The woman came into the cafe as usual after finishing her shift. It was pissing down outside, the rain was unpleasant: it wasn’t cool, crisp and clear, it was thick and sticky, like an unrelenting stream of milk from a mother’s breast. It collated in gravy pools in gutters slimy with rubbish and discarded clothes and shoes.
It made London hot and heavy.
The woman had just finished work in a clothes shop, where she spent all her time skulking in dark corners in the stockroom staring into the black, listening to disembodied voices fall down to her from the pavements above and thinking continually about her mother and how it seemed she didn’t care about her. So to come out into the rain blinking and stupid, was a let down to her, felt personal.
She crossed to the counter as always, looking neither left nor right for fear of seeing someone she knew. If she did, she pretended she hadn’t seen them. She didn’t notice the rows of orange florescent jacketed workers from the building site who gazed surreptitiously at her, eyes going up and down and ending their journey in a little laugh. Nor the groups of women in tight black dresses, with badges swinging around their necks, chatting importantly on their smartphones or on FaceTime.
Today there was nowhere to sit. Her place in the corner, by the window, was taken. It was unusual at this time. Mostly, at 5 o’clock, folks came in groups and sat at tables, or if they were alone, they still shunned the exposure the window gave, as if a day spent in the company of other strangers was enough to exhibit them to the public, and hid in a corner. But today there was a hulky shadow where she normally sat. Today a bulky figure, draped across the laminated surface dirty with the tea spills and crumbs of others, sat faceless almost, any sense of a head hidden in the crook of an arm, lost, staring out at the rain. Almost as if it had been starved of company.
The woman, disconcerted because it meant she had to be spontaneous, cast a quick eye around the cafe. There was nowhere to sit. But too late, William, the Brazilian, was looking at her, hand raised and ready to pour. He said nothing about the man in her spot as she quickly sucked on the tea, although it was hot. She drank it standing up and fast, one hand limply clinging to the bar. Don’t talk to me, the hand seemed to say to William, who was watching her closely. Once, when he tried to engage her in conversation, she only said she worked in a shop and he daren’t talk again, afraid of her own implied self criticism. But now he was watching and his eyes flicked from her to the shape in the corner. They flicked back to her as if trying to say something. She finished her tea and threw the carton in the bin and began to walk to the door, which was open and gaping despite the rain.
“Hey!” a voice disjointed but standing out like a thin hard line across a blank page because of its volume, made her stop. She thought she sort of recognised an urgency in the tone, a pleading. She carried on walking.
“Hey! Please!” The voice came again.
The woman knew without turning round the voice came from the shape in the corner. She walked towards the voice, she was slight, young looking, although if you looked closely, you’d see a few strands of white hair pushed angrily and fearfully away, hidden under stringy others. The shape at the window hadn’t turned though. It might as well not have spoken, it continued to stare out into the street. The woman glanced nervously back at William, but he appeared not to have heard, although, she could tell by the way he was attentively wiping the counter, that he was listening. She felt reassured although embarrassed- the others in the cafe had barely heard her speak, never mind take centre stage.
She came a bit closer. She thought she recognised the slump of the shoulders, the rather offended air of the man that boarded on hostility, as if it was beneath him to talk to her and he was cross having to.
“Were you talking to me?” the woman said, voice hoarse, because she did not speak often.
“Yes,” the man almost whispered now. His breath was drawn in short puffy jerks. His left hand nervously tapped the table.
“Well, what?” the woman was abrupt with nervousness for a slow long chill was uncoiling itself like a snake in her bowels.
“Come closer,” the man was impatient now, “I can’t say it out loud.”
Although it wouldn’t matter how quietly he said it, the whole cafe was straining itself to hear, one man even closed the door, to shut out the noise from the street. The bulky figure appeared not to notice.
The woman, glancing back at William again who was watching but offering no suggestion as to what to do, moved closer. Right by the shoulder, which was plump, right by the ear, with its angry red boil and darkish colour.
“Your mother’s dead” the man said. He paused for a while, still staring out into the rain and then turned, finally, to face the woman. The way he was looking was almost like a challenge, almost a smirk, although it could be taken for nervousness. The woman was looking over the man’s shoulder at the wall behind him. She could see clearly the outline of the brickwork, the blocks stacked patiently on each other like coffins in a morgue, painted white to deny them their individuality. She began to count the bricks. Hadn’t she always said you could look at wall and never see it in the same way twice? She brought herself up short. Was she counting out aloud?
