It was one of those European cafes, four red plastic chairs around a faux marble table top supported by a single plastic black leg, huddled tightly together under a thin orange awning that had been faded by the sun. The terrace was raised on a wooden deck but it did little to mask the sound of passing traffic and the customers ate their sandwiches oblivious to the exhaust fumes from passing cars. I nodded at the waitress – young, thin, pale skin – and took a seat in the corner nearest the entrance as she finished tending to a table of two parents and two children.
There was an old man sat on the table next to me who briefly looked up as I passed before settling into his pink newspaper; Le Monde. He had a pack of cigarettes on the table and the ash tray was already home to several butts, and I watched his hand reach out for the pack, flick open the lid and remove one, all without looking up from the article he was reading. He placed the orange tip between his lips and reached for his shirt breast pocket, taking out a small silver lighter plainly designed with some green water markings on the corners, lit the cigarette and replaced the lighter, not once looking up from his newspaper. I couldn’t see his face.
My interest was interrupted when the waitress came and asked if I needed a menu or if I was just here for a drink. Her German was not good, she had a thick accent – possibly Polish – and I felt strangely sympathetic for her. Her hair was scraped back but unwashed, her skin was pale and she had a small rash of acne across her forehead, her lips looked dry and cracked and she had purple rings under her eyes. She was not getting enough sleep and she had the onset of a cold. Despite her rundown appearance her uniform was immaculate; black pencil skirt wrapped tightly around her thighs and decorated with a thin brown leather belt at her waist, a crisp white shirt tucked in and ironed thoroughly, sleeves rolled down to her cuffs and a firm collar buttoned at the neck. She had grown up in a stern environment where the maintenance of uniform was paramount – an overseas boarding school most probably, the absence of a crucifix around her neck ruled out a Polish convent and she was too young to have joined the military – but clearly now was struggling to adjust to living independently. Her tiredness and unwashed hair suggested she lived in shared accommodation and the cold was surely a symptom of reluctance to pay a heating bill in autumn.
I ordered a black coffee and asked for the menu. She nodded and as she went inside to prepare it she swapped out my neighbour’s ashtray for a fresh one, he did not notice. It was an impressive sleight of hand and I wondered if she would make a good addition to the small crew I was gathering. Her fastidiousness would lend some order to the unruly gang of street performers I had so far amassed, and adding a girl would no doubt keep some of the younger boys entertained. I decided to wait until she had brought my coffee. If it was good, I’d set up a little test for her to join the gang; if it was bad then I’d drink up, leave a generous tip so she could buy some cold medicine, and let her continue living a mediocre life.