vapid escalation

Located in my usual cafe, I’m sat at a table to the rear of the dining area, feeling hungover, waiting for my English fried breakfast to be served. In this fogged state of mind, I am unable to maintain the necessary chemical synaptic connection between thought and action. With the signals blinking on and off, my eyelids drawn half-down works best for now.

I spend much time in this communal space. This is where I meet people, usually interesting people lacking in pretension – much like the cafe. The layout has remained the same for as long as I can remember. Near the entrance, an L-shaped counter top is where food is ordered, self-collect cutlery, condiments and serviettes are positioned nearby. Broadly aligned in rows, wooden tables and chairs stretch out across the dining area.

It is already late-morning, I am sat stirring a pitch-black expresso, wincing each time the spoon scrapes against the china cup. Peripheral vision speaks to me of an elderly, tweed-suited gentleman sat three tables across from mine. Focal analysis reveals a pressed white shirt, striped tie and scuffed handmade leather shoes, topped by two-toned hooped socks. He swaps between scrutinising the wallpaper ahead of him, looking down into the depths of his tea-cup and casual glances pitched in my direction. Each time he catches my eye, a broad smile forms across his face. Incapable of returning the courtesy, I draw my eyelids up and then let them slide back down in repose. This cycle replays uninterrupted for five minutes or so, until a mistimed declaration is delivered in my direction.

“You know coffee dulls the senses?” I swivel my head around and arch an eyebrow at the man. At the same moment, the young waitress wannabe-occupational health therapist, arrives to the table blocking my view of the man. Ever thoughtful and with a steady hand, Mia lowers the plate down before me. Straining to peer around the waitress, the obscured man leans forward in his chair, removing horn rimmed glasses from a red-veined bulbous nose. Mia’s innate magnetism draws my attention away – upwards directly, whereupon I offer my thanks and ask how she’s keeping, how her studies are progressing.

“I am good thank you Brinkinfield,” she says sounding upbeat, while arranging the condiments neatly in a row, “all good. The sun is out, people are happy. Today is a good day, enjoy your breakfast.”

I’d hoped for more conversation, yet find myself incapable of creative exchange to hold her attention. Mia is busy; she turns around, pausing to clear two tables on her way back to the cafe counter. I am left with the play-through of a frequent mirage in which we embrace each other unclothed, underneath a spectacular alpine waterfall. Fortunately for Mia, I am depicted in the looped scenario shed of several years, my beer belly transformed into a flatteringly contoured and symmetrically ripped abdomen.

“Clarke’s the name and myth-busting’s my game!” says tweed-man, turning my unholy vision to slime. Despite my severely dehydrated and low blood-sugar state, I recognise such an announcement as an invite for enquiry and a desire for conversation.

“Clark you say?” I say, collecting my fork and stabbing at a fried button-mushroom on the plate.

“No… Clarke, with an ‘e’.” His expression suggests the imminent rolling-out of a well-worn explanation.

“Oh, I thought I said that.” I reply, savouring the revitalising taste of protein and fat I’ve forked into my mouth.

“No no, you said ‘Clark’ without the ‘e’. It is not a silent vowel,” he tells me, from within an enveloping cloud of self-satisfaction, “you’ll find it is there for a purpose!” Observing the man take in a deep breath, I brace myself, adding salt and then pepper to my food.

“What, like Clarké?” I ask, turning the head of the pepper grinder back and forth, gently.

“Yes… well, not quite so much emphasis, but that’s near enough.” Clarke says.

I emit a vaguely affirmative, guttural sound in my throat and wave my fork in the air signalling additional positive reinforcement. Bringing the implement down, four shiny prongs puncture sausage skin, sliding through into the seasoned pork, releasing a savoury scent expertly designed to create salivation. Cutting a section free with the cutlery knife, I create a platform to stack some fried egg and beans.

Clarke sits slurping at his tea, watching me eat. When setting the cup back into the saucer, he offers little resistance to the force of gravity. The resulting china-on-china clank and spoon rattle, invokes a frown I am unable to suppress.

He appears disappointed with the dead-endness of our conversation, drumming both sets of fingers in an irregular rhythm onto the table-top. I avoid eye-contact and concentrate hard, willing him to stop. My psychokinesis energy fails, as ever. As I watch him struggle with this state of boredom, a twinge of sympathy surfaces for the old man. Swallowing a mouthful of food, I decide upon the next handful of actions. Taking a sip of water, dabbing nonchalantly at my lips with a paper napkin, I ready myself, straightening out my T-shirt.

