by Mike Fox

Maddy only became Maddy after a couple of years. Before that she had simply been a rather depressed-looking woman of unguessable age, who sat in the corner by the window concerning herself with the business section of the Times, a single pot of tea, and toast. It never occurred to me that she might engage me in conversation, but one day she did.

It is now several months since that day, which proved to be a one-off, rather than a prelude to further intimacy. Nevertheless, we nod to each other when arriving and leaving, and the six or seven feet of air between us feels relatively neutral, with perhaps a tinge of unspoken cordiality.

This is not universally the case. She and her nemesis Jake maintain a silent, but palpable, hostility. This is evident only from their body language. It originates, I believe, from his habit of appropriating the culture section of the Observer. He actually leaves with it under his arm. I sometimes imagine her as a cat circling its tail slowly and ominously, and him as a rather elderly crossbreed lurcher, more or less done with active conflict, but still tenacious about his food bowl and the area round it. They always sit at adjacent tables and neither acknowledges the other’s presence, at least while both are in the cafe.

Nigel is very posh, very amiable, and seemingly unaware of social boundaries. This makes him an anomaly. If he speaks to one of us, as he always does, he will automatically look round as though inviting others to join in. The sight of raised newspapers and suddenly increased immersion in devices appears to have little impact on his bonhomie, which renews on each visit. He is an irregular regular, appearing once a month or so, generally giving the impression he got bored with the effort of grooming before stepping out to meet the day.

Henny—I’ll call her that because it fits and no-one has ever learned her name—has sensational legs and a sad face. A city worker, I would speculate. She always brings her own paper and never interacts. Nevertheless, I sense an active awareness of everything around her, combined with a deep-seated unwillingness to allow it to blossom into anything resembling communication.

Edmund is unpredictable. Occasionally he will say a few words. He also is apt to grunt and emit monosyllables, especially while reading a magazine, although sometimes he goes cold turkey and taps his mobile frenetically when no part of any paper is available. I have rarely seen a more agitated forefinger. You will gather that paper sharing, or the lack thereof, is an endemic source of conflict in the cafe.

These are the people with whom I spend an hour or so every Sunday morning. I wonder if we all live alone. It seems very likely. We take ourselves each week to this public space, then behave privately. Except for Nigel of course, who is clearly unencumbered by the privacy gene, or even awareness that there might be such a thing.

The day that Maddy spoke to me, therefore, stands out from the norm. At first, when it happened, I didn’t recognise it for what it was: a gateway to further moments of interaction. In fact I went on reading the sports section, somehow imagining that her voice was aiming itself elsewhere.

‘What is the most you would pay for a wind chime?’ she asked.

When she repeated this, and I realised the question was directed at me, it was as if I’d been asked to solve a kōan.

‘I’ve never given it any thought,’ I said. ‘I live in a second floor flat so the possibility hasn’t arisen.’

‘I don’t actually want to buy one,’ she said, ‘I was thinking of offering to compensate my neighbour for getting rid of hers. I asked her to. I’m Maddy, by the way.’

‘The sound can certainly start to grate over time,’ I said. ‘I’m Jon.’

She nodded and returned to her reading, as if satisfied by my empathy.

I suppose it was then, with normal distances restored, that I began to speculate actively on the lives of those around me. A little knowledge, as they say.

Because there is no doubt that the cafe has developed its own collective unconscious. I can see evidence. However unwillingly, we form something amounting to a group, with something resembling a mutual sensibility, and between us we have constructed a repertoire of behaviours. The understanding that informs these, it seems to me, hovers just short of conscious formulation. There are things, normal things, that most of us just would not do in the presence of one another, but it would be hard to say why.

In fact it’s as though we find ourselves obeying some coded law of inhibition, grown concrete over time. Even Nigel’s apparent joy in humanity can be seen tapering into a restless solipsism when he eventually realises that no-one wants to speak to him. This would seem to be a lesson he needs to learn repeatedly, and when the ball he has pitched hopefully against the wall inevitably fails to bounce back, he always says goodbye with an air of bewildered disappointment to no-one in particular as he leaves. The strange thing is that I also sense both relief and disappointment in myself and the others each time this happens, as though a dam that might have burst and irrigated parched fields has failed to do so.

Paulo, the proprietor, is a silent witness to all this. His coffee, I believe, is a gift he draws from the heavens. He anticipates what each of us will order, because we never deviate, and serves it in a way that brings calm and stability to the world. He has been running the cafe for a long time, and has mastered all its arts. You only have to watch him slicing a baguette to know this. He spreads butter like an artist at his palette, and cuts avocado into obedient, aesthetic shapes. But more than this, he is a great senser of mood and moment, a reader of the Sunday morning soul. You can see it in his eyes, his demeanour, the pastoral air with which he serves food. We are his small, but committed, congregation.

So when he tells us, one by one, that his rent has gone up, and he will be forced to close, we experience complex feelings. I feel them myself, and sense them all around me via the low level telepathy that seems to have descended upon us over time. These feelings, I’m sure, are strong—we are very attached—and beg to be expressed, especially as there is only a month, four Sundays, in which to do so.

One of these Sundays passes, then two. A clock ticks, while we pretend not to notice. On the third Sunday nothing is said, but perhaps we stay a little longer. I also notice a change in paper etiquette. Each section of each paper is returned to the rack once read. No-one hogs several on their lap.

And then the final Sunday. We look the same but know, I suspect, that we are changed, or soon will be. We sit, behaving as we always do, but there is a heightened awareness of the presence of those seated so close, as though, despite ourselves, something within us is willing itself to reach out.

But short minutes pass and soon, one by one, we leave. We say goodbye to Paulo but not each other. We pass through the door, no longer a portal, leaving behind perhaps a fragment of soul, a morsel of psychic cohesion, and some final illusion of kinship; our lives not a fabric, but a scattering of patches unstitched.

Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness.  Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. or @polyscribe2.