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Pippa and Reggie sat down to a late lunch in a café on Nicolson Street. By the by, a strange incident had occurred in this café several weeks beforehand. It had caused astonishment and then a more general amazement and finally a kind of permanently ringing philosophical wonderment. To this day nobody was sure whether they had actually witnessed a crime or a performance artwork.

On the day of this incident the café had been relatively quiet and the lunchtime hadn’t started its throb yet. A gentleman in pinstripes had entered and stood before the counter. He looked to be in his early sixties. He ordered an espresso and gave the server a kindly, rather absent smile when she brought it over to him. He proceeded to a stool at the window, where he hopped nimbly up and then settled himself. He looked without curiosity out of the window before taking a sip from the espresso. Next he had plucked a cigarette from his breast pocket, slid it into his mouth and lit it.

It seemed suddenly that with this high stool at the window the gentleman had chosen the most prominent position in the café to be displayed.

At first it was just the sight of the cigarette but then came the aroma. This was unfurling on the air like the rank smell of a jungle flower, with that ferocious way that smells always have of rendering the reality of something indisputable.

There was an immediate urge to stampede amongst the café-goers before, unhappily, they remembered that they were trapped sitting in their seats with their purchased meals stuck in front of them. How could they flee and where to? What had been simply disbelief a moment ago was now turning to open panic. Somewhere a glass hit the floor and popped. Two old ladies were trying to squash a third and greatly more miniature one under their table, away from the encroaching smoke.

The waitress who had served the espresso had come out to float around and straighten chairs. On registering the smoke she spun to face the man at the window. Her mouth bubbled for a second and then it was hanging agape. Blindly, imbecilically, she began to screech.

A manageress stormed out from the back rooms of the café, with a scrawny man in chef whites tumbling after her. But when the manageress reached the cigarette-smoking man she came up short. She found that there were no words to convey the magnitude of the outrage that was rising in her. She blinked for a second as the screeching beside her became even more piercing and harrowing. Finally, after a single sob had rolled all over the manageress, she raised her hands jaggedly and clapped them over her ears.

The chef was equally thunderstruck. Blank faced, he could only stare about with eyes that seemed to be dislocating in their sockets.

The manageress gazed on as the man continued to smoke his cigarette. She had briefly wrenched her hands away from her ears, rather as a swimmer might resurface to breathe, but she had then trembled at her colleague’s screeching and clapped them back again.

It was as if every onlooker in this café had been transfixed by the same blinding pain. The gentleman in pinstripes looked so grave, so gentlemanly. Was it all a mistake? Did he come from some obscure country where people still smoked in cafés? Were there really any of these countries still left? The manageress peered at him. Was he wearing tiny headphones that she couldn’t make out, headphones the size of caffeine tablets? Did this explain why he was so oblivious to them all? Such was his civil-service gentlemanliness that she could somehow picture the music that would be playing in these headphones. An orchestral waltz gaily washing back and forth.  

After many clouds would have swept across the sky the gentleman had finished his cigarette. He stubbed it out on the saucer of his espresso cup. He now more than ever resembled a ghost or some unearthly vision, in the cleanness of his separation from the rest of the world. He could have been acting all of this out a hundred years ago. He stood without looking around, ducked his head down and made for the door. If everybody had not been staring at him in horror, nobody would have noticed him leave.

Half an hour later, the manageress, the chef and the waitress reckoned that they had gotten on top of what had happened. Whilst everybody on the premises had been tipped into the front, staring at the scene in the window, an intruder had entered through the fire exit in the back of the café. This was routinely left open so that the chef could nip outside to smoke whilst pans were on the stove and get back in time. The intruder had made their way to a sort of rough alcove, with walls of unplastered brickwork, that was coupled with the entrance to the kitchen. Here they had scooped up in their arms as much as they could carry. The manageress would count out the missing bottles of dessert wine, aperitif and liqueur.

The café’s staff could have sacrificed a goat to proclaim their gratitude. The cigarette-smoking man now made sense. He was a decoy and merely a minor part of a bigger picture, rather than being such a magnificent mystery all in himself. He therefore could not have believed in his own, maddeningly anti-social actions after all. If the whole world had juddered to a stop when this gentleman had lit his cigarette, it had at last gotten free and it was trundling on again.

