By Louise Usher
During my creative writing MA, we were given a writing prompt, encouraging us to take a seat in a coffee shop and write what we could hear. The piece that followed from my mind gave me reason to believe that sounds are subjective. Not only am I hearing impaired, since my mastoidectomy in the year 2000, but an active imagination saw me writing stories within the coffee shop sounds.
A person sitting next to me created a mind’s eye image. Without looking, it was fascinating how creative my inner thoughts could be; I was writing a whole story around a stranger who was faceless, except for in my mind.
Daily focus prevents us from paying attention to the sounds around us. When you stop and listen closely, you can be forgiven for indulging in the creation of new stories relating to those sounds.
I have never taken my hearing for granted, and I am thankful for the audible vibrations which help me create stories, and from the phenomenon which is daily life. Often, there is no such thing as an ordinary day. Every perception, sense, and imaginary tale will differ from the next co-creator.
The piece for my MA was written in my local Starbucks, near the Historic Dockyard in Chatham, but when I saw an opportunity to write my experience of the café in The Strand, London (for Strandlines), I instantly had a list of ideas. Charing Cross ignited a sense of chaos in my life, whenever I travelled there from Gillingham, as a teenager. A sense of ‘needing to stop and smell the coffee’ took me from the train station to The Strand café every time.
This was a place of peace, behind the long, tinted glass window, where I could gather my thoughts before heading out to the busyness of London’s dusty streets. I remembered Dad. I remembered Dreamboats and Petticoats at the Savoy theatre. I remembered a good time with him there, enjoying our mutual passion of music.
That coffee shop has closed now, while my memories remain.
SIPPING IN LONDON
I left the train station and walked past the Savoy theatre, recalling memories of watching ‘Dreamboats and Petticoats’ with Mum and Dad, pre-London lockdown. I remembered, the crowd went wild for the appearance of Hank Marvin in the audience, although I was too young to know who he was; Dad educated me.
Crossing the road, a vision of a ‘flat white’ swims inside my head as I continue to the coffee shop, push the heavy door open, and walk inside. I can smell rich brown coffee, and hear familiar sounds in the place I am calling home for the next half hour. Somewhere to switch off from the daily rituals, rather, I feel aware of the stimulating sights and sounds around me. Perhaps this was exactly the point of being here, to take that in, and use it as a writing prompt.
My coffee and I take our place at the tall bench, which is situated directly by the window, and watch people walking past. Many walk fast, often with tightened eyebrows, and some with a disposable cup in their hand. Why was this our self-soothing ritual these days? Did we love the feeling of the warmth in our hands, the status of the cup, or the caffeine boost? A myriad of thoughts carousel my head as I take a sip, before I bring my Moleskine notebook out of my backpack and place it on the bench in front of me.
Drinking-in London all around me, I am encouraged by her embrace, to create a piece of reflection from my senses. I want to write. My purple pen rocks back and forth in a fast, fidgeted motion, between my fingers, as I gather my thoughts of what I see through the window. Nothing flows. I wonder if this should be a moment to watch and think, rather than feel and write. I close my eyes, breathe and listen. Beyond my ringing tinnitus is a plethora of sound. I am thankful for that, since the surgery. Eyes down, pen connected to the paper, I begin. Hearing, listening, writing.
The coffee shop manager has a dominant voice with a strong London accent. ‘Nah, ya can’t eat your food and sit there,’ she finishes off with, ‘nah.’
The seat next to me is pulled back audibly. I wonder who is going to be my temporary neighbour. I decide not to look; that feels rude, and overly familiar. I use my imagination, and senses, to picture him. A bunch of keys land in symphony next to me.
“Oops, sorry,” the owner mumbles to me as his hand reaches within sight of my right eye. Oh, a clue, damn. I want to imagine all of the physicality of him, just for fun. I nod, without looking up, to let him know it’s ok and continue back with my pen. I focus back on my writing and my senses.
I hear the steamer, which gives the milk its froth, hissing above the other sounds. The bang of the stainless steel fridge door, which opens and closes more times than it is designed to do, disrupts the roar of disordered voices. My neighbour begins to talk on the phone. An English, Surrey accent, possibly private education; he sounds confident and competent. I like that, and remember how strange it is that we create judgements so quickly within our heads.
The white paper holds my focus as I enjoy the writing prompt of the café, and London itself, the glory of life, and all those around me who continue with their own business. Within a shorter time than I would like, my white cup and saucer contain only froth. I know I need to leave soon for the appointment I have in the city. While I finish my last paragraph, the man from Surrey picks up his keys. His chair moves; goodbye handsome stranger. He walks past the window in front of me, I think. Who knows? There is a sea of faces. He doesn’t look as I imagined him.
That was when we had the beauty of seeing faces.
Now In 2021, we read eyes and foreheads while the lower half of the face remains covered with a mask.
The coffee shop is closed now. I miss that. The escape, the variation of the cup, the eclectic atmosphere, the different prompts; all adding to the creation of the words on the page. A writers’ retreat, which only writers will understand.
It won’t be long now. Will it?
Louise Usher is a life writer from Kent, UK where she lives with her twins and Shihtzu. She usually travels widely to continue her writing while drawing inspiration from people-watching on sandy shores.
Her current work in progress is her own painful auto ethnography of IVF and subsequent single parent heartbreak. Following the bestseller status of Covid 19 – How it made us feel, Louise is
authoring a PhD on the same subject (with hermeneutic phenomenology as the methodology) as well as editing book two, Deja-Vu: from behind the mask, which is to be published in Summer 2021. More on Louise’s work can be found at https://www.louiseusher.co.uk/.
The Strandlines digital community explores one of London’s most famous streets, the Strand, and its past and present communities. Their site is an archive from which experiences, memories, and reflections about the local area can be retrieved; a gallery where photographs, drawings, and films can be viewed. It can be found at https://www.strandlines.london/.
Strandlines’ Project Director, Clare Brant, is co-Director of the Centre for Life-Writing Research, and Professor of Eighteenth-century Literature & Culture here at King’s College London.
Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.
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