We pick a dull morning in November 2015 for my first go at a café. Pete and I drive to the New Forest, to a wildlife park set among tall trees. We arrive early, at 12pm, so there won’t be many people about, and we choose a table out of the direct glare of the fluorescent lights.
Pete goes to the counter to order our food. I have a baked potato with salad, and peppermint tea. (Some things, I find, don’t change – those small metal flip-top teapots STILL pour water all over the table whenever you fill your cup).
The place fills up, and I stare and stare as I eat. I’m fascinated by people’s faces and smiles, their different sizes and shapes, their gestures and clothes. I eagerly listen in on conversations in person and on phones. I even spot my first hipster beard, a phenomenon that, up til now, I have only read about in magazines. It’s a fine example, black, silky and luxuriant, worn beneath large-framed spectacles in cherry red.
For so long I’ve had real people only in controlled doses, people I know, in ones or twos, very rarely more, and in my house. New companions joined me in the dark, as I listened endlessly to talking books, and for several intense hours I would follow their trials and tribulations, look on at significant moments of their lives. But these were phantasmal beings, formed from the ectoplasm of words, edited, pruned, consistent, their very idiosyncrasies designed to facilitate the plot.
Real people are wild and weird and wonderful. They are hairy and bulging and scrawny and toned. They discuss obscure matters with ferocious intensity but a maddening lack of specifics. I feast on them as I eat my potato – I’ve been starved too long.
I still need to be prudent about the light, so we don’t hang around. After 20 minutes we get up to go – and I have the exquisite pleasure of discovering that not only did I not have to cook this meal, but I can leave the remains on the table, for somebody else to clear up.