The next day Le Café Duc was unusually busy. The morning rush had started earlier than usual and continued on through until well after lunchtime.
He wasn’t particularly looking out for them, but the waiter didn’t see either Colin or Helena all day. He really didn’t have time to wonder about them, though. He just concentrated on waiting, and serving, and checking whether everything was good with the meals, and in the few idle moments he did have he studied the faces of his clientele as they left and made up stories in his head about them and their lives.
The waiter filled the window. Blatantly he watched them. His stare? Intense. Extremely disapproving. Even when they returned his stare, his disapproval continued.
This had a disconcerting effect on both Colin and Helena.
On his way back to the Bookmaker’s, Colin calculated the odds on whether the waiter was an old lover of Helena’s, or knew that Helena was already in a relationship, perhaps even married.
On her way back to the Library, Helena wondered if Colin had a disturbing backstory: maybe he knew the waiter better than he had let on. Perhaps they were friends. Or enemies. Or lovers.
Outside again, and it felt to Colin that the time spent in Le Café Duc hadn’t happened: he had an overwhelming feeling that they'd only just met.
Helena smiled and toyed with her handbag.
Can we have coffee together again, he blurted, surprised because the meaning was there but he would ideally have chosen his words more carefully to sound cooler, more sophisticated.
Helena giggled. I can do tomorrow if you like, and Colin said he liked very much. Same time then, and they touched each others’ arms in agreement.
They waited, each unwilling to be first to walk away.
I like historical fiction, she told him, seeing herself as Joan of Arc, burning not at the stake but on a huge pyre of books. The soldiers looked on mournfully, but the crowd would have its way. She was sure one of the soldiers was Ray Bradbury.
And biographies, she added, as the smoke bit the back of her throat and she coughed.
They paid separately before they left. The waiter looked disapprovingly at Colin, who appeared not to notice. As they left, the doorchime jangled shut behind them like a drawerful of spoons falling into an oversized coffee cup.
No, Colin did not want another coffee, because when he had asked Helena she still had half a cup left and anyway she had to get back to work soon. Her lunchtime. All too brief at the best of times.
You would enjoy working in the Library, she said, it’s very quiet most of the time.
Colin agreed he probably would.
But I don’t read much, he said. You do, do you?
She checked her watch. She hated being late.
Sorry, you need to get back, but no, she still had five minutes. She didn’t, but she said she did.
He realised if he had been on stage he would be dressed in a prisoner’s uniform, complete with a ball and chain, and would be wringing his hands together obsequiously in front of the judge, yet another innocent victim of the system.
He stopped himself and smiled. The judge banged his gavel several times and tried to tell him that this was no laughing matter, but before Colin (still smiling) could tell him where to go he had dissolved into the form of the waiter who stood again at the side of the table, Colin’s coffee cup in his hand.
From first thing when I get in to whenever the last customer leaves, constant babble.
Helena nodded, silent.
Then I get home and I want to listen to Moanin or Birds of Fire or whatever but I can’t. My heart wants music but my ears demand silence. My head ignores what I want.
He frowned at his hands.
He wasn’t sure he was properly conveying what he meant. She knew he didn’t appreciate that she understood.
It’s as if the rest of the day has chained me so that not even the evening is mine. You probably think I'm mad...
Maybe. I don’t know, he confessed. The worst thing is I must listen to the races all day. That little room, bombarded with race commentaries from televisions and radio blah blah flipping blah, constant noise all the time. The worst thing is,
he drained his coffee,
I’d rather listen to John Coltrane or Miles Davis, but – he shrugged - it’s okay, I suppose.
He clichéd: it pays the bills, which was mostly true.
It keeps the wolf from the door. Which was neither true nor untrue, depending whether you took it literally or metaphorically.
Helena was beginning to enjoy listening.
Only taking money. Off some people. Some people shouldn’t bet. He picked up his spoon and stirred his coffee. They lose too much.
Helena stopped herself pointing out that Colin hadn’t added sugar to his coffee. His spoon continued to circulate, making a chinking sound against the china. The waiter stared across the room at them from his hide behind the till. Helena realised, just as Colin realised, that the stirring was a ritual display of nervous vulnerability. She thought it endearing and he replaced the spoon in the saucer.
Apart from that, do you enjoy your work? She asked.
The coffees arrived, complete with a waiter attached and the morning paper. Helena wondered why they needed the latest news, did they perhaps look like they weren’t going to talk to each other?
Colin picked up the paper and glanced at the headline (perhaps they weren’t going to talk, she thought) before tossing it onto an adjacent table.
We don’t need that, said Colin, then he looked at her earnestly: unless you would like...
She shook her head and laughed a no.
I've never been in a betting shop in my life, she admitted. Is it difficult being a bookmaker?
They walked into the café called Le Café Duc. It was small, perhaps ten or so empty tables with a bar and a till in the dimly lit back. The menu and the ambience were in French.
Two coffees please, Helena told the waiter, who waited. One cappuccino, one latte, yes? Yes, one cappuccino one latte please, she added. The waiter left.
You work in the Library, he stated, just in case she needed to know. She remembered she did and nodded.
Bookmaker, he told her.
Oh. She looked around at pictures of musicians on the cafe walls.
My fault, he said. He held her elbow as if he was steadying an unstable ladder. I was watching - he pointed across the street with his free hand - they're redecorating. My name's Colin.
She smiled: It’s ok, I’m fine. Are you ok? I think it was I crashed into you. She closed her bag and wished she could think of something witty to say.
There was no need to take each others’ details. It was unspoken that they'd both decided against making an insurance claim, but he took her name nevertheless, because she offered it. Helena. Colin suggested a coffee.
They collided on the corner between the café and the telephone kiosk. He, engrossed in watching a painter redecorate the record shop front on the other side of the street; she searching in her handbag for her mobile phone.
Oh sorry, they had both said, almost, but not quite, simultaneously. There'd been no screech of brakes, no sounding of horns, no bottleneck of pigeons phalanxing into the air. Nor were there witnesses standing watching, wide- eyed with their hands over their mouths in traumatised statuesquary. Still, the collision did take place, and thankfully there was no apparent loss of blood.