That was a weird week – political life seen from the point of view of Storm Mike – this is sure to be balanced – the latest from the Cape Town room
It’s hard to imagine how one might feel walking into a café and having one’s listening devices assaulted by someone bellowing, “Over my dead body!” It might make one wish to take cover, although my Cape Town room has very little cover in which some might indeed be taken. Shutting the bellowing Mike out, or up, was evidently not going to be an easy task. It never was, but on this particular occasion, his mood seemed riled by more than one episode and he was obviously determined to unburden his thoughts on a public, some of whom, such as James and John, were suspecting, and some of whom were less so, even if they had crossed paths with the belligerent one on previous occasions.
Matthew and Mark were two of the latter group. They were, quite innocuously, doing what women usually do, rather than men, and going to the toilet in pairs, when they had their attention not so much attracted as grabbed by the scruff of the neck and hauled unceremoniously Mike-wards. Whether they wanted to know what had irked the limelight-seeker so much, or not, was an irrelevance. This had not exactly been a fully positive week for my café’s political luminary and he had no intention of making a secret of his feelings. As if he ever did.
James noted the startled response on the faces of those purely intent on relieving themselves, or whatever other polite term you care to use in such circumstances. “He was just letting us know, although I thought rather ambiguously to be honest, what he thinks about Trump visiting the UK in June,” he explained, putting the newcomers in the picture and providing context for the outburst, assuming they could see their way past his mildly sarcastic phraseology.
“No way!” reformulated Mike, who was seething so much that framing anything more substantial than a fixed phrase response seemed to be unusually beyond him.
“You can expostulate all you want,” said John, surprisingly calmly, although he did this deliberately on occasion just to wind Mike up even further, if this was actually possible in this case. “I doubt he’ll care what you think; he doesn’t care for anything other than The Self.”
“How can anyone seriously expect us to welcome that smug-faced, self-seeking, self-aggrandising, climate change-denying, racist, misogynistic moron onto the shores of the United Kingdom?” Mike finally managed to produce a longer utterance, although I couldn’t help but question his adjectival word order. I kept this thought to myself, however.
“Latest reports seem to indicate he doesn’t oppose the use of rape as a weapon of war,” said James, adding fuel to the fire. “At least, one has to assume so, as he wants to veto suggestions in the UN to the contrary.”
“And such a twat is going to be allowed to pay tribute to the millions who died in France?” Mike was incandescent.
“And have dinner with the Queen and several other notables.”
“Humph!” Mike was simmering like a pan of water which hadn’t quite reached boiling point but which might overflow if not carefully monitored. And that, we really did not want to see. Most of us didn’t, anyway. “At least, a good few people have decided to boycott the state dinner. Even Corbyn. That’s the first time he’s descended off the political fence in a while.” He took a long drink of beer, which might have been of sufficient duration for Matthew and Mark to articulate an utterance, had they not felt intimated by the volatility of Storm Mike. “He’s been sitting there so long he needs a bird feeder.”
“Like a tightrope walker frozen in time and space to make sure he doesn’t commit one way or the other,” John added to the rather strange analogy in an almost dreamlike voice.
Mark finally plucked up the courage to take the floor. “I suppose when Trump describes the Queen as a woman who has never really made a mistake, one should, for once, actually listen and take him seriously because if he is an expert in anything, it’s at making mistakes.”
“Indeed,” said Matthew supportively, if rather briefly.
I wasn’t sure if Mike had twigged the interruption from the Granada room-dwellers as he was quick to resume his own tangent, or a slightly different one of his own creation. “The Donald apparently welcomed Joe Biden’s announcement that he was running for the White House in his typical nasty-spoilt-boy-in-the-playground mode by calling him Sleepy Joe and expressing the hope he had the long-in-doubt intelligence to make it. I mean, I know our politicians indulge in slanging matches, but they’re rarely personal insults!” His collective audience of five, self included, nodded sagely. “He then said, ‘you will be dealing with people who have some very sick and demented ideas.’ For one brief moment, I actually dared to hope that this was an outburst of truth from the habitual lying bastard and he was talking about himself, but apparently, he was referring to the other Democrats in the race.”
“Beggars belief,” interjected John, a contribution which surprised no one.
“And then,” continued Mike, indicating clearly there was to be no respite, even though his train of thought seemed to have jumped a few lines, “having moved his frigging embassy to Jerusalem, he now has the fuckwittedness to recognise the occupied territory of The Golan Heights as being Israeli, once again giving the finger to the rest of the world. Wow.” The latter word was not, in any sense, delivered in tones of admiration; one detected little more than deep despair. “And guess who fawned all over him as a result?” Nobody bothered to answer as it was largely obvious, although none of those present seemed willing to admit they were clueless as to who had won the recent Israeli presidential election and therefore could not have answered with anything approaching complete certainty.
“It’s amazing how different leaders react to stuff, isn’t it?” asked Matthew, although his use of the word ‘stuff’ left his specific meaning in some doubt. In response to the odd confused frown, he elaborated. “I mean, look at the tragedy of Christchurch and the admirable response from the New Zealand Prime Minister in banning a range of firearms. That’s something Trump would never have the balls to do.”
“Or the feelings,” added James. “Although, even if he did, the wankers at the NRA would pull his strings in the opposite direction before one could say ‘massacre’.”
I may have forgotten to mention this before, but having the mental agility of a mountain goat sometimes helps to understand the wandering discourse which takes place in my café, particularly when Mike is part of the conversation.
“I’ve just come back from America,” said Matthew, in what initially seemed to represent a mood-lightening, but yet further tweak to the topic, although with his travelling anecdotes, positivity should never be taken for granted.
“I’d heard you were banned.” Mike had apparently been listening to gossip or reading my 2018 book. Hopefully the latter. I think.
“I was, kind of, but I was told if I applied for a B1 visa, I should be OK.”
“Let’s say the adjectives easy, pleasant and cheap do not come to mind,” sighed the jetsetter. “I actually applied while I was in Lebanon, which came as quite a surprise for the Lebanese working in the American Embassy. ‘Why on earth does a Brit need a visa to visit the US?’ ‘Just one of those things,’ I replied, as vaguely as possible. I had to pay $160 before I even got to the interview stage, and that was non-refundable, so it’s quite a good money-spinner. After a stream of pretty general questions, they asked me if I’d ever been to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen. Oddly enough, this quintet of ‘problem countries’ didn’t include North Korea, at least orally, so perhaps Trump’s love of Kim Jong-whichever is catching on. Anyway, after I replied ‘yes’ to Iran and Libya, I was told I couldn’t be given a visa ‘pending further investigation’.”
“Seriously, and I had almost given up hope, if hope be the right word, but eventually, I was asked to send in my passport and I got the visa. They warned me this was no guarantee of being allowed in when I actually arrived and they were quite right. As on my previous attempted visit, I was travelling from Canada, Vancouver this time, and I was stopped by the front desk at customs and taken through into the back room for interrogation.”
“That sounds scary,” commented John.
“The nightmares of Calgary, 2009, came flooding back, I can assure you,” Matthew replied.
“I bet you were wearing all black again and looking suspicious,” Mark wagered.
“Coincidentally, yes.” Matthew looked momentarily embarrassed but decided not to dwell on issues of wardrobe. “And it was fifty-fifty for quite a while before I was stamped acceptable. They seemed concerned that my visit was taking away an employment opportunity for a legal American, even though this clearly wasn’t the case, at least in my mind.” He shuddered at the recent memory. “I felt about the size of a peanut by the time I was allowed through.”
“I can imagine,” said a very sympathetic Mike.
“There is some contradiction, irony or something, I can’t quite think of the right word, in the whole story, though,” continued Matthew. “I mean, they spent so much time and effort either trying to keep me out of the country or making sure I wasn’t a problem, and yet on the very day I was innocently touring San Diego coffee shops, one of their own was taking a gun to a synagogue in the north of the same, relatively safe city.”
