Sitting in the coffee shop by myself. Snatched and stolen time. The wonderful smell of what remains of my vanilla soymilk latte. The constant sound of the coffee machines hissing, swishing, filters being banged to clean old grounds out. Spoons on cups, spoons on plates. A bucket on wheels with a mop being rolled across the wooden floor.
Bits of conversation:
“ – thank you so much – “ with a lilt of New Zealand on it.
“ – too hot, its not ready yet –”
“ – she didn’t put sprinkles on my coffee other day –”
Laughter of women. The men’s voices are harder to catch as they are lower. Except one, that I can hear clear across the room. He’s sitting by the window, a bristly crew cut, a thick pink neck not helped by his very pink and white striped shirt. Talking to a middle aged woman who’s most noticeable feature is a huge sweep of bobbed bright dyed blond hair hanging over most of her face. She holds ‘The Daily Mail’ up.
“The country’s got the right leaders,” he then doesn’t surprise me by saying, pontificating loudly to her. “But they’re having to make such hard decisions, and they’re so worried about this next election shit…” He trails off momentarily when he catches me staring at him. I didn’t mean to be caught staring. He’s entitled to his view. Though I appear to be giving him the judgemental stare of the Angry Leftie. David Cameron! George Osborne! ‘Austerity’! The ‘right’ leaders?! Fuck off! I am broadcasting with a roll of my eyes and a tight mouth. I realize I’m being rude. I try to mitigate this with a sudden big genuine smile. He smiles uncertainly back at me, obviously confused by my sudden switch from hostile to friendly. His smile transforms his face. He doesn’t look like a wannabe banker anymore. He looks like a nice man.
I look back down at my Kindle. He carries on being wrong (his right!), but he is drowned out by what I have come here partially to escape.
A child crying.
Two women have come in, oddly similar looking though I feel they aren’t sisters. They just have enough of a world view in common that they dress similarly. Both have highlighted honey brown hair. Both a little thickset, forties, in sweaters. One brown with a ruffly red scarf to lift it, all frills. The other an old, plain pink sweater. She’s the mother. I know this because her face looks so tired, and her eyes look a bit haunted. There’s an edge of thousand yard stare about her. She is talking, quiet, hard and earnest, to a large boy of about 5 or 6. He is throwing himself away from the comfy armchairs where she and her friend have chosen to sit. He wants to sit at a central arrangement of tables and hard chairs. She repeatedly pulls him back to her by his wrist. He twists, equally repeatedly yanking himself away, throwing his whole body toward the chair he wants. She says: “I’ve taken this day off to be with you, we’re going to do allsorts of exciting things, lovely things. Listen, please, Jonah, Listen! Cathy’s here to see you, shush, listen! When we come here next time you can sit there, but this time we are sitting here, alright? Stop it! Stop it!” He is yanking himself away again, and the volume of his crying is drowning out most of the other sounds of the shop. The tasteful music can’t be heard, the group of women talking about their nights off in the corner next to me can’t be heard, and they are getting louder…
The quality of that child’s crying hurts my head. As I listen, with a tiny bit more distance than when I hear Fluffhead do something similar, I try to decide whether what I hear is temper or sorrow. I can’t decide. It may be, must be, both. It’s not a steady crying. It’s a clogged up, gaspy, mucus clogged wailing, with coughing because he’s giving it such awesome welly. He’ll be sick soon if he carries on this loud. The mother continues, intense and red in the face now, to reason with him, to try to pacify him. The received wisdom, that of ignoring a tantrumming child, cannot be done in this place. Firstly, its too public, non-parents would be horrified at such a tactic and not understanding it, would intervene. It takes a little while to work and the noise level would increase before it decreased. Secondly, it’s not safe to ignore him here. There are too many things for him to bang into and hurt himself. It is true that often, they only do such volume when there is an audience; but its not always practical or the right thing to do, to take that audience away.
Vanquished, she and her friend move as quickly as possible to the other table, the one he wanted. Almost immediately his little clenched fists relax. He picks up his muffin and starts eating it. He sits tall in that chair he wanted, swinging his legs, looking from one woman to the other, as if he made a valuable contribution to a discussion and now waits their bit.
