Who is the woman at the next table? What is her story? Why is she alone?
I asked a female friend to describe her. She wrote:
‘The woman sits alone not because she has no friends but because this is her thinking space. The place where the ideas flow. An escape to another world.’
I asked a male friend too. He wrote:
‘The image is instantly intriguing. It suggests to me intimacy and privacy and pain. Inside this woman at the next table is an entire world and we are about to see it.’
I find this difference fascinating. How do you see her?
I adore coffee shops and gravitate towards them wherever I am in the world. Sometimes it’s more of a tea shop. Sometimes it’s a cafe. Sometimes it’s a beach shack.
Whatever kind of place it is, with a cup of something warm in my hand, it feels like home. It feels like freedom. My world. My terms. Right now, I can do whatever I want, be whoever I want. No one is watching and even if they are, I care nothing for their opinion. I am a queen and this is my domain.
I don’t associate solitary woman at a table with emotional pain, even though I have carried my heart, raw and bleeding, into countless coffee shops. Last year, I left my mum’s bedside to go to a coffee shop, just a few hours before she died. I had been keeping vigil for three days and needed a break. I went to the nearby garden centre. Had a cappuccino in their coffee shop with a slice of Victoria sponge the size of a family saloon. I remember there was a woman at the next table with a younger one, early twenties. Clearly mother and daughter. I felt tears coming; I would never know that sharing again. I let them fall. No one was watching. I bought spring bulbs on the way out and returned to the care home.
Coffee shops are a place of sanctuary for me, I know that.
I am writing this seven weeks into lockdown, and asking myself: when was the last time you sat in a coffee shop? I honestly can’t remember which place it was, or when. But I remember I needed to go there. I needed a pot of tea and some breathing space, despite the fact that I was nearly home. Despite the fact that I live alone. But I cannot remember what had upset me so much. Why I needed the soothing balm of a drink in a coffee shop, taken alone.
So coffee shops are where I seek solace. Where I pass time, waiting for appointments. Where I wait for planes: I am (or used to be) a frequent flyer. Where I dream. Where I catch up on emails. Where I write.
I love the time constraints of a coffee shop. Sometimes, when I have something short and specific to write, I leave my house and walk two minutes down the road to Orange Mabel, my favourite tea room in the town. I order a pot of tea and begin. I allow no distractions. Sometimes it takes a second pot, but I always leave with my work done. I like the focus it brings. I am not the kind of woman who can sit at a table for hours on end, buying nothing. I feel too guilty when it’s a small place, filling up with lunch customers. And when tables are close to each other, I get too distracted by people’s conversations.
I am reminded of a wonderful writers cafe (Stop 17 / The Writer’s Room) in Melbourne, where writers are welcome to do exactly that: stay as long as they want without the pressure to buy food or drink. It is heaven. See it here on Tripadvisor.
But enough of reminiscing. What is this blog about?
It is part of a wider project that includes YouTube videos, workshops, an online coffee shop, Instagram and – eventually – podcasts. I say eventually, because the podcast will feature interviews with women in coffee shops – impossible at the moment!
I love the kind of writing I do in coffee shops. Often it’s free-form, a combination of observational writing and self-reflection. It’s very much a snapshot of a moment in time. A clear point on the timeline of my life.
It is writing for well-being. A kind of therapeutic reflection. Writing for the soul.
I will be posting some of that kind of writing here. I aim for these pieces to be posted from the coffee shop before I leave. This will encourage spontaneity and focus, and it will silence my inner writing critic, the one that says ‘You need to polish these words’ or ‘Don’t you think you should sleep on this before posting?’ We all have one of these devils inside us.
I will also be posting some of my own true-life stories. I am passionate about such stories, and one of the main aims of the Woman project is to encourage women to explore and write their own. It makes perfect sense to include some as examples. Stories like this cannot be written in the time it takes to drink a coffee. They need a long percolation process. Drip by drip till you have the essence of the story and an understanding of what it means.
I will talk more about this in the next blog post, We are all quietly wonderful.
For now, all I need to do is throw open the doors of this virtual coffee shop and say: