It’s the day after Margaret Thatcher died. The coffeehouse is almost deserted; it’s very early yet.
Jonah and his stressed mother are here. They are here with what is obviously his other sibling, a very intelligent looking deep brown eyed girl, older than him, about 10. She is delicately eating a Danish, pulling off small bits and putting them in her mouth thoughtfully. She has fine curly brown hair. Because of the overhead lighting, it’s haloing her face, which shines pinkly and healthily.
At the counter, a man in an orange parka and an unlikely Trilby, is explaining to the baristas how Thatcher ‘broke’ the unions in the 80’s. The baristas, being Rumanian and in their very early 20s, have rightfully asked why all the fuss on her death.
“There were very strong unions,” the man says, trying to simplify his explanation and his English, so they follow over the noise of the coffee machines and their own busy work.
“Like anything else, if it’s too much, it’s too much. Too extreme, too much power,” he says carefully.
They nod. “Too much,” they echo, serious, paying attention.
I reckon these two baristas know a lot more about it than they are letting on. I’m in here often enough, watching everyone. When they aren’t serving, or cleaning stuff, they read the papers – English and imported; The New York Times, and a Rumanian paper I can obviously not read. Properly every page read them, like papers should be read to get their real flavour. I’ve heard them have perfectly succinct and definitive discussions about Rumanian politics (complicated does not begin to cover that) between other things they’ve chatted about. They are doing what I do sometimes: playing dumb to get the other person to open out and speak their truth.
The man is in his middle 50s, unshaven and stubbly. That soft stubble you want to rub your hands against. As he explains in a low voice, that Arthur Scargill, union leader, did not ballot his members properly and therefore aided Thatcher’s “victory” over the unions with his own “corrupt…complacency” (he nods as he finds these words in his head), the baristas are examining his face with detachment and interest.
I really like these two girls. They are SO not stupid. You have to be careful to not treat them as though they are, just because they work in a coffee shop, have heavily accented English, and choose to act blithe, uncaring and cheerful most of the time. Those qualities can be misread. At your peril.
I catch the eye of the violently dyed redheaded ponytailed one. I smile. She doesn’t smile back (it would break their game), but I see she knows I know what they are doing. It flickers over her face, her eyes darken with humour. Just for a second.
The man falters. “What you think of her…it depends on where you were, I think. If you lived in a council house in the north and had family in the steel, or the mines, or the docks…well…it was very different to if you lived in your own house, here …in Coulsdon.” He ends lamely. He smiles tentatively at her.
“I see, I see,” says Red Head, pushing her cheap glasses up her nose at him. “You want cinnamon on that?” she breaks into a big grin and points at his 2 open cups.
Haydn is tinkling on the sound system, and switches to Mendelssohn: we’re Peter Panning.
Jonah has just been taken to the toilet. He is emerging, running down the shop to the counter where his sister is buying more pastries. (Grown up girl with her own purse in the shape of a sparkly grey sequin hippo.)
The mother looks a lot less stressed today – younger. Her face isn’t all pink. She wears a white cardigan, open and voluminous, delicate ribbing, over a cerise coloured camisole that skims her curvy body nicely. Black slacks, ankle length black boots. She looks smart and put together today. Where are they off to? Jonah rushes to present her with the blue paper bag of pastries his sister has entrusted to him. She saunters slowly back to their table (she’s preteen, but you can so see her trying to be teen in that walk), counting her change carefully into her hippo purse. She looks at the open pages of lots of newspapers spread over several tables. There’s more papers than usual, obviously because of the Big News.
“Who’s Margaret Thatcher?” says the girl, slowly testing these new words in her mouth.
The mother pauses, packing the pastry bag into a bigger shopping bag.
“She was a brave woman who used to be our Prime Minister.” She replies.
“What’s Prime Minister?” comes the inevitable.
“Someone in charge of the country, like I’m in charge of you. They look after it, like a mum,” without missing a beat, comes the answer.
“I want pastry!” says Jonah very loudly, pulling on her sleeve with sugary encrusted hands. She tries to wipe herself off, and the sister replies, with all the superiority of the older child:
“Be quiet, Jonah. They’re for when we get to grannies.”
He does a perfect pout, and the girl neatly interrupts what is the start of a power struggle by addressing the mother seriously and doing what the baristas did, but for real: “Was she a good mother of the country, mummy?”
“Very good,” says the mother, while I grind my teeth.
“Want PASTRY!” says Jonah, starting to rifle through the shopping bag.
