Tuesday 11 May 2021

People Watching


by Tony Domaille


 I’m a people watcher. At my café window seat, I watch a steady stream of people passing by. Every kind of character and walk of life. It keeps me entertained. And Lord knows any entertainment that costs is beyond my resources.

I also like the posters outside the theatre across the road. They advertise shows I’ll never be able to afford to see, but I sit and imagine what it would be like. Being poor means I have to be satisfied with watching the world rather than being part of it.

So, mostly I watch those outside the café, but today is different. Among the boiler suits, aprons and anoraks inside, there is a couple worth watching.

He is Cary Grant. Of course, he isn’t but he has that look. Tall, slim, perfectly cut hair. As I watch him, he takes a cigarette from a silver case and puts it to his lips. He can’t light up in here, can he? Then he obviously thinks better of it and puts the cigarette down.  The woman opposite him appears not to have noticed.

Her clothes are strikingly different to his dark, tailored suit. She must be of African heritage.  The blaze of orange, yellow, green and red of her huge dress is eye popping. I can see her hair is braided and covered by a turban like headdress of as many colours, but it is her skin that draws the eye. She must be in her sixties, but her complexion is a flawless chocolate brown. The whites of her eyes stand out in beautiful contrast.

This is people watching at its best. What on Earth put these two on the same table? They don’t appear to be talking. They don’t look like they should be together. There are other tables free, yet they are sitting opposite each other.

Then he speaks. ‘Do you mind if I…?’ he doesn’t finish the question but shows her the cigarette between his manicured fingers.

She shrugs, and he puts it to his mouth again.

I want to jump up from my seat and complain loudly. What’s the matter with him? How long has there been a smoking ban? But I stay still, not wanting to do anything that interrupts the scene.

‘Do you have…?’ Again, he doesn’t finish his question.

She rolls those huge, brown eyes, reaches into her large handbag, and produces a zippo lighter. The unmistakable click of the flip top being opened seems improbably loud and I expect other café patrons to object. Nobody seems to notice.

She turns the friction wheel with her thumb, once, twice, three times. The lighter sparks, but there is no flame.

‘Sorry,’ she shrugs.

‘Never mind,’ he says, and puts the cigarette away again.

‘Those things will kill you,’ she tells him.

He laughs, showing a brilliant set of shining white teeth.

‘Death is no laughing matter,’ she says.

He allows his smile to fade as he nods an agreement, and then asks, ‘May I know your name?’

‘Delores,’ she answers.

‘Harry.’ He offers her his hand across the table, and she takes it briefly. ‘Do you come here often?’

She throws her head back and laughs very loudly. He looks pleased by her reaction.

‘Harry, if I was twenty years younger, and closer to your age, I might think you were chatting me up. As it happens, I’m not, so let me give you the benefit of age and wisdom, ‘do you come here often’ is a cliché that went out with…’

‘With what?’ he asks.

‘With a whole lot of other dated questions and expressions,’ she says.

He considers her response for a moment and flashes that smile again. ‘I’m a man out of my time, it seems. Look, I’m going to order more coffee. Can I get you something? Tea, coffee? Perhaps some cake?’

She laughs that laugh again and pats her ample tummy. ‘Not for me, thank you. My doctor says, any more cake and that heart of mine is going to take me out.’

As if by magic, the cigarette is between his fingers again and he draws on it, even though it is unlit. ‘Doctors,’ he says. ‘Always fussing. Always trying to spoil our fun.’

She nods, and they lean closer together across their table.

Now I am straining to hear what they are saying. The voices are much lower, and their smiles are gone. They have only just met, but now I watch them locked in intense conversation.

His grey suited arms are rested on the red and white checked table cloth. The bare flawless skin of her arms makes the white in the checks look brighter, and their fingers are almost touching. I desperately want to know what they are saying, but whilst their lips move, I cannot hear the words. 

I feel bad. People watching is one thing, but now I am almost voyeuristic. For a moment, I consider going over and asking to join them. Ridiculous. How lame would that look? But the compulsion to know more about what they are talking about is overwhelming, so I do the only thing open to me. I go to the toilet. If I sidle past their table slowly on the way there and back, I’ll surely pick up something.

On the way to the loo, I linger as long as I dare and I hear him say, ‘Big body, big heart. Beauty isn’t skin deep.’

She says, ‘More clichés, Harry. More clichés.’

I walk into the toilets. They have redecorated since I was last in here. The smell of new paint and pine disinfectant is a strange mix, but not a bad one. And they haven’t just painted; they have hung photographs on the wall. Photographs of stars of the stage. People who have appeared at the theatre across the road over the decades. I recognise many of the faces. People I would love to have seen perform, if only I had the money. Then I see two photographs, side by side, on the wall near the door.

One is her. Delores Campbell. She is smiling at the camera and the legend at the foot of the photo reads, ‘one of the finest singers of her time.’

The second is him. Harry Carmichael. His face is brooding and the legend on his photo says, ‘award winning actor.’

I smile. Because I never get to see the shows, I realise I don’t know all the stars. I have just spent half an hour within feet of two famous entertainers without having a clue. I’m going back in there, marching up to their table and asking for autographs.

I exit the toilets at a rush and then stop in my tracks. They have gone. Their table is empty. I scan the café floor, in the vain hope they have swapped tables or gone to the counter. They haven’t. I rush to the window and look out into the street, both ways. They aren’t there and my disappointment feels crushing.

I move to the café serving counter. ‘Can I pay my bill, please?’ I ask.

The man in an apron starts pressing buttons on his till and says, ‘Cheer up, mate. It may never happen.’

I shake my head. ‘Sorry. I’m just a bit disappointed. I was going to ask those two stars who were in for their autographs, but they left whilst I was in the loo.’

‘Stars?’ he says.

‘Don’t tell me you missed them as well,’ I say. ‘They were sat at that table there.’

The man shakes his head and hands me the bill. ‘Two twenty, mate,’ he says. ‘And we haven’t had anyone at that table all morning.’

‘Harry Carmichael the actor, and Delores Campbell the singer were sat right there,’ I say.

He laughs. ‘Yeah right.’

‘No, really,’ I say. ‘I didn’t recognise them until I saw their photos in the toilets.’

The smile on the man’s face dies and is replaced with a frown. ‘I don’t know who you saw, mate, but it wasn’t them two.’

‘It was.’

‘No, mate,’ he says. ‘I may only be a café proprietor, but I do know my theater. Harry Carmichael died in 1953 from lung cancer. Delores Campbell died of a massive heart attack on the stage across the road in 1979.’

I look back at that table. I think maybe I see the faintest wisp of cigarette smoke, but then it is gone and realisation dawns. Not a penny in my pocket, but finally I have seen the stars.

 About the author

 Tony has written a number of award-winning plays, published by Lazy Bee Scripts and Pint Sized Plays, that have been performed across the world.  He has also had many stories published in anthologies and magazines. You can follow him here -https://www.facebook.com/tonydomaillewriting/















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