The writer sat in a cafe bar. It was a little cold, and the uncomfortable chair dug into her chubby thighs as she stared at her screen attempting to force something from her brain onto the digital page. All that creative energy, all that longing to write the hundred ideas for stories that flood her brain every waking moment, and the screen stayed frustratingly blank. She looked at the blinking cursor on the screen, feeling somewhat taunted by its uniform flashing at the top of an otherwise blank canvas.
She took a sip of her tea and surveyed the scene around her. Overly-made-up people sat at tables meters away from her sharing photos on their screens and making dramatic gestures, revelling in the little slice of normality they’ve been able to settle in to whilst here. Sitting pretty, almost posing for an invisible camera, in defiance of the world of masks and distance and social isolation that awaits them once they leave.
Looking out of the window to the left, the writer could see the fine-mist rain settling on the pot-holed street as people in masks trudge with umbrellas up onto the high street with a solemn purpose. A bus slows to a stop just outside the window, its similarly sad-looking passengers sat staring forward, as if in some collective daydream.
Refilling her tea from the turquoise pot in front of her, the writer sighed.
Coming to places like this used to really energise her. She had written whole novels whilst sipping tea in countless other cafes in countless other towns, and yet somehow getting words onto the page seemed as hard now as it had every other day this year. As if the state of emergency gripping the world was tangible, a door stop wedged against the creative part of her brain.
“I used to take such inspiration from just watching people” she said aloud to herself, hoping nobody at one of the neighbouring tables heard her.
“Maybe that’s why I’m so broken.”
As the girls at the table opposite got up to leave, the writer caught a whiff of sickly-sweet floral perfume. Everyone’s trying hard, she thought to herself, and as the staff moved in to sanitise the table that had just been vacated she looked back to her screen, determined to get some words out.
Leaning against the back of the bar for a moment to catch his breath, the manager of the cafe stopped and surveyed his empire. It was a busy Sunday morning, and demand for tables was high. In the old days he’d just have whacked out a few more tables – but this was 2020. Space was limited, and disinfection took time.
He looked around and was pleased to see a few regulars. He used to hate it when people came in and took up a table for hours on end sat on their laptops or phones, but these days he had come to appreciate how much easier those customers were. No constant cleaning, and no constant fuss – even if it meant slightly less income. Hell, the very nature of life these days meant less income all round.
He had seven people on shift with him today, three in the kitchen and four out front alongside him. He felt oddly proud of the band of misfits that he’d hired to work here – a little family of people from different places and backgrounds. Oh god, he thought, did that make him the dad?
He shuddered, feeling momentarily old. Most of his staff were teenagers who had moved here to study, although they now found themselves studying from their bedrooms instead of actual lecture halls. He felt a surge of pride realising that their jobs had probably done more to make them feel part of something during these strange times than anything else.
One of his front-of-house staff rushed past him with a big tray of drinks, and he snapped out of his self-indulgent reverie with a start.
“Great work, everyone” he said to no-one, as he stalked off toward the kitchen to check on the food prep team.
The writer looked up from her screen and briefly locked eyes with the manager, who had just leaned back against the bar as if to take a quick break. The sky outside had brightened up and she gazed a little more hopefully out of the window as the bacon sandwich she had ordered arrived at her table.
At one point she’d have marvelled at the technology behind ordering and paying from your phone without having to interact with a human being or leave the table – but part of the appeal of establishments like this in the past had always been the repartee you could develop with the staff. The ability to get to know the people working behind the bar was somewhat limited when everyone is in masks, rushing around, and keeping two meters apart.
A couple sat down at the next table over and the writer listened as the waiter explained to them how to scan the QR code to activate order-from-table on their phones. They were an older couple, and seemed somewhat confused by the whole ordeal, but the waiter persisted almost apologetically. Suddenly from beneath the couple’s table a small dog appeared.
The writer couldn’t ever tell what breed of dog was what but for some reason the word ‘bulldog’ came to mind when she locked eyes with the small-yet-bulky creature. Its coat was short and very black and its eyes were bloodshot and red, giving this dog a very sad and depressed auora.
‘What does the world look like through that dog’s eyes’ she thought to herself, trying to remember those days as a child when the world seemed so much bigger. A memory flooded her conciousness of a time before she was five years old. It was her dad’s birthday, and she decided to wake up before anyone else in the house and make him a cake.
Only she didn’t know how to bake. The writer couldn’t remember the specifics, but she knew she’d taken up a bowl filled with something green with a candle in it and was sad when her dad refused to eat it. But what she remembered most was how huge the kitchen had seemed to her then. Counters as tall as buildings, appliances as big as the moon, having to crawl and climb and jump to reach the things she needed to make this ‘cake’ for her father.
Oh how the world must seem to this small dog as it sits and surveys the cafe stretching out in front of it. All the opportunities. All the threats. Fear and wonder in equal measure.
The writer picked up her phone and contemplated ordering more food. After all, she thought, it was only fair she pay for her stay here.