the bitter aftertaste of popping out for a cuppa
It could only be Caffe Nero in Henley-on-Thames, the microcosmic world of the Henley Regatta, the highlight of the year for the upper-middle Englanders of the Home Counties. Don’t think the coffee shops are any different. As lunchtime creeps closer, the lycra-clad middle-aged women finish sipping their cappuccinos and head out to another yoga class, or for the weekly Waitrose shop more likely. Instead, the queue consists of the students who get more than £5 lunch money for the week (those ones head across the road to Dominoes or the fried Chicken Shop off the high street), a few high-flyer business types with the briefcases, sharp suits and (yes, they still exist) blackberries and finally a few elderly customers spending their retirement in style.
It’s fairly quiet, the music a willowy piano piece that seems to be stuck on a loop while the single table and seat by the window, nestled between two others of course, calls out to you. You seat yourself; the look goes up: “what? You wish to sit between these two tables? With someone sitting either side? Have you no regard for personal space?” Actually, I have every regard but getting a table is hard enough and the metre of space either side is entirely reasonable for my comrades to continue sipping their teas and reading their papers. They sternly look away and grudgingly oblige. Victory.
The task is not over yet, however. You may have secured a table but you have to hold it until your panini arrives. Don’t be thinking that because you’ve bought a diet coke, and even asked for a glass, that you qualify to sit at that table with no coffee and no food. Not to the upper-echelons that are surveying you from the queue. They glance around and shake their heads at the lack of tables. Then they look back at you. You pour the coke into the glass, spread your papers around the table, take up more room than necessary. Still they look. Banging the food marker doesn’t seem to do much good either. You begin to sweat, despite the ice-cold coke: will they actually ask me to move? Will they sit beside me, ask to share my table? (I can assure you, it happens.) Ah at last! The panini arrives! The scaly, cream-clad women look away, moving towards the armchairs. One waves her arm at the waitress to bring the coffees over. Wow, I didn’t know they did table service in Nero.
But just then, when you’ve finally settled down, you hear the shrill pitch, elongated-vowel sounds and a tone coated with condescension that marks the arrival of somebody overly superior to your lowly status. And that of everyone else around you.
“Oh, let’s sit in the armchairs, more roooooom, no?” the mother coos. Good, they won’t sit next to you. Her waif-like daughter drifts over too her before gliding to the sugar stand.
“Would you like some water? I’m getting some.” The mother shakes her head but raises her coffee, as if in toast.
“Cheers!” The talk turns to dresses for some occasion, probably the regatta, of course. “What about your white ooone, with the laaace?”
“Think I could get away with this colour?” The girl ripples her willowy fingers, peach-coloured nails swanning through the air.
“Oh that colour, yest, I think you could get away with most colours. They look gorgeous. You look gorgeous!” Did you get that at the back? This woman’s daughter is goooorgeeous! The mother proceeds to knit: a dark, muddy-green item, while the girl gets out a book. Because who doesn’t read and talk?
“We’ve got nice teas for Daddy haven’t we?”
“He loves cherry maderia cake, and victoria sandwich.” Of course he doesn.
“Gosh, I get my exam results soon. I must get Daddy to do my student finance. He hasn’t done it yet. Then I can choose my modules.”