“Myth-buster you say?” I ask, causing two grateful sparks of light to ignite and sparkle in Clarke’s eyes.

“Modern-day myth-buster!” he says, interlocking thick fingers together atop his midriff.

“A modern-day myth-buster?” I repeat, my chair creaks in ill-tempered protest as I lean back on two legs.

“Indeed!” Clarke confirms.

The cafe is becoming busy, people spreading themselves onto the lonesome tables first, followed by an apprehensive filling-in of gaps as options fade. I wonder if this might curtail the stranger’s talk.

Not so…

“Here’s one I will share with you, to demonstrate.” Clarke says, bringing a hand to his face as if to whisper me a secret. “Your nose and ears continue to grow in size, as you age.” Clarke’s eyes widen like a child’s, imploring desperate belief.

“Wait a minute, I’ve heard of this one before,” I say hesitantly, “so that’s true is it?” I continue with my breakfast, grateful to experience the gradual re-awakening of self, seeping through mind and body.

“My dear boy, your great-aunt Elspeth’s nose would be as long as an elephant’s trunk were this true!” Clarke draws away a cupped hand from his nose to form an elongated ‘S’ shape in the air.

“But in the Far East, people with over-sized ears are venerated and considered wise, how do you explain that?” I ask, lofting the question up high into the air.

“No no-no, the head shrinks with age, shrivels-up like a raisin, facial muscular atrophy and so on.” Clarke says, stopping my question with skilled abruptness. “The ‘shrunken head effect’ simply alters the apparent scale of protuberances – that’s all! While this remains a scientific fact,” Clarke says, bringing his fist down with emphatic force onto the table, “it is also plain for all to observe.”

Mia glides around the cafe with grace, dinner plates balanced in both hands. I try banishing Clarke’s unpleasant and implanted vision with several shakes of my head. The waitress happens to look my way, eyebrows raised, lips scrunched together in momentary uncertainty. Mia, you’ll never resemble an elephant nor shrunken head type thing to me, I want to cry out.

“Hell’s bells!” I say, voice volume louder than intended, “You’re not serious are you?” Amongst the diners, several necks twist around ninety degrees in my direction. Head down, I look busy and get on with finishing my plate.

“I am serious, serial debunking is what I do.” Clarke says, oblivious to the discomfort of the unwanted attention I am flustering with. After drawing a slow sip of tea from the cup held in his hand, pinkie extended, he looks around the interior of the cafe until his attention rests. He admires Mia leaning over a vacant table, spraying whitened liquid from a bottle in one hand and applying a vigorous wipe-over with the other. Both corners of his mouth twitch in appreciation of her fluidic body movement. I am gripped by the sudden urge to hover in the air above Clarke and grind salt into his offensive eyes.

“Are you absolutely certain of your facts?” I say, hoping to jolt his lecherous gaze away from the waitress.

“Unequivocally, I look you straight in the eye and tell you yes sir.”

“I don’t, believe you.” I tell Clarke, keeping the tension tight, playing him with skill, hopeful he doesn’t steer his line of vision back towards Mia.

With a sense of trepidation, I note the diligent waitress kneeling low to the floor, handling a table leg with a soft chamois. With her slow sweeps up and down the smooth wood, the shiny cleaning liquid becomes absorbed, releasing both colour and grain.

“Are you questioning my integrity?” Clarke says. We have eye contact, albeit via the slope of his condescending nose.

“Look,” I say, nervous impulsivity taking full control, “contrary to popular belief, the engagement of swords or muskets remains a legal method to defend one’s honour. On this basis Clarke, I challenge you, to a duel!”

“That’s not true!” Clarke shouts.

Without a glove to remove, I throw a handful of snow-white paper serviettes towards Clarke’s face. With three table’s distance to cover each one fails to hit the target, separating in mid-air and floating harmlessly to the floor.

His expression is frozen somewhere between disbelief and disdain. He is staring at me, a thin strand of tea-stained saliva drools out from one side of his mouth.

“W-ell,” he says, after a few minutes have ticked themselves off into oblivion, “that escalated rapidly!”