But this is by the by. Pippa and Reggie had ordered soup with rolls. Afterwards they shared a slice of carrot cake, a hunk of angelic shagginess. Pippa seemed to liven up once she was eating but she did not become more cheerful. “I’m ready to walk away,” she told Reggie. “You know, stop answering messages, stop turning up to my office.” She scraped away more of the tatty fabric with her fork before pausing musingly. “I sometimes wonder if any president has ever done this before. I mean, just turned their back and walked off…”

Reggie blinked at her with gentle alarm. “You know all of the students are rooting for you. Even the ones who are laughing at you, which is probably most of them by now. They are all quietly rooting for you… without them knowing it, naturally. They know that it is totally hopeless, that you will be obstructed. But there is still this fantasy at the very back of it that somebody might break through, somebody will defy the odds.” He shrugged. “This is why you are the representative.”

“Aye but Reggie they want somebody who can do something.” Pippa’s eyes flashed. “Nothing that I’m trying to organise should be considered a miracle.”

Reggie smiled. “I can remember back in my own country, when I was a kid, a lion broke out of a zoo. This was in the middle of the city. And everybody was rooting for this lion too. We were all following its escape hour by hour, we wanted it to succeed, to get away, and every extra minute that it was free was a beautiful humiliation for the authorities. We didn’t want to meet it, of course, out in the street. But a real, representative president is something like this. A force that has escaped and is out of control.”

Pippa eyed him solemnly. “I’m sorry I never thought of you, Reggie. You are always too much in the background. Maybe you can help me, be an advisor or something?”

Reggie immediately became noncommittal. He was busy, he had thought recently that he might make something of his studies. If his concentration was broken, then it could all fall apart again and he would be left bumping along as before with mediocre grades. “But still,” he said. He had ducked down to extract something from his satchel and he tossed it across the table to Pippa. A copy of The Student newspaper; she didn’t recognise the cover and so it must have been issued earlier today. “On page three, I think… this thing about the transphobe. It was very surprising to me that from you… there’s no comment?”

Pippa crashed through the article like a schoolgirl jumping through puddles. Then she looked up. “Why haven’t I heard of this?”

He nodded fervently. “Why haven’t you?” Suddenly she realised that his eyes had become dark beads and that his nostrils were flaring slightly. “You should have been paying attention.”

It excited her how passion would seem to slip smoothly, randomly, out of this mild façade. She looked over the article again. Some silly woman had been invited to a topical debate at the university. Pippa read that the woman was an agony aunt for a tabloid newspaper. Years ago, a young man had written to the column asking for advice about telling his parents that he was transitioning to the female gender. The newspaper did not say in what terms the columnist had couched her advice but, in any case, shortly afterwards the young man had killed himself. Next, private messages from the columnist’s Whatsapp account had been leaked to a rival newspaper, by one of her friends. In them, she had ridiculed trans people, as being “beyond anyone’s help.”

The columnist’s career had continued. Last year she had received an MBE. The acrimony that had resulted from the suicide had evidently emboldened this woman in her view of herself as plain speaking and as a spokeswoman for a more sensible generation. She now commented and wrote about politics on various platforms.

When Pippa put down the newspaper, the joyous, incredulous expression that was blazing in her face made her look extraordinarily elfin. “This is perfect Reggie!”

His frown dispelled, he looked at her interestedly. “I thought it might fire you up.”

“Who invited her…?” She studied the newspaper. “Oh, I thought it would be the Tories but she’s Catholic?”

“Yeah, she’s big with them I think.”

“I’m going to get to work on this right away. She’s… she’s got blood on her hands? Is that fair?”

“Well she has, in a way.”

“And now she’s coming here and it is so disrespectful to all trans people. She’s never apologised. She’s still giving her advice, even after it killed someone. Oh this is brilliant!” Her mind was jumping about everywhere like a little bird. “What’s her name again? I have to practice saying it until it rolls off the tongue.”

“She’s called Janet Harristane.”

Pippa sat forward gazing into the middle distance with an expression of devout concentration on her face. She began to recite the name as if she was ladling it out of a tureen. “Janet Harristane Janet Harristane Janet Harristane Janet Harristane Janet Harristane Janet Harristane Janet Harristane Janet Harristane.”

[Previously on Tychy: “Niceties.”]