(Something I started writing back in 2015 after visiting a coffee shop in a nearby town. I’ve edited it a little, it’s surprising how my style has changed over the last two years. It’s still rather bland and just the opening scene but it’s better out here than gathering dust in a laptop folder…)
‘Excuse me, may I join you?’
That’s how it started.
I sat in the coffee shop, my cappuccino in front of me. Two paperbacks from the library lay on the table in a plastic shopping bag. It was my third visit here. Only 9.30 in the morning, but I liked to avoid the crowds and make certain there was a choice of seats.
Situated next to a small supermarket in a quaint Kentish town, a few shoppers drifted past with a number of middle aged women accompanying their silver-haired mothers. Around me, with their oversized cups of coffee, were a mix of retired single gentlemen and ladies, either seeking the company of the gentle hubbub of the pedestrianised passageway or stopping off for a rest before the walk home.
I usually headed back for my coffee. It seemed an unnecessary expense to buy when I could be home in five minutes and getting the same for free. But I had associated morning coffee in the lounge with my mother. It had been our time, a regular opportunity to meet up and exchange simple conversation. Now I felt the need to get out, to be surrounded by life.
I sipped from my cup. I gazed towards the shops across the paved walkway, imagining like so many others what type of life the people going by had.
Today I looked up, startled. A lady, in her forties, holding a cup in one hand and a handbag in the other, was hovering over the seat opposite me.
‘May I sit here?’
‘Er, right, yes, of course.’
My eyes flitted around, spotting empty tables and chairs. I wondered why someone would want to sit with me.
The woman tugged the leather chair back, dropped her bag onto the floor and sat down, her cup still held above the table in her hand. Her brunette hair was stylishly cut down to an inch or two below her ears with longer strands hanging either side of her chin. She had one of those wide mouths that somehow made her instantly likeable.
‘I hate sitting by myself, and I’ve spotted you in here a couple of times, so I thought you’d be okay.’
I raised my eyebrows.
‘Er, I suppose I take that as a compliment, ‘being okay’.’
The woman placed her coffee on the table.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound, you know, patronising or something. It’s just, it can be awkward being a woman by yourself, especially if you want to sit around for some time. There’s always some man who’ll try and chat or offer to buy you another cup.’
I sat up straighter and self-consciously tidied my bag of books. I looked directly at her for the first time. Her hazel eyes had a sparkle, just like writers would say in a corny romance. But they did. They had life in them. I could quite understand why men would offer to buy her a drink. Or two.
‘I think you’re pretty safe in this quiet little town, most men in here seem retired and maybe a little bit tired.’
I nodded towards a couple of individuals near the window who were certainly scruffy, wearing crumpled beige summer jackets with their white hair sticking out over their ears. I couldn’t imagine a caring partner letting them out like that.
The woman drank from her coffee and replaced the cup on the table. Her lips were coated with a pale shade of orangey lipstick, something I always thought looked glamorous and seductive.
‘Oh, they are the worse, they just talk and talk, it’s terrible getting away from them. Part of me feels sorry for the old so-and-so’s, the other part is itching all over and wanting to run for the door.’
Her lips spread into a wide smile. I shifted my eyes to my own coffee and lifted the cup which in my house would have passed for a soup bowl. I’ve always liked women with those wide lips, just I like do women with cherub lips. Two extremes attract me it seems.
‘You come in here often then?’
In my head I couldn’t help but think what a corny chat-up line that was, but then I wasn’t chatting her up. Was I? No, I’d been enjoying the break from home and the chance to watch people around me. Women coming up and talking like this was a novelty. I felt out of my depth.
The woman adjusted her top, sleeveless blue with white polka dots, and rested her bare arms on the table. Her skin was slightly tanned, not I thought from hours spent soaking up the sun on a beach or by a pool, but probably from just being out and around in the fresh air. Or maybe it betrayed her origin or parentage. Her accent was very English, but that could be misleading.
‘Just in the last few weeks. There are so many coffee shops in this small place, it’s unbelievable. I can’t think how they all survive out of the tourist season.’
