Lady in Red

Image of Short Story

I meet her in Starbucks. Starbucks in London. London, Ontario. She's sitting just inside the glass door, on the corner of Dundas and Richmond Street.
Let me take you into the moment. It’s a Monday in July. It’s hot. Around 29 degrees Celsius. I've just been holed up in a conference in Ohio and I need some time out.
Starbucks is a known ok in every unknown city. It does air con, wifi and good reliable hot breakfast tea. It’s a writer’s oasis, a freelance point of call and a new kid on the block’s harbour.

I swagger in. I have no idea of the true value of the Canadian dollar, but my plastic multi -currency card will buy me breakfast tea, a packet of pop chips and a carton of fresh water with ‘Janet ‘ inked on the side. The essentials of an itinerant's life.
I saunter up to the glass door entrance on the side street leading up to Richmond. The Lady in Red is sitting directly opposite. She’s bolt upright and her red frock has a label sticking out at the nape of her back. She’s beautifully preserved. She is reading a newspaper, in detail. She’s dissecting it. I can tell she is spinning time. A lot of Starbuckers do that. We're freelancers. We live in a different time zone to the office workers. Starbucks is our office.
Fast forward. I’ve got my breakfast tea, my pop chips and my monogrammed iced water. I’ve jugged a shot of half and half milk into my tea. I’m orientated and happy.
The only table free is next to the Lady in Red. I insert myself into the small space between the table and chair back. I find myself adopting an upright position, like the Lady in Red. She hasn’t moved a muscle. She hasn’t registered me.
I log into the wifi. Usually a cert in Starbucks. The world floods into my iPad. I just know the Lady in Red is not a wifi person. She’s hard copy, black and white ink. I covet her newspaper. I crave the information. Newspapers tell you about the pulse of a place.
The iPad doesn't tick my boxes. I don’t want to know about more political exits and excursions. I want to know about London, Ontario. This London. Who lives here and why. I can resist no longer. I wave uncertainly at the Lady in Red.
‘Excuse me?’
My voice sounds squeaky and horribly English. The Lady in Red starts. Her neck twists round in an Alice in Wonderland way. Like all pre constructed images, the reality is older, more shabby. ‘Umm, do you know which is the best newspaper to read in London?’ Her eyes snaps into life. Her brain crackles with latent information. ‘Ah. Now that‘s not an easy question to answer.’ ‘I’m English. I just wanted to know what’s going on here.’ She nods acceptingly and folds her knotted hands. . ‘Well, the free local paper is just terrible.’ We laugh in shared disgust. The Lady in Red tells me that London is a small town with a population swelled by students in the Fall. ‘London is Conservative with a capital C,’ she informs me. I’ve learned the hard way not to discuss politics. ‘Really,’ I say, trying to look as if I understand. I don’t. She nods. ‘It’s what we call a white bread town.’ I’m fascinated but still bewildered. She explains that London is used as a test town for new products. If London likes a new product and buys it, then it will sell everywhere.
I discover she is originally from London, but moved away. She was the only one to come back, to take care of her mother. We stare at each other in an unspoken shared moment. It's a badge you have to wear to understand the silent drudgery, the lack of freedom. The pain.
I try to explain why I have stayed in my small home town too, back in the UK. ‘I think it’s about roots? Why we stay? If you walk up my local main street, four or five people will say ‘Hi Janet.’ She understands perfectly. I think she is a tribe of one too. She needs affirmation she exists. That’s probably why she goes to Starbucks. That’s why I go to Starbucks. They write Janet on my cup and call out my name. So I must exist. The road less travelled with a double l is a perfect description of my self chosen route.
She has this habit of speaking in perfectly formed small bytes of conversation. Each phrase told me a life story. I had her whole back story in my mind. College in the still claustrophobic closet of small town London. Moving away to her first job, with a room in a strange city townhouse. Meeting some kind of suitable husband. Settling down in the now less strange city. Bringing up children behind fancy fashionable blinds on a respectable street.. Forsaking her own academia if that's what her role was. Then loss, maybe desertion. Her grown up kids polite at Thanksgiving. The cyclical tragedy of caring, the return to singleness.
‘And you?’
I blink and the image of the Lady in Red shimmers for a moment..
‘Most Brits go away to college or University. Some stay and work away. Others go back.’
Or like me some never make the change. They fail to adapt to the social demands of university life. They commute from the nest then graduate quietly without a ceremony. They work near home until their parent too turns the tables.
The Lady in Red turns her gaze to the papers.
‘We dread the fall here now. Most of the students are totally unsuited. They come to drink, not study.’
We mourned silently together for the passing of academia. I could sense a shift in her energy.
I pick up my tea and examine the colour intently.
‘At least Starbucks is the same over. I can always find a good cup of breakfast tea here.’ We laugh over my attempts to find good hot tea in the States. She visited England over twenty years ago and thought the coffee was ‘just awful.’ I tell her the coffee landscape is different now and there is a Starbucks or Costa on every high street.
I sense she is tiring. I draw back, respect her space. ‘I’ll let you read your paper.' She smiles, a slow tired sad smile. ‘I’ve allowed myself enough time here. But let me find you a newspaper. They give you yesterday’s free here.’ I realise she is reading yesterday’s newspaper. That she plots her day. That she is undeniably lonely. The Lady in Red stands. Her legs are thin and tapered. Her toes grip her organic sandals. She scrabbles in the rack next to her, but emerges empty handed. ‘They’ve all gone. Except for the free ones. And you don’t want those!’ Her voice stamps on the word those with a decisive emphasis. I have a secret desire to gorge on yesterday’s freebies but I manage my face in something suitably disdainful. ‘No worries. It’s been so interesting talking to you.’ She smiles the shy delighted smile of someone who has never grown up. She stoops to grab her brocaded shopping bag, which is lodged under her table. I can see it is stuffed with yellowed newspapers. I divert my gaze away from the bag, feeling shocked and embarrassed. Maybe the Lady in Red takes home yesterday’s newspapers everyday. Maybe her house is full of them. ‘Delighted, I’m sure,’ she says, courteously, bowing her head ever so slightly. She leaves swiftly, heading for the serving counter. They wave at her, clearly recognising her, as she exits by the main door. She glides past the window, perfectly upright, her frock label still at a quirky angle. I stare as she walks away, purposefully. I feel rich, my mind full of real facts. I leave too, in contemplative mode.
The next morning I go to Starbucks again, pretty much at the same time as yesterday. I admit I am hoping to meet the Lady in Red again. Continue our conversation, find out more about how this small Canadian town ticks.
She isn’t there. Her table by the glass door entrance is empty. Unoccupied. I turn away, feel a stab of pain pierce my heart. I’m not sure why. I imagined she would be in Starbucks every morning. Same time, same sized coffee. Reading yesterday’s newspapers. But she wasn’t there. I’m not actually sure she existed at all.
I don’t go in. I don’t want reality to spoil the illusion. I walk to another Starbucks higher up Talbot. It’s not the same. And they forget to write my name on my cup.