"Sixty-seven? Sixty-seven. Sixty-seven? Sixt-"
She hunts for the bearer of the ticket, the ticket stuck in the puddle of tea in the saucer, the tea that he is now drinking, freshly made and yet quintessentially not-quite-perfect. The numbers are to transmute into food, in this case, grilled sausages and crisply fried chips. Two digits into such a feast. The wonders of the café.
The café has seen a new lick of paint. Before, the café was eponymous, the personal touch welcoming you in, promising something almost (but not-quite) akin to home cooking. Now, the name is trendy, almost aping the fine eateries around it, but inside, the only change is a new set of furniture. The staff are the same, the menu unchanged, and this is a relief. The café is fixed, immutable in the streetscape around it. It does not know "modern"; it is as it does. Inside, the front had the air of a bakery, with all the homemade cakes and pastries; but the smell was café through and through. Not quite caff; definitely café. Hidden away, almost out of sight, the polyglot kitchen burbles with a variety of accents and the universal language of sizzling fat.
Eggs, chips, bacon; if it can be fried, it is. Elsewhere, a vast cauldron hides not eye-of-newt but Heinz baked beans. They are cheap, and thus are served in vast quantities, unlike the pricey meat, which is served more stingily. It is here that the magic is performed; numbers, taken from the till on a small piece of paper are fed into these grills, fryers and vats, and turned into food.
"Seexty-airt? Seexty-airt! Seexty-"
One of the kitchen staff is serving is this one. With my non-linguist ears, I can define the accent only as Mediterranean. This is the supreme creation of the kitchen; sixty-eight is revealed to be a full English breakfast - eggsbaconsausagetoastbeansmushroomsmarmalade. The lot. Splurged onto a plate, with small regard for presentation, ready to be torn into, the yolk and tomato sauce merging, everything falling into an emulsion in the base of the plate. Succulent. Sizzling. Crisp. Hangover-quenching, hunger-quashing... high-quality? Good enough. Good enough to eat, wolf down, pausing only for tea and the Times. And then off again to put the world to rights.
"Sixty-NINE! SIXTY-nine! Sixty-nine? SIX-"
Sixty-nine is downstairs. The basement. Where families hide from the upstairs bustle, where you go when the upstairs is full of tourists. Where the toilets are. I try to avoid downstairs; the natural light up here is far nicer.
The clientele is as varied as the staff. There are of course the tourists, looking for somewhere cheap to eat. This, as they say, will do. Their command of English varies, but sausageeggandchips seems to be a universally understood combination. Then there are the students, hung over, or just-woken, seeking breakfast at two in the afternoon. There are, pause to shudder, the regulars. And then the rest.
The four girls, a production team for some production, feminists all, no doubt, discussing costumes and logistics and lighting gantries and rehearsal rooms and doesntthesetalreadyhaveapianoinit and surelysarahcandoitwhenshegetsthere and butfridayisfartooearly. Tea, egg and chips (vegetarians), scarves, and multicoloured woollen pullovers and skirts. Alternative to a tee.
Over here is the guy with the notepad. Journalist? Writer? Crossword fanatic? The newspaper and two cups of coffee (to save repeated journeys to the distant till) alone keep him going. Murmurings, mutterings; he does not speak, but mouths the words as he comes up with them. They are not all written down; only the most important are noted. The rest will return in time.
"Seh-van-tee! Seh-van-tee! Seh-va-"
The most interesting are the nearest. Son, clearly. Father? Mother or Stepmother? Unclear. This is no family outing. The distance across the table is not three feet, it is leagues; the vacant, put-on expressions are the two opposite sides of a vast canyon, Wile E Coyote dangling over the precipice. This a designated place, a place specified for meeting; not a place arrived at out of choice. They talk as if they are passing through; when they leave, he will turn left, they right, and it will be weeks before they meet again. How school is. What he wants for Christmas. When theyŐll meet again. The emotions almost come, reaching out across the gap, grasping, hoping to link hands, but they never will.
The waitress comes over. She speaks with familiarity, making her own arrangements. Not an acquaintance, not regulars; ah! - she is the sister. The brother on one side of the till, the sister the other, the grown-ups miles away. It makes no sense to a casual observer. ItŐs probably all very simple, but the possibilities for fiction are endless. I must write this down, I say. The numbers of possible stories swell. How many times have I been here? What things have I seen? What meals have I eaten? There is so much to say, much of it worthless. But today is worth writing about. Today has potential. Today, the numbers are up. They steadily tick over as the days pass, repeatedly taken to that magical kitchen where they turn into fried goods and warm quiches. Cryptic little digits. Our desire, reduced to figures on paper. All we are. I look at the faces again, the faces, the numbers, the numbers that are all there is. No! I am not a number!