I headed to a favourite café the other day, book under my arm. There is time enough to digest a short story at one sitting. As I entered the café an acquaintance greeted me warmly. Wrapped in a bright shawl, she sat alone at a kitchen table. I smiled and greeted her and made a note to self that if I sat there I could forget my intention to read. I was writing well that day and wanted to oil the wheels with some good reading.
The remaining small table in the café was taken and the other big table was almost full with a couple chatting quietly and three others eating and reading newspapers. I found a place, set down my book and scarf, hoping my acquaintance would not feel slighted. Then I thought to myself, it’s a free country and I am entitled to read.
I ordered, sat, poured some water, and opened the book choosing a short story because of its title, Green Bus to St Ives by Salley Vickers. I once took a train to St Ives, and somewhere is a diary that records who I met that day and my visit to the Barbara Hepworth home and studio oblivious that not so many years later I would live amid a garden of smooth carved stones. Greedily I lapped up the spectacle, smell and sounds of the beaches that were alike yet far different from home.
As I slipped away with the story characters on a bus to the Tate and rediscovered Barbara Hepworth’s garden, I heard the voice of my acquaintance. “Where do you live?”
A male voice replied, “We live up the coast but I would like to live here.”
“I wouldn’t like to live here as everyone knows your business,” said my acquaintance. I glanced around to see a man and his wife sitting at a small table, a walking frame parked in front of the table. My acquaintance sat at the far end of a big table.
For the next few minutes as I tried to keep reading I learned where the man, and my acquaintance were born and had lived and why each had moved. I learned that my acquaintance had left an affluent city area and was “not like” those people she had left. In a few short minutes I had learned a great deal about my acquaintance’s life. I learned nothing about the man’s wife. She appeared frail and said little. The man seemed glad of the conversation so I thought that was a good thing.
Their talk turned to the economy. I determinedly kept on reading about the unexpected alliance of the characters in the story. Why hadn’t my acquaintance moved closer to her new friends instead of broadcasting across the café?
“My kind of business is not affected by the downturn,” said my acquaintance.
“Everything is affected by the downturn,” said the man. For a moment I was tempted to weigh in to agree with him and I suspect they wouldn’t have minded a bit.
“What are your names?” said my acquaintance to the couple. And so it went on.
As I finished my tart, a warm tumble of cheese and vegetables, I checked the pages of my book and saw I still had a number of pages to read.
My acquaintance stood up and issued a fond farewell to her new friends and it was quiet again. I ordered coffee, and made my way back to St Ives.