The man was still staring at her.
“You do know who I am don’t you?” the man said, drawing his collar down so she could see better. A bald crown, the wide stern forehead, the hard eyes. The eyes that wouldn’t quite look into hers.
“Oh” she said in reply to the first statement, because she knew something was required of her. Not by the man, who seemed only to care that he was remembered by someone, no matter who, but by the rest of the cafe, whom she knew was listening and because behind all the chatter, there was a tension, it came at end of people’s sentences when there was an unnatural gap through the collective need to eavesdrop.
“Well, aren’t you going to say anything?” said the man, annoyed and irritated now. He reached out and grabbed the woman and pulled her onto the stool beside him.
“Listen you!” he said, his face in hers, “Listen, she’d dead alright! Alright!”
The woman sat alert on the edge of her stool and looked anxiously around. But no one was watching, no one was offering support. The man’s hand was still gripping her wrist, the fingers enclosing around her thin bone like talons. She realised that his finger nails were not cleanly cut as she first thought, but long, curled and yellow. They grazed along her skin.
“You’re hurting” she replied, and tried to slide off the stool.
“Everything and everyone hurts in this fucking life my dear” the man laughed. “Haven’t you learned that by now? Ah, but I see you have. I saw the way you came in, how you lowered your eyes and wouldn’t look at anyone. What is it? Think you are better than everyone else? Frightened someone’s going to find out you don’t add up to much? Think you the only one ever got hurt?”
The cafe held its breath as the rain drizzled murkily now in the dark. No one had ever challenged the woman like this before.
“No, I” she stammered.
“Don’t worry,” he continued. “You’re in good company. We’re alike you and me.”
The woman looked properly at the man now. He eyes seemed nicer for a moment, a gentle face which seemed a little lopsided with a kind of cruelty. Yes, this man could be cruel as much as he could be kind. The man suddenly released her wrist.
“It’s alright, you can go” he said abruptly. “I know that you have no time to spend with an old man like me, nobody does.
And don’t” he continued, as the listening cafe seemed to rise on a tide of laughter coming from the individual waves of their conversations, and as if addressing them although keeping his eyes on the woman, “judge me for my self pity. Yes, I feel sorry for myself, but does that mean I can’t be loved? Does that mean I don’t deserve anyone’s time, that I’m a hopeless case?”
The woman didn’t know what to do. Usually she would have got away from such a madman. But now? There was something about him that held her. How could he have known she was thinking about her mother when she came in for instance? Of course, it could just be a coincidence, him mentioning her so grotesquely just when she was having intense thoughts about her, but still. The man looked back around at her as if surprised she was still there.
“You said about my mother?” She said.
“You surely don’t take him seriously?” called out William, “He’s a drunk. Babbles on about everything and nothing. He comes in here all the time to sober up.”
The man himself took no notice of William and chuckled.
“Get back to Barbados” said William affably enough. “You can practise all your weird shit there.”
William stood facing the man for a moment, hands on hips. His face wore an expression of exasperation and contempt. He turned away, a smirk on his lips.
“I don’t do no weird shit” carried on the man talking to the woman. “All I speak is the truth as I feel it and see it. And you can either take it or leave it. They all think I am mad around here. But they don’t see the real me. No, they don’t. They just see a – tramp- that’s what they see. And laugh. Because it makes them feel better about themselves. And that ain’t good. Besides, they know nothing about me. Nothing about,” said the man raising his voice so everyone could hear, “how I used to work for a charity in Bombay helping homeless kids get off the streets. You should ha’ seen what I seen. Little kids, boys mostly, thrown into cells 5 feet long for begging or stealing. Open wounds. Flies everywhere. Nothing to eat. Sleeping underneath the trains at night. Was it my fault the job got too much? That I took too many drugs and ended up on the streets myself? And what about those poor children? What happened to them then? Who cares about them as much as I did now? ”
The man pumped the woman’s arm up and down. She slowly shook her head.
“Well, I’m sorry about that,” she said at last.
“Thank you,” said the man and he bent his head.
“But haven’t you any family?” asked the woman.
To this the man silently pulled out a photograph of a young woman posing outside a university, smiling widely, clinging onto the arm of a taller handsome youth.
