Wednesday, 21 December 2011


The Excess Café was busy; there were five people sitting at tables, each at different tables, pointedly ignoring each other.  There were three people queuing at the counter, and the one that Lehar was serving at the moment was unusual.  The two behind her in the queue were just plain weird.  And then the door opened, and another person came in.
I was sitting in my customary table one row in from the window where I could see the street outside without being dazzled by the glare of the sunshine.  It was a beautiful day, wintry cold but clear, deep, blue skies as far overhead as you could see.  It made me want to stand outside, tilt my head back, and stare upwards as though I were forever falling into its blueness.  I could hear most of the conversation up at the counter as well.
"Can you burn the beans?" said the woman at the front of the queue.  She had stringy blonde hair poking out from underneath a knitted cap and was wearing some kind of smock that looked muddy.  It smelled worse though, and I was currently hoping that there was just mud on it.  "I like the beans to be a bit crispy, if you get me."  Lehar nodded, though I knew perfectly well she didn't get the woman.
"Tea or coffee?" she asked, her voice bordering on the insolent.
"Both, please," said the woman.  "In the same cup.  Milk for the tea, none for the coffee."
I almost turned round in my seat to stare at her then, and it was only by dint of great effort that I held myself in place.  I heard Lehar murmur something that was probably only borderline polite, and then the hiss of the hot water urn as she mixed the drinks together.
Across the aisle from me, the man at the table there turned the pages of his newspaper. It was an Arabic language one, but I think only I'd noticed.  I knew who he was and why he was here; like me he was waiting for the real customers to leave.
"Is there anything else?" asked Lehar, her voice lilting softly.
"Oh well, I don't really like to ask," said the woman and I couldn't stop myself from thinking So don't!, "but, well, could you run the sausage under the cold tap after you've cooked it?  Only I don't like them hot and greasy."
"She's in the wrong place, really, isn't she?" said a soft voice opposite me, and I opened my eyes and started.  If the plastic chairs weren't all part of the table to stop people picking them up and throwing them about I'd have shot backwards by a foot.  As it was, the whole table jerked with me and a little of my Assam tea spilled on the formica surface.
"Who are you?" I said, looking at the woman who'd come in most recently.  She had small, soft features like a child or a manga-character, a spray of freckles across her nose, and a turban wrapped tightly around her head.  Her skin was milky white away from the freckles, and her coat's high collar was turned up against the cold of winter.
"Tabitha," she said.  "You're the writer, aren't you?"
I openly stared at her now; there were no writing materials on the table in front of me, no dictaphone or its iPhone substitute, not even an interesting National Geographic with bookmarks of pictures that were inspirational or holiday locations that were aspirational.
"Who says?" I asked, my voice a little tight.
Tabitha didn't answer me at first.  Instead she started unwrapping her turban, pulling the long fabric away from her head with slow, steady strokes, letting it unwind at its own pace.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Dax had laid down his newspaper and was watching with professional interest.  Somewhere behind me I heard a male voice say, "I don't like seeds in my tomato, can you ask the chef to scrape them out please?"  As the turban unwound, a soft grey smoke emerged, smelling of the souk, of spices and heat, underlying notes of sweat and acrid tones of humans and animals mixing.  The smoke seemed to hang a little way above Tabitha's head, spreading out to form a quiet cloud over the whole table, me included.  I didn't need to sneak a glimpse sideways to know that Dax would be tensed now, wound like a steel spring, ready to act.
"I say," she said, her voice sounding as though it came from a long way away.  "I've met you before, on a road less-travelled.  You're Anna's friend."
"Anna has no friends," I said.  She could only be referring to Anna-Mix, and she was so many worlds of trouble that I'd lost count of all the reasons for not spending any time with her.
"Anna doesn't see it that way.  I have a warning for you, which is why I've sent you Tabitha.  Noura has found ink for her pen, and she will be writing in the book soon."
"And I must stop her?"  I couldn't have controlled the sarcasm if I'd wanted to try.
"No.  But if no-one stops her then we must at least know what it is that we're accepting."
There was a click, the sound of the hammer of a pistol being cocked.  My vision suddenly returned, though I'd had no idea that it had gone; I was no longer in a grey fog listening to a distant, but familiar voice, I was sat in the Excess Café with a woman called Tabitha wearing half a turban sat opposite me.
"I want a name," said Dax.  "Now.  Or I pull the trigger."
"Names are power," said the voice.
"These bullets are inscribed with the nine-thousand names of God," said Dax.  Somehow that was parry and riposte.
"...very well.  You may call me Djina, though the writer will remember me better as Violet."
Dax looked at me and I nodded.  I definitely did remember Violet.

No comments: