© Brian Doswell
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Raindrops on Roses
This short story was prompted by a rainy night in a less than pretty part of town..
Rain can be bone-numbingly cold. Standing in the rain, for hours on end, might seem like something that only a fool would do, and it probably is. On the other hand, rain can be your friend when you are alone in the dark of the evening. The sound of rain on the pavement has a distinctive tune that most people never hear - because they never stop to listen. The rush of water in a gutter carries the melody and the raindrops on flagstones pick out the tune. Close your eyes and open your ears and you will hear it.
Close your eyes and you can be somewhere else; somewhere other than the street. Close your eyes and you can be in the sunshine walking among people who smile and share their lives with you. No one walks along a street in the rain. Before it rained, they were content to walk along the street, some smiled some did not, but when it rains, no one smiles. People hunch their shoulders as if to hide their head, to find shelter, in some impossible way, from the water that is descending on them. Hands thrust into pockets and faces bent towards the ground. No one looks up into the falling rain, no one looks left or right, no one looks at me as they pass. They rush on by, not because their journey is suddenly more important than it was before, but because their very transit has suddenly become unbearable.
I stand in the rain. I could stand under the cover of a doorway, or go inside, somewhere dry and warm, but not tonight, not on Monday night. Monday night is a special night.
The dark façade on the other side of the road is broken by a café with streaks of pale yellow light shining from its windows, dancing like wanton pixies on the wet pavement, their steps in time with the rain’s watery tune. I would desperately love to go into the café and sit huddled, warming myself around a hot mug of tea or coffee. But I stay where I am - waiting. The glass is misted, but I can read the signs that hang on chains from hooks stuck to the glass with faded rubber suction pads. None of the signs hangs straight; each one is slightly askew but in different directions. I long to cross the road and straighten the offending signs. It teases my mind to imagine why each one is at an angle, and I make up stories about each sign.
One sign tells me when the café opens and when it closes. Two crazed plastic clock faces show the same time. Perhaps the café never closes. I imagine boys on their bicycles stopping for tea and toast after delivering the morning papers. I see women, laden with shopping bags, chatting animatedly over their mid-morning coffee. I visualise workmen in stained singlets arguing about football over their mid-day meal. The café shows a different face to each of these customers but the veil over that face is pathetically thin and torn. Lunch always smells of fried food; eggs, sausages, beans and limp greasy chips served with everything. Afternoon tea is served with strawberry jam and scones that still carry the all-pervading perfume of the lunchtime chips. No one notices the stale air, no one really cares.
In the evening, the café rests. A flickering television hangs precariously on a loose wall-bracket, it is always tuned to the sports channel, the remote control has long since disappeared. There is no sound but it does not matter, there is no one watching. A sad, lonely individual, sits at a table for one, and orders an ‘all-day-breakfast’ which is the same composition as the lunch menu, and may well have been kept under the kitchen lights since then. The lukewarm fried egg is solid but the lone diner does not care. He sits there reading a discarded newspaper, avidly absorbing its day-old news.
I know this man; he comes here every Monday evening, at the same hour. He always wears the same suit, with creaseless trousers that bag at the knees. The jacket that once fitted him so well, is now two sizes too large, and yet it manages to hide the frayed and grubby collar of his shirt. His neatly combed hair lies flat grey and sparse on his head. Sometimes I can see his grey scalp through grey strands of lank hair. Tonight, he wears a grey felt hat to keep the rain off his aging head. I know this hat; it was once a jaunty trilby with a bright silk band, now it is wet, sodden with the rain and limp where it was once proud.
I watched him arrive, his bent frame bathed briefly in the sudden flood of warm amber light as the café door opened and closed around him. His silhouette passed behind the greasy, misted window and I watched him circle the small shabby room in search of a discarded newspaper to read. I watched the dimly outlined figure sit at his usual table facing the window. He always sits there pretending to read the newspaper slowly, page by page, cover to cover, but I know that he is not reading at all. He is looking over the top of the crumpled page. He is looking over the page, through the window and across the street. He is looking at me.
