Friday, 7 June 2013

A good place to read

The rhythmic drip of the coffee filtering on the counter had long since faded into the background noise. The foam on her cappuccino had hardened into a shell, broken into spirals by her periodic absent-minded stirring. The waitress didn't bother to ask if she wanted anything - any response would be completely unintelligible.

She sat, nestled in the security of the booth, utterly engrossed in the words before her. A girl was dying - cancer - and the book was the diary of her attempt to seize life before it was completely stolen. Anyone who looked in the booth could chart the passage of the story in her expression and body language. She shifted awkwardly in her seat, held the story at distance and blushed in shame whenever the character was about to do something only a teenager could believe was smart; she sat upright and leaned excitedly into the kindle whenever an adventure was reaching its climax and right now she was curled around it, sheltering the words from the outside, her eyes were downcast and unblinking and her cheeks were flushed.

At some point the dam broke and the tears poured down her cheeks. She didn't sob, or dry the tracks - a continuous flow simply bathed her cheeks, chin and dripped onto her t shirt. As the flow touched her nostrils she picked up a napkin and vigorously blew her nose, before continuing in her silent grief.

Eventually the book ended and she laid it down. She spent several minutes scrubbing her face dry and blowing her nose repeatedly.

When her breathing had steadied she reached for the coffee she had purchased when she began the book. She took a swig and grimaced. It wasn't usual for her to drink a fresh cup of coffee, but this was beyond even her tolerance levels. She waved at the waitress who came over with a sympathetic smile on her face.

"Good book, honey?"

"Yeah. I'm gonna have to read it again when I get home, though. I got so caught up in reading forwards I just skipped some bits that didn't make sense."

"You want another drink?"

"Yeah. Can I get the same again?" Her stomach interjected a loud gurgle. "And maybe a full English?"

"Sure thing, honey. I'll get you some fresh napkins too, in case you decide to pick that up again."

"Thanks, Anna." Helen smiled as the waitress walked off. She'd first come here a few months back and at some point had fallen into the routine of coming here for breakfast with a new book every Saturday. Well, it was supposed to be breakfast, but the normal thing was she'd get her first coffee, then get distracted by her book. The food often didn't get a look in until a couple of hours later.

The first couple of times Anna clearly hadn't known what to make of her, but after she'd caught her weeping over Greyfriar's Bobby she apparently decided that what Helen needed was to be looked after. Anna never let her leave without making sure she'd eaten something. She made sure Helen wasn't distressed when she wasn't reading, and let her be as miserable, happy, embarrassed, excited or afraid as she wanted to be when she was reading. Most importantly, Anna made sure no-one interrupted her when she was in the middle of a book.

It was a good place to read.

Anna delivered the cappuccino and moved to the adjacent booth to check on its contents. Helen sipped, sighed in satisfaction and leaned her head against the seat. Her mind wandered over the conclusion to the story she had been reading and she felt herself becoming weepy again. A sudden shout of laughter from behind the booth jerked her out of her introspection and back into the real world.

Always alert to stories, she tuned in to hear the tail end of the one being recounted by the contents of her neighboring booth.

It didn't make sense, but that didn't matter to her. She liked hearing words and how language could be used. She could take as much pleasure from a single well-constructed sentence as she could from a whole story. In this case, the individual sentences had a nice cadence to them and the structure was... unusual. She unconsciously leaned forward and focused on the words.

Seconds later the speaker finished, his friend responded inaudibly and she knew the topic was changed. She was mildly frustrated but at that precise moment her breakfast arrived with a pile of fresh napkins and she dug in enthusiastically.

After the first mouthful or two her mind wandered back to the book. The main character had set tasks for herself: among them have to sex and fall in love. She mused over that for a while, trying to remember if love had been an original task, or if it had been introduced as a secondary to sex. Her thoughts progressed swiftly, considering the implications of either route and the eventual outcome. However, before she could become embedded in her thought processes to the point where she picked the book back up, the voice behind her started again.

This time he was talking about a mutual acquaintance and adventures in this person's life. Family, babies, cars and money troubles were all mentioned. She smiled at an offhand reference to the clone wars and was surprised by an allusion to Robin Hood. Bewildered by her own surprise she analysed it for a moment. Two or three sentences down the line she realized that the voice was American and his obvious familiarity with a part of the old English folklore that didn't make it into Hollywood films intrigued her.

She began to listen for indications of his personality. He clearly cared about his friends and family and  was at least mainstream geeky, although he may not be hardcore. He had a way with words and seemed to have a lot of cultural references available. She rested her chin on one hand as she listened to him speak, and continued grazing on her food.

He was witty too. Every now and then she'd chuckle quietly at the wickedness of his words and once, when taken by surprise, she almost choked on a baked bean.

All too soon he mentioned leaving and they discussed the bill. Soon, one of them walked past her and to the checkout. The booth behind was silent. The one who had gone to checkout was about 50, white, balding and had the look of a trucker. She hoped that her guy was the other one.

Once he'd paid, he waved to his companion, looking slightly puzzled, and the second guy got up and walked out. She watched him walk past. He was lovely. About 40, over six foot, beautiful dark skin, shaved head and, sadly, a stonking great wedding ring.

She leaned grumpily back in her seat and reflected that a man like that was bound to have women throwing themselves at him.

She plunged her fork into the final piece of sausage on the plate and then the fork and pork combo dropped with a clatter as he said:

"You've been eavesdropping on me for about twenty minutes."

Looking wildly around, she realized he was still in his booth. Unable to keep her lips closed on the thought she asked:

"How many people are you expecting a response from?"

He chuckled. "Just the one. I heard you laughing at me earlier."

"Every time, or just the time you nearly killed me?"

"Every time. The time you nearly died I actually tried to get you, but since that seems to be dangerous, I won't do it again."

She felt the need to giggle rising again, but managed to choke it down and say in a solemn tone: "Smart. Otherwise I'd have to get you to do a full risk assessment on the dangers of humour in a dining establishment. Of course, you could just learn the Heimlich maneuver."

"I don't know. I like sitting opposite the person I'm talking to, not immediately behind them ready to punch their sternum."

"Yeah. I suppose you'd also have to make sure you never ate with someone who makes you laugh too - if you're positioned to Heimlich them, who's gonna Heimlich you?"

"I'd have to bring along a friend who won't eat and is just there to keep me alive."

"Well, without the friend you'd face a bit of a moral dilemma. When you're on a date, do you tell the girl you're funnier so you should be the big spoon, or do you risk appearing unchivalrous and insist she be prepared to save your life?"

"I think dating is plenty difficult enough without adding new worries about who is going to survive the night."

"Well, the only guys I date are the ones I can outrun in case of velociraptor attack, or throw to the zombies when the time comes. My survival is pretty much guaranteed."

"So if I tell you I can only run about a hundred meters before collapsing in a heap, would I stand a chance at getting a date with you?"

"Would you let me throw you or your record collection to oncoming zombie hordes?"

"Maybe not my whole collection, but yeah, I'm willing to take that risk."

"I'm free on Friday."

He didn't speak. There was movement at the entrance to her booth. There stood a guy, a few years older than herself, long hair, wearing a black t-shirt and rings on every finger of his right hand. He looked down at her and smiled. "Where should I pick you up?"