left him with ocular twitches and a permanent frown. He wrote a poem at the time called Frankenstein’s Blank Stare, considered it a masterpiece for a whole day. Then he read it back during a brief moment of clarity and saw that it was, in fact, utter shit. At least he could laugh about it now.
In truth, he had laughed about it then, but it wasn’t the right kind of laughter. It was the kind of laughter that made strangers start, caused his ex-housemates to dangle cigarettes nervously at him. As though he was a wild animal, a dangerous beast that should have been caged, but one that they were permitted to feed. Children at a zoo. There was nothing normal about that. But there was something normal about Cat that day. On his first visit to the café, deliberate in his anonymity, he pulled out the dainty brown vessel and set it on the table with a deliberate finality. When Cat wandered over in her bright red trainers he had barely given her a second glance; he can’t believe now that this was ever true. She took his mumbled order for black coffee, and, seeing the tablets in front of him, said;
‘Do you want some water for those?’ He shook his head no but heard the word ‘yes’ fall slowly from his lips. Perhaps it was because the colourful streaks in her hair reminded him of how much he had once loved to paint. Perhaps it was the way that she had looked at him as she asked the question. She had smiled – not in a mocking way, but with the same kind of smile a kind waitress would use when asking someone if they wanted brown sauce, or how they’d like their eggs cooked. Like medication was as much a part of life as deep breaths and taut muscles and doing the washing up. And in a moment, he knew it to be so. Cat has been offering him a glass of water every day since; it’s as much a ritual now for Mark as his weekly visits to the chemist, his doctor’s appointments and his attempts at healthy eating, Janet-style. In the months that have followed, he’s learned of her love for The Smiths, and about how she wishes she had been born ten years earlier. He is better acquainted with Sweden’s geography, and the odd ways of the family that run the place. But each time he sees her, he thinks only of that first day, and the unbroken seal that she persuaded him to crack.
She returns shortly with the sandwich, puts it in front of him with a bottle of ketchup. He savours it slowly, even though the bacon here is always too salty and far crispier than he would have made it himself, though he is sure that the ketchup is thinned out with vinegar. As he eats, a huge billboard catches his eye on the street outside; a rugby team, stripped to their underpants and posing for a brand of aftershave. Their giant thighs and bulging groins are just about at the level of Mark’s eyes. He wonders if Cat ever looks at them. When he finishes, he picks up a rough brown paper napkin, wipes carefully round the insides and corners of his lips, where the telltale signs of cotton-mouth often lurk.
Perhaps, one day he’ll speak to Cat about the tablets.
He’ll leave out the thick-tongued words like Olanzapine and Tardive Dyskinesia, for she’s not (he imagines) a lover of scientific fact. But he may tell her that they permit the enjoyment of each step he takes along those changing streets every morning, the streets that lead to her. He may even tell her that every time she brings him water and talks to him about anything from the weather to The Ramones, she gives him hope. He wonders how to thank a person for such a gift. But there is no hurry, of course. He’ll come here as long as she is there to take his order, and he’s a patient man. Time is something that he has in abundance these days. At the Portuguese café, diners pay at the register. Regulars know that if Jorge the son, with his quiet voice and fat-lensed glasses, takes your money that you can lie about your order, and pay for only half of what you really ate. Jorge the son will never doubt you. Mark has never given him reason to, has no intention of doing so now. Besides, it is Jorge the father on the register today, who adds up without the use of the machine and takes Mark’s money in silence. At least Cat is there to say goodbye. She leans forward to open the door for him. He says, ‘I’ve always wanted to ask you what Cat was short for.’
Cat gives a mysterious little laugh. ‘In fact, my name’s Nina,’ she explains. ‘Cat is my nickname here in England. Because I always want to know everything.’ He hovers in the doorway as he takes this in. One day, she will want to know about him. The fact makes her more delightful in this moment than it ever has before.
‘So, we’ll see you tomorrow?’ She flinches as the cold air forces its way in through the open door.
‘I’m sure you will.’ ‘They’re saying it might snow.’ He touches the pocket where he keeps his tablets, hears them rattle reassuringly.
‘I hope it does,’ he replies.
LIZ HOBBS, 32, works for a film-making magazine. In a good week she’ll write for up to ten hours, but DVD boxsets – most notably the American television series The Wire – are frequent distractions. She writes in a selection of notebooks stored in various handbags or beside the bed. Great books, art and film inspire her. She has a eerie ability to predict when the phone will ring but has, as yet, found no financial benefit to this. ‘The Portuguese Café’ is her first published work.