I’ve been sitting in this cafe for nearly an hour, distractedly reading poems and people watching, writing the biographies of the strangers around me in my mind. In front is a mother trying to douse her tiredness with coffee, one hand clutching cup while the other brings the pram back and forth, an ebb tide willing a few minutes of silent sleep.
To the left is a maturing millennial, head and eyebrows mutually furrowed as he stares into his laptop screen, typing with such conviction as if each click of the keys registers a new deal.
Then there are the elderly couple, sitting in companionable silence, wife buttering toast and passing it onto the husband’s plate with such mechanical ease as if each stroke of the knife has been learnt by rote, weathered into her muscles through routine.
I’m sat reading, trying to translate a poem whose meaning eludes me, either through the poet’s obtuseness or my own. Perhaps both. From behind comes a hand, which picks at the wide neck of my jumper, lifting and replacing it onto my shoulder. “Cover your shoulder up, it’s cold!” I jump a little in my seat, startled at the unannounced interaction, at the disembodied hand, at my clothing being commented upon — and corrected — by a stranger.
I turn, eyes fierce with annoyance, irritated by the unwarranted comments and the personal imposition, indignant thoughts of personal space and body autonomy swarming. Then the hand again reaches out, replacing the neck of my jumper where it fell, part way down my shoulder. “Or not!”. I look up, irritation diffusing, quickly being replaced by confusion.
It’s an elderly woman, who standing, is not much taller than my seated self. She smiles at me, and I see it in her eyes. Behind stands- I assume- her grown son, who, from this perspective, looks almost twice the height of his mother. I see it in her eyes, and I see it reflected in his, and I issue a slightly startled smile back.
They’re standing to leave the cafe, moving past the table I am sat at. I smile at her again, and repeat, “Don’t worry”, to the son. They leave, passing my table again as they step outside, and the son mouths “sorry” twice through the window.
I am shamed by his apology, and ashamed of his embarrassment- it is one I recognise as my own. In the eyes of his mother resided the same illness which erased the mind of my gran, that which eroded concerns of social acceptability, boundaries, or niceties. It was that which would make my gran coo over babies for uncomfortably long, would make her outraged at strangers, anger surging if she spied a strange-familiar face.
It was that which caused her to forget the faces of family, yet at odd hours gather photos in groups, clustering parents with children in warped nativities. It was that which made her walk for miles down the seafront one holiday, leaving the room before breakfast and found not long before dusk, still clutching the brush that had triggered her wandering off. A day searching, and the police found her, exhausted — she’d kept on walking, her 82 years never stopping.
Getting lost is the precursor and process of loss. In the eyes of that man from the cafe was the grief of the living bereft, the exhaustion specific to one caring for someone who’s wandered too far to be found. All grief is subtly complex, internally compact like a paper concertina- its tender, wounded intricacies only visible when opened. Some never do, the internal urge for survival instinctively taking that tiny paper parcel out of the hands of the wounded, and slotting it, as if within an overcrowded bookcase, away.
Others take their concertina and string it up, adorning themselves with their loss- the Miss Havisham model of mourning. However, rarely do people acknowledge the pain that comes before. The pain after the loss we call ‘grief’, but when you’re mourning before night has fallen, that pain lies latent, unspoken. It’s a heavy sadness whose premature expression feels the ultimate ingratitude: an illicit grief prohibited by life. The beloved are mourned while the mourned-for are still loved, creating a grief that is laden with guilt.
To the man and his mother in the cafe, I wish I had realised and was able to apologise for my glare with more than a smile. That I had been slower to judge and quicker to empathise. Empathy- it’s something Kate Tempest addresses intensely. “We’ve arrived at this very strange space where if some fellow human being asks us for help, rather than responding, we treat them with suspicion. If I could say anything to anybody it’s to encourage empathy- real empathy.” — “People tell you that as a human race we’re naturally aggressive, like we naturally want to attack each other. It’s bullshit. Our natural response: if I’m watching a stranger standing on a block of ice, the temperature of my feet will fall, my body temperature will fall- we are physiologically related to one another. The natural thing is to care about one another.”
I’m ashamed of my automatic reaction — too often our own self-distraction, occupation or grief numbs us to the shivering of others. It’s too late to apologise to that man and his mother in the cafe, but I can speak ‘in the throes of truthful feeling’ to encourage empathy, and see the lost before my own loss.