The one-armed cat is asleep, a scarf draped over the still-baldy-bit where his arm until recently was. I felt he might be cold. I’m certainly cold, in spite of the central heating. Sleety snow falling outside. A long, soggy trek to the bird table to fill it up yet again. Darkness falling though it’s barely afternoon. According to the not-so-smartphone it’s 4 degrees C in my location. I notice it’s even 9 degrees C in Edmonton, where my sister is, and that’s only somewhat south of the Arctic Circle. Something’s gone wrong.
I was thinking about cafés the other day. I accidentally met Bertie in a café in town, to which I had resorted in desperation having found myself with yet another hour to fill whilst waiting for my bus home. Bertie had had the same idea, as had a number of his disabled friends. It’s an Italian café, the usual thing – formica-topped tables, cheery service, steamy coffee with free tiny biscuit wrapped in cellophane.
I actually walked right past Bertie, startling though he is to behold – wrapped in my own thoughts, a number of scarves and a woolly hat. Till he yelled my name. If Bertie yells your name, you know it. Everybody, all along the High Street, knows it.
And so we all passed the time. There was a man from Spain – or at least he was English but he had been in Spain for quite a few years. He had come home for a ‘recce’, presumably spooked by the idea of being marooned in Spain sans pension after Brexit, the plan being to do the ‘recce’, have his car shipped over and then drive round looking for somewhere to live, back in Blighty.
However, one cold, damp afternoon in town, drinking tea in steaming cafés, surrounded by tattoo parlours, pound stores, charity shops, seedy pubs and branches of Nationwide had begun to sew seeds of doubt in his mind. ‘Maybe I won’t get the car shipped over,’ he remarked to Bertie. Bertie started listing the library opening hours for him. Bertie likes to provide answers, if not to questions anyone has actually asked.
And I fell to wondering how many dingy cafés I had inhabited in this my elderly life. What would they look like strung end to end, I mused. As Bertie continued with the library list and the returning expat continued to agonise and ruminate, unheard, about the car locked in the garage behind his rented villa in drier and sunnier climes, I visualised a string of past cafés and myself wandering through them endlessly, in one door and out the other, over the whole of my life.
Here was Lyons Tea Shop in Chatham, where I went with my mother. I must have been quite small. I remember the black tiles and the mirrors – the long, long mirrors and the way they made the room look twice as big – and the woman behind the counter slopping teas from a giant teapot over a selection of teacups on a grid, not caring if the tea went in the cups or not. And the Knickerbocker Glories – ice creams and other miraculous sweet stuff in a glass so tall you had to eat it with a long spoon, and I could only just reach…
And then the cafés I went to with Mum and Dad on their Sunday cycling club marshalling duties. Plain, workmanlike cafés with cheese sandwiches, and egg and chips, and solid white mugs, unbreakable unless you hurled them forcefully against a wall. Full of cyclists, chatty and rather sweaty, in embarrassing get-ups: not lycra in those days but plus-fours, cycle clips, saggy shorts (with special saddle-padding, as my Dad foolishly showed me once) and cycling shoes that clicked and clacked as they walked. Loud. They were always very loud.
And the cafés where I did my student courting. Romance blossoming in some tiny, trendy dive. Juke box playing the same records over and over. People going up to put money in them. Coffee machines that sent out sudden jets of steam and deafened you further. What was that romantic thing he just murmured? My long-haired, half-Austrian lothario (several inches shorter than self) in the fraying cardigan his mother had knitted for him.
And the garden centre cafés I would meet Mum and Dad in, most of the rest of my life, on Sundays. People shopping for bags of manure for their roses, for garden trowels, for just the right lawnmower. People pottering and dawdling and thoroughly enjoying themselves, as British people love to do on a Sunday. Dad sitting there with his knife and fork clasped in his ham-like hands, impatient for dinner. Mum spotting a cyclist outside the window behind my back, before I had finished the sentence, so I would have to repeat it. Then spotting another cyclist. Nothing I could say was interesting enough to hold either of their attentions for the span of a complete sentence.
And the Greek café I had to take Mum to, when we were still pretending she wasn’t yet quite mad enough to be Taken Away. The powdered scrambled egg, the sea of baked beans, the wobbly plates, the tasteless frothy coffee. Sugar in a long tube. Ever frugal, Mum took the tubes home in her handbag, but then forgot about them.
The malicious comments she thought she heard (though deaf). The accusations to the waiting staff. The explanations that were necessary. The walking stick on the floor, constantly on the floor, getting sticky, and me having to retrieve it. Trying to get her arms into her coat when they didn’t seem to want to bend backwards, even a little bit. I drew a broken heart right on your windowpane playing faintly in the background. Too-small dresses in the charity shop opposite. The bookshop she wouldn’t let me go into when we came out…
The cafés with friends. Serviettes with the sandwiches, overworked staff, sudden bursts of baby bellowing, toddlers running up and down the aisle, plate glass windows, shoppers scuttling far beneath like one of those L S Lowrie painting. All only half-noticed. The conversation is the thing.
And then a hundred – seems more like a thousand – cafés alone. The cafés above department stores and supermarkets, long and echoing. Complicated systems for queueing up for food and self-service beverages. Draughts. Shopping bags dumped under the tables. Unnatural quiet. The cafés on train stations, warming my hands on a polystyrene cup, wondering if the lid will fit back on if the train comes…
And this one. Bertie seems to have exhausted Library Opening Hours and is staring at me, perplexed. I ought to be talking, presumably. I’ve been in one of my Absences. The man from sunny Spain is gone ahead of us to the bus stop, to catch one of the red buses (we are waiting for a blue one). But when we get to the bus stop he is nowhere to be found. Bertie is concerned. I wonder if he is simply Walking Back to Spain, just like that woman used be Walking Back To Happiness on the juke box, all those years ago…