Café Boris (Part 1)
It was three years ago that Dmitri lost his teaching job. The state school had simply run out of the money to pay him. He did other work where he could, mostly labouring jobs for friends, but he lived a frugal existence, “Living off the air,” as he described it.
Café Boris was not dissimilar to a hundred other cafés in Luhansk, indeed it was similar to many other cafés in Ukraine. It was plain, functional and served food from a simple menu to a few regular local customers.
It was only in recent years that it had been overrun with ‘outsiders’ coming to visit the famous café Boris and Boris had not yet used this extra income on such luxuries as a fresh coat of paint, clean tables or new menus. The menu on the wall still described the city as Voroshilovgrad. To the rest of the world Voroshilovgrad was a name from another era, another world, but in café Boris it was still contemporary currency.
Even though it was early morning the café was nearly full, mostly of tourists. Boris was always rude to tourists, unaware that the main reason tourists came is that their guidebooks recommend that they come to be insulted with "traditional Ukranian insults".
Boris greeted Dmitri with a curt grunt and hurled a coffee in his general direction. These days the café was full from morning ‘til night, yet Boris refused to pay for staff, even though he resented hard work just as much as he resented spending money. “These boom times,” he was known to moan, “what have I done to deserve them? Did I ever complain when I went a whole week without customers?”
In fact Boris had complained, constantly, about many things: about Russian occupation, at being abandoned by Moscow, about the cold of winter, about the heat of summer, but mostly he complained about people’s refusal to visit his café. That is, until they started coming.
“What are you English?” Boris shouted at some unfortunate who had shown the cheek to complain about waiting for food, “I thought the English liked to wait. Like you wait for the next time you win world cup, what is it 50 years?” The Englishman had muttered something back, causing a further tirade. “Why come here if you want to eat. There are better cafés in Luhansk, they are all better. Go anywhere, here you have to wait and when you get food it’s terrible. Almost as bad as English food.”
Boris had the ability to insult half a dozen people at once, in a range of different languages. At the same time as scolding the impatient Englishman he was arguing in Spanish with a South American tourist for only having a 100 Hryvnia note, “Where would I get change for that, what do you think I am, a bank? You come to my café you bring the correct change," while simultaneously chastising a Russian-speaking local for presenting him with too much loose change: “What am I supposed to do with all this change? Use it to weigh down the bodies of my worst customers when I throw them in the river?”
Dmitri didn’t have to wait for food, unlike the Englishman, as he was well known in the café and one of the other locals brought his food to him, a plate of sausage and potato.
The clientele was very different to when Dmitri had first come there three years ago. Then it was empty, completely empty, even though it was lunchtime. “Ah, so the world hasn’t ended,” Boris had greeted him, “I thought I was the only one left alive.”
“Business is bad then?” Dmitri had replied, causing Boris to launch into a tirade against the capitalist system and the communist system and against Russians and against Ukranians.
Dmitri had bad news for Boris. “I can’t pay,” he said.
“Then why you come to café Boris? To taunt me? To wallow in the café’s failure? To stare into the deep abyss of my poverty. To toy with my corpse, for a corpse I will soon be, without customers I am nothing, a capitalist in a country without capital. Leave me, let me die in peace. If you don‘t pay, there‘s no food. No food for you, no food for me. We both die.”
“But I can help you,” Dmitri had replied, “I’m a writer. I can write you marketing materials, copy for newspapers, to help you promote your café.”
Boris’s face betrayed his ignorance of the world of marketing copy and promotion, so Dmitri persisted.
“Here, try this: ‘Come to Café Boris, it is welcoming place with warm food and warm company’.”
Boris pondered the words carefully, the glitzy slogans of the world of marketing fitting uneasily with the world-weary décor of the café. “That is no use to me,” he said eventually, “the papers will charge 50 Hryvnias for a write up like that. I can’t afford an ’advertising budget’ on that scale. I am not your McDonalds restaurants. I have no happy-faced clown to greet the children of Luhansk as they flock to my door.”
Dmitri tried not to look despondent. “There are other ways,” he said, trying to think what they might be. “A letter,” he said triumphantly, I could write a letter to the Luhansk Tribune saying how wonderful Café Boris is.”
Boris failed, for a brief second, to look entirely miserable. “And for that you expect food yes? And a drink no doubt?”
Thus the deal was sealed. Dmitri drafted the letter and sent if off. Dmitri ate his first hot meal since losing his job.
He came back the next day with the paper, open at the letters page. He was too late, the paper was already framed on the wall. “Café Boris the best café in Luhansk bar none,” the headline read.
“Well, I hope you’re not expecting more food,” Boris said, you’ve been paid already.”
“I’ll just write another letter,” Dmitri said, “get you in the paper again tomorrow, repeat business.”
“What are you a fool,” Boris said, “they won’t print the same letter twice, not even if you use another name. This is over, the letters page is the only free section of the paper, every other page you pay for.”
“Not quite,” said Dmitri, thinking on his feet again, “they don’t charge for obituaries. That’s free now. I could write a fictional obituary, and include a reference to the fact that the deceased enjoyed a hearty last meal in Café Boris.”
“Obituaries you say? And they are free? I can do you sausage, potato and cabbage. With a vodka to toast today’s letter?”
So Dmitri wrote.
Vladamir Semak, died peacefully in his sleep aged 63, after enjoying a hearty meal at Café Boris.”
Dmitri showed Boris the obituary the next day and again for a moment Boris ceased to look miserable. “Too old, try a young person next time, a woman. I don’t want people to think this is an old man’s café.”
Café Boris nearly closed. Notices of so many deaths immediately after eating there cost Boris the few remaining customers he had. Rumours of food poisoning and deliberate murder were rife through the city. Luckily Boris was too busy complaining about the lack of customers to realise that he didn’t have any customers. He kept giving Dmitri free food and Dmitri kept putting in the death notices.
Then suddenly the world changed. People started to come to Café Boris for “their last meal.” Proof that all publicity is good publicity, even advertising your cafe as a place of death. A young, chic crowd started to hang out in “the best place to die,” and when the deaths were mentioned in a Rough Guide to Luhansk: ‘Cafe Boris, the restaurant where a customer dies every single day," suddenly the Café was full of tourists. Three years later the tourists were still there, the hip crowd were still there and Boris was still complaining.