Joys Of Modern Life: 16. The Local Cafe

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The Independent Culture
A COUPLE of years ago, a bunch of Serbians appeared in our neighbourhood and opened up a cafe. It is on the corner, with plate glass windows over the main drag on one side and the street where my brother lives on the other. It has three tables inside, two outside on the street on warm days, and a back room with a counter where five or six people can sit.

I arrive at 9.10am clutching my paper and ordering my cappuccino, having walked my child to school. The back room is already full of dark men in leather jackets with sad, dangerous faces. They sit alone, talking Serbo- Croat into mobile phones and smoking, or they sit in a group and argue hotly, smoking. We, the customers, imagine that they are planning revolutions and civil wars. We don't know whether they are refugees or war criminals. The waitresses are good-looking, slightly tense but friendly. The male customers wonder hopefully whether perhaps it is a knocking-shop. The owner is tall and bearded, genial when he remembers to be. What is his story? We dare not ask. We think of wars and rumours of wars, and count ourselves lucky.

Once, I asked one of the girls what language they were speaking: "Yugoslavian", she said. I seem to remember there is no such language. They sell Serbian cheese pie and Serbian white bean soup. And pots of honey for pounds 5, and blanched almonds and cans of tomatoes which nobody ever buys. And chocolate croissants. And excellent coffee.

Some mornings, I sit with another mother from the school gates and we discuss love, divorce and alcoholism. Sometimes I find myself discussing the exact same subjects with total strangers; with only three tables, you end up sharing. Usually, my friend Clare sees me through the window and pops in to say good morning on her way to the station. My brother's children stick their noses up against the window and make faces at me. George, a Greek transsexual, may attempt to engage me in a political discussion.

The street outside has its population of local notables: the handsome and elegant Prince Man, whose real name is Colin, and who parades like a boulevardier in his perfect long plaits and his sharp suits, greeting all and sundry. There's the Tibetan-looking man who wears big woolly jumpers tucked into what look like pyjama bottoms. There's the old black man who carries a 10-ft white wooden cross over his shoulder, like Christ heading for Calvary.

My neighbour, Kameel, was in there this morning taking a break from marking exam papers. "This cafe is the best thing to have happened to this neighbourhood in years," he said, and he's right. Plenty of us work from home round my way. Nowadays, when we run into each other in the street, we say "Coffee?" to each other, and we have somewhere to go. We have a change of scene, a breath of air, somewhere to smoke without our children lecturing us. We can see people and converse during the day just as office folk do. It's fast becoming our canteen, our common-room, as it is for the Serbs. I've networked in there (I ran into a neighbour who is a BBC radio producer; over coffee he expressed an interest in doing a show based on a book I wrote); I've swapped garden cuttings; I've been wept on; I've had breakfast, lunch and tea; in fact, it's beginning to feel like home.

The main joy of it is that it's just a cafe, run by some people. It's not part of a chain; it's not themed; and it's not specially designed by a research focus group to appeal to the defined socio-economic needs of women like me. It's just a cafe in a neighbourhood. I told my friend from Clapham about it. "I'm jealous," she said. "I want a cafe."