Shopping centre; just after midday. A cafe, half in bleached atrium light, half given to damp shadows and sodium striplighting. The kids sagged, but now, fed on hot chocolate and shortbread are gone to distant corners, their bouncing birdsong shrieks returning from improbable angles. Under the blanket buzz, couples sit in phone-glows and amiable silence. Children tic, burble, eructate. Then there are those in solitude: well sitters, silent sharers. I think to peer in, but am afraid the solitude is sacred, not oppressive. Next to me, quilted and perfumed, sits an older lady, nursing an iced coffee, her head shaking almost imperceptibly. What would I say? What would I ask? What troubles you?
She chuckles; a learned laugh of masking and coping.
“Troubles? Ach. I’m waiting for my daughter. Fifteen minutes late!”
Her left hand is tight on her bag, pincered at the silvered clasp.
“She’s been to the doctor’s. I probably shouldn’t say, but I think she’s going to have to have a hysterectomy. Only 46. The whole lot out. Like emptying a suitcase.”
Her hands, free of her bag now, don’t shake. She rubs them together, the skin ridged like lines on wind-ruffled sand dunes. She blows on them, her head shakes increasing to a noticeable wobble.
“Do you notice it?” I say “if it’s not too rude to ask?”
“What’s that?” she replies.
“Your head, I mean. Sorry – I’ve always wanted to ask.”
“Oh, that. No, not really. It used to make me nauseous at first, when it started. It came on really slowly. I thought it was vertigo or something – like stepping off a long flight and still feeling like your flying. I used to feel sick. But there’s a pill for that.”
She smiles and twinkles, reaching into her bag. She rummages and pulls out what looks like a trapped white ladder, about a foot long. It’s bulk is separated into seven compartments, each bearing a day of the week. She shakes it next to her ear, the contents rattling.
“Pills for everything.”
“I’ve seen into your bag, but I don’t even know your name!” I say. She’s peering beyond me, looking, searching.
“Barbara. Thank you.”
“Matt”, I give back.
“I don’t know why I came over. Sorry. It’s becoming a bit of a habit.”
“Oh, I think it’s nice” Barbara says. “People are so worried about intruding. I think we should wear badges ‘happy to be spoken to!’ something like that.”
“Does it happen at night?” I ask.
“The head thing? I don’t know. Most things do.”
I wonder if it’s re-enactment; a passion play of the nervous system. That carnival of hours, inscribed, strung along the neural pathways, returning, relived. Maybe it’s an exorcism.
R returns, following a crumb-line of peals and squawks.
“We’re in WH Smiths, looking at pens. Then we’re going to Claire’s Accessories. We need things.”
“This is Barbara” I say.
R mutters a hello and body-mutters a kind of curtsy. Then she looks up, obeying unheard instruction, and is off.
Barbara is beaming. Solicitous.
“They’re either breaking your arm, or breaking your heart.”
The light above has shifted, blue sky flooding through the smeared, beshittened atrium glass. Barbara’s glasses have lightened, too, and I see her eyes for the first time, milky with cataract ghosts. I gaze upward and think I should probably go.
“Twenty minutes late now. I hope everything is OK.”
She extends her neck, the tremors increasing in pitch, and peers over my head. A small boy is hacking, emphysematic to our right, his mum wiping his nose, proffering a drink. I hear R’s babble. The birds are calling.
“Whatever happens, I hope everything works out” I offer, moronically.
“Thank you, Matt. Look after those little ones.”
Above, the clouds have blocked in the sky once more. A chair is dragged, braying. I take a final slurp of tea, but it’s cold. I glance at Barbara and she’s rising in her seat, her eyes gone to the middle distance. I can’t read her face but follow her eyes to her approaching daughter, bustling in pink. I wade from the cafe and hear R giggling. Like water, like falling rain.