Coffee seemed to be the pole around which life revolved then. Take the coffee bar in the hotel beside the railway station, where Jane used to arrive on her commuter train in the morning. I usually got there first, and would grab the window table – our table, it was, for a season – looking out over City Square. Sometimes I would sneak a look at the crossword in the local paper before she arrived. It was syndicated from the Washington Post. Jane was tops at the quotations, but I had the edge on her with the spelling – like so many convent school girls, she couldn’t spell for toffee; it went with the designer coats and skirts.
So there I would sit, contemplating the first cigarette of the day. The coffee wasn’t very good there, mostly frothy milk. More often I would have a glass of Russian tea. Then Jane would arrive to complete my day. Sometimes she was edgy after a row with her stepfather; sometimes she was full of some new discovery to share with me – a book, a play, an idea for a story. It didn’t matter to me, it was Jane I wanted. In any mood. She was tall with long dark brown hair wound up into a nest and pinned to the top of her head. She claimed she could put a part-boiled egg into the middle when she left home, and find it hard-boiled by the time her train arrived. It may have been true, but her great broad grin always left a shadow of doubt.
So there we were in the window of the coffee bar looking out on the crowds of office workers and municipal employees, drinking coffee and deciding how to spend our day. I was conventional enough, rather a precious graduate student in my green corduroy jacket and bow tie, but Jane – did I mention that Jane smoked little imported Dutch cigars? She didn’t smoke them all the time, or even very often, but sometimes in the coffee bar she would light up. Usually it would be on a hat day – you see, if she had a tutorial or seminar that couldn’t be dodged, she would have her hair up and would be carrying a hefty leather satchel. She could put on her horn-rimmed glasses and be every inch the earnest student majoring in literature. If we were going out, though, to a gallery or the theatre, she often wore a hat – generally a flat-brimmed Spanish-looking affair – and looked as different from the other students as chalk from cheese.
Another coffee bar now, a wonderful old-fashioned tobacconist’s shop near the Music and Drama academy. It had a carved Indian outside, and enormous ceramic jars of Latakieh and Virginia tobacco, boxes of cigars, pipes carved from meerschaum and amber, expensive silver lighters, cigar cutters and penknives. This was where she bought her Dutch cigarillos, or whatever they were. At the back of the shop was a stair leading down to a wood-panelled basement which was split into two parts. To the left there was a coffee bar catering to refugees from the financial district round the corner: women would not normally go there, at least not unaccompanied. I suppose one of my attractions for Jane was that she could go with me into places like the barber-coffee shop where she would have been unwelcome as a woman on her own. Similarly in pubs, with me she could go to the Horseshoe Bar down by the Central Station, for example, or the Curler’s Tavern near the university. We drank gin, mostly, as we chattered about Beowulf or the language of Clockwork Orange; though as a party piece Jane could lock her gullet like a sword-swallower and pour a pint of beer down in one. It made her burp, of course.
Down in the subterranean coffee bar there were chess boards, and we toyed with the pieces. For example, playing through Murphy’s game with Mr Endon – I introduced Jane to Sam Beckett’s work, while she got me started on Flann O’Brien. A metafictional Roland for my anarchic Oliver.
But we’ll give the literature a rest for the moment because adjacent to the basement coffee shop was a little barber shop. For some reason Jane found it stimulating to be sitting next to a room where men went to be shaved. Whether she had Delilah in mind or Sweeney Todd, I can not say; but something in the conjuncture gave her libido a tweak. “James”, she would say, “I want you.” We didn’t use the four-letter words, not to each other. But “I want you. I want you inside me” was explicit enough.
Explicit? What a useless word. The trouble is, I can tell you about what we read or where we went, but I don’t know how to describe Jane as a physical person: the bitten fingernails that told of distress behind her poise, the way that a hug of greeting would somehow convey the small urgent softness of breast, the curve of her back, the hard lump of the suspender clip, the strangely silky smoothness of thigh. I can not put this into words, any more than I can describe the lift in my heart when we met, the pride I had in being with her. The incredible truth that she wanted to be with me. The strut this put into my step.