“We heard about that here as well,” Mike interrupted with a sad but engaged nod. “Talk about an example of getting their priorities completely wrong. They really need to refocus on sorting out their own shitty gun-owning laws before they bother themselves with preventing innocent foreigners coming in. That would be time and money well-spent,” he concluded to a round of approval.
“One of my friends said I should feel at home in ‘a former colony’, although that isn’t a term I would ever dare use with any of my American friends,” Matthew went on, “but the simple fact is I feel a darn sight more at home in Lebanon or Belarus than I do in the US of A!”
“Well, being made to feel so totally unwelcome at the border doesn’t help, does it?” asked Mark, somewhat needlessly.
“Don’t you feel you’re being just a little bit negative, maybe?” asked John, perhaps more reasonably. “I mean, after all, they did just let you in!”
“True, but don’t forget the majority of Americans actually agree with me on some points,” countered Matthew.
Had Matthew had an answer, we didn’t get to hear it, as a loud disturbance suddenly emanated from the doorway.
“Oi!” came the none too gruntled tones of Lois. “What do you two think you’re doing? I’ve been sitting out there on my own for 15 minutes! It looks like you haven’t even made it to the loo yet either.” Mark made as if to cross his legs, in the faint and ridiculous hope of earning sympathy from his abandoned companion.
“Oh sorry,” mumbled Matthew apologetically, “we got, erm, held up by, erm…” he tailed off. Had he been trying to look the innocent party he would have failed dismally.
“We were just exchanging stories about British and American politics and the like,” explained Mark.
“Of course you were,” remarked Lois, dismissively. “You were talking to these three; ergo, you were talking politics, unless you caught them in a brief footballing moment, and that would be even more depressing.”
Mike, James and John looked mildly offended. Lois couldn’t have cared less.
“Anyway, I had my own experience of that last week while you were away,” she continued. “I was on the plane to Poland and, no matter how much you won’t want to believe this, there was a group of lads wearing ‘make Britain great again’ hats in the style of DT’s ‘make America great again’. And, of course, they were abusing all the other passengers by chanting Brexit crap at them and, in general, being as totally yobbish as a British stag party after a few ales.”
“It just shows some of the type of people who support Brexit,” continued Lois. “I mean, is this what the people of Britain and America want for the future? Control by hate-filled, nationalist hooligans?”
“I’m afraid Trumpism is like a disease,” commented Mike, as one might have expected he would. “There’s a risk of it sweeping the planet like the plague. It’s time someone found an antidote and put the movement out of its misery for good.”
“The plague was carried by rats as well,” added James, to looks of general distaste, whether at the analogy or the reality wasn’t clear.
“We all thought Farridge had been dismissed into obscurity,” said Mike, “only for the fascist bastard to threaten a comeback.”
“You’re still banging that drum, I see,” said Matthew, with a smile which indicated support rather than despair. “Have you started talking to the people you know who voted Leave yet?”
“Of course not,” replied Mike, although no one really needed to ask. “To me, talking to someone who voted Leave is pretty much equivalent to talking to a member of the Flat Earth Society. I only know three people who voted that way anyway and we completely ignored each other at Christmas again, and it was they who passed on making any comment relating to a significant birthday I had last year.”
“It a two-way street, though, isn’t it?” asked James, perhaps more bravely than he intended. Mike spat on the floor without actually emitting any saliva. I took this more as an indication of frustration rather than contempt for the lack of communication from his Brexit-supporting friends and relatives, although, given his strength of feeling on the ‘B’ matter, the latter could not be discounted.
John, in a moment of inspired common sense, decided to tweak the subject. He knew that changing it altogether would alienate Mike but clearly felt some redirection was called for.
“Can someone define that increasingly misused and most annoying word in the English language – ‘robust’?” he asked. He continued with a rather bleak attempt at an impression of a certain prime minister. “As in, ‘Let me be quite clear (and possibly stable); discussions were robust as we pursued the goal of delivering on the result of the referendum’. Guess who might have said that!” The italicised words were accompanied by sarcastically visualised quotation marks.
“How many times have we heard those three words?” Mark sighed in a demonstration of shared disdain.
“Well, let’s look on the bright side, shall we?” Mike, rather surprisingly, suggested. “At the end of this week, the Lib Dems and the Greens won big in the local elections and the Tories and Labour were soundly thrashed for their tomfoolery of the past three years. The UKIP vote was apparently down 70%, the Tories by 25% and Labour by 10%, while the remain supporting Lib Dems saw a 110% rise and the Greens a scarcely believable 550%. As one of my friends said on Facebook, ‘Is this the return of sanity in the UK?’”
“Makes a change from bleeding anarchy then, doesn’t it?” said John to the former fan of the Sex Pistols.
“Let’s see what happens now with the Euro elections,” continued Mike, ignoring his friend’s attempt at what I assume was intended to be a joke. “It’s a shame the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK aren’t collaborating more. At the moment, in England rather than other parts of the UK, we have three parties, the ERG-controlled Tories, the Brexit Party and UKIP, supporting Brexit, and three parties, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK, supporting a People’s Vote and Remain, while Labour are sitting so precariously on the fence with the bloody-minded leadership balancing out 80% of the membership to such an extent nobody has a bleeding clue, let alone themselves, which way they’re going to go.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” began James, before contradicting himself, “although, actually, it probably isn’t,” leaving his audience in a state of temporary flux. “I mean, how people view the same events. The Tories lose well over a thousand local council seats, while the anti-Brexit Lib Dems gain over seven hundred; somehow or another, and God only knows how, our desperately confused Prime Minister hears the simple, and no doubt ‘clear’ message that she just has to get on and ‘deliver’ Brexit, and probably rather ‘robustly’. And Corbyn actually receives the same message, one can only assume through a lifelong hearing affliction!” James was displaying the incredulity which was normally the preserve of Mike. “On the other hand, Vince Cable, who obviously has substantially more than the half-a-brain required to participate in British politics, noted that ‘every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for stopping Brexit’.” He paused momentarily. “There’s nowt so deaf as them that will not hear,” he concluded with his own Lancastrian version of a well-known proverb, which was just about grammatically accurate, or, at least, intelligible.
I don’t think I’d ever heard James speak for such a long time. It seemed to take his listeners a moment or two to take it all in as well.
“Given Theresa May’s renowned hiding from the truth and Jeremy Corbyn’s EU-blindness and deafness, I agree with your revised opinion,” declared Mike. “Not amazing at all. I broke the habit of a lifetime and voted for the Lib Dems this time and it was quite definitely, clearly and robustly against any form of Brexit.”
“Here’s to Vince Cable and common sense,” proclaimed John, and then, realising everyone’s glasses were empty, turned to me for help. The Granada group, Lois included, continued on their way to the solitary bathroom. I hoped at least two of them could hold it in a few moments longer.
Tales of unrequited love – it’s no good crying over spilt Algerian mint tea – the latest from the Beirut room
Jo was standing at the bar in Cape Town salivating as would a Bloodhound on a rare hot summer’s day. I was perspiring over the saj in my kitchen of not-so-generous proportions, preparing her late lunch, or early dinner, of manouche with spinach, cheese and muhammara, a hot pepper dip which has almost as many different written forms as does the word manouche.
Taking her board (in lieu of a plate) of rolled and sliced gluten-free product, along with a delicately balanced glass of Algerian mint tea, made to her usual fifty-fifty specifications, she headed off towards the curtain which shielded Beirut from the main bar area, kicking off her shoes long before she got there, as if setting a deliberate trap for Misha, should he happen to drop in. Once in the room, one could audibly hear the sighs as she sat down and relaxed on the cushions, quickly followed by a loud, “Oh shit!”.
