Helen sat outside the Sunflower cafe, on one of those pavement chairs made of chrome steel. On the chrome steel table in front of her was a strong coffee and a small chocolate stick, half-eaten. It was too chilly to be sitting outside, if she was honest with herself, but the temptation to be a posing note-writer was too strong.
In her hands she held one of the small black notesbooks, purchased just ten minutes previously in the expensive stationers’ shop a little further down the road; and a good quality ballpoint pen.
She held the pen over the blank first page of the notebook, and wondered what on earth she should write.
The reason those posing people looked so cool, she realised, was that their black notebooks were roughened after months of posing on outdoor pavement cafe chairs. Each page in their notebooks was a mess of tightly kerned black characters with a very rare doodled illustration; the pages were slightly curled with use and the notebooks capable of being laid flat without closing themselves shut like insect wings.
“I must have looked like a bit of an idiot, rather than some arty farty poseur. I say with my pen over than notebook for 20 minutes or more and couldn’t think of anything to write. In the end I had to give up so I could drink the coffee before it went cold.”
Helen looked out at the business people rushing past. The rush hour had not officially begun, but there are always a a few people who leave early and walk hurridly down to the mainline stations to catch the earlier, less packed, commuter trains to suburbia.
It felt odd to be sitting outside the Sunflower cafe at this time of day. For years, Helen had popped in two or three mornings a week to buy coffee and a filled roll for her breakfast. She knew the staff very well in the mornings, but when she’d turned up this afternoon their faces had not registered hers for a while; it was almost a minute before they realised she was one of their morning regulars, then switched on their smiles. Helen felt uncomfortable.
Not as uncomfortable as she’d felt the morning she’d come in here, already late for work, ordered a coffee and bacon butty, and endured an uncomfortable 10 minutes talking to Big Alan. He was just as embarrassed as her, but neither of them were brave enough to say aloud: “I don’t want to have to talk to you; please go away.”
If she’d been able to pretend she’d not seen him, she would have. But it had been a busy morning, wet outside, and the cafe was humming with people and chat. As Helen turned away from the counter, one of the smiley staff, trying to help, had said, loud enough for the whole cafe to hear: “There’s one last seat left over there, love.”
And as Helen had turned towards it, and seen it, she’d locked eyes with Big Alan, who’d been sitting opposite, forking sausage and eggs into his mouth. For just a second their eyes held a conversation:
“Please, don’t sit here.”
“I don’t want to sit there.”
“Let’s pretend we’ve not seen eachother.”
But that’s not how you behave, even in a city like London where people care little for anyone but their closest friends, and work relationships are the delicate string that holds fabric together; no, even in London, when you make eye contact your boss in a cafe, you fake a smile and go and sit with him.
Neither of them bothered to mention the time, since they were both late. But Big Alan waved his fork at her in greeting, then started eating faster.
Helen slid into the gap between the wooden bench and the formica tabletop, wincing as her knees brushed past Big Alan’s knees. She tried to angle her legs sideways to avoid any further physical contact. Consequently she sat twisted and uncomfortable for the length of their talk.
Big Alan asked her about progress on some major projects he thought she was working on. She opened her mouth to correct him on some things; such-and-such project was completed two weeks ago, and she’d emailed him telling him so; so-and-so client had complained about the materials supplied and threatened to go elsewhere; income was down because there’d been a rash of resignations, which left fewer people to do the actual work; but closed it again because there was no point telling him this stuff just for the sake of having something to say. Instead, she remarked on the rainy weather, then asked him how his work was progressing.
He gave her a brief, curious look, then the words flooded from him.
“No-one understands what my job is all about, Helen,” he said. A mouthful of sausage, and he continued: “Most of the time, it’s just about making people happy. I have the management in New York and Tokyo to keep happy, and you wouldn’t believe how mad they get when we” — he waved his fork, seemingly indicating the whole of London — “don’t live up to the financials.”
Chew, swallow, eat.
“Financials which have been set by those same bastards. People. People in New York and Tokyo. Numbers on spreadsheets that we have to meet.
“So then I come back here and try to make the staff here happy too. Try to make them feel like they can live up to those numbers.”
Helen wondered if simply deleting the offending spreadsheets would solve the problem, removing the insistent numbers and therefore the pressure.
Big Alan slurped tea from a mug. He shifted in his seat and Helen was forced to angle her legs further away to avoid being touched again. She shivered, and bit into her butty.
(Look down on this scene from above, and you can see Helen’s body almost at right angles to the table. She looks withdrawn, almost nervous. A balding patch can be seen on Big Alan’s crown, something most of his staff haven’t seen because he towers over them.)
His breakfast finished, Big Alan got up quickly and slid out from his seat. He didn’t look at Helen’s face.
“See you at the office,” he muttered and waddled out.