IF YOU are interested in the ins and outs of human behaviour, few things are more fascinating than the conversations of people sitting next to you in a cafe. It is part crossword puzzle - the deciphering of this particular relationship - and part psychoanalysis. Why did she say that? What is he really getting at? The way we can say one thing and mean another: this truism is so much more obvious when you are not actually engaged in the conversation yourself. Or to me it is. Weirdly, as we are leaving, I often discover my partner doesn’t share my opinion about the marriage of the couple at the next table. Sometimes he hasn’t even noticed there was a couple at the next table.
I have spent a lot more time than usual in cafes over the last few weeks. I have a novel to finish, a thriller, and we have the builders in. The house is noisy and a man is liable to appear at a window at any moment. Normally I wouldn’t mind a man appearing at the window, but it can be disarming when you are in the middle of a creepy passage. My new book is about an abusive relationship, the possibility of pseudosuicide (pretending you are dead when you are not), the dark side of human nature, but I have been writing it in cosy nooks in south London, helped on my way by a nice cup of coffee and the smell of baking. And the thing is - and I know it might be because, as I am supposed to be working, I am, unusually, trying [start itals]not[end itals] to listen - but I have noticed this odd thing. The conversations around me have started to take a rather sinister turn.
The other day, I was in Lavish Habit in Balham where they sell jewellery and bits of vintage furniture (as well as delicious coconut toast). A young couple eating lunch were idly discussing their future (“I think I could live in Bath”; “Yeah. I could live in Bath. But not ‘til I’m much older, like 30”) when the woman, a petite brunette in clumpy wedge shoes, mentioned she had just declined a party invitation. The man put down his knife and fork and adjusted the neck of his close-fitting polo-shirt.
“Did you even mention me?”
“Why? You’ve got to come up with your own excuse.”
“We’re a couple aren’t we? We either go together or not at all. Not to is ... it’s not... coupling.”
“I’d still go if you were busy.”
I felt uncomfortable. Was I just imagining the threat implicit in the repetition of “wouldn’t”? He was just staring at her. She just carried on eating her quiche and salad, but in my own head I fast-forwarded to their life in Bath, aged 30, her isolated from her friends, her family, his increasing demands...
Later, three women with babies bustled through the door - a lot of pram negotiation, and chair-scraping. They sat right close to my desk (I mean table), which seemed slightly aggressive in itself, though I was probably being paranoid. I think they had just had been into the nail bar next door, because one of them had the leaflet, and they were looking at it while they talked. Their main topic was another woman they all knew.
“Hannah was quiet for Hannah.”
“She’s usually... such a character.” (Small laugh.)
“Her heart’s in the right place.”
“How is her mother?”
“Not long left.”
“N’ah. Shame. Particularly as she’s lost just her father as well.”
“God, pedicures are expensive.”
How extraordinary, I thought, that they could be so callous, move so effortlessly from the death of a friend’s two parents to the price of a gel nail. And not just that. On the surface, they had appeared to be complimentary about poor Hannah - ‘“such a character”, “her heart’s in the right place” - and yet both comments were actually barbed and not really very kind at all. And if I was Hannah, deranged by grief, and I knew that these smug women with their leisurely lives and their pedicure leaflets were talking about me in that way, well, I wouldn’t like to predict the consequences.
I left that cafe, and I went somewhere else the next day - Deli Boutique in Clapham, a new French-run establishment that serves crepes to school children after 3.30pm. It was quiet enough in the morning, though a woman next to me did keep talking about how “disgusting” it was that her daughter’s teacher didn’t return her emails. (The teeth-clenched force behind that most visceral of adjectives suggested a more generalised anger that could do with specialist help). Lunchtime, though, I became aware of latent violence in many of the throwaway remarks wafting over the aroma of hot cheese and ham croissant. “I’m going to have to say something. I can’t live like this.” And “It’s the groaning I can’t bear.” And: “If this job doesn’t come up trumps I’m going to slit my wrists.”
Two men in jeans were standing at the counter, waiting for a takeaway chicken pie.
“Who’s left of your team now Andy’s ...gone?” one of them said casually to the other.
“Just me and Layla,” the second man said.
The first man's mouth dropped open. “You’re all that’s left?”
Left where? I mean, probably they were just talking about work, redundancies, but I didn’t like the rigid fix of the second man’s jaw. Who was Layla? Did she mind being on her own with him? What had happened to all the others?
I walked home a little after that - a nice walk across the common. A man with a beard in a heavy camouflage jacket was talking loudly just ahead of me his mobile phone. “Are you still going on about the kitchen?” he was saying. He had a forthright posh accent. “Are you still complaining? What do you want now? I trust them OK?” He listened for a bit and then started really shouting. “I cannot listen to this any more. I have a troop to organise to Afghanistan. Do you really think I care about the kitchen? Just shut up. OK. SHUT UP. If you don’t shut up I’m going to come home and blow your head off. Do you hear me? Blow your head off.”
Well. I scurried across the grass pretty quickly after that. I actually think he was following me because he left the path too, and I don’t know why he would have done that otherwise. I was out of breath when I reached the safety of the main road.
A friend was waiting with her dog to cross at the lights. I told her what I had just overheard. I didn’t think he was a real soldier, I said. He was clearly mad. Dangerous.
She looked at me and then she looked back over the common. The sun had come out, dappling through the leaves. A few ducks idly floated on the pond.
“How’s the book?” she said.