In the corner of the ill-lit cafe, Clare sits alone and tries to blend into the wallpaper peeling off the sloped wall. Cracks chase cobwebs from floor to ceiling and around the fake candle light-fitting that flickers and hums, bare wires expose their pretty copper heads. She's been nursing the same cup of coffee for four hours, and though it's long cold she still holds her hands around it like a campfire on a teenage summer night. People have come and gone; though small, the cafe holds a lot life. Couples have cuddle into the marshmallow sofas, mothers have forced prams through the impossible obstacle course of mismatched furniture, suits have taken their drink and left without seeing the hopeful tip jar and Clare has sat quietly, unnoticed, watching them. Things have slowed now. The barista leans against the counter with the radio cleaning glasses and the only customers left are two school girls wincing into their coffee and a man who's been here longer than Clare.
She's hoping if she sits here long enough, completely still and completely quiet, the student humming along to The Smiths will lock up, turn out the lights and leave without realising she's there. Then Clare can sit alone in this dark, strange room all night. The boiler will groan, the walls will creak and the wind will whistle through the gaps in the window frames in a way that gives the shadows eyes and brushes imaginary hands over Clare's skin. In the morning the watercolour sunlight will seep into the room, eventually washing over Clare and heralding a new day. Like a baptism, the sun will burn away the remnants of Clare's life before she found the light and her skin will glow fresh with its aura. Her eyes won't be stained with the things she's seen and she'll walk into the world with her head held high and her heart singing.
Clare raises the cup to her lips and takes a slow sip. It's cold and gritty on her tongue and she grimaces as it slides down her throat. The schoolgirls sit giggling on the low couch, legs folded up under them. The brunette with French-plaits sits with her back to Clare, but she can see the face of her friend with the Ronnie Barker glasses. She wears pink lipstick and there's a hole in the sleeve of her school jumper where she's chewed through it, just as she chews it now. The brunette is nodding and Ronnie nods along absentmindedly; both are content, together in their own little worlds. Clare feels that she is staring but can't draw her eyes away. She's fascinated by the way their body language mimics each other as they fidget and sway in their seats. It's as if they're choreographed this dance but without form or logic so it jerks and bobs in a series of messages only they can interpret. Clare studies them as if to discover the secret of their modest happiness.
'Sorry, were you done with that?' The barista is standing over Clare's table pointing at her mug. She had forgotten people could technically still see her and his words don't penetrate for a couple of seconds in which she stares at him blankly. Then the cogs connect and, in her rush to compensate for the pause, she makes a jumbled noise of consent that's a little too loud and resonates in her burning ears as he clears the table. As he walks away, she shuts her eyes and counts slowly to ten, and then to twenty and beyond as she tries to settle. She's at 67 when her phone vibrates; two sharp buzzes that pass through her body like an earthquake. She almost expects the scene to have changed when she opens her eyes, but the hazy room is still exactly as it was. She doesn't look at her phone.