I watch the reactions of the other people in the shop to all this. On the faces of the men, I see mostly a sort of irritated neutrality (will someone deal with this?). On the faces of some of the women, I see definite judgement. They think she has given in (as she has), even as relative quiet reigns again (and mostly everyone benefits). The red face of the mother gradually fades toward embarrassed pink, slightly less livid. The strain around her eyes does not change. Her friend looks on tolerantly. She’s obviously used to this sort of thing; or she has had experience of small children very recently and often.
I start to read again, but there is another sound, right by my head. I look to the side, and a baby, just about a year and a little, is standing on one of those comfy seats just vacated by the stressed mother.
This baby is smiling at me, with several even perfectly white teeth. She grins, and her little eyes are so clear, so wide and so innocent. She smiles at me with all she has, all in the present. I smile at her back. You couldn’t possibly not smile at this smile.
“Hello,” I say. “How are you?” in that lilty voice you do with friendly babies. Except I put an adult jokiness on it too. I can’t help it.
The baby’s mother, who has been stirring a pot of overpriced porridge and blowing on it, turns to me. She’s the mirror of her daughter’s open face.
“You’ve made a friend,” she smiles, nodding at her child.
The baby bats her hands at me, and waves a much toothed blue board book. I see the shine on her fine honey brown hair. She could easily be the younger sister of the other child, regardless of difference in mood.
I chatter with the child. I quickly read her book to her, after an ok nod from the mother. I feel caring and love toward this small happy baby I do not know. So easy to love, so easy to please.
I look over at the other child, sitting now on his mother’s lap, and also looking at a book. They are talking about it, heads close. At this moment, his face free of that miserable intense child emotion that was ruling him, he looks intelligent and absorbed. The mother still looks stiff and worried.
The baby objects to my sudden lack of attention with a poke, and her mother laughs and picks her up, putting her in a highchair. “Time for porridge!” she says, as though it’s a great adventure. The child chortles (only children can chortle properly, have you noticed?), claps her hands and opens her mouth wide like a fish.
The mother smiles. Her skin is clear, there are no worry lines on her forehead, and she looks, just simply: happy. She mimes the big open mouth at the baby, who laughs that beautiful free uninhibited sound. In goes the first porridge mouthful.
They have forgotten me. The baby’s mother is totally focussed on the feeding. The baby’s eyes move all over the room, examining everyone for a little, and returning always to her mother. They smile at each other.
The people in the café smile approvingly and sentimentally at them. This is what motherhood is supposed to look like. Not that other display.
In the background, the stressed mother is preparing to leave. She puts on an unlikely orange fitted raincoat – both too thin for this incredibly wintry day, and such a contrast with her unhappy face. I can imagine her selecting it, or being given it, the thinking being: this is trendy, this is happy looking, young looking. This will cheer me/ you up. This is who I want to be/ want you to be.
It looks old and creased, and now the belt has dirty ends; it needs a wash. Jonah gets into his anorak without a fuss. Nobody pays them any attention as she smoothes his hair with one blunt finger nailed hand. She kisses his head softly. No one seems to see, but me, as they leave quietly. He holds her hand tightly; she has her head down. The friend is nowhere to be seen. She must already have gone.
Those people who aren’t talking amongst themselves or on their phones, are watching the happy should be on TV baby. She waves her small arms and coos at her mother (another sound only children can do). The mother quickly puts her own hair up in a ponytail, rubbing the back of her neck, the first visible sign of any tiredness. She catches my eye again and we exchange puffed out tired looks.
“How old is yours?” she asks. Of course, she knows I am one of them, a mother, though I have left my beautiful, loveable, soul eating child at home.
“Just three.” I reply. We chat for a little. She licks the spoon between mouthfuls fed to the baby.
After the porridge is finished they too, go. The baby is helped back into her all in one snowsuit: white with soft green polka dots, very clean and bright. She too has a kiss plopped on her head before being put back in her pushchair and covered with a blue fleecy blanket, little hands poking out holding that gummy book.
After they leave, the loudest sounds are those women in the corner next to me. They are planning a different night out now, and talking as well, of the medications one of their fathers is on, and its side effects. The conversation flows and cuts, much expostulation and exclamation, sudden laughter as grammar, sudden support or validation for something one of them has said. The conversation jumps all over the place.
