The front of the café is all glass window, peppered with notices and advertisement cards and posters for shows from last summer. There is a heavy door, and it swings back quickly as I enter. Above my head someone has pinned an American license plate. Las Vegas, Nevada, it tells us. So very far removed from this place that it is almost a perfect mockery here.
I walk past the rows of seating, long ago clad in salmon pink vinyl. The corner spot is the most popular and it gathers the unsettled folk. One sits there now, dark hair hiding half their face and a worn hand another portion. Coat collar pulled up, restless eyes. He doesn’t stop nervously watching the room. I’m watching, too, but I learnt to do it so that no-one can easily tell. Use the corners of your eyes, nothing direct or fixed for too long beyond your own space. Gaze at nearby objects with a faraway look, and note the sounds. They’ll always tell you more than you can see, often before it’s too late.
Moving up to the counter, I recognise the man behind it. He’s often here. Always deft, with quick and definite movements. Neatly trimmed hair. A hi buddy, and hello madam, to every person who walks in there. Cheerio, and see you again soon, to every person as they depart. Even you, later, though you hold your breath a bit until they do. For just a little while we all belong.
What can I get you madam, as I pause to look at the menu. An efficient but friendly voice, and they are patient if you stumble or stutter. No articulated frustration, no demands – beyond the question that reminds you of what you need to say here. You weren’t sure but suddenly say something that you’d been half-thinking of. You watch them writing down your answer in their catering code, and yes – it is okay. Your silver coins for a coffee, with carefully frothed milk tipped into a waiting china mug. A ticket stub for your fried breakfast, cooked on a scoured griddle. A few orders are in at once, and they’re lined up and sizzling.
Here you go lads, and three breakfasts are served up to the table nearby. Yours follows. The table ketchup is oddly orange and translucent, so you opt for brown sauce. Good with the bacon, better with it dipped in egg yolk. I wait, carefully resting, as you eat.
A lady who’s had better years, let alone days, coughs and chokes behind you. I pause, then look round. She’s okay though. Eating pie and baked beans with a spoon, scraping up the sauce as she goes. The lads are talking football over bacon and fried bread. We listen to their banter. The thing is, the louder one says, is he’s just got no accuracy. Yeah well, the dark haired one replies, they won’t sign him when they’ve got… a door crashes, and I sit up. The politics of the teams are drowned out. From the back kitchen someone speaks loudly, briefly, in Mandarin. They bustle, more meals emerge for us. Here you are, madam.
Golden wood panelling runs up the walls to the ceiling, catching my gaze as the noise rises and I try subconsciously to filter some of it out. A newcomer, a gent, is greeted. He picks up a few papers, orders a tea. Finds the corner spot now empty, and drops in to the booth. You watch him for a little while, wondering whether you could ask for the crossword. Someone behind me is leaving, tall and in blue jeans and just a white t-shirt. You are huddling in my coat, fingers still taking warmth from the coffee mug. See you mate, says blue jeans, with a wave. See you soon, the reply. Outside he nods to a passerby as he walks away, another person he knows here. They all know each other here. Coffee clouds spiral. It’s quieter again. A few more come and go, some staying and some not. It’s never busy but it’s never quiet.
The sky’s cleared a bit outside, and I weave between the people and the water droplets falling from the overhang. The light has picked up, making the trees sparkle a little where they’ve collected the morning rain, and you’re glad. It’s strange to be locked away from so much of it now. My car is there, reassuring and unassuming. Still seems an odd extravagance, just waiting there for me. I turn on the radio, lock the doors. Toto’s Africa is playing. I relax, and you smile. No-one knows you’re here. It’s safe, safe for now. Spinning the wheel one-handed, I circle away, and we enjoy these moments. It’ll be alright. It will be all right, in the end.