Sunday, 25 April 2010

Scenes from a London cafe

I first started working and writing in cafés while I was living in Chelsea. In the flat above the restaurant, the lights one day took to flickering wildly for no apparent reason. Unable to work without getting the feeling I was on a sinking ship or confining myself I had developed a peculiar eye problem, I took to writing university assignments in the cafes of the Kings Road. They were not the greatest places to work or even to drink coffee; chains full of lousy coffee or overpriced tourist rip-offs. But I didn't really go there for the coffee, or, truly for the peaceful atmosphere. There was always so much else to see and think about in those cafés. As there is, I later discovered, in any cafe in London. 

At the next table a couple pores over travel guides, planning their holiday to Canada. "Where should we stay? What should we visit? Well, I’m dying to see...mind my coffee!" A father left in charge of his young daughter parks her on a chair, beneath a table she can barely reach to spoon up her ice cream from an icy glass. Short legs in stripey tights swing miles off the ground. Just out of sight, behind me, I hear a loud female voice giving someone notes on the draft of their manuscript. "I liked it. I did. I just had a bit of a problem with this guy's name. Aristo...arist...how do you say it?". "Aristodemos." "Exactly, I mean, it's not exactly common. I think readers will have a problem with that name. I mean, no one's really called that are they?" A brief pause before the writer speaks, "It's what I called my son." Another pause. "Oh." 

Through the window, I see a policeman in white shirt-sleeves diligently scraping the brightly coloured fliers of ready and willing ladies from the phone boxes; removing the lurid calling cards of Kara, Tina, Crystale and Co. He solemnly ferries his garish handfuls to the rubbish bin. At the bin he meets a man in full morning suit, dropping a crumpled confetti packet in on top of the hookers’ adverts. Metres away, the rest of the wedding party poses on the steps of the Chelsea Town Hall; a constantly changing line-up orchestrated by a perky photographer. 

The roads stream forwards until the traffic lights change. If it is sunny sports cars are dusted off and soft-tops folded back to let the spring sunshine into the front seats. Drivers squint behind sunglasses through sparkling windscreens. My coffee drunk, my word count hit, I gather together notes, pens and laptop, just in time to watch a vast armful of blue balloons bob past the window, emblazoned with the Conservative party logo. (The monied streets of the Royal Borough must be the safest seat around for the Tories.) A few seconds afterwards five more clutched in the hand of a shop assistant hurry after the advanced party. The good burghers of Chelsea strut down the pavement like they’re on a Milan catwalk; dressed up for lunch, or shopping for bed-linen and lampshades.

Weekends in London are just like weekdays. To everything there is a pattern, a regularity. And it is comforting to know, as I sacrifice myself and my social life to debates on the nature of social capital, that life keeps ticking on. The view outside the window keeps changing.

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