I order the usual – a buongiorno cocoa, and take my usual seat. The world outside has turned bad – the skies are stretched with grey and the windows are scratched with rain. The wind is pushing and shoving people around. I take off my coat and take from the pocket my notebook and favourite pen.
The Confederate States is a small place on the Binders Road, it makes the corner of the cobbled alley with the dentists and next door is a ghost shop, the kind emptied out by a succession of small businesses until the floorboards are left alone with the smell of desperation.
It used to be called ‘Mariposa’s Cafe and Tattoo Parlour’ until one day: “Twelve men with strange moustaches visited me in a dream and forced me to rename it as the Confederate States Of Moustache,” Mariposa explains one day, blushing in her mid-thirties. “They told me that they wanted to use it as their base – so that the moustache could continue to thrive and so that men with moustaches everywhere would have a home. And then they told me that they were going to mark me with a moustache, so that I would always remember. I pleaded with them to not mark my face and they were kind enough… the mark remains somewhere else.”
Personally I prefer to go about without moustache and I have never been rejected from the cafe for not wearing one. In fact, it is very rare that I have seen a man sporting a moustache in the Confederate States at all. It has never struck me as a particularly hairy place – it just serves good food and drink and plays unobtrusive music.
“When I awoke the next day I found myself scarred with a tattoo of a moustache on my… hip. I closed the cafe for a few days and when I reopened I had rebranded it as the Confederate States of Moustache. I moved the tattoo parlour upstairs but it does not take much business any more. I have not heard from the gentlemen again so I can only presume that I have fulfilled their wishes satisfactorily.”
Whilst Mariposa is putting together my cup of buongiorno cocoa a shaven man enters the Confederate States and starts to ask about cumin seeds and their properties. He is well-dressed in a smart and respectable way and will appear throughout the day as he always does, shopping for ingredients in a painfully slow way, asking Mariposa’s advice all the way. He is retired and making soup.
Mariposa brings me my buongiorno cocoa. “Is that all for now?” Yes. For now.
Mariposa is a cafe owner. What am I?
Well, I am a writer. Or at least I think I am. It is difficult to be sure.
The music that plays in the Confederate States Of Moustache fits perfectly with my desire to write without the distraction of words which could creep into my head and affect my work. This is the policy of music selection here at the Confederate States: ‘The Confederate States Of Moustache will only play music which is either purely instrumental or includes vocalisations which are merely sounds and bear no reality to words used in the English language, for example scat music. It may also play music in French or Welsh or Russian or Japanese or a number of other such languages. It may also lapse into silence.’
I have become adept and prolific at putting one word after another down onto a page in order to form some sort of sense or thought or action. Beyond this I am not sure of my talents.
In my time here I have not yet heard one single buzz from above the cafe, not one single sharp, seconds-long buzz of a hundred needles marking the skin with forever. The equipment lies dormant if it lies there at all and this is no longer a tattoo parlour any more than it is a hairdressers or a bank. It is a cafe and nothing more but there is something to be said for the ghosts of businesses past and if the empty shop next door is no more poignant reminder of that fact then we should take note of the silence where once there was tattooing. Like it is a statue to a lost life.
Do you ever miss tattooing? “I was never sure that cafes and tattoo parlours mix very well,” Mariposa says. “Would you like another buongiorno cocoa?” I cannot have another buongiorno cocoa because now the morning is beginning to sink towards a lunchtime, like an ill-intentioned wishing well. No, there is no reason for me to order another buongiorno cocoa and try to kid myself that the morning is younger than it actually is. The correct action is to recognise the fact that it is progressing towards ten o’clock in the morning. I’ll have a mug of coffee please, it is nearly ten o’clock. Mariposa always has a pot of excellent coffee bubbling away.
I measure my day out in mugs of brown liquid whilst the weather toils away at the outside world and at the window of the Confederate States. Mariposa is busy, attending to the needs of her customers which all involve drinks or food and not tattoos as they once did.
Before the visit of the gentlemen with moustaches.
On the wall, at head height above the cake counter is a picture of the first gentleman. “He is the one who spoke, he is the one who marked me.” His name is Maximilian Tansberg and he lived between the years of 1724 and 1802. His moustache is a fine, thin waxy thing which sprawls across his face like a hairy vine. It was known for its strength and perhaps that is the reason why he was the gentleman nominated for the task of marking Mariposa. One end of his viney moustache has reached all the way up his face and curled around his eye like a monocle. “It is said that he would sooner shoot a chicken than wait for an egg.”
