The Marmalade Café, Richmond, opens for business at 9am. Mr Stallybrass is not usually the first customer to sail through its art nouveau-styled doorway, neither is he generally the second or the third, but it would be an exceptional moment in the establishment's history were he not to be there by 9.15am, pork-pie hat jammed on the back of his head, stout walking boots leaving a little trail of dirt over the well-brushed carpet and a copy of the Telegraph tucked under his windcheatered arm.
In his seventies now, weather-beaten exterior in no way detracting from an incorrigibly boyish manner, familiar with his surroundings to the point of knowing where the extra crockery is kept, Mr Stallybrass might almost be taken for the Marmalade's proprietor, were it not for his eagerness to engage the waitresses in conversation and the ritual of which these exchanges consist.
"Good day to you, Laura," he will boom, as he advances on the counter. "And how do you find yourself this fine morning?" (There might be six inches of snow outside on Richmond High Street, but all mornings are fine to Mr Stallybrass.)
Laura, by this stage brewing the least expensive cup of coffee that the Marmalade sells, will allow that she is tolerably well, only for Mr Stallybrass to turn his attention to her younger colleague.
"And how are you, Emma-Jane? I expect you've been seeing a lot of that young man of yours, haven't you?" A nod from Emma-Jane, who very probably has been seeing a lot of that young man of hers.
A small queue will have built up by now, but Mr S pays it no heed. As he has more than once remarked, he likes to take his time, and there is always plenty of time to take.
There is never any prospect of Mr Stallybrass leaving the premises until 10.45am, by which juncture the staff will probably have been treated to the royal news in the Telegraph and Lewis Hamilton's chances in the Monaco Grand Prix.
A neutral observer might assume that he is a dreadful old bore whose demeanour is only just on the right side of creepiness, but Laura and Emma-Jane are polite girls, and, for the time being, Mr Stallybrass's private vision of himself as a bountiful old charmer descending on the Marmalade each day to impress and enlighten two of his very good friends precariously endures.Reuse content