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Reflections of a working writer and reader




I’m in the walled garden of the Ambience Café Bar waiting for breakfast to arrive. It’s a small space, paved for tables immediately outside the kitchen, then rising steeply towards the medieval city walls. There’s a breeze in the street but here we are sheltered and a thin sun concentrates on warming us through. At the next table is an old woman who mutters to herself from time to time. She doesn’t touch her tea and she shuffles as though there is something else in there between her skin and her clothes. With her paints and creams she manages to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease.

At the table beyond her are a young couple. She is toned and tanned with long limbs and a wide mouth and red hair. She has plucked her eyebrows and painted them back in again. He is comfortable with a little belly. He has a fringe. He moves his head quickly as if noticing movements the rest of us are unaware of. The waitress brings them a muffin and coffee. A cappuccino for her and filtered black for him. She is unsure who gets the muffin. He smiles up at her, and she places it in front of him. He doesn’t look at the cake. Doesn’t touch it. The waitress backs off and smiles at me. She tells me my order will be ready in a minute.

The old woman at the next table says something into her hand.

The redhead says to her friend, ‘You lost any weight this week?’

He thinks about it. ‘It’s a slow process,’ he says.

‘But you haven’t given up?’

‘No.’ He shakes his head. ‘It’s not easy, but . . .’

‘I’m sure it’s not. Nothing worthwhile is easy.’

He pushes his cake away.

‘What does that mean?’ she asks.

He looks up, way past the sun.


He scans the heavens, Copernicus reborn.

By the time I’ve finished breakfast the couple are long gone. The waitress has been to their table and taken the cups away. But the muffin remains.

The old woman is eyeing it. She notices me watching her watching it.

She lowers her head to the table and covers her eyes and ears.

5 Responses to “Ambience”

  1. Diane says:

    wow… i wish i could write like you…

  2. OutOfContext says:

    “There’s a breeze in the street but here we are sheltered and a thin sun concentrates on warming us through.”

    This line colors the whole piece for me. Simple, with only a single meager adjective, it says ‘cold comfort’. Also, a breeze can mean freshness as well as cold.

    I never know what makes something strike me, but it’s fun when it does. I wonder if you are often surprised at what people find interesting or meaningful in your writing and how it affects your own impressions of your work.

  3. john baker says:

    Diane: I’m flattered. Dunno what to say to that.
    OutofContext: I’m not often surprised. I think when we’re writing (probably applies to other things as well), we know what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes it’s a subconscious ‘knowing’, sometimes only semi-subconscious, if there is such a state of being.
    And then again, although it’s not really a surprise, often a reader will point to something in the text that you knew was there but had forgotten about, or it was partly hidden from you because it constituted a hidden or secondary effect.

  4. Jim Murdoch says:

    There’s nothing to suggest a time period here but I couldn’t help but cast these characters as suspects and the narrator as Poirot perhaps because of his attention to detail. The other thing that came to mind though I don’t have a copy to hand to check is Thomas M Disch’s novelisation of The Prisoner, ‘I Am Not a Number’. There is a scene in the village café that is described in detail and with a similar precision of expression to your piece. The quality of the writing impressed me very much, his then and yours now.

    jb says: Interesting. I don’t know the work of Agatha Christie or Thomas M Disch, apart from their film and tv adaptations. Partly and in a quite hazy sense my narrator for these shorter pieces is a writer, a kind of Nathan Zuckerman figure, and the attention to detail perhaps comes through that route rather than through the route of a private investigator. This is not, of course, definitive. I don’t know the writer that well. I’m still in the process of trying to draw him out.

  5. “He scans the heavens, Copernicus reborn.”

    I love this line … it quietly punctures his sense of self-regard.

    jb says: That’s when the character first came to life for me, when he was looking up like that.