little else, and none of this rattled her enthusiasm for good coffee, and cake.
She had chores to do today, and once refreshed, she departed The Judgement Cafe in record time.
Another week went by, and each morning the swarthy carpenter, whose name was Craig, searched The Judgement Café crowd but there was no Granny Mai.
He didn't work Saturday, instead made a delivery for his mother, in the same suburb Granny Mai lived.
Afterwards, Craig drove through the streets of Crestmont Hill admiring the manicured gardens, marble driveways, wrought iron fences, and lavish mansions.
He'd expected to see one for sale, perhaps learn more about Granny Mai’s life. The first item he'd seen, from her handbag, was a sheet of old wartime ration stamps. The second item was a yellowing eviction notice, with her full name and address at Crestmont Hill. But the notice was dated 1935. Guided by his iPhone GPS, Craig searched for the number. There were less houses now, and as he slowed down past a large cleared tract of land, with spectacular views over the coastline, he discovered Granny Mai's reputed home.
There, in the distance, soared steep gables of a forbidding Victorian mansion, with boarded up windows, turrets, and overgrown acreage straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. All it needed was mist, a couple of bats, and a full moon.
Obviously, whoever had lived here had been evicted for decades. With a snort of disgust, Craig did a U turn. He had no time for liars, and suspected Granny Mai to be one. It wasn't until he'd driven an hour towards home that he came to a startling change of mind. Granny Mai claimed she lived in an abandoned mansion. What else had she misrepresented? The woman was weird, but Craig was a sharp cookie.
When he saw Granny Mai again, he wouldn't let her out of his sight until she told the truth. Even if she was a thief, drug pusher, shoplifter, or involved in some other seediness, one thing was certain; he'd make her clean up. He’d find room for her to live at his share accommodation. There was no point lying, or being homeless.
He finally did catch up with Granny Mai, after giving up trying to order lunch among the huge crowd, at The Judgement Café.
She smiled in surprise as he sat at her table. Craig glanced at a man in a brown suit at the next table, but Granny merely waited, her eyebrows raised slightly.
She was calm, but one thing betrayed that something extraordinary was about to happen - a slight tremor in her hands. The cup rattled as she sat it out of harm’s way in the saucer. He spoke as if releasing something he'd kept bottled up for weeks.
"Granny Mai, I'm...I'm Craig" he croaked awkwardly, not usually nervous or at loss for words. "Here...have these."
He reached his work hardened hands into his orange vest, leaned across and gently placed a small stack of The Judgement Cafe loyalty cards in her palm. She knew exactly what they were - an unredeemed free seventh cup on each.
"The blokes on Flinder’s Street, you know, at the site...we've been saving them for you, Granny Mai".
His face softened as he saw a tear of gratitude squeeze out of the wrinkled corners of her eyes.
"My boy," she breathed in wonder, and quickly kissed his stubbly cheek before he could pull away.
"Listen to me Granny Mai. I don't know how you've survived so far, but you can't live on the street. It's not safe. And you aren't used to that life. I won't listen to your arguments Mrs Charleston."
His voice faded in horror as he realised he'd let slip his nosiness - looking at her mail the other day.
Her mouth opened to speak, to reassure him that she was fine, and not to worry about seeing her address, but he cut her off.
"I don't want to hear any more lies Granny Mai. You don't live at that address. It's impossible! And I don't believe you are a gambler. I have a close friend at the casino, described you to her, and she said you've never been there, let alone lost all your money."
Craig took advantage of her apparent bewilderment to reach across once more and do something his mother would say was very ill mannered. He pulled up one of her sleeves, then the other one.
"You've never taken drugs in your life. Have you...?" He asked her. He sat there gazing thoughtfully at Granny Mai, and realised he didn't understand her. He didn't have any words left.
She cleared her throat, patted his hand, and said,
"Craig. Just remember things aren't always how they appear. But I can see that you've learned a lesson in judgement already young man. Your mother must be so proud of such a loving, caring son. Well done my boy." She dabbed at her eyes, cleared her throat and with a scrape of her chair, rose to her feet as she had a few weeks ago.
Standing in front of the counter, she spoke up once more.
"Could I have your attention?" The noise eased until there was quiet. They wondered what was coming.
"As you know, a few weeks ago, I confessed to you about my terrible deeds, and situation. Well, they were all lies, as my young friend Craig here figured. I haven't lost my home, and I haven't lost my fortune. I never used drugs, or sold them. I wouldn't know the first thing about breaking into a Piggy Bank. As for shoplifting, I once forgot to pay, and was reminded of my error by very understanding staff."
"So, Craig is the only one who offered to help me in any way. He's kindly given me Judge's loyalty cards, also insisted that I have his room in shared accommodation. He's unselfish and thoughtful, and the only one who reserved judgement until he knew the facts. And the ironic part is that I judged him."
The patrons of The Judgement Cafe began to chat and the noise rose swiftly again as they smirked, and felt foolish, hearing the old lady's rebuke.
Though she'd returned to the table where Craig sat, Granny Mai wasn't finished. She reached in her handbag for a yellow page-sized envelope and handed it to the astonished young man. She announced to everyone present.
"Craig. I want you to have this from me. Perhaps I'll see you next time you come in here. Tomorrow, maybe the day after, or next week. Whenever it is, I want you to know that while I don't blame the people here", she waved in everyone's general direction, "I do want folks to think before they go making decisions, choosing sides, forming opinions." There was a silent pause. Granny Mai's final address fell like a gavel, like a judge's comment coming at the end of a trial.
"Remember, the slogan "Our brew - guilty of excellence" may work for judging coffee, but judgement doesn't work without knowing the facts. Mistaken judgement assumes people are guilty; their only crime may be innocence!
Who can judge, then?
Only the person that has paid the price for the coffee has the right to judge the quality of it.
Not someone stealing the bitter dregs of assumption..."
With those words still echoing, and before Craig could untangle himself from the chair legs, she picked up her bags, swept out the door and was gone. Craig chased her, dodging past a grinning idiot in a brown suit, clutching the envelope against his coat. He stood in vain, trying to spot her in the lunchtime crowd. He folded the envelope into his coat pocket, and promptly forgot about it until knock off time.
Granny Mai was never seen again.
When Craig finally opened the envelope his mother had rescued it out of his coat- he'd dumped a load of his dirty washing in her laundry on the weekend- he had to sit down. His legs felt a bit wobbly.
The documents were more of a puzzle than everything else about Granny Mai, and he knew he'd have to engage a solicitor or a property Lawyer to make sense of them. But one thing was obvious. He'd been granted official ownership of the deeds to a very large parcel of land in the most sought after location in this city; coastal / rural. The address was Crestmont Manour, Crestmont Hill and once belonged to Granny Mai.
Yes, he'd need a lawyer, and there was a business card for one hiding in the envelope, with a picture on it. The man was the cliché lawyer; brown suit, trimmed beard and twinkling eyes. On the back of the card was an embossed logo; a silhouette of a Victorian gentleman and his wife.
Also enclosed in the envelope was a newspaper clipping - a funeral notice. Craig's fingers touched his cheek.
Granny Mai had been dead for over fifty years.