‘Hi there,’ I said. They looked up from their menus. ‘Are you ready to order?’
It seemed like some sort of family event. One by one, they called out their orders – cheese toasties, minestrone soup, ginger beer – The old man at the end didn’t say a word. He had taken out a tiny black notebook and was now scribbling something in it.
I always feel an affinity with fellow notebook-keepers, and couldn’t help wishing I was closer so I could see what he was writing.
‘And a bowl of chips to share,’ said the lady in blue, ‘and I think that’s it.’
I collected together their menus but just before turning to leave, I noticed the old man had stopped scribbling. He was adjusting his glasses, and then he ripped the page from his notebook and slipped it under the sugar bowl.
My curiosity began to hum.
About two hours later, the family paid their bill and bustled out the door. As usual the table was strewn with napkins and dirty dishes but – yes! – there it was! That mysterious piece of paper! It was a little drawing: a long-nosed man peeking over a wall. Underneath were the words: Brian was here.
Customers often leave things behind: seashells, reading glasses, broaches, keys. Someone left a walking stick once; we kept it for weeks, but I don’t think anyone ever came back to claim it. All these forgotten objects – they whisper at stories.
What is the story behind this drawing? I imagine that it starts with something quite banal, like the old man was just trying to pass the time. I don’t remember seeing him talking much. Maybe his hearing aid was playing up – it was picking up too much background noise and his ears were full of rattling cutlery, and the rumble of hundreds of voices speaking at once, and tinkling piano music, and teaspoons clinking against china. Or maybe he had just switched it off and sat quiet.
Perhaps this doodling has become something of a regular occurrence for Brian, if that is his name; maybe it’s a way of coping with this new age of silence. He’s aware that he has become something of a nuisance at family gatherings. No one knows what to do with him. He can’t hear what they’re saying so they avoid sitting beside him because ‘it’s awkward’ – yes, he heard his granddaughter say that at Christmas. He pretended not to, but he heard it. Maybe this doodling is an attempt to reconnect with them again, to try and make them laugh.
Because he slipped it under the sugar bowl, and because he left it there, I almost think he put it there for us, the waitresses. I think he wanted us to find it.
Sometimes, on rainy, wistful days, I’ve wondered what it would be like for a customer to look back and see me clearing their table. They might glance through the window and catch me crumpling their empty sugar packets, catch me stacking their teacups, sweeping away their scone crumbs, wiping away their spilt coffee and sticky fingerprints, catch me wiping and wiping until every last trace of them is gone. I wonder if they would feel a slight tug of – not quite sadness, not as concrete as that – but a creeping impression that they had just witnessed themselves being rubbed out.
I wonder if Brian has felt like this. Maybe that is why he left the picture. He was leaving behind a piece of himself, a remnant. Of course there was the risk that it might get thrown away with the rest of the rubbish. But then, there was also the possibility, the hope, that someone might find it. Someone might find it, and then someone would know, he wanted someone to know: Brian was here.
By Melissa Reid (columnist 11/12)