Rolling my eyes to the ceiling and then back again before Jo had a chance to see my despairing expression, I picked up a box of tissues, reaching the curtain just as the room’s incumbent let out a plaintive wail of “Chaelli!”. I opened the curtain so quickly that the remnants of the mint tea she had managed to salvage from the first accident to her left were sent reeling by a shocked arm to her right.
“Your service is too quick sometimes,” she complained.
“You wet my carpet too often,” I replied, not intending to sound quite so rude. “I like to be prepared.” Jo, fortunately, saw the funny side and helped me lay out the paper towels around her so it looked like she was lying on a damp sheet.
“Blimey, have you wet the bed?” came the normally reticent tones which belonged to Micky, Jo’s regular room-mate and confidante-in-chief. This time, I saw the funny side; Jo didn’t. I left them to the soaked tissues and petty squabbles, returning five minutes later with a refilled glass of mint tea and a pot of Yunnan Green.
“I’d intended asking for an ibrik,” Micky said testily. This was stretching the bounds of credibility as the said whinger had made no secret of his distaste for my Lebanese coffee when he had willingly submitted to an experimental jug the year before. “But you can leave the pot, no worries!” As if I was worried…
Micky poured himself a cup of tea and looked expectantly at Jo, who, suspecting she was supposed to initiate a conversation, looked at the ceiling, or maybe through to the heavens, in search of a modicum of inspiration. “So, what’s new?” she finally asked, bound by the conventions of polite society to say something, even though the question was liable to open the proverbial can of earthworms.
“Funny you should ask,” responded the recumbent Micky, although neither party was actually laughing. “I’ve been chatting to Chiara again.”
“You mean virtually groping the poor signorina,” muttered Jo, although the words were as audible as they were critical. “Persistence can become very annoying, you know.”
“And you’d know, would you?” retorted Micky with an unusually rapid display of wicked wit. He winked to quell the look of stunned shock which had become momentarily ingrained on his friend’s face, even though one might argue the retaliatory comment was more than deserved.
“Bloomin’ cheek!” I suppose Jo could have said a lot worse, but she did seem a trifle lost for words, an event which, in itself, is worthy of a line of text.
“We have a very flirtatious relationship,” said Micky, although his tone was laced more with aspiration than factual reality.
“You mean you flirt and she rejects.” Jo had found her tongue again after a predictably short break and made sure it was quickly honed and restored to its regular sharpness.
I think that made it two-one in Jo’s favour and, had my back permitted, I would have slid down onto the floor to spectate on what might happen next. Such an eventuality was rendered impossible by the heavy water bottle I’d carried incorrectly in the morning, and by the arrival of Misha who, as forecast, tripped over Jo’s discarded footwear and shoved me heavily in the lower back at he struggled to right himself. I, the innocent party, was the one who winced in the greatest pain.
“Sorry, Kal,” apologised the shaded one. “I needn’t ask whose shoes those are, I suppose,” he growled at Jo, whose smirk did indeed suggest an act of premediated subterfuge.
“And a very good day to thee an’ all,” smiled Micky in an excessively welcoming manner, no doubt pleased to have someone with whom to share Jo’s verbal abuse. Misha was a fairly easy target, even by Micky’s own low standards.
“Bottle of Ksara Cab Sauv, if you please, Kal,” said Misha, settling himself back on the cushion facing the pestilent curtain, which he regarded with some distaste as it, rather too regularly for his liking, took the edge off the laid-back and positive impression he would prefer his entrance to make.
“With pleasure,” I responded, exiting with far more aplomb than Misha was likely to after nought point seven-five litres of Lebanese red.
Upon my return with the requested bottle, a solitary glass and a corkscrew, Jo was about to unleash her wooden spoon once more.
“We were just talking about Chiara,” she stirred.
“Is this another one of his online fantasies,” asked Misha, stifling a yawn and looking at Micky with a mixture of sympathy and pained tolerance.
“Oh no, no, no, it’s the same one,” responded she who liked causing trouble.
“Gee, thanks,” mumbled her victim, beginning to wonder if his mobile might ring and offer a means of escape.
“So, what’s the current situ?” Misha seemed to be making an effort to contribute, despite his obvious lack of genuine interest.
“He claims he’s been chatting to her again,” said Jo, as if Micky might have gone around the houses to restart the anecdote. She, at least, seemed anxious to hear the latest developments.
“That’s exciting.” Misha was far more interested in his freshly uncorked wine and, to be honest, who could blame him? “Can’t you just get a real person?”
The question had been asked before and probably would be again.
“I had a traumatic experience when I was younger,” said Micky by way of explanation. “Well, when I was thirty, anyway.”
“Traumatic?” Misha sounded a little more engaged in the exchange. “When you were thirty, smartphones didn’t exist so I presume this relates to a real-life member of the female human race.” Maybe Micky was older than I thought but this seemed like a dodgy calculation to me with a consequently unsound conclusion.
“And probably pre-Rebecca,” added Jo, to which Micky briefly nodded and then reddened and Misha looked lost. “Never mind,” she said to the latter. “You don’t want to know.” This was a guaranteed way of ensuring Misha did want to know, but his curiosity was nipped in the bud as Micky decided to talk his way out of a potentially awkward corner.
“It happened in a pub,” he began and then hesitated.
“Doesn’t it always?” Jo seemed determined to keep the conversation flowing, wishing she had never verbalised the Rebecca episode which had fleetingly come to mind.
“I was standing with this girl I knew quite well and had been seeing very innocently for a while,” he continued. Misha’s interest level dropped on the word ‘innocent’ as a stone might descend into the sea from the White Cliffs of Dover. Before you express wonder, I have no idea what brought that analogy into my head. “And then suddenly, I found myself draped around her snogging her face off.” I detected exaggeration but the lack of evidence prevented me from raising a challenge. Jo and Misha looked 50% intrigued and 75% queasy, and please don’t question my mathematics. I’m tired of hearing people saying ‘one million per cent’ on reality TV shows when it is impossible to be anything more than one hundred per cent. My mind growled at itself as the thought passed across it.
“I thought you labelled this as ‘traumatic’ for you,” commented Jo. “I would say the trauma belonged on the other side.” This was, perhaps, a little unkind, as the recipient of Micky’s presumably tongue-filled affections was unknown.
“You have a point,” confessed the conferrer of surprise snogs. “She looked at me and said, ‘What have I done to deserve that?’ in a way which led me to think she was quite pleased.” There was a pause, which no one interrupted as we all felt a punchline was imminent. And three people in this case were not wrong. “Five minutes later, she threw up in the bog.”
There was no sympathy in the air, no attempt to disguise the amusement. Even the narrator, after turning a very nauseous shade of pink, decided there was no point being affronted by such a distant memory and let out a forced half-laugh.
“I wouldn’t show off too much about it,” adjudged Misha, the first by some distance to return to normality as Jo was convulsed for an artificial period of time.
“So,” declared Micky, deciding he should be firm and cross rather than amused at this reaction to his traumatic experience, “since then, I’ve been very shy about kissing anyone. It’s much safer to send kissing emojis online.”
“But so much more boring.” Misha despaired.
“And this is what you’re doing with Chiara?” questioned Jo. “Sending kisses by drawings and never seeing the poor lass?” She thought again. “The lucky lass,” she amended.
“Makes no difference,” lamented Micky. “She likes me well enough but I dream of the day she writes to me without being prompted first. I’m still always the first to write and, if I don’t, nothing comes the other way.”
“And you really haven’t got the message yet?” Jo seemed infuriated. “It’s obvious she doesn’t want to lead you on. She’s doing you a favour really; if she isn’t interested in being more than friends, it’s better if you find someone who is.”
