I don’t intend to do this every week. But for now, here I am again: soymilk latte with cinnamon syrup all gone. Empty cup in front of me, dried froth on metal spoon. Sitting at the table I like best for café hiding: the one in the far corner but sideways on, with a sort of wooden partition next to me. So I’m separated from most of the café, but I can SEE everyone. It’s like I’m in my trench, poking my head up over the top. If I stick my head up too far they’ll all be watching me, so I keep low.
It’s early. It’s Half-term week. The smells are of bitterest black coffee. And a thick but not overly milky steamy note, hanging along the bottom.
There’s a Chinese child throwing a bunch of keys up and down at the central table. He has his back to me. He has perfectly cut and layered black hair, utterly straight. His parents look on at him very seriously. It’s as if they are all having a telepathic conversation. They just look at him. And he throws those keys up and down, not looking at anything but his hand; his head bobs up and down with the keys. They are bronze coloured and large. There’s an animal, a crystal green frog or something, as a key fob that clinks against the others.
The sound he is making, that is perfectly rhythmic, goes oddly well with the flowing Enya on the sound system.
Twin boys in identical bottle green padded anoraks run raucously into the shop and throw themselves on the comfy leather armchairs in front of me, on the other side of the wooden partition.
“This is my favourite seat,” says one to the other in that lilting wavery voice 5 or 6 year olds do – as if their thoughts take a long time to move between their brains and tongues and get stretched on the way. A lot of interference between one and the other.
The Chinese boy abruptly stops throwing the keys to look at the other children. As he turns his head, the father pockets the keys smartly. He gets up with a compressed gracefulness, going to the counter to order more coffee. The mother, whose face is still and beautifully symmetrical, gets out a mobile phone. She touches one button and holds it to her ear, bypassing permed dark brown curly hair. It fluffs, it looks wonderfully 70’s roller disco. Contrasts with the rest of her entirely black and serious outfit. Her son gets out of his chair and stands next to her, putting his ear to the other side of her head, as if he can hear her conversation through her skull. She speaks low fast and clipped. The sounds are like the verbal equivalent of dropping hot words and saying ‘owww!’ often. There’s lots of punctuation going on. Her face is perfectly serious, perfectly serene. The boy likewise, a still face of calm. He looks up steadily at the ceiling as he listens through her head.
The father returns from the long queue. The Penguin Café Orchestra starts on the stereo. (Why do they only ever play Rubber Band, Troubadour?) He sits, a smooth sliding into the chair. He moves like he’s oiled most efficiently. Minimum actual movement. He places coffee before his wife, before himself. A package of vanilla wafers in front of his son, who opens them very tidily, retreating from his mother who is still deep on the phone and acknowledges the coffee with only a quick nod.
They sit, listening to her. Staring at the table. I am fascinated with the economy of their dynamic.
The twin boys in green have thrown their coats over the floor. Out of them they no longer look the same. One in a stripy blue and grey T-shirt; one in a red sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse on it. Their mother returns to the table carrying a tray with many blueberry muffins on. The children move to it, hungry flies with hands straightaway reaching.
“Are you sitting nicely?” says the mother. They interpret this question as a command, and with their arms still outstretched drop themselves into opposite chairs, eyes on her. She nods, and they lean forward, eyes all agoggle, fingers clawing down on the muffins as they pull them out of their brown paper cases.
In the opposite corner cluster of armchairs is a lovely language being spoken softly. It’s a group of four men, dark heads leaning close, all in casual jeans, sweatshirts, trainers. All a bit old, worn. Every now and then, one gets up and walks with that attitude only young men have, all over the world – that extra consciousness of the joints of the body, some idea of cowboys and defending territory prickling in there somewhere. One or other will go and fetch more tiny espressos, and looking scornfully at everyone else, will sit down again. Leaning in, once again discussing serious matters with his friends. They have that arrogance of young men in a group, but at the same time, when I see their eyes steal about the room, I see something that looks almost like fear and almost like hope on their faces. In the small lines about the eyes, the forehead tightness.
(That’s unusual. I don’t see that on the young men or women brought up here. What I see on a lot of them when you meet their eyes is a sort of flatness. Flat, closed hostility. A chilling shame that that’s the default factory setting.)
I catch the eyes of one of the men. He does that thing men do: you can see him wondering if I looked at him because I ‘like him’ or whether it’s something more impersonal.
I do what I always do. Resolutely, absolutely, be me. I smile big and real at him, and call over to ask what lovely language that is I’m hearing. It’s Albanian. Its sings, really. It sounds like half a song and half a recitation from a holy book, spoke softly with great reverence.
The one I smiled at brightens immensely that I complimented his language and therefore his country. “I can teach to you,” he smiles back. His companions look bored, irritated and amused, in almost equal parts. They sip their coffee with great absorption, ignoring us both. I suddenly feel I disturbed them planning a bank job, or something massively more important than random conversation with a stranger. But the friendly one tells me how to say ‘how are you?’ and ‘I’m fine,’ which I’m deeply annoyed to forget almost immediately. This is extra irritating as I liked the way the words slid and hammocked. They moved well. I wanted to keep them.
I find I’m blushing at my inept attempts to repeat the words back to the friendly man (and I’m aware he may misread the blush cause), so I smile and thank him and look back at my book. They put their heads together again.
