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  • Tanzil Kalam

Black Coffee

If they are to talk about the mundane, the macabre or the gloomy they would rather contrast it with the flashy, the exuberant. But here we do not intend to do either. If we are to talk about all things that do exist in its originality we certainly need to find oneness with it. And if you do not feel a certain belonging to the certain something or someone then we can only assume your existence is rather incomplete. Humans have a tendency to relate and if not relate then to create. And we all are aware of how creation leads to a misery, a limbo that transcends the very faculty of mankind, it unnerves reasoning.

To delve a bit deep, he knew he had to shift, move. Migration has been an act that prevails since time immemorial. To move is to leave and to leave is to grieve and yes, humans do grieve in their varied ways. Now as he sat in the dreary corner of the so called local watering hole namely, Coffee Hall, he knew he had nothing better to do but pass his time observing.

An odd figure out of the blue, unnoticed, observing the varied actions of his fellow species. To nab and captivate anyone, something has to be untoward, something which does not follow the conventions dished out and sometimes considered let’s assume taboo? And there it was, his subject of undivided attention.

The crowd so ever bustling that you could only hear the conversation as a distant chatter numbing your audial sensibilities to a stagnant hum. People so indulged into their social groups murmuring over politics, social situations and rather personal vendettas, leave nothing but a sullen tinge of hollowness. You see, we tend to fill ourselves with information to talk and to talk is to release. Release the intelligence gained about a certain fellow human, or a situation, a drama you come across during the bus ride home or during a midnight stroll through the dimly lit streets coming across a drunkard.

Here he had nothing to jabber but collect those oh so valuable jibber jabber to talk about later. How the beige walls of the place retorted a certainty of the old, drudged and weary that would have anyone new detest it to measures of never coming back. The fluorescent lights flickering overhead with rocking fans hung to ceiling, almost threatening to collapse.

The post afternoon crowd of office goers’ increase and the murmurs turn into a loud cacophony.

As the name suggests, coffee is basically the staple production that is dished out in this place and even though it is hogwash, the prices being cheap is what attracted him the most. Plus it would be quite the bargain to hangout in a place with a crowd so amusing. He snickered to himself, sipping the boiled water with not so ever taste of coffee, bitter yet the sugar sticking to the tip of his tongue at the last sip. The porcelain saucer, stained with the spills of the overflowing coffee carefully placed beside the packet of cigarettes reminded him of the stair case leading to the place.

The stairs, a semi spiral flight of steps leading on to a half turn straight set of steps, the beige walls filled with graffiti and posters, mostly done by college goers. Now almost everyone during college has a certain inclination towards becoming a revolutionary or to bring about a change which in due time fades with reality sinking in. He recalls the Marx graffiti and drifts off to his college lectures for a moment only to have his trance broken by the couple sitting adjacent to his table.

Quite unusual, he thought to himself. Off to a disconsolate start to the day, he had a feeling that this might be of some interest. Well that is what everyone thinks if they spot a man in his early fifties accompanying a woman in her thirties. Now one can only assume the relationship they share. For starters they can be colleagues, catching up after a break, talking about their lives as it is. Or they might be distant relatives? He might be her uncle and the inference still the same as the prior one? The assumption that would be last on the table would have them declare as filial. Yet the one before it, the one that most would rather ponder would be a romantically inclined. Relatively the scandalous one.

Here at crossroads trying to figure out the relationship between them, he orders another cup of black coffee. Only this time he asks for a bowl of sugar. He never liked bitter much, but since the sugar had the habit of sticking to the bottom of the cup, the only viable option was to ask for more. Awaiting his order, he does take notice of how they act. How the grey haired man with a half dyed moustache stays quiet while she speaks. His carelessly buttoned yellow shirt against the semi lit hall made him look all the more tired. No one knows what had him so exhausted yet his constant shaking of his left leg hinted towards anxiousness? How would he know whether he was anxious?

On a rather careful observation, he noticed that the yellow of his shirt had blue stripes, the collar stained with rather beetle leaves. A careless attempt to spit sideways? The frenzy which had him seized was broken again with the waiter serving him the coffee with a side of sugar in a bowl, the coffee still toppling over, clinging onto the sides of the cup making a pool in the saucer. He sighed.

Tobacco causes cancer, the label on the cigarette box read but no one cares until it is too late. And neither did he, so he cautiously lit the match. But the creaking fan was dutiful at smothering the flame and it was only after his third attempt that he brought the cigarette loosely hanging from his lips. Letting the smoke out of the long drag of nicotine, he still peered the old man at the adjacent table. He did not want to be sly about the whole business, their conversations were incomprehensible but their body language ever so evident conceiving him to be suspicious.

The grey haired man had his hands folded, almost the poise of a worshipper praying to his deity, his eyes fixated on to the woman’s face while she kept on talking about things he had no interests in. His gaze alone gave away his disinterest in the exchange and he gingerly put placed his right palm over his right cheek, it made him seem absorbed in what she had to say. Yet his ever shifting gaze arching the bridge of her eyebrows, the fluttering strand of hair which kept on distracting her, and his nod of approval when she looked for answer confused our observer. Is he in love with her? Or is it just lust? What is it?

The enigma of their relationship kept him hooked as his coffee ran a little less warm. He suddenly recalled that if he is observing them, there might be someone in the crowd who was observing him. So to throw them off, he started examining his coffee cup. His eyes scanned the crack on the handle, the reflection of the argon and mercury vapour filled tube light gleaming and staring right back at him through the cup. When pleased he lifted his gaze, back to square one.