Is that just a saying? I try to imagine such a man.
I, with my smart black corduroy notebook and my favourite pen, am not in the business of telling the stories of such men with such moustaches. Moustaches do not mean much to me as I do not wear one.
What I am trying to do is complete a story which I set out to tell a number of years ago. I started it and wrote a great deal of it but did not finish it. I then started it again, knowing more than I did when I started the first time and having spent a few more years in the world and knowing a little more and being a little wiser. I looked at what I wrote and decided that I preferred what I had written the first time when I knew not so much about the world. I was naive and innocent then and this lent it a fascinating quality which could be best described as wide-eyed. I stopped the second attempt and spent some time writing other things – I kept my eye on the world around me and wrote what I saw, learning and trying to figure the place out. I am now back for a third time and this time I am being very careful.
The words turn slowly from my pen, only giving birth onto the page when they are ready. I am a careful mother to them, making sure that each is exactly the one I want, turning it over in my mind before I set it down in the position following the last word and preceding the next word. Even with this system in place I am sometimes forced to bring my pen down violently on a whole sentence of my babies and scratch through them, ripping my careful handiwork to shreds because I was not careful enough.
It is in these moments when I wonder what I am doing here, sat at my table in the Confederate States of Moustache with my smart black corduroy notebook and my favourite pen.
I set my smart black corduroy notebook and my favourite pen to one side, and take my third cup of coffee along with one of Mariposa’s finely crafted quiche slices. It is a little after half past eleven. Does this count as lunch?
The coffee is fine as ever. I think that once the human mouth has become accustomed to coffee it enjoys it more. At first taste there is little for anyone to ever find enjoyable but slowly the taste buds warm to it and eventually enjoy it and then a little after that it begins to crave it when it is not around. I have never enjoyed tea. The only enjoyment I can take from tea is the sight of a tea bag hanging in the water like a fish on the end of a line.
“What are you writing?” Mariposa has appeared at the side of my table with one of her quiche slices.
I have been trying to write this story for years and it has become some part of my brain. I am not keen on discussing it.
“Ok, well. Here is your quiche.” She puts the plate down and gets back to her week.
The retired soup maker returns and asks Mariposa’s advice on the best thickening agents to use in his soup and she suggests corn flour, thick cream and bread. He writes this down on a piece of till roll and then he leaves the cafe to get on with his soup production. I think about the cumin seeds and the corn flour and hope that he has some other ingredients to put in this soup of his.
Whilst I am eating my quiche I look at the picture of another gentleman with a moustache which is on the wall near to my table. He has a thin and very straight moustache which sticks out at strange angles across his cheeks. One side of the moustache is longer than the other and it reminds me of a minute hand and an hour hand. In other words his face makes me think of a clock.
In the photograph his face is telling me that it is about twenty to four.
Quiche over, I ask Mariposa for more coffee and apologise to her that I cannot tell her about my story. I then ask if she will tell me about the picture of the clock moustache gentleman.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot tell you about him.” And then she gets my coffee.
It is midday.
Outside the Confederate States of Moustache the day has turned dirtier. Where the rain was previously clawing gently at the window like an interested animal it is now throwing itself like a creature turned mad. Small rivers form on the glass and stream down towards the pavement. Lunchtime people hurry in from the wet.
The story begins in a small fictional village somewhere in a fictional countryside. A young man living out a slow and improbable life in a small shed decides to become a detective and sets out to find things to detect. In the village shop he comes across a strange man who is living two lives – equal parts ex-adventuring prophet-guru with a casket of captivating stories and good advice and steady shopkeeper who can be depended upon at all times.
The young man finds himself becoming further and further entwined in the shopkeepers life and the stories with which he entertains two small children who seem to run wild along the shop. They have been entrusted to the shopkeeper on a day-to-day basis by their errant mother, a poetry widow with a strange connection to the village church.
When the ex-adventurer prophet-guru goes missing, the shopkeeper employs the young man, with his detective skills to find him. What follows is a strange non-investigation in which the young man must unravel all the old stories and consort with wild men of the surrounding countryside to find out what is going on.
Do I know what is going on?
I order another mug of coffee and a cake.
