A gentle murmur of voices carried itself around the crowded interior of the café as rain pelted the windows in heavy sheets. The lighting had a warm yellow glow, making the droplets a series of falling stars racing one another down the glass, contrasted against the deepest blue of the storm clouds outside.
She studied him from across the table; his rectangular lenses were set at a very slight diagonal over the bridge of his nose, illuminated in a delicate white by the screen of his laptop. “So… why bother coming out in this weather? I mean, wouldn’t it be easier to work from home?”
He looked up momentarily with an unreadable expression – perhaps only doing so to grace her with the courtesy of eye contact. “It’s almost habitual now. The buzz of a coffee shop sits well with me – it’s warm and lively but doesn’t come off as harsh or overbearing, at least this one doesn’t.”
She contemplated his words for a moment. Upon closer inspection, she noted that one of the arms of his glasses was missing entirely. “Doesn’t it stop you concentrating properly? I can’t imagine any noise putting me at ease like that.”
He smiled, but it was scarcely noticeable. Moments later his eyes seemed to change – for the next few seconds he began furiously clicking away at the laptop, glasses gently sliding down his nose as he did so. The soft lines below his eyes hardened in concentration. When his hands stopped moving he pressed two fingers to the point between the lenses, realigning them and setting his eyes on hers once more.
“Sorry… I know it’s rather impolite to cut into conversation like that, but when an idea comes to me I have to get it down right away.”He lifted a hand and rested his temple on it, brushing back a dark, dishevelled fringe that didn’t quite reach his eyes. Seconds later it fell to cover one side of his forehead once again.
“That sounds almost fatalistic”
“Hm? Oh no, it’s nothing like that. I’m just afraid that if I let the idea slide too long it’ll disappear and never come back; a lot of things in life can be elusive like that.”
She stopped and looked down at her coffee, following the arches of the rosette with her eyes. “You’re a writer, aren’t you? Nobody talks like that normally.”
He looked almost surprised by her frankness, but cracked a subtle smile. “Well, I wouldn’t exactly say so.”
“But you are writing?”
“That much is true. But does it make me a writer just because I write?”
She considered this idea. “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, then it still fell – there’s no doubting that.”
He laughed at this. “Now who sounds like the writer?”
The train rumbled idly through the mountainous passage, humming gently as it played between contact with the air and the aging rails. The fog fell so thickly that the valley below was almost completely obscured. It was difficult to see the trees that lined the railroad in their entirety, but the distant lights of the occasional cottage could be observed nestled into the hillside. They protruded through the translucent clouds with a kind of intensity that suggested an awareness of her presence. Shivering, she hugged her knees to her chest, and silently wondered if it was okay to have her boots on the seat. She rummaged through her backpack and produced a woollen blanket. It was a pleasant solace from the sharp cold of the carriage; wearing a skirt had been a poor decision.
Her backpack gently leaned into her as the train rounded the mountainside; the sudden warmth against her leg reminding her of the thermos it contained. The steam rose and hugged her face, past her cold reddened nose and cheeks that she had tried in vain to bury behind her scarf. As the warm drink sank to her stomach, she relaxed further into her seat and smiled. She wasn’t usually such a fan of hot chocolate, but in the current circumstances she didn’t think there was any drink she would’ve preferred. Replacing the flask in her bag, her hands grasped for the cool cover of her notebook. The train line was consistently breathtaking, but on this occasion she would have to let the scenery go by relatively unnoticed. She knew currently she had little time for such observations. Freeing her auburn hair from its tie, she settled deep into the seat once more and opened the notebook.
She took a moment to glance over the previous entries. Scrawlings of personality traits and character concepts were strewn haphazardly across the pages, ideas she had edited in at later dates made more evident by the subtle changes to her handwriting over the months. On another page was a vague layout of an aging townhouse –shabby, but with its own rustic charm. On the page beside were sketches of an old looking town, a man with a laptop visible through the window of a humble café.
“I’ve left this too long…” She whispered to herself.
Turning to the next blank page, she held her old biro gingerly between two fingers, admiring how the weight gave it such an excellent balance.
The bell chimed its gentle acknowledgement of their departure, dispersed through the quiet thank yous and the crisp sound of rain, no longer muted through the closed door of the café. He carefully opened a large umbrella, motioning for her to join him. With one hand in the pocket of his coat and the other holding the makeshift shelter above them both, he guided her along the cobblestone street.
“It’s not far, is it?” She raised her voice to be heard over the downpour, glancing around her feet and darting occasionally to evade the puddles below her.
He watched her with curiosity. “A couple more streets in this direction and we’ll be there – you know the old terraced houses at this end of town don’t you?”
“Mm, on the way to the station.” Her breath turned to vapour as she spoke more to the air than to him, seemingly fascinated by the dated architecture of the suburb. At the door of the terrace, he passed her the umbrella as he fumbled through his pockets for the keys. She raised her arm as high as she could to keep the umbrella above his head. He chuckled and hunched over to better discern which way up the key should go, glasses attempting to escape him as he did so. A second later, the door clicked open.
She carefully stepped into the house, brushing her boots on the mat and unlacing them before placing them in their alcove by the door. She glanced at the clock. 6:15. Surprisingly early; her parents would still be returning from work. It was so easy to lose track of time on that commute – she had forgot how quickly it grew dark in the winter time. Stepping into the kitchen, she turned the lights and kettle on. She fumbled through the assortment of metal tins, all of them lacking a label and containing some mysterious mix of tea leaves. Opening each to check by scent, she eventually uncovered her favourite. One day she would organise them. The kettle whistled as she stretched up onto her toes to reach for the teapot, managing to hook a single finger around the handle to remove it from its perch. As she tipped the kettle, the tea leaves swirled and slowly diffused their colour through the boiling water. She gently pulled the sleeves of her jumper over her hands and cupped them around the teapot, closing her eyes as the warmth spread through them.