The owner of the café does not hurry to serve this man. They know each other well but they have no conversation, no shared world other than the confines of the café and this table for one, on Monday evenings. The owner comes eventually to the table. The grey man orders tea and pretends to scan a menu card printed so long ago that the stains on it tell more about the meals than the descriptions do. I watch the round off-white apron pass to and fro, taking the order, delivering the tea, taking the order for the meal and then delivering it to the table. It is a charade that happens every Monday evening. Both players know their parts by heart and play them in the manner of repertory actors, at a matinee performance, in a provincial theatre. This small mature cast are playing the same show for the umpteenth time. The repertory actor goes through the motions on his stage, in front of an audience of seven elderly ladies who have come into town by bus, especially for the play. The grey man plays his part for an audience of one.
I know the play so well; every move is burned into my memory. I know both roles in this two-handed performance and I know exactly how each part will be delivered. The grey man is the consummate artiste, he has perfected his part over so many performances with never a change in time or pace. I know that he will appear to read his newspaper and sip his tea while he pretends not to notice me, but he knows that I am there, he has seen me, and he knows that I am watching him. This drab opening scene always takes seven minutes, it never varies. I have timed it so many times. The lumbering cook will bring a plate to the table and the grey man will ask for bread and butter. The pair will exchange a few words and then the cook will lumber away into the depths of the café. The grey man will carefully adjust the cutlery on either side of his plate, while he waits for the bread to arrive. He will polish an invisible stain from his knife with a folded paper napkin, and then he will lay the napkin down exactly where it had been on the plastic table top. He will not look up again until the bread arrives.
The cook will drop a chipped plate with its single round of thinly sliced bread onto the table and return to the hidden depths of the room in one wordless, cheerless motion. The man will thank the cook for the bread, but his words will hang empty in the air because the cook will not be there to hear them. He will lift his knife and fork and pause, as if he is about to say grace, and then he will see me, across the road, a shadow in the pale light of a street lamp. For the briefest instant he will look directly at me. His eyes will bore into me, in search of my soul, and then he will start to eat.
I stay near the street lamp, not directly under the light but nearby; close enough for him to know that I am still there. I pretend not to notice him while he returns to the laborious task of cutting the cold, leathery egg into digestible slices. This scene will take seventeen minutes. It does not take that long to eat the egg, but it serves for him to pretend to read the newspaper and to make sure that I am still there.
The details of the scene are always the same. After two minutes, he looks up and peers into the darkness as though he has just spotted a passing stranger. After five minutes, he looks up again and stares at me. I ignore him and he returns to his paper. After ten minutes he looks directly at me over the top of his paper and I look directly back at him. Only then will he lay his paper on the table, finish his meal and ask for the bill.
The bill is always the same. He could leave the money on the table, but he waits for the cook to bring the hand scribbled note on a cracked saucer that doubles as an ashtray. The man will look at the total and bury his hand in his pocket in search of some coins. He always has the exact amount which he arranges in descending order of denomination on the saucer. The largest coins are furthest away from him and the smallest are nearest. The line is always as straight as a row of soldiers.
He will fold the newspaper and leave it neatly beside the cracked saucer before standing up and placing his chair neatly under the table.
Tonight, the play is performed to perfection. Each move executed, like the precisely choreographed routine that it is. The door opens and the grey man pauses, a shadow in the rectangle of light, staring hopefully at the sky as if he might will the rain to stop.
The rain has not changed its tune all evening. The gutter, washed clean by the flood, sparkles with each gush of water and burbles its perpetual, melodic air. My sodden clothes cling to my body and I shiver with the cold as the play enters its closing act.
The grey man turns up the collar of his jacket and pulls the wet grey felt, firmly onto his head. He brushes a stray lock of hair under his hat and looks both left and right. There is no traffic, there never is, this is a very quiet road. He crosses the road and pauses as though he is seeing me for the first time. He almost passes, and then - he hesitates;
‘Are you waiting for someone?’
‘Can I help you?’
‘Perhaps we could go somewhere - drier?’
‘That would be nice.’
Rain runs off his felt hat in rivulets that splash onto his shoulders. He looks left and right again. The street is still empty, save for two lone and lonely figures, half lit by the grimy waxen lamp.
‘Do you charge for your company?’
‘Of course; but nothing too excessive.’
‘Oh dear, I’m afraid that I could not possibly . . . . . Please accept this, as a small recompense for wasting your time.’
He presses a £20 note into my hand and kisses me gently on my wet, rain-streaked cheek, and then, as he does every Monday evening. He just disappears into the shadows.