The man in the café
Yesterday by chance I visited a part of the city I had avoided for nigh on eight years. I had decided to walk part of the way home to avoid the traffic, making my way through green parks and quiet pedestrian streets. As I walked I pulled my collar up against the stiff breeze of late summer. Without thinking I turned into a narrow park enclosed by two large monumental buildings. An unpleasant wave of nostalgia rose in my guts, as I recognised the city police headquarters on the right and the daunting red-brick courthouse on the other.
It all suddenly came back. I used to work nearby but resigned six years ago in what could not be described as a happy ending. How well my feet remembered the daily plod through the park from the tube station to the office. Early mornings the park was usually empty, except for the odd rat enjoying scraps left by lazy picnickers and the occasional drunk sleeping it off in the bushes.
Looking around, it felt no different. Cormac McCarthy’s old observation came to mind: “You go back home and everything you wished was different is still the same, and everything you wished was the same has changed.”
I walked slowly along the length of the park. The sun broke through the clouds as if to say “welcome back”. Peering into the distance, I searched for a familiar sight. Is it still here, my regular hideout, where I escaped from the office for a quiet cup of coffee, all alone with my thoughts? Yes, there it was, “Café Commandante”. Or is it just the old sign, still hanging from its rusty nail on the corner of a newly renovated apartment building? I couldn´t believe it was still there. Surely not after all these years. Then, as if to settle the issue, a man stepped out of the café door carrying a small coffee pot. He was making for one of the wooden benches which now occupied the street, together with giant urns overflowing with half-dead blue and red perennials to stop intruding cars.
Reluctant to approach the wide-open door, I stood there looking for a moment. Commandante used to be a simple, cheap café housed in what had once been a small shop, popular for clandestine meetings to plan house occupations and demos. There was never anything on display in the large shop windows, which were used as extra seating, often occupied by a bearded youth reading a thick book. The unassuming exterior, poor lighting, unwashed windows and cheap coffee made it a fitting venue for students who chose to devote their time to cultural and political discussions.
I plucked up courage and stepped inside, trying not to stare at the lanky youth in fashion jeans sitting in the window, a thin silver notebook balanced on his knee. Light from outside didn’t reach very far into the dim entrance and it took time before my eyes adapted to the surroundings. Gradually I could see that nothing vital seemed to have changed over the years. The old floor of uneven bare planks, worn grey over the years, was still there. So was the oversize counter which ran the length of the narrow entrance, leaving only a narrow corridor for those on their wasy to the rooms at the rear of the shop. A few ready made sandwiches and pies were on display in an aged, glass-fronted cabinet on top of the counter, together with a couple of buns and small pastries. Narrow shelves at elbow level ran the length of the other wall, catered for customers in a hurry. Old yellowing posters of Fidel, Ché and fellow revolutionaries were still hanging there, held in place by strips of ancient sellotape.
Two slim youths with full black beards and middle-eastern complexions manned the giant chrome and red vintage coffee machine behind the counter. Busy looking around, I hadn´t noticed one of the youths was smiling and asking if he could help me.
I ordered a cappuccino, which he relayed to the other youth, who immediately filled the café with the characteristic coffee-making sounds. He proceeded to bang, grind, let out steam, twirl knobs and press coffee with a flourish which begged attention, and temporarily muffled the piped lift music. It was of course too much to ask that their music taste would be the same. Fortunately my hearing is not too sharp any more.
“Anything else” asked the first youth, smiling. I hesitated, too busy looking around. He waited patiently. Finally I said. “One of those, please”, waving in the direction of a pastry with nuts and a sugary coating on top. He picked up the pastry with a pair of tongs and slid it onto a small chipped plate on top of the counter, rang it up on the till and said: “That¨ll be seven pounds please.”
One thing that had changed was the prices, but I thought it a mite mean to comment. Maybe they were out of cheap Cuban coffee. A comforting sign was the old silver sugar container still standing in its regular place on top of the counter. It had a folding lid and long communal spoon. I dug into the demerara and poured a small pile onto the creamy coffee. It slowly melted, leaving a round sink hole. Then I made for the inner rooms to find somewhere to sit.
The three small, dark rooms were still furnished with chairs and small tables which didn’t match, spread out seemingly at random on the rough plank floor. One room had a small window but no curtains. A few old posters were stuck up here and there on the rough, painted walls.
All the seats were taken. The overage revolutionaries with their never-ending political discussions and plans for street action were long gone, replaced by young people living in a cyber world where the meaning with life is to be found on a screen. Clearly they put more money into clothes and visited their hairdressers more often than my contemporaries. To my great relief nothing vital seemed to have changed, apart from the habitués and the music on offer.
