North London

The café was called a patisserie-boulangerie, as if that made it more authentic. Huge panes of shining glass, pine floors, small polished wooden tables for two, and pyramid stacks of Bonne Maman conserve with false checked-cloth lids. Two trays of coffee and chocolate éclairs were priced using a small white flag attached to a wooden toothpick sunk into one of the long puff-pastries. £2.45 each. The waitresses were Polish, and didn’t mind if you paid later. The place was full of mums and toddlers, and a coke dealer.
They sat by the window watching cyclists battling with the rain and gale, and double-decker buses full of sexed-up school kids. Two pots of tea were brought on a plastic tray which the young woman left on the table. The French would definitely not do that, thought S. They sat and talked for two hours about whether either of them could trust their eyes and whether they ever knew what was really happening around them. They gave examples that became a little silly: S said she wondered if they were even in the ca
fé. How would they know if they were? How would they prove it? The kind of conversations children start to have aged seven or eight, and continue having until they grow out of it in their mid-teens. But these two had more reason than most to doubt. Especially him. At one point he asked:
‘Do you know what I can’t cope with? What I really can’t face up to?’
S shook her head, unnerved by the anxiety in his face, ‘No. God, what?’
‘The fact that my child is going to be colonised, like I was.’
They both stared out of the window into the thickening rain. Kids were playing on the green. S noticed the dealer exiting, with a young man in a short mac. She watched them shake hands on the pavement, just in front of where S and J were sitting. She watched the dealer’s fingers slide from the other man’s palm – perfectly, excellently executed – and then swiftly, the men parted.
‘What do you mean, colonised?’ S asked finally.
‘There is nothing I can do. The process is happening again.’
She looked around the room where they sat, one large French cliché, and wondered why he’d insisted on coming to this particular place. Their silence was broken by a new waitress, neither of them had noticed before. She was a deep mahogany colour, with new braids, and was smaller and prettier than the two washed-out Polish girls. She smiled and asked them if they’d like more tea. S nodded, but the young woman looked at J for confirmation before taking the order.
‘I want to leave here,’ he said. ‘This weather, this darkness, this place.’
‘Where will you go?’
J laughed, ‘Angola, of course, where I’m from!’ And then he laughed even harder, falling about. ‘I’ll go to the beach, to the parties, I’ll get my big car, my whisky, and I’ll go home!’ He laughed even more – so loudly that the Polish girls turned and stared from behind the counter. A customer in a corner looked over, irritated his newspaper read had been interrupted.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “North London

  1. Alexxxy

    “checked-cloth”

    …it’s called ‘gingham’.

  2. unstrung

    Indeed, it is. Fine attention to detail. But I preferred checked-cloth. Don’t ask me why. Gingham sounded too parochial. Perhaps that was a mistake!