The mother starts to get him back into his jacket and address those wayward hands, while saying: “Its not long till we get to grannies, and she was good because she stood by her principles, won a war for us, and stopped some bullies from controlling the country.”
(I presume here, by that last, she’s referring to the unions…she has half a good point there. But only half. In my opinion. Is it better that the country is controlled now by bankers and corporation bullies?)
“What’s principles?” asks the girl, getting into a sparkly white anorak, perfectly new and frosted at the edges with turquoise faux fur, also sparkly.
The mother does up Jonah’s buttons, and answers: “Principles is when you make a rule about something in your head, how to act about something, and then stick to it.”
“Like me always going to bed at eight?” says the girl, raising her eyebrows helpfully.
“No…not exactly,” says the mother, starting to be aware of the length and breadth of the shovel she’s holding.
“Pastry,” says Jonah, warningly.
“Let’s get to grannies,” says the mother briskly. On with the orange raincoat. Which has had a wash and an iron, and looks quite swish now.
She takes Jonah and his sister by the hand and determinedly starts to weave though the tables to leave the shop. As they go, I hear:
“But you stick to 8 o’clock, mummy. So why isn’t that a principle?” Querulously.
Tory Man sits in the corner by the window, his usual seat. He looks really really downcast. And you know, from the big centre-page spread of the Telegraph infront of him, I do not have to have my Sherlock deerstalker to see why.
Even his perky crewcut and stripy pink shirt look a bit forlorn today.
I got told a lot yesterday, while discussing Thatcher’s death on facebook, that I (and many others) who strongly disliked her and her policies and their legacy, should preserve a “seemly silence”, was the most all encompassing way I heard it put to me, for a while. Out of “respect”. I have to display respect for someone for whom I had no respect. Who earned no respect from me. An odd notion. A Victorian notion, about stiff upper lips, ramrod backs. About people being in their places. Would she have approved?
But staying quiet so that only those who liked her and her record can get on with sainting her…there being no balance of people who disliked and criticised her to go with the people who adored her? While history gets quietly re-written? No thankyou. She polarised opinion. She was important. She should be discussed, in life, in death. Nothing is sacrosanct. From discussion, or humour. I’m with Frankie Boyle on that one. So there’s my view.
But. Sad Tory Man sits alone in the corner, practically crying in his coffee. I’m not exaggerating.
I’m also not a complete shithead. I want to help. Him.
I do a me thing.
I go over there.
“Excuse me?” I say, as he is deep in his sadness and hasn’t seen me.
He looks up, quite startled. Do you know, he genuinely is close to tears.
He recognizes me after a second. We’ve been in the coffeehouse at the same time now, about 4 or 5 times. He is usually talking loudly about politics, with his standard female companion, and I alternately smile and scowl at him depending on how much he is tickling my internal bullshit meter and disturbing me from my reading and writing. We are on nodding and saying ‘hello’ terms now.
“Are you ok?” I ask. As I would.
He opens his mouth, closes it, clears his throat and shifts position, leans forward. I perch very tentatively on the arm of a chair, indicating I wish to listen, but am not inviting myself to stay any length of time. He runs his hand over his head, frowning. His lips are very tight.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says abruptly, to my small encouraging smile.
I know what that’s about. He knows we’re in different camps. So it’s up to me to be nice. Nicer. Cos he’s the one who is sad.
I point at the spread pages. “She always took a good picture,” I say. “She always seemed very majestic.” No sarcasm. That’s true.
“Yeah.” He says, voice softer.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
He looks at me suspiciously.
“You obviously liked her a lot.” I continue. “So you’re sad she’s gone.”
“She wasn’t like anyone else.” He says, shaking his head.
“No she wasn’t.” I say, trying not to sound ambiguous.
“She set this country back on the way to…greatness.” He starts. “She gave so many people hope. I bought my council house because she made it so I could. I started my business while she was in. She helped small businesses.”
“She came from a small business background,” I say carefully, nodding.
“But you hate her.” He says flatly, direct. Surprises me quite a bit.
No point lying. “Yes. But that doesn’t matter right now.” I say, in full Me mode. “You’re sad, and I’m sorry you’re sad. I wish you weren’t, that there’s something I could say that would make you feel better.” Still genuine.
“People like you make me sick.” Here comes the anger. Why am I surprised?
“Oh?” I gulp a bit and keep my eyes on him.
“You touchy feely lefty idiots. If we listened to you we’d all be broke communists by now.”
“Ummm….” I say, brain ticking in so many places. But he’s sad, he’s sad. Make allowance.
