Arslan Ali: ‘Cafe’

Arslan Ali: ‘Cafe’

It is a truth universally acknowledged that having long legs makes you tall. From my vantage point near the door, I could see the whole café, and my gaze probed each nook and cranny to find what I was looking for. A few feet away, an angry child promptly threw up last night’s dinner in apparent protest against the fact that his mother was vainly trying to put a bib on him. On my left, a coat stand teetered precariously beneath the weight of – at least – fifty coats and hats. Near the far side of the room, to my right, was an ordering station and the till, where a hassled looking cashier was trying to sooth a purple-faced man who was complaining about his tea being too cold.

And at last, my sweeping eyes found their apple… an empty chair. The next hurdle, of course, was actually getting there as the chair was most conveniently placed almost directly across the room from me – about as far away as it could be under the circumstances. Moreover, I had a creeping suspicion that the little old lady situated currently a few metres away had also beheld my chair and was now seeking to occupy said chair. Of course, the chance of that happening was slim, as I would not forfeit what I had identified first. Our eyes fleetingly met. The unsaid challenge was issued – I grimaced. The race, so to speak, was on…

I went for the direct approach. Stepping around, skipping past – in some cases stepping over – any who crossed my path, I reached the empty chair perhaps one or two centimetres in front of my opponent, who – surprisingly really – had managed to navigate her way across the room without any difficulty and was standing gazing at me with indifferent and casual boredom. I panted with exhaustion and clutched my side because of the huge stitch there, and pulled the chair from under the table to sit on it.

“Take my chair, my boy,” she spoke, her voice issuing in a thin, aged rasp, “and you will regret it.”
I snorted under such a declaration, and bluntly ignored her, as I had neither the patience – nor the energy – to pit myself against anybody at the moment – and especially not against an elderly person. The reason, you may ask, why I so ungraciously declined to offer my chair to the lady was simple. Having waded – for hours – through the streets of London in the pouring rain, I was understandably exhausted, and therefore, was in no mood for political correctness.

Looking up, I observed that she hadn’t moved. She was still gazing at me with oblivious steadfastness. I noticed that she had brown eyes – normally a warm colour, but in this sense, the piercing coldness emanating from her gaze was all too obvious. I had the uncanny impression that she could see right through me. Shaking off these superstitious suspicions, I looked around to ask somebody for a hot drink, as I was now shivering uncontrollably.

I suppose it was the suddenness of the attack that made it all the more painful. Before I knew it, there was a blinding pain in my head, as if some callous brute was pulling it apart. Clutching my head in my hands, I gritted my teeth, and glanced up and observed an exceptionally wide grin on my adversary’s face, who still had not departed. Furthermore, my suspicion of her involvement in causing my pain – and the mode of attack – was affirmed as I saw possibly the biggest and longest walking stick I had ever seen clutched in one of her bony hands. Worst of all, to add insult to injury, she had pulled the chair from under me – proving herself to be surprisingly strong for one of her age – and was now sitting atop it, with an extremely satisfied look on her hawk-like face. I was sprawled awkwardly on the floor, the pain in my head still intense but subsiding. People all around us were gazing with curious indifference at the spectacle occurring in front of them.

She thrust her head forward into my face, a sparkle of devilish delight in her eyes, her small, thin mouth twisted upwards in a victorious smile. “Nobody gets the better of me, my boy. You would do to remember that. I’ve been coming here for the past five years, to this very chair, to this very table, and nobody is going to change that.” I grumbled a response – perhaps passing a quiet comment about reporting her to the police (attempted murder if you please) – and then collected myself off the floor, tried to collect the scattered fragments of my burst ego, and shuffled away without a backward glance, rubbing my head

Fortunately for me – and for my aching legs, and for my sore head – a middle-aged old man had apparently derived all the pleasure he could from the morning’s paper, and paying for the large muffin he had eaten, he stood up, wrapped himself up and left. Before anyone else could sit in the empty chair, I sat down without looking around – in case I caught someone’s eye and a repeat of the embarrassing fiasco of a few minutes ago occurred.

Catching a waiter’s eye, I pointed to the cup of tea the lady next to me was painstakingly sipping, my unsaid declaration all too clear. You! Get me one of those! I sighed and gazed around at the noisy and slightly stuffy café, and noticed that a familiar pair of eyes was regarding me with a familiar steadiness. I looked away, almost expecting her to march over here and once again, attack me with her walking stick.
My tea arrived, and I gratefully stole a gulp, regretting it almost instantly, as the boiling liquid scalded my tongue and throat. I felt like spitting it out. But would you believe that when I looked up, my dreaded assailant was smirking at me? Would you believe that? Perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt the strong urge to – in vulgar terms – give an elderly person… the finger.

I stared right back at her, a hint of contempt for her grey hair, her thin and old clothes creeping into my gaze. She was wearing old slacks – from the eighteen eighties it seemed. The old woman was small – but the confidence that emanated from her emphasised her importance and stature; she had the air of a person who has seen a lot of the world and has experienced a lot – both good and bad. The deep lines around the corner of her eyes and mouth bear witness to this conclusion. As I watched her, she pulled a tattered purse from an inside pocket, and carefully emptied the contents on her hand. One five-pounds banknote and two one-pound coins. And as I watched her carefully place a pound in front of her on the table, and methodically fold the banknote and replace the money in her purse, a feeling of pity and shame washed over me. Here I was at odds with someone – an elderly old woman – who was old enough to be my mother, who had old clothes on, who looked tired – and yet resilient at the same time – and who had a total of seven pounds on her.

And as I sipped my drink, I started to muse. The world was full of people like her. Old people who were all alone, living on minimal pensions, having to fight their own battles with their tired old hands when they ought to be shown nothing but respect. And then there were people like me. Rude, ignorant people who didn’t have the common curtsey to offer these elderly people an empty chair in a crowded café!

As I gazed thoughtfully at her, my throbbing head all but forgotten, I observed that a small dog lay curled about her feet. I hadn’t noticed it at all before, but now I couldn’t help but see it. She had ordered a mince pie and a glass of hot milk. Breaking the pie with a knife, she lay half of it on a piece of paper in front of the dog, and proceeded to eat the other half. Similarly, she produced a bowl from her tattered purse, and emptying half the milk in it, she placed it in front of the dog, and then with clear, obvious love and care gently stroked it with one hand as he ate his meagre meal. When he was finished – and only then – did get up to leave.

I caught her eye. And before I knew what I was doing, I had mouthed “sorry” to her. A change passed over her. The coldness in her brown eyes was instantly replaced by a warm look – they enriched the smile her thin mouth had begun a moment ago as she looked at her dog. The lines around her eyes crinkled telling me her forgiveness was genuine. She left. I had wanted to do more. Perhaps offer her some money. But I knew someone like her wouldn’t accept charity as long as they had something.

But there was something about that little old woman. Something strong and tough – that freely expressed her independence and strong will. I threw some money on the table, and before I knew it, I had grabbed my coat, and donning my hat I ran after her. There was something about that woman. I wanted to know what that something was. Had I seen her before somewhere?

However, most curiously, when I stepped outside, perhaps three seconds after the lady and her dog, they were nowhere to be seen.

2018-01-30T09:37:55+00:00 December 1st, 2005|Alumni, Class of 2006|