I have suggested to Mariposa on previous occasions that she could use her redundant tattooing equipment to make very unique gingerbread men. She has not taken my comments on board but she does make some very exciting cakes.
The music playing in this settled and stable afternoon at the Confederated States is a composition which I can only describe as slow and treacly, organic sounds formed on a different planet. It forms its own shape around your head like an atmosphere around an inquisitive astronaut.
I have never been able to explain music and I do not understand how much of it is made. I have no desire to understand either. Its mystery is what I find so compelling. I could no more explain to you the genesis of the music playing now than I could the biological birth of a cucumber. There is a magic that I do not find in fiction, which I am too keen to crawl under the skin of, to pick apart and squint at. I wonder if these sounds are made by man or machine or a combination of both.
I ask Mariposa about the music, specifying that I do not want to know too much. Where does she find this music?
“The music played here was another thing stipulated by the gentlemen. It was dictated by their musical expert – a man named Marty Blebbough.” She gestures to a portrait on another wall. It is of a youngish man, with fiery red hair and a moustache that once fell down across his lips like a curtain at the theatre. “Nineteen-oh-three to nineteen-thirty-six, Marty Blebbough.”
She places a cup of coffee and a piece of carrot cake on the table.
Then I tell her – I think that the story is about fiction, responsibility, childhood. Those three things form a triangle and the story fits somewhere in the middle of that.
Mariposa’s carrot cake has streaks of orange cut through it, like goldfish swimming very fast through the body of the cake. On top there is a thick vanilla buttercream which I could eat all day. The cake is moist but not wet. There is little more praise that I can articulate. Mariposa would be wasted as a tattooist.
In the story there is a character who I am considering naming Skeeby. He is an old character, a man of advanced years who drinks red wine and lives in an old abandoned train carriage. The carriage is abandoned and broken on the old train tracks and weeds have grown up around and into it, securing it in a place where there is nowhere for it to go now. He is quite happy there.
In writing this I am living the life of a train-dwelling drunk vicariously. I think about how I would feel living there and I begin to wonder how I would keep my black corduroy notebook dry. Perhaps this is the use of fiction.
He becomes more than just a character handy to the detective in the furthering of the plot and resolution.
A few gentle turns and the retired soup man could very easily become a very similar man to Skeeby. It is two o’clock and he is back in the cafe, quizzing Mariposa about this soup which he is planning to make and which he seems to be putting together backwards. She implores him to add some vegetables, something to give the soup a base. Carrots, sweet potato, parsnip. He leaves again, clutching his shopping bag.
It is now approaching three o’clock and the rain is showing little sign of disappearing. Much more of this and the day will be written off – it could have become a reformed character with a little good will, but now…
I am glad to have spent today in the Confederate States of Moustache and not outside. It would not be a good day to spend living in a tumbledown train carriage. I order more coffee.
There exists a strange truth about time in cafes: mornings are always longer than afternoons.
By four o’clock Mariposa is keeping the cafe open for only three reasons: one, to give me somewhere to write, two, to give her something to do, and three, to be there in case the retired soup-making man returns with more retired soup questions.
She pours us both a cup of her coffee and then sits down at the table opposite me whilst I try to concentrate on the story. As the day dawdles to darkness the words come slower and slower and the story moves at a slow and unsure pace. If I was a cyclist I would say that I had ridden so long that now the legs in my muscles were tired and I was having difficulty keeping going.
But I am a writer.
“What’s happening in your story now?” Mariposa asks me.
She is supplying me with coffee and I am too tired to not answer. The detective is visiting a train-dwelling drunk and asking him what he remembers about the missing man. They are sitting in the long grass underneath an electricity pylon. As they are both making up fictitious questions and fictitious answers it is a very odd exchange.
Mariposa sits in silence for a while, drinking her coffee. When she has finished she drinks my coffee. Then she replaces the departed coffee in each mug with some fresh coffee.
“You spend so much time in fiction. Do you ever forget where it ends?”
I do not look up from the page. I nod.
“Because sometimes I-”
The door opens and the retired soup-making man enters. As I mentioned at the beginning of the day, he is a well-dressed man and he remains now as smart as he was at breakfast time, in the way that some people are built. He rushes across to Mariposa and kisses her on the cheek. His soup is complete, thank you thank you thank you. He leaves again, for the day.