“We should do this more often,” my wife says.
“Sit outside?” I ask, looking around from my place beside her on a sunlit bench, in a plaza in front of a cathedral here in Edinburgh.
“And people-watch,” she replies. “I think you like it.”
She’s not wrong. Indeed, it’s all I do. As I write this, I’m again ensconced in my now-usual coffee shop for a couple of hours while my wife has another appointment. I’ve exchanged due greetings with baristas. I’ve settled into a comfortable spot. My drink is beside me, and my laptop is set up.
I’ve also made some nods, to the others like me.
There’s one just over there by the window. There’s one at the circular table in the corner. There’s one at the counter, and another just coming across the road outside, heading for the entrance. They see me as clearly as I see them.
The general clientele varies from day to day. Today, for example, you’ll see a lot of those blue t-shirts, because the marathon was this morning. Lots of runners, now rewarding themselves with a beverage. Notice how most of their orders are iced drinks. When they turn away, you’ll see the word Finisher across the tops of their backs. The oldest runner in recent years was aged 101.
Day to day, it’s a lot of business people, just passing through. Some even stay for a brief meeting over coffee, but most hurry in and then hurry right back out again, always with somewhere else to be. I watch them come and go, without remark. To the isolated few — like me — these temporary presences are barely visible.
I do notice the others of my kind, though. I sit here and type, and then there’s a long shadow in my peripheral vision. My eyes flick up to the menubar on my laptop’s screen, and I note the time. Right on schedule, I think, because schedule is what this creature is all about.
The shadow moves languidly, not in any hurry. All haste is in the past, if there was ever any to begin with. Now, there is only time — and whatever is in the notebook.
The being is in his fifties, easily. Tall; perhaps 6’2”. His hair is white, and so is his short beard. The hair is in a ponytail. His ankle-length black leather trench coat creates a curtain of moving darkness as he walks. His boots, though heavy, produce surprisingly light footfalls. His t-shirt changes each day, as it should, but only within the pantheon of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Mötley Crüe, and the like.
He enters, whispering across the floor with unsettling grace, and he sits in the very middle of the coffee shop, always facing away from the counter. He goes up to purchase his first hot drink (it won’t be his last), and he greets the staff. His voice is quieter than you’d expect, and at all times he is painstakingly, unfailingly polite.
He returns to his table — because it is his table — and he produces his notebook and pen. He reads back over something he wrote earlier, and then he nods, satisfied. He begins to write.
I don’t know his name. I don’t know any of their names, and they don’t know mine. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that we’re regulars.
Here’s another one. He looks over, slightly wary, as if he’s unsure whether I’ll respond. I nod. He returns the gesture. He’s bald, in his early thirties, and South African. He’s built like a weightlifter, and his dark skin is unlined, perhaps because he almost never smiles. He’s a student — maybe at a university and maybe not — and his backpack is filled with the sheafs of printed notes that he holds so dear. He does not wear headphones, instead preferring to engage others (ideally our kind) in conversation about his passion: the ethno-political history of Zimbabwe.
He will tell you about Mugabe, and his Fifth Brigade. He will tell you about electoral fraud. He will tell you about ZANU, and Rhodesia, and Matabeleland. He will raise his voice, and gesticulate, and he will make you care about that place. It’s not just history. This is personal for him, and so he will instinctively use the cadence and emphasis of a born storyteller.
There are more. The mathematician, with his equations on paper and his graphs on screen: he dresses like a doctor, and he looks at algebra the way some people look at their misbehaving but beloved children. The quiet man at the circular table in the corner, earnest, leaning too far forward as he types on his too-small laptop, utterly oblivious to the world around him. The birdlike young woman who is far too aware of the world, perpetually looking out the glass front wall, as if she’s waiting for someone to arrive each day — or hoping that someone doesn’t.
It’s a surprisingly fast transition: about two weeks will do. We’ve evolved to quickly recognise faces we’ve seen before. It’s a survival mechanism. Two weeks, and they know your name at the counter. Two weeks, and it’s “The usual”. Two weeks, and on the rare occasion when your wife drops by and you go to get her some coffee too, it arrives with your name on it instead.
With the few, it happens sooner. They notice new fixtures amongst the scenery. There’s a period of appraisal, and then tacit acceptance. A process that begins with a barely-visible nod, and ends with being trusted to look after a laptop during a smoking break. Or in a conversation about Zimbabwe. You know almost immediately whether you’ve found someone who’ll acknowledge you in future, or someone who prefers to be left alone — a member, but silently.
It’s a fragile kinship, and it’s strange because it’s within a domain that’s resolutely not ours. We’re somewhere between customers and guests, and are careful to treat our hosts with the utmost respect, and to periodically pay the rent. We learn their names, certainly. We ask after them. For ourselves, though, we mostly just want to be there, in a place where we can focus and can be away from the genuine landmarks of our own, secret lives.
It’s an illusion, of course. It also has a certain hint of melancholy. Carving out a paper-thin tribe in situations that neither require nor really benefit from it. Establishing territory, and a certain sense of propriety. None of us know each other. But we don’t have to.
I people-watch because that’s where stories come from. I read body-language, and a narrative appears. I can do it better when I can see people more clearly, so my fellow restless haunters of this place are the most obvious candidates. They become people that they aren’t, for my own private purposes.
They’re not really these characters, but through the lens of my intrusive imagination, that’s who they are nonetheless.
The student of South African history has a small device in his jacket pocket. It looks like a cigarette lighter, but is infinitely more complex. When he was born, thirty-eight years from now in the year 2054, his country — and the world — is a very different place, and surviving records from our time are fragmentary at best. A dark future that cannot be allowed to happen again. He’ll use the device soon, to visit a year before I existed, and try to create a new path. But first, he must complete his research.
I nod, and he returns the gesture.
The mathematician has struggled with this problem since the beginning of his postdoctoral fellowship; a journey made so much harder by not being able to share his work with anyone else. The implications are as profound as they are disturbing. When you get right down to it, it’s essentially geometry — but at the edges. In the places where the rules start to break down. At the extreme points, beyond the everyday domain, where the numbers begin to curve away from what’s expected. Far past the decimal point, in regions usually rounded and approximated out of existence. There are things there — other rules; other equations. He almost has them. The dreams are more vivid now, and somewhere down there, he thinks there might be a doorway.
A long shadow appears in my peripheral vision. At the same moment, the sun goes behind a cloud, just for a few seconds, and the door opens on schedule.
He whispers across the floor, graceful and silent. He doesn’t wear headphones, because he’s never found a pair that do justice to the music. He hears it in his head anyway. He greets the staff politely, reaches his table, and he sits down.
The grim reaper drinks coffee here each day. He takes out his terrible notebook, and he reviews yesterday’s taken souls, before choosing who else will fall as this world performs yet another rotation. His robe is of black leather, and where it gapes at his chest you can see aeons-weathered bones… just under the iconic logotype of MEGADETH.
And they don’t see him, the coincidental visitors who flit in and then out again, wearing their business suits and their security ID lanyards.
None of them see him, even though he’s right there, in the middle, facing out.
But I do.