In Pret there is coffee. That means there are people. Or is it the other way around?
A man hunches over a table, smiles into his cell phone. With his free hand he picks up the leftover packaging from a hot wrap, sniffs it, puts it down. Spins it. He twists a finger in his ear, rubs his face.
Behind me, Spanish girls pick at pots of fruit. They eat like they don’t like the food, pinching it between forefinger and thumb. The guy with them talks loudly and throws his head back when he feels he’s made his point.
Noise rumbles through the place, the noise of things that don’t matter, and those that do. Posters declare, ‘rainforests are cool’, and, ‘freshly roasted Arabica beans’, as if people were in the habit of knowing (or caring) what their coffee beans are, or how the rainforest is doing. This isn’t Shoreditch.Two men and two women sit; the one closest to me is a man in a blue cardigan and movie-style hair, perfectly coiffed. Every time he nods it bobs up and down a little. His cardigan has leather elbow patches, and when people talk he’s not really listening. I would be a bad person to give superpowers to. I would punch that guy in the face for the hell of it. I wonder if Superman ever got sued for destroying Manhattan – sorry, Metropolis.
The woman in front of me wears full winter regalia in a hot café. Hat, scarf, North Face jacket. She sits with her arms pinched in, like she’s afraid of attack at any moment.
On the wall a paper rack announces tube strikes averted – for now. In England, the papers turn even good news into a threat.
People leave, and I can see that perfect-hair-guy has another perfect-hair friend who I also dislike. Why? It can’t be hair. Who gives a shit about hair?
Children climb around on chairs. The girl with the bunny sweatshirt cries for no reason; her brother drops a kinder egg and scrambles around on the floor, collecting the pieces. Ten seconds later the girl is happy again, bouncing around on the chairs like she can never be hurt, or even understand the concept. I can see how such an attitude would have merit.
There’s a woman with birds-nest hair, grey and white; she rests her cane against the table, digs through a ‘durable’ Asda bag, places half a pint of milk on the table. Inside the plastic bag is another plastic bag; she rummages, picks things up and holds them jealously in her claws. They’ll not be things anyone wants. She folds the bag up tightly, places it back in the other bag, takes out another one, repeats the process.
To my right a man orders Carlsberg. He doesn’t sound like he belongs here, but then again, neither do I. I wait for my burger, ignore the strange wafts which come past me. I wanted all-day breakfast, but they only serve breakfast here until noon. The humanity.
The food is exactly what you’d expect: watery BBQ sauce, chewy bacon, chips lukewarm but crisp and fluffy. I’ll eat it all. I need salt and mayonnaise.
A man sits at a bar but not at the bar, dressed like Steve Jobs, cellphone call after cellphone call; but if you’re at a Wetherspoons at one pm on a Saturday, Steve Jobs you aint.
The knife and fork sit by, unused. I scoop up the last of the mayo with a chip and lick my fingers.
A girl approaches the bar, leopard print top and ugg boots distorted out of all shape from being worn places they were never designed for. I look at her until her boyfriend walks up. Jeans and wheat-coloured timberlands, or an imitation. She has a nice face, and she doesn’t talk too loudly. Half the voices in this place pierce the room like feedback.
A plump woman approaches the bar, orders, wanders back to the table, comes back again with what she’s forgotten. The girl behind the bar stands around for a chat – she seems nice, genuinely interested in these people and their lives. Regulars.
Cellphone guy is still talking. He has a dark black baseball cap with red lettering. I can’t see the brand. I check my watch, consider ordering another drink. The table is splashed with salt and grease, as are my hands.
On the platform, a wedge of sunlight warms my back. There is nothing better than having time.
Having the same idea, others stand alongside me, in defiance of the yellow line. I see Mr White Trainers, Blue Jeans, Plain T-Shirt, Gold Chain. I know a hundred like him, but I do not know him. His face is whiskered and wants to be tough. He clutches a heavy jacket with both hands.
A stout woman with long hair, and cheetah-print trainers hold a small dog on a leash. Her son has black jeans, ripped at the knee. The dog shivers in the shade.
Across from me a girl fusses with her earphones; trusses thick hair above a bored face. Her red bandana represents nothing. The music she plays is of a type I cannot hear.
The train arrives and people jostle. From years of experience I can tell there’s no need, but stress is a feedback loop. I stand in the entrance way and watch people, debating over seats. An elderly couple pluck up courage enough to sit down.
Beside me a man hangs bright blue sunglasses from a thin sweater. He shuffles his suitcase about. The man and the clothes and the case are the same boring grey – even the shoes. He looks like he’s preparing to film a commercial for blue sunglasses. In his left hand is an empty can of Sprite. In his right hand, a cell phone.
The girl with a bandana is reading an article on her phone. I try, unsuccessfully, not to assume it’s an article about the Kardashians. She is content, smiling softly at no one.
We stop. A woman with a pram gets on; people shuffle to make room. She’s a bright red top, relaxed demeanour. Trainers green, blue, day-glo yellow. You can tell she’s been doing this a while. The child squawks, and receives a face full of mashed rice. I am reminded of baby birds.
I check my phone – I have one notification. As I check it, my signal disappears, so now I am angry and alone.
The baby mewls again, unsatisfied with sshhh for an answer. The sun cuts sharp shadows on to a platform as we squeak to a halt. The girl with the bandana helps the lady with the pram off the train. As if to fill the void, a child further down the carriage begins to complain about something undoubtedly insignificant.
The strap on my bag digs into my back; the train rocks and weaves. We stop at Gipsy Hill. The doors open but there is no breath of fresh air.