Sitting at a table near me, a young man’s in love with his laptop, gazing at the screen, while his coffee gets cold. He’s not a regular, not like the woman settled in a corner, who looks as if she lives there. Her hair is white, permed all over into cauliflower curls. She’s digging deep into one of those rigid old handbags with a crossed clasp on the top, looking for something.
I don’t know her, but I recognise her. The sachets of sugar in the saucer will slip into the bag, with a paper napkin or two and a few of those wooden stirrers, apologies for spoons – so handy for extracting the last scrap of a substance from a jar, from mayo to moisturiser. Rubber bands on the pavement, pretty stones in the park, lost gloves on a railing, little pens at the bank….will all attract her attention. She’s an urban beachcomber, like me.
Sometimes, on one of her fragile days, a barista will bring her drink over to her, so she doesn’t have to stand and queue. The rest of us have to line up and wait to have our loyalty cards stamped. At the ninth stamp, the coffee will be free!
It’s mid-morning; most of the customers are on their own – more at ease here than in a pub or a restaurant , free to be spectators of themselves or other people. Then three mums come in and park their pushchairs, the babies fast asleep – brand new members of cafe society. A table or two away, four girls plonk themselves down, alight with gossip. ‘I can’t believe you said that,’ one gasps. ‘Oh My God, how did he take it?’
We’d all love to know, but the bank of coffee-making machines behind the counter starts to hiss then emit a scream of steam, waking the babies. Their screeches of protest would waken the dead, so how he took it is lost forever.
When the din dies down to a clink and a clatter, with a bit of jazz thrown in, laptop man has gone, a real couple taking his place. An espresso for him, a latte like a sundae for her, all sprinkles and marshmallows. The cauliflower lady has found a notebook and is writing her memoirs in it. Or a shopping list. It’s a good place to get creative in, for better or for worse.
In another corner, two men lean across the table in intense conversation. One has a biblical beard, the other an armful of tatoos and a general air of instability. Their heads move closer, their voices rise. Their eyes are very bright. They’re obviously plotting something, like a contract killing or next month’s act of terror.
This people-watching can get out of hand. They’re not conspirators, just in an advanced stage of caffeination. And this is your average capitalist cafe in the high street, not some hotbed of revolution. So keep calm and carry on and settle back to a second cup of fair-trade coffee or – if the time has come – embark on a less violent form of change.
My first marriage ended in a cafe in Brighton, not far from the Pier and the shingle beach. It was a pretty basic establishment with plastic chairs and glass ashtrays on gingham cloths that gave off a faintly sickly scent. It was 1973, when coffee was just black or white with nothing as frilly as froth.
There was no argument, no drama – because my husband wasn’t there. So he didn’t witness my doing something he’d never forgive. I ordered a chicken salad sandwich. It lay there on a thick white plate, the filling spilling out, then I raised it to my mouth. I’d been a reluctant vegetarian for two years, at his impassioned request.
It’s rare to know exactly when a relationship begins or ends, but that sandwich was the outward sign of a decision coming complete. A moment that stood alone, captured in the taste of meat.
From that day led a very long and winding road, past a few other points of no return to how and where I live now. In a fair and ancient city in the heart of the country, but nearly a hundred miles from the sea.