In the demilitarised zone between the mundane world and the domain of dreams, sits Café Insomnia, haven for the sleepless, the night owls, the disaffected, the disappointed and the disenfranchised. It’s a place of refuge, somewhere to rest, to hide, to meet others or to be alone. A place to patch up emotional wounds, or to open them up raw and bloody, or perhaps simply to pick the scabs. There is sanctuary here, if that is what you seek. Or confirmation that everything is indeed as bad as you thought it was. The choice is yours as to whether you pass through its doors into the warm, buttery light within. Not everyone who looks for the place can find it, however. It won’t be on your GPS system or on Google Maps. No, you’re much more likely to stumble upon it in the very moment you give up the search. The map co-ordinates are actually easy to remember: a mile north of remembering and ten degrees left of forgetting.
But to us lesser mortals, who have little or no true understanding, Café Insomnia is even easier to find than that. It’s 300 yards down Fishmarket Close, just off the Toxteth Road.
Why don’t you join us inside now, take a seat at that gloomy table there? Ignore the distressed plastic tablecloth with its decaying sunflowers. Disregard the napkin-wrapped cutlery standing, a set for each potential customer at this four-seater table, in their dusty pottery jars. Those knives and forks and spoons aren’t actually dirty, the stains are watermarks merely the result of repeated washings, the Sheffield steel from which they are made perhaps 100 years old. Try not to pay too much attention to the slight ghosting in the glass of your tumbler; it’s not dust, but rather the ingrained residue of the countless liquids it has contained through the years, from plain water to wine to whisky and even, once in a while, powerful rakia from some remote village in the Stara Planina mountains of Bulgaria. Fear not; the plates upon which your food is served will be spotless, and your meal itself will be full of the flavours of home and of romance and adventure.
See those two women over there, at a table close to the centre of the place, beneath the Tiffany ceiling lamp? It’s them we’ve come to meet. At least in the first instance. There are others waiting in the wings also, to entertain you or not, as the case may be. After all, every tale has to begin somewhere, and with someone or several someones. Otherwise there would be no tale, as there would be nobody to tell it.
“He looks like a cat burglar, if you ask me,” said Patricia Collins to her companion, Julie Bellwether.
Julie, like Patricia herself, was no longer young though neither was she old. Unlike her companion, though, who erred on the dowdy side, Julie was stylishly attractive with her wild mane of grey hair, colourful post-hippy clothes and African necklace with oversized multicoloured wooden beads.
She tried not to roll her eyes when she replied with the question, “Who?” A word laden with all the forbearance that only a friend of long standing can offer.
In one of her famously flawed stage whispers, Patricia replied, “Him. The one in the booth over there. Don’t you think there’s something shifty about him?”
Shifty? Julie thought with amusement. Patricia was indeed rather fond of employing anachronistic turns of phrase for dramatic effect, though they were more commonly such choice bon mots as “she’s no better than she should be”, “there’s a turn up for the books”, and “talk about the pot calling the kettle black”. But shifty? That was a new one. Therefore potentially serious.
Given this notion, Julie felt compelled to take a sneak peek at the man in the booth.
And immediately regretted doing so.
“Oh, sh-i-i-t.” She didn’t so much speak the words as mouth them, widely and silently. The way women used to be instructed to exercise their facial muscles to keep them taut and youthful.
She whipped her head quickly back around to face her friend and fixed her with a glare. Then, shoving to one side the other’s half-drunk cappuccino, knocking over her own tea as she did so, she grabbed her by the wrist and tried to drag her up out of her chair.
For once, Patricia appeared genuinely startled by her friend’s behaviour. After all, Julie didn’t usually do startling or surprising things. No, Julie was the dependable sort, and predictable to a fault – reassuringly so to Patricia, but bloody annoyingly to Julie herself.
“What are you doing?” Patricia demanded imperiously and wrested free of her friend’s grip. What on earth had caused her to react so to the mysterious man in the booth?
Julie frantically flapped her hands, a comical pantomime of the universal sign for “please calm down”.
Patricia ignored this and plonked down on her chair again, no doubt slightly wiggling her large buttocks just to make a point. Julie could imagine the fleshy croissants of bumflesh cupping the seat to hold her all the more securely in place.
