So I’m sitting in this cafe and the coffee arrives and it’s kinda how I like it, but not really, just slightly wrong, but that’s okay because it tastes good and I’m not gonna be here for very long anyway so I can always get a better one somewhere else. The morning’s barely an hour old, for me anyway, and my head’s either not woken up or fallen asleep already, which is a tragedy if you think about it, especially if it’s the latter, because I have the entire day to go and if the head is out for it at this time of the morning then I’m done.
I’m sitting at a table outside, and I’m alone, but for the barista, and the staff, and a woman who’s sitting behind me, and a couple more customers inside. Women, as well, I think. But I can’t be sure. I can’t be bothered. They don’t matter. Not to me anyway. Perhaps to each other. Maybe not even to each other. In fact, all of them — the barista, the staff, the woman behind me, the women inside — I know they’re people; I know they’re human, but they’re nothing to me. I don’t know them. I don’t speak to them. I have no clue who they are, and they have no clue who I am. They’re no different from a table or a chair or a salt shaker or a cup of coffee. Actually, scratch that — the coffee’s important. But the people? Hm. They’re objects to me, like any other object in the cafe. I can hear them. But I can’t understand them. It’s mumble mumble blah blah blah. Snippets of words and phrases, impressions of meanings, tail ends of stories. But relative to the space I occupy at that table, everything else in that place is an object. An ‘it’. And I’m thinking this as I sit there, waiting for the sun to rise over the factory roofs, waiting for the first heat of the day to hit my back and my shoulders, waiting for the shadows around me, which have begun to feel cold and damp in the change of the season, to disperse and make way for the light. Because then I will feel content.
Or will I?
It sits heavily on me, this sense of being alone in that place, at that time of the morning. But what can I do about it? I could move, I suppose. But sitting nearer to someone isn’t going to change the fact that they are no more to me than a salt shaker. No. Shifting space won’t change a thing. I’ll still be lonely. It doesn’t matter how close I sit to someone, it can’t ever change the fact that only I, just me, can ever occupy the space that I have always occupied. I can’t change places with them. And I can’t bring someone else in. I can’t vacate my ‘spot’, not even for a moment.
Another sense of isolation hits me. I can hear the women inside, their mumbled words and phrases, and I know that they are telling stories. I too have a story. But I have no one to hear it. I have lots of stories actually. And in my stories, I am always the central character. It’s like my story is about a journey I’ve taken on a train, a train that’s racing along the tracks and passing stations where people like the woman behind me and the barista and the staff and the women inside the cafe, are like people waiting on the platform to get on and off. But the train never stops. So I see them for a moment, a really fleeting moment, racing by while I recognise that as much as they want to hop on board my story train, they never actually can. It has always been my train. It’s still my train as I sit here in my own space in the cafe. And it will always be my train. My story has a hero, me, and a host of extras. That’s it. Most of them don’t even speak. They just wander on and off the set, then disappear forever.
I am the only ‘I’ in my world, and everyone else is an ‘it’.
So, I’m sitting in this cafe and thinking these things and feeling like I might actually go bonkers trying to get my head around it all, when this woman arrives out of nowhere, and takes a seat opposite me. Just sits there, without asking permission, without saying anything. She puts down her knitted bag, and takes a big breath, because it’s obvious from the colour in her cheeks that she’s been running, or at least walking very fast.
‘Have you ever tried sprinting in wedges?’ she says.
And I’m thinking, lady, if I had I wouldn’t be telling you. But I say nothing. Because who the hell is she? She’s got this weird hair, and these eyes, and these lips … all the normal bits. But apart from noticing these typical things about her face, I wouldn’t know her any more than I know anyone in that place. She’s certainly not on board my train.
‘Don’t look now,’ she says, looking over my shoulder. ‘That woman sitting behind you has cut the yolks from her fried eggs and has wrapped them in a napkin.’
This observation disturbs me more than it should. Not because of the yolks or the napkin, but because this woman with the weird hair told me not to turn around and see for myself. If I do turn around I’ll look like a knob. But if I dont? How can I trust what she says? She could be making it up. The woman behind me might not have taken the yolks and put them in a napkin — rendering me a fool for believing this stranger with the wedges and the hair and the eyes and the lips. So I’m stuck. And just like that, I feel the limitations of the space that I’m occupying. That this strange woman actually has some surplus knowledge over me because of where she is sitting — the space that she occupies, and which I don’t. I don’t take this easily, this realisation there are limits to what my own space can tell me. I don’t like that I can’t even see what’s going on behind me. I don’t like that if this woman with the weird hair wasn’t occupying a different space to me, I would never in a million years have known that the woman behind me had wrapped her egg yolks in a napkin. To be honest, I don’t like discovering my limits.
‘I’ve been awake half the night,’ she says then, and I’m thinking, lady, I really don’t care. But she doesn’t care that I don’t care, so she carries on — some story about a cat that moved house and thought it would go for a walk in the middle of the night and ended up falling down a freshly dug grave in some country churchyard. And it’s then that I know she’s bonkers. Stark, raving mad. ‘Seriously, my life’s a train wreck sometimes,’ she says.
‘What did you say?’ I say to the woman.
‘This cat, it …’
‘No, fuck the cat. The train wreck.’
‘Yeah, my life’s a train wreck. You know, you’re on a train and waving at life as it passes you by and suddenly …’
At this, she throws up her arms and makes a loud but only passable impression of a train crashing into something.
