Sugar’s there, he said, and stirrers, he said, gesturing towards the anorexic lollipop sticks spearing out from a jar by my elbow. He nodded then, as if to indicate that was all of the extras, even though, as it happened, it wasn’t. But then, I suppose, there was no need to mention the rain.
It’d started on the drive down that morning, and hadn’t so much as paused for breath or re-fuelling since. It was the reason, indeed, I was standing there anyhow, queuing for coffee, rather than watching a medieval minstrel show, which I had tickets for, and which should have been happening on the other side of the high, nearby, castle wall, in the field that seemed to constitute its grounds.
It was unscrupulous, the rain, in its indifference. To the minstrels, to the festival, to me. One drop or two? it didn’t bother to ask, before promptly pouring three or four, of differing volumes and velocities, into both of the open-topped cups. The latte foam parting at the touch like quicksand, and then, like quicksand, re-coagulating to cover it up.
For a moment, as I walked with those two cups outstretched before me, I thought you’d left. But you hadn’t. You’d simply moved to another table, slightly more hid from the weather. Had pushed out a chair for me beside you, so as I, despite having taken a soaking, and this being the first coffee of the day (which was already into its afternoon), still knew where it was I should sit.
We were in the lower part of the castle’s outer grounds; sitting beneath an awning on one side of the flagstone path, inadvertently staring at those beneath an awning on the other, who were, inadvertently, doing the same back. Roughly every quarter-minute, a larger droplet was trampolined loose from atop the awning, spraying my thigh and my right shoe, blearing my eyeline a tad. A tad further.
It’d been an early start and we were both tired, and now, to rectify that, to counter it, we were making quick work of our coffees, and so not saying much.
The two men behind us were talking, though, even as they knocked back beers. I hadn’t even noticed they were there when I sat down, but they must have been, because, looking outwards as I was, I surely would have noticed them come over.
What eventually tipped me off to their presence, to their talk, I think, was that one of the men said he was a singer-songwriter. Not that such a fact necessarily made him of interest in and of itself. Rather, it was when he told the other man he’d only come here for the festival, and had been around all the pubs, asking if he could perform during the week, telling the owners in the process of such asking exactly what he was. Nothing special there either, perhaps – I suppose they’re inundated by such requests, especially at this time of year – only, along with that bit of background info, he bundled in a confession: that he hadn’t felt the usual snap in his voice or his mind when he’d been going round doing that asking; that he was no longer embarrassed to say what he did.
They went on from there about quitting jobs and saving up, despite quitting jobs, to go to Thailand, but I, no longer eavesdropping with all attention on anything but inward me, didn’t register the outcome of the plans, or even whether they’d been done or were still there yet to do.
Along with the water, and the water-weakened coffee, I found myself logged down by envy. Or, perhaps, not by envy, but by an anger at myself. I had found myself almost nodding along to his confession, his recounted revelation, the first time I heard it, away from the semi-martial drum-loop it’d settled into in my head. Yet, afterwards, staring out still, and still inadvertently, across the quarter-minute dripping and the flagstone path, I chided myself for pretension, for thinking what I do – what I want to keep doing – could continue to override basic economic sense.
People like poets do not own castles, I thought, looking up at the back end of that old stone building, which seemed cookie-cut from, but lighter than, the gloomy, marshy grey above.
People like poets – like singer-songwriters, even – wind up standing in wet fields, like those medieval minstrels must have been doing just then; hanging around for the chance of a pittance, willing to perform for it whether the audience shows up or not.
Those quarter-minute drips still blearing my eyeline, spattering my jeans and my shoe. The coffee not quite yet kicked in.
After it had, and had kicked off again, I stopped worrying about money. I bought books. You bought books. I stopped worrying about the rain. On the way back to the festival grounds, we stopped in your car and I dried my hair with a towel. Whilst you looked at me and laughed, and made me feel not self-conscious, but loved, in spite of my numerous failings. I care for you. I cared for the books we had, between us, wedged into my backpack. We double-checked that the tickets for Roger McGough were inside that bag, before we set out for the venue.
And after we’d seen him, heard him, had our books signed, I chided myself again; this time, not for my choices, but instead for that earlier chiding; for letting my mind get away, for a while, with that old, usual snap.