The place was a first-floor restaurant within a department store. I was seated at the window overlooking an open square and the queue for the Viking Museum. The coffee was served in tiny stainless-steel pots and I drank it black and watched the people in the queue edging forward for a history lesson.
I’d noticed the woman crying at the table near the door while I waited to be served. She held a scrap of drenched handkerchief and stared into the space between her eyes and a cup of cold tea on the table before her. She may have been thirty, or a lot younger, perhaps a little older.
I imagined she would pull herself together, wipe her eyes and leave. That the space of despair she left behind would be filled by a happy couple or a jolly family. But she stayed on. The people around her at other tables glanced her way from time to time pretending to look over her head or around it at more interesting folk in the mid distance. As far as I could tell from my end of the room she made no sounds.
One does speculate in these situations. I imagined a runaway husband or boyfriend, the death of a child. It may have been news of a terminal illness which would necessitate her abandonment of loved ones; or perhaps it was a loved one who was threatened? I settled on multiple disasters; a wife abandoned, a mother bereft, a crippling disease and an existential space the width of a continent.
I drank the coffee down to the dregs and walked towards the exit. As I drew closer to her I could see her eyes weren’t focussed and she was unaware of her surroundings. My writer’s instincts are to observe as closely as possible and I could see the tears trickling with some regularity down her cheeks, collecting briefly on her chin and the end of her nose and dropping off onto the front of her blouse, onto her knees and seeping out from under her table and chair, forming a slowly expanding puddle on the polished tiles of the restaurant floor.
I splashed past her and out through the exit, pressing the call button for the lift to take me down to street level.
The lift was slow to respond and while waiting I wondered if I should return and try to console her. She was nothing to me, true; but she was a human being and she was alone and suffering. The others in the restaurant were voyeurs, offering no help at all, only interested in observing grief’s weirdness. I was reminded of the biblical story of the good Samaritan but could not bring myself to emulate him. The effort of readjustment was more than I could muster.
By the time the lift doors opened I was standing in a pool of tears that had followed me from the restaurant, and when they closed again behind me the floor of the lift was also wet.
I rushed back to my office and worked solidly on a manuscript which was already overdue. When my mind was finally drained and I could grasp the meaning of no further words or concepts I put the manuscript away in a drawer and dozed for a while. Some time later I was dragged awake and drawnto the window to look out at the city.
The pavements and roads had gone. The city was swamped by an ever-rising tide which had already obliterated the first-floors of the offices and shops around me. A middle-aged man in a dinghy waved my way and shouted something I couldn’t understand. Further along what had been a street was a vessel like a punt with two matrons seated and a young man standing aft with a long pole.
I realised the novel I had been working on for more than a year would never be read, that I would leave it there for ever in the drawer, and I knew simultaneously that in a short time the salty water outside would come tumbling over the lip of my window.