Friday, 10 December 2010

Cafe Confidential

I write in cafes. I know this is cliché. David Mamet has written a book and that’s its title, Writing in Cafes, that’s how commonplace it is for writers to write in cafes.  When I go to cafes to write I see flocks of other writers, writing. We don’t look at each other, although I am aware of all of them and spend a great deal of energy imagining sex with most of them, which I’d rather you not tell my mother. This can mean I don’t get a lot written but quite honestly I’m surprised at all the writing that seems to get done. What can these people be writing that is possibly more interesting than what is going on in the café?

Par exemple. This below, overheard last month in a café in Queen’s Park (it’s close to trees and I can cycle there in under twenty minutes). Two girls, teenagers, one of them, shiny with nail varnish and lip gloss, huddled over her steamy, foamy, single skinny latte; her friend, less lacquered, drank tea and listened.

‘I is so messed up. I is an idiot. An idiot. I don’t even like him. I don’t even like him, I is such an idiot. When he kissed me, yeah? I was like No, no, don’t, I don’t even like you and I was so, whatever, and then we were kissing and kissing and kissing.’

Her friend spoke in a tone of honest bemusement.

‘I thought you were supposed to be so angry with him you couldn’t speak to him.’

‘I was! I know! I is an IDIOT. Please, please next time I do something with him, you just tell me No . Because I didn’t even like him before he kissed me but when he holds my  hand – it changes everything. You know? How did we get like this?’

‘We used to be in control and they liked us.’

‘How did we get like this? When did it change?’

They drank in silence. The first speaker sighed.

‘I is safe this time because I didn’t like him too much. I just didn’t let myself like him too much. He didn’t break my heart. But I is an idiot.’

She spoke with poetic resignation. I could feel her friend nodding behind me.

Weeks later I was writing in a cripplingly quaint pub in Mayfair – no mobile phones allowed, coal fires burning. I could see just the back of a brunette head, seated opposite a soft-spoken man, several years her senior. She was slightly drunk.

‘He is the most disgusting, repulsive and horrible man, he is a disgusting excuse of a human being. He repulses me. And he’s with her and I quite like her. She has a wonderful personality and the body of an angel. It’s her face, of course. Poor thing but you couldn’t not like her, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like her. And here I am, all wrinkly and obese. She’s thin as a rake but I like her. Whereas he is repulsive. He had the gall, the gall to contest our pre-nup. Can you imagine? No, no, can you imagine? I just never want to think about him again or hear his name again. Which is difficult, because I quite like her.’

I saw them rise, ten minutes later. She was 35, 5’5”, probably ten stone. Not obese.

Finally, today I was leaving the bathroom of a pub in Notting Hill about which I will tell you something for nothing. This pub is just three doors down from the Kitchen and Pantry, a favourite haunt of children in push chairs, who bring their de-caffeinated mothers desperately seeking re-caffeination, older gentlemen and writers. I came at lunch and it was heaving, as is almost always the case, and couldn’t find a seat.

My bike was locked and it felt like a hassle to unlock, get on and cycle the streets, peering into crowded windows hoping for the seat that seemed increasingly unlikely at lunchtime in Notting Hill, so I decided to scope the ‘hood on foot. I went east for 68 seconds before I stumbled into the Duke of Wellington, at the corner of Portobello and Elgin Crescent. I’d seen it before and never been in – probably because I’m seldom looking for liqueur and almost always looking for space, two preferences which make most pubs ineligible. This pub was different. It was huge, wood-panelled and it was empty. I had a cup of peppermint tea and six tables to myself. I highly recommend it.

I visited the ladies room before I left and, just as I was emerging, I heard someone in a stall weeping. It was a strange, dispassionate sound, almost bored. As though she was fulfilling a civic duty to cry in the first cubicle of The Duke of Wellington ladies’ loo. I hovered at the door and my mind splintered into a dozen different scenarios:

SY:                  Excuse me, are you all right?
Her:                 (sobbing) What?
SY:                  Is – is there something wrong, are you all right?
Her:                 (sobbing)

 SY:                 (thinking) What is the protocol, does her not answering mean it’s best to leave and if so, how, now I’ve made contact? ‘Did you see the match? What a result. Go you Gunners! Bye now.’?

SY:                  Do you need anything?
Her:                 (clearing her throat)


Her:                 Do you have a knife?

SY:                  (thinking, panicked) Is this rhetorical and just a dramatic expression of a suicidal tendency without any real threat? Is she trying to sever a knotty bit of string? Or is she asking me if I have a knife because she has a knife and she wants the shanking opportunities to be fair?

SY|:                 (patting her pockets, laughing falsely) Not on me.
Her:                 It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.

At this point in my fantasy we begin an exchange on the inherent meaninglessness of life and I manage to point out the liberation of this perspective, which inspires her to burst forth from her cubicle and buy me lunch, because I was actually quite hungry, and she is so impressed by my acumen and kindness, she introduces me to her clever and hilarious attractive, single brother. Who appears at the bar just as the wind catches my hair and the light touches my cheeks.

In truth, I crept out of the room, sending silent and heart-felt good wishes for all the times I’d cried in public and wished I’d been left alone. I wondered, though, had I sat outside her cubicle long enough would I have heard her, talking to herself or on her mobile saying to a friend ‘He is disgusting but I is an idiot.’

Which, in some form or other, seems to be what a lot of my writing is about, so perhaps it all comes full circle in the end.


  1. I loved the little slices of life and could "see" them all. Especially the Duke of Wellington. I love that pub. Thanks for taking us there.

  2. When will you be publishing your Best Places guides? Best Places to Write in London or perhaps Best Places to Eavesdrop. We're all secretly voyeurs (or listeneurs?) but you are "brave" enough to admit it.

  3. Loved this... Please keep posting. Oh, and carry a knife.