“That’s my daughter. That picture was taken by myself ten years ago. Just before I fell ill and I came over here to see her. Not seen her since. Nor heard from her. Missus upped and left a long time ago. Daughter stayed with me. But reckon she gone back to her mother now.”
“That’s not his daughter” said William. “He found that photograph. Right here, in the cafe, last week. Saw it with my own eyes.”
“I dropped that photo. It dropped clean out of my pocket” the man’s face trembled a bit. “If you weren’t such a young ‘un, I’d clean knock your block off” he said to William, still without looking at him.
“Ai ai ai” protested William immediately, putting down the latte he was making and walking out from behind the counter. But he didn’t get as far as half way across the floor. He was after all, a very big man.
“I’ve never hurt anyone,” the man said, “Never been violent.”
“Tcch” Willem tutted, “Any more and you have to leave old man, alright? I’m not having any violent talk in my cafe.”
“It’s not his cafe, he works for a corporate company” the man mocked.
“No matter, anymore and you out OK?”
“Never been known to hurt anyone” said the man again.
A silence reigned for a short time.
“Anyway it would be cruel to turn a homeless man out into the night in this” he suddenly burst out.
“Oh homeless is it now” said William. “I see”.
“I forgive him” said the man with a jerk at this head at the Brazilian. “That what I learned and what I wanted to impart to you. About forgiveness.”
“I don’t need to forgive anyone” said the woman.
“I told you your mother dead” said the man, “And she dead because of how you thinking about her. She dead because you think so bad that to you she is dead, that she ain’t worth living. That to you, she just a woman who don’t bother with you, who make you feel bad, who don’t offer you any support. That what she is. I know it by the ways you walk in here, the ways you carry yourself jus’ like she on you all the time. Jus’ like she here in front of you cussin’ all the time, just like she never left and you never left her.”
“Oh cut the patois man” William said. “Listen,” he said looking at the woman, “I’ve seen him like this with lots of people. Saying the same weird shit. My advice, don’t listen. Don’t encourage him. He’s not saying anything truthful, he is just trying to get you to give him some attention.”
“May be that is what he needs” said the woman, “We all need it sometime.”
William shrugged his shoulders and went back to his customers.
“Anyway it’s not patois” said the man, allowing himself a laugh.
“Then talk your Bajan” said William.
“I said de all yestuhday” replied the man.
William didn’t say anything but carried on wiping the counter. The man resumed his conversation.
“Well, you need to let go is all I’m saying. Your Mamma jus’ like everyone’s and she find it hard like everyone’s and you’re old enough now to see how hard it really is: sure, not through the good times, not when you’re unthinking and happy because life doesn’t test you then, anyone can be happy and thoughtless with it but when you’re unhappy, when you’re alone and life is shitting on you from all directions- you know about that. And so did your mama. Which is why I’m saying. Give her a break. And yourself.”
“I love your mother, even if you don’t” he continued looking at the woman slyly. For a wild moment the woman wondered if he had actually met her.
“I love her” he said again.
“Don’t you see, if I say I do I do because that just lets the energy off right there and then. Right off into the atmosphere. And somewhere, where ever your mother is, she will get that. She won’t know it’s me, but she will feel it- even if she don’t know what it is. Just as, when you have an angry thought towards someone, they feel that to.”
“Yes but, if I feel angry, I feel angry. If I feel love, I feel love. That’s just how it is. That’s life. Nothing I can do” said the woman.
The man carried on looking out onto the street and kissed his teeth. The rain was even heavier, it swirled in the gutters, ran out in rivulets, gushed down the street. People stood and looked helplessly, unable to navigate the pavements in their summer sandals and pulled their sweaters around them as if it were winter.
The man sighed deeply.
“Is that how it is?” he said. “ You know, I loved my mama although it felt like she never loved me. One days it got too much. One days when I was forty, jus’ before I lost my job in India, I traveled back to Barbados to visit my old mama. They said she wouldn’t last long. Well, I had a burning question to ask her. Something that’d been eating me up so long. I said to her, Mama, when my daddy died why didn’t you tell me for so long? Why didn’t you tell me for a year? I was away at boarding school on the mainland see” said the man louder, against all the sniggers.
The woman could tell this was a story they had heard before.