The lone woman in the far opposite corner, who minded my things while I went to the loo, and who has been determinedly typing on her laptop through all this noise, frowns (she is doing her dissertation, on what I haven’t yet asked). Her face scrunches, she backspaces. Rethink that last sentence. She tucks hair behind her ear. Her haircut is getting old and growing out. Her clothes are worn. I Sherlock Holmes that austerity touches this mature student, that she can’t afford new clothes (or new second hand clothes) or a haircut. That food and some peace (ha!) in the coffeehouse to do her work, are more important.
She hasn’t looked up more than a couple of times. She hasn’t got up to pee at all. She’s been here 3 hours, like me. She got here 10 minutes after I did.
No children here now. The light has changed, from that of very early morning, that hard and clear light, to the softer light approaching midday.
The smell here now is less of only coffee and more of sweet pastry, cake and sandwiches. I can’t afford one. (Neither can Dissertation Writer, according to my inept deductions. She surreptitiously gets a bottle of water out of her bag, flicking her eyes at the counter baristas. They don’t see. When she opens the bottle it doesn’t pop its seal as the top was already open though it is full. She refilled it at home from the sink and brought it here with her. Like me, she can only afford the pleasure of sitting here for the price of one small coffee. She sips the water delicately, eyes on the laptop screen again. She sets the bottle down on the seat next to her, not on the table.)
The baristas are having an energetic conversation in Rumanian. They are always cheerful, these two, always skinny and always on the move. When there are no customers, they clean stuff.
I look back at my table. My time is nearly up. I have to go back to the other world. The world where Dr Who, In The Night Garden or Thomas the Tank Engine are on perpetual loop (or we have Jonah). The world where I give Fluffhead toast with mushroom Tartex and am greeted with a smile as genuine and melting as that anonymous baby gave her mother.
A world where we exist largely in our own closed system, measuring out the time by walks around the block, snow poking and crunching in the garden. By meal times and by that precious hour of silence in the early afternoon where his hands fall open and still, his red cheek to one side, eyes closed in quietness. Then all again after: the wants, the noise, the joyfulness, and the damnable screeching fussing about small things that have led to the invention of the parental expression: ‘do you want me to GIVE you something to cry about?’ in total frustration.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen.
Even when I am not there, I see him in every child I meet. I see him in Jonah upsetting his mother on her day off with him. I see him in that lovely happy she-baby.
Every noise they make is an echo of Fluffhead.
Mothers are never free.
I pack up my Kindle; put away my notebook, trying to feel nothing. (I am not good with ends of things, with change.) I remind myself I will be back soon. Here again, at my assigned table. Watching the people, the rest of the world, go about their business.
I pile back on my layers: sweater, fleece, thick jacket, scarf, gloves, mock deerstalker hat with the bobble on top. I don’t look swish. I don’t look as pretty as I wish I had time to. I haven’t co-ordinated my clothes for colour as I used to love to do, so that I pleased my eye every time I caught a glimpse of myself in a reflecting thing. No time. Does and doesn’t matter anymore.
Bag on my shoulder, easing round all those women who have squeezed into the corner table. You can see they are happy to enlarge their space outward to absorb where I have been. As I leave the area, my old chair is quickly covered with their coats and bags. They pull the table over into the group and spread a bit more.
As I pass out into the freezing whiteness, I squeeze past 3 more women (high heels, glittery jeans, expensive perfume, fitted black winter jackets, diamond quilted, gold chained bags). The women in the corner call out to them and gesture. They will be crowded again now despite the extra space my leaving gave them.
I look back through the window as they get up and do the hello kissing thing (I never get the amount of cheek bobs right – is it 2, 3 or 4? – I always end up bumping faces awkwardly). They start to strip off their layers as I am trying to tuck my gloves into my sleeves so that there is no wind chill gap. I turn away from the coffeehouse (that’s over, I say sternly and sadly in my head). I walk down toward the turning for the way home. As I pass the railway bridge over Waitrose a train rattles suddenly and noisily past.
“Train!” I say loudly, out of habit, as if Fluffhead were with me. As I always do when he is, as he loves trains.
Of course, he isn’t.
Some people look at me strangely, and a granny curves her footsteps to widely avoid the woman talking to no one so confidently.
Embarrassed, I half smile at empty street, put my head down against the wind, and walk home.