“I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway.” J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.
I dressed and went across the road to a cafe that I sometimes visit on Sundays (only on Sundays). They keep the papers. I have a favourite spot, facing out onto the street, where I can flick through the news and write in my journal: high stool, narrow counter, space for one alongside me. My spot was gone, and I quickly weighed up the option of a seat outside. It was about 9°, bright, and I was already a little chilled, but since I had gone to the (very minor) bother of coming across, I decided to stay.
“You’re brave,” the waitress said as she brought me a scone and coffee, rubbing her goose-bumped arms. “It’s not bravery,” I told her, “there are no seats inside.” Cissie in the summertime, my nana would have said to me, sat there in my v-neck jumper and blazer, exposed to the elements. I should have known better, even if I was only nipping out.
Within minutes a small man wearing an aran jumper, that had been put through too hot a wash so it had a tight, shrunken look, asked if he could sit in the seat opposite. Perched on the back of his head was a pale grey pork pie hat, at an angle defying gravity, bestowing neither protection from autumn’s nip nor shade from the early morning sun. “Of course,” I told him, nodding in approval to a seat that wasn’t mine to approve. He wouldn’t disturb me, that much I knew, as I was very obviously writing. He kept talking. Sure didn’t you wake up lonely – I told myself, as he wiped a watery eye – he’s a gift, put down your pen and talk.
He stacked two sachets of brown sugar between his forefinger and thumb and tore them open as one, sprinkling the contents onto the froth of his cappuccino. Untouched, the teaspoon lay on his saucer. I stared as the tiny brown granules dissolved and stained the fluff of steamed milk. It looked like the spatters you get on your back when you go out in the damp on a bike without mudguards. He had a little foam moustache, speckled white, widening each time he sipped his coffee. I wondered how long it would be before he licked it clean.
He told me about himself. Liverpudlian. A twin. Born with congenital cataracts. Left school early with no qualifications because the eyes were never properly dealt with. Went south to Brighton where he was a baker (but people often mistook him for a jockey). Drank in a pub with an ageing supermarket heiress and university lecturers with whom he talked politics, literature, history. It was them who encouraged him to go back to education. Found a course for adult returners in Edinburgh in the eighties and stayed.
He asked if I was a journalist and I almost answered yes. The pedant in me thinking – well I am writing my journal. But I told him the truth. “So what do you do?” he asked. I’d got no further than saying something about York, when he raced away from me. “York, York…. sure I know it well,” and off he scurried: Joseph Rowntree; Quakers; Social Housing. “New Lanark, have you been there? Now, the man behind New Lanark – can’t remember his name – I don’t think he was a Quaker, but he looked after the workers, even back then. Not like now. Sometimes I think we’re moving backwards.”
The funny thing was that I didn’t want, particularly, to tell him what I did, to trade my life story for his. Yet in downing my pen I’d had an expectation of a conversation that I wasn’t getting. The whole interaction emptied me. Isn’t that ridiculous? That I should (or could) let something so small feed dejection? I remembered Holden Caulfield from The Cather In the Rye and his latent sadness that he seemed to luxuriate in. I always found him and his self-indulgent wallowing annoying. It dawned on me that I was behaving just like him. I thought of M. “Snap out of it,” she’d tell me. I had let myself be punctured by nothing; imbuing a tiny moment with more meaning and importance that it deserved.
“Nice talking to you. Hope to see you again sometime.” All of a sudden he had wrapped it up and was standing. Did he know I had slipped away and was walking the streets of 1950s New York with Holden? “You too,” I said. I think I mean it. I’ll have used my puncture repair kit by then.