Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Writing in Coffee Shops

Lunchtime at the day-job treadmill is difficult. I work in a small office; no canteen, no empty rooms. The choice is eat at your desk or go out and walk around. Usually I go for the former, but then you don’t really get a break.

“I can see you’re on lunch, but…”

On the other side of the road there’s a retail park, but how much entertainment can be had from DIY shops and sofa warehouses. I’ve tried walking along the canal and counting shopping trolleys, but somehow it just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve been here nearly ten years. It’s desperate.

And then M&S arrived, a brand new department store. No big deal perhaps, but they have a coffee shopJ.

On quiet days there’s even a sofa! Now I can take my netbook and get half an hour of writing done during lunch. Fantastic. No phones. No interruptions. Problem solved.

But, here’s the thing, I usually go to coffee shops in convoy, with Sarah. I buy the coffee, she bags the table. I’m not used to operating alone. If there’s a long queue, (and there always is) how do I ensure that you’ll have somewhere to sit when you come out at the other end?

Sarah had the answer – always take a coat or jacket, even on a sunny day, and hang it on the chair before joining the queue. A simple and elegant solution. I couldn’t wait to try it out today.

The shop was packed, but as I walked in someone was vacating a table in the corner – my favourite table – one where nobody can look over your shoulder and watch what you’re writing. I swooped and hung my jacket over the chair. I felt like punching the air in jubilation. Now I could wait for my low-fat decaf latte without fear of homelessness. My table was ready and waiting.

Just as I was being handed my coffee I heard a voice.

“Miss, someone’s left a coat.”


Sure enough, someone was unloading their tray at MY table, and passing MY coat to one of the table-cleaning staff.

“Excuse me,” I shouted.

I was ignored. It’s like this in bars. I am the invisible man.

“Okay, thank you,” said the girl. “I’ll take it down to the office.”

And in a puff of theatrical flash-powder she’s gone – and my phone’s in the pocket. And my wallet. And the girl on the till is asking me for £2.20 which I haven’t got.

“I’ll get my wallet,” I said. “…back in a moment.” And I’m off, out of the door. I can see the girl’s back, but she’s fast. She’s got all the moves, in and out of clothes racks, anticipating the abrupt browsing habits of customers, skills I have never possessed. We cover a diagonal line from one corner of the shop to the other before I catch her. I explain and I end up apologising. (I’m apologising? What have I done?)

By the time I get back to the coffee shop and pay for my (no longer hot) coffee, the tables are all gone. I’m standing like a lost soul, cup, coat and bag in hand, waiting for a table. It’s a long wait.

I got a table in the end. Next to the cutlery bench. An unloved perch in a dark and noisy corner. I have my netbook resting on my knee, because I don’t relish floating it on the tea-washed, crumb-paved table top.

Tomorrow I’ll be back – but I need a better plan.