“You can’t go from lefty to communist like it’s the same thing. It isn’t, you know.” Is what I come out with.
“What do you call what you are then?” I can see him making lots of unfavourable possibly sweary combinations for what people like me are, in his head.
I’m feeling uncomfortable. But this is my own fault. I do do these things. Sometimes they go well, sometimes, well…they really don’t. Honesty is the best policy here. My huge people pleasing side is tempted to say agreeable smoothing things (I am a coward a lot of the time). My true self just wants him to feel better. I chew at my lip, and catch myself peeling bits of skin off with my fingers; my number one nervous habit.
He has reddened.
“I call me caring.” I reply. “I don’t just care about people I know, I care about everyone, the whole society.” Out loud, this sounds alarmingly pretentious and stupid. I try and carry on. “I never liked the policies of any party or government that makes us all… not in it together.”
“In what?” He snaps at me.
“In life, this whole thing,” I do a big encompassing arms gesture. Earnestly, but feebly.
“So if I lose my job and my house, you’d take me into YOUR house? Someone you don’t know?” Sneering. Accusatory.
He snorts derisively.
“No no, listen,” I say. “I can’t, there’s no room, and I couldn’t afford it. That’s why there’s a welfare state. So we all pay in, in case of problems, and anyone can call on it…if there’s a problem. The state, the Council, gives you somewhere to live, and benefits to keep you from starving and dying like people used to do, till you’re back on your feet again. How is that not a good idea?” I finish, as gently as I can. “If it was left to private charity, then people would pick and choose who lived and died by whether they liked the look of them or not. That’s not right…A central system helps everyone, if necessary…” God. I wish I could get him to simply see my point of view. Not agree. Just see it as valid, and not only wrong.
“Have you seen the state of some of those Council Houses, those fucking estates?” He is very intense, jabbing his finger at the table, and not losing his initial focus, I see. “Why didn’t your lot, ‘New Labour’” (ooooooo, the sarcasm here) “fix them up when they were in?”
“I lived for 20 years on one of those estates.” I say, having to lower my eyes to my hands, because his hard as marbles stare is putting me right off my thoughts. “They are both as bad as people say, and not. Plenty of decent people there. And New Labour aren’t ‘my lot’. I didn’t trust Tony Blair right from the start and that’s the truth. Look what he did about the war. I didn’t support that. I demonstrated. And he did it anyway.” (Trying not to sound bitter, there.)
“You people are all about demonstrating and protesting and complaining. You want free things all the time. Free things other people have to pay for.” He is practically spitting at me. He stabs his finger at the page, and a bit of spittle lands squarely on a smiling Margaret Thatcher’s chin. He doesn’t see.
“She made people pay for themselves. Not support the lazy. She was a good woman.”
He is challenging me. And in his eyes is such anger and sadness. It’s so big.
How can you explain to someone so upset that they just hit you with a generalization bomb? A meme Molotov cocktail? An opinion, an impression, all dressed up as a fact? A myth. About to get much bigger, unless challenged.
But what the hell do I say to all that emotion? If I don’t address that he won’t hear me, ‘cos that’s where he’s coming from.
“She was a very charismatic woman. A very good speaker…” I search my words. “Her bollocks were admirable.”
He nods but he’s squinting at me.
“But I disagreed with a lot of her policies. Lots of people did, and do. We don’t all have to agree. But I’m not attacking you for having completely different views to me. Not today. I’m not that great at speaking aloud, so not anyday, really,” I end with a little laugh.
“You haven’t answered a bloody thing I’ve said,” he smiles bitterly. “’Cos you’ve got no answer. I’m right.”
Oh bloody hell. People and their need to be right. I wish all my conversations were conducted via the written word or email, or something. I would have been a lot more eloquent and coherent by now.
“I don’t think she stood for those things you said, that’s why I’m not answering.” I say. “I know some people got that message from her time in government, but a lot of us got the message that she was at war with us, wanted to crush us, and she did. She won. Look what she did to the Northern mining towns. The steel towns. She closed all their industries when she could have invested much needed money in them. She closed them without any plan or strategy to create a new…to create something or other there for those people! Generations since live in those dead areas, no choice but to live on benefits, as all the jobs are gone, and people call them ‘scroungers’?!”
An image of Jonah’s mum flashes through my head.
