Scratched pine tables, russet and orange walls, impressionist paintings. The café is warm with life and strangely French, as if it should be Gauloises and black coffee rather than the English breakfast I’ve just ordered. I plonk myself on the table by the door; looking out through the geraniums to the street.
It’s raining. Raining hard and the book I’m reading is warped; tattooed with the small round blotches rain leaves on soft paper. I’ve ordered the works and it soon comes; the first meal of my day. It’s glowing. Beans, bacon, bubble and squeak, mushrooms, hash browns, fried tomatoes, toast; a thin coffee frothed on the top. I know I shan’t want for the rest of the day. I smile.
Outside a woman walks past slowly, meets my eyes cleanly and smiles in turn; possibly a kindred spirit, perhaps just reacting to the rake of interested eyes across the crowd. She grins secretively to me or herself and slips past. The plants are verdant by the window, a curtain past which her smile has slipped.
I raise the first fork of food to my mouth.
Do you want peas in your salad? I nod. He takes the peas from the sink, where they’re defrosting in a colander and throws them in the salad bowel. Do you want raisins in your salad? I nod. He passes me the packet and I sprinkle some in. How about some tuna in the salad? I can do nothing but nod. The can is duly emptied. Salad cream? He hands me the jar and a dollop goes in.
Potatoes? Cheese? Raw mushrooms? Why not. The salad is growing more and more eclectic and I wonder if he’s wondering what I’ll accept and when I’ll finally call his bluff. It’s a poker game played out over a plastic bowl; a game of chicken played out over a caesar salad. I watch the bowl gain in majesty. What the hell, I think. I’m hungry. The more that’s in there the better.
I’m in my uncle’s Peckham flat. I haven’t seen him since I was 10. He’s the black sheep of the family; short, stout and equipped with penetrating pale blue eyes. He plays guitar, fiddle, bass, piano. He’s a fine potter, mechanic, builder. He also did too much acid in the 70s and hasn’t been the same since. That’s the tale I know; I doubt it’s his.
The 1930s flat he bought from the council in the 80s is a work of art. He’s put in curved corners where once there were square; designed exquisite mock-Victorian embellishments, cut a hole in the wall, tiled it and put a sink in the obscure alcove. There’s a rusty Triumph engine in the fireplace and a snarling, scaled, ceramic dragon with incense in its sharp mouth on the mantelpiece.
There’s also a mad Italian woman on the sofa. She wants to show me pictures of his old Land Rover. I smile at them, all 20, 40, 60, 100. The same vehicle, out of focus, from various angles. She’s delighted at my unfeigned interest – albeit in her rather than the snaps – and tells me “this is a nice one, look!”
From time to time she pops out for a cigarette, sitting slumped on a chair on the balcony outside the front door, wrapped in a purple mohair jumper. There are plants growing thickly, lustrous in red earthenware pots along the balcony. Their flat is on the corner and it is alive with art, music; geraniums and madness.
The salad is served and I tuck in hungrily, a thick slab of brown bread in my left hand and a fork in my right. It’s delicious. He eats with me and she watches, smiling, from the sofa.
Later he walks me to the bus stop. “She has some mental health issues…” he says hesitantly, walking a foot shorter and a foot stouter beside me; he’s said it with no form of introduction to the topic. “A companion… ” he seems unsure how to phrase it; the words tail off.
“It’s all relative” I offer tentatively in return; meaning degrees of madness, happiness, comfort, love. “And she seems like a lovely woman.” He smiles fleetingly, thanking me. The bus stop is in sight and he shakes my hand with one of his own; strangely soft hands with a thin filament of fading genius running through his fingers. I climb aboard and the bus draws me out of sight.
I walk to the back of the bus as it lurches away, claiming a seat by the window. Two well-dressed men eye me briefly from across the isle, the younger curiously; camp and effeminate. His elder partner has huge, tough hands — the hands of a fighter — obscurely out of place against the fine cut of his suit.
I plug my headphones in and stare out the window. Rain. Pretty black girls chatting. Cluttered shop fronts; it all holds and releases the eye, a cacophony of images and life caught in the downpour. The bus lumbers its way on, spraying grey bilge up from the glistening street; its isle packed, raincoats glistening and sweat steaming off people as they clatter upstairs.
My hands dance a little in the air, conducting the symphony. At Camberwell Green an old Rastafarian pushes his way through to the back to join me, determined; he’s heard the music playing out of my hands. I know he’s staring ferociously, eyes locked on me. I sit and watch the street pour past through the window.
People have embarked, disembarked; a thick throng. But he’s still staring, waiting; his face a little deranged. I turn, unsure what I’ll meet in this man, to look at him and meet his gaze finally and fully. Our eyes meet.
He nods, throwing his head back. “Alright brother?”
I throw my head back at him in return, silent but acknowledging. He’s satisfied with my greeting and his eyes quieten. He turns and sits. His cap a tangle of colours; red the blood of the martyrs, green the vegetation and the beauty, gold the wealth of Africa; silver the beads of the London rain.