I am sat at a table outside “Searcyss Grand” restaurant, on the top deck of the rather magnificent St Pancras station in London. Opposite me is their champagne bar. Over here, two courses for £20 and house glass of wine. Over there, cheap snacks with expensive champagne. They have both ends of the food-drink continuum covered.
I have an hour to spare and I am tired and hungry. I take off my jacket and put it on the back of my chair. I check the menu. I have no newspaper and it would be impolite to fetch out my laptop at the table in such an imperious setting. So I watch people.
On the table to my left are two men sat opposite a woman. They appear to be Indian and have just finished eating a very English meal. I smile inwardly at the cultural-culinary role-reversal. The bowl of oysters on a stand is all but consumed. Underneath is a used bottle of tabasco sauce. There are various small serving dishes and discarded napkins alongside the empty plates. It was quite a feast.
I am distracted by four girls arriving together at the champagne bar, clearly dressed to distract. Three of them have tight knee length patterned skirts with black high-heeled shoes of differing thicknesses and heights. I get a vague understanding of why women need so many pairs of shoes. The fourth girl has flat white shoes and a looser, shorter skirt. All four have short black jackets, blackened hair and carefully decorated faces. The lead girl drops her bag on a stool next to an empty table. Having claimed their space, they gather round in a tight gaggle. They are all exactly the same height. I wonder what mysterious female sixth sense enables them to synchronise their heel lengths so seamlessly to achieve this. And I wonder why the girl in the white shoes is a little out of kilter.
An older, single man is sat on my right. He is quiet and unobtrusive. His hair is white, his suit is black and he wears a heavy black-on-white checked shirt.
The Indians are having an intense debate about something or other. I detect an aroma of intellectual competition and posturing. The woman is winning by the forcefulness of her voice rather than the strength of her argument.
To the right of the gaggle of girls, a single woman sits on her own at the adjacent high table. She has no visible makeup, a plain green jacket, anonymous trousers and a pair of white trainers. Her hair is gathered rather too severely for her small featured plain face, and she has no ring on her left hand. A single woman in every sense. She is looking at her phone whilst sipping a glass of white wine. The girls have ordered a bottle of sparkling pink champagne in a lurid pink cooler.
My waiter brings my napkin and places my cutlery carefully in position in front of me. He is tall, dark, wiry and in a hurry. Black & white man is sipping a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc and browsing the black and white Evening Standard. He has a dull silver ring on his left hand. I try to look at him without staring. He has a look of Woody Allen, but with a bigger nose, and no doubt a more conventional wife.
The Indian three are done. They pay the bill rather flamboyantly and exit stage left. The woman leads the way. She is smaller than the two men, but wears a rather surprisingly pink woolly hat.
The girls continue their intimate conversation standing around the small table. Each one has a leg crossed behind the other, accentuating her hips. I notice that the one in the white shoes is a little quieter than the others. When I look up again, they are standing with their arms around each other posing like models, whilst the waiter takes a photo. Their teeth are uniformly white. Hurrah for fluoride toothpaste and tooth whitener.
Green woman is unmoved, bland and expressionless. She looks as if she is waiting for someone. Maybe that is the story of her life. Maybe she has perfected that waiting-for-someone look, so that people don’t think she is unable to make any friends.
Two Japanese girls land out of nowhere on the table vacated by the Indians. St Pancras is truly International. They sit down opposite each other without losing eye contact with their phones. They have that ability to move and operate in the real world whilst staring at a two inch screen. They order orange juice. The one next to me tucks her knees up, her heels on the edge of her chair, her green flat shoes balancing precariously on her toes. She looks like a squirrel, her hands holding her phone like an acorn in front of her face.
Black and white man is also on his phone. I assume he is talking to his conventional wife, detailing the train times and his estimated arrival back in suburbia, whilst she tells him what is for dinner. But he is a little more assertive than I would expect and clearly not talking to his wife. People are often like that on the phone – a little more assertive and more bullish than they would be within eye contact. He is discussing some small figures with someone somewhere else.
Green woman is unmoved, bland, expressionless and still looking at her phone.
Another Japanese girl arrives to join her friends. She is very lively and animated. The other look up, smile briefly and return to the serious business of their phones. As if hypnotised, As if the primary social interaction is electronic, and the human distraction secondary and slightly annoying.
Black and white man is still talking numbers on his phone. He is standing up and politely gesticulating to the waiter for the bill.
The four girls in the champagne bar make their move, parading off in two pairs, upright and confident; quietly aware that they will be attracting male and – more importantly – female glances. Green woman is visibly unmoved. I look at them more carefully. Behind the makeup they are nothing special.
By now I have eaten my dinner. “How was your food?” asks the waiter. I smile. A far better question than the obligatory “is everything okay?”, which feels like a tick-box for “do you accept the terms and conditions of this food-finance interaction?” . His was a genuine inquiry. He is wiry but warm. I like him and say it was “very nice”. He brings a coffee and a bill. I point out he has only charged me for the drinks and not the food. He runs back to the till and dashes back with a fresh invoice. He thanks me profusely. It might have been a nice gesture to remove the service charge, I think.
The Japanese threesome leap up and leave, just as the Indian threesome did twenty minutes earlier. Maybe it is something about that table. Of course they never saw each other – I am the only one in the universe making that link.
We never know who sat at that table before us, or slept in our hotel bed the night before. We prefer not to. We never know who is watching us or even writing blogs about us.
The lights dim a little on the station for no apparent reason, and the temperature is dropping. I put my jacket back on.
I look up. Surprisingly, green woman is laughing. I assume it is something on her phone that has tickled her – maybe a video or a joke – or that she is over-acting her fabricated happiness. But no – another woman is approaching her table smiling. So she was waiting for a friend after all. Her friend is stocky, with a long black coat and a very bright scarf. There is no ostentatious hug – but their greeting is comfortable and relaxed. I feel a little chastised. Life is full of small surprises like a jar of random sweets.
Tomorrow night at “Searcys Grand” restaurant and champagne bar, an entirely different play will be staged with a completely fresh set of actors, with no script, no director and hopefully a better team on lighting. And someone else will sit in the audience instead of me.
Black & white man is leaving. He is carrying an incredibly bright blue bag.