“She did not look after the country well. She was like a mother with favourite children. She pampered them and gave them all the advantages, at the direct detriment to the others. That was wrong. That’s how I see it. She sold many of us out. She did not govern even-handedly. When people argued with her, she tried to crush them, instead of listening, negotiating, trying to find a compromise, a way –”
“Compromise!” He’s spitting again. “You’d have out country run by union leaders behind closed doors, drinking tea and taking bribes. Northern fatcats! Fucking lording it over the rest of us, holding us over a barrel!”
“And you’d have us run by corrupt politicians in the pockets of the City, with the big corporations, having tea behind closed doors and accepting bribes to break up all our manufacturing industry, selling off all we have. Your party would sell its mother for a short term profit and sod the future!” I descend violently to his level, feeling stung by his spitting vehemence.
“Oh just fuck off, will you? What the fuck do you know about it? Fucking whinging liberal!”
“The same as you. You live in this country, so do I! We see if differently, but my view is just as valid as yours.” Trying to calm down.
“No it isn’t. Yours is shit. Lies. Mine is true. I started my business because of her.”
People are looking at us now, I notice. The baristas, the few customers. Oooo: there’s tinkly Chopin in the background, skittering and prancing over a mazurka. That’s nice.
“I’m sorry I’ve upset you. More.” I say. I touch his hand. I’m rather amazed he doesn’t throw me off. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come over. I just wanted to say I was sorry because I can see you’re sad she’s dead. I’m sorry you’re sad.” (My head hurts.)
“Why the hell do you give a shit?” he says, a rather confused bitter look on his face. “You hated her, I can see.”
Bloody hell. Why is this so HARD?
“But I don’t hate you. So I’m sorry you’re sad.” I say.
And realize, as he shakes his head and doesn’t get me, that that is what I said right at the beginning, and that’s the difference between us. I care about him though I don’t know him, and bloody well definitely disagree with his views. But he’s a person, he’s sad, and that makes me sad. I wanted to make him feel better.
He can only understand someone caring about him if they know him, and sympathise with whatever he thinks. ‘Similar Others’ as I learned in psychology a long time ago. Everyone else is suspect, wrong, and therefore dangerous. He just cannot get that I would have genuine fellow feeling for him when we are poles apart in other ways. He can’t compute it.
“I’ll go,” I say. “I am truly sorry for…your loss.” I come out with that hackneyed U.S. phrase. I’ve always thought it very apt and clear, but it’s overused. However, it’s correct in this case. He felt like he knew her. Clearly. So it applies.
He nods, picks up his paper, and proceeds to turn to a different page. I am DISMISSED. He is breathing hard.
I feel like 9 shades of Total Fool, for my Me-ness. And retreat to my table. I can tell I’m going to brood about the complete bloody failure of that exchange all day.
As I sit down again I hear two middle aged men, who don’t know each other, have a conversation as they try and take the same copy of The Independent.
“So, were you a fan?”
“Well, er, not really, but I thought she was pretty good.”
Pretty good. Quite good. I hear that a lot, around me here, as I continue to sit. I wonder how much different it might be were I sitting in a café somewhere else? Somewhere like the East End? The North? Scotland? Cornwall? Wales? Not the middle of a comfy cosy Conservative safe seat.
I take out my book again. This is Truly a Historical Day. As newspaper pages flutter and crumple around me and the café fills up, I hear:
“ – she was one of a kind –”
“ – we won’t see her like again –”
“ – make this country great again –”
I try to stop listening. I’m starting to feel very lonely.
I go to the counter (feeling like everyone is looking at me) and get a small peppermint tea. My hands are shaking a little bit. Red Head winks at me, neutral but with humour. I can’t quite wink back. They were playing. I wasn’t.
Tory Man leaves without looking at anyone. He leaves his paper behind. I feel bad. I think I made things worse for him? Or was our conversation cathartic for him, propping up his views, so making him feel justified and right and strong? And is that a good thing, or not?
I don’t know.
Suddenly, I feel small and stupid. I don’t know anything. I can feel myself start to be tugged to heaviness by the Good Old Black Dog. I go and sit back down.
“Hey.” Says Red Head, suddenly appearing in front of me. She gives me a large chocolate chip cookie on a shiny white plate, with a napkin. “You forgot your cookie.”
“Um, I didn’t order a cookie?” I am all fuffled, and ridiculously close to tears.
“Yes you did.” She says, in a very definitive way. She puts the plate down on my table. She goes off, to address the increasingly long queue. Without looking back.
Oh. Well. I might be the only lefty in the village. But I’m not the only person who cares for a stranger. That’s good to know.
I catch her eye, back at her station, to smile my thanks, and something flicks over her face, like an agreement, then is gone.
I bite into my cookie.