We arrive five minutes past, and there’s only a man and a woman sitting at one of the tables. Apart from them, the whole place is quite deserted.
‘Do you think it’s them…?’ I ask Man, and he looks at me, the mere hint of a shrug in his eyes and his shoulders.
‘Could be.’ He finally answers. I walk all the way around the place, from one room to the other and back to the starting point again.
‘Well, there’s nobody else around, so it’s either them or nobody else… Shall we ask?’
‘You want to ask?’ Oh no, not this time, mister, I tell myself. Not this time. I’m always the one doing the asking, and you the one wriggling out of it. But not this time.
‘You do it this time’ And I smile my best, most alluring smile at him. He grimaces, retraces his steps and approaches their table.
By the time I get round the connecting tunnel and back into the main room, there’s laughter all around. But no, it wasn’t them. We look at each other, Man and I, and wonder silently if this is going to be like the last time and nobody shows up. If it is, it’s the last time we try. And maybe, just maybe, this time I’ll reply something to the point to the email calling us all out for a meeting.
‘Here, sweets…’ Man calls my attention. He’s fumbling through his wallet, knowing full well he’s stolen all the change from my purse a couple of days ago. ‘Get yourself a drink while we wait. I’m going outside to have my sarnie… can’t possibly have it in here.’ He adds, looking around as if calling for confirmation. And he leaves.
I don’t know when the man who’s now standing by the bar came in. I wait for my turn, and then ask for a latte and a half lager. The woman makes me repeat my order again and again, as if she can’t quite understand what I am saying. A latte. I say. And half a lager. A latte and half a lager. Please. And I say again: half a lager, please. And what? She asks. Again and again. I stop saying please.
It turns out the man standing by the bar is the one who sent the email calling the language café meeting. He’s our group’s host. We strike a conversation, two strangers sending out feelers, tendrils that may scout for and attach to some ground firmer than a common linguistic interest. And then Man comes back in and our host guides us to the table in the corner. He is obviously expecting a good attendance. Man as usual is taking it all in his serene, nonplussed stride, though it’s mostly because of him that we’re there. Me, I’m not so sure. How many of us can exactly there be? How many, interested in practising or learning such a forsaken, and as circumstances have minority, language as ours?
And how many, for the same reasons as ours?
People start trickling in after a while. A Portuguese man. A couple, he Brazilian she Australian. Another man from Birmingham. Another woman, Scottish. Another man, American. The Portuguese man tells of a couple of women who usually come, both nurses, both from my country, one from my home town. I’m excited. We always look for things in common, points of identification that may reassure us we are of the same mould, friends not foes. I am only too aware of such vestigial traits of our ancestral tribalism. We’re human, after all. And I’d bet I’m not the only one feeling thus. I tell myself that, whatever else, it’d be good to talk to somebody about how my country, my home town, have been faring since I was last there. But they do not come.
Turns out that all but our host are in ‘international relationships’, as I facetiously call them. Or part of families in such relationships. Everyone laughs, but it’s a subdued, mirthless laughter. And I, I always the agent provocateur, finally ask the question: how are we all feeling, then, faced with Brexit?
The Brazilian-Australian couple are not as directly affected as the rest of us, neither of them in possession of an EU passport, but they think it’s sheer madness. Kate worries. It turns out she works for the same university as Man; like all universities, theirs is dependent on EU money: for research funding, from exchange programs, from self-paying EU students. From self-paying non-EU students. When that fountain runs dry, what will become of their jobs?
The smile falls off the Birmingham man’s face, for a fleeting second. I can see in his eyes that he is thinking of high walls, unscaleable ones. Just as I am. This moat, this island, this England…
“My girlfriend says we will have to get married now, if…” He finally confides with a little sheepish smile, the shadow gone from his face, his soft unassertive voice trailing off before the end of the sentence. As if he wouldn’t dare articulate the thought.
As if saying the words out loud would precipitate the feared reality. Because that’s exactly what is there, in the back of all our thoughts, unspoken, unacknowledged, unwanted but nonetheless real: our lives are being dismantled, and we do not know what will become of us.