While the tea infused, she slumped her bag on the bench and removed the thermos, intent on washing it. The warm water of the tap felt fiercely hot against her hands, but as they heated, the feeling grew more and more comforting. As she sat it to dry, a ‘beep’ from the opposite side of the room faded into her senses. It had been there all along, yet this was the first time her mind was present enough to acknowledge it.
She sighed exhaustedly. “Not now…”
She lifted the teapot and poured a cup. Setting it down, she pulled out the notebook once more. Reading, reconsidering – but each idea was a different crosswind, her head a storm.
And still the noise failed to cease.
She held her head in frustration, trying desperately to tear each freely soaring concept from the air and pin it down. But she knew ideas could not be restrained and refined, not by a mind so thoroughly unrefined in that moment. There were two undeniable truths in her world: That she hated distractions, and that she was infallibly skilled at finding them, at being immersed in them, inseparably so until time escaped her.
She approached the machine, and it answered her with the same unrelenting ‘beep’. She knew from the way it did this whose voice awaited her at the other end, their thoughts from a time not long passed waiting for her in the present. Even time didn’t let you escape some things. With this thought in her mind, she hesitantly pressed the button. It beeped with a slightly different tone.
“One old message”
“Hey… It’s been a while. We were trying to organise dinner for tonight, I guess time got away from us all again.” The voice was female, as she had guessed.
Guilt washed over her. There was so much she had to do.
“We know you’re busy, we’re worried. Take a break sometimes, ok?” Her voice was soft.
“That’s all I’ve been doing.” She thought bitterly.
“Talk soon. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve been working on.” She could hear the worried smile in the way it was uttered.
“So am I.” She responded in vain.
The beep sounded again, and the machine fell into silence.
He pressed the button on the phone, and it ceased to chime.
“Aren’t you going to talk to them?” She questioned, raising the cup of jasmine tea to her lips.
“I’d rather not. I don’t feel inclined to. Why do you ask?”
She wasn’t sure.
“Are you going to call your friend back?”He questioned.
She said nothing, so he continued.
“It’s what a good person would do; that’s what you’re thinking. And you’re also wondering about yourself, and about me. Are we good people then? Maybe we’re just busy people – that’s what we tell ourselves.”
She couldn’t construct a reply.
“It’s really just another unfinished story when you think about it; you decide your half, when it happens, what you say… though that does tend to mean making compromises for their half.”
She gathered her thoughts and spoke. “But there is such a thing as leaving it too late, isn’t there? Like a story, if you leave people too long they get bored and write the whole thing themselves. You cease to be a collaborator.”
He laughed, somewhat dryly. “It’s true for both of us.” He removed his glasses and gently cleaned the lenses, which had gathered a fog from the tea below. “But there’s an art to collaborating; two minds have much vaster resources.”
“But we’re only one.”
He laughed softly. “You’re only one – I’m only part of an idea.”
She looked defeated. “Once you’re in print, then maybe you’ll come into your own.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Now which one of us are you speaking for, hm?”
She looked overwhelmed and he sighed deeply, continuing on.
“It’s not easy – you’re your own worst enemy; maybe that’s why I’m starting to sound so harsh.” He scratched the back of his neck and picked up his cup, along with the teapot. “Come with me, and bring the teacup.”
He led her through the long and tall hallway, and up to the second floor. When they reached the room at the end of the corridor, he opened the door and switched on the light. This revealed a cluttered study, shelves brimming with unidentifiable ornaments and scraps of paper scrawled with notes. She knew the words to be English, and yet she understood nothing. Numerous pieces of writing and sketches were stuck in a kind of mural on one wall, with little pieces of string tied between them in an intricate mass of interconnectedness. Stepping past her, he pulled the chair from beneath the old oak desk, whose face was characterised by darkened rings from the countless glasses it had held over its years. Looking to her, he motioned for her to take a seat. She obliged, shifting into comfort on the time-tendered cushion. He leant across the desk behind her, bringing a dusty typewriter within the reach of her shorter arms. She studied it as he spoke.
“Writing isn’t at all like that train ride; not simple, linear… Or maybe it is, but you’re on a train from a place you barely know to one you don’t know at all. All the scenery is going by too fast, and you’re trying to pick and choose which fragments to capture, but you know you can’t capture them all. Sometimes it’s the case that you just have to capture whatever you can.”
He understood her silence and carefully refilled her cup. “The hardest part is starting.”
She heard the door closing as her hands met the cool metal keys of the typewriter.
Her hands rested on the keyboard as the light of monitor shone words softly out to her eyes. Before her was something she didn’t recognise as her own, yet she knew intuitively that it was.
That man in the window of a humble café, for the first time in a long time, found himself distracted. With only his own company he made the pilgrimage to that small townhouse, as unkempt as himself, and became a part of it. Hands upon the old typewriter, the words flowed like the tea that always accompanied him in the late afternoon. Times like these were few and far between and he worked until his eyes could no longer support their lids, and then later still.
She smiled softly. “You got there in the end.”
She looked out her bedroom window and saw the sun slowly creeping up over the edge of hills that lined the horizon, casting early warmth upon the snaking train line in the valley below. She looked at her weary eyes in the mirror and closed the laptop, laughing gently. Getting changed finally into pyjamas, she pulled the blankets to her chin, smiling to herself and thinking as she drifted into an untimely but necessary sleep.
“I’ll be awake for dinner.”
[First published 9 February 2016]