Desperate for a seat, I decided to check out the end of the corridor where the cafe opened onto a yard, sheltered from the wind on all sides by five-storey apartment buildings with ochre-coloured facades. The pale afternoon sunshine barely reached the rough granite flagstones which covered most of the garden. Inviting park benches with green wooden seats and small black metal tables along each side of the garden waited patiently for guests . Two large round tables with metal chairs were standing at the far end of the garden, partly hidden by a wall of flowering bushes for those who felt the need for some privacy.
There were a handful of people in the garden. Considering where to sit, I sauntered slowly and deliberately along the sunny side of the garden. In passing I overheard two young females involved in an earnest conversation about their school, and two men boasting about how much they drank last weekend. Speeding up to get out of range, I decided to make for the far end of the garden. Too late, I saw that the larger tables there were already occupied by two couples. Instead I made for the park bench opposite, just out of hearing range. They didn´t fit in with my picture of yesterday`s, or today´s, regulars at Café Commandante.
The bench was more comfortable than it looked. The low wall behind it was decorated with painted flowers and provided some shelter. I settled down with my coffee and pastry, keeping one eye on a pair of sparrows that were hunting for crumbs.
The couple sitting at the nearest table were hard to place, somewhere in their mid-late 30`s. The woman was slim with tightish black jeans and a loud autumn wind jacket. Her short dark wavy hair was crying out for a visit to the hairdresser, and there was no visible makeup on her pasty face. Her partner was a couple of year’s older, his stout body stretching a forest-green jacket to it’s limit. His unwashed yellowish hair was long, too long, and fell in front of his eyes as he bent to study his phone, which he gripped with his puffy hands as if it was a prayer book. They were obviously some kind of tourists, passing the time and trying to agree on what to do next, but didn’t sit close together. He clutched the phone tightly, resting it on the table close to his belly. She leaned forward to get a look, but he instantly pulled the phone out of her reach. She sighed. They weren’t a happy couple.
The couple sitting at the other table were very different, attracting my attention. They seemed to be on better speaking terms but, regrettably, I couldn’t hear their conversation. I could see the woman clearly, as she sat facing me. The man was leaning forward, as though trying to get closer to her, so I could only see him from the side.
The woman, in her late forties or early fifties, was wearing an expensive looking camel-hair coat which she kept tightly wrapped around her, its matching belt tied in a rough knot. It said, `I am not planning on staying´. The bulky coat obscured her figure. She had straight medium blond hair resting on her shoulders, very red lipstick and thick black mascara which diverted attention from the wrinkles which spread from her eyes like a delta. A purple silk scarf protected her throat. Shapely legs encased in sheer greyish tights peeped out from under the table. Her black patent leather shoes would be described as “sensible”.
The man seemed to have devoted little effort to his appearance. His navy blue blazer was creased and sported a sprinkling of dandruff on the collar, matching his dark curly locks which were greying at the temples. Dark trousers which didn’t match the blazer, a pale blue shirt open at the neck and anonymous black slip-ons completed the picture. He was slim, as though he jogged regularly. A laptop case stood under the table by his feet. No distinguishing features, as the police would say.
Here a different kind of drama was being acted out, in a low key, subdued fashion as though this was not the first time they had had this conversation. I tried not to stare, sipped my coffee and kept the hungry sparrows at bay with occasional discrete kicks. Over the rim of my coffee cup I could clearly see that the woman did most of the talking, without actually looking at him. It was as if she was speaking into thin air, but at the same time very aware that she had to keep up appearances. Probably this was a role she was familiar with, being observed – and judged – while speaking in public.
The man leaned forward, speaking intensively. Occasionally she responded with a brief smile, which did not spread to her eyes. He leaned forward, closer and closer as the conversation progressed, perchance in vain search of a signal or a decision, perhaps a sign of affection, of hope. There was no warmth in their behaviour to each other. They never touched, as if there was an invisible barrier that kept them apart.
Coffee and pastry finished, I pretended to study my phone, hoping for some more action. Suddenly she stood up, reached under the table for a large leather bag, turned to the man and gave him a formal smile that she clearly didn’t mean. He stood up slowly, hesitated, picked up the computer case and gave a short elegant wave with his hand, meaning “After you!” When they were standing next to each other, I could see that she was quite a bit taller than him.
Without waiting, she strode on ahead along the narrow pathway, leaving him behind. They had to pass in front of me, so close I could hear the chafing of her tights. Instinctively I pulled my feet in under the table. He followed her at a distance, half-running to keep up.
