Trouble in a Café
I missed the start of it. When I came through the great glass doors of the café into that spectacle of light and varnished wood, the dispute had already become heated between Stan and a group of men. I didn't know what the altercation was all about but I sensed there was something odious at the root of it. There was a homogeny to the men, which worried me because in this city Stan stood out as evidently different. Even on the most superficial level there was a variance: the short-sleeved plaid shirts of the pack contrasted with Stan's long-sleeved blue t-shirt. I quickly seated myself at a small table close by the scene. I was in the shadow of the counter, so I was inconspicuous. A waitress appeared at my side and I asked her if it was okay to sit there. I had ignored the 'wait to be seated' sign. She didn't care and gave me a menu.
The argument was dying down, at least, the voices were becoming measured in tone. One man placed his hand on Stan's shoulder, firmly guiding him down onto a chair. The other men took their seats at the table, effectively hemming Stan in at the wall, where his chair was placed. Unable to do anything for now, he rested his arm on the partition that separated the table from the next one, and waited. The man who was standing said he was "going to number twenty-five to get the others." There was a general nod and murmur from the group. They seemed pleased and he left the café. They now turned their backs to Stan and began to enjoy themselves, flirting with passing waitresses. There was music coming out of speakers overhead. Diverse drum sounds bubbled underneath the sound of a plucked instrument which incrementally moved from deep bass notes to treble, then a female vocal began, first as an undercurrent but then she gradually became distinct, I suppose like the way sunrise creeps up on you when you've been up all night.
My eyes finally met Stan's. His look conveyed to me that he was in an unexpectedly serious situation. There was this feeling in the room, a kind of hot tension. Something was boiling. Who were these men? Who were "the others"? Where was number twenty-five? Stan also used his eyes to indicate to me the glass doors and prodigious front windows: the outside world. We both knew he had to escape before that man came back. This was obvious, there was menace in the air. That's what I'd call the feeling: menace. The men around Stan were killing time a little too well, talking and laughing about trivialities. In the rest of the café there was an atmosphere of quiet and deliberate indifference. People drank their cappuccinos and flavoured teas and talked to one another with their eyes lowered to the hard laminated menus, even though they'd already ordered. All glances in the direction of Stan's table were fast and furtive. I alone stared.
Stan took the initiative. It was extraordinary, the way it happened. He simply climbed over the partition, sat next to a middle-aged woman, a bleached blonde (but it's not as if her hair matters), said "Hi," and the men didn't see him! Their backs were still turned. It occurred to me that I could now help Stan by distracting them but stupidly I couldn't imagine a single diversion. Before I knew it, Stan had hopped over to another table, unsettling a stuffy couple by pulling up an empty seat and joining their conversation. Again he was unnoticed. From these stricken-speechless specimens he slid to a table by the door where some generic young people were hanging out. They didn't mind. However, his final act - a dash out the door and onto the street - was not missed by his captors. His astonishing luck must have run out, as they leaped to their feet and rushed after him. My waitress chose this moment to return and ask me if I was ready to order. I was already up and on my way out.
Both Stan and the men had gone to the right. Looking along the street in that direction I could see the gang, some distance ahead, shaking and jolting passers-by, searching for their prey. Stan, however, was actually standing in the middle of the road, walking towards me on the white line. They had not seen him because of the facepaint he was now wearing. Other people, here and there on the street, wore facepaint too, in all sorts of different colours and designs. Everyone was painted differently yet I couldn't tell them apart. Well, I knew Stan all right... I said "Let's get out of here," and we walked off together in the only other direction: the opposite one. I wanted to get out of the area as quickly as possible but I didn't know where the street led to, this way. After a few minutes of fast walking, the shopfronts and cafés gave way to rows of houses. The street began to narrow. We expected some major turn on the left or the right, or at least some little side-streets, but the pavement went on without any, and we found ourselves walking through a redbrick housing estate. My body came alive with a shake, an urgent sensation, when we reached a house numbered twenty-five. There was a loud clamour coming from inside. Voices. Quite a number of them. It was a large gathering. Were they organizing a search party? A lynch mob? We started to run: it was just instinct, or plain fear.
