The all-night café

Missing the last train is never ideal. Especially when it is gone past three in the morning and there are no night buses to the airport and the shelter of an airport hall. With a flight leaving at 9am, getting a hotel for the sake of a couple hours at this hour is not really worth it, if you can find one that is. So after a bit of pacing ouside on the main street, and a drizzle setting in to add a gleam to the city-lighted street tarmac, one light stood out from the rest. It proposed itself out from the concrete drab, soothing out from the all-night cafe across the street, one property in from the street corner. The only open refuge in the hum of the city night.

Hauling my suitcase trolley across the street and down the pavement, shoulders hunched in to my scarf and the neck of my coat, my free hand dug deep in the pocket, I opened the glass door. An old-fashioned bell rang as if entering an antiques shop to unbury the shop assistant out of his or her book. If I had walked past this place during the day, especially on a rainy one, I guess I would have not noticed it. Infact the non-descript and dated interior confirmed my suspicions that I would not voluntarily walked in here. But I cannot spit in the plate I eat from.

On the contrary. I was thankful for it on this night. As if absorbing in rays of sunshine on a hot August day, my shoulders eased and I removed my hand from my pocket. The dim light from old-fashioned bulbs suited the mood and I scanned the closely-knit arrangement of about ten tables before turning to my left and picking the free table at the window next to the wall. The other window seat was taken by a young man. I manouvered my trolley past him and took my seat, easing out my coat but still keeping myself scarf on. I rubbed my hands together while I took a look at the propped up cafe menu at the side of the table next to a metallic box of serviettes and salt and pepper pots. I could hear the distant sound of a radio behind the counter, as if mainly for the staff and not the customers.

Taking the menu card in my hand, flipping it over and back again, skimming it, I had no idea of what I wanted, whether to eat or just drink. The tiredness was kicking in now, I felt firmly on the bottom level of Maslow's pyramid and my basic needs were yelling out at me. Only hours previous I was somewhere a lot further up that pyramid, with friends, a pint in hand and some good times. I am not a needy person and just my own bed would have done right now.

The balding, slightly overweight waiter - who was more likely to be the owner who liked peaceful nights and would easily gift you with a slap as his own bouncer if you tried otherwise - mooched over and asked for my order. I settled on the most logical cup of coffee, stressing only on the words 'black' and 'strong'. Without muttering a word he turned back to the bar to get on with it. I heard the beep of my phone in my pocket tell me I was down to 15% power. Not enough to entertain myself on the web. It was certainly going to be a long night.

But what about the rest of the people in here? I first turned my head right and back to the guy I passed on the way in. He sat hunched, his head slightly bowed and his hands clasped in front of him. on the table next to a half-drunk cappucino. His tight mouth seemed to be muttering now and again, or was he shivering? He could have almost been praying but I could not hear a word.

He can't have been in there much longer than me judging from the steam coming from his cup still, even though from looking at him it was an odds-on bet that it would get cold before he contemplated finishing it. His hair ruffled and uncared for, a slight, uneven stubble made his face look a little dirty in the café light, he still had his anorak on complete with the outside drizzle on it. Every now and again he would turn his head to the window and gaze out through the rain-darted glass - his lips seizing to move, like he was checking in to the world and making sure he was still in it and that it was still drizzling out there, before turning back to his hunch and threat of a sip of cappucino.

As the waiter came out from behind the counter with my coffee in one hand he propped two plates of a burger on each on the table on the far wall nearest to the toilet. He came over in a swift move from one table to another and left me my hot mug of black. His appearance almost disguised his expertise in handling the orders. He could have quite easily have been a waiter in a busy restaurant years previous, covering the tables with grace, saving those pennies for a place of his own one day, only not to have managed to quite get the michelin star establishment he had dreamed of. The two guys not older than twenty, tucked in to their burgers with gusto. Not a word was exchanged between them, but their guise looked likely to be inner-fuelled from a night's alcohol with a spliff on the side, such was their chemistry across the table to each other.

