by Nalini Haynes
Lingering in the gloom of a winter’s day at the Melbourne Writers Festival, ghosts appeared as translucent spectres lurking in the corners of my eyes; a theme, not just of fantasy and horror, but of Literature.
In a foyer enclosed by crazy-glass and crazy-paved walls near the festival bookshop, I found a café selling salad rolls and coffee. I sat in a black, torn leather lounge with a low coffee table. As I ate my lunch and sipped my coffee I relished the feeling of space in spite of feeling chill tentacles exploring the back of my head and chill fingers running down my spine.
After an hour or so of reading Burial Rites on my kindle, I decided to order another coffee. I left my white cane propped against the couch and my reading glasses on the coffee table to signify ‘this table is taken’ while I ventured the few steps to the counter.
By the time I reached the counter and turned to check on my possessions, a woman had established herself at my table, sitting on the lounge, flipping through a newspaper.
My mouth fell open in surprise.
When I returned to my table, the woman was blocking entry to my seat so I walked around the coffee table to the far side to step gingerly over my white cane and resume my seat on the couch.
The woman looked up. ‘Oh, sorry, were you sitting here? Oh. Sorry. Are those YOUR things? I thought someone left them behind. I was going to hand them in at the counter.’
‘I would have been at the counter while you handed them in.’
She edged away from me. ‘Do you mind if I sit here?’
I felt as though I couldn’t refuse.
She edged further over, leaning away from me, bending over the low table as she read the paper.
I took calming breaths, turned on my kindle once more and switched glasses, reading with the glasses I had left on the table, placing my distance glasses in the same case.
As she read the newspaper, a man came over and grabbed one of the stools nestled against the coffee table. He didn’t ask permission the first time but when he returned to grab the last remaining stool, he asked the strange woman permission without glancing at me, with my white cane and large-print kindle held too close for his comfort.
The woman bade him take the stool without glancing at me.
Strangers, one invading my space, the other removing stools, rendered me invisible, reminding me that I’m less than human: I’m a second-class citizen. An unwelcome ghost at their table.
The woman’s drink arrived, a hot chocolate in a glass. She shifted her glass on its saucer but didn’t sip. Not yet.
My coffee arrived; the barista asked if my honey was still on the table. My honey had been cleared with my lunch plate so he said he’d bring more. Before he reached the honey behind the counter a crowd of people materialised in the coffee shop, forming a queue.
I waited a few minutes for my honey then rose, taking my bag, my kindle and my coffee to the counter to fetch some honey.
Service was swift; the barista taking mere seconds to hand me a glass with honey between pouring shots of coffee for thirsty literati, and yet when I returned to my table the woman was gone, leaving only her newspaper and an empty glass with pale liquid residue.