So we found ourselves in Sheerness in September, in the rain. This always happens at some point when my Canadian sister is staying. I suppose it’s sort of quaint, or at any rate quite unlike Edmonton, and that’s why she likes it. And seeing it’s raining cats and dogs, might as well go as not. So we go, and almost immediately split up because we are both ‘lone shoppers’ by nature. S heads for her favourite clothes shop; I squelch off on a quest for a post box and a bookshop.
I find a post box, eventually, outside the main post office; there don’t seem to be any others. Of course it’s difficult to see when the rain is running down your glasses. I may have missed the other one. It is at this point that I discover the toggle on my rain-jacket hood has somehow, internally, got knotted. I can raise the hood but there is nothing I can do to keep it on my head. And foolishly I have worn a knee-length dress-tunic thing over leggings. Cheap, comfy and accommodating to any figure, leggings go with almost anything. They are de rigeur in Sheerness and I felt in need of camouflage. Now, in the wind and the wet, the dress starts creeping up towards the hem of my jacket and I keep having to stop in shop doorways to retrieve it, without appearing to be retrieving it. Also the knees of my leggings are getting soggy. At some point I give up the search for a bookshop and instead buy a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter for £1 in a charity shop, duck into a café and order a cup of tea.
The café is full of gently-steaming old people, which is how they probably see me – oh, just another steamy old baggage. I don’t feel I can, as a single tea-drinker, commandeer a whole wobbly silver table and four chairs so I head for the wobbly silver stools looking out over the High Street. They are very high, for a steamy old person, but I manage to mount one in stages, and without embarrassment. The High Street is one car wide, and cars creep along between the scurryers, moochers and shoppers on either pavement, spraying them with water. Nobody seems to notice. So many people in track-suit bottoms with walking boots and inadequate tee shirts. So many push-chairs. So many walking appliances – zimmers, crutches, walkers – more wobbly silver stuff. So many ladies in those plastic concertina rain bonnets. My Mum used to have those for coming out the hairdressers after a perm. I gather a perm will go frizzy if the rain gets to it. Hers used to have polka dots: these don’t even have dots.
Waiting for my tea, still, I read the notes on the back cover of The Scarlet Letter and put it to one side – face down so as not to attract attention – and make a few notes for my next post. I am next to the door and every time someone opens it there is a draught, which reminds me that the knees of my leggings are wet. My hair is dripping down my neck. Opposite there is a florist’s shop. The sign in the window says Weddings & Funerals. The ampersand seems to be of some importance. Bunches of tall flowers stand in tall plastic pots on the pavement, and the rain rains relentlessly on.
My tea arrives. I like it in this café in spite of the awfulness of the tea. Or perhaps because. I am always happiest in places where nothing at all can be expected of me, other than ordering, sitting for a while, paying up and leaving. The mug is too small – cream with raised dots around the rim, and it has a saucer. The saucer is so that when you rescue your tea-bag from the mahogany liquid in which it swims you have somewhere to put it.
I make more notes, watched by a little girl who is leaning on one elbow. I pretend not to have seen her. My ‘note-taking’ writing, like the notebook that lives in my handbag, is tiny. Writing in word-and-shorthand (Word & Shorthand?) salad, I continue not to look at the child, who is perched on another of these wobbly silver stools. Her young mother stands facing the other way, talking into her mobile phone. How did J K Rowling ever manage to find herself on a train, with the idea for Harry Potter in her head and no pencil and paper? How could she ever have broken that cardinal rule of writing? But then, she wrote Harry Potter and made millions. And I didn’t, for all my notebooks.
A woman walks past, her face raw and tense against the rain. For a moment I think it is me, but no it isn’t. She is younger than me. I keep forgetting. It’s that doppelganger again.