The advice was difficult to argue with. This didn’t stop Micky, who seemed determined to shake off the wouldn’t-say-boo-to-a-goose image I had painted him with the previous year. “But she’s gorgeous,” he protested. And then couldn’t think of anything else to say, probably without embarrassing himself with references to unrequited love, and so stopped.
“And you’re not,” said Jo, rather cruelly. “You’re lovely, inside, but look in the mirror.”
Micky took out his phone and took a selfie to help him remember what he looked like. The familiar hangdog expression stared back at him from his screen, although how much of this was natural and how much Jo-induced was hard to calculate.
“Come on, luv,” Jo said, almost affectionately. “I’m only joking.” Neither Micky nor I knew quite which comment to believe. Jo, however, had decided she had tortured Micky enough and turned her malicious ‘sense of humour’ onto the unsuspecting one facing the curtain. The prospect was enough to drive a man to drink but as Misha had already consumed half a bottle, he had no place to go. I could no longer watch in case it became my turn sooner than expected. Some mysterious source told me the saj in the kitchen was in need of a good old clean and so I took my silent leave, hoping not to hear any more squeals or tears from behind the Lebanese drapes.
Does Mike have any vitriol left to give? More debate and inanity from the Cape Town room
“Blimey!” pronounced Mike, almost throwing himself against the bar in Cape Town, as one might after a hard day at the office. “Who knows what will happen next?”
I suspect the broadcaster of uncertainly expected more of a response, or, at least, a question enquiring as to what the hell he was on about. Instead, silence. James and John had arrived five minutes earlier and seemed bewitched by my new pride and joy, aka a bar-top coffee roaster, which was currently doing its work on a small batch of Honduran beans. After a grimace of slight annoyance, Mike’s eye was also caught by the hypnotic movement inside the glass drum. I would have been quite flattered by the interest, had they actually bought anything. I coughed politely, wondering what anyone passing through would think of four grown men being so captivated by a piece of not-so-modern technology, however on-trend it might be in my establishment.
“Here’s some I made earlier,” I further hinted, sounding like a children’s television presenter from my childhood years. I waved a bag of freshly roasted beans under the assembled noses. The reaction was akin to wafting smelling salts under the nostrils of a fainted one.
“Oh wow!” exclaimed James and John together. “I think that demands an experiment,” continued James, now performing solo.
“What do you recommend, Kal?” asked Mike, with an equal dose of enthusiasm, indicated by a paradiddle on the bar.
“Well, you could have your usual V60, but I’d give a Chemex a go, if I were you,” I suggested.
“Whatever; you decide.” I love obliging customers.
The trio’s eyes moved from the roasting machine to the coffee scales, timer, electric gooseneck kettle and Chemex glass which I assembled on the bar. I ground some of the beans and weighed out the requisite quantity of coffee, shaking it with tender loving care into a filter paper specially designed for the Chemex method. I was getting slightly nervous at the attention I was being paid as I waited for the water to reach the desired ninety-four degrees.
“Care to look somewhere else?” I asked, half-jokingly.
“No,” said John, although Mike did look away as I poured a small amount of hot water onto the grounds.
“Blooming,” I explained.
“Blooming what?” asked James.
I assumed this was ignorance rather than wit. “This process is called blooming.”
“Ah.” James reddened slightly but it soon passed as he and his two friends appreciated the aromas being produced.
As I continued pouring the water into the wide top of the glass, making sure every ground was contributing to the final product, Mike nudged his friends in the ribs, provoking an exaggerated wince from James, and jerked his head towards the bar’s only other customer, a middle-aged male who was leaning against a wine barrel reading The Guardian, while absent-mindedly picking his nose and flicking bogeys under the table.
“You all do that,” commented Jo, who was on her way to Beirut without bothering to order anything. She stopped to join the audience observing the poor, oblivious stranger as he mechanically wiped his finger around the lower zip area of his jeans. “The things you men scratch in public never cease to amaze me,” she sighed. “I’m not even interested in men, so if I notice, think what a turn off it might be to women who do give a toss,” she added threateningly. “And you’re all in denial over it.” Having made her point in her typically blunt manner, she continued on her merry way.
“As if,” said James, hurriedly putting his hands in his jacket pockets and turning back to the bar. His friends huffed and puffed a little, proving Jo to be accurate in at least part of her analysis, and hastily did likewise.
“So, erm, is it ready yet?” asked John, saying anything to cover his potential embarrassment.
“Patience is a virtue,” I pointed out. It seemed more polite than saying ‘no’.
My timer soon brought the wait to an end so I removed the filter paper, gave the glass a swirl and poured three cups of delicious smelling coffee. “You might want to let it cool a little,” I opined.
Patience, however, did not seem to be a virtue of those present and slightly burned tongues were an inevitable consequence.
Mike decided to rewind the clock to his entrance. “Blimey! Who knows what will happen next?”
This time, James and John played along. “What might you be talking about?” asked the former in tones of fake sincerity.
“The damned Brexit,” came the expected response. “Well, at least we should be safely in for a while longer.” James and John sat back in their metaphorical chairs (metaphorical because there are no chairs in Cape Town) and prepared for the early evening rant, which was a regular feature of the threesome’s evenings together. “Shall we start with the hypocrite of the week award?”
“There can’t possibly be just one winner!” John protested. “The entire Brexit-loving pack is littered with them!”
“True,” acknowledged the self-appointed award committee. “But this week, Mark Francois has to take the golden biscuit.”
“Did I miss something?” asked James, in a tone which implied he probably hadn’t done anything of the sort.
“You can’t have done,” retorted Mike. “No-one could miss such a brazen example of total hypocrisy that it shone like a beacon from the shores of Neverland or whichever fantasy world he inhabits. He actually had the temerity to demand a second vote on May’s leadership because ‘things have changed’ since December! How dare he, how very dare he, then deny the British people a second chance of a Brexit vote when things have totally changed in three long years; you know, really important things, like the truth becoming known? Shameful! Utterly shameful!” Mike never let the listener in too much doubt as to how he felt.
“Sad but true,” sighed James.
“The other award for hypocrite of the week,” continued Mike, presumably about to award the silver biscuit, “in fact, for being one of the biggest hypocrites of all time, goes to Farridge who still seems to believe he deserves a fat EU pension for doing everything he can to destroy Europe.”
James and John collectively shuddered at the mention of the ‘F’ word.
“He’s launched his new party this week.” Mike was clearly in the mood to announce old news as he would that of the breaking variety. “What a joke! And he’s got Rees-Mogg’s sister to stand as a candidate!” He shook his head in complete frustration at the lengths some people seemed determined to go to in order to ruin their country. “I suppose we should give her some credit, though,” he added reluctantly. “Deluded though she may be, she is at least honest enough to stand for the party she believes in, the FLP; I just wish she’d take her idiot brother and the rest of the ERG with her because that’s where such extremists truly belong, not in a mainstream party.”
“What’s the FLP?” queried John, genuinely.
“The Farridge Losers’ Party,” growled Mike, as the others smirked. “And the bastard leader of the revolution is already resorting to typical extreme right-wing methods, issuing threats of bringing the wrath of Satan down on those who delayed Brexit, which, of course, incites the violent lunatic faction to take action while he sits on his throne, claiming innocence and blaming anyone trying to defend true democracy for bringing it on themselves.”
“I think what he actually said was ‘the fear of God’,” said James, trying his best to be fair, although one could tell it was a strain in the specific circumstances. Anything which gave a shred of credence to an utterance of Nigel Farage had to be avoided in this particular company. Or almost any company, come to think of it.
“He completely forgets that the initial referendum was a non-binding one, doesn’t he?” said John, clearly not intending this to be a question.
“A non-binding one whose result, once he ‘won’, had to be adhered to,” muttered Mike. “I mean, isn’t that something of a contradiction?”