I nodded. It was a subject of many conversations among the locals, especially when some picturesque but unprofitable shop closed and was replaced by yet another outlet which placed its tables and chairs outside on narrow pavements and offered free wifi trying to recreate the insular camaraderie of ‘Friends’ or the bustling streets of Paris.
‘Yeah, there have been rather a lot springing up over the last few years.’
I took a drink. It had been sometime since I’d had a longer conversation with a woman, I didn’t quite know what to say. I didn’t want to bore her or drive her away but I wasn’t sure what she wanted; someone to talk with or just another body sitting on the same table to keep away unwanted offers of coffee and company.
A hand popped across the table.
‘I’m Immy, by the way. Short for Imogen.’
Her hand felt warm and soft. I hoped mine didn’t feel too sweaty in return. I noticed how slender her fingers were, longer than mine. The nails were coated with an orange varnish a shade darker than her lipstick.
I stuttered over the word. Everyone in the family knew me as Jamie, all at any work as James. Why did I go for Jim here? And Jim and Immy – it sounded ridiculous. Suppose I’d said Jimmy, she might have thought I was taking the micky.
‘So, you’re an avid reader then, Jim?’
She nodded down towards the two books I’d borrowed from the library earlier. One was inside the bag, the other lay face down on top.
‘I was, not so much now. I actually borrow them to check if the authors have mentioned their agents. I want to contact a few.’
Immy’s mouth dropped open, revealing near perfect teeth.
‘Really? You’re a writer? That’s way exciting!’
I laughed. She had a nice way of making you feel relaxed with her voice and expression.
‘No, not really. I have written a novel, or rather a very long story as I call it. I thought I might as well send it off, you never know.’
‘Wow, that’s amazing. You’ve written a novel, you sit around in coffee shops, with a pile of books in front of you, that seems like a cool life to me!’
As she rocked in her seat her shoe accidentally grazed mine. I moved my foot back, hoping she didn’t notice. It was a long time too since I’d had any physical contact with a woman. Even the slightest innocent touch might cause me to misinterpret the signs. But it was nice moment, I had to admit.
‘Well, not really. I only come in here about once a week, it’s a bit expensive, I live ten minutes away and coffee’s free at home. But it’s fun watching other people, writing can be lonely at times.’
‘Oh, I’m sure, it takes great discipline too, I imagine. But you must feel proud, having written something like that.’
‘Sure, if you’d said a year ago I would write over 100,000 words on one story, I wouldn’t have believed you.’
Immy’s eyes widened.
‘A hundred thousand. God, that’s unbelievable.’
‘Well, most of it, like any book, is sort of padding, you know. You have a basic story and just fill it out in a way.’
Immy took her cup and sipped her cappuccino, flecks of foam sticking to her lips. Her tongue darted up and along, wiping the white away.
I almost turned to see if there was a movie director around somewhere, it was one of the sexiest things I’d ever seen, and it happened right in front of me.
‘What do you do, Immy?’
She looked at her cup, tipping it towards her, the remains of the coffee swirling dangerously close to the edge.
‘Me? Right now not much. I’m taking time out, enjoying life. Regrouping, you could say.’
Divorce rang through my head, it seemed the obvious explanation. Or a trial separation. Maybe her husband had had an affair. Maybe she had. I couldn’t help but think any man would be mad to cheat on her. I wondered if I should say it out loud, but I didn’t. It might appear too cheesy, or even suggestive. It was just, one moment I’d been here pleased to be out enjoying the change, the next this was happening. I wasn’t used to such things. I wasn’t used to exploiting these situations. If a woman asked me to help her change a tyre I’d do it, but I wouldn’t follow up and ask her for a drink or a meal like some men would.
I felt it better not to pry into her answer.
‘And you’ve been coming in here much?’
Immy took another gulp of her coffee.
‘A few weeks, once or twice a week, or in another coffee shop. It’s good to watch people. I bet you do that for your writing.’
‘Um, yeah, I suppose I do, although not regularly, as I said earlier. Perhaps I should do it more.’
And so on… I wonder where this could go from here?