A few years ago, I was recommended "Before the coffee gets cold" by a friend. She spoke highly of the book and its stories without giving too much away. It had an intriguing title. I checked it out and found that it was a series of short stories. There was one more book in the series "Before the coffee gets cold: Tales from the cafe" and that is what stuck in my mind. Between the title of the book and the word "cafe", I assumed that the book showcased stories from a cafe, in line to Anton Chekhov's short stories (greatly inspired by his time serving as a doctor).
I did not pay much heed to it, not even giving the backcover a read because I was not much into the format. The closest I came was adding it to my goodreads "Want to Read" list, where it has been since November 2021. I think it was the idea of short stories that I kept putting off getting the book.
Over the years, I have come across the book multiple times, even teasing a friend of mine to pen a similar book because of the amount of time he spent at a local restaurant and the stories he observed (Tales from Geetham may hit the stores soon). I was also reminded of the book when I was watching the series "Midnight Diner", a series of stories that play out in a diner that serves food past midnight.
But finally, this book came to my hands unexpectedly. A few friends of mine when returning from Mumbai, had picked up the entire "Before the coffee gets cold" series and I was given the first book as a gift. My friend said that she specifically picked the book with me in mind. She even annotated the book with the words "for Coffee" when she gave it to me.
It was then that I read the back cover of the book and found that it was not a set of stories from any ordinary café, but one which offered its customers the option to travel back in time. That had me totally sold. I could not believe that I never actually took the effort to find out what the book was about.
If you know me, you know, I am big sucker for all things time travel. Back to the Future, Terminator, Predestination, Time Traveler's Wife, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, why even Avengers: Endgame, all have a special place in my heart. In recent memory, the time travel level in Dishonored 2 is the most favorite and had me truly blown away.
So, I was really excited to read the book.
On a tangent: Can we change the past?
As always with all time travel stories, I returned to the age-old question: what if I could change the past? If it is possible, it would create a new timeline. This is explained in the Back to the Future movies by Doctor Brown.
Another interesting interpretation on the cost of time travel and changing the past is given by the YouTube short film "One Minute Time Machine".
It always is the paradox of multiple timelines and new universes that spawn because of your actions. It is always tricky when it comes to time travel that we want to go back only to change the past. This always results in a paradox as your present and future will change without creating a need for you to go back which then is a paradox as you haven't gone back to create the change that enforced the new present.
So, no matter how much you aim to change the past, you have to have a reason to time travel and you cannot undo that reason (coz that is usually the motivation) or you will end up not travelling across time in the first place.
So, how does the book handle this conundrum?
Coffee and Time Travel: The Rules
Using coffee as a means to travel back in time is not something that I would have thought would be a great idea. But there is some charm in its simplicity. Forming one of the base rules to travel back in time in the book, as the title suggests, you are only allowed that much time in the past as it takes for your coffee to get cold. One of the rare occasions you wish for heat dissipation to slow down and take its time as you are not in a hurry to finish your drink.
Different books and movies have tried to handle this in different ways, but the only way to prevent such a paradox is to establish the fact that you cannot change the timeline and that is what the book does right out of the box.
Once rules for time, the process and the events are established, another important thing that is set is the location. You cannot meet people in the past who haven't visited the cafe, which makes a whole lot of sense and constraints the characters the location. Tales from the cafe indeed.
The book goes further to even establish a punishment for those who do not return on time. This creates a sense of tension and raises the stakes as now there is something to lose for not following the rules.
The final aspect is the seat, which is an interesting touch, because it further focuses the time travelling capabilities of the café and even limits it as the seat is occupied most of the day except for one time.
Establishing the characters in the cafe
The first story is "The Lovers". The book does justice to establishing Fumiko, our protagonist, and her motivations to travel back in time. While we learn about her, we are also introduced to a range of characters: Goro, Kazu, Hirai, Kei, Nagare, Fusagi, Kohtake, and the woman in the white dress. It made the café feel alive with its customers. I wanted to learn more about them and their lives. I am assuming that we will as I progress further through the other stories.
I will not go in depth about how the story plays out as I do not want to spoil anything. I did wonder that in the brief few minutes that your coffee turns cold, how can you do anything meaningful or worthwhile in the past. But the story just showcased that it is possible in the simplest form possible. It did have me on the verge of tears when I reached its conclusion. So much so, that I stopped reading the book in order to gather my thoughts on how the events played out.
When I return...
The first story seemed like an episode of a series with the other characters stories running through the others, maybe taking the forefront in a future episode.
There is much you can do in the past without just looking for a way to change it. How many times have we wished we had a chance to go back and spend more time with a loved one? Just have one last proper conversation. Just listen instead of talk. Perhaps all we need is that resolution.
That one moment to talk it out.
What moment would you choose to go back in time? At first, I thought I did not have one until I remembered that I did. We all do. What is your moment? DM me at @godric_snow on twitter and we can have a conversation.