It had been so many years since he'd last stepped foot on a beach that, stupidly, he'd forgotten they got hot. On the first day, he ended up doing an embarrassing little hop of a dance down the scalding sands to the water. Wincing at the shock of cold water after the shock of nearly burning the bottoms of his feet, Patrick squinted out over the sea. Ah. Holidays. This was what people did on them, right?
He stood there, letting his feet go numb, until a shock of cold water splashed the right side of his body and brought him back to his senses. Drat, he thought, shaking out the now-wrinkled pages of the journal in his hand.
"Sorry, sir." A lanky boy, all tanned cheeks and sharp elbows, grinned up at him sheepishly from behind a beach ball. Patrick smiled.
"It's quite alright. I knew there was a reason I hadn't read this issue yet. And now you've given me a perfect excuse not to."
"Oy! Throw it back to us, then, Tim, go on!" shouted another one further up the sands.
"G'bye, then." And in a flash, the boy had waded out of the water and back up the shore. Patrick turned, shading his eyes. This didn't seem quite the place to lounge with a book, and if he was honest that didn't really appeal to him at the moment. It was a bit too hot, sand always felt a little itchy, and he was getting sunburnt.
Scanning the shore's plethora of seaside offerings, he noticed a big cozy-looking café, with great wide blue umbrellas and what he suspected might be an ice cream counter. The chairs stationed outside were the wooden sort with the wide arms and a permanent relaxed lean to them. That, he thought, was exactly the kind of place one could lounge with a book on holiday. Or, in his case, a medical journal.
The menu at Nonnata's House was eclectic in a very friendly sort of way. Avocado toast, home-baked cakes, fish with hot peppers, and something called "Mrs. B's Surprise" were all on offer. Closing the menu, he settled on an iced coffee and a slice of cake and approached the counter to order.
"This your first time at the seaside?" asked the woman at the counter.
Patrick ran a hand over his forehead, feeling his cheeks burning - a little from embarrassment, a little from sunburn.
"How can you tell?"
"Well, most people wouldn't choose to take a magazine into the sea," she giggled.
"Oh," he laughed, brandishing the water-logged copy of The Lancet. "Just got a bit splashed by some boys having more fun than I think I remember how to have, to be honest."
"Oh dear," her face turned red. "I'm afraid that was probably my son."
"Well, if it was, he's got a great arm, though he could probably work on his aim." Patrick winked. "It's alright, I have another one." He pulled a stack of back issues from his shabby backpack, and her eyes widened. "Er, more than one, actually. Been awhile since I've had a bit of time off."
"If you've got that much to get through, we'd better get you some sustenance, hadn't we?" She leaned against the counter, looking up at him with an expectant smile. "What'll it be, then?"
He balked. "Oh! Yes. An iced coffee, please, and… I've forgotten." Face flushed, he once again picked up the menu, scanning it over without really looking at the words. "What would you recommend?" His stomach growled, "For a late, uh, afternoon breakfast?"
She'd produced a glass of iced coffee in what felt like no time at all, and soon had bustled him to a table, promising to provide him with several meals' worth of food before the sun went down.
When it was time for him to head home, Patrick thought he'd never passed a more pleasant day. He had spent the whole day reading, first the articles he'd earmarked in The Lancet and then a novel from the little free lending library in the café marked "Monica's Corner." The woman behind the counter kept him in steady supply of cool beverages and hearty food, and another who looked like an elder sister came bustling over with a thick slice of cake, and the admonition that he looked, "Like you've never even looked at a stick of butter in your life! This should do you some good."
All the while, he snuck glances at the woman while she worked. She was so kind and patient with everyone he felt embarrassed at how special he'd felt in her presence. It reminded him a lot of his early days at the clinic, where he used to watch the nurses listen to each patient recount their lives - whether or not the information was relevant to their care. Many of the customers here appeared to be regulars. They entered with a greeting for one or more of the women who seemed to run the place (was it three, or more? Could they all be sisters?), and offered updates on family, work, home repairs, and all manner of small gripes.
At last, Patrick paid his bill, noting the absence of several of the items he'd consumed that day. He left a hearty tip, and waved to the woman, who was busy wiping down tables out front.
"Thanks for a lovely day," he said. "I think that's the best I've eaten since… well, I can't remember. I'll certainly be back tomorrow. If only to finish that mystery novel!"
"Feel free to take that with you, if you'd like. Monica encourages it!"
"It did say take a book, leave a book, and I wasn't so sure anyone else would like to read about…" he consulted the journals, "the history of thalidomide, or the long term effects of PTSD. Was Monica the one who brought me the cake?"
"That was my sister in law, Eve. Julienne is the responsible one in the kitchen, my sister, and Monica's our grandmother. She started this place - our nonna." She gestured to the sign. "Some of our regulars still remember when it was her behind the counter."
"Sounds as though I've got longer to go than I thought before being considered a regular."
"Well, it is your first visit, and I don't even know your name yet," she laughed.
"There, now, you've made a start."