In the other corner down the wall from my table, another kind of chemistry was unfolding. A couple sat on the corner of the table with just two drained high-ball glasses with straws over leftover ice barely separating them. Both with their elbows propped on the table, their hands and fingers intertwining in long, fluid movements. Their fond gazing of each other never deterred, only enhanced with flirting, whispering words. Maybe now I was more tuned in to the more evident radio, but I couldn't hear anything they said to each other, whether they were reinforced, long-term lovers' words or of a brewing scene of imminent passion of just a night.

The man by the window now lifted his hands from his hunch over the cappucino cup and wrapped them around its warmth. His mouth still tight with feints of mutters.

At that moment a short haired, coloured woman in a thick overcoat and slim trousers tucked in to furry winter boots walked through the door. She could have been anything between forty and sixty years old. She took a table in the middle of the café, upright and sturdy and unbuttoned the coat before peeling it off and laying it back of her shoulders on to the back of the chair. She pulled a large rool of a knitted top away from her neck as the café owner came straight over and took her order, a bright silver brooch adorned the abundant breast of her jumper. She smiled politely with stunning white teeth as she spoke softly, as if realising she was in a library, again I did not hear a word.

He came back with a small china teapot and cup so I could confirm what she had asked for. She delicately poured her tea, added a teaspoon of sugar, stirred it in, and then taking a book from her handbag with her other hand, she layed it flat on the table so I could not see the cover and started to read. Unlike the two guys nearest the bar with burgers, she looked anything but on a night out, but seemed a little early to be up for a working day, even if working on shifts. I could not say as much just as I could not really say how old she was.

The two lovers parted hands for a moment and caressed each others face, his thumb falling over from her cheek and brushing her lips. She lightly stroked his stubble.

Over her right shoulder, the two guys finished their burgers almost simultaneously and washed them down with their bottles of beer. They then both took out phones and started thumbing their way through their screens. Not a word between them yet, a comfort zone established in each other's company. Maybe they had changed the world between them over a few pints on this night. Maybe they had not stopped talking, catching up all night. Or just maybe their consumption, whatever it was, now commanded their night progressed together.

Now I looked out the window between the lenthening darts of heavier, diagonal drizzle on the café window, and now I wrapped my hands around the hot mug of coffee before me. I looked up at the same time the coloured woman did. Without moving her head, with just her eyes moving upward, she glanced at the hunched guy in window table as he looked up and out the window once again. His hands wrapped around the cup briefly searching for some warmth in it still, her hands together holding the book open on the table. His hair ruffled, her hair immaculate as if a crash helmet on her round head.

Without taking their eyes off each other, the two lovers stood up from their table. He helped her in to her stylish overcoat before slinging on his own mac then left a single note at the counter without waiting for any change. The cafe owner gave a hint of a smile and the slightest of nods to him, though the lover was not interested in anything else than his female company. With a ring of the bell as the door opened, they left in to the night with a hint of it still being long, tender and sexy for them both.

Before the door could close and ring once again, a man with dog jumped in. They both shrug off the drizzle, one from his coat, the other from his fur and nodded a welcome to the cafe owner. The black and white sheepdog looked up faithfully to his best friend and waited for him to choose his table, making their way over to where the lovers had been seated. The guy looked to be in his forties and bulky as he heaved his waterproof coat off. The dog sat obediently by him, settling in to the warmth the couple had left behind them. Again I coudn't quite hear what the guy said but he seemed to look at his four legged friend as if to ask him what he wanted. I almost laughed as the sheepdog moved his mouth in reply: "Just a bowl of water will do nicely please, Bob mate," could have been his words. But maybe I was dreary and I was imagining it all, maybe he was just licking his lips. I enjoyed the next few minutes of their conversation, two best friends at ease with one another while they waited for (their) order.

I signalled with my index finger in a forward round motion towards the cafe owner to order another coffee even though I suddenly felt much more awake. I checked my watch and waited eagerly for the next door-ring and person to walk in to the all-night café.


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