It’s a warm, sodden London morning, and I’m heading west along the river Thames. The air is heavy with curded smog, carrying the hum of tight traffic pressing into the city’s arteries. I’ve arrived early, with time to kill, and it’s a different world entirely to Devon where people amble across the quiet Cathedral Green.
The sun drops milky globs onto the river, and oily, rainbow residue from the city’s bowels shimmers across its stale surface. My stomach churns after the long train ride. I cross Lambeth Bridge, waiting for the Tate Britain’s riverside husk to emerge, gleaming like cream amongst all the damp gray.
The thick marble inside cools my face and the member’s cafe, high beneath its arching glass dome, dangles the scent of coffee tantalisingly over the balustrade. Up here, city dwellers press their bodies back into rigid wooden chairs, squat and short like the ones from my old primary school lunchroom. It’s 10 a.m. The clatter of plates announce all the combinations of breakfast and brunch on offer. I order a small black coffee and a crumbly French pastry, then help myself to a dribble of cucumber-infused, complementary water.
Under an archway, framed by dun-golden pillars, an elderly lady sits bundled in reams of white fur. Her coffee mug is thick and durable, a modern utility at odds with her frail, adorned form. She watches me watching her, small dark eyes like wet pebbles peering out from folds of skin matted thickly in porcelain ivory powder and praline rouge. I know I should look away but so should she, and we sit interlocked waiting for the other to make the first move. After a few more seconds, I feel the space inside my head tighten and I look away, defeated in this game the privileged play. She crowns this small victory with a subtle sip of her frothy flat white.
Eventually, Hal arrives, loud and effervescing through the room’s tight air in his mallard green, William Morris blazer. “These people think they’re the dog’s bollocks ’cause they pay £70 a year to drink cappuccinos at the top of a rotunda, ” he chides, loud enough for them all to hear, and I sink into my seat, face steaming. Later, in a fancy restaurant, he stops the foreign sommelier and asks him to tell me about his life. He pushes and pushes the man for a story of struggle and hardship that isn’t there, and all we get is a tale of a middle-class upbringing in Mexico City. So instead we discuss the problems of corruption and thwarted journalist integrity, and I poke my quail’s egg feeling like a twat.
Photograph: Diane Arbus