THE BARISTA attempted to take my cup before I’d finished. There was still a little left, and it was mine. I’d paid for it and I wanted to finish it. I’d never get that in New York. Why did she pick it up without asking? It’s okay, though, she’s nice. Erica is her name.
Just let me finish my coffee, Erica.
I can’t help but overhear the conversations of the staff and the frequenters: the energetic business types, the gossipers, the artists discussing their next project, the solemn ones deep in thought, and the friends catching up like the group of Pakistanis who sit outside debating and gesticulating every evening. The mothers, the fathers, the sons, the daughters. The highly successful, the down and outs. White-collar, blue-collar, grey-collar. There’s this one guy; he looks like he’s had twelve rounds with God Almighty — he’s beat. He doesn’t smile, ever. He’s missing a tooth — a canine — and his hair is always a curly, copper mess. He’s never without stubble. I’ve wondered where he goes during the day. I can’t imagine he works. I think about his life. I think about the relentlessness of life.
Then I drink my coffee.
‘Alan is dreadfully unhappy. He’s depressed,’ the woman, whose name I think is June, says. She’s wearing a light blue woollen jumper which looks over-worn, but that’s the look, apparently. She’s about fifty. She’s a smoker, and tends to leave every half-hour or so to light up; too cold to sit outside. ‘I’m telling you, Jean, I’m worried.’
‘Everyone’s depressed, June. There’s nothing for them at the moment. Liam’s banging his head against the wall. He’s going mad.’
Jean sips from her cup — a mint tea. She’s wearing a striking red blouse. She’s quite attractive for her age. (I estimate she’s a few years younger than June)
‘Alan’s going to do it. I think it every night before I go to sleep and it’s the first thought I have when I wake in the morning: he’s going to do himself in. I just know it. I knock on his door every morning and peep my head in, fearing the worst. Can you imagine living with that worry? And I can’t talk to him. I can’t. Every time I try he gets so angry. This is my boy and he’s so angry with me. He’s angry with everything.’
‘He needs to move out.’
‘How can he? He can’t get a job so he can’t afford the rent. The prices are unreasonable. One thing he said the other week, he said he wanted to shoot everyone in the social welfare. The people who were queuing, the staff, he wanted to shoot all of them. I told him, this isn’t America.’
‘He’s being dramatic, June. He’s always been like that, your Alan,’ says Jean, breaking up a fruit and oat biscuit with her long, red fingernails. She dips a piece of it into her mint tea and takes a bite. She elegantly brushes her short blonde hair back with her other hand. Damn, she’s a beautiful woman. I think that if my wife looked like that approaching fifty, I’d have been dealt a good hand. But she won’t: it’s the cigarettes. No way Jean smokes. Not a chance.
‘Liam started an evening course. It’s in digital marketing.’
‘What’s that?’ asks June.
‘Marketing, but online — on the internet.’
‘I’ve never grasped the internet.’
‘It’s easy once you get the hang of it.’
‘Is Liam still seeing Nicole?’
‘No, didn’t I tell you? They broke up last month. Had a massive argument in the house. She walked out. Of course trying to find out if they’d broken up was like trying to get blood from a stone. I don’t understand it. I was never so difficult when I was his age.’
‘They’re all difficult, this generation. They don’t know how to mature. Too much handed to them, everything’s too easy. They get anything they want.’
And then they both say, at the exact same time, ‘except a job!’ and they laugh. And I think to myself, what a pair. They’re making a joke about these poor guys being out of work with no prospects, and these guys are their offspring, and they say that they’re worried, and then they joke about the perils of their children.
What a pair.
‘It’s all money worries,’ says June.
‘Money, unfortunately, equates to happiness. I don’t care what anybody says.’
June excuses herself, ‘Time for a fag,’ and then she stops and looks at Jean in a way that a mother looks at her child, ‘Oh, you look great, Jean. You always do,’ she says.
Jean smiles. She knows it, and she knows — with a great deal of satisfaction — that she looks better than her friend, and that feeling, surely, is something that money can’t buy.
June leaves and Jean smiles to herself, then sips her mint tea.
(1 of 2: read The Man Who Watches (ii) tomorrow)