In no mood to explain or negotiate, Julie simply picked up her purple satin jacket with fur collar from the back of her chair, shouldered her floral rucksack and said, “Sorry, Trish, I have to go.” She spoke in hushed but firm tones, every so often glancing up to see if the man in the booth had spotted her. Luckily for her he was too absorbed in his electronic tablet to pay her any mind.
“Julie, for goodness’ sake...”
Patricia’s protest was lost on Julie as she strode briskly through the saloon doors into the Café’s porch. A sharp chill struck her. The porch was always a cool little box, a thermal barrier between the cold world of the dank lane outside and the inviting warmth within. As she shrugged on her jacket Julie regarded the stained glass door panels depicting art nouveau flowers and butterflies that gleamed rich blues, purples, reds and oranges, with a few curlicues of white and yellow for the highlights. She mentally berated herself for being so immature.
Still, she was damned if she would go back in there now. No, there was nothing else for it but to head home.
She repositioned the rucksack across her right shoulder and pushed open the front door.
Puddles in between the cobblestones gave back the fractured reflection of Café Insomnia’s neon sign above entrance. The brick tenement opposite displayed only its small lavatory windows, most of them dark but one or two higher up lit behind their pebbled glass and curtained windows. Not a salubrious neighbourhood, to be sure. But to Julie, it felt more like home than home itself did.
A small cough startled her. It came from the cul-de-sac down the side of the Café. A curl of pungent blue smoke spiralled around a dark figure. The face glistened like polished oak.
“Aw’right, Julie?” a deep, silky male voice called.
Marshall Thomson III was a tall, stocky Jamaican of indeterminate age though Julie guessed him to be (correctly, as it happened) in his mid-forties. He was the real deal, too, with a broad mouth and ironic smile, and even the dramatic dreadlocks, presently hanging loosely about his face but which were usually tucked beneath his chef’s hat. He had evidently snuck out the kitchen door for a sly drag.
“Hello, Marshall,” she replied.
But as she was about to continue on her way, Marshall flicked his cigarette to the ground, stubbed it out with his foot and said, “Bit early for you, innit?”
Julie automatically checked her watch beneath the dim streetlights. It was only a little after one thirty a.m., the ghost time fully another hour and a half distant. Her sleep-deprivation parties normally never got underway until at least two.
She nodded. “I suppose.”
“I is not prying nor nothing, mon. ’Scuse I.”
Julie gripped the strap of her rucksack more tightly. Then, arriving at her decision, ventured down the cul-de-sac.
“Got another of those for me?”
“Sure, mon.” Marshall dug into his chest pocket and produced a packet of Marlboros.
She accepted a cigarette, which the chef lit for her with a quizzical expression. “You don’t smoke,” he said.
“No,” she said, taking a deep puff and coughed as she exhaled. “I don’t.”
“You got worries?”
“Not really,” she answered, honestly enough. “You?”
Marshall lit himself another and tipped back his head to blow smoke up into the air. Around the porch light Julie could discern, just barely, a sprinkling of stars. This was one of the few places in London where you can actually see them, a tiny navy blue beach twinkling with motes of glittering celestial sand particles.
“Oh, ya know. Da usual. Dat girl o’ mine she gimme troubles.”
“Da very same. Girl, she just like her mudda. Nottin’ but attitude an’ lip.”
The smoke was beginning to taste bitter in Julie’s mouth, so she stubbed out the cigarette the way she’d seen Marshall do just now.
“Are we talking about the same Callista?”
Callista Sommers worked the tables, seeing as how she was between jobs and all, and was an entirely a warm and welcoming asset to the Café Insomnia.
“Da very same.” Marshall sighed. “You t’ink she all sweetness an’ light, but she t’ink she too good for dis place. Me, I don’t care if she is a university graduate an’ all. Only she b’lieve she da queen o’ Sheba.”
Julie tried not to smile. As a rule Marshall spoke with a received BBC accent; the dispossessed Rastafarian thing was an act, dragged out either to make a point or to put at arms length people he didn’t especially like.
“Well, I can’t say what goes on behind closed doors, but she’s the best ambassador you’ve got. You remember Alice, don’t you?”
“Now you gone spoil my good mood.” Marshall leant back, put a foot against the wall and folded his arms across his chest.