As I got ready to leave, I noticed something purple lying on the stone floor below the table where the couple had been sitting. Bending down I saw it was the woman’s silk scarf. I grabbed it and ran after them into the café, but they had already left.
“Which way did the woman in the camel hair coat go?” I asked the youths behind the counter. They looked at each other, confused, and shrugged their shoulders in unison.
“She dropped this!” I persisted, waving the scarf.
“Try the courthouse”, suggested one of the youths with a grin.
I squeezed past the queue, ran to the door and turned to my right, in the direction of the red-brick courthouse, narrowly avoiding being run down by a speeding cyclist. In the distance I spotted the camel-hair coat about to disappear around the corner of the building. Running as fast as my legs would allow over the damp lawns, I shouted “EXCUSE ME, EXCUSE ME!” as I got closer to the woman. I turned the corner, and she was standing there, bending over, fumbling with the lock on a sturdy metal door. “Excuse me” I repeated, holding out the scarf, “you left this at the café”. She half-turned and was about to say something, took a step forward, grabbed the scarf out of my hand and turned her head away. I did get a quick glance at her face. Tears were pouring down her cheeks, leaving pale grey tramlines from her mascara which she had not bothered to wipe off. She went back quickly to the door, punched in the code and disappeared inside the building, seeming terrified.
I made my way back to the café to collect my bag, which I had left behind in the confusion.
“Did you catch her?” asked one of the youths behind the counter.
I found the bag and made my way home slowly, almost regretting running after her.
The woman in the camel hair coat
Safe inside the courthouse I leant against the corridor wall, heart beating fast and hands still trembling. No wonder at first I couldn´t open the door: hearing the footsteps getting closer, the heavy breathing and then the shouting. At first I thought it was F, coming after me, but realised it wasn´t his voice. It was that bearded man from the café, with my scarf! Gave me quite a scare. When you are being chased, part of you switches off. I couldn’t make a sound, just grabbed the scarf and ran back to the door.
I stayed there standing in the dark, waiting for my heart beat to slow down. I used the scarf to wipe away my tears. It had been a present from F, on that weekend in Paris which seemed so long ago now.
I couldn’t stay in the corridor for long, in case someone came along and saw the state I was in. There was a toilet not very far away where I would feel safer. I felt my way along the dark corridor and up a short flight of steps, as quietly as possible. The toilet was free. I sighed, locking the door behind me, hung up my coat, pulled down the seat and sat there in the dark. There was no reason to hold back the tears. I let the sadness just flow, quietly, until I had no more tears left. By then the floor was littered with toilet paper. I didn’t keep track of the time, it didn´t seem to matter any more. Anyway there was no one I could call to come and rescue me.
Sitting there in only a thin blouse, I started shivering. I realised I must pull myself together and make it up to my office. I had to look in the mirror first. I got up in the dark and groped my way to the washbasin. Turning on the tap, I hoped that splashing cold water on my face would make me feel better. Dried my face on a bunch of paper towels, then hit the light switch. I was almost sick when I saw myself in the harsh green light: swollen red eyes, running nose, grey cheeks, hair all over the place, streaks of lipstick on my blouse.
Sat down again, hid my face in my hands, told myself I´d stay here until I was sure the building would be empty. Uppermost in my mind was not letting anyone see me in this state.
It was half past four, Friday afternoon, so the building would probably empty by five. Half an hour! I tried deep breathing, stretching, rolling my head from side to side to pass the time. Still I couldn’t get F out of my head. There was a constant dialog going on with him in my head . How could he! Just dump me and run off home for a cosy family weekend with wife and kids. Stringing me along for almost two years, too scared to leave that bitch of a wife. Coming back time and time again, and then chickening out. I have nothing left to say to him, except NO MORE! What a waste of time, I thought, when I have so little left.
Footsteps approached in the corridor outside. I automatically held my breath. The steps stopped outside and someone tried the door, twice, then silence. I expected to hear a voice: “Anyone in there? Everything all right?” but all went quiet again and I heard the steps receding. Thank goodness I remembered to lock the door!
Now was the time to get a grip and make a move, pull myself together I told myself, and forced myself to look in the mirror again. A few strokes with my hairbrush did wonders. I put on my official look, grabbed my bag, hung my coat over my shoulders, switched off the light and opened the door. It was so dark in the corridor I looked up at the ceiling, expecting to see whether the stars were out. I pressed the nearest light switch gently and the corridor flooded with light like a flash of lightning. Taking a step back I almost fell over, regained my footing and made for the stairs. I couldn’t risk the lift.