That’s not what disturbs me though, embarrassing as it is. What disturbs me is the sudden realisation that this strange woman, apart from occupying her own space and seeing the cafe from a completely different point of view from me, is also travelling in her own train. One that’s wrecked, for sure, but a train nevertheless. I’d never thought about other people’s trains, I’d only ever thought about mine. It’s not that I thought other trains didn’t exist, it’s that I really never thought about it. I didn’t have to. There was just me and my train, my story, my time, my day-to-day. Now here’s this other person, this woman with the weird hair and the eyes and lips — she’s got her own train too, her own stories, her own time. And what’s more, it’s like her train just ran into mine.
‘You just made me realise my limits in two completely different ways,’ I say to her out of nowhere.
‘Huh?’ she says.
‘No, go on,’ she says. ‘I’m listening.’
And she actually is. She leans forward, nudges her knitted bag out of the way and places her elbows on the table, watching my eyes, then my mouth, then my eyes again … waiting for me to speak.
‘Well,’ I say, suddenly nervous. ‘You told me about the eggs …’
She glances at the woman sitting behind me.
‘Yeah, then you told me about your cat.’
‘Yeah. And it’s like, I’m sitting here like I’m the only person who matters, then suddenly you come along with your point of view and your very own train, and it’s like …’
And that’s when it hits me. All of a sudden, this woman isn’t like the barista or the staff or the woman behind me or the women inside the cafe. I’d never even considered their points of view or their train stories. But this woman … I couldn’t avoid those things. She was sitting right there, in front of me, making me think about stuff I didn’t have any idea about until she sat down.
I start to hyperventilate.
‘What’s up?’ she says.
‘Nothing, I just … I just …’
Oh boy, it’s on. A full-blown anxiety attack. Brought on by what? The coffee? Nah, not the coffee! The conversation? But we’ve barely begun.
The woman reaches over and takes my hand.
‘Do this,’ she says, and takes an almighty breath in, followed by an almighty breath out. Then again, and again.
‘I’m not doing that,’ I say. ‘I’ll look stupid.’
‘You look stupid anyway.’
‘Nah, I have to go.’
She presses my hand to the table.
‘Stay,’ she says. ‘It’s the Wim Hof method. It’ll sort you out.’
So, I stay. And I breathe. And it does sort me out. It doesn’t just sort me out, it calms me down, it makes me buzz, I suddenly feel awake, my mind opens up and starts to feel alive.
‘That’s amazing,’ I say. ‘Truly amazing.’
‘Tell me about it,’ she says.
But I can’t tell her about it. I don’t know anything about it. Nothing at all about Wim Hof, whoever he is. So she tells me all about it. Talks about a dark time she’s had, and some violence she’s seen, and boyfriend trouble, and a whole season of fear. And then she tells me how she learnt to breathe. And to relax. And to dream.
And as she’s telling me I’m listening, but I’m also seeing the hair and the eyes and the lips and the knitted bag. Just like before, but it’s also like she’s morphing right in front of me. Changing, from the inside out, from stranger, to — I dunno — friend?
We don’t stop there. She tells me another story, so I tell her a story, and then we both start telling a story at the same time and have to stop ourselves, then take turns again. And in one crazy, crazy moment, I say ‘I’ as she’s saying ‘You’, and then I say ‘You’, as she’s saying ‘I’, and then we just laugh. And it’s in that moment that I realise I’ve forgotten about the space I occupy in the cafe, or the train I rode in on, because all that actually matters for me right here and now is this sudden exchange, this meeting in the space between us, where the ‘I’ is clearly defined in my head but only because there’s a ‘You’ sitting opposite who is also discovering their ‘I’ in relation to my ‘You.’
‘I’m so confused,’ I say, out loud.
‘No, tell me.’
So, I do. And she listens. And that’s when the glow inside begins. This woman actually listens. Nods in the right places. Speaks at even better places. Hears what I say, agrees with some of it, disagrees with other bits of it, says her own thing in response … and all the while it’s like it’s not just about what I know, or what I’ve experienced, and the way I see things, but it’s also about what she knows, and what she’s experienced, and the way she sees things … but even more than that, it’s about how those two sets of things meet in the middle, in the space between, and make something entirely new … like a third person, who only appears as a result of our talking, who only takes shape as we share what we know with each other, as what we know is challenged by the other, or affirmed by the other, or — oh God! — enjoyed by the other.
And that’s when I say: ‘I have to go.’
Why do I say it? I guess, because I’m freaked out. This thing that’s happening … this new thing. It’s more than I can handle. More than I want. More than I feel safe with. More than I can control. I start to hyperventilate again.
‘Why, though?’ she says. And I see the weird hair and the eyes and the lips, and I find that I can’t just walk away.
So … I tell her. Word for word. Everything I just wrote. And you know what she says? She says, ‘Just go with it.’
‘Just go with it?’
‘Yep, just go with it. That’s what I do.’
‘Why aren’t you afraid?’
‘Who says I’m not afraid?’
‘You don’t look afraid.’
And she rolls her eyes. Why? Because I’m stupid, and for a moment forget that it’s not about how I think things look, it’s about listening to her tell me how the world is from her point of view, and from her train.
So, I stay. And I realise, after a while, that she’s right. The fear kinda stays too, but mostly it goes. And something else replaces it. Something I don’t have a word for. But it feels … safe? But also wild. Safe and wild. Which is like … nothing.
‘I can’t describe it,’ I admit to her, after a while.
‘That’s because it’s new,’ she says. ‘If it’s new, the word for it hasn’t been invented yet.’
Then she looks over my shoulder again, but this time reaches out and grabs my hand.
‘You’ll never guess what that guy behind you just did with his pancakes.’
And I don’t even consider turning around to have a look for myself.
‘Tell me,’ I say, and I realise I’m smiling.
‘Wait,’ she says. ‘Let’s get the barista over, too. She’ll love it.’