Sunday, January 24

Three Separate Coffees

‘SORRY TO GO on about this,’ I said—‘but don’t siestas make the days seem longer?’ I had shifted the noise in the kitchen, turned the tables on the appliances. Her slender fingers splayed around the lid of the tin where they keep the teabags. The tea arrives in these large sacks that are deceptively light, and fragrance whichever room they are opened in. ‘Not really,’ she says—‘Maybe a little. It breaks it up nicely.’ I thought that I would not pursue it further. ‘Coffee time?’ she asks, smiling at me, simultaneously making my day and the coffee sweeter. ‘Yeah, get me through the last couple of hours.’ How much coffee would be required to get one through the next couple of years? In an effort to reduce my alcohol intake, I have been drinking another pot of coffee in the evening, in lieu of beer, but it made my tremors worse and prevented me from sleeping. I switched to chai tea, but that reminded me of a past infatuation. Back to the beer. But what use is it if the smile that makes your day does not belong to you? When I tell a joke in the office I look at her face to see her laugh. Let’s just imagine something out there better than what we have.
After a few rough days my mother texted me, asking if I wanted to meet for dinner. Avoiding engagements is all well and good at times, but this was an occasion – wonderful in its exclusivity – that I could not afford to pass up. The best I could do was six o’clock. I caught the old train to a city halfway between her and I. The train’s windows were bolted tight, not a slip of cold air pierced the hot humidity of the carriage. I read and found myself, in anticipation, becoming happier at the prospect of my evening. By the time I had walked in on my mother’s first – and only – cocktail, I was in better spirits than I had been for days. The restaurant smelled of bleach and was quiet. I signalled for a beer. The waiter—‘Are you ready to go to your table now?’ ‘Just a little while longer, please.’ When was the last time just she and I had gone for a meal? Years, maybe university years. She hardly ate any of her mains, but we ordered coffee. My good mood tailed as I left her, but I reminded myself that at least it had happened and it had been a wonderful evening. Few others were walking the street. I rested the book on my pronounced stomach and felt the shakes and the shook of an intercity train pulling me back to London. I find it difficult not to feel so fucking alone all the time. The dark night blackened the country windows until the dabbles of streetlights and roadside yellows speckled the view, and brushing colours came to the fore, the rapid kaleidoscopic mosaic of passing glows flung me – collar turned up – into the place I live.
I was daydreaming over my coffee in the tube station. The girl approached me with bent neck, attempting to catch my attention, smiling a trifle nervously. I pulled one of my headphones out. ‘What train do I need to get for Moorgate?’ Scouse. She had a Scouse accent. I pulled both my headphones out. ‘I need to get to Euston and …’ Her piece of paper, folded and unfolded many times, showed the way, somewhat inaccurately, to where she needed to be. I say inaccurately because it is not the way I would take, and I have taken that route many times: East London to Euston. ‘Hmm, this is all wrong,’ I told her, taking the piece of paper and sipping my coffee authoritatively, to give an air of knowing the exact right answer to what she wanted to know. ‘I used to know the tube well,’ she said—‘but that was a while ago. I came down here for a funeral,’ and she showed off her all black outfit. ‘O, god,’ I said, without really knowing why I said it. She continued—‘If you get out the habit of using the underground daily, you kinda forget.’ I nodded. ‘Catch the next Hammersmith & City line, ride it round to Euston Square, and you can walk to Euston from there, no problem. It’s right round the corner. Much easier than this route here.’ Of course I knew that route like that back of my hand; that route that used to sing to me, that route all magical and finally sad. Yet here was a Scouser back from the grave to pester me again! ‘I’m going back to Liverpool,’ she said. ‘I guessed,’ I replied, contemplating telling her a little of my history with the route to Euston, but refrained, finding it inappropriate. I showed her the map and where to go. Taking a step back, I tried to return to my own company, the surprisingly tasty coffee. She stood beside me and pulled out a chocolate fudge bar, eating it with wide eyes moving up and down the platform, anxiously alert. I smiled at her—‘I’m getting off at Euston Square, I’ll show you.’ She relaxed a little, but I ensured I did not sit next to her on the train; I just wanted to be alone, to listen to my music and keep an eye on the football scores. I was going to walk from north to south of London, stopping at some bookshops along the way. I motioned at her when we got to our stop and walked along with her. It was strange to me, walking along with this new girl, a Scouser, and she told me about her work in the morning, how she had wanted to stay until Monday, and so forth. At our emergence from the tunnel, I pointed the way, wished her luck and to take care, and she thanked me. It was something to do: walking from north to south, stopping at some bookshops along the way, although not buying a single one. I watched the couple opposite me, giggling on their journey, her head resting on his shoulder. The door of my flat slammed shut and I was glad to hear it.

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