There she is, my Russian Doll, tearing up a baguette like it’s something her mother baked. She sits on the chrome stool with her legs dangling down – does she know what she’s doing to me? With her brown bob, messed up from the wind outside, from the ancient winds in Siberia.
I want to see her eat meat and get her teeth bloody and dripping. I would catch ten moose for her with my spear. I would lay down the corpses in our kitchen and she would gasp and call me her warrior.
Can we be cold together? Can we warm up by the fire?
Look at her licking her lips, my rural Russian Doll. She doesn’t suit being lit up by a strip light, it’s too clinical, she deserves the soft light of a fire, not this buzzing wheeze. She looks at me, darts her eyes over, then hauls them back in embarrassment. Yes, Doll, I am not as pretty as you. I scare you, don’t I?
But back in your cottage in the snow, where your ancestors passed down their seeds to make the work of art that is you, I would be what you need. I am rough, I am unafraid, I am searing with the desire to tear and gnaw. I would be your warrior and you would love me and lie in your sheepskin bed, keep it warm for my return, and I would show you what a warrior can do.
She is fidgeting, waiting for someone. I want to go over and scratch her neck, lick the crumbs from her lips and do all those things that lovers do. She knows I am looking. I want her to feel it, how it feels to be stuck over here in my corner. Sentenced to rot in this plastic chair, sticking gum underneath it to mark my days. The Robinson Crusoe of the greasy spoon.
I avoid looking at my own reflection, but my Russian Doll is enough of a mirror. She is squirming in her seat, checking her phone.
And here, she is saved by a phone call. It is her grandmother, saying she needs her back home to look after the cattle, be the milkmaid she was always destined to be. Milking udders in the chilled barn, clouds of breath forming as she sings.
I am dancing to your song, my rosy-cheeked Doll.
And now, she is gone like a dream. I see her tighten her coat around her as she takes one last glance in my direction and we lock eyes. Mine tell her everything but she turns away and carries on up the pavement, trailing breadcrumbs behind.
They always leave me, these Russian Dolls. Leave me to fade like a dying heartbeat, and all twisted around my cup. The coffee’s gone cold.
Something squeaks behind me; I am not alone. It is the Window Cleaner with his sponge. We are inches apart but he doesn’t notice me through the soapy screen. I watch as his arm moves up and down. He is here with his bucket again, cleaning dirt no one can see. With overalls three times too big for his winter-tree frame. You could snap if you’re not careful, Window Cleaner. There are harsh and bitter winds out there who have long forgotten to respect the dying. They’ve existed far longer than you have and will break your bones to grind for snow.
He limps to the bus stop after every shift, reaches into his pack of Old Holborn and breathes in the stale comfort he’s known since childhood. I can see a strand of tobacco now stuck to his bottom lip like a stray pubic hair.
Poor old Window Cleaner, I’m sure they all say. Huddling by his electric fire with a microwave pie at six o’clock. But no one can smell the dark stories behind old age. Yes, they smell the cabbage and the mothballs, but do they smell the guilt-stench that leaks from his eyes?
I smell it, I see it. I know your type, old man, with all the plastic trust of an uncle. I see you glancing at that young boy there when his mother turns around to reach in her bag. I can see you salivate, I’m sure you’re hungry. No one to feed you since your wife died. Keep on looking, I won’t tell. I will only wish for a happy accident when you cross the road.
Now the window is clean, he has paid for his sins today so he squeezes the sponge dry until his knuckles are white. He pours the bucket and lets the grime flow down the pavement like a lonely river, and I am exposed to the outside once again. He spasms a smile in my direction. I look up from under my eyebrows.
Your time will come and there will be nothing to clean.
All these people crowding in here to fill up on chips, gorging on beans to forget. No one notices me because I fit. Like a plug in a sink, I slot into my hole, look on to another day. Scratch my beard and cradle my cup. Watch the other low-lives blend into beige walls. This place puts a plaster on our grazes but it doesn’t take them away.
Here she comes, Fat Waitress with her tight seams and butter-breath. Edging between tables like an arcade game. Watch out for that table – it will cost you ten points!
She stacks the plates that have been there for half an hour, steals a sly piece of bacon. She tosses a quick eye around the room to make sure no one is looking, and dips her finger in a pool of yolk.
You wear your body like a coat and yet you shiver. Under those creases and folds and handfuls of flesh, what is left?
One summer years ago, you tasted something sweet and irresistible. For two hot weeks you ate and ate, days of adolescent limbs and grass stains, tangling yourselves in the reeds. He said he loved you, didn’t he. And you blushed back with a sweaty brow, believing it. All those hours amounted to one, where he drove off and left you on a gravelly path. Since his saccharine lips there’s been nothing so sweet.
She winces as she bends down to pick up a fork. A strand of dust-blonde hair sticks to her forehead and I shudder at the way it clings, so wet and taut.
Fat Waitress and her nail-bitten hands, clutching on to plates of food and eyeing them up as if it was that sweet summer memory being served. Chewing her cheek as the man in leather touches her arm and orders his breakfast. Nodding her chin in to her neck, yes love, of course.
I see her squeeze past my table every day. Her hand always shakes as she gives me my cup. I make a point of looking at her face to make sure she knows that I am watching. That she cannot hide in her suit of flesh; armour padded from long nights in front of the telly, fingers resting in warm pies. I am resting in your stomach, Fat Waitress, mingling with the acid and moving with your slow pulse. I am there to remind you that you are not alone.
In this place, you have company. Each crowded table is a constellation of the same people day to day; they too have summers wrapped up like tissues, kept in a pocket, long worn.
By now it is late morning and crowds pile in, blocking my corner. I raise my cup in the direction of Fat Waitress and turn it upside down to show that I’m out of coffee. Her head hovers behind a large man standing in front of me. She takes one glance at my empty cup, me holding it, and turns the other way. Shuffling all the way to the counter at the far end, she tugs on the cashier’s apron strings and whispers in her ear.
She knows that I can see her, that I can hear her rasping some nervous complaint. It is time to leave, I have seen enough for one day. I am stuffed to the brim with the white noise of voices, and faces that peer on, mouths full of sausage. I feel under my chair and count: twenty one days and still a castaway.