One does not come across such unusual people so often and now that he had his subject piquing his exquisition, he could not think about anything else. Enough of the old guy, he thought and now monitored the woman. The wrinkle on her forehead was weird and she had a stitch mark near her temple. Fascinating. People often hurt their head, but to hurt near the temple was uncommon; maybe she was hit by someone, or she fell down side faced or it might be an injury brought upon while playing a sport. Her eyes were hazel, the kind that glared under the sun and the corners of her eyes smudged poignantly with kohl. She did wear a warm smile, the ear to ear kind, which was a bit scary to him. He noticed the dimple on her left cheek and placed his hand on his own cheek to feel the one he had and almost gave himself a nudge from the burning end of the cigarette.

The waiter delivered their order, a plate of noodles, of what he could guess, it was chicken. Now the chicken at Coffee House was just boiled and had no spices to fill in for the bland taste. The woman asked the waiter to bring an extra plate but the old man found it to be unnecessary and suggested they eat from the same plate. The doubts seemed a little less blur to him. Maybe they have a dubious relationship.

Sipping the black coffee customized with dual spoons of sugar, he dusted the end of his cigarette for one final drag. As he puffed out the smoke, it twirled its way, somewhat hung in the air and soon did fade away. Their conversation now subsided into a couple of words spoken. The old man, he did not eat much, a couple of half-hearted strokes with fork, barely any noodles sticking on it. He declared he was done and now she was left alone to finish the whole thing. Gleefully perhaps she reached for the salt and sprinkled quite a portion over the noodles. A bit excessive, he felt as he kept the cup back on the saucer which now resembled a pool of black fluid.

Next, she sprinkled a bit of pepper and with ever so caution to not smudge her cherry pink lipstick placed the fork filled noodles. He laughed to himself. Amused he forgot to keep himself in check and now had the old man’s attention driven towards him. He shifted in his chair, uneasy knowing he had his gaze all over him now. When caught in the act of staring at someone, the best way out is to look away. So he started looking at the abstract paintings hung, the excessive usage of red and muddy brown in almost all of the paintings. How the beige walls gave them a fervours lustre and the cocoa tarnished doors that were never opened complimenting it.

Enough of your inquisitiveness, get a grip he murmured. But he was curious to know. Why would an old man hangout with someone almost half his age, or why would she be with someone so old? Are they dating? Or is it an affair where one of them is cheating on the other? Maybe both of them are cheating? He does not know what is true, which assumption of his would it. Maybe they are relatives and he is over analysing. Or his first presumption of them being colleagues was the only right guess.

He was now meticulous at stealing glances. The old man seemed off guard now, his fingers trying to reach hers, but not yet close enough. Maybe he was afraid of offending her. The tip of his fingers fumbling near hers. She was inattentive towards his action and kept talking with his eyes glued to her face and his fingers still scanning the touch of hers. With a sudden jolt of a passer-by, the table moved a bit and his fingers brushed against hers and she smirked at him. He was flushed. Were they in love?

“Bill” retorted the waiter. He searched for his wallet while sipping the last bit of his stale coffee having it near about spill on himself. There were other people waiting for a table but he did not want to leave. There was so much to know about them. He had to know what they were to each other, whether he one of his guesses was right or was he entirely wrong. The very fabrics of such relationship when judged from the outside if often considered unscrupulous and he did not want his judgement to be marred by commonality. He knew he was wrong to judge it to be scandalous but if he did not, others would surely do. Was he like every other person then?

He wanted to stay for a bit longer, be a part of this mundane structure, a spectator of the unusual, bring forth the revolution towards judging social relationships but he had no money to pay for another cup of coffee. If you do not order, you need to leave. That was the policy. The only money left would suffice his bus fare home and he cursed his luck. How it was the end of the month and if it were the beginning he would have had enough to sit there as long as he wanted.

Gathering up his pack of cigarettes he got up and put them inside his pocket beside him phone. He thought if only this place had an option of online transactions he could have lingered around a bit more. Alas he started walking away towards the gate, the sign reading exit with entrance plastered on the other side. Making his way through the crowd with their incongruent cacophony, he yearned to glance at them one more time. What are they doing now that he was not there? Did he finally had the chance to hold her hand? Did she snap at him? He thought of turning back and look over his shoulder but he was too close to the exit and with another step he found himself out of the hall.

A gawky feeling dawned upon him. The anxiety of not knowing what would happen next in their story. The staircase that was filled with people walking up to the hall or going down was vacant, somewhat like the solemn tune of a song whose lyrics you cannot seem to remember, making you feel ruffled. His fingers brushed against the cobalt rails of the stairs while he walked down every so slowly, the voices becoming all the more distant, the dissonance turning dormant. The last flight of stairs were over and he stood at the main entrance of the building, the sublimating noise gradually subsiding into a hum, and as he walked out, it ceased.

He was not a part of the crowd anymore. He was no more a part of the audience to their story, a nobody knowing nothing of what they were or would be. The subtle hum latched on to him, the incandescent street light wrapping his solitary figure as he walked the pavement towards the bus stop. Will their story end too? So abruptly? Will he never know? Should he go back? What would he do there? He turned.

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2022년 5월 06일


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