Francis took his place at the window of the Giddens café at half-past two, where it had become his habit to sit until chucking-out time at six. Well, in truth, he had started leaving a few minutes early, before Angela could tell him – lovingly, but firmly – “we don’t get paid any extra, Francis, to stay and clean up after you”.
Each afternoon, he read whatever newspaper the other customers left behind. In between articles, he would pause to digest the news, and to observe passers-by. The public came around in set patterns, like seasons, he thought. For the first half an hour or so, most pedestrians were menial stragglers. Tired chambermaids exiting the hotels. Bus conductors who walked slower than he did. Postmen leaving the sorting office. There was the odd member of the chattering classes – ladies who had lunched too late in one of the better eating establishments in the area, or smartly-dressed gentlemen who had no business other than to spend their day in one of the clubs.
Between three and half-past, the next wave came. Mothers – or, more likely, nannies – shepherding their charges from the preparatory school around the corner, to the kempt rows of villas that feathered off of the main street. Businessmen, with a hurried, purposeful gait, would slack off early from one of the banks – perhaps on the pretence of a deal to be made in the pubs flanking the next corner. Much later, some of them would pass by again, sometimes smirking, sometimes scowling.
Then, from five o’clock until chucking-out at six, the rush came, when all of the offices and the shops disgorged. Intermediate staff from the hotel, tellers from the banks, shop assistants – and their customers – spilled out from all sides.
In autumn and winter, this particular hour made Francis a little uneasy. Oftentimes, shoppers mistook the café for another fashion outlet – still open – and would peer in through the window. Oftentimes, they would not register the person sitting behind the glass at first, and would unwittingly catch Francis’ eye. They would gaze for a moment, trying to work out what they were looking at. Then they would realise. Yes, that is an eye. That is a face, dark as you like. They might balk, they might smile, but they would always walk quickly away.
On Wednesdays, the pattern changed somewhat, as many shops didn’t open in the afternoons. A curious practice, but not as bad as Sundays – when most everything, except the Giddy (as he sometimes called it) was closed. Francis hated Sundays. Not through anti-religious sentiment, but because the buses were quieter, the streets were emptier, and only one waitress was ever needed, and so it seemed to him to be the loneliest day of them all.
Fridays were pay days, and the days when the last wave took on a frantic atmosphere. Workers who were lucky to get off at five would scurry between stores – picking out what they could in that short window of time only they could enjoy. Chideman & Sons, the department store directly opposite the café, was the heart of the action. Francis would absent-mindedly count the prim office girls who’d rush down the street in their heels, wincing and huffing. They’d re-emerge, thirty minutes later, arms laden with bright orange carrier bags, red-faced and chatting amongst themselves about their spoils. There were a few who never made it – who were turned away at the door – who would hang about, smoking or clacking their heels impatiently as they waited for their friends.
It was an autumnal Friday such as this, as Francis sipped the last dregs of his thrice-refilled English Breakfast, that he spotted a well-turned-out girl leaning against the window of the café. She had long, dark curls – quite unlike other girls her age, and was incredibly tall; taller than him, he reckoned. She wore white shoes with matching white gloves, and had a dark shiny handbag tucked in the crook of her elbow. She was pale (though not quite as pale as her shoes and gloves), her paleness quite apart from the kind of people his father would sarcastically call “travelled”. She neither smoked, nor appeared to be in the least bit concerned that Chideman & Sons was closing in less than ten minutes. She simply looked on as her kin raced past her, and barely seemed to move, until at last she turned to glance into the window. Francis, faintly offended by her beauty, looked down at his paper, but his periphery led his eyes to her feet, and thence up her long, slender, pale legs. His eyes came to meet hers, and she gave a glimmer of recognition. Francis braced himself for the balk – that starting motion in a frightened horse – but she remained still, her eyes widening. She grinned. Her teeth were somewhat crooked. Francis fell in love.
A short, older man in a herringbone three-piece suit crossed the road to greet her. Francis slid back in his seat. He put his cap on, and began to put on his jacket. Then an older woman appeared, as tall as the girl, and she kissed the man on the lips. Francis sat up, and couldn’t stop himself smiling. He checked his watch. Iris was shuffling the chairs into place beside him, while Angela sprayed down the tables.
‘Quarter to six, Francis’, they called in unison, in their thick, heart-lightening accents. Francis looked back outside, wondering how much longer he had left before the scene would be played out. The – parents? – were speaking to their – daughter?
‘I suppose you’ll be later than ten,’ the mother was saying.
‘The show doesn’t even end til ten,’ the father said.
‘Last bus home, mummy. I always do.’ She bid each of her parents farewell with a nod, and started off in the direction of the theatre.
