It’s morning, early with rushing commuters running late on buses, rented bikes, scooters, hospital workers on foot, doctors in shiny black Mercedes. British Arab men speak loudly on car phones as if they’re in an 80s Wall Street movie. Buy! Sell! Shut up Mother! Young mothers in ponytails and shabby puffy coats push prams, navigate with ease the cracked pavement and Victorian cobblestones. Passed the Royal Mail office erected in the 60s, passed the man sleeping in front of the Tesco dismantled after the pub closed. Passed the workers in orange vests smoking Benson and Hedges Blues. The workers’ eyes are glossy, their noses are red. Young men from distant lands in their twenties, too young to look so old, too old to be young. They pluck cigarettes from their lips and throw butts into the street, light another. They’re waiting for someone who is impossibly late. Children on scooters, girls on pink, boys on blue, backpacks whacking their spines, whizz ahead of their parents who talk on phones to someone more important. The kids know where they’re going and are excited to get to school all dressed up in their pressed uniforms pressed by nannies, sagging socks, and hair combed now undone by the wind velocity of scooting and the rush of double-decker busses filing against the curb, dropping off and picking up students and nurses and cafe servers. No one walking ever looks up.
The cafe has been open for hours and crammed with worn leather chairs, lived-in couches, cozy nooks. Mozart is on the radio calmly playing over young adults reading newspapers like it 1995 and one must consciously reduce digital noise, fight internet addiction, and the world used to be so much simpler then. Most patrons order flat whites. A businessman in a grey-blue suit is wearing winkle pickers with two gleaming buckles, the shoes of Goths and Punks of yesterdays. His shoes give away a secret identity: torn fishnet and velvet at night, Bauhaus and Bowie on weekends, an Abernethy biscuit from nine to five, academic nudity. He’s an organic egg, looks sharp, and speaks with another young man about paperwork and filing said paperwork. They order their flat whites and go separate ways. One to work, one to school. One to daydreams of nightlife and another to toil. No one’s asking for social distancing anymore, but each solo coffee drinker sitting in the cafe puts distance between himself and the person next to him. No one sits next to anyone, no one talks to one another, someone says, “Thank you, Cheers” for another flat white. No one sits close even though they can.
A 40-something woman with long blonde hair cascading over her laptop sits in a corner wearing a puffy coat that looks like a trash bag. She’s quietly typing as if she’s playing a toy piano, plucking at the keys as if it’s Beethoven for Little Geniuses. Her hair is disheveled because she’s still working on perfecting that beach look. She’s forever two hours away from Mersea Island. She gets on a Zoom call and the library-like quality of the cafe is now her home office where only she matters. Only her work needs to be done. As she reads, her hands are wedged tightly between her knees, one shoulder is raised as if she wants to ask a question. She types again and now appears like a praying mantis praying for an invitation to speak.
On the opposite end of the row, a muddle-aged silver haired man in glasses looks busy, typing carefully. He’s wearing a checkered shirt like a blue picnic table ready for spring. He clears his throat and digs through his leather messenger bag – quickly sorting through keys and papers, a sense of desperation for a moment that dissipates. His beard is four days old. His mouth masticates in a pulsing beat as he writes. He sniffs repeatedly, his expression as if he’s writing a manifesto or a suicide note.
A man in his thirties wearing an olive-green raincoat holds his iPhone in his lap. His other hand protects his orange juice, which he sips mindlessly. He reads his phone with an expression of concern, as if whatever he’s consuming is disturbing, life or death, children suffering, cats being thrown in rivers, volcanos erupted. They don’t have the shirt he wants in his size. He scrolls with this thumb. His legs are crossed and when he isn’t holding his orange juice, his hand rests neatly near his crotch. His hair is dyed black and a flop of hair covers his receding youth.
A man in a rumpled green T-shirt coughs every thirty-five seconds and doesn’t cover his mouth. He’s been sick, but it’s not one of the variants. He’s ready to be out in the world and glances around, every time he coughs, at the counterfeit obliviousness around him. He knows what they’re thinking and doesn’t care. It’s not one of the variants and he’s a part of the world again. He’s freckled and chubby, his glasses sliding down his nose, and he smiles proudly at his laptop, something he’s made reminds him he’s got what it takes. He’s a writer making it work like a sober Hemingway, writing magnificent prose, figuring out how to get his characters from Act 1 to Act 3 in one piece. He sniffles repeatedly and writes through the distraction of his nose. His eyes are hay-fevered and bleary, and I worry he has a case of the pinkeye, too.