The café is bustling and as Jeffrey enters his heart sinks: his Saturday morning habit is to come here and spend an hour or so at a table, taking a coffee, reading his newspaper, and observing people. But today there isn’t a seat to be had.
He’s about to leave to find another place when he spots a couple getting up from a table next to the window and a woman approaching it from the other side of the room. He doesn’t exactly run but he doesn’t stroll either and gets to the table just before she does, plonking himself down heavily and pretending not to notice her. Out of the corner of his eye he sees her hesitate before sloping away.
He uses the time before the waiter comes to take in his fellow customers. There are a lot of familiar faces but he focusses on a couple directly in front of him. They’re about his age—early 30s—and are holding hands across the table. Jeffrey opens up his newspaper and uses it as a partial shield, peering over it to follow what’s happening.
The couple seem very much in love: there’s smiling, shining eyes and an occasional kiss of the other’s hand. Their apparent happiness sits heavy on Jeffrey’s heart. It isn’t that he begrudges them their mutual affection, but it brings home to him that this is a gaping chasm in his own life: the absence of another half.
The waiter comes over and Jeffrey orders his usual expresso. He turns his attention to the sunny street, with a constant stream of shop-goers passing, of all colours, shapes and sizes. The coffee arrives and he reads the back page of the newspaper while taking sips. Once it’s finished, he licks his lips and turns back to the street.
And there she is. Jeffrey’s seen her before—in the High Street and once or twice in this very café. Now she’s outside on the pavement, staring straight at him. His heart misses a beat, then another. She’s gorgeous—he’s always thought that—but now, as the sun plays on her blond hair and her eyes bore through him, she takes on goddess-like qualities. He glances round quickly to check whether she might be looking at someone else in the café, but behind him there are only couples, intent on their conversations.
He swallows and dares a smile. Up until this point his heart has been missing beats but now it shudders, like the engine of an old, little-used car on first ignition: she grins back. The grin seems a little forced, perhaps, but it’s something. He catches a glimpse of perfect white teeth.
Jeffrey is not a man of reflex actions … normally. He always reasons opportunities through to gauge their potential consequences, to weigh up the risks, to embrace or reject. Today, though, the fact is that he doesn’t know what’s got into him. Or rather, he does know—he’s seen a bridge across the chasm—but he doesn’t know how he takes the action he does, which goes against all his principles of due care.
He jumps to his feet, sending the empty coffee cup skittering across the table, leaves his newspaper behind and rushes to the door. A couple is entering and while he waits for them to pass, he composes a brief opening gambit in his mind.
“Hello. My name’s Jeffrey. Would you let me buy you a coffee?”
Practising it under his breath, he emerges into the sunlight.
And stops dead in his tracks; she’s there on the pavement, in all her glory, but she’s still staring into the window. As he watches, she lifts a finger to her lips, licks it, and smooths down an eyebrow. He remains transfixed as a man approaches her and touches her on the shoulder. She whirls round, laughs, and they hug and kiss before walking away, hand in hand.
The old engine splutters and feels like it’s about to stall. Jeffrey can’t move. He’s in the way of people entering the café, who mutter their annoyance when they have to squeeze past. One man bumps into him, waking him from his unhappy reverie. He looks around, as if taking stock of where he is, and goes back through the door into the bustle of the café.
He has his eyes fixed morosely on the floor as he returns to his table, so that only when he gets there does he realize it’s occupied—by the woman he beat to it when he first came in.
“I’m sorry!” they say in unison.
“Please, don’t get up,” Jeffrey insists, gathering his newspaper as the woman goes to rise.
“Why don’t we share the table?” she says; her voice is soft and warm.
Jeffrey swiftly gauges the offer and can see no negative consequences.
“Thank you very much,” he says, settling into his original seat.
He looks over and notices for the first time how lovely the woman is. She’s not as classically beautiful as the woman from the street—her nose is perhaps a little too big, her chin a little weak—but her long, black hair and smiling green eyes make her really quite striking.
“My name’s Sophie,” she says. “Would you let me buy you a coffee?”
And on those sweet words, Jeffrey’s engine shudders into life again.