Walk on up the road from the university to the traffic lights and you’re opposite another coffee shop, the Silver Slipper, in the old streetcar station at the entrance to the Botanic Gardens. We would not linger there, though, even for the background of Beatles music. It was too close to the building across on the other side of the highway where I had a small apartment in the attic; a garret, if you feel poetic. And that is where we would end up, Jane and I.
My room – Jane would have said ‘rooms’ – was six storeys up, a big dark place with two tiny dormer windows from which you could see some tree tops if you jumped high enough. There was a big draughty fireplace with a little electric fire. A tiny cooking area, with a miniature oven with an electric ring on top, on which I could brew up strong black unsweetened espresso in the aluminum Moka pot. Hot as hell, Jane would say, black as night, and bitter as love. How right she was.
Bitter as love? Bitter? Well of course it couldn’t last, this season of shared discoveries and enthusiasms. A time when she gave me Aubrey’s Brief Lives and I gave her the Tin Drum, and we chanted the Latin poems of Winnie ille Pu together. Jazz and poetry in a basement one day, Chinese ceramics in a gallery the next. There came a time (I still feel sick as I remember it) when I waited in the coffee bar on City Square and had our table to myself, day after day. A time when I phoned and no-one answered. In the end, the time when I received a letter posted in Mexico. There was no return address. I threw it into the fire so I would not pore over it, then spent stupid weeks trying to find significance in a book she had given me not long before: Wilde’s De profundis.
So laugh, why don’t you? Why not? Beckett was right: Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.
* * *
What happened? Why did it end? I don’t know. Maybe I was too intense; perhaps I wanted a commitment for which Jane was not ready. Perhaps I smothered us, turning adventure into domesticity. Perhaps, maybe I was too compliant, too loyal. I was there for Jane, always. Too easy.
I don’t know.
I still don’t know.
* * *
As it happens we met once again, many years later. Coming out of the coffee bar in the railway station with a beaker of coffee to go, I bumped into Jane. Heading for the same train.
With half an hour to her stop, we sat facing each other over the narrow table, knees touching briefly, pulling apart, and then returning to companionable intimacy. I knew at once that in a way nothing had changed. I knew how she would speak. I felt my throat swell, could not hold back a smile of joy.
She too. How she smiled. That old, broad smile.
It turned out that we had followed strangely similar paths. While I found refuge in academic economics, she went to Italy for a year, and then started working in the Economist offices in Washington. Became a full-time card-carrying journalist, doing technical editing.
“Yes, but your poetry?” I asked, “And did you finish your novel? I’ve often looked for it, but didn’t know the name you would use.”
“No”, she said, “I haven’t been able to do anything like that since we parted. How about you?”
“Same story”, I admitted, “Journal articles, monographs pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. But nothing creative. I think we killed that between us.”
“Could be”, she said, “For each man kills the thing he loves – remember?”
“Yeah. Some love too little, some too long . . .”
“Bugger”, we said together. Close to tears.
She was getting off at her old stop, still kept the family home there, letting it out to tenants. Her marriage had broken up (“I always was a fidget”) and the children were away. Her job kept her in Washington, where she had a rented flat. She reached across, took my hand. I noticed that she had stopped biting her fingernails.
“Are you ever in Washington, James? How about next time you give me a ring? It would be so good to sit down in a quiet restaurant with a bottle of white wine…”
“A.B.C.” I said. “Anything But Chardonnay.”
“Certainly. Never Chardonnay.”
It was strange and painfully sad to find we still spoke the same language at the same speed, after all the years. The train was getting close to her stop and Jane started writing her phone number and address in a notebook. Tearing it out for me. I thought of my wife, our children. Could I ask them to understand the lie that I have lived?
“Jane,” I said, “It won’t just stop at wine and reminiscence, will it?”
Her face was flushed, her eyes large. That look hadn’t changed. She shook her head. Whispered: “No. I still want you.”
“And I you. So that’s why it stops here. Now.” I said, and pushed her slip of paper back.
She crumpled it, threw it into her bag as the train pulled into the station.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “That was stupid. Stupid.” She left the train quickly, then stopped and stood outside on the platform, tugging on her gloves, an appeal in her eyes. Maybe. The windows don’t slide down now. All I can do is look at her and try not to let her see. God help me I still love you.
I shall always love you.