“But that’s why no one can be prosecuted over it, isn’t it?” John was falling into Mike’s habit of asking the rhetorical.
“True,” responded the usurped king of rhetoric. “All those who lied, cheated and bought the Leave vote can’t be touched because it wasn’t a binding result…”
“Even though the government treats it as set in stone,” James finished obligingly.
“They’re all taking the piss,” grumbled Mike, with a marked lack of subtlety and ambiguity. “Boris Johnson gets paid stupid amounts of money for writing tripe in The Telegraph; he uses it to make unfounded claims which he intends to be taken seriously, and even the pro-Brexit newspaper has to apologise for him and call his columns non-serious pieces of writing!”
“Well, Ukraine’s new president seems likely to be a professional comedian,” commented James. “The way Britain’s going, we might end up electing an amateur one!”
“Beggars belief,” said John, totally predictably. I assumed he was referring to both of the previous statements but it could have been to almost the entire conversation.
“Three beers,” sighed Mike, in a bid to lighten the mood, before promptly spoiling the intervention completely with a very abrupt change of conversational direction. “How can anyone view losing one-nil at home to Barcelona as an achievement? Man United should be winning games like that, not lapsing into an inferiority complex!”
“The good ol’ days will return,” said James, his voice betraying a lack of confidence.
“I just hope we’re still alive to see it,” grumbled Mike.
“Oh, come on, it’s only been, erm, a few years, since we won anything,” John said in a failed bid to ameliorate the gloom.
“Try my new beer,” I said, even though my customers hadn’t specified their desired brew. “A limited import from Lebanon.”
“From where?” chorused the trio in astounded unison, laced with a generous dollop of doubt.
“Elmir Pilsener, brewed near Beirut.” I detected scepticism from the real ale fanatics facing me across the wooden bar-top divide, but I insisted they try. I stopped short of offering freebies if they didn’t like them – that would have been going a step too far. I needn’t have worried.
Sometimes, one has to take a risk to lift the mood. At least for a while, the trials and tribulations of the United Kingdom and Manchester United were forgotten. James and John turned their gaze back to the snot-flicking ball-scratcher, only to realise he had left ten minutes earlier. And had he had a solitary ounce of cognition relating to the conversation concerning him, I rather doubted his imminent return.
“Do we really do the same?” queried James.
The answer came in the form of an uncomfortable silence.
Jimez meets Jimmy in the Budapest room – would-be bohemians in competition?
Budapest is my room for aspiring artists. Just as they aspire to some kind of artistic success, so I aspire to put a plaque on the wall, proudly stating that blah-blah composed whatever notable work or whatever within the confines of these four walls with its two polished marble tables and reproduction Biedermeier chairs standing on dark-stained wooden flooring and surrounded by inspiring wood-panelled walls, dark mirrors and reproduction artwork.
OK, dream on. Reproduction seems to be the name of my game.
Despite my café being situated in an area known for its artistic creativity, my would-be artists to date have numbered one. And that one is Jimez. And, with all due respect, the plaque-makers of the north of England can put their order books away. Jimez is a failed writer and a failed lover who drinks wine he can’t afford, none of which prevents him from being a lovely guy, who his long-suffering friend, Jen, and I do our best to encourage, however futile and despairing a task this usually becomes.
Jen is clearly fond of Jimez, but long since decided his clumsy flirtations with her were an act of desperation rather than longing and, even if there ever was a flicker of interest, which I sincerely doubt, it had been well and truly snuffed out by his hapless overtures. I actually know very little about Jen, other than that she is an environmentalist with appalling timekeeping skills, has the gall to put milk in a carefully crafted Chemex-brewed coffee, and is the major purchaser of my Hungarian cakes, a fact which shows abundantly around her waistline, not that anyone would dare tell her so.
On this particular afternoon, Jimez, who had ended the previous year in a very upbeat mood, much to everyone’s surprise, given yet another twelve months of non-production, was sitting alone on a Biedermeier, rocking back and forth. I seriously doubted the legs would tolerate such actions for much longer as Jimez was not a lightweight. His Basset Hound visage, oft referred to in 2018, was freshly restored with a few additional grey hairs to add to the melancholy. And whereas one might be tempted on sight to throw one’s arms around a cute Basset, such an eventuality was unlikely verging on the impossible in the case of Jimez.
He ordered a cappuccino, which I made rather more hurriedly and a little colder than I would have liked, just to focus his mind on something other than his apparent mission to reduce my chair count.
“Here you go,” I said pleasantly. The to and fro motion continued as inexorably as a pendulum. “Erm, you want to be careful,” I ventured. “You might fall off if you lean back too far.” I phrased my suggestion to his benefit, rather than my pocket’s, but its impact was not immediate. I began to wonder if there was life on the Biedermeier. I slightly rudely wafted the coffee under his nose and this, finally, had the desired effect.
Jimez was displeased. “I was having an idea,” he protested, and who knows, it might have been true.
“Tell me,” I demanded, hoping to placate the frustrated self-styled bohemian by demonstrating interest.
“Shan’t,” he responded in the manner of a truculent six-year-old. “It was something about a talking Trabant but I need to think some more.”
I suppressed my laughter under the guise of a cough and was about to exit stage left when Jen squeezed herself through the door. This is, I admit, a slight exaggeration, for which I humbly apologise (should she ever read these pages).
“Sorry I’m late,” she began, predictably.
“What for?” asked Jimez. “Nothing’s happening.”
“One of those days, uh?”
“He was having an idea,” I explained. Jen nodded her understanding and ordered a Chemex and the cake menu to change the subject. “Milk?” I queried. The look of mild exasperation indicated the affirmative.
Having left Jimez in the safe but unloving arms of Jen, I spent the appropriate amount of time carefully brewing her Chemex, even though it was to be adulterated with lactose. I took the opportunity to make one for myself as well, choosing an unwashed Ethiopian for us both. Jen never specified origin, leaving it up to me to decide; unfortunately, this freedom of choice did not extend to additives.
I returned several minutes later to find two occupied Biedermeiers with eight legs firmly and happily on the floor.
“No need for the menu,” Jen said, perhaps having noted I hadn’t returned with it. “Two slices of Eszterházy, please. If that won’t cheer him up, nowt will!” Despite being referred to in the third person, Jimez was still physically present.
I returned with three and, not to appear too presumptuous, sat at the other table, relishing a black Chemex and some of my favourite Hungarian cake. It remained difficult, however, not to be distracted by their wandering dialogue.
“My band was only a studio band,” Jimez was saying in a complaining tone, although this, to me, seemed a perfectly acceptable alternative to spending one’s life on the road in a tour bus. “I think the last time I performed live was at a kids’ summer camp in Rožnov in the Czech Republic.”
“Very glam,” replied Jen, doing her best to sound sincere.
“Oh yeah,” said the downbeat one. “We were playing, and I use the term as loosely as it can be used, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ with the camp director lip syncing to Johnny Rotten and me and my friend thrashing broomsticks for guitars.”
Talking to Jimez made one well-versed in the art form of disguising laughter, although I often thought he was inviting friendly derision and almost testing our ability to contain ourselves. Self-deprecation is a favourite of many, from those fishing for compliments through to those crying for help and it was difficult to know where Jimez stood on this lengthy continuum. He was never in the same place for long enough to be confident.
“Can I have a Tempranillo?” I wasn’t sure if Jimez was making a request or asking for permission. As the latter seemed unlikely, given my role as a café owner, I left the room to oblige, taking the remnants of my coffee with me. The cake had been devoured with unseemly haste and love.
