The man sat down gingerly at his usual seat at the café, like he did for the last year and a half. His seat was in the middle of the small courtyard outside the café, and he liked to sit with his back to the dysfunctional water fountain, facing the café itself. A weary looking waitress came up to him and inquired in a monotone “The usual?” He glanced at her; she looked out of place in the old café, out of place in the stained, stereotypically checkered apron, like so many other apathetic teens tied to it before her. The man slowly lowered his gaze, and lifted it again. Yes.
He wasn’t being rude. His neck lost the lost the youthful privilege of motion years ago. Now it holds his head defiantly, stubbornly in one direction only— forwards, and refuses to be coaxed either by acupuncture or the plethora of lotions, pills and creams stored in the rough leather bag beside his feet. Its surface looked parched and burnt, its gleam long gone; but it still served as a mirror reflecting the state of the man’s own skin.
The girl gave a curt nod and turned away, leaving behind a scent of expired dreams.
The man watched her go to the counter, and as she was about to reach for a cup, Noel Gallagher’s familiar voice emanated from behind her apron “Cos baby… be the one… saves me…” She fumbled and retrieved an old Nokia. “Yea? Are you coming or not?” She must have recognised the caller from the ringtone. She held the phone with her neck and absent-mindedly tamped the ground coffee into the portafilter, slotted it back into the machine and pressed the button.
He grimaced silently. Please tell me she tamped it properly… please. I can’t stand dilute espresso. This would never have happened when I was working in a café. Then again, I didn’t have phones to distract me…
She, on the other hand, was not pre-occupied with his worries at all, and continued talking on her phone. “You better come! I thought you had to bring that old woman out once a week? Well make it today then! God knows why you still volunteer at that godforsaken place… So you’re coming? Good. See you.”
His espresso was done. She took it and brought it to him. “Here you go. The usual. Cup of espresso, espresso in a cup, cup holding espresso.” He fought the urge to tell her that it wasn’t called a ‘cup’, but a tazzina, but the comment dissolved in his throat as the scent of his espresso hit him. “Thank you. Could I also have a glass of water please?” She rolled her eyes and went away. Her way of saying yes.
Again, he sighed in his mind— espresso should always be served with a glass of water, or else how could he get every last drop of the dark elixir into his system? And how could he get rid of that bitter aftertaste and the tell-tale scent from his breath? That scent is a caffeine addict’s equivalent of needle marks, and you can’t even hide it with a sleeve.
His glass of water came, and he turned his gaze onto the surface of the black liquid— he wrinkled a smile. It was opaque. He saw his own reflection on the surface. His white hair was a deep hue of brown, and the lines on his face were blurred by the miniscule vibrations of the liquid. He dipped his teaspoon in and stirred it clockwise. True, he didn’t have to stir, since he didn’t put any sugar in, but he used to put one teaspoon in every time, before his body decided to give him diabetes. Old habits die hard, and stirring clockwise not only gave him an illusion of the past, but also, he believed, brought him good luck. You see, his mother taught him to always stir clockwise, because that was how time flowed, and anyone who tried to do otherwise was a fool.
So, he stirred the liquid. Clockwise. Good luck. Clockwise. Good luck. His bony fingers twirled the thin handle of the spoon like a conductor’s baton, his joints working themselves into a fervour and then he pulled it out, clean. His heart lifted— the espresso didn’t stick to the spoon. It was good. He gazed into the perfect swirling vortex and reckoned that this was how time looked like, swirling pure blackness betraying a hint of unblemished white at the very bottom. The white soon disappeared, and he waited for the liquid to settle again.
He held up the thin teaspoon. It was silvery and thin, like a wisp of his hair. He turned it at an angle, so that he could vaguely make out who was sitting at the table beside him. On the back of the teaspoon was the faint outline of a man hunched over something. He seemed to be in a suit; probably a businessman. He turned it the other way. At first he couldn’t quite make out what was the oversized outline, but then he realised it was a couple entwined together, and he turned his teaspoon away hastily, embarrassed by their reflected vitality.
He had just put his finger into the handle of his tazzina when he heard the waitress shout behind him. “There you are! You took your sweet time!” He held up his teaspoon and saw a tall, lanky figure with a hunched one in tow. The man on the phone and the old woman had arrived. Once a week. He put down his teaspoon and put his gaze back onto his espresso, and tried to avoid thinking about what the waitress and the young man were doing. His espresso was still now, and he noticed how stationary the dull looking clouds were, their reflection on the black surface like fragments of a map.
There was a sound of scraping chairs and a faint grunt from the young man, who was probably helping the woman into her seat. He guessed they were sitting a few tables behind him. He held his tazzina and waited.
“Steady… Steady… whoops!” Something clinked onto the ground behind him. The girl was quick to remark “Oh it’s her ring! Actually it looks pretty nice!” “Yea it is. Give it to me so I can put it back…” A short pause. “Sophie? Can I have it back?” Another pause. “Why? She won’t even know it’s gone. She can’t remember anything, you said it yourself. You said she sometimes thinks you’re her husband. It’s…” “Look it doesn’t matter whether she remembers or not! Now…” “What do you mean, it doesn’t matter? You can’t get a proper job, and I never see you because you’re always at that stupid elderly home! Think of this as compensation! She won’t even notice, see?” And she switched to a high pitched sing-song voice, as if she was talking with a toddler, “Hello! Is this your ring? Do you know what this is?” Silence. “See? She doesn’t even know! I’m keeping this, and you can just tell the people at that place it fell off somewhere without you noticing. If they ever notice that it’s missing, that is!” The young man stuttered but couldn’t come up with a retort.
The man’s fingers, still curled into the handle of his tazzina, trembled as they did fifty years ago when he put that very ring in Sophie’s hands on the finger of the woman sitting behind him. Before she became an echo of herself, before she couldn’t recognise him, before they told him to stop visiting her because it was too stressful for both of them, before he started coming to this café every day, hoping that that day would be the day the young man came.
The surface of his espresso shuddered, blurring the reflection of the clouds, which were no longer stationary, but gliding away like lost candyfloss blown away by the wind.
The Blobbing Fish.