Tuesday afternoon calls for hot chocolate, extra hot, without the toxic gunk of cream and marshmallows spooned on top that the cafe chalkboard on the wall calls luxury. Patrick, the guy behind the bar, brings it to the table and I stop reading for a while to warm my hands on the hot mug and let the bitter cafe smell of coffee grinds swirl around my mind as it mixes with the steam from the rich, milky drink and rises towards a slightly open window, escaping into the brittle cold that holds the city in a tight, frozen grip. Banks of clouds are piling up on top of each other outside in the heavy, mobile sky, a dazzling array of hundreds of shades of grey.
I don’t resent the man sitting three tables away while I drink my steaming great mug of hot chocolate. I don’t resent him and I’m not angry with him, but I do wish he would shut up. He’s filling the quiet, mellow warmth of Michael’s with protracted bursts of introspection that he propels at the top of his gravelly voice in the direction of his friend, table partner or whoever the man is that sits opposite.
I try not to listen. The friend interjects from time to time when he gets the opportunity at a volume inaudible from where I sit, trying, I suspect, to indicate that there is no need to shout without actually saying so, perhaps trying to model good cafe etiquette, but the shouter remains oblivious. He seems a bit embarrassed, the friend. Perhaps he’s trying to be positive by being thankful that the topic of discourse in nothing more intimate than data handling research which is the topic of the shouter’s PhD.
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Should he continue in that field; does he have anything original to offer; how do people feel about his wife’s area of expertise being more relevant than his?
The friend drains his coffee cup and puts it on the table with an air of finality, tidying up crumbs and putting them on his saucer as an indication that the session is now at an end. He reaches for his coat, wraps his scarf around his neck, keeps looking for a gap in the conversation to excuse himself, but the more cues he sends out the louder the shouter shouts as he gets into his stride. The friend looks at his phone, obviously willing it to ring. I wish I had his number so that I could help him out, tell him he was needed elsewhere, and pretend to be his wife just gone into labour.
Patrick behind the bar comes over at last and asks the friends if they want re-fills. The listener grabs his chance and shouts “No!” a bit too emphatically. The shouter looks shocked but still never guesses the reason for such an adamant refusal.
They leave. The mellow warmth that the noise has displaced re-occupied Michael’s. All is quiet except for the acceptable, even necessary, dull concert of cafe sounds – the swoosh of steam forced from a machine, the clink of cups on saucers, the dull hubbub of private conversations and the odd bang from the kitchen.
I nod over to Patrick. In a few moments he brings me another mug of hot chocolate and I give myself to the rest of the afternoon.