I returned to find both tables occupied and an old friend in my recently vacated seat. Jimmy, unfortunately sharing a moniker similar to two other regulars, as if I didn’t struggle enough with names already, was a very old friend, by which I mean he was middle-aged and I had known him for too long to mention. He had been away for a while and I hadn’t been expecting him so we greeted each other with a loud “Hey”, shook hands very firmly and then exchanged the cursory hugs typical of Brits who have spent a lot of time in more tactile cultures but still feel embarrassed embracing one of the same gender.
Budapest was a good choice of room for one such as Jimmy. He also fancied himself as an artist and bohemian, and would probably consider Jimez a kindred spirit, albeit on a different plane. He was tall and slightly emaciated due to drinking more than he ate, wore a bandana which covered his whole head, considerably more than his hair did, with a pair of sunglasses perched awkwardly, and coolly (his words, not mine) on top. He was frequently given to stroking his designer stubble (also his words) as if deep in thought, or possibly lost in self-admiration. It should be noted that his stubble was hair which was merely allowed to grow naturally when he couldn’t be bothered to shave for a couple of weeks; cultured and groomed it most certainly was not.
Jimmy was not alone. I was used to seeing him with various women in tow but this one was new. The facts she was half his age and very pretty were to be expected, but that’s where the obvious similarities stopped.
“Are you going to introduce us?” I asked, rather reasonably.
“Obviously,” came the reply in dulcet northern English tones. “Nawel, this is my old mate, in every sense of the word, Chaelli.” Charm was never Jimmy’s greatest virtue when dealing with males of the species. “And Kal, this is Nawel, my gift.”
Handshakes were exchanged, although, for some reason, I wasn’t sure mine would be welcomed.
“That’s very sweet of you, calling someone ‘my gift’,” I remarked in some surprise, as Jimmy wasn’t known for being open with any feelings of romance.
“’Nawel’ means ‘gift’,” Jimmy translated obligingly.
“Ah, even sweeter,” I responded, not being sure what else to say. Nawel looked a little more concerned by the use of the possessive adjective ‘my’ in association with her name. “Erm, can I get you anything?”
“We just looked at the menu in the other room. Can we have an Aeropress with the El Salvadorian coffee and an Algerian mint tea with sugar?”
“Your wish is my command.” I left the room, curiosity regarding the visitor well and truly aroused. But we all know what curiosity did to the proverbial cat, so I used my time out to curtail my infamous nosiness.
I returned with the requested drinks to find the occupants of the two tables engaged in arms-length conversation, exchanging pleasantries and, to date, little of substance.
“What do you do?” Jen was asking.
“This and that,” came the not very informative response.
“Can you tell us what ‘this’ is and we’ll settle for ‘that’ later?” Jen’s retort forced me stifle another laugh, although as this one was at Jimmy’s expense, I didn’t exert too much effort. Even Jimmy seemed to think the request was mildly amusing.
“I dabble.” I can’t honestly say this was any more helpful than his previous statement but, at least, this time, he offered some elaboration. “I freelance in various capacities while trying to produce and present television programmes.”
The last five words had an almost electrifying effect on the hitherto mute Jimez, who may conceivably have missed the key words ‘trying to’. Anyone who dabbled in what he perceived as art and the arts was of immediate interest. This I could have predicted as safely as the winner of a one-horse race. His entire body language changed as if he felt that here was someone who might understand him.
Without wishing to hijack the conversation, I was far more interested in the newcomer. Jimmy’s exploits were old hat to me and, rather selfishly, perhaps, I turned to Nawel.
“And what do you do?” I asked, sounding more like an interlocuter in a language exam than a potential new acquaintance in a café.
“I’m a student,” replied Nawel, her accent betraying a French influence.
“Et êtes vous française?” I asked, my accent betraying outer Manchester. This minor humiliation served to break the ice between us, as what had been merely a friendly smile on Nawel’s face dissolved into fits of giggles.
“You’re such a flirt, Kal,” commented Jimmy, as though he had seen it all before. And, in all honesty, he probably had. “And your language ability, like mine, remains in the basement.”
“And you actually like this guy?” I questioned. The newcomer didn’t seem willing to admit to this at the current stage of the engagement and returned to the initial question.
“I’ve lived in France for a long time,” she answered, her manner of speaking becoming more alluring with every passing syllable, “but I’m from Algeria, like this tea. And you make it very well; très bien.” I blushed, much to Jimmy’s amusement.
Jen decided to be more direct. “And why are you here?” This sounded a little aggressive, as my raised eyebrow conveyed. “I don’t mean that in an anti-immigration way, I’m just curious.”
“I’m doing a Masters in English at university here,” Nawel replied, her face back to a smile. “And most of my work is computer-based so I’m staying with him for a few days.” She nonchalantly jerked her head towards Jimmy.
“And how did you meet?” At least Jen was asking all the questions I wanted answers to.
“He was my trainer a few years ago in Algiers.”
“You don’t like anything like I expect an Algerian to look like.” It was beginning to sound like an interrogation but at this point, it didn’t seem to be causing any offence to the recipient.
“What did you expect?” broke in Jimmy, in an attempt to divert attention, if only briefly.
“I thought it was a very Islamist country,” Jen began.
“Islamist is a term more often used to refer to fundamentalism,” Nawel pointed out. “It is a Muslim country though, in general.”
“So, I assumed you would wear a hijab and neck to foot coverings,” pursued Jen, noting Nawel’s very western-style of attire; open top, distressed jeans and trainers.
“We’re not all the same. I’m a Berber; my family is Muslim but we are attached to our traditional and cultural values rather than to Islamic teachings and education. I wear the Berber traditional dress but never the Islamic one! No way!”
“I’ve got photographs of people bathing in burkinis in Algeria, you know, fully covered except face, hands and feet,” interrupted Jimmy, “and pictures of Nawel wearing the bare minimum in Europe, so there are very clear differences.”
“Can I see?” blurted out Jimez, obviously without thinking as both he and Nawel turned pink in unison. “I mean, the contrast, not…” His sentence faded into nothingness as he retreated back into his shell.
“And there are some beaches in Algeria where you see both types of swimwear side by side,” said Nawel, hurriedly redirecting the interaction, much to Jimez’s relief. “The religious conservatives don’t like it, but it happens. It isn’t Saudi Arabia or Qatar, fortunately.”
“And aren’t there any problems for you going out with an English guy?” Jen posed the question most people would like to ask.
“You’re making quite an assumption!” I was getting the impression Nawel, gift or not, was of a very independent nature. “Not at the moment. I don’t want to sound bad, but I’ve dated guys from a few different countries and I actually find it enriching and interesting. I certainly don’t feel like I’m doing anything wrong.” She stopped to sip her tea. “I don’t think I’ve ever been really Muslim anyway. For instance, going back to dress, I don’t believe a woman should hide her body or be ashamed of who she is. I always feel shocked when my friends or neighbours decide to cover their heads. For me, it’s just a symbol of a lack of women’s rights and I think that’s nonsense.”
Jimmy was clearly used to his friend’s outspoken manner and sat back, drinking his coffee, occasionally glancing at Jimez as he would a curio, which, in his own way, Jimez was. Jimez, for his part, kept glancing at Jimmy, as if desperate to ask more about his televisual exploits.
Jen obviously appreciated Nawel’s forthright way of speaking and maintained eye contact as a means of encouraging her to continue without the need for further interrogation.
“I’m just like every woman who wants to live, be free, make decisions, choose what she wants to be, where she wants to be!”
“Hear, hear!” Jen had a new friend.
“I used to call her a black sheep,” said Jimmy, “I was so sure she was unique among people from her family and country, but I was quickly, and rather forcibly, talked out of that habit.”
“Algeria has this image of a Muslim country, but that’s not the whole truth.” Nawel drained her glass. “Mmm, that reminds me of home.” I was flattered.
“Ready to go?” asked Jimmy. They both stood up, hopefully not deterred by the barrage of probing questions.
