The Mundane Adventures of Francis Peter Noir, Parking Attendant
I don’t mind the rain. You would be forgiven for assuming that I would since my working day involves walking the city streets, checking parking meters and issuing tickets. But with a decent pair of shoes and the regulation- issue coat it’s not so bad. I don’t care so much for ice and snow, but that’s different and while the cold I can tolerate, it’s the difficulty walking that irks me so, that and the fact that you get so dirty. City snow, for all the crisp whiteness as it falls and first settles, is unpleasantly grimy when it begins to melt and mix with the city sludge. Unlike rain that washes away the accumulated filth, the thawing snow soaks it up into a slushy exhaust-fume-blackened sorbet. The pavements become coated a carcinogenic granita of ice, soot and smut that stays on the ground for days, saturating trouser-bottoms and leaching the polish from your shoes to leave a tide-mark of white salt in the leather when they dry. There is nothing to like about snow in a busy city. But rain isn’t so bad once you get used to it – it clears the pavements quickly of both dirt and people and that’s a blessing in all reality. That said, it’s nice to get out of the rain now my shift is over, a warming cup of coffee and a chance to rest my tired feet before the long trek home amid the office workers and shoppers. I could take the bus but the uniform marks you as a pariah even for bus passengers, who sit in stone silence avoiding eye contact, or even physical contact as if by sitting beside me the merest touch of the uniform would taint their clothing, they huddle themselves, pulling their overcoats tight around them to make themselves as narrow as possible.
Alfonso’s café-bar is quickly filling up with the bedraggled and rain-drenched and I am forced (albeit far from reluctantly) to share a table with a woman in her early-thirties whose lank strands of rain-soaked hair are failing to conceal an attractive though forlorn and pale looking face. The café is popular but never this crowded, most people seem to prefer the brightly lit modern franchised coffee houses on the main street and there is nothing modern or prefabricated about Alfonso’s, the over-polished chromium Gaggia coffee machine with its bank of mahogany handled levers that fills the back wall seems to be as old as the building itself and spits and gurgles like a steam locomotive labouring under the weight of the train of carriages it is pulling. The shallow white-glass Pyrex coffee cups and their matching saucers have dulled through years of use and the chequered vinyl and Formica furniture with spindly spider-like legs has also seen better days. Yet for those regulars that know, its unpretentious secret is that it sells the finest cup of coffee in the city. It has, of course, made a passing nod to trends and the law of demand and supply if only to remain in business, and so they also serve a variety of coffees with improbable Italianate names that end in “o” in an assortment of weirdly designed cups and mugs in the plethora of shapes and sizes deemed appropriate for the style of drink contained: fashion and fad to appease the fashionable and faddish. However, as fine as the coffee is, I come here for the anonymity – and being some distance from my patrol route I’m less likely to encounter an irate motorist whose car I may have ticketed in the course of doing my professional duty.
The woman sat opposite me is one of those regular customers who visit here every day and isn’t just sheltering from the rain: I recognised her the moment she walked in and made her way to the counter; as I glanced over my shoulder I noticed her looking in my direction and my heart skipped a beat… she had noticed me too… then I realised she wasn’t looking at me but at the empty seat at my table as it was the only vacant one left in the now crowded café. Once she had been served she came over and asked if the seat was taken. Without speaking I merely shook my head and gestured for her to sit. Placing the brim-full cappuccino on the table, she removed her sodden outer-coat, dropped it unceremoniously to the floor beside her chair and sat down. In time it took for her to enter the café to now be seated in front of me I became filled with a contradiction of anticipation and anxiety. When travelling on a bus I want the seat beside me to remain empty yet feel conflicting pang of disappointed when the next person boarding chooses to sit elsewhere, or worse still, prefers to stand. None of us wants to be sat next to the lunatic who insists on talking for the whole journey so when the seat beside you is the only empty one on an overcrowded bus there is that voice in the back of your head that concludes that perhaps the chattering lunatic that people avoid is you.
Only ever seeing her from distance before I now take the opportunity to regard her closer; some would describe her as plain and almost forgettable yet on seeing as many nondescript faces as I do during the course of working day I would beg to differ. Her ovoid face is narrow without being thin or gaunt, her cheek-bones are high without appearing overly defined and her nose is perfectly proportioned between her distinct but in no way hooded brow and the soft natural pout of her lips. Over the past few weeks I have come to find her increasing more attractive, but up close she is more beautiful than I could have imagined, or hoped. Yet there is sadness in her eyes that unnerves me a little, her icy steel-blue irises with dark grey flecks surrounding narrow piercing pupils seem to mirror the weathered sky outside in a gloom-ridden shadow of regret and sorrow. To begin with I thought we were roughly the same age, both appearing older than we actually were, but now I’m unsure, through her eyes she seems much older than I once wished her to be. I fear now she would not regard me as I do her.