My office was three flights up. I ran up, fumbling in my bag for the key. There was the door, safe at last. My hands were still trembling but I managed to turn the key, slip inside and quietly lock the door. No one had seen me. I leant back against the door, coat slipping from my shoulders onto the floor. I left it there, bag too, concentrated on getting my breathing back to normal.
It was very quiet, except for the dull hum of the ventilation. My thoughts turned again to F. This time I had to clear him out of my life, my head, everything. Letters, messages, holiday postcards, photos, anything that reminded me of him. It all had to go. And I had to do it now, before I started longing for him again.
Where to start? Here of course, the office. I started with the desk. A pale light filtered through the half-closed blinds. I dragged my bag to the desk and turned on the small reading lamp and then the computer. The silk scarf lay on top of my bag, damp from all the tears. I dropped it into the waste paper bin, together with memories of the weekend in Paris.
I had been together with F for nearly two years! Two years of e-mails and messages. I mustn’t start reading any, just delete them all. Fortunately they were in a private file, which I dumped with a couple of swipes of my finger. I emptied the computer’s waste bin too, to stop myself retrieving them. It took several minutes before the file was gone. It felt like a liberation, deleting all the painful memories and talk of a future together.
Next I emptied my phone. At once there was a lot of free space, as all to do with F disappeared into cyberspace. It just showed what a large part of my life I had devoted to him. It wasn’t easy to give up and accept that it was over. The tears were still coming. But I knew I couldn’t stop now.
Opening the bottom drawer in my desk was painful. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I looked through the pile of letters. In the end I did read one or two that meant something special to me, then forced myself to stop. Every single memory of him had to go. I ripped up all the letters, photos, postcards, theatre tickets, hotel brochures, air tickets and the rest and tipped them all into my waste paper bin. All gone, just an overflowing waste bin to show for two years of love, hope – and disappointment.
It was getting dark outside. Time to get back home to my small apartment. One last glance in the empty drawer, everything switched off. I reached for my warm camel-hair coat and was about to unlock the office door when I remembered the overflowing waste bin. It would be tempting fate to leave it there, a give away to the office gossips. I dragged the bin along the corridor to the copying room, which also had a large shredder-essential for a lawyer. Switching the machine on I started feeding it with the contents of the waste bin. The sound when the paper disappeared into the shredder had a satisfying feel about it. Without thinking I fed the silk scarf into the shredder too, by mistake. The machine whined and stopped, red light flashing. I shook the shredded paper down into the overflowing bin and tried again. This time the machine didn’t protest and the silk scarf from Paris was no more.
Pulling the belt on my coat tight, I felt free at last as I made my way to the lift down to the front door of the courthouse. It was like the end of an ordinary working week. The night watchman sat at his desk by the entrance. He pressed a button to open the door for me.
“Busy time of the year.”
“Shall I call a cab?”
“Yes please, would you?”
“No problem. Have a good weekend.”
I waited outside under the street lights. The air was cool and damp, but inside the cab it was warm and I snuggled down in the back seat. The cab drove past Café Commandante, and then it came back to me; that’s where I had seen the man who ran after me with the scarf. He had been sitting in the café garden earlier today. He must have thought me terribly rude, not thanking him for the scarf. Too late now I thought as I dozed in the warm taxi.!
Safely home I fed the cat and curled up in bed, feeling more lonesome than usual. The cat, ever sensitive to my mood, jumped up onto the bed, purring, and settled down by my feet. I didn’t have the heart to push her off.
The weeks went by. Memories receded and the pain of rejection dulled. After “NO MORE” I resorted to overworking as a cure for loneliness. There was no shortage of demanding and absorbing legal cases and processes, and they served their purpose. Exhaustion proved a good household remedy for sadness.
At work about three weeks later, it was way past lunchtime and I needed something quick and filling. I pulled on my camel hair coat against the autumn wind and slipped out of the side door of the courthouse, hurried through the droves of yellow leaves that coated the lawns and found myself outside Café Commandante. Hunger won over the slight hesitation I felt as I stepped inside what had been “our” place. I ordered a salmon sandwich and cappuccino. The place was busy, so I took my tray out into the garden. Bit chilly but then I did have my warm coat on. Out of habit I made my way to the old table, but sadly it was occupied. Not just taken. Sitting there, to my surprise, was the “scarf man”, as I had come to call him. I was about to turn on my heel when I remembered that I owed him a thank you – and an apology. Taking a deep breath I stepped up to his table and asked:
“Is this seat free?”
“I´m keeping it for a woman in a camel hair coat” he said, with a wry smile.
I lowered my tray slowly onto the table, and sat down.