Here he comes again. It’s eleven thirty, the time when he comes in for his tea. He orders it with lemon. On the menu it’s listed as Russian tea but no-one really knows why.
“Do they really drink it this way in Russia?” he asked the first time.
“I don’t know. I suppose they must do. Why else would they call it Russian?”
“I can’t imagine them wasting lemons like this in Russia.”
That stuck in my head. I’d never thought about it like that before. I liked the way he thought. The way he imagined those Russians and the things they would do with lemons.
It was a peculiar thing to say but it made me smile to think about it. To ponder something without a point or a purpose.
I liked him. Right there and then, I knew I liked him.
But this had been the longest exchange we’d ever had. In the weeks I’d been working there, he had never said anything beyond the usual bland pleasantries.
He was the customer and I was just the waitress. That was all there was between us.
So I brought him his tea, his cake, his little slices of lemon without saying a word. We didn’t need to say anything, so we never did.
Secretly though, after I’d served him, I’d watch him drink, watch him brush cake crumbs from his trouser leg.
He always stared out the window and down the street as if he was looking for someone, waiting for someone to come in. His gaze never faltered. He rarely turned to face inwards and watch the other people in the cafe. It was as if he didn’t want to be there really.
It was strange, the way he came every day at the same time like that to drink tea and gaze for hours onto the street. Why did he keep returning here just to sit there so alone and so forlorn?
Perhaps he really was waiting for someone. There was a vagueness in his eyes, a disconnectedness that I recognised. That I’d seen in my father after my mother had died. That look of isolation, the way a person just separates themselves from the world.
He looked as though he found it impossible to really care about anything. As if he was simply tired of it all.
He must have lost someone. That was why he came back here everyday. He was waiting for them, waiting to see if they would ever come back. Hoping they would come walking down the street and step into the cafe for some tea as if no time had passed, as if nothing had ever happened. This was the vain hope in his eyes.
It was funny. I’d felt the same for a long time too and, seeing him, seeing that look in his eyes, had made me want to talk to him about it. I wanted to let him know that I knew what it was like to wait like that.
I wanted to talk to him about the strangest, saddest day of my life, but I didn’t know how, I didn’t know where to begin.
Janey said it was the shock of it all that was keeping me from talking about it and perhaps she had a point.
Because I didn’t want to talk about it. Why would I want to talk about it? All I wanted to do was forget it.
But when I saw him I realised this wasn’t true. I could talk to him about it. I knew I could.
I was there when my mother had died. I saw it all happen.
And yet in spite of this, for weeks afterwards, every time a key turned in the lock I would look round expecting to see her walk through the door. I longed for that simple sight, for weeks it was all I wanted. It was ridiculous, but I never fought it.
The day my mother died we were in the park, close to the cafe.
In the mornings I still walk there on my way to work. Every day I pass the bench where she died.
Perhaps I shouldn’t. It is a little morbid but it feels okay. It feels good to pass by and whisper her a secret good morning . Without this it’s as if the day can never really begin.
And I can see it’s the same for him.
Once he had waited for someone to come to the cafe at eleven thirty and they had never arrived.
But he kept on coming back, just in case there was some misunderstanding, just in case he’d got the day wrong or something.
And until he had done this, until he had gone through this little ritual, he couldn’t carry on with the rest of the day.
So I served him his tea and watched him drink, and all the while he ignored me. Ignored the cafe. Ignored the world around him. All he did was continue to stare and stare, just waiting.
I wanted to talk to him, tell him about my mother, about how she died. I never spoke about it to anyone, but I wanted to tell him. I wanted to share it with him.
We had been sitting in the park, on the bench. It offered the best views out over the city, and from up there it was possible to look down over the roads and rooftops and follow the course of the river as it wound through parks and houses and down out towards the port, towards the cranes and the docks where the ships were once built.
I had forgotten how much I had missed that view, had been surprised that I should feel that way after so many years.
I had ceased calling it home a long time ago and yet there I was, looking out across that view and feeling after all that it was home, that perhaps it was time to come back.
That was what we had been talking about, my mother and me- about coming home.
“You’ve no reason to stay away anymore. Come back and be closer to your family, be in a familiar place. Be somewhere where you know you’re not alone.”
How many times had she said that? All those telephone conversations over the years that always ended with the same question “When are you coming home?”
We had climbed the hill to get to the bench where we were having this conversation. It was a steep climb and both of us were out of breath and flushed by the time we reached the top.
In the cold air we’d huddled together to talk and enjoy the view, and to snuggle against one another like that had been a sort of homecoming.
So for a while we just sat there in silence. All that needed to be said had been said.
I can’t say for sure exactly when it was she died. We had looked at one another and smiled. Perhaps she was smiling because she knew I was coming home at last. Perhaps that was the last thought she had.
I hope so.
As we sat there, I felt her lean slightly against me, then slip a little down the bench as if asleep.
And it was between the smile and that slide she had died.
Quietly, just like that, with no warning.