A drip of rainwater has run from her fringe, down the dorsum of her nose to hang like a dewdrop from its tip that she absently wipes away with the back of her hand. Seeing me looking, she sniffs and gives me a small coy smile. I smile back and, a little embarrassed, avert my gaze. I should speak but through apprehension and reticence I can’t think of anything to say, and that’s probably for the best as I’d only say something stupid or inappropriate or both. Instead I needlessly stir the unsweetened ink-black coffee in my cup, creating swirly eddies in the thin layer of frothy crème on its surface, cursing silently to myself for the missed chance of an ice-breaking introduction and maybe even a friendly conversation.
She is not the reason I come here every day but she is the reason I linger longer than I need. Not that I am a stalker or voyeur or anything as tawdry as that, we just visit the same café at the same time each day and sit at the same tables each time. Normally we sit separately and ignore each other as we do everyone else in the café (well… she more than me as I doubt she knew I even existed until just now): she sits by the window where she gazes out of as the people pass by, or silently reads a book as the solitary coffee before her goes cold in the cup; and I sit here at a small table against the wall facing the ever opening door and I too spend most of my time staring out of the plate-glass window to the city street beyond as the last dregs of coffee in my cup also grows colder. At first I barely noticed her, just another customer sitting by herself, drinking coffee and passing the time as the world goes on without her. Her face always carries an air of melancholic sadness and I guess that is what drew me to her, a kindred spirit perhaps; another lonely person in a city of lonely people. I feel that I have come to know her without actually knowing who she is as in my daydreams I invented a future where we are neither alone nor unknown to each other, but now those dreams are fast receding into a past that never happened.
Staring down at the table with its two cups of coffee separated by a chrome dish of neatly folded paper napkins, condiments and sachets of sugar I detect a movement in my peripheral vision yet resist the urge to look up at her again and just watch her hand as she reaches for a sugar sachet that she delicately tears open and carefully sprinkles its contents in a small pile on the milky foam of her cappuccino so that it sinks slowly into the rich espresso below. Picking up the spoon she gently slides it into the foam and stirs the coffee with imperceptible movements as not to disturb the intricate design that the barista has stencilled on the top in chocolate dust. I follow the path of spoon as she lifts it to her mouth, her lips part slightly and, transfixed by the innocent sensuality of the moment, I see it enter her mouth to be sucked clean of the creamy foam residue. She smiles once more, almost flirtatiously, as she withdraws the spoon and I realise too late that I have been caught watching her again. I can feel warmth flush to my face and I know I’m blushing a self-conscious shade of crimson as my mouth goes dry. I try to swallow but without the lubrication of saliva it sticks in my throat and instead makes an imperceptible noise that sounds like a suppressed gasp. Seeing my discomfort she emits a small laugh and silently places the spoon onto the saucer and cradles the cup in both hands as if to warm them, an action that causes her to lean forward, bringing her face closer to mine. Without averting her gaze as I expected her to, she speaks so quietly I can barely hear her over the background chattering noise of the other customers.
‘It’s Frank isn’t it.’ She states. It’s a rhetorical question, she knows my name. Taken aback that she knows who I am I forget to ask her name and unfortunately she doesn’t offer it as another opportune moment slips through my fingers. ‘I saw you.’ She says and immediately my mouth dries even more than I thought it could and I tense, my chest tightening and my heart beating fit to burst, I try to speak but no words come out. I force another swallow, trying to wet my mouth with saliva that still will not come.
‘S-sorry..?” I stammer as each utterance fights to get out; the word comes out more as a question than an apology. I compel myself to breathe and try and calm myself.
‘The meter,’ she explains, ‘the car meter thing…’, speaking quickly in an unbroken stream of fragmented sentences as if she had a lot to say and so little time in which to say it, “…parking time machine thing… ah…’, the apprehension of speaking affects her as much it does me but reveals itself in diametrically the opposite way,’ …the parking meter! I saw you,’ she continues, ‘feeding the meter. I mean I’d seen you before. Here. The guy at the counter said…’, without pausing she gestured behind me to the counter, ’you are Frank. I was running. Running late. The meter. No time. I was rushing back to the car. The rain started… I saw you. I think. No, it was you, Frank. It is Frank isn’t it?’ Allowing no gap for me to answer she continues talking, ‘I’d seen you here before,’ and as she talks she reaches into her handbag to retrieve her purse. ‘I thought you were giving me a ticket but-‘, she finally pauses to compose herself and to breathe but before I can think of anything to say in response to the stream of words she speaks again. ‘That was very kind of you. I must repay you.’ She opens the purse and rifles through the coins it contains, I shake my head.
