I grab my first coffee of the day at Tiamo’s: take-away. I’m on my way to the office of my job-that-pays-the-bills, a trip I make approximately twice a month.
At the bar, a stout middle-aged man sits before a plate of vegetables and unidentifiable blobs of rich brown meat. He sinks his fork into the meat with great gusto. It smells, and not in a good way. (To me, anyway.)
‘Join me!’ he admonishes the blonde young waitress, in perfectly enunciated BBC English.
‘Mmm, no thanks,’ she calls back over her shoulder, her back to us, hands busy in the sink. ‘I’m just not a fan of liver.’
The man laughs heartily in reply. So: that’s liver.
I’m in the fruit and vegetable shop, fetching a snack. Queuing. In front of me is a woman with a dark bob, expensively cut. She wears skinny jeans under baggy black leather boots, studded. A fine black woollen top clings tastefully to her lean torso. A hint of white singlet keeps her from revealing more than a crumb of cleavage. She turns her head to talk to the ‘older’ gentleman with her, and I realise with a shock that she, too, could be called ‘aging’. It’s only now that I notice the ever-so-slight steely glint to her hair, the silver that dances where the light falls on the crown of her head. Maybe you can buy youth, I reflect. Somehow, she doesn’t look ridiculous. She actually looks good. I juggle my mandarins and paper-bagged almonds from hand to hand as she chats with the aproned girl at the register and remember that I didn’t buy skinny jeans earlier in the month because I’m too old. I’m still too old.
I step out of my office onto the street. It’s dinner time, and I’m taking a break. The scene is breathtakingly, unexpectedly beautiful. Lygon Street is wreathed in fog. Down the road, at the intersection with Elgin Street, the familiar street scene fades into nothingness. A symphony of colours blinks back at me out of the mist like fairy lights: bright white, orange, red and green. (Street lamps, traffic lights, car headlights.) In the middle of the road, birch trees stand stark against the grey night. Their black branches reach into the fog and disappear.
I cross the road tentatively, carefully. I can barely see the cars approach – how will they see me?
I dawdle on my way to eat, wandering in circles, poking my head in and out of shops. At the entrance to Lygon Court, outside Borders and Nova cinema, a trio of violinists play a jaunty tune. The Big Issue vendor who normally sets up camp here is nowhere to be seen, perhaps hastened away by the cold tonight. Everywhere, people look content, relaxed, even as they breathe cold steam and brace themselves against the winter that has finally arrived. The street rings with voices. It is Friday night in Carlton and people are here to relax, throw off their weekday worries and ease into their two days of freedom.
In one of the shops, I overhear a conversation between two of the staff.
‘God, I hate weekends’ says one. ‘All the people from the SUBURBS come out and ask STUPID questions.’
Tiamo’s. Again. The outside tables are packed with people, wrapped in winter coats and wreathed in tightly wrapped scarves. One table is empty, though still littered with dishes. I glance inside through the window. People are queuing at the bar, waiting for tables. I poke my head through the door, the hanging wooden beads falling about my shoulders. Inside, it is warm and noisy and dimly lit. I’m hungry, and I’m wearing my trusty New York parka. I brave the cold at the free table outside.
A waiter is clearing the dishes as I approach. He is darkly handsome (though not really attractive), with a caterpillar moustache and a regal bearing. He looks at me and holds up three fingers, then two, then one.
He sneers a little as he takes it in. I soon realise that sneering a little is his thing. He sneers as he brings my bread (buttered, which I asked not to have), as he lays out my cutlery, as he brings my spaghetti, and finally, as he ushers me inside to pay.
An Aboriginal woman appears over my shoulder as I sip from my glass and scribble on a scrap of paper I have found in my bag. She is not much older than me, by her appearance. Long, stringy hair frames her face from beneath her beanie. Steam drifts from her mouth as she begins.
‘Do you have any change?’
‘Okay, have a good night.’
I am tired. I don’t know if I have any change, actually. I don’t really give it a second thought as I bend back to my paper.
I hear her repeat the question and glance up to see her legs at the next table. They dismiss her, as I did.
As she moves on, their conversation holds my attention.
‘Oh, I had the WORST beggar the other day. He was a dwarf …’
‘You just don’t know who the real beggars are, that’s the problem …’
‘SOME of them are genuine, I’m sure. A few.’
‘When I was in FRANCE, there was this MAN. His head looked like it was on backwards, like THIS. And then his legs went THIS way. Anyway … And he was shouting something, in the street. It was like GIVE ME MONEY!’ (This last bit is squealed in a desperate, shrill tone.) ‘GIVE ME MONEY!’ (Shrieks with laughter) ‘Of course, that’s not EXACTLY how he sounded.’ (The speaker is in hysterics now.) ‘It was IN FRENCH, of course!’
I glance up in alarm. I’ve been imagining these voices as belonging to a gang of well-off students, or maybe twenty-something professionals. Instead, the laughing woman bears a rigid grey coif and wire-rimmed glasses. Her gentleman companions wear blazers over knitted jumpers. They are members of the left-wing middle-class.
I feel ashamed that I didn’t at least look for some change.
Inside, three women in big winter coats are thawing on stools at the bar, wineglasses before them. The closest one to me wears a coat like a teddy bear: fluffy fake fur. Its collar brushes her cheeks. Springy curls, cut short, tease the tip of her collar. They are coffee-coloured, flecked with silver. A golden flower glints in her nose. Behind the counter, a grey-bearded man zipped into a slim-fitting tracksuit jacket barks orders like a traffic cop.
‘I can’t go any faster’ wails the grizzled, plaid-shirted man behind the coffee machine, as he pours hot milk into latte glasses.
As I pass through the door on my way out, another waiter dips a little bow in my direction and stands flamboyantly, gallantly aside to let me pass.
It’s 10pm when I gather up my laptop, my papers, the several books I have bought, and head for home: to the soundtrack of violins, the hum of car engines and the metal clanking of trams rounding the corner of Elgin Street.