The low sun’s crowding us out of the cafe, blazing through the glass walls on three sides. The lamps come on with their artificial yellow light to remind us all we’re still in the library – ‘silent, academic, serious’ – except it’s not silent at all, but crowded with students chatting on the brown sofas. These sofas are worn, like old beasts of burden, their leather hides badly stitched together around sagging bodies, and faintly ridiculous in the modern grey interior. I like to sit at the raised bar at the serving counter, where the same ladies in black aprons serve coffee every day, with a view of the tables at the window. A pair of builders wearing identical fleece sweaters is sitting next to me. They look lost, while the Mandarin spoken at the next table cheerfully drowns out their occasional one-line grunts.
A woman dressed in a red cardigan is leaning across the one of the round tables to better make out what her companion is saying. She stands out among the grey slacks and subdued hipster knits, her blonde hair flying out to all sides as if she has been running her ringed fingers through it all day long. She is tapping a fire-red pen against her painted nails, as if she matched the colour with her outfit on purpose. I can’t tell if that is a good sign for the young man she is sitting with. He is bent over the table, trying to involve the woman in what he is saying, waving his right hand as he speaks. His stub nose turns up cutely at the tip, spoiling the impression of his crisp white shirt and tie. Two notebooks and an empty coffee cup are stacked in the space between them like a small castle. She is careful to rest her arms on her half, but the look she gives him across the open pages is alive with interest. She passes a hand over her chin, settles it back on the table, and cups her face again as like she’s trying to hide the slight sag of skin around her jaw line. The conversation falls still for a moment. Under the bright cafe lamps I see the glint of a gold ring around his finger, polished as if new.
A large photograph of the Queen hangs on the wall over my shoulder, not far from a framed advert for the original ham & cheese panini. The university’s red emblem is lost in the top left corner, the cheese dripping through the frame and around a printed banner promising us it’s Back by Popular Demand. I study the Queen, who is looking somewhat bemused with her hands crossed in front of her white dress, as if she is guarding the tall gilded door in the background. Her name is signed in green ballpoint on the picture’s white border, the E curling up in salute to her photographed self. I wonder what she would think of us now, as I get up to slide past the woman in red.
This week’s writing exercise over at the daily post – absolutely swamped with work over here so writing this from the library. I live here now…