“I hadn’t spoken to her for years because of that. I cut her off, I was only 15 but that was it. I refused to go home in the holidays, I went to an Uncle in New York and that cut my mama’s heart that did. So now, when I asked her, do you know what she said?” The man grabbed at the woman again. “She said, because you never showed us no love son. Never. And when you got to that school you stopped communicating. And I didn’t want to tell you because I was afraid. I was afraid of your reaction, of you not caring. Like my mammy was with me and my daddy, who didn’t care when I told them about bad things happening to me and blamed me instead, I thought you would be the same. So I said nothing to you son, nothing to you. And all those years, all those years of you never answering my calls, pretending I was dead for what I did, never telling me you was married or that I was a grandmommy and now suddenly you are here? And what do you expect? Open arms?”
The man fell silent.
“She died right there and then, as if she’d been waiting to say that to me. And I don’t want to admit it, but it seemed like she was glad. She was glad she got to say it to me and died before I could make it up. She died before I could even say sorry, even say, Mammy, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. Mammy, I’m so so sorry.”
The man stopped and the woman saw tears fall down his face with as much force as the rivers of rain outside.
“See how I’m left now?” said the man at last, spreading out his arms in a hopeless gesture. “It was after that, after that I could go on no more. You see nothing made sense no more. Nothing mattered. My job didn’t matter. All that mattered is that I never said sorry, I never made it up before she died. And what’s worse, what’s worse is that she didn’t care whether we did or not. It was her punishment, her punishment” cried out the man, “ that she left me here like this with no hope of redemption, no hope!”
The man fell to his knees and hugged the floor, crying out. Even William threw down his dish cloth in despair.
“Come on man” said William at last as he remained there prostrated on the floor, “Come on, you’re in the way of customers.”
But the man only rolled onto his side and curled into a ball like a cat. The woman hovered, not knowing what to do. She looked around the cafe to see if anyone was interested in helping but everyone was suddenly on their phones, or talking to each other. There was a sneaky click and a phone quickly being put away but even though she whipped around quickly, she couldn’t see who had done it.
“That’s not very nice!” she said loudly, a slight tremble in her voice, for she wasn’t used to speaking out loud to so many people. A man in the corner looked sheepish but no one said anything.
She bent towards the man.
“No, I’m alright” the man said, sitting up. He seemed quite better, as if the outburst had relieved him somewhat.
“You can see what I’m saying can’t you?” said the man, still on the floor. He looked a bit ridiculous with his feet stretched out, in a state of complete acceptance and that it was quite OK to sit on the floor in this way, but the woman had to admit she could see what he meant.
“That woman gave me a prison sentence, don’t let it happen to you. Not with anyone. If there’s something you need to say to someone, if there’s some love you need to give, then do it quick, before it’s too late. Give. You must just give. And even if they don’t accept it, they might remember it someday and be glad.”
The man fell silent and put his head in his hands as if tired out by it. William was going around the cafe offering free coffee. He paused at the man and the woman looked at him.
“He never buys anything” William said.
He stepped over him and went to the counter. He looked out of the window.
“Come on old man, the rain’s stopped” he said. “Your time’s up.”
“Kicking out the homeless”, said the man, “you see him, a young fella’ with no respect for his elders.”
“Tcch, my dad would never get into your state old man” said William.
“Good job isn’t lad?” The man turned and stared at William fully in the face.
“ You can come and stay at mine if you want”, said the woman suddenly. And she really meant it for a moment.
The man looked at the woman gently and cupped her face in his hands.
“I appreciate the offer and that’s nice, but it’s OK. I have somewhere I must go.”
He looked at the woman a long time and then turned and shuffled out of the door, swinging it shut, despite the now sweltering heat.
“I told you, absolutely crazy” said William.
“I wonder if he really did help kids in India?” mused the woman.
William burst out laughing.
“Are you kidding?” he choked, “Look at him!”
“Well, why not?” said the woman.
“Well, why not?” she said louder as no one answered.
“Look at him!” shouted William, “Just look at him! What a state! What a mess for such a person to get in eh? They should lock the door and throw away the key! My parents. My parents are poor but they would never ever get like that. They respect themselves.”
“He could have been” said the woman quietly, defiantly. “I really hope he was and did some nice things for people and has some good things to remember.”
The woman moved to the door seeing it was no longer raining and the sun had come out. She took a look at the cafe. She wasn’t sure if she would come back. William was looking at her in a patch of light, almost as if he knew. Then he shrugged his shoulders, whistled to himself and turned away. It didn’t matter, they’d be others.
The woman swung out of the door, walking a bit taller than when she’d come in.