‘Your primitive boyfriend’s here.’ Marc’s voice broke into her thoughts, his announcement riding on a gust of stale tobacco.
Carole looked up. ‘I wish you wouldn’t keep calling him that.’ She marked her place, put her book in her apron, and went to greet her customer.
He had come in quietly, as always, and taken his place in the corner by the spiral stairs. Tall and gaunt he carried his years well. He moved briskly and gracefully. He wore his navy suit: a little less sombre than his other suit. He smiled as she approached.
‘Ah, Carole, I do hope I find you in good health?’
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘The usual?’
‘Yes, I think so. The usual, please. But I will also take one of your bilberry buns as a pudding, if I may.’
‘Extravagance,’ said Carole. ‘You’ll be putting sugar in your tea next.’
She went back to the bar. Marco had heard the order and was already in the kitchen frying sausages. At this time of day, going up to 10, the breakfast rush was long gone but, on Wednesdays, her primitive friend came in for the Beggar’s Breakfast. He had beans, bacon, egg, sausage, fried bread and a pot of strong tea. And a chat afterwards.
Carole had worked in the Beggar’s Bistro for almost five years. A cheap caff by day and a poncy restaurant in the evenings, the Bistro took up the ground floor of an old chapel. Some architects used the top floor. Where once there had been a vestry and an office there was now a kitchen. The pulpit and organ had been replaced by a small bar. The shelves that had once held bibles and hymn books now supported bread baskets and wines. Frames, that had announced hymn numbers, served as the specials board, displaying Beggar’s Best.
The old cast iron pillars, that had supported the gallery of the chapel, now held up a new floor for the architects’ studio. Around each pillar there was a substantial shelf and a group of grubby wooden bar stools. Around the external walls the pews had been converted into small booths for diners.
Near the main door there was a cast iron, spiral staircase. It no longer went anywhere, just disappeared into the boarded-over ceiling. It could not be removed because, said the architects, ‘That’s structural, that is.’
Next to the spiral was an awkward corner with room for a table for one. Here the old man sat on Wednesday mornings and ate a hearty, heart-threatening breakfast.
Back at the bar Carole got back to her book. Eventually Marco gave her a shout: ‘Primitive grub’s up.’
‘Don’t be rude. He’ll hear you.’
Taking the large teapot and mug in one hand, the big breakfast platter in the other, she carried them over to the customer.
‘I fear you have forgotten the bilberry bun,’ he said, as she set the food down.
‘You only get your blueberry muffin if you eat up all your first course.’ She winked. ‘What are you reading today?’
He held up his book. It was wrapped in brown paper that had been used again and again. The creases made for previous books were in the wrong places for the current one. On the cover were several book titles – in beautiful copperplate. The titles were upside down or sideways depending on how the paper had been folded for previous books. One title was not crossed out: Commentary on Revelation. Isaac Newton.
‘And what are you reading today?’ He asked.
She took the book from her apron pocket and showed him: The Physics of Angels. A deep blue paperback from the Oxfam shop, two doors along, and destined to return there.
She left him to his breakfast and went back to her post at the bar. Marco exuded a heady brew of odours for company: a strange mixture of Balkan Sobranie, sweat, cooking fat, and another, more herbal substance.
Marco nudged her: ‘Why are you so matey with the smelly old sod?’
‘I’m trying to read. And he’s not smelly. He wears old clothes, but he’s cleaner than you. And you’re supposed to be in the kitchen, so piss off and let me read.’
When she first arrived at the Bistro Marco had tried to chat her up. He had long ago given up on that project, but still treated her with familiarity. It was as if his rich fantasies of bedding her – which he had related to her with relish – made him feel entitled to intimacy. He wasn’t really a Marco. He was born Martin Oldroyd but felt that Marco would give him ‘a better chance with the women.’
She had come to the Bistro when she had just graduated. She was wondering what to do next and needed a temporary job for thinking time. Her wondering went on.
What could she do with an indifferent degree in Human Sciences? The course booklet had promised lucrative work in management: ‘Students will graduate with a thorough grounding in operations research, psychology, sociology, politics and economics providing a launch pad for a dynamic career in a wide range of arenas.’
She chose the course because she liked the sound of Human science, but it had not worked out well. She never felt grounded in anything. She copied screeds of stuff from big textbooks into her assignments and essays. She got poor grades. She never knew where to concentrate her effort and her tutors had no advice, using their lectures to attack each other’s courses.