Busy times are breakfast and lunch, that is when the café is full. Then people start to notice and they aim instead for mid-morning and the point halfway between breakfast and lunch becomes a busy time.
This same couple always come to the cafe in either the gap between breakfast and the breakfast-lunch midpoint, or the gap between the breakfast-lunch midpoint and lunch. They have a favourite table and, coming to the café when they do, they get to sit there nine times out of ten. They always sit at a table for four, occupying just two of the seats – the two next to the window, so they are facing each other, and they always sit the same way round – he occupying the position facing the counter, she with her back to us. They have a distinctive look – he is tall and pale, with fair hair and clothes that are tight against his body, she is short with long black hair and usually wears loose-fitting, flowing dresses.
There is one more thing. When they come to our café, they always argue.
The kind of café we run is not one where we make friends with our regular customers, so we do not automatically start making their drinks when we see them come through the door, not that they always order the same thing anyway. We might give them a quick smile of recognition as we take their order, but we don’t make small talk with them or ask how their day is going.
They always argue in the same way – quietly, tersely, their heads close together, as if their disagreements are about the fine details of their arrangements, negotiations, not big thematic decisions.
You have a theory. “Maybe they only argue when they come here. What if this is their one place where they can argue, it’s like a rule they have. Maybe it stops them arguing anywhere else.” You seem convinced. I’m not so sure. We have a rule – we never argue in the café, in front of the customers. There is a little store cupboard just behind the counter, which is the perfect size for two people.
If everything is set up properly and run well, this is a steady business to be in. It’s a good profession if you like things to go on for a long time. There is no coffee season or tea close-season, there is no time of year when people stop talking to one another and sharing cake.
After a while, the young couple stop visiting the café. There is no explanation for it, but then, why would there be, we cannot expect a letter of resignation whenever regular customers cease to visit. We just don’t see them anymore. You worry for a while that we might have done something – it is as though they are children for whom we should feel somehow responsible.
When the tall young man with the fair hair enters the room, the short, dark-haired young woman closes her notebook and places her pen on top of it. He asks what she has been writing about and she tells him nothing much really.
He says he fancies a nice cup of coffee, tells her they should go out somewhere, how about that nice little café they used to go to but haven’t been in such a long time? She scrunches up her face, then unscrunches it as she suggests a different place.
He doesn’t understand why recently she hasn’t wanted to go to the place they used to frequent regularly, a very nice little place where they had a favourite table and a quietly friendly relationship with the owners. But he agrees to her counter-suggestion, it’s not a problem.
The short, dark haired young woman tells the tall young man with fair hair to give her a few minutes, she just needs to finish what she was doing. He leaves the room.
But soon after that couple quit our café, this other young couple started coming. They were more precise in their timing – they always came in the gap between the breakfast-lunch midpoint and lunch, in fact they were always in the gap between the breakfast-lunch midpoint and the breakfast-lunch to lunch midpoint.
They too consist of a tall young man with fair hair and a short young woman with dark hair, but to us they appear inferior copies, like actors who have replaced the original actors in a favourite televison program. And they don’t play the roles right, they chat in a relaxed manner and gaze lovingly at one another. There doesn’t seem to be anything to them. We start to resent their presence in our establishment, but there is no way we can ban them or fire them from their roles as café attendees, and no way we can write to the previous couple to invite them back.