A show, then. A ticket? He rummaged around in his jacket for his pay packet. Overtime next week. Even if she’d booked the damned box, he’d get a ticket.
He turned to the waitresses, who had stopped what they were doing to look at him looking at the scene. ‘Good luck, Francis,’ Iris said. ‘Her mother fancies that she’s Mrs Chideman herself.’
Not getting the reference, he left them both a tip each. He was feeling flush, almost light-headed with excitement. He threw his jacket over his arm, and bruised his elbow on the door handle on his way out.
She strode against the tide of city commuters pouring out from the station ahead of her. Francis tried to keep a steady pace – fast enough to have her in sight, but slow enough to not be detected – and he wondered what a policeman would make of it. A dark, short, man in a conductors’ uniform pursuing an oblivious, pretty, well-turned-out woman. As he began to go out of breath, he imagined the officer asking her – “do you know this man?” and her reply, in clipped, no-nonsense tones – “I don’t know him from Adam.” He skirted round a taxi that pulled into the road ahead, and almost bumped into a lamppost. “Come with me, boy,” he imagined.
If only she had dropped something. A glove. A nail file. A theatre ticket.
She turned onto a narrow, quieter street, where The Jarrond Theatre was, and he stopped short of the corner. She’ll be meeting someone, he realised. Who goes to the theatre by themselves? He clutched the pay packet in his jacket pocket, and imagined what his father would make of him spending his money on a play. “All for the sake of a white girl?” he almost heard him say.
He lingered at the corner, and considered hanging around until he play had ended, thereby saving himself a few shillings. He thought better of it, and turned to walk home. Where the average man might be perceived as waiting, Francis might be perceived as loitering.
Deborah couldn’t concentrate on the play. It was a conceited murder mystery, in which all the characters were of the usual old sort who had plenty of time and money to afford to sit around bitching at one another in pin-sharp outfits, and waiting to be killed. Besides, even if it had been enthralling – a Rattigan perhaps, or even a Coward – sometimes they toured those – she couldn’t take her mind off the man in the café. King eyes. Big smile. Or did he? The memory of his face was fading fast, but the feeling remained.
At last, the lights came up for the interval, and she found herself clapping. Without enthusiasm. She filed down the stairwell to the bar, her shoulders rubbing against her neighbours. Everyone seemed to be chatting and laughing with one another. Why do I come here, alone? Outside for air, she fruitlessly pulled in her bolero. A fancy took her that the boy was waiting for her somewhere on that narrow street. She searched under the lamps, but there was no one. She chuckled to herself, and made a mental note to wait outside that café again next Friday. The bell went, and she hesitated, almost starting off home. On second thoughts, no. Deborah preferred to be late back.
On the Monday, Francis’s shift shifted to nights for two weeks, and he wasn’t to be seen at the Giddy until breakfast-time – about eight. In the hours that stretched up until noon, he would observe similar crowds but in new contexts. The flock of tellers and shop workers streaming from the station to precincts. The mothers – or, more likely, nannies – shepherding their charges to the prep school. The ladies who lunched too late would be on their way to lunch. A different set of staff left the hotel – the concierges and porters who had worked the nightshift – then the chambermaids arriving to turn over the beds. And that Monday – the Monday after that Friday – he noticed, first to his amazement, then to his amusement, the trio of faces again. Father, mother, daughter, walking together down the street, the mother’s arm in the father’s, the daughter’s arm in the mother’s. Both father and daughter held a stoic expression. Only the mother appeared to be at ease.
Behind him, Iris guffawed. ‘Don’t they look like something you’d see painted for the cover of Woman’s Own?’
‘Who are they?’
‘You tell me,’ she said, a smile in her voice. ‘Didn’t you go and see a show with the girl?’
His cheeks went hot and he shook his head.
‘A wise move,’ she said, nodding. ‘They all work over there.’ She pointed to Chideman & Sons. ‘The daughter is perfectly pleasant but the mother–. She’s the manageress of the ladies’ floor, and don’t you doubt it. Harps on at her, all day long.’
‘At the daughter?’
‘Yes. She works on the shoes and bags counter. You know’ – she put on a ludicrous upper-class accent – ‘Leatherwear. Got the job because of her mother, I expect. Easy when you know who, not how, eh?’
Francis thought of a contrivance – a present for Iris, or Angela, perhaps? No, no, that’d make her jealous. He smiled at the thought of making anyone jealous. ‘I’ll settle up now, Iris.’
‘You’re not going over there, are you?’
‘You better believe I am.’
‘And you’ll make it to the door and then chicken out, is it?’
They smiled at one another. Somehow, Iris’s lack of confidence emboldened him.
Beren Reid | Feb 2018/Dec 2021
Photo from Pixabay