The steaming coffee urns could only compete with the samovars infusing tea.
The windows were misty with competing temperatures either side of them.
Late afternoon and Jack lounged back in the upright chair as he watched the waitress deliver coffee. In the old days, there were several of his old cronies at the same table but they had gradually expired (some in mid-chatter). Jack was alone with his thoughts … and dying dreams. The waitress smiled at him, a girl (far too young for him) with pleasant curves under her long day’s dishevelled overall, revealing a demeanour that suited the rather ‘posh’ ambiance this particular café provided. The place was a bit too good for Jack, but he always relished spending more than he should on his refreshments to suit aspirations for a degree of classiness otherwise tantalisingly beyond his grasp.
A café society, for him, was now as unwelcome as Old Mother Hubbard coming to her cupboard expecting to find good company but merely finding food for which she no longer had appetite. But habits died hard.
He overheard a conversation even though he did not directly listen to it.
“When’s your next mental session?”
The speaker was a rough-looking man - in his mid-twenties, Jack guessed. Standards were surely slipping. High time for Jack to percolate at home, perhaps. Cheaper, too.
The man’s companion was a woman in dungarees. The two of them were seemingly, if unseemily, sharing a single all-day breakfast. She noticeably had teeth missing when she smiled. Perhaps, she was missing them, when she cried, too, Jack thought, whimsically. The dungarees were slightly shop-soiled despite her claim that…
“I’ve just bought these brand new. Do you like them?”
She fingered the arm.
The man winced and replied: “Better than a boiler suit or track suit or, what do they call them, shell suit, or any suit that suits you…”
The man laughed at what he thought was a joke. Jack’s own secret joke was to turn a blind eye to the couple and imagine them gone, which became quite an easy process as they soon left the café, the waitress with the neat behind then quickly wiping their table down and clearing the used dishes as if they harboured germs beyond the norm of smeared yolk.
Jack had earlier watched the waitress talking to the other staff behind the counter when the strange rough-looking couple had still been present. Jack assumed they’d been tutting together as co-workers tended to do in any office, shop or café. Too proud to admit they were just a glorified greasy-spoon. Or bucket shop. Or backstreet lock-up for sweated labour. This café surely owned up to all their VAT returns. A cut above most other establishments. Jack was confident that his judgement of many years’ customer-service was well-grounded.
Jack’s train of thought took a downward turn. Time he called it a day. His pension could hardly stretch to waitress service. His eyes filled with tears. A self-service sadness that took him unawares. He was usually such a chirpy, cocky individual, it was a strange experience for him to feel depressed – and he suddenly recalled the shell-suit’s companion talking about her next ‘mental session’. What multitude of sins did that expression contain, Jack wondered. Care-in-the-community on the brink? Or merely another attempt at the Times crossword?
The tears in his eyes were a direct result of this expression having lingered in his sub-conscious rather than having been caused by the sudden dawning upon him that his life of ‘café society’ was now drawing to its inevitable conclusion, and that this had been happening for some years … a sudden awareness of a gradual process. The couple’s reference to a ‘mental session’ had been a catalyst for something quite separately pre-existent within his mind, although the two events would remain forever inextricably linked by hindsight.
His was the mental session that mattered. He had no control over such sessions held by other people. He could not be responsible for any mind but his own.
Meanwhile, the waitress was now hovering round Jack’s own table making him initially fear any approaching hints that he had been nursing his coffee long enough, ready, as she appeared to be, to start clearing his table next. But, no, she was intent on making at least small talk last, it seemed.
“Hello, Mr Clark, how are you today? Weather getting you down?”
He had hardly noticed the weather through the steamed-up windows. It was hardly worth giving it the time of day. Habits died hard, he thought. Put a hat on it. Or the hot tin roof. He smiled back at the waitress who was relatively new and unnamed. He just heard her called Pet, short for Petula possibly. A pet name, indeed, used by her co-tutters behind the counter. Petula was too Sixties. She must have been born in the late eighties, even nineties.
“How did you know my name?” he asked.
He bit his tongue. It came out all wrong, too sudden. He should have been conspiring with her, or at least accepting the small talk rather than countering it with a sharp-drawn breath of a question.
“It’s just I know you from before.”
Her voice was lilting in Welshness. Or French.
He looked casually into one of the top corners of the steamy room. Vaguely perceived within was an irregular shape that he could not reconcile with anything that had gone before. A tangle of material or garment smalls: end-of-line bargains from a market-stall floating improbably or caught upon a nail on the inside café wall. An irregular shape because it should not have been there at all. This was a classy joint. Cast-offs or hand-me-downs represented a commodity in which a café could not possibly deal. He sweated, unsure if this was what was meant by a ‘mental session’. If so, he had never experienced one before and, therefore, could not compare it with anything else in his life.
“You knew me from somewhere else?”
“You helped my Mum once. You were very kind. Don’t you recognise me? I was the little girl who sat on the couch when you were there. I was a bit shy.”
“Errr… Was that when she had called out for help – a premature birth…?”
“Yes, that was my sister. Or would have been my sister, had things been different.”
“I know… sorry…”
“It wasn’t your fault, Mr Clark. You did all you could. And if it hadn’t been for you, I’d’ve lost my Mum, too.”
He wondered now if this was a true memory being conjured into the open by a trick or entrapment of conversation, whereby he had been drawn into the girl’s own ‘mental session’, a mutual conspiracy of small talk grown too big for truth.
He had a sense that he had already lifted himself up from the chair several times, motioning as if to leave the café, while simultaneously offering a generous gratuity, but the waitress held him fast by conversational means, cheeping and chirping about trivialities which he was too polite to ignore. Some independent strangers were wiping the café windows from outside in the street, although Jack felt – somewhere at the back of his mind – that to clean steamed-up windows one would need to do this from inside the café, not from outside. Nothing made sense otherwise.
He remembered a nursery rhyme:
Jack be nimble. Jack be quick.
Jack jumped over the candlestick.
He was uncertain what it meant. Or rather, implied. The meaning was quite simple, the implication less so. As in all stories and rhymes and other similar mental sessions, the searching for some holy grail of purpose or message was counterproductive for most conscious people who lived through them.
He fingered her arm.
Jack eventually left the café society, intent on never crossing such boundaries again. Like all people, he saved lives, or killed lives, by the merest trivial action, of doing or not-doing the same thing.
He saw the waitress trying to peer through the clouded café window, as he marched downtown, too old for any Juliet to mistake him as her Romeo.
He vanished amid the other ragamuffins.
Upon examining the primary sources concerning the Coffee House society of the 17th century, there is a feeling among peers that Pepys was only the tip of an iceberg. Bigger, better diaries were kept telling of bigger, better fires and bigger, better plagues. It’s just that others of the time (rough diamonds in the main) had the good sense to seek to destroy these diaries before historians were able to take them as their own. Subsequent brainstorming and other similar mental sessions of posterity’s academics and intellectuals upon the existence or not of such rogue diarists out-doing Pepys were also thankfully destroyed by not writing them down in the first place. A good example of academia as cultural ‘suicide bomber’.
From ‘Café Society from Pepys to Degas’ by James Clark (Emeritus Professor of History – University Of Rhyme and Reason).
CAFE SOCIETY (2): http://weirdmonger.blogspot.com/2007/04/caf-society-2.html