I always mark it up as a good day, when I see something for the first time.
We went down in the huge elevator at Holland Park station; catching the central line across town to come up to ground level again at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Along one side of the building, several hardy, resilient protesters, there to show their unfading indignation against the banks were still camped out; their tents raised-up away from the cold upon wooden pallets, the campsite looked worn-in, well established and orderly. In the center a small marquee had opened up as a small business selling soup to the campers. At a newly constructed square nearby, a labyrinth of crowd-control railings spiraled out from the center where a fine Christmas tree stood. At first, I couldn’t discern for what purpose they had been set out; perhaps a carol concert; a ceremony; a show? I was getting excited and contemplating coming back in the evening to join the celebrations; yet it turned out, as I learnt while I was chatting with a security guard, that it was all there to stop any more tents being put up.
So, we went off, hunting for an old-style café where I used to treat myself to a fry-up after a job had gone financially well enough to indulge. Coming back here after five years away, a lot of things had changed. After meandering around for a while through the side streets surrounding where I remembered it to be, I began to suspect that it wasn’t there anymore. It had been a wonderful place, with fake-wood laminate wall cladding, and speckled melamine tables laid out in a booth style, solid white mugs for tea, and solid white plates for the food. One wall had been taken up with a bright plastic menu spelled-out in black plastic lettering. The windows were steamed up most of the day, from the frying, the kettle boiling, and the warm bodies filling all the seats.
My suspicion got confirmed by a worker in a glamorous tourist booth down the road, who was lamenting the cheap, good-quality sandwiches he used to pick up there for a couple of pounds, for his lunch, every day. So, it was gone, an important part of the local culture, gone to the great high street in the sky.
So, we travelled on to another neighborhood, not so far away; near to an old Victorian market, where there should be enough remaining custom for a café and we were certain to find something to fill our growling stomachs. Along a row of hundred-year-old buildings, opposite the loading bays of the market, slotted in-between restored, murky facades, was a narrow place with a bright large window, opaque with condensation, fat lettering stuck to the glass; just abstract blocks of color at this close distance.
“This will do.” I declared as I boldly and enthusiastically swung the aluminum door open into a paradise of honest authenticity. The walls were painted a bright white and three rows of long tables were lined up, impractically close to each other, flanked by rows of orange plastic seats that were screwed to the floor to avoid a likely chaos, had they not been so.
We unbuttoned our coats, piling them in a toppling mound, and slid onto the end of a row, where further along an elderly gentleman had finished up eating and was warming his hands on his mug of tea; staring into the distance. Some uniformed workers were crammed-in at another table, their broad shoulders, under their fluorescent yellow waistcoats, were wider than the seats below, causing the unfortunate ones at the end to lean over quite a bit. Their lively, animated conversation made for a pleasant local rhythm made of punchy syllables and stacatto spaces; a vocal jamming and riffing. The vitrine shielding-off the kitchen at the back was full of Eccles cakes like Frisbees and rock buns big enough to hide a troll behind.
Suddenly the boss appeared beside us; late fifties, with a full head of slightly-graying hair, and eyebrows that could keep the rain off his feet. He cleared off some crockery; and with a conspiratorial smile, wiped some bean sauce off the table with his fingers. He took our order; two times the full-house; and it seemed within the time it took him to go there and come back, two heavy mugs, full of orange-brown tea, arrived in one hand; plonked down, along with a plate full of buttered white bread, followed by two big plates with bacon, sausages, baked-beans, two fried eggs, chips and fried bread; in copious amounts crammed-in up to, and hanging over, the edges. With a crunch, I cut a corner of fried-bread and plunged it into the golden yolk. It was so satisfyingly chewy and rich; I heaved a sigh; and that was when it happened. Moments before, I had heard a light commotion behind me about something having been spilled; and now my wide-eyed companion was drawing my attention to something; pointing over my shoulder. I turned my head slowly; and there was the boss, with a large cardboard egg-tray under each foot, skating over, and soaking-up, the spilt oil on the floor, to the sound of a Christmas song, playing on the radio. Ah! So that’s how you do it, I thought. The moment was perfect, the universe was in order, everything was just right.
It’s always a good day, when I see something for the first time.