‘N-no, itsokay, y- you do-n’thaveto. ’ But she has already taken out a single Euro that she slides across the laminated table-top with her finger-tips. Not wishing to offend I reach out for the coin and our fingers touch, lingering for a fraction of a second longer than expected. Without warning her hand glides over mine and she squeezes it gently. Some say that there is an electric jolt when someone you like touches you for the first time, and I would love to say that happens now but it doesn’t, yet there is a warmth that fills my heart and I can feel my rib-cage relax its grip on my constricted lungs.
‘Thank you.’ She smiles as she removes her hand and I feel a twinge of regret as she does, just a moment longer… but that moment has gone the way of the others. I close my eyes and emit a wistful involuntarily sigh. When I open them again I notice her face is different, the pale wan of her complexion replaced by a mellow glow as the blood has filled the skin of her cheeks, driving put the weather-induced pallor. She now looks several years younger than before and I revise my guess. ‘Sorry, I-I didn’t mean to… that was very forward of me…’ She apologises and there is now a hesitant awkwardness in her voice, she turns her head away and bites on her lower lip, then tilts her head down so the damp strands of hair veil her face, hiding her own embarrassment.
‘No, it’s me, forgive me. Sorry. I just - ’ I cough in a futile attempt to clear my throat and collect my thoughts, ‘I just…’, but my words have failed me again, and in frustration I utter ‘… shit’ quietly under my breath.
‘You just what!?’ she laughs a tense, nervous laugh, ‘well that’s a first, I’ve never had that effect on a man before!’ Visibly upset, she pulls away and momentarily confused by her reaction it takes a while for the cause to dawn on me.
‘Oh. Shit. I mean no. I didn’t mean I just … I just…’ Still my words are failing me and I can feel the instinct to flee building up. ‘Oh God…’ In a panic I gather my belongings and start to rise from the chair, to be stopped has her hand once more wraps around mine, this time the squeeze more insistent, urging me back down into my seat.
‘Stay. Please.’ She pleads reaching out with the other hand so that now both holding mine, preventing escape. Other customers have stopped gazing at mobile ‘phones while drinking their coffees to stare at us, I smile sheepishly at them and lower myself onto the chair, some of them smile back in amusement and a few scowl admonishing reprimands for causing such a public scene, and then one by one they turn back to the glow of their ‘phone screens and their coffees. All except one, not a regular but I recognise him never-the-less, the driver of one of the cars I ticketed earlier, a black executive sedan. I quickly turn away and surreptitiously kick my uniform further under the table in the hope that he hasn’t seen it but I know that horse has already bolted. The woman removes one of her hands but keeps the other clutching mine, she relaxes her grip slightly and the tension in my body once again ebbs away. I risk a glance at the car owner but thankfully he is now reading a paper copy of The New York Times.
‘I’m sorry.’ I blurt out, ‘I just…’
‘I think’, she smiles sweetly at me as if I were a child, ‘it would be easier if you stopped saying I just, and thought of something else to say’, she softly stroked the back of my hand as she spoke, her voice tender and soothing. I start to speak but she touches my lips with her finger-tip. ‘And stop saying you’re sorry.’ Gripped by the tongue-tied maxim of the socially inept: When unable to think of something stupid to say do something stupid instead… I kiss her finger without thinking… yet she doesn’t flinch or pull away; her smile broadens driving away the last of the melancholic pallor from her face and her pupils have dilated, eclipsing the grey flecks so that only the steel blue remains and discernibly now appearing far bluer than before as the greyness lifts. She raises my hand from the table and leans forward to kiss the back of my fingers, I turn my hand and stroke the side of her jaw and gently brush my thumb over her lips as I stare into those glorious sky-blue eyes. With a mind still empty of something meaningful to say the compulsion to say something stupid finally wins out.
‘You are beautiful.’ I whisper and my instantaneous regret of making such a forward remark rapidly evaporates as she smiles sweetly in response. Around us chairs are being noisily scraped across the tiled floor as people are beginning to collect their belongings and leave the café. I glance over her shoulder to the open door as they file out. ‘It’s stopped raining.’ I explain.
‘I know.’ her smile broadens in reply then she kisses the palm of my hand.