If that was good mood, thought Julie, what must his bad moods be like?
Oh, he remembered Alice all right. As did everyone else who had encountered her. Alice had been hired in the first instance because of her excellent CV and references. And, to be fair, she was super efficient at serving tables. The problem was that no one dared disagree with her. Ever. No, really...not ever. Which was the primary reason that Marshall’s food never received a single complaint. Not for being too cold, too hot, too spicy or too lacking in flavour. Mistaken order? Forget it, that never happened. Not on Alice’s shift. And if it did, it was the customer’s mistake. And, without going in to the details, this was also why in the end Marshall had needed to let Alice go.
“Anyhow,” he said, changing tack, “you look like you sneaking out. Dat what you do?”
“If you must know...yes. That is...what I do.”
“There you are.”
Julie whirled. Patricia’s schoolmarmish statement was as surprising as it was unwelcome.
Patricia held up both hands questioningly. “Well?”
“Well what?” Julie said and turning to the chef, added, “Sorry, Marshall. Lovers’ tiff.”
Marshall grinned. “So you batting for d’other team all of a sudden?”
Julie ignored this, grabbed Patricia by the elbow and hustled her through the lane and out onto the main road.
“Did he see you?”
Julie took a nervous glance back down the lane. No-one there, thankfully.
“Who?” Patricia, for the second time that morning, had to twist free from her friend’s grasp. This was getting ridiculous; from a pair of friends who never hugged, or made any bodily contact whatsoever, or rarely at any rate, they seemed out of the blue to be auditioning for a Britain’s Got Talent mature ladies’ wrestling act.
“No one. Sorry, it doesn’t matter.”
“You’re not a very good liar.” Patricia hooked her arm in to her friend’s and went on, “Never mind. We’re all entitled to a few secrets.”
“Really?” Julie tried to not sound exasperated. Patricia wasn’t a good liar, either. Nor was she in the least philosophically elevated, so the attempt at empathy had to be a ploy to draw Julie out. She refused to be baited, however, so she clarified her position. “Patricia, I realise I’m behaving a bit oddly, but honestly, it’s nothing to worry about. That person you decided was a housebreaker isn’t one. Least not so far as I know. I just didn’t feel like engaging him in conversation, that’s all.”
“Or introducing him to your best friend, either, it seems.”
Oh great. Now it was the hurt pride coming out. Which was an aspect of her character that Patricia never had to fake; Julie had, after all, witnessed it, consoled it, caused it or ignored often enough in the past.
“Patricia,” Julie said, “I...oh, there’s my bus.”
Saved by the number 29. Night buses home were infrequent and some universal law had delivered one to the stop just in time to rescue her from a one of Patricia’s famous “chats”.
She gingerly pecked her friend on the cheek, hopped aboard, and waved, calling, “See you at class tomorrow.”
Patricia waved back with a shake of her head. As Julie took removed her bus pass from the card reader in front of the bus driver she spotted Patricia turning on her heel. Heading back to the café.
This in itself wasn’t unusual, since Patricia would invariably remain until the wee small hours as part of that smaller, sadder band whose insomnia was more acute than Julie’s own.
So what if she did engage the mysterious, potentially criminal stranger, in conversation? There was nothing in the least sinister about him, as Patricia would discover for herself, should she choose to investigate. There was a potential upside, too. The man in the booth might decide to make Patricia his pet project rather than Julie herself.
It was only when, around four in the morning, lying in bed and punching her pillow for the umpteenth time for denying her sleep, that another possibility occurred to her. What if – God forbid – he decided that Patricia and Julie both would be a more interesting proposition than one of them on her own?
Oh, for God’s sake, Julie told herself sternly, give it a rest.
She flung herself spreadeagled on her back, tried some breathing exercises and consciously relaxed her muscles, a pair at time, from her toes to her neck, the way she had learned from one of those ineffectual sleep tapes. No good. Then she sat up, switched on the bedside lamp and gobbled a second melatonin tablet, washed down with some water.
An hour later she had proof that neither of these tactics were going to work this night.
She knew the cause but, the more she fought it, the more she thought about it and tried to think her way out of it. It was, she had convinced herself for the past ten years, a battle she could never win.
That was the basic trouble with her brand of insomnia, wasn’t it? Too much thinking.