– The Teashop –
Lunchtime in the city. People scurrying here and there, collars pulled up high against the howling wind, umbrellas held shakily above their heads: protection against the bitter, driving rain. Buses and motorcars swish by, spraying the wet pavements. Tiny torrents gush down the shop awnings and splatter noisily on the ground. Hurrying along, my umbrella grasped firmly in my right hand and held low down over my head, I peek through the slanting rain at the shapeless faces of the passers-by. The rain dims the lights from the shop windows. Everything seems blurred.
At last, I am there. The corner teashop. Down with my umbrella, a brisk shake, and then fold it. I open the door, and a waft of warm air greets me. The friendly aroma of hot soup and tea and coffee and buns and cream cakes, all intermingling, assails my nostrils. I hear the welcome sounds of teacups clinking, cutlery clattering and busy chatter. The place is full as usual. Close the door. Off with my coat and scarf; hang them on a peg beside all the others.
Rubbing my hands, savouring the warmth, I scan the room. Ah, there’s a vacant chair – the only one. I make for the chair, prop my dripping umbrella against it, and then hurry to the counter. Steam rises up from behind the counter. Condensation streams down the fogged-up windows. The ladies in their brightly coloured overalls greet me with smiles. The usual? Yes, please. A white coffee and two ham rolls. Pay for them. Exchange some conversation. Yes, indeed, the weather is terrible. Never stopped all morning. Terrible, terrible. Find a tray. Hurry back to my chair. Careful, now. Mustn’t upset the coffee. Drips all over my trousers otherwise.
Made it back, and the chair is still vacant. Good. Relax now. Slide the tray across the table. Sit down at last. The table is a small one with only two chairs. I look across at my neighbour: an old man, white hair plastered against his head by the rain; sodden clothes; dirty, collarless shirt; grey face, gaunt and unshaven. His eyes are large and sad and pitiful, and they don’t meet mine. Instead, they stare vacantly into space; glazed eyes, seeing nothing, no-one. His stands stuck inside the pockets of his thin, wet overcoat, the man sits hunched over a half-empty teacup. From time to time, he shivers. His nose is streaming, and every few seconds a large drip collects at its tip and then plummets into his teacup. Plop, it goes, creating ripples on the surface of his tea.
Poor old tramp, I say to myself. Ah, never mind. I take up one of my rolls, ready to bite it. But the large, sad eyes are still there. And there goes another drip. Plop.
I lay the roll down, sit back, look around me. Comfortable, well-fed faces. Mouths chomping and chewing, slurping and sipping, gabbing and gassing. Friendly nods from some of the ‘regulars’. How are you today? they ask. Shocking weather. Never stopped all morning. Forecast’s bad, too. Terrible, terrible.
I return to my rolls, contemplate them. Pick one up again. The sad eyes go on staring – across my shoulder, through the wall, whirling into space. Back goes the roll. Can’t eat. How can I? Look at me: well-dressed and comfortable, hardly even hungry, money jingling in my pocket, warm fire at home, balance in the bank. Look at him: sad and wet and poor and cold. How can I? Have a cigarette instead. Light one. Inhale deeply. Exhale. Cloud of smoke mingles with other clouds of smoke, forming pall above the tables. Sip my coffee. Watch the drips collecting. Plop. Plop. Plop.
Coffee finished. Cigarette stubbed out. Rolls stare accusingly at me from the plate. Nice, inviting rolls. Tempting, taunting. No, I mustn’t, can’t. I feel guilty.
Wait. Come to a decision. Gently, I slide plate across the table to my shivering neighbour. Leave him my cigarettes. And some money: a pound note and some change; all I have with me. The eyes, large and sad and pitiful, go on staring. The body remains hunched. Has he noticed? Yes! His eyes blink, and he shoots me a fleeting glance; nothing more. A response? A thank you? Perhaps.
I rise up, go and don my coat and scarf, return for my umbrella. Still hunched. Still staring. A final act, perhaps? A token? Ah, yes. I stoop down towards the old man and grasp him by the shoulder momentarily. Good luck, I whisper. Quickly, I turn and leave. Back into the wind and rain. Up with the umbrella. People scurrying. Cars and buses swishing to and fro. Awnings dripping. A dreary, miserable day. But I feel good.
– o –