Sunday, 25 October 2015


The high-street was dark and the snow bunched beside doorways and you could see the puffs of breath from the shoppers bustling home, but as I ordered my tall black and looked for a seat I felt none of the sadness that these conditions usually engender in me.

My surprise grew when I shrugged off my coat in front of the three remaining customers and the two baristas, and instead of anxiety at being seen I experienced a great welling of comfort melting the corners of the room and drawing our plucky group together. This was a sensation many years ago I would have associated exclusively with my first brandy of the night.

The boy brought over my coffee and I thanked him. He gathered up the gratitude and took it into himself, so it felt, and then he went back to leaning on the counter and watching the clock. I cannot normally abide this, clock-watching by employees in the service industry, betraying, as it does, the employees' contempt for their surroundings, of which (it doesn't take a genius to extrapolate) I as a customer am clearly a part. But here I felt no bile rising. To the contrary, looking at this boy, I was struck by the notion that my sense of well-being was in fact emanating from him; a notion that, once examined, I saw to be true.

I watched the boy. He had full lips, black hair, a complexion that would have been olive-skinned had the sun ever figured out how to reach this godforsaken city of ours. The boy's eyes were fierce and bright, his body lithe in angled insouciance. He made a joke to the girl wiping tables, his dark-haired and gently-muscled arms very much there in the space between boy and girl, and the girl laughed. The other patrons smiled. I smiled. We were all old friends. We all felt marvellous.

After a time the boy slouched off to bring in the outdoor furniture, and I figured it out. It was this slouch, its nonchalant air of cool and confident rebellion. A subtle rebellion -- no manager could have brought it up without sounding insane, for in all other regards the boy appeared sufficient -- but rebellion nonetheless, a way of giving everything officially asked of him while still holding something back. He gave his manners, his attention -- his time -- and what he held back may only have been tiny, but it was vital. His slouch belonged to him, they could not have it, and this mattered. And because it mattered the boy could remain, through banality and tedium, himself. And because he could remain himself, he could be happy.

Yes. This kid wouldn't complain if asked to bring in a beer garden in the rain. He would let co-workers take their breaks before him. He came to shifts on time, awake, alive.

He was back, now, clearing a customer's plate, calling the man dude without affectation (I have never got the hang of this word, its roundness sounding so vulgar and American in my mouth). He had the key to it all, this kid, to every stinking thing, and I loved him for it.

I would wait until he was behind the counter again and then hand him my empty mug. The nod he would give me, the small moment we would share: this would solve everything.

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