Oh. That’s why there were so many muffins. Another dad has come in, carrying two small squirmy girls in pink, one in each arm. He smiles broadly, they giggle in that maniacally odd way of small children, and wriggle out of his arms to go and be with the twin boys. The dad shakes hands with the boy’s mother in a familiar and oddly ironical way, rolling his eyes, as if at an inside joke. Two different families. The girls lower on the muffins as though never fed before; they practically have their faces on the plate. The two boys watch, chewing, mouths comically blown out, full of muffin. One of the girls burrows onto her father’s lap. He has a soft brushed cotton check shirt on. She runs her little blond head meditatively across his chest feeling the fabric. She offers him her muffin. When he opens his mouth for a bite she pulls it away, still giggling. He smiles, snapping his teeth closed at her, at which both girls’ giggling starts to sound hysterical, falling about with their laughter. One of them falls theatrically to the floor, holding her stomach. Her laughter sounds false; that way small children have of having a good time sometimes by miming what they have seen others do as having a good time. (Bloody irritating it is, I have to say.)
I feel a slight headache coming round the back of my head. It’s like the joy and energy of these children is sucking the life out of the rest of the room. The boys start to run up and down, up and down, laughing hard, thumping their heavy booted feet, giggling and bashing into chairs and round again.
A middle aged couple in one corner have their bags knocked over and trodden on. But oddly, they don’t seem to break stride. Without stopping their conversation, the woman kneels down, scoops purse, tissue and magazine back into the bag and resumes her position, legs crossed, arms gesturing. She is toothily saying, in a very gusty smokers voice, “I can’t have this, I can’t be having it,” to her partner’s grey anorak, curly grey hair and small round pebble glasses that keep winking in the overhead light.
The man has the thoughtful pose of the analyst. Head on hand, nodding along rhythmically at her, otherwise still. Except for toe tapping.
She sits there, intense in her loud wide knitted grassy green sweater and red crochet beret, explaining to him that, “yeah but, she said it was that, and it wasn’t, it wasn’t finished. Yeah. They stopped growing –”
He is talking, but I can only hear small bits as the children squeal. “Yes that’s right, so –”
“She always has to –”
“Well she has lost weight, yeah yeah yeah…it also helps with the voice…she’s stopped buying sweetener, to an extent…what’s her name? Claudia? CLOUDIA?” (that’s how she says it) “is nicer.”
I can’t make any sense at all of their conversation.
“When she was younger, it was all sick, wasn’t it?” She says, but not like a question, more like an ‘agree with me’ statement.
“He was quite a bruiser,” says her partner, nodding still.
She laughs. “Some sturdy ones.”
What?? I swear I’m catching the bits I am correctly. But obviously missing the entire gist. I have not heard such nonsensical conversation since I last heard small children speak.
The little girls are jumping up and down. Their energy is in direct proportion to me feeling increasingly sapped and somehow too close and yet very far away.
Time to read. Till it’s quieter. I open my book again.
The Chinese family have left. Their minimal quietness no longer adding to the calm total in the room. The Albanian men have also gone, in a long slow slouchy procession of not caringness, well performed. So their intense bubble of concentration is lost.
The only people still here are Gibberish Conversation Couple and Hysterically Loud Blueberry Muffin Consumers (and parental enablers).
The little girls squeal and twirl as their father gets giant hats out of a plastic bag for them. They are a white pink faux fur, shaped as huge Rabbit Heads. (This is one week after Easter.) Huge floppy pink satin ears. The girls pull them onto their heads, and I know without question, that I have had too much caffeine. And not enough sleep.
They skip over, like nasty little clever trickster gods and stand next to me, looming the Rabbit Heads in my face. “HELLO!!!!!” they screech right to my nose. My heart races and bumps. Those mad pink button eyes, massive and shiny bobble in front of me. I glance over at the dad, wanting to shout for, er, help. He smiles tiredly and indulgently at me. My face freezes, unable to do any expression at all.
I conceive of a grand notion of hiding in the toilet from this onslaught of Tiny Child Demon Energy.
They snort and giggle violently and scamper away, undeterred by my odd non-reaction. In fact, I think they liked it.
I wish for earplugs, as the boys knock over a chair, and are told to right it by a barista. Firm and quiet. There’s pointing. They do not mess with her, but do so straight away and run off again.
The chaos of all this energy scares the living shit out of me. I can feel it banging at me in waves. Truly.
Vivaldi burbles though the stereo, the essence of order and harmony. I try to hear it. I try to read. When I look up, the Rabbit Heads and the boys are tearing up and down still, weaving between the tables.
I finally get that thought parents and non-parents alike get in public places sometimes: “for fucks sake, control your bloody children!”
But I look at the dad, and I can see his eyes are glazed. He sits, leaned right back in his chair, cemented to it, plump limp hands resting on the empty plastic bag the scary hats came out of. He watches them caper and screech. The mother of the boys offers him a partially eaten muffin from the plate, without looking at him. He smiles at the room in general and bites into it. Crumbs fall on his shirt, but he doesn’t seem to see. He watches the children, only his eyes moving, mouth chewing. I watch his exhaustion, his spaciness. My head jangles with his, in sympathy and symmetry. I’m cross with him, but oh god, I understand. I get it. So I do nothing. I’m going soon anyway.
I wish for Valium (yes, Fry, I want to tranquilize these children). I wish for slightly less involvement with my environment. One of the baristas makes a loud exclamation that sounds for all the world like “Hula!” as a plate slips from her hands and smashes on the floor. I lower my head to my book and try my best to not think about Rabbits.
I wouldn’t really recommend the coffeehouse at Half-term, as such…