The Woman in the Café She is sitting where I expect her to be; in the elegant café, not far from the seafront. As I walk in from the stifling August heat I am engulfed by the delicious smell of good coffee and freshly baked muffins, she, however, appears oblivious to everything around her, alone with a cup of tea and a buttered croissant in front of her, the latter half-eaten. Always the same; the same tastes from year after year, even her handbag, carefully placed on the chair next to her, is the one she always has; losing its colour now and looking rather battered.
I am not sure she recognises me as I sit down opposite her; she gives me a glance and continues to study her croissant. She looks so sad, and I long to reach out and hold her hand, but I refrain. A young lady brings me a black coffee and pastry; the latter I cut into quarters and slowly eat. “I love this café” I venture, “always lots of treats and very relaxed.” She looks at me blankly. “I come here most days” she eventually tells me, “they don’t rush you and I can watch the people go by.” And she looks out of the window as if to illustrate her point.
“Do you have any family?” I ask. “My husband died nine years ago now, cancer of the bowel, and my daughter was killed in a car crash when she was a student, it was tragic, she was so young.” I don’t know why I ask her these questions, the same ones each time and the same answers, which I know by heart, and repeated with almost no emotion, as if she has said it all too many times.
“We lived in Shrewsbury” she tells me confidentially “and Martin had a good job for the council and I worked for Barclays bank. When my daughter died I wanted to up sticks and make a fresh start, but Martin wouldn’t hear of it. But then after he passed away I sold up, and found a small flat here. I never go back now. I have no need.” “Aren’t you lonely?” “No. I have enough to do. I don’t have time for loneliness.” And she continues to sit, gazing out of the window at the people passing by.
She smells a bit I notice, as if she hasn’t washed this morning and she mumbles, so that I have to bend close to hear what she is saying. How old is she now? Sixty-three, so not even retirement age, but she appears to be much older than that, frail and unhappy, slowly dying. I watch her get unsteadily to her feet and walk towards the toilet, taking her time, and briefly resting against a chair when she is halfway there. When she has gone, I take a £10 note from my pocket and put it in her handbag along with a Wispa bar, which I bought earlier and which I remember she was always particularly partial to. I wish I could have given her more, but even that will leave me short for the week ahead.
She is gone a long time, long enough for me to worry and consider going in after her to check that she has not had a mishap, but before I decide to take action, here she is; dodging chairs, tables and bags. She seems surprised to see me still here, or perhaps she has forgotten that I was there in the first place, she sits down with a slight grunt and checks that her handbag is still there, and looks at me blankly.
“Lovely to talk to you.” I say brightly after a few moments of silence. As I stand up to leave, I am tempted once more to make some gesture of affection; hold her hand or kiss her on the cheek, but instead I give her an awkward pat on the shoulder as I walk past, and let my hand rest there, just for a moment.
From a bus shelter on the other side of the road I watch my mother eat her croissant and finish her tea, and then slowly she gets up, leaves the cafe and walks away down the road, back towards her flat. And now I too hurriedly walk away, looking in every direction, just in case I have been spotted; that danger, always present.
I was foolish perhaps to risk this trip, but I am glad that I did. For many years I had avoided seeking out my parents, but in the end the longing got too much; I would watch my father as he walked to work and now I visit his grave and leave flowers on the anniversary of his death, and I talk to my mother as she sits in upmarket cafes, thinking her thoughts, oblivious to the stranger who sits opposite her, and yearns to hold her tight.