An Outing: Part Two
The café is busy and there's only one large table free, near the window at the back. As Chantelle and I lead them over to it, eyes move in our direction. There are the usual smiles, the usual averted gazes, the usual gawking kids. As always, I wonder if they ever pick up on these reactions. If they really feel their 'difference'.
And what about those who move among us looking perfectly normal on the outside?
Those among us who are not among us...
We get them all seated and take their orders. Then I leave Chantelle to look after them and go over to join the queue at the counter. While I'm waiting, I keep my eye on the table. They're all sitting quietly (Chantelle's at her phone again) and I'm struck as always by how vulnerable they seem. And they are, of course. More so than children, really. Ian is staring fixedly at the table-top, grinning and nodding his head. Lizzie is fiddling with her handbag, picking it up and looking inside and putting it down and picking it up again. Shirley eyes me and lifts her hand to her mouth to cover a laugh. Ralph sees me, too. He puts up a finger, then a thumb, then an arm, then he sticks out his leg. I poke out my tongue and his face lights up like Christmas. They're all smartly-dressed and turned out - but anyone coming in off the street would still notice them before noticing anything else. It's what sometimes makes me feel that these efforts to treat them as 'normal', however well-intentioned, are misguided (though I'd be judged ill-equipped to do my job for saying so). Sometimes, it seems like we're doing it to make ourselves feel better about it. Whichever way you look at it, they're different. For me, it's their difference that makes them special. Their difference is what I like about them. No bullshit. No conditions. No stabbing you in the back or fucking you over. What you see is what you get. It's the whole reason I started doing the job in the first place - after years of working with the 'normal'.
Lucy was astonished when I took it on. The irony of it. Me, who never wanted the responsibility of a family. It wasn't quite that simple, of course. But by that time I was all out of trying to explain.
She breaks in on my thoughts as I'm sipping my coffee. My usual thing. Zoning out of what's going on around me: the noise, the movement. The people. All I'm seeing is the sky outside the window, the clouds drifting like ships on a lazy tide. At the back of my mind is the constant impulse to try to make conversation with Chantelle, in case she thinks I don't like her, or am anti-social. But then, she's always got her phone for company.
"Is there a lot of i-ignorance in the world?"
I smile, putting my mug down.
"Yes, I think there is."
I look her squarely in the eyes, which is never an easy thing for me.
"Because some people are afraid to ask questions. Unlike you."
Lizzie picks up her hand-bag and looks inside it.
I glance up at the kitchen doorway just as a young guy emerges with trays of plates. He heads in our direction.
"Just coming. Keep your teeth in."
Chantelle and I help the guy to hand stuff out, and they all start tucking in as soon as it's in front of them. Except Ralph. As usual, he inspects inside each sandwich first to make sure it's only ham. I can understand that, though none of the other staff seem to. They think he's being fussy. Someone once gave him cheese and tomato ones by mistake, so that didn't help. Lizzie eats hers a layer at a time: top slice, filling, bottom slice. Efforts to change her habits have never worked, so we let her carry on with it. It keeps her happy, which is what's important. Shirley takes genteel little nibbles, mumbling to herself the whole time, mentally framing her next set of questions. Ian just eats. Food is food to him, and he takes it in without the least indication of interest or satisfaction. His approach to eating is purely functional - like going to the toilet. Lizzie belches, says 'Pardon me', then carries on unabashed. They eat without any sense of self-consciousness or inhibition, as with just about everything else they do. In many ways, I envy them. I'm supposed to behave and follow social norms. Even though I may not always want to - and quite often don't, anyway.
While they're all occupied with eating, I take a bite of my own sandwich and stare out of the window again. It's my favourite kind of day, with the worst of the summer heat over and a freshness in the air that isn't quite autumnal. Warm enough, though. There are people in swimming - their heads bobbing above the waves. Seagulls wheel and scream overhead, like bits of cloud blown apart by the wind. Far out there, alone and abandoned, the pier head sits like a ruined fairytale castle. It's the first thing I see in the morning, when I pull up the blinds, and its winking red light is the last thing I look for at night. Thirty-odd years since anyone walked there - since a storm destroyed its connection with the land. Just the birds out there now. And ghosts. A no-place place. A part... but apart. I feel my own connection to it, though - and for that very reason.
I see a chap standing on the tide-line, waving out to sea. Someone out there, shoulder-deep, waves back. Not drowning, I think. You can't wave if you're drowning.
Some other staff members would probably have told her to be quiet and eat. Personally, I don't mind.
She clears her throat. "Are there some things which are best left unsaid, Will?"
She says it so matter-of-factly - as if she was asking me to pass the salt. And it's uncanny how she can ask a question that seems to cut right into my thoughts. It's like she's developed a special insight to compensate for what's been lost.
"Probably, Shirley. Sometimes." And then, to pre-empt her usual rejoinder, "Sometimes it can be a way to avoid hurting someone's feelings."
Is that what I really believe?
She widens her eyes.
"You mean like kee... k-keeping a secret?"
"You could say that, yes."
Ian suddenly stands up and points at his crotch.
"Go on then, mate," I say.
He wanders over to the toilets, immediately going for the door to the ladies. The door doesn't have the symbols on it he usually recognises.
"Not that one," Chantelle calls out, and he turns to the other one as automatically as if she'd aimed a remote control at him and pressed the button.
She takes her vaping stuff out of her bag.
"You alright for a couple of minutes, Will?"
It's a relief, actually. I can't stand the silences - always feeling I need to fill them. I'm the only staff member she doesn't really say much to. I'd think it was an age thing, but there are older staff she gets on with. I know what it is, really. The same thing it's always been.
Through the window, I can see Chantelle leaning against the wall - hair strands spinning and drifting in the breeze, face set on the screen in front of her. She draws on her vapouriser and blows a stream of smoke, like steam from a kettle.
For some reason, something about what I'm seeing makes me feel sad. I really don't know why. I think back to where I was at her age and what I was doing. What I was like. I try to remember how it felt, with whole volumes of life ahead of me and so much to see and do with it.
And what have I seen and done?
Did I ever think then that it would bring me here... inside this café, on this late summer day, just a few years shy of sixty, sitting with these people, doing this job?
I didn't have her savvy then. Her worldliness, either. Maybe it's because it was a different time, and the young have to grow up much quicker now. Or maybe it's just because she fits in with it - and I don't and never have done. And never knew why until it was a bit late to find out.
She blows another stream of vapour out there, still staring at her phone. Then suddenly she turns her head and sees me looking at her, and it takes a moment before I realise. Her brow furrows, like she's puzzled by something. I turn quickly to look at Shirley. She has the same look on her face too, which startles me. She sees something.
"Do... do you have any secrets, Will?"
I look down at the table top, at the empty plates and cups. There are things I should say in response - things I'm supposed to say. Things Chantelle would say. But Shirley knows them anyway, so what's the point?
"No, I don't," I say. "And if I did, I wouldn't tell them to you. Then they wouldn't be secrets any more, would they."
And she cackles.