The road went downhill now and the surrounding parkland was rising at a greater rate. Eventually our path came to a stop at a cul-de-sac: three tightly-shut entrance gates to three different properties, in a semi-circle. Through the gates of two we could make out the houses but through the gates on the right, painted black and ten feet high, we could only see the driveway and foliage of this property. I remember thinking that the house was probably some way back and some kind of mansion. One thing was certain: we weren't going to go back up the road, so we looked to getting out through the parkland. The hillside, although steep, was just grass so we started to climb. We were then blocked some way up by a tall thicket that seemed to run along the entire hillside. We followed it along, looking for an opening. By doing this we were rising higher and soon we found ourselves at an embedded boulder of dark, red stone. I sat down on it and Stan joined me. Then I saw that we were overlooking the front of number twenty-five. I nudged Stan. There was a big crowd down there, in the house and in the back garden. We heard shouting - or was it chanting? - and then the front door opened. We scrambled down from the boulder and ran back down the hillside. I was thinking "We can't go back here, we can't, we can't" and when we got to the dreaded ground again those black gates were open, but gliding shut slowly, accompanied by an electronic whirr. Stan ran towards the gates and I was about to cry out stop when I saw where he was headed for. There was a track between some trees that led upwards. I squeezed in the gate before it closed and joined him. After a few minutes of running through the trees on this private property, we knew we'd gone further and higher than the thicket barrier. Steve and I lost no time hurrying up the inclining tree-lined trail. We kept going because we weren't sure if we were being followed or not. We stopped once, when Steve's black shirt snagged on some protruding thorny branch and had to be freed.
The trees thinned out and we could see how distant we were from the city streets. I liked being up there, I liked the clear air. Haven't been up there since, mind you. A building stood a good bit above us. Its lights were just coming on. Sunset was imminent. With nowhere else to go, we began to climb up there, feeling sure that there would be a road. The hill got tougher the nearer we got, mainly because of all the boulders that we had to surmount. They were all of that red stone. On top of one of them I knelt down, because Steve looked like he had something to say. "I know that building," he said, the first words I recall him saying to me that day. He explained that this was the famous Tea Rooms, frequented by weary ramblers after a day's hike in the mountain countryside. I stood up and we climbed some more.
Inside the Tea Rooms it was more extensive than I'd been able to tell before entering. There were two massive floors of tables and there must have been many weary ramblers that day because the place was packed. Through nervousness we decided to avoid the ground floor area and to sit where we couldn't be seen from an outside window. There were stairs in the centre of the room. We took a table at the top of them , beside some railings where we could look down and observe the ground floor. There was one more table at the top of these stairs. It was directly opposite us and underneath a painting of hunting dogs. The man sitting at the table was known to Steve and we struck up a conversation. His name was Victor. He was an ecologist and a painter of picture postcards.
"I met him over some German liqueurs," said Steve.
"We met at an English breakfast," Victor maintained.
He had a grey goatee beard and wore a suit of thick fibres; I don't know what it was made out of. I was glad we were no longer alone and in my mind I thanked Steve's socialitis. He was always accepting invitations, meeting and being introduced to people. Victor might just be our way out of this, I thought. We ordered tea. These were the Tea Rooms, after all. Actually, I think I had some hot chocolate. We chatted to Victor on and off and he smiled at our weak jokes. He did not pull his chair over to our table, though. I whispered to Steve that Victor probably had a car and he could give us a lift. Steve liked the idea but before I went on to say anything else I suddenly felt like we were being watched. I looked around me and true enough, eyes from different tables, here and there, were staring at us. These were looks of suspicion, as if we were the strangest of strangers. Even the waiters watched us in that peculiar way. Someone at a table below us was looking up, pointedly. His head was thrown completely back, his sleeve getting soiled by the meal he was no longer paying attention to. Steve said he didn't want to ask Victor about the car out loud . I said we should definitely leave at the same time as Victor.
We waited for him to show signs of departure. He had already paid his bill and was just sitting there. Was he waiting for us, maybe? I drained the hot chocolate and felt the solid ends mudslide down the back of my throat. I didn't realize that Victor was already standing to leave, gathering up his coat and hat. Thankfully, Steve was paying attention and said to him "hold on, we'll come with you." We put more than enough to cover our bill on the table and followed Victor out to the car park. The sun had gone down, now. At his car door, Victor began to politely say goodbye. People started spilling out of the Tea Rooms all of a sudden, in groups of ten and twelve. Seeing this, a smile skipped across Victor's mouth. Did he know something we didn't? "Goodbye, then" I said forcibly and hailed a taxi that I saw in the periphery of my vision. We took the back seat together and told the driver to take us to the city centre. Victor stood watching us go and did not wave.
I think the taxi was a lucky break, the only one of its kind, if you ask me. In the city, the night had come on, noticeably so. The celeritous taxi reached the streetlights of the centre of town and it was a scene I'd seen too many times: the concrete, the well-dressed drunks and queues for junk food. Niamh sat behind the driver and I sat behind the empty passenger seat. Then she moved over and leaned forward between the two front seats, to see the radio dial. She was laughing at the song that was playing. It was some Beatles cover by comedians imitating the characters from Scooby Doo. Niamh sat close to me, her leg against mine. It was a moment of safety and of friendship. I told her to remember from now on she'd have to watch herself. I said "Mind where you go, those people know your face now." We were at the riverside and I told the driver to pull over, at the towering apartment block where Niamh lived with her husband, on one of the highest floors. She got out of the car.
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