It is a chintzy kind of place but I force myself to go in there from time to time because the coffee is good and they put together an almost fat-free breakfast. They have a painted pelmet which circles the room half a metre below the ceiling, where they line up sparklingly clean old teapots. The round, glass-topped wicker tables have gingham skirts and somehow conspire to make us talk in whispers. When we were children, Mum encouraged us to support lone traders who had a smile or anything approaching a deferential attitude.
I could feel the difference as soon as I walked into the place, though it looked the same. The teapots were still up there, squeaky clean; the décor, a faint pink blush to everything, had not been tampered with. But there was something in the air.
Enough to put me off ordering the breakfast. When the girl came to take my order I asked for coffee and when she delivered it a couple of minutes later I detected something either added to it or, perhaps, taken from it. I don’t mind change in itself, but in this instance the coffee had not improved, it had rather moved infinitesimally closer to the edge of bitterness.
Business was not particularly brisk and I was jotting down some thoughts in my notebook when a couple arrived at the adjoining table. I recognised both of them but neither gave me a second look. I pressed myself further into my notes and anonymity. I had not seen them together before and would not have identified them with each other. She was the midwife who had delivered our daughter twenty years earlier. In the interim I had not seen her but she was instantly recognisable. She had a dodgy eye, which we, unreasonably, I suppose, worried would unsettle the baby. We had christened her Hawkeye.
The man I had seen once or twice recently, both times in the changing room at the pool. He was unremarkable. You would never guess he dried his feet with the hair-dryer.
They ordered breakfast and when it came I was glad I hadn’t bothered. Not so fat-free as it had been before. And there were two eggs on each plate.
Some clues to the change in atmosphere were forthcoming when a tall, gaunt woman with stiff hair came from the kitchen area and occupied a tall table by the door. She might have materialised from the pages of a Conrad novel. She adjusted her spectacles and started work on some kind of ledger. From her briefcase she took a mobile phone and calculator. The girl brought her a coffee and she barely nodded when it was placed close to her right hand.
In my notebook I added a last phrase: perhaps it was like this at the divine withdrawal? An experiencing of God as deus absconditus.
As I left the tall woman caught my eye but did not smile. In the background Hawkeye suddenly looked around her, as if she had lost something. I walked away in search of my elusive breakfast.