I felt like a betrayer.
One who had sworn never to patronise this particular establishment in her life time; one who proudly hadn’t done McDonald’s for over four years; one who boycotted Nestle, here I stood. I was madly in need of a double espresso and a biscotti, and every other cafe on and off the Royal Mile was packed with tourists, performers and the occasional indigenous Edinburger. It had taken me the best part of half an hour to negotiate the desperate performers and the crowds of watchers of street magic and unicycled knife jugglers, not to mention bagpipers and mini kite sellers. I needed to sit down.
And there it had been; a table: Empty, save the score or more of flyers upon its sticky surface. I’d taken the risk. A moment of opportunity, a ‘window’ as our line manager called it when I worked summers at the call centre to earn enough cash to embark on expeditions such as this. So I’d leapt; into a remarkably small queue of just three Japanese tourists clutching their newly purchased lambswool tartan scarves, clan irrelevant, two full costumed vampires and what I took to be a solicitor. I stood and watched as my table was claimed by a family of five in full argument, then received my paper-cupped coffee and cellophaned biscotti from a uniformed over-smile that betrayed its inner boredom far too easily.
There I was, left standing, when I spied a single unoccupied seat at a table outside, its other taken by a suited white haired man who looked as if he also worked at the nearby law courts. As I sat down, without asking permission, he looked up, scowled, then picked up a huge sheaf of papers and slapped down a flyer he’d been looking at onto the table, on top of the micro-mountain of others that had accrued over the morning. Left alone with my espresso, I lazily picked up the flyer he had discarded and gave it a cursory read.
Why would anyone come to this city in order to stage a play about cannibalism on a council estate ? And offer it as a musical of all things? Well, there was Sweeny Todd, I suppose…
I put down the flyer, glugged down my coffee like an ouzo, got up and left for the seminar.
It’s bad enough working here the rest of the year round. Some of my fellow slaves particularly enjoy the August mayhem, the influx of new people and the general buzz on the mile. Some people thrive on chaos I suppose but I’m not one of then. I get irritated but today was going to be different. She arrived around mid-morning, laying her small handbag and her leather-foldered Ipad on the outside table closest to Hunter Square. I couldn’t take my eyes off her and I found an excuse to clear her table.
Flyers. Hundreds of endless flyers and there was nowhere for her to put her frappucino down safely. I rushed over, ignoring the inquiry of a short Italian man as to where he could find the Mens’. I started to gather up the flyers nonchalantly when she looked up and me. I met her gaze and she smiled. Tight lips suddenly opened in a Monroe-like curiosity.
“There”, I said. “A bit more space.”
“Thank you” she said, and smiled.
I felt her eyes watching me as I stuffed the flyers into the bin, but when I turned round she was reading a flyer I’d left behind. As I walked past the table, I stopped. I couldn’t help myself and looked at the flyer she was reading. “Interesting title.” I remarked.She said nothing, but she smiled again.
I was annoyingly busy for the next ten minutes and, behind the counter, serving coffees by the ten, muffins and the occasional ice tea, I didn’t have a clear view of her table. By the time I’d managed to get to table-tidy duty again, she’d gone and the prime slot was now occupied by two gothic clowns stapling review quotes onto their posters. They’d already finished their Lattes and, as I went to clear them, I noticed the flyer, lying on its own, between the two large paper cups. I cleared the cups and retrieved the flyer, the same one she had been reading.
It wasn’t the bizarre content of a performance about cannibals on a council estate that drew my eye. it was some small, neat, blue handwriting. Just some numbers. No name. She’d written her phone number. Furtively I slid the flyer into my pocket.
I spent a horrid thirty minutes picking up dropped rubbish in and outside the cafe, a job given to me with a bit too much calm enjoyment by my supervisor. At one point I was on my hands and knees, crawling in chewing gum, more flyers and a sticky cup of half finished smoothie. It was only when clocking off later that I reached into my pocket and found that the flyer had gone. I looked everywhere, even in the bins.
It was a desperate, almost panicked search. What was I doing? That number may not even have been intended for my eyes. I even searched in the large bin in front of our cafe, now full of chip wrappers and cans, and thousands of flyers. I only stopped when a policeman started to walk towards me.
The flyer had gone and with it a number I would never be able to call.
I’m nearly three years old and I can’t speak. I don’t actually know that I am nearly three years old. I’m very curious and I feel bemused a lot of the time. Most of my world of other people involves looking up, but there are plenty of interesting things to be found looking down as well, though the people I look up to often tell me not to touch and certainly not to pick up whatever I find when looking down.
Some things have very interesting smells. Some don’t taste very nice. This thing was very colourful and there was a picture on it of someone with someone else’s foot in their mouth. I think they were eating it whilst playing the guitar. It was funny. I picked it up and giggled and then handed it to my mummy who told me I shouldn’t have picked it up, that things on the ground were dirty and to drop it immediately. As she was telling me off, a man walked by who looked very sad.
I don’t like people looking sad. When mummy looks sad I sometimes cry and she says she feels better when I cuddle her. So I cuddle her a lot. It feels nice.
This man was looking down at the ground too, as he was walking along. I thought maybe he was looking for something too. I wanted to cuddle him but I knew I wasn’t allowed to cuddle strange people. Suddenly I pulled away from mummy’s hand, which I know was naughty, and I ran up to the sad man and held out the funny picture to him.
He looked at it. Then he looked at me. Then he smiled.
“Janey leave the man alone!” commanded my mummy.
But the man took the picture and said “Thank you.” Then he said it again, louder: “Thank you!” and then he did something very strange. He cuddled my mummy and said “Thank you! I’ve been looking for that. Your girl is a little genius!” Then he said ‘sorry’ and walked away very quickly. Mummy told me off again for picking up dirty things off the ground. Then she told me off for talking to strangers. But she was smiling too.
And I wondered why mummy and daddy didn’t ever cuddle any more.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Yes, I think I am.”
“It might be terrible.”
“Yes, I mean… a musical!”
“Let’s go anyway.”
This story can be found at the end of the book The Filthy Guide to the Edinburgh Fringe, by Paul Levy, out in paerback and on Kindle. Order your copy here.