“Are you staying around a bit this time?” I asked Jimmy, who spent far more time overseas than he did at what he liked to call ‘home’.
“Yeah, we’ll be here for a bit.”
“Looking forward to seeing you both again, then,” I said, following them out into the Cape Town room, fully aware of the explosion of well-intentioned gossip concerning inter-racial relationships and television producer-presenters which was about to erupt behind us.
Matthew and Mark’s latest recollections from Beirut – from the Granada room
Early spring in England isn’t what it used to be. It’s a lot wetter and a lot warmer, although no doubt Mr Trump would say this is a figment of our imagination caused by being indoctrinated into believing that climate change actually exists. Nevertheless, having got through a week when more rain fell than was supposed to fall in the whole month and left the home valley on the verge of flooding once again, it was now unseasonably warm enough to leave the street heaters and blankets in what passes as my utility room. ‘Dumping ground’ would be closer to an honest description but I’m the only one who sees it, so ‘utility room’ it remains.
Matthew and Mark were sitting in their customary seats in my outdoor space known as Granada. Both were wearing jeans and warm sweaters, with Mark also sporting what I understand is known as a beanie; whether this was to protect him from the wind chill or conceal his lack of a thatch, as Matthew politely described his friend’s near-baldness, was open to question. I hadn’t seen them for a while as they had been back in their beloved Lebanon for a month or so. As quite big spenders, as well as being really nice people, it was good to see them back.
Even more pleased to greet their return was Lois who, despite having forged new relationships on the return bus to London the previous week, had missed her two closest friends, to say nothing of having some available gullible types to verbally make feel awkward.
“Well, hello, you great deserters!” she welcomed them with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “How dare you miss the march?” This was typical of the ‘never mind the formalities; let’s get straight to the point’ outlook on life which Lois possessed in more than ample quantity. Her friends preferred to term this ‘never mind the bollocks’.
“Yeah, I was really sorry about that,” half-apologised Matthew. “We couldn’t change the flights.”
The sincerity, genuine or otherwise, was lost on the abandoned one. “Pathetic excuse,” adjudged Lois, giving both of them a hug so cursory it barely counted as a pat on the back, before sitting down opposite them and, suffering from her over-estimation of the temperature in her choice of attire, looking for a blanket. Spotting this in the way only an excellent mine host could, I quickly, and as secretively as possible, opened the door of my utility room, retrieved a blanket and put it on the free adjacent chair at their table.
“Blimey.” I was, perhaps, expecting a form of thanks; this remark left me wondering if my standard of service did not usually attain this level of excellence.
“We found some really nice, new cafés in Beirut, Kal,” said Matthew, attracting and holding my hundred per cent attention in one fell swoop. “Take a seat,” he added after I had already done so, narrowly avoiding sitting on Lois’s hand as she snatched the blanket.
“I’m all ears,” I said, perhaps literally as well as metaphorically.
“Two really small ones, called Cortado and Ben,” said Mark, equally enthused.
“Ben isn’t a person,” Matthew interrupted helpfully. “In fact, I’m not even sure it’s called Ben; seems to be more like Bn, which I’ve been told means coffee, as in the beans or the ground form from which you make the drink.”
“The girl who works there is really knowledgeable and gives good guidance,” Mark continued, “although the seating area isn’t the most welcoming.”
“But you go there for the coffee.” It was almost like watching a tennis match as each took a rapid-fire turn to advance the collective point.
It is hard to imagine the turnaround in café society in Beirut in less than three years. From a city in which I had almost avoided coffee shops altogether to one in which I was becoming increasingly spoiled for choice, the change was both remarkable and encouraging. Local friends have even referred to new cafés I haven’t even had time to try yet, so adding to the ever-bewildering, mind-boggling choice of upmarket establishments, which are, unfortunately, mostly concentred in two very small areas.
“Last time, I was there, I found The High Llama” I countered, as if not to be outdone.
“I didn’t know Lebanon had llamas.” I assumed Lois was trying to be funny. “Or lamas,” she giggled to herself. We coffee enthusiasts collectively, and slightly rudely, ignored her.
“Yes, yes.” Matthew’s enthusiasm seemed to be reaching dizzy heights. “A great place for siphons, and they have a really good Yirgacheffe which really suits the method.”
“Are you speaking English?” Lois decided she was not to be ignored.
“A siphon is a way of brewing coffee,” Mark explained.
“And Yirgacheffe is a coffee-producing region in Ethiopia where it is possible the great bean was actually born,” added Matthew in tones verging on the reverential.
“I have both here,” I intervened, spotting a sale. Now it was my turn to be ignored.
“The main problem with these cafés,” Matthew continued, echoing a ‘complaint’ I had made before, most recently just a few lines above, “is that both Cortado and Ben are within about a hundred metres of Sip so the dangers of caffeine poisoning associated with café-hopping are growing rather rapidly.”
“There is a financial deterrent, though,” said Mark, who had a reputation for holding a tight grip on his purse strings. “You can pay almost as much for a decent coffee and cake in Beirut as you do in Mayfair, but you really do get decent coffee and cake.”
Matthew laughed at his friend’s all too frequent reference to money. “Look, you can still buy coffee from street stalls for around fifty pence,” he pointed out reasonably, “and, so long as you really do need a stiff wake-up call, these are perfectly adequate.”
Mark shuddered slightly at the thought, although I know from my own experience that some of the cheaper coffee can actually be quite decent, if you’re into that type of thing. “I wasn’t complaining,” protested the accused, although he had obviously been counting the cost. “I spent around £100 a week just on coffee in the last month. I blame you, Kal, for giving me expensive tastes! It would be almost cheaper to form a hard drug habit but that’s one train to Losersville I’m definitely not catching!”
“OK, go on, Chaelli,” said Lois, tweaking the subject and proving my voice hadn’t fallen completely on deaf ears. “I’ll have a siphon with that coffee I can’t pronounce.”
“Make it for the three of us,” instructed Matthew, even though Mark had remained mute.
To avoid missing too much of the conversation, but also in the interests of customer service, obviously, I made the coffee at the table, a marketing ploy I had first seen at the Calle 10 Arte y Pasion Café in Bogotà and one which I really appreciated as a customer. Lois seemed entranced as the water magically rose into the upper part of the device and then trickled back down into the lower section. Matthew and Mark, whilst anticipating the prospect of the final brew, had seen it all before and continued with their conversation.
“She might not be listening to us now, Kal,” Matthew said, with a nod to the bewitched Lois. I also nodded, although with the different communicative purpose of indicating that at least one member of his audience was paying attention. “But we were actually in virtual contact with you-know-who while we were away.” The chemistry experiment which the siphon process resembles was as appealing to Lois as it might be to your average ten-year-old. Matthew decided trying to involve her ranked in the third level of futility but fortunately deemed I was worth addressing. “The weather there was weird; at the same time that England and Wales were baking in 20-degree sun and a fair proportion of its population was lying semi-naked on the beaches, Beirut was like a warm-ish Manchester in November with torrential rain which just went on and on. And on.”
“And parallel to this,” broke in Mark, keen not to be left out, “Trump was launching another of his ‘climate change is bollocks’ campaigns.”
“Well, if anyone knows about bollocks, it’s him,” grunted Matthew, clearly not appreciating the introduction of the bollock pronouncer to the dialogue. “He rarely says anything which doesn’t fit that particular description.” He sighed, as many often do. “And then, a couple of weeks later, parts of England were facing flood devastation. And it was still pouring in Beirut. I was trapped in a café by rain in Lebanon while Lois was trapped in her flat by rain in our green and pleasant valley!”
Collective attention was then focused on the siphon which was happily gurgling its way to a conclusion. I arranged three glasses on the table, reluctantly depriving myself, lovingly swirled the coffee around in the lower bowl and poured it into the three waiting receptacles. Lois still seemed transfixed.
