I have a favourite cafe. It is nestled on a busy, inner-city street. It is an old Victorian shopfront with enormous windows framed in thick, weathered oak, so expansive that passers-by can see all the people sitting inside as if they have been painted in by Manet or Renoir.
When I can, I sit at the table by the window. It provides the greatest view. The church is across the road, entirely made of sandstone, the blocks aged to a deep caramel. The doors are arched, huge as stable doors, bolted and latched like a medieval castle.
The steeple pierces the sky, the very tip of it encircled by the finest wisp of clouds. The occasional bird circles it, as if considering settling there, keen to peruse the world, but each one thinks better of it and flys away, wings glinting golden with sunlight.
Rafael makes my coffee. He is a student with a flawless face and to my mind, an even more flawless heart. He enquires after each customer as if they are a personal friend, remembering names and details with such accuracy I wonder if he has a secret file somewhere under the espresso machine.
A young girl with a pram drinks a cappuccino. The baby cries briefly, a tiny wail that is almost an apology. She lifts him with care, her smile filling her eyes, and I think: ‘How lovely to have a nanny who cares for a child so’ until I see her remove one breast from her shirt and begin to feed him with the precise kind of intimacy only a mother can know.
Billy is on the street today. He sells The Big Issue – a magazine which donates half of its sale price to its seller (who is usually homeless or one of the long-term unemployed). He has a petition to save the old-growth forests in Tasmania. He has gathered more than 5,000 signatures. People warm to him and his plight. He is mildly intellectually disabled. His mother abandoned him when he was four. She couldn’t stand his stupidity. He was raised in foster care but fled to the streets as a teenager when things got really bad. ‘Once the old trees are gone that’s it, mate,’ he often says. ‘Then we’re all gone.’ I often weep when I think of how hard his life must be. And for the fact that, despite the bleakness of his life, he still cares. Joy and sorrow intermingle when I think of Billy.
Lorna is 78. She spends her days sketching. She is one of the most accomplished artists I know. The strokes of her pencil stay with me for days afterwards, they remember everything she sees.
Rafael walked her home one day, worried for her in the heavy rain with her bad leg and heavy satchel of drawing materials. He said her home was a treasure trove, the walls lined with street sketches going back fifty years, kept safely under glass. ‘Her home is a piece of local history,’ he said. ‘Someone should make a film about her life, her work. Before it is lost.’
The lady from the Thai restaurant next door argues with her delivery man over the state of her coriander. It is wilting and yellow at the edges. She wants him to take it back. He refuses. She grows more and more irate, shouting: ‘No good. No good.’ He ignores her and gets into his van, driving off before she can get to him. Enraged, she throws a bunch after him. It gets caught in the upswing from passing traffic, a green flapping bird, breaking apart and falling like autumn leaves.
My coffee is finished. I do not like to overstay my welcome. Tables by the window are sought after. Rafael has given me the bill, written in his elegant hand. I imagine him writing long letters to his love, couching the words with care. I imagine him going home to bright rooms, laughter and music.
I pay the bill, smiling at the familiar creak of the floorboards by the doorway, comforting as the way an old chair creaks. The street is full of people. We move together like water. As I am swept along, I glance back to the window perched over the street. The table by the window has already been taken. The tableau is complete.