“It’s best left a couple of minutes just to cool down,” I told her, hoping the message would penetrate the mental fog. In the meantime, I was eager for more stories from one of my second homes. “Anything else new in Beirut?”
“Well, we had a moment of einstürzende altbaten,” said Matthew. Lois shook herself awake and looked confused, which as a non-German speaker, was hardly surprising. Matthew felt a brief explanation was called for. “I used to love that German band, Einstürzende Neubaten, which translates as Collapsing New Buildings, but as this was an old building, I’m assuming I can replace ‘neu’ with ‘alt’.”
Mark coughed in the manner of one attracting attention or prompting correction. “I don’t think you ever actually listened to that band; you just liked the name because it was trendy!”
Matthew looked fleetingly, and jokingly, annoyed but did not deny the accusation. “Whatever,” was the best response he could muster, whatever that indeed means. “Anyway, this building not far from where we were staying just collapsed,” he resumed, on the assumption the story was more engaging than his love or otherwise of experimental German music. “It must have been expected as cameras were there and no one was injured, although we were initially told it had just fallen down.”
“Without wishing ill on the residents, that isn’t the most exciting conclusion to a story,” Lois remarked, returning her attention to the coffee glass in front of her and thinking it was time to take a sip or two. Her facial features expressed the message, ‘still too hot’.
“The roads gave us more cause for amusement,” said Mark, changing the direction of the conversation as he knew how quickly Lois could become intolerant. “We were thinking of one or two friends when we were crossing the road near the school we were visiting. It’s a really, really busy road,” he continued, setting the context for his anecdote, by which I arrived at the inevitable conclusion it carried an awful lot of traffic. “There’s a flashing green man to help you across the first half of the road. And then…”
“You’re on your own,” finished Matthew. “A step into the unknown.”
“The easiest method if you’re insecure and a newbie to the wonders of Lebanese pedestrianism is latching yourself onto a pensioner and crossing with them; they seem less likely to get run over.” I think Mark was trying to be helpful.
“But then you get dangerously used to it,” said Matthew, nodding in fake sagacity. “One of my friend’s husbands saw me crossing the road to meet them once and apparently remarked, ‘Oh my God, he’s becoming so Lebanese!’” He paused to reflect. “I think it was a compliment. But, sometimes, you are aware there is more than one vehicle moving at thirty mph within twelve or twenty-four inches on both sides of you when you’re crossing the road and yet, for some bloomin’ strange reason, you actually feel safe.”
Lois obviously thought this conclusion unlikely but, ridiculous as it sounds, there is more than a note of truth in it. Until it all goes pear-shaped.
“Like so many things Lebanese, for us anyway,” Mark went on, “you acquire habits when you live in the place long enough and I think it’s fair to say British drivers do not appreciate the way I have learned to cross the road in places like Lebanon or Vietnam.”
“And imagine what happens when you go to a place like Germany, or some other parts of Central Europe, where you can get fined for crossing on a red light or, if not fined, you get looks of serious reproval for setting a bad example to children who may, or may not, be present to witness your transgression.” Matthew shook his head sadly, as if sending out the message that, in his opinion, everyone should be sent to Lebanon to learn how to cross the road. Despite my affection for the said Eastern Mediterranean state, I staunchly believed otherwise.
“I remember crossing the road once in Katowice,” said Mark, referring to another much-loved city of his close acquaintance. “It was one o’clock in the morning and there was no one around at all so I, and the two people I was with, crossed the road. I think half the road had a green light and the second half a red. When we got to the other side, two policemen came out of Gliwicka (the name of a street for the 99.99% of readers who, no doubt, count as the uninitiated) and accused us of crossing on red, just to earn a hundred złoty or so from gullible, uninformed foreigners. There was no way they could have seen the lights from where they were standing and they soon gave up when my friend told them so in Polish!”
Three glasses of coffee were raised to lips simultaneously and I stood awaiting their verdict as the defendant in the dock.
“On a par with The High Llama, I think,” said Matthew approvingly, with Mark’s thumbs-up presumably indicative of agreement. Attention moved to the female presence, where the smacking of lips seemed to count for more than words.
Matthew returned, mentally, to Lebanon, as though Katowice and Yirgacheffe had not interrupted. “I usually walk on the road in Beirut, anyway. On the road, you sort of know what to expect, what’s coming. On the pavement, you can never be sure!” Lois seemed to share her friend’s lack of certainly, although I imagine in a different way. “Well, for example, apart from the parked cars which actually force you to walk in the road, and the occasional moped or other motorised vehicles which endanger pedestrian safety, it’s a marketing technique, away from the smart, expensive shops, to make you fall over goods on the pavement. Everyday common or garden grocery shops just pile their wares on the pavement so you have to make a conscious effort to negotiate passage.”
“It definitely makes you notice them,” Mark offered in praise of the Lebanese retail industry.
“It’s strange how you become oblivious to things which annoy you at home,” Matthew said with a degree of nostalgia. “People who pip horns at home, I tend to look at in disdain, and I hardly ever, if ever, do it myself, but it’s part of the music of Beiruti street life.”
“It still makes you despair on occasion, though.” Mark was, perhaps, a little less tolerant. “You know, as soon as traffic lights turn green, or even when a green light is predicted, someone who is like six or seven back in the queue starts pipping as though the person at the front might not have noticed.”
Lois, who had never been to Lebanon, looked as though its omission from her bucket list was not in danger of remedial action. Matthew seemed determined to redress the negativity, at least a little.
“You just have to understand the unwritten rules of driving and crossing the road – I’m not really sure you can put the reality into words.” This did little to convince Lois, who, I was happy to report, seemed far more into the siphon-brewed Yirgacheffe. “You know how in language,” Matthew continued, trying to personalise his argument to an area Lois would more easily identify with, “we have prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. For example, prescriptive grammar, how the language should be used, dictates that ‘If I were you’ is correct, while descriptive grammar, how the language is used, allows ‘If I was you’. Well I’ve been assured that Lebanon does have laws of the road, meaning prescriptively, but the rules of what happens in reality, in other words, descriptively, are totally different but everyone seems to know them.”
Lois could be seen and heard, almost literally, trying to process this information and assess its relevance to the argument. Lost for words, an unusual event in itself, she shook her head.
Matthew decided to shock her back to reality. He turned to Mark and winked, indicating a wind-up was in the pipeline. “Have you ever had a hookah?” The effect was instantaneous; this was the type of conversation Lois loved and she awaited the answer agog with anticipation.
Mark, aware of the wink, was tempted to play along but limited this to a few seconds of deep thought before answering the question honestly. “No,” he said, and Lois was almost visibly disappointed. “I don’t smoke.” The female target of the joke returned to a state of confusion. Mark decided to put her out of her misery, although not quite yet. “A hookah is just another word for argileh or shisha,” he teased, waiting a few more seconds for the brow to furrow further. “Or hubble bubble!”
“Ah,” said Lois in final recognition.
“But I fell into the same trap when it was first mentioned to me,” admitted Matthew. “I wondered why the director of the school was offering me a hooker.” He laughed at the recollection, without divulging how he had responded.
“There’s no connection here,” said Mark, indicating a major shift of direction, “but I was just wondering if you could shed light on something I’ve been wondering about. When you go to kiss Lebanese women on the target cheeks, why do they turn their mouths so far away, you end up kissing their ears?”
Lois assumed this was the first line of a joke and sat awaiting the punchline. Apparently, it was a genuine question.
“Maybe that’s just you!” Matthew, not for the first time, laughed at his own joke, however bad it was, and then, noting Mark’s annoyance, jocular though it may have been, and the three empty coffee glasses in front of them